Spellbinders, fact-finders, and the '84 campaign

The President says, ''America is back.'' The Democrats say, ''Which America? Not the unemployed, the black, or the elderly. And what does 'back' mean, anyway?''

The Democrats say, ''Please be specific!'' - like professors writing crossly in the margins of term papers.

The Republicans say Ronald Reagan has vision.

The Democrats say he's weak on details.

It all depends on the point of view.

But the polls suggest that a lot of voters respond when the President takes the high ground, and lately, even while complaining about Reagan vagaries, Walter Mondale has been talking about vision himself and saying with equal vagueness: ''That's what this country's all about.''

It promises to be one of those ''Call to Greatness'' campaigns.

A historian who specializes in presidents, James MacGregor Burns, observes: ''Many Americans want the president to stand for something. . . . They don't feel so strongly about what the principles are as they do about the fact the president has them.''

This is not to say that a man can't make it to the White House unless he has a thoroughly unabashed American Dream speech in his hip pocket.

Neither Jimmy Carter nor Gerald Ford possessed the temperament to let 'er rip , and their debate tended to reduce itself to a duel of the fact sheet.

Something wary, something downright uncomfortable seemed to come into Richard Nixon's eyes when he felt called upon to attempt grandiloquence.

John F. Kennedy ran under the ''Call to Greatness'' slogan of the ''New Frontier.'' He made his rather sophisticated brand of patriotism popular with the motto: ''Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.'' But on the whole, he remained a New Englander, less at ease with stirring appeals for a return to glory than with the understated wit and throwaway lines of a press conference.

Of the presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt, perhaps only Lyndon Johnson and Mr. Reagan have genuinely wanted to bring an element of evangelism into politics. Johnson, in fact, longed to model himself after FDR, a past master of the ''Call to Greatness'' speech, delivered to the masses in a Harvard accent. Alas, it was not a manner natural to LBJ.

Harry Truman kept both feet on the ground and went in for short punches rather than soaring flights.

Even Adlai Stevenson, much admired for his idealism and literary grace, was embarrassed to pull out all the stops.

Considering that this is the vocation of extroverts, surprisingly few campaigners have been happy with scope and sweep and the phrase that flies like a flag unfurling. You could go back to Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge and starve on terseness.

Yet the political speech in its guise as a 19th-century moral vision obviously continues to touch deep places in the American psyche. One senses the call-and-response of a ritual. The speaker reminds his listeners of the original American dream, like a preacher describing the Promised Land. The listener conjures up matching images - Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock, pioneers movin' west - until the whole country turns into one big Fourth of July picnic, celebrated by Norman Rockwell families, with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln manning the barbecue pits.

The Promised Land is still there, the speaker cries. Just follow me. And if the visionary in question believes his own vision, something in us says yes, too , and hallelujah! We Americans are a pushover for idealism, the more old-fashioned the better. That is one of our strengths; that is one of our weaknesses.

After his ''America is back'' speech, the New York Times editorial page dubbed the President ''The Music Man,'' arguing that he was more oompah than substance, and 76 trombones do not a foreign policy make.

Furthermore, Mr. Reagan is being criticized for his casual way with facts. American voters love facts almost as much as ''Calls to Greatness.'' But when a fact-finder confronts a caller to greatness, it's no contest. The fact-finder may consider himself fortunate if he does not come off as a cynic. He will certainly look like a nit-picker.

There are two candidates in the '84 campaign capable of going-a-wooing in the grand style: Mr. Reagan and Jesse Jackson. When either one of them courts the American electorate with melting eyes and the red roses of rhetoric, all the other candidates are going to look like certified public accountants, earnestly showing us their bank balances to persuade us to love them.

All is not fair in love and politics. But a bystander likes to think that - in both departments - a little sober judgment can make the heart's choice reasonable.

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