Election Day nears, and two faceless candidates leer ahead of us like dopestarved punks who know there’s nowhere else for us to go. They need a fix, and in the process we’ll lose our money and our dignity. If that’s all we lose, I guess we’re lucky.
These strange men (and the occasional odd woman) who want to be President seem to operate outside any of Western civilization’s ethical considerations. They violate every rule the rest of us learned in kindergarten, Sunday school, and at our mothers’ knees. They tell lies. They make promises they know they can’t keep. They covet what belongs to others. Each one would sacrifice his first-born child to live in a large white house in a city that most of us here in the Heartland consider the ends of the earth—somewhere to visit patriotically, dutifully, but no place to raise a family.
Mostly, though, it’s not the unsavory character of all the candidates that bothers me so much as the feeling that they come from the planet Grzyk, a million light years from reality. I’m sure these guys would all make fine neighbors, but when a man gets it into his head that he wants to be President, not only all decency but logic is allowed to fall by the way. It’s incredible but true that a candidate may say that he believes both in sanctions against South Africa and in free technological trade with the Soviet Union; that homosexuals are to be afforded special rights and the unborn no rights; that we can enable women to be liberated from caring for their children by funding counseling for juvenile delinquents; that the way to prevent teenage pregnancies is to give out condoms in high school bathrooms. These are grown men, folks, trying to convince us that they can engage in extramarital poll-taking with every model they meet and still be devoted to their wives and families; that if the Soviets know we can defend ourselves against their missiles they’ll send them sooner; that even though heaping money on the poor has never helped them rise above poverty, this is the magic year when enough money will be heaped to finally make a difference; that buying the freedom of hostages will help prevent others from being taken hostage; that if our Central American friends can’t be helped legally it’s legal to do it illegally; and (each one) that he’s not in this for the glory but the rest of them are.
Perhaps most disturbing of all—because it’s a symbol of some larger truth and also seems to be an augury—is the rapid and dangerous intellectual decline of the President who has received more popular support, affection, and begrudging respect from his enemies than any other President in decades. Having after eight years brought to fruition exactly none of his right-minded and greatly touted ideas, this good Christian man and his wife phone home across 3,000 miles every day to learn the conjunction of the planets, by which they schedule their day, while (as Jack Anderson has pointed out) Moscow undoubtedly listens on a wiretap and plans its offense. It seems obvious to me that there have been numerous times in the last few years when the Reagans’ astrologer has said, “This is an auspicious day to give away the farm.” A lot of the farm is gone for good now, and a lot of the world is laughing harder at us than even eight years ago under a President whose name no one cares to remember, and still Dutch strides cheerfully to the helicopter, grinning and waving, deftly avoiding the tough questions. His nonchalance isn’t Teflon, it’s Kryptonite.
We have let all this happen. Candidates spit out non sequiturs ad infinitum, and it’s considered impolite for those at the scene of the crime, even the nonbelievers, to question them. So, politely, we don’t, we Americans with the reputation of crudeness. Many of the voters in this country take seriously as a candidate for President a man who has kissed Fidel Castro and called him “brother,” a man who talks in rhymes, has denigrated nearly every ethnic group but his own, and has no experience in government. People of all racial persuasions love this man simply because he is black, or because he is (no pun intended) kinky. These people will go into our voting booths to vote for the man their man tells them to, without ever having demanded accountability from themselves or him. Others are rooting for the current Vice President because they love his boss and mentor, who convinced them that “It’s Morning in America.” Still others will probably get a chance to vote for a candidate who claims to be devoutly Greek Orthodox—who, more to the point, will likely be supported by the Greek Orthodox—but who, according to the Catholic Eye, married a Jew and never had his children baptized. We allow from these gentlemen improprieties of action and impossibilities of logic that several generations ago we wouldn’t have tolerated in our children. Now that tolerance has become the catchword of the century, it’s what we do best. We do it to death.
Or maybe it’s just that we’ve truly come not to care, because we understand that once they take office, all the candidates are pretty much alike. We’ve enabled them to be alike. Power does corrupt, and while no President in recent history has had absolute power, what they have is close enough for government work. It will be business as usual for any President after the first year, and no business at all for the last two years. We won’t even grumble; we expect it to be this way. The President’s cronies will be rewarded no matter how venal—or embarrassing—they become; he will embrace a cause only if it is politically popular. (Which President has ever taken on the tobacco growers’ or distillers’ lobbies or the U^W or ACLU or AFL-CIO?) We let the media go on and on about the differences between the candidates and the importance of the election, but we know that they don’t believe it any more than we do, and they know we know. Still, it’s a living. We live from hand to mouth, spiritually speaking, these days, manufacturing one quick make-believe warm fuzzy after another.
The Gipper had us going for a moment. Briefly, when we were younger and the world was full of hope and logical consequences, he made us believe that with hard work, decency, brains, and the grace of God, we could have it all. We wanted to believe, wanted it desperately, after the humiliation of the Johnson and Nixon administrations and the bland impotence of the Ford and Carter years. The nation roared in approbation when our boys conquered the midget Grenada. America was back! The Golden Era, from 1981-84, gave us hope. The last four years have stolen it away, possibly forever. If Reagan couldn’t sustain us with what we gave him in 1980 and even more in 1984, it’s hard to believe that anyone can. Our new President, whoever he is, may sustain something—his ego, his drive, his bank account, his autobiography—but history predicts that he will do it by spending America.
It’s not morning here any more; it’s mid-afternoon, and twilight approaches. What we have left is ourselves. We have fashioned the candidates in our own image, and their campaigning is, as some wit said recently, a demonstration of the “evil of two lessers.” Our candidates deserve us, and we them. But at least we could stop pretending that our fates will be much better with one than with another. That in itself might be a step toward a slightly more honorable twilight.