A cynicism has taken over the land. People view politics as dirty and politicians as less than honest. And they accept this as being the way things are. Indeed, all Americans really care about is the bottom line: whether the economy is going well and, more importantly, if they, themselves, are faring well.
All of the above I reject, including the polls that suggest this deep cynicism to be gaining ground. I spent years traveling the byways of America and talking to people. And I came away with the conviction - which is still with me today - that down deep, most Americans feel that things can and will change for the better.
Even when they are trashing the politicians, voters - if you talk to them for a while - still hold on to hope for the future. This faith in the American dream, that everyone lives in a country where things get better, still burns brightly. Americans don't give up the ship. They keep expecting that our lives and, indeed, our whole society will improve. And that is not cynicism.
So it is that I think the voters in 2000 will be looking for a presidential candidate who at least appears to be standing above the political mess in Washington. Indeed, a candidate who clearly is fighting to put an end to this almost-obscene financing of campaigns would look awfully good to these Americans.
And with that said, the obvious comes to mind: More than any other Republican, Senator John McCain - one of the authors of the McCain-Feingold campaign-financing-reform legislation - looks to me a possible "winner" in a political climate where I'm convinced the public will embrace "something better."
I'm not trumpeting for McCain. That's not my role. He's been in to several Monitor breakfasts and I hear over and over again, from reporters whose political points of view would differ, their respect for McCain and how they see him as the "best" of the possible Republican nominees. And they tell me, too, that they are of the opinion that McCain has put behind him his own earlier brush with political scandal.
They think this hero of the Vietnam War has a particularly forthright and appealing way about him. And these rather skeptical - maybe some are "cynical" - journalists are saying that he has this big issue that he, more than any other Republican, can push: He is a leading advocate of campaign reform.
Even as I write this I am noting a page-one story in one of my favorite journals which, under the headline, "Not playing in Peoria" has this to say: "The possibility of campaign finance law violations may be the talk of Washington, but it is not playing in Peoria. As one resident said, 'I'm less worried about how politicians raise their money than how they spend ours.' "
I don't believe it. That quote sounds like the kind of off-the-cuff remark I used to get from people when you first talked to them. You don't tap their real thoughts and their basic instincts without a lot more probing. I was an admirer of the questioning tactics used by the man who was the best pollster of them all in my opinion: Samuel Lubell. He spent lots of time with his interviewees. He asked many, many questions. He went back to question again. And I tell you, when Lubell published his findings on the mood of America: Well, as they say, you could go to the bank with them.
In my days of traveling, I usually found voters providing in their first answers something like this, "Politics is dirty and so are politicians." But in probing a bit more I invariably discovered this deep-down faith in an America where things - including things in Washington - could and would become better. I am convinced this public reaching out for better days still burns beneath the surface. And I firmly believe that this hopeful outlook provides a political climate where a candidate - whether he is a Republican or a Democrat - will find favor with the voters in 2000.