THIS curious sentence appeared recently in the New York Times: "Mr. Clinton's aides believe his message needs fairly little retrofitting for the general election."
Now what kind of message does that send the American people? The one I received is that a candidate's beliefs are like the way-back machine in those old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. The Professor and Peabody would set their wondrous contraption for any time and place and, presto-chango, they would wind up there!
In Clinton's case, perhaps his aides have taken the 16-inch negative effluvium pipe and attached it to the pressurized invective spew-valve, hoping to land in the Oval Office in early 1993.
I don't mean to single out Clinton here. Anyone who has been following the presidential campaign sporadically knows that each candidate has about as many messages as Western Union. President Bush is leading the league. In fact, his prime message has been that he'll do whatever it takes to get re-elected, including (if all else fails) telling the American people the truth.
Up in New Hampshire, Bush's message was that all those people voting for Pat Buchanan were simply sending him a message, one he claims to have received humbly. And what were the hardy souls of the Granite State trying to convey to their president? They weren't buying his message du jour.
Sending a message -- and not just in regard to politics -- seems to have taken over our country the way hoola hoops did 35 years ago. The other day the op-ed page of a local paper featured the word in two of the four headlines: "Gore and violence in movies send the wrong message to youths," proclaimed one banner. Everyone seems to have a message for someone else nowadays: "Just say no" or "Don't be a fool, stay in school" or "No new taxes" or "Don't mess around with sex."
The era of modern message-sending seems to have begun when President Bush sent Saddam Hussein a message, which he didn't get. Still hasn't, it seems. Probably never will. That's the problem with all this message-mongering: Lots of people just don't get them.
And why should they? Consider this political definition of the term, as told to me by a highly placed Connecticut state official: "A message connotes how we say what we think rather than what we think. I think there is more division within the party on what the message should be than on policy itself."
Say what? It's time to plug in the way-back decoder. What this august pol seems to be saying is this: "The talk we talk may not have a great deal to do with the walk we walk." That goes double after all the retrofitting is done. This isn't sending a message; it's manufacturing malarkey.
Not satisfied with mangling the economy, our leaders are taking perfectly good words out of the dictionary and besmirching them beyond recognition. What Ronald Reagan did to the once respectable term "communicator," one of this year's slippery crop will do to "message" and all its permutations.
Marshall McLuhan wrote: "The medium is the message." Maybe so, but this season's proliferating messages aren't even medium. Or when we like the message, we often can't stomach the messenger. Sometimes I feel as teed off as Jerry Brown purports to be, but that doesn't qualify me to be president either.
Finally, perhaps we the people deserve some blame for the dangerously low level of political discourse. Be honest: Do you always want to hear the truth? That you're 15 pounds overweight, for example, on the scale which gives the low readings?
We expect our leaders to have integrity and to agree with us. We much prefer to be called husky as opposed to blubbery. We long for a straight shooter who will also say things that will make us feel better.
What we really want is not a president so much as a shaman, someone whose incarnations will drive away our evil spirits. History is replete with honest messengers who have not been needed.
Sometimes we don't get the message we need because what we really crave is a soothing massage. It won't solve our problems, of course, but it sure feels good while it lasts.
So is it any wonder that the presidential race is infested with masseurs, witch doctors and retrofitters?
David Holahan writes from East Haddam, Conn.