WHEN THE 1968 presidential campaign was over, I came home and took a long, hot shower. "What made you feel so dirty?" one of the children asked at dinner the other night. A really slimy political campaign has that effect on me, I said. That was not a campaign worthy of the White House. I told my children I was among the least surprised of Americans when Spiro T. Agnew, the vice presidential pit bull of 1968, turned out to be a crook. Within three years, he was unceremoniously disRobert C.Maynardmissed from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The political demise of his boss was to follow in due course. Again, no great surprise.
Given that the California drought is not officially over, I am worried about coping with Campaign '92. Although there is no patently crooked candidate on the horizon, I fear this campaign will call for lots of hot showers. The dynamics of this year's political battles are focused (I should say riveted) on the negative aspects of the candidates. This is true of the presidential race and those for lesser offices.
Forget 1968 or 1988. We are already in one of the nastiest political campaigns in recent political history. I am not looking forward to more of it. The real campaign has not even begun. Yet Jerry Brown, campaigning in the Northeast, has been hammering away at Bill Clinton with every vile phrase that comes from his nimble, if foul, frame of mind. Despite his narrow "victory" in Connecticut, I doubt Brown can defeat Clinton and win the Democratic nomination. He can only help to besmirch his character further on behalf of a grateful George Bush. The longer and uglier a party primary, the surer the defeat in the fall for that party.
Brown is captivated by the same poisonous well from which Patrick J. Buchanan has drawn so much of his noxious sustenance. Brown and Buchanan have become the bookends of the campaign. From right and left, each sees it as his mission to savage the center. I fear they are nothing more than stand-in figures at the dress rehearsal for the fall campaign. That is when the center is bent on savaging itself. The politics will be so vicious because the differences are sometimes so small.
This country has always practiced a politics of personalities over issues. This year promises to be worse. The system has fetched up two flawed figures in Bill Clinton and George Bush. Each has strengths. This year, they will define each other by their deficits, whether of character or of caring. This is not what our nation needs. We need a debate about vision and solutions, covenants and commitments. Don't count on much talk of those. We have more than six months of character assassination to endure.
This is made all the more likely by what the polls show. The latest Gallup, for example, reveals an electorate with ever-declining confidence in either likely standard-bearer.
The voters don't think Clinton has the character necessary to be their president. At the same time they see George Bush as remote and uncaring of the nation's plight. On balance, if the election were held tomorrow, Bush probably would be re-elected. In the minds of this electorate, that is only half the story. The other half is a question: By the end, whose negatives will be higher? The lesser of two negatives wins.
Given what is at stake, this would be the year to stick to the high road. Above all, we should consistently challenge the candidate to do the same. Many of us would have felt cleaner had we done more of that in 1968.
Robert Maynard is publisher of the Oakland, Calif., Tribune.