It was the night after the election, and all through the White House not a speech writer was stirring. The words ''If elected, I promise...'' lay crumpled by the chimney, without much care.
From Maine to Hawaii, not a single word processor, not a single typewriter held in suspense the sentence beginning, ''If you want an America clean and safe and prosperous for your grandchildren...'' - a phrase that, among 1984 speech writers, had replaced ''The quick brown fox...'' as a limbering-up exercise.
After almost a year of high-decibel soliciting, the oratory had stopped.
No paid political announcements wanted.
No debates that weren't really debates anyway - thanks all the same.
And, if you please, no more snappy ad-libs, carefully composed for this or that occasion.
It was as if a thousand mouths closed simultaneously. Silence filled the air like a palpable gift. And in that silence, the speech writers who were hunting-and-pecking, for the umpteenth time, ''That's what this country is all about!'' let the words stand there in mid-sentence, abandoned.
All except one speech writer, that is. In a tiny, pine-paneled study just outside Washington, a little man in a plaid sports shirt, with a Reagan button on one pocket and a Mondale button on the other, still sat hunched over a typewriter. He couldn't stop.
The little man was so tired he no longer remembered which candidate he was writing speeches for, but phrases kept ricocheting through his head like the ball in an old-fashioned pinball machine. ''My fellow Americans...'' Flash. ''On November 6th you will give me a mandate....'' More flashes.
The morning after the election the speech writer's wife brought him a bowl of oatmeal and the newspapers. ''It's all over,'' she said. ''It's all over. I wouldn't fool you.''
The little man pounced on his keyboard and typed, ''The people aren't fooled. Americans are smart. They remember.''
His wife bit her lip and tried again. ''Come out,'' she said. ''The children want to see you.''
Like a reflex, the words rat-a-tatted onto the little man's paper: ''Youth for Reagan!''
''At least open the curtains,'' his wife pleaded. ''The real world's just beautiful. It's been raining, but now the sun's out.''
The little man's compulsive fingers hit the keys again. Out came the words: ''rainbow coalition.'' His wife ran for the door, tears in her eyes.
By early afternoon the little man understood his situation. He quit writing one-liners for Gary Hart, and that was something. A colleague called him up and confessed, ''The same thing happened to me once, too. Hazard of the trade, I guess. I just couldn't stop writing Adlai Stevenson speeches.''
The little man clenched his fingers until his knuckles went white, but somehow the words appeared on the sheet in his typewriter: ''peace in our time.''
About 3 o'clock he began to think he had himself under control at last. But just as he rose to throw open the curtains, he caught himself tapping out, ''I have a vision of America...''
''Oh boy,'' he moaned. ''There you go again.''
Still, things were improving. At 6 o'clock he resisted looking up ''shame'' in the dictionary. And when his wife came in with a bowl of chicken soup, he successfully fought the impulse to write down, ''President Dewey once told me....''
Instead he opened the curtains at last, knocking over the table with three sets of position papers on abortion and four sets of projected figures for the 1989 defense budget. It was finally over for him, as it had been over for everybody else almost 24 hours before.
Night had fallen, but the moon shone like the light at the end of the tunnel.
It was all over, and somebody had won, and for the moment he was ready to believe it was the poor, word-pummeled voter.
Well, nobody ever promised that democracy was going to be easy - not even a speech writer.