US politics, winter, 1986-87

EVENTS like the Iran-contra arms deal are like a tap on a kaleidoscope. The pattern changes. The final and full explanation of the affair may be months in the future, but the American political horizon is markedly different today from what it was back before that plane with a man named Hasenfus aboard was shot down in Nicaragua. Back then the only serious question on the Republican side of the fence was whether George Bush could hold on to his comfortable lead over all possible rivals. And over on the other side of the fence one wondered whether Gary Hart or New York Gov. Mario Cuomo would seem the stronger contender by the time the 1988 conventions came round.

Well, Mr. Hart and Mr. Cuomo are still visible on the Democratic Party's horizon, but there is now a new name up there alongside the familiar runners, Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia. Take a good look at him. You will be seeing and hearing him more in the future.

Change is more radical on the Republican horizon. Vice-President George Bush has been replaced by Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas as the leading contender. Six months ago Mr. Bush led Mr. Dole by 2 to 1. Today Dole is ahead of Bush.

Senators Dole and Nunn have several things in common. One important fact about both is that their reputations have been built on what each has done, not on what each has preached. Neither man is a preacher or a teacher. Each is a hardworking professional journeyman in the business of government.

The word statesman has fallen into disuse. It should be revived for these two. Senator Dole has been running the Republican majority in the Senate for the last two years, and running it extemely well. Senator Nunn has been studying and working in the area of military affairs. He is respected by his colleagues in both parties as being probably the top authority in Congress on that important subject.

It is relevant that there is mutual respect between these men. It is probably true that the joint support of these two on a controversial issue in the Senate would be decisive, for or against. They carry political weight.

There is a Latin word, gravitas, which in older times was used about public figures. It literally means weight. It has an overtone of dignity, seriousness, and influence. A man of gravitas is someone who is respected, and attended to when he speaks. Both Dole and Nunn have it. Neither talks ideology. They speak when they have something to say. People listen because one knows that hard thinking has gone on behind the words.

Ideological labels do not attach to either one. Forget left and right and hawk or dove when talking about them. Both belong to the political middle. Mr. Dole is busy just trying to work out those political compromises that get budgets passed through Congress and the President informed of what can and cannot be done.

Mr. Nunn is busy at trying to figure out what weapons the United States really needs, as distinct from what the arms industry might like to sell. He is particularly concerned about being sure that there is enough money left over for guns and pay for soldiers from the billions being spent on such things as ``star wars'' and ``stealth'' bombers.

These are the new stars on America's political horizon. They may or may not last. The 1988 conventions are still a year and a half away. But obviously there is a reason these two names are so newly prominent in political discussions.

It seems fairly obvious that this is a natural reaction to the Iran-contra affair. Both President and vice-president say they knew nothing about it. Yet those people who executed both operations obviously believed they were doing what the President wanted.

President Reagan has given us government by remote control. He is a great delegator. Delegation of authority got out of hand in the Iran-contra affair. Men like Mr. Dole and Mr. Nunn who work hard, every day, at the daily business of government have a new attractiveness.

My ideal ticket for 1988 would be either Dole-Nunn or Nunn-Dole. I can't have it. They may well be leading rivals. If they are, then the country wins, either way.

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