Los Angeles -- IT HAS been quite a while since anything political shook me as much as the television and newspaper pictures of Bill Clinton taking a break from his non-stop campaigning by getting in a few holes at the Country Club of Little Rock. The segregated Country Club of Little Rock, with 500 members, all white. So it seems with Clinton and Bush, we are right back where we started from 30 years ago: two white guys deciding which country club gets the 1992 White Man's Burden Leadership Cup.
"Insensitive -- I'll never do it again," says the Democratic nominee-presumptive. "No blacks have applied," says the club.
"You bums," says I.
This is 1992, not 1962. Clinton is supposed to be the best and the brightest of the generation that went into the streets to make America a more decent place for all of the people, all of the time -- and was ready to go again to try to do something about the people living in those same streets now. This is the guy who is supposed to do what some of us thought only Robert Kennedy might be able to do, bring together working whites and working blacks.
Well, maybe he is, but neither working whites nor working blacks can get into Clinton's country club of choice. They could get together outside the gates.
He won't do it again, he said. That's nice, but he has been doing it all these years. It was insensitive, he concedes. Me, I don't do "sensitive." And I don't do "I am truly sorry if I offended anyone." Clinton is far more than insensitive. He is either stupid, which he hides well, or he is arrogant beyond ordinary measure -- part of the political problem rather than the solution.
George Bush we knew about. He is a man of his time and upbringing, with some low-level noblesse oblige for the pigmentally disadvantaged. He never wrote letters to his draft board proclaiming that racism made him sick. He volunteered for combat in a service, the U.S. Navy, that provided Filipino stewards for its officers.
Clinton we don't know about at all. He is America's blind date.
Even for someone like me, who would not list "character" as one of my top 10 criteria in judging political candidates -- I think what they say and do in public is more important than how they treat their wives or husbands -- Clinton seems almost as unhinged in his way as Bush. We've got two of them flapping in the wind out there like broken barn doors.
And one of them, almost certainly, is going to be sworn in as president next January. How did we get ourselves into this kind of mess? I guess the answer is that we turned politics over to politicians, and they have their way with it and with us, too. The election laws and nominating rules they crafted to serve their own needs and purposes leave the rest of us with a limited choice between limited alternatives.
One of the more depressing moments in this exercise was the announcement by the Democratic national chairman, Ron Brown, that it would be unseemly and disorderly for new candidates to enter his party's lists after a certain date. Brown's disorder, in other times, was called democracy -- with a very small "d."
We are forced to choose, it seems, between an incumbent who has lost the confidence of the nation and an attractive man to whom we have not been properly introduced.
Is it possible that the only alternative to that is Jerry Brown? The National Smoke Detector. I like Jerry Brown and he doesn't like golf. For a long time, I have thought that he would be great in our most comfortable country club, the U.S. Senate. He makes people uncomfortable -- and there is a lot to be uncomfortable about these days. He may be inconsistent and hypocritical. No, he is inconsistent and hypocritical, but he believes what he is saying when he says it. One of his favorite quotes (or mine) as governor of California was, "Then was then and now is now."
Now or then, however, I would not vote for Brown for president. That is not his thing. Even George Bush offers some predictability: He will always favor his friends in the investing class. Jerry Brown has no friends.
What to do? I wish I knew. The system stinks. All systems that prevent lateral entry stink. Both Bush and Clinton have played by the rules and won whatever they have fair and square.
But those rules are a big part of the problem, too -- at least for voters who will look up (or wake up) in June to find out that they have missed the game. The winners, they will learn, were chosen back in March. Dozing voters, the politicians' greatest professional asset, and not without blame themselves, are out of action already, political prisoners in a democracy that has been distorted to serve the governors rather than the governed.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.