A Media Darling, A Public Unknown. INTERVIEW: BRUCE BABBITT

`ON the threshold of the decision,'' Bruce Babbitt says, describing his effort to become president last year, ``I emerged totally unknown. One man in California even told me `You were my choice - but I didn't know about you until you dropped out!''' That's the kind of self-deprecating wit that endeared an increasingly cynical press corps to Mr. Babbitt, a love affair that ended when the former governor of Arizona finished fifth in the Iowa caucuses and sixth in the New Hampshire primaries.

For most of the race, the genial Babbitt was so far behind he didn't have to play the media game - ``the Kabuki drama,'' as he calls it. The media clapped when Babbitt stood up during a national debate to say that taxes would have to be raised - and challenged his seated counterparts to stand up, too (none did).

Reporters even loved it when he turned the tables. Not only was he the first candidate ever to announce he was hiring a TV consultant, he invited the press to watch him take ``TV lessons.'' Babbitt was videotaped answering a question. Then, with press cameras whirring, he confronted his own image on a large screen while a consultant told him how to control his face better.

``You had me looking at myself in a media event being shot by ABC News,'' says Babbitt. ``At the same time, PBS was doing a documentary and they were photographing ABC, photographing me. It was absurd!''

Babbitt remembered the experience during a visit here to his law-school alma mater - Harvard ('65) - and before giving a campuswide speech bluntly titled ``The Death of Idealism.''

Having ``decompressed'' from the campaign, Babbitt now travels leisurely around the country (but ``not in Iowa or New Hampshire''). He's taken his maiden voyage as a lobbyist on Capitol Hill, acted as a trade representative for several Latin American countries, and most important, he's ``getting his family back together'' after the demanding campaign.

On today's politics, he agrees with the new Democratic Party chairman, Ron Brown: Democrats lack identity. ``We're not a presidential party,'' Babbitt says. ``We've had fantastic success in state and local [politics]. But the things that help you there - discrete issues - work to a disadvantage at the presidential level, which is about just two things: national security and economic well-being. Let's face it: We haven't been good on them.''

For the Democrats to find that identity will require some ``risk taking,'' Babbitt says. Invoking the name of John Kennedy won't do it. ``The domestic issues are issues of renewal - the fact that we're spending more than we're producing. We need to challenge the American people about the meaning of the deficit, the decline of the work ethic, and the failure to invest in the future.''

The risk is, you've got to talk about raising revenue, and you've got to talk about ``living in a political era of complacency in which issues are not identified and questions are not asked. Reagan Republicans have made an art form of the status quo. Democrats can't win on that turf,'' Babbitt says.

Going into the primaries, Babbitt was touted by party insiders as the candidate of substance and ideas. He advocated child-care vouchers, changing the tax structure to allow ``performance pay'' for employees, and taxing social security benefits of the wealthy.

In the campaign, his ideas were sprung too quickly on the electorate, Babbitt says now. ``I had no idea how hard it would be simply to break into the public consciousness. ... It was like swimming up a waterfall.''

Babbitt related a moving story of going to the Lincoln Memorial with his son the evening after he announced his withdrawal. ``We stood there and read the Gettysburg Address. And while reading it there was a moment of understanding. I realized he [Lincoln] had lost just about every election he ran in. But that didn't matter. It was the struggle that mattered. Win or lose, you do make a difference.''

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