The senseless debate between Gov. Bill Clinton and Sen. Bob Kerrey over what they did or did not do as youths during the Vietnam War and how it affects their presidentialness calls to mind a criticism Adlai Stevenson once directed at the inanities of the presidential primary system.
Governor Stevenson (of Illinois) won the 1956 Democratic presidential nomination after a primary battle with Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver.
"It seems incredible," Stevenson said of the race, "that we take this means of preparing a man for a presidential campaign, not to mention the presidency. It always reminds me of grandfather's story of the political meeting in Kentucky after the Civil War, when all candidates pointed to their wounds as reasons for popular support, until finally one candidate rose and allowed as he had not fought for the Blue or the Gray, but if physical infirmity was a qualification for public office in Graves County, well, he was the rupturedest son of a bitch in the whole damn state."
Governor Stevenson called the primaries "slapstick politics." He objected to the "exhausted minds, bodies and resources." He lamented the fact that in such an environment, mistakes were inevitable, and he was especially disgusted because the primary campaign's demands were unrelated to the demands of the White House.
But he had it easy. In 1956, there were only 19 primaries. Many were pro forma, with delegates controlled by the party machine. In several states, the primaries were ignored by the press, public and candidates -- and voters. There were direct Stevenson-Kefauver races on only five ballots, and Mr. Stevenson's name only appeared on the ballot in one additional state, Illinois, in which Senator Kefauver was not a candidate. Mr. Stevenson made several speeches a week in states in which he was not officially a candidate, but still the ordeal was far less than today's.
Only 5,832,592 Democrats voted in all 19 races. The following presidential year, there were fewer primaries (16) and fewer Democratic votes were cast (5,686,664), and Sen. John Kennedy, who won in six contested elections, was subsequently nominated and elected.
His pace was hectic by Stevenson's standards, perhaps, but compared to today's ordeal, it was nothing. He ran in eight states, one his home state of Massachusetts. He was in effect unopposed in three of the remaining seven states. There was a five-week respite between the first serious contest and the next.
One contest was in Oregon, a state Senator Kennedy preferred not to enter, since Oregon Sen. Wayne Morse was also a candidate. But Oregon had a unique primary law. It required all recognized candidates to be listed.
In 1964 and 1968, the primaries were relatively unimportant for the Democrats. In neither year did the eventual nominee campaign in primaries. But reforms began to be put in place after 1968 that led to the madness of today.
Other states began to require candidates to have their names listed. Candidates could not pick and choose. There were 21 primaries in 1972, with real contests in 20. Nearly 16 million votes were cast in Democratic primaries, nearly triple 1960.
By 1988 there were 37 primaries, with 22 million votes cast for Democrats (plus 12.5 million for Republicans). Only twice from Feb. 16 through June 14 did a week go by without a primary. On March 8, there were 16. This year there are 40 primaries. From Feb. 18 through June 2, there will be only three Tuesdays without primaries.
Candidates work hard during these weeks, too. Here is Bill Clinton's schedule for the days just before last Tuesday's voting:
Saturday (all in Denver, Col.). 10:30 a.m. meeting with mayor. 3:30 p.m. debate with other presidential candidates. 5:15 p.m. -- speech to supporters. 7:00 p.m. speech to Jefferson-Jackson dinner. Fly to Atlanta.
Sunday. 10:30 a.m. greet worshipers at black Baptist church. 10:45 attend worship service. Noon debate other presidential candidates. Fly to Baltimore. 6:00 p.m. debate other presidential candidates at College Park. 7:30 p.m. reception. 7:45 p.m. speech to Debate Watch Party, College Park.
Monday. 7:00 a.m. greet commuters Prince George's subway stop. 8:30 a.m. greet customers doughnut shop in Glen Burnie. Fly to Macon, Ga. 12:15 p.m. address Mercer Medical School audience. Fly to Atlanta. 3:30 tour probation boot camp Stone Mountain. Fly to Columbus, Ga. 6:30 p.m. address rally at hotel. Fly back to Atlanta.
That was the formal, advance schedule. Events get added. For example, Sunday night Governor Clinton also attended a basketball game and awards ceremony in the Baltimore Arena and then a reception in Little Italy.
Add in unlisted pleas for funds, pleas for endorsements, strategy planning, and you can imagine that there is not a lot of time left for thinking.