IT was down in a scrub area of Texas. Ronald Reagan and George Bush had put the 1980 election in the game pouches of their hunting jackets. A reporter was off for a couple days of wild-turkey hunting with James Baker III, who had just perpetrated Jimmy Carter's defeat, to get to know Baker in his natural male-bonding habitat at the Baker ranch.
The men scruffed down in a turkey blind and waited. Bang, bang, bang. Plop, plop, plop. The turkeys fell out of the air.
Baker, it turned out, had spent his military career as a marksman.
Like politics, turkey shooting has but a few rules of engagement. No shooting birds on the ground. They have to be in the campaign, that is, aloft.
If nothing else, the Houston convention showed that all the Democrats are in the air as fair game - and a lot of other Americans regardless of political persuasion - as far as Mr. Baker's Republicans are concerned.
Now, if the Democrats think like turkeys, that is, as quarry, they will come down in Mr. Baker's sights. Answering charge by charge will not be enough. The Democrats will have to have a winning as well as defensive dimension to their campaign. Granted, Michael Dukakis fell out of the air in 1988 under a GOP assault (Willie Horton, the Boston Harbor, attacks on Kitty Dukakis). But what was Dukakis's case for the presidency? And the Republicans didn't tell Dukakis to ride around in that silly tank.
In another race between a Not-Bush and Bush, Bush will win.
It will not be enough to complain about every attack on the Democratic ticket's wives, about attempts to align Democratic family attitudes with Woody Allen, as if these are character reference points that define the GOP lineup. (Though they are.)
Let's stop to think a moment about "family values." A million people are in prison in America today. That's a million families in trouble. Whose America are they in? The jobless have families. Homosexuals have families, and without regard to the reigning political persuasion of their childhood household. Women who have to support themselves, their parents, their children, have to have full career opportunities; they cannot be subordinate citizens.
What is family? The Us of Us and Them? FDR's gleeful derision of Wall Street? Catholics versus Protestants? Fortunately, these antagonisms in the American family psyche have mostly, though not entirely, passed.
Every ridiculed public figure has a family. This goes for every member of Congress, the covey the GOP has gleefully flushed into the air. When this campaign is over, will Mr. Bush send every member of that institution a handwritten note saying the Harry's hell he gave them was just good ol' male-bonding fun? Let's pass that balanced-budget amendment, boys. Is there a political season, like a hunting season, during which a party ID allows you to shoot? Is politics atavistic?
Is there some primitive antagonism between, say, the National Rifle Association and the Sierra Club, that goes to the unconscious root of providing for the family and preserving the land for game to grow on?
One can argue that the family is an estuary, a prairie, the coastal strip or inland field where life is started and nurtured. The vulnerable have to be protected.
Maybe some Texans would argue their turkey-shoot politics is just selective harvesting, for the good of the species.
They sit on their verandas with the clan about them and say, Let's go shoot us a couple of Democrats! And off the men go.
Or a Castro. A Noriega. Or some gays. Or whatever targets they would drop out of the sky. They can't go out and shoot a deficit. Unemployment. Racism.
Where are the positive ventures Bush promised in 1988? The thousand points of light?
There is a lot of just plain meanness in American politics. Another Texan, Lyndon Johnson, showed his share of it. It's important to see that this atavism isn't personal. It isn't the preserve of one political party.
Other countries should be aware that Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, don't like to lose. Along with the pragmatic idealism that can talk of a new world order, the current form of saving the world for democracy, is an admiration for the frontier marksman who can drop dumb birds on the horizon.
Jim Baker is back as foreman of the Republican ranch - chief of staff, campaign director, and deputy president. The president himself, Mr. Bush, is bonded: He has a hunter's gleam in his eye.