What I ought to feel is relief. T.G.I.O. -- Thank God It's Over. Another week of politics and I would have gone batty or entered a state of terminal boredom at the interminable campaign.
But here it is the morning after the night before and I don't feel any better. I feel slightly hung over by the whole campaign. I feel as if I'd been standing in a crowd watching two people beating each other up, without caring enough to stop the fight or to root for a winner.
Maybe that's the wrong image. This campaign wasn't like a street fight. It was more like the Friday night wrestling matches. At your first match you believe in the two contenders, believe in the moans of agony and anger that come out of the ring. You cringe; you care. Then one day you hear that it's all an act and you turn off, or worse yet, you learn to laugh.
I'm not cynical by nature, but this year we felt more like an audience than an electorate. The whole sporting event seemed more like choreography than campaigning.
For all the "exposure," for all the air time and news time devoted to the candidates, we never really got to know these men, know what they relly thought, what they were really like. To many of us, they seemed like cautious contenders following the scripts of their media men.
Their speeches had all the eloquence of a poll. Their "spontaneous" debate answers were patchwork quilts of words. They wren't answers; they were just target practice. Here a pitch for the ethnics, there a line for the blacks, here a hit to the heart of Middle America.
It was genuineness I missed, the sense of reality. I started to miss the bumbling humanity of Jerry Ford, the humor of Jack Kennedy, even the bluster of Lyndon Johnson. Anything but the carefully computer-packaged points of Carter and the studied charm of Reagan.
I know. There's rarely been a candidate who didn't "target voters." Most campaigns are calculated. But we all became much more aware of it and much more wary.
This year, more than ever before, the media was the manager. The candidates' advisers came out of the closet talking openly about images and ads, about words and styles that were hot and cold.
This year, more than ever before, reporters (especially television reporters) covered "Manipulation" as a regular beat.
In past campaigns network correspondents reported "what the candidates said." In 1980 they also analyzed "what the candidates meant." The juxtaposition -- what he said, followed almost immediately by an analysis of why he said it and what he really meant -- underlined and undermined this whole campaign.
In the past, reporters' have chafed at their limits. They felt used or abused at times by the candidates and the government. This year many became obsessed with telling the story behind the story.
For almost a year, we heard and read every event -- from the invasion of Iran to the debate in Cleveland -- analyzed in terms of the election. Nothing, but nothing, was apolitical. I wonder if the reporters -- in the effort to avoid being manipulated -- didn't become manipulators.
By the end, the fight was between two media: the candidates' and the networks. But the real effect was on the public.
This match, scripted by the political pollsters and salesmen, pressed home -- even exaggerated -- by the armchair analysts, made us increasingly sophisticated. Or should I say cynical? Everything from Jimmy Carter's smile to Ronald Reagan's ease began to seem rehearsed. The sense of reality slipped away; skepticism took hold.
If being forewarned is forearmed, we became an electorate encased in sheet metal.
In the end, we were told that the debate would be decisive. But was it? We were told that the Iranian crisis would be critical. But was it? I don't think so. I think we became both resentful and resistant. I think we became immunized against involvement.
There was a longing during the endless campaign to really hear what the candidates thought, not what they thought we wanted to hear. But afraid of being tricked into accepting the wrestlers as real, we kept apart.
In the end, we chose the man who seemed less artificial. Ronald Reagan won the electoral votes, but it will be a long time before anyone wins back our trust. We have become spectators, but not fans.