Campaign idiocy

A COUPLE of years ago, some charmingly deluded citizens came to talk to me about running for the United States Congress. The conversation didn't last very long, in part because running for any political office seemed, and seems, to rank in attractiveness right up there with volunteering for the death of a thousand cuts.

These thoughts were triggered anew as I watched the indignities, the inanities, inflicted upon the candidates in the New Hampshire primary.

Don't get me wrong. I have the greatest admiration for those men and women of integrity who go into politics because they want to make a constructive contribution.

But what they have to go through, or think they must go through, to get elected is abominable.

Even Dwight Eisenhower, the hero of World War II, had to get himself dressed up in an Indian headdress on the campaign trail. I doubt that it got him much of the Indian vote, for a more unlikely Indian you never did see. And non-Indians voted for him anyway, because television was far less intrusive in those days and many of them weren't watching him.

But more recently, when Gary Hart affects woodsman's clothes and throws axes at trees, the camera crews scramble for the shot and it's there in your living room on every network that night, helping you decide the subtleties of how good he'd be negotiating the treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces with Mikhail Gorbachev.

So, in Iowa and New Hampshire, we've had abundant footage of the candidates affecting affection for bemused, drooling babies, plucked from their mothers' arms to make a photo opportunity. We've had candidates who didn't know one end of a pitchfork from another out there nervously patting cows and horses, appraising mud-spattered animals they perceive to be pigs, and generally engaging in what they hoped to be farm talk. Gov. Michael Dukakis, a city boy from Massachusetts if ever there was one, raised eyebrows in Iowa by talking about ``crops'' that turned out to be preppie-type gourmet vegetables.

We've had George Bush, perhaps the most Ivy League character among the candidates, dressed up in an L.L. Bean-type cap, earflaps askew, sitting uncomfortably at the driving wheels of tractors, bulldozers, and huge trucks. Would you trust this man to drive a truckload of potatoes to market? Not likely, but what does that have to do with running the country?

Election campaigns seem to turn candidates into unnatural beings, causing them, in the quest for votes, to do totally uncharacteristic things. Paul Simon, for instance, seems to be about as decent a human being as one can find in the current presidential race, and yet he and Richard Gephardt became transformed in New Hampshire into a couple of brawling, name-calling street urchins. The exchanges between Mr. Bush and Bob Dole were hardly more edifying.

And day after day we are obliged to watch on television news a string of insincerities as candidates slap voters on the back, ask them their names, tell them how glad they are to see them in subzero temperatures, in the darkness before dawn, outside factory gates. We all know that both candidates and voters would probably much rather be home in bed.

It probably isn't going to change. But when the long day is done, and the candidate sinks for a couple of hours into bed in some unfamiliar motel room, surely he sometimes dreams of a campaign free of babies to be kissed, animals to be patted, television cameras to be postured for, competing candidates to be dumped on, and an array of peculiar caps, hats, and head-coverings to be worn for the photographers? A campaign, in short, in which he just might be himself?

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