The hint that this would be a vintage year for political punditry was right there in the first week of 1980. "The safest election bet in American -- for the past generation -- has been that the Democrats will win Congress," I wrote on Jan. 6. "Chances are, the bet will pay off again in 1980."
While you, dear reader, were savoring the aftermath of your Christmas feast, I was on a self-imposed diet of crow: I was rereading the collected wisdom of my favorite prognosticator, myself.
It was not the first time. Three years ago, it struck me that a good year-end device for letting you, the readers, know that I know that you know about a klutz I am would be to rehash some of my own mental boners. You know, a touch of humility in the waning hours of the old year to build rapport and trust for the new year.
The trouble was, the first two times I tried it, I was blinded by my own brilliance. Sure, there were a few clinkers; but to fasten on them and ignore the number of times the dash of deadline-wisdom had proved prophetic would have been a terrible distortio of the record. The commitment to journalistic truth prevented me from fulfilling my sincere desire for self-abasement.
This year, happily, there is no conflict between humility and objectivity. You can hardly reach nto the file of past columns without finding some howler:
On Jan. 27, the "semi-official White House line" was reported to be that Sen. Howard H. Baker (R-Tenn.) would be President Carter's "toughest and worthiest opponent," former president Ford might be "the strongest rival of all" and George Bush was being taken "more seriously." Ronald Reagan? He barely rated a mention.
On Feb. 24, it was said that "while all the press attention has been on New Hampshire, the Bush organization has been hard at work in those southern states (South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Alabama), giving him a competitive base from which to move on Reagan in Reagan's bedrock territory." That was some move! Reagan beat Bush by margins of 3 to 1 to 5 to 1 in the four states.
On March 23, I tried to change my luck by switching to baseball, complaining in the annual Chicago Cubs' column about the "imminent" trade of super-reliever Bruce Sutter to the Cardinals. That prophecy was only nine months premature -- more accurate than most in this year of misjudgment -- but an embarrassing slip, whether it concerns the arrival of a trade or a baby.
On April 2, it was back to politics with the marvelous comment: "There is more issue-content in this campaign than in any other recent election." Rereading the column, I cannot fathom whatever made me say that, but there it is in black and white. As Ring Lardner said, "You could look it up."
Speaking of literary allusions, the most embarrassing goof of the year came in a try for lyricism on April 6. Talking about President Carter's habit of timing optimistic announcements for primary election days, I quoted what I said was a lyric from "Showboat" -- "Maybe Tuesday will be my good news day."
As several dozen of you were kind enough to point out, that line is from the George and Ira Gershwin classic, "The Man I Love," and not from "Showboat." When I checked with the Ultimate Quotation Authority, George Will, he even played the Ella Fitzgerald recording over the phone to make it perfectly clear I was wrong again.
There was a serious misstep on the trail of error on Aug. 10 when the Devil made me write, "Public disillusionment with the Democratic record is widespread enough to raise the possibility of a big Republican victory at all levels of the ballot." But by Sept. 7, I was back in form, declaring that "Michigan is potentially one of [John] Anderson's best states." He got 7 percent there. On Oct. 22, I credited Vice President Mondale with "swinging Wisconsin from Reagan to Carter." Later, somebody sneakily swung it back to Reagan, without my knowledge, but still, that's a nice accolade for Mondale to take him into retirement.
On Dec. 7, just to show my knack had not ended with the election, I wrote a column that was full of praise for Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and its president, former governor Daniel J. Evans. I figured the topic was a bit parochial but would please the Olympia newspaper, which carried my column. Wrong again. It turns out the local editor takes such a dim view of Evans that he canceled the column outright.
With luck like that, you can guess how sorry I am to see 1980 end. The Reagan Era poses new tests, but I am determined to keep alive the tradition of being first with the wrongest judgment.
And for you good readers who have put up with all this, a bit of reward. Many of you have begged for the identity of the hidden-away-in-the-woods New Hampshire restaurant where the Swiss chef cooks in an 18th-century farmhouse kitchen for a tiny clientele -- the place I savored as the site of "the best evening" of the whole 1980 campaign.
It is Crystal Quail near Center Barnstead. It is open only certain nights, and then by reservation only. Some of you may think a recommendation from me is a guarantee of ptomaine. Not so. Trust me. Have I ever misled you?