The making -- and making, and making -- of a President

Just about now we begin to feel really sorry for presidential candidates. Right before your nightly news camera their smiles start to go a bit ghastly -- not to mention their chuckles. So personable a mere three states back, those chortles, clearly intended to certify one's humanity, come to sound instead like rejects from a sit-com laugh track.

The overworked voices, desperate with hearty confidence, grate like sandpaper on sandpaper. No matter what they are saying they seem to be saying: "Water!"

The bright but unfocused eyes stare out at audiences as if the rows were no longer filled with people but with teleprompters.

The right hand -- the all-important waving hand, the V-for-victory hand -- begins, in spite of itself, to go cautious from pressing too much flesh at too many factory gates.

As they pull themselves together to announce another victory -- anything above 15 percent of the vote makes an eligible winner these days -- the candidates have all the panache of lifeboat survivors.

"Is this a marathon or what?" Senator Howard Baker cried out in the hills of New Hampshire. "I've been campaigning for President for 53 weeks. That's a year and a week. That's time enough, isn't it?"

Just as we were about to pull out our second handkerchief -- the one we carry as a spare for movies like "Kramer vs. Kramer" -- the question crept into our well-softened heart: "But what about us, Howard?"

Being courted can be only a little less arduous than courting. About now the voter's ears are getting nearly as raw as the candidate's voice from all this "Please-say-yes." A prudent citizen averts his eyes from all billboards out of fear that he will read one more slogan. He tunes in his TV set by remote control, just in case one of those fellows may be sitting there in front of a fireplace, saying: "I want you." If he is forced to see another masterful jaw, he will, he swears, write in his vote for Don Knotts.

Dimly he gets the message, though he has more and more trouble distinguishing among the messengers. It is as if all candidates are becoming one candidate -- The Candidate -- promising to catch up in armaments without increasing taxes and to restore full employment while controlling inflation. Services to the old, the young, the disadvantaged, the discriminated-against will multiply, even as Big Bad Bureaucracy is given a drastic shrinking.

Look, dear voter. See the happy farmer bring in his well-supported sheaves. See the city streets, not only safe but -- can you believe it? -- clean. See the Long Island Railroad run on time. All this will happen as of the first Tuesday of November if. . . .

The candidates are driven to excesses they would never have dreamed themselves capable of a year ago. The fine points -- even the not-so-fine points -- begin to get lost in all the image-packaging, the media-blitz, the incessant tallying of polls.

Issues? What issues? An issue becomes the nearest blunt instrument one candidate can hit another candidate over the head with.

As the frenzy drives the candidate to promise everything, the voter is driven to believe nothing, like Ambrose Bierce, who, many punishing presidential campaigns ago, wrote in his dictionary, "Politics: A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles."

We are better than this; they are better than this.

Is the presidential marathon any way to treat a candidate?

Is it any way to treat a voter?

Is it any way to treat a country?

Other democracies seem to get the electoral process completed in a fraction of the time, at a fraction of the cost, financial and otherwise.

For one year out of four, must we risk every "crisis" at home and abroad being turned to the uses of partisan politics by the highest of office-seekers, including, of course, the president?

Every four years, about this time, everybody -- candidates and voters -- seem prepared to agree that there has to be a better way. Perhaps this time we should take ourselves seriously. Like gasoline-guzzling, the marathon presidential campaign may be a wasteful expenditure we can no longer afford.

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