Firstness and Secondness in Politics and Sports

THE most embarrassing moments from the Barcelona Olympics were not, say, pole vault record-holder Sergei Bubka's failure to make any of his tries, or Gail Devers's stumble on the last of the hurdles as she glanced to check on her rivals. The embarrassments were in the reporters' questions afterwards, some variation of: "What did it feel like not getting the gold?"

In the metallurgy of public achievement, is something wrong with silver, or with bronze? For those of us who were not the fastest kids on the block, is it not enough to have made the Olympic roster?

In part, the problem lies with the game of expectations. Achievements are measured against what was anticipated. Politicians try to set lower expectations so that they can appear to win by larger margins, or to lose less embarrassingly.

George Bush's friends have been saying he may regain, in public opinion "bounce" from this week's GOP convention in Houston, as much as half the ground he has lost to Democrat Bill Clinton in recent weeks. This would be a big bounce. Bush needs one. The White House has been preparing the way for a Bush recovery. Last week, the president announced the NAFTA trade pact and arranged a settlement of the loan guarantee issue with Israeli officials. James Baker III was welcomed back to the White House to a pos ition - chief of staff and senior counselor, with authority over domestic and foreign policy - such as had been offered to Gerald Ford in 1980 to induce Ford to join Reagan on the ticket as vice president. Dan Quayle was all but deposed.

The world saw Bush turn for advice not to the White House silver medalist, his constitutional heir, Dan Quayle, whom he picked himself without consultation in 1988, to the astonishment of his advisers. Bush turned instead to Baker, who as secretary of state is now fifth - out of the medals - in line to the presidency, to preserve his palace tenure.

Bush himself seems to be reaching down for that extra reserve of energy, a competitiveness usually hidden beneath his patrician folksiness. It would be a mistake for any foreign leader, in Iraq or elsewhere, to crowd this president at this time, when he does not want to appear to dither.

Presidential candidates are expected to settle only for first. This goes deeper than the American preoccupation with winning, or even the obvious huge partisan difference between winning the White House and losing it. In picking a president, citizens are looking for a leader who will not allow the country as a whole, and not just their party or ideological faction, to be beaten. On this basis Richard Nixon, despite unflattering characteristics, could be chosen over a more likeable Hubert Humphrey in 1968 . The modern tragedy of Watergate confirmed how hard Nixon would fight to win.

So much for the fixation with firstness.

The world belongs to those undiminished by coming in second.

The Biblical story of Abram and Lot illustrates a law of human experience. Their herdsmen were quarreling over territory, and Abram let Lot choose first what land he wanted. Lot chose what he thought was the better land, the Jordan plain. Abram was left with what remained, Canaan. It was what he could envision on that land that constituted his people's inheritance.

To win is wonderful. It must feel cozy in the small circle of winners. To come in second, however, itself no small achievement, relates us to the majority. It impels us to appreciate the race for the thing itself, and not for the laurel.

To have only won can be a handicap. Management lore records the case of the boss who turned down an applicant with a splendid resume after observing that the young man had never known failure.

Politicians, unlike athletes, never actually win races. The public accords politicians the opportunity to earn the title. Elected, a president must learn how to become a president.

Americans expect a lot of their country - the opportunity to earn a living, an education, fairness, justice.

They make almost impossible demands on their leaders: to show, like Lincoln, a common touch, but to perform uncommonly well. They admire a Truman, an untiring campaigner who could sleep comfortably thinking he'd come in second, only to awake the victor.

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