Or is it?

Michael Kernan

October 01, 1992|By Michael Kernan

I AM amazed at all this talk about "trust" in the campaign.

I have voted in the last 11 presidential elections, and I don't recall ever before being asked to "trust" any of the candidates. I thought everyone understood that politicians are to like but not to trust, that a great deal of what they say is rhetoric and not to be taken literally. They are by nature compromisers and artists of the possible.

The one and only difference between liberals and conservatives is that liberals have a somewhat more ambitious notion of what is possible.

The point is, we don't have to trust them. In this democracy we characterize these people as our servants, and we can fire them any time we want -- at the polls or if necessary by impeachment or recall.

The current emphasis on trust implies that once we elect a president, he will be free to do anything that occurs to him. But past presidents from Lyndon Johnson to Richard Nixon know that even a landslide isn't enough to protect them from the wrath of an aroused electorate.

Those voters of 1992 who say they don't like either candidate and still are waiting for Mr. Right: Whom are they expecting, Abraham Lincoln?

As for trustworthiness itself, even a glance at the antics of President Bush, the one who keeps harping on the word, shows that he is not great shakes in this department. To give just one example, he systematically and repeatedly conjures up the magic name of Harry Truman and 1948, citing Truman's famed attacks on the "do-nothing Congress" of his day.

The facts today are precisely opposite: It is the Congress that would take progressive actions -- such as the bill providing unpaid family leave from large corporations -- and the president who vetoes them. Mr. Bush is being a little disingenuous here.

I can't understand why no one has thought to ask the most obvious question: Whom did Mr. Bush vote for in 1948?

(Someone has in fact asked Barbara Bush, and she said the family went solidly for Thomas E. Dewey, which was only natural, since George Bush's father, Republican Connecticut Sen. Prescott Bush, was a member of the Congress that Truman was so busy excoriating.)

This reluctance of many would-be voters to pick one or the other of the major parties, and the rush to back the supremely out-of-context Ross Perot, make me wonder how familiar the public actually is with the nature of our system.

Generally, the two parties represent two fundamentally different philosophies, each a coherent organism with its own right and left wings, each with a spokesman who -- if it expects to win -- comes more or less from the central position of that philosophy. (A spokesman who comes from the fringe, like Barry Goldwater in 1964, must surely be swamped.) We do not vote so much for an individual as for the set of ideas about America that he or she stands for.

Unfortunately, ever since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, the personality of the candidate has been increasingly emphasized and the party philosophy reduced to a pro forma platform that rarely raises our passions.

One reason, of course, is that philosophies and platforms are not telegenic. People are. These days we elect our presidents on the basis of how well-shaved they are at the debates, how silly they look in a feather headdress or a tank, how aptly they come up with what Bill Clinton calls "their one-line zingers" at the right moment.

It seems to me imperative that we maintain the integrity of our two-party system by voting for one spokesman or the other. If a genuine third party is indeed developing, a true political party with candidates at all levels, well and good. But I fear that, running by himself as a rugged individual, Ross Perot would be a mere anomaly. A vote for Perot would be wishful thinking, a denial, a refusal to face up to this crisis in the democratic process.

It is up to us voters to decide on one basic philosophy or the other, and stick with it, whatever we think of the way its spokesman parts his hair.

Michael Kernan, a veteran journalist, writes from Baltimore.

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