Reverse Psychology

GARRY WILLS

April 22, 1992|By GARRY WILLS

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Pat Caddell, who gave Jerry Brown his strategy (and his opening speech), is now telling reporters that he is disappointed by Mr. Brown. Seeking office has made Mr. Brown a part of the despised ''system.'' Mr. Caddell now prefers Ross Perot. Instead of seeking voters, Mr. Perot is waiting for them to seek him.

There is an old American belief that anyone who campaigns for an office is not good enough for it. It dates, I suppose, from the time of George Washington, when a genuine unanimity existed around the need for a man who was reluctant to risk his honor. Ever since, we have been yearning for a political version of immaculate conception -- a man should be brought into office without going through any political selection process at all.

Candidates have therefore often professed a reluctance they did not feel, submitting to ''drafts'' that they had secretly helped blow up in the first place. Adlai Stevenson, rather blasphemously, compared himself to Jesus asking that this cup pass him by.

Few people equipped to wield power are really eager to forgo its exercise. Only one pope ever resigned, and Dante called him a coward for doing so. Ross Perot is buying phone lines by the thousands so that people can urge him to do what he claims he does not want to do.

The general desire for a drafted candidate has special force this year, when the vague distrust of politicians that is our birthright has taken on a special focus and venom. People switch about from Paul Tsongas to Jerry Brown to Ross Perot as a way of voting against ordinary politicians. They are, in each case, less interested in the message than in the unconventional messenger.

Why has this general discontent become so sharp? Has corruption really mounted, as opposed to our awareness of it? The congressional bounced checks are small potatoes, yet people turn their attention to that and neglect huge scandals like the S&Ls, the HUD deals, the Pentagon contracts. As so often, Jimmy Carter was ahead of his time. We now acknowledge the ''malaise'' he was ridiculed for describing.

The mood of disaffection has many causes; but two of them are not enough adverted to. One is the removal of our principal orienting passion of the last half-century. Anti-communism was the thing that gave much of our politics its sense of high purpose.

People rallied behind that cry and suppressed domestic differences in order to reach a consensus on waging the Cold War. With that glue removed, Republicans have taken to squabbling among themselves and Democrats have no need to prove themselves as tough as Republicans on the issue.

The other cause of our discontent is the element of fantasy that Ronald Reagan injected into our politics. He was the non-politician par excellence, one who never stopped attacking government as the source of our woes. He offered a politics-free good time in which, if one just starved government, it would die away -- almost like the dwindling of the state that had been promised by Lenin in his utopian speeches.

When President Bush is forced back to his ''no taxes'' stand by Pat Buchanan, that is Mr. Reagan's revenge. When Jerry Brown offers citizen-values untainted by the political system, he is echoing Mr. Reagan on the Democratic side. When Ross Perot says an outsider is needed to clean up the mess, he is using exactly the language Mr. Reagan employed in his first run for governor of California.

The desire to escape from politics, from government, from the system, is the real cause of our troubles -- not the system itself. Those who despise and neglect and deride politics are guaranteeing that it will be neglected and despicable. Their prophecies are self-fulfilling. This anti-politics is itself a form of politics, and one of the lowest.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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