If Rip woke up during this campaign
Washington — Here is a yellow clipping from the New York Times by Arthur Krock that I have squirreled away in my election files and recently run across, and if I am going to make use of it I had better hurry because it is dated "Washington, Oct. 16, 1948" and was written just before the great surprise election in which Truman beat Dewey. The theme of the article (which has the tone of a Sunday analysis piece) is that if Rip Van Winkle had fallen asleep "shortly after the presidential election of 1860" and waked up in 1948 he wouldn't find anything much different: "Election processes in the United States have virtually stood still."
Well, have they? There are a lot of mechanical differences and Krock extracts some humor from them, a third of a century ago. Rip would be astonished by what Krock facetiously calls "the wooden box" from which voices of candidates emerge (i.e., radio) with "clarity and volume unaffected by distance." Again, somebody would have to explain to him "the aerial vehicle" (i.e. airplane) that whisks candidates around; also he would read with "mixed feelings the results of the advance vote samplings" (i.e., polls). Otherwise, says Krock in 1948, things hadn't changed much, least of all in the performance of the players -- the "political game" itself.
Well, let's see. Thinking back on 1948 I remember about the pleasurable trip I ever had in my life: the 9,000-mile truman whistle-stop journey right across the United States in the armor-plated "Ferdinand Magellan" making m3 speeches, mostly rear- platform and sometimes in pajamas. Alas, presidential candidates don't campaign that way any more.
And now there's television: Mr. Krock doesn't mention it in his list of things old Rip would marvel about: TV was invented then but it didn't have much force in politics; it was the radio age. As for the "advance vote sampling" (polls) they were as wrong in 1948 as the unfortunate Literary Digest poll in 1932 forecasting Hoover's supposed victory. In 1948 all the polls were wrong.
Columnist Krock sounds a bit quaint himself by indirection, citing one aspect of the almost-finished campaign -- "the belief that an air of mastery is conveyed by never naming your opponent," and also in his praise of the Republican vice-presidential candidate for "the political technique of tolerance toward the opposition. . . Which is being largely followed in this campaign by Gov. Earl Warren." Not many candidates follow in the Earl Warren technique today nor did they, I warrant, in Rip Van Winkle's time.
Krock thinks campaigns should be shorter and brisker. That sounds modern and familiar. On the other hand he takes it for granted that candidates are selected by party conventions; it would astonish this noted political writer to discover that today candidates are selected by a series of primaries, numbering 37 in 1980. By the time the conventions met this year there wasn't much for them to do but ratify the choices already indicated.
Columnist Krock thought in 1948 the electoral college should either be abolished, or a proposed amendment by Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. adopted which would make the electoral vote of each state proportional to the popular votes cast, rather than given as a block: In 1980, for example, all of New York's 41 electoral votes will go tone party even though only a few thousand votes separate Messrs. Carter and Reagan. (They have been arguing about the electoral college ever since the Constitution was adopted.)
Changes are needed in the system, Krock argues. Just before the '48 election he urged that "leaders in every community should unite to bring about a constitutional convention, so that methods and ideas in tune with the great changes that have occurred since 1789 can be effectively considered for the body of the federal charter. These include some phases of the British parliamentary system."
There are cries for reform before every election and they are generally quickly forgotten once the ballots are counted. Modern- day political writer David Broder in a new book, "Changing of the Guard" (simon & Schuster), quotes Carter adviser Stuart Eizenstat in the White House:
"Every day that I'm here," Eizenstat said," makes me recognize that the most efficient type of democracy is a parliamentary system with a fairly stable set of parties, as in Great Britain. You can get your programs through, and if you can't, you get another government."
Mr. Krock, meet Mr. Eizenstat.