To give Walter Mondale's process for picking a running mate its due, for the first time Americans are seeing a woman, a black, and a Hispanic seriously considered for the vice-presidency of a major party. If the vice-presidential slot were not already filled on the Republican ticket, at least a woman would have been a prospect there too for 1984.
This may be just so much symbolism. But symbolism of a positive kind should not be dismissed.
It must therefore be disappointing to Mondale to watch his attempt to choose someone other than a white male descend into a second-guessing of his job interview strategy. Did he wait too long? Did he encourage too high expectations , especially among women? Was flying up to his suburban St. Paul home humiliating for the candidates?
The wisdom of testing the personal chemistry of a potential campaign ticket and governing team argues in favor of interviews, such as Jimmy Carter held in 1976 when he chose Mondale. But if Mondale really is the world's most traveled politician, as he claims, what has he been doing the last couple of years, earning those IOUs? One would have thought he'd have had time for a quiet, earnest talk in a diner with each of the candidates.
He should not expect to arrive at a convention any more in the dark about whom he will run with than what he should run on. For all anyone but Mondale knows, he has already decided on his top two or three picks in the vice-presidential draft. Maybe he's waiting to see whether Mario Cuomo's keynote address sweeps anyone - including the New York governor, who's been reluctant to enter the veepstakes - off his feet. Or whether Gary Hart's speech hits the right notes of conciliation, unity, and fervor.
We doubt that the voter much cares about the process side of politics. Beyond wanting a candidate to feel comfortable about his campaign partner, and not wanting to see oversights in the screening of prospects, he thinks it's the candidate's own business to pick his team.
Campaign staffs can get carried away with orches-trating the selection process. Mr. Reagan was himself relatively uninvolved in the near-fiasco with Gerald Ford in 1980, as rumor in full view on national television swept toward a blockbuster ticket at the Detroit convention that would have united the former GOP rivals - until Reagan aborted the exercise and settled for George Bush.
Bush was the sensible choice all along. Reagan-Bush summed up the major forces in the party.
Mondale has no responsibility to do something bold, flashy, or far out to get a running mate to overcome an apparent political deficit vs. Reagan, or to seize the public imagination.
Frankly, the public doesn't always want its imagination seized, thank you. It tires of political introspection. It wearies of critiques every day in the countdown to the convention, of holding up a political Geiger counter for every nuance uttered in Mondale's North Oaks driveway.
The public would like Mondale and the Democrats to go to their convention and have a good time - size up the crowd, squabble about planks, rev up a little partisanship, ratify a ticket - and then step aside to let the Republicans have their show.
The trouble with the American political process today may not just be that it's too long, but also a little too narcissistic and intense.