The Presidential Race

THE Atlantic FOUNDED IN 1857

MEMO TO H. L. MENCKEN c/o Up There or Down There

They’re at it again, H. L., and you really ought to be here, laying about with your snickersnee and snorting over your lager. If you thought, as you wrote, in 1922, that the world is run by “groups of professional mob-masters,” you should see how much worse things have gotten! The presidential conventions have become virtually meaningless, all circus and no bread, with creatures from the newspapers and broadcasting companies outnumbering party people by some 11,000 to 3000. And most of the journalists don’t seem to be sure what to think until they’ve consulted the astrologic incantations of the pollsters and opinion surveyors, the “professional mob-masters” supreme. It is no accident that the most telling political commentary in 1980 comes not from pundits but from the comic strip artist Garry Trudeau and his Doonesbury circle.

Strategists for the incumbent President, flushed with nomination victory, reveal without apparent embarrassment that their principal campaign objective, as reported in the Wall Street Journal, will be “to cut Mr. Reagan down to Mr. Carter’s size in the polls,” confronting us with the pathetic spectacle of two midgets locked in a closet and belaboring each other with toy machetes and pigs’ bladders.

The two party nominees offer plenty of contrast. Ronald Reagan has said more foolish things and President Carter has committed more foolish deeds. Mr. Carter lumbers into battle under the weight of a record of ineptitude relieved by a bright splash or two of possible achievement. Come to think of it, only the Camp David accords come to mind, and they were last seen festooned with tubes and wires in the intensive care unit of New York Hospital. Mr. Reagan, an elderly fellow who no longer sports prematurely orange hair, struggles to divest himself of two burdens—the widespread fear that he is a right-wing extremist, a sort of Casting Office Goldwater, and the suspicion that there’s little more to the fellow than meets the eye.

You would derive some mordant pleasure from the fact that there is a third man in the race, a born-again Christian and ten-term congressman named John Anderson. He’s churning the gastric juices of the Democratic and Republican mob-masters because he just might win enough votes -to deprive either Carter or Reagan of an electoral majority. Of course, by the time these words reach you (given the Postal Service and the mystery as to your present address, they probably won’t), Congressman Anderson’s Lone Ranger insurgency may have melted away like Icarus’s waxen wings. But we can’t at this juncture call it a Bull Mouse campaign.

To contemplate the electoral scene is a somber task, but you’d be quick to agree that that’s in part what we get paid for. So in this issue of The Atlantic we publish a selection of articles that may offer you, and others less spectral, some useful guidance in the few weeks before Election Day. One is a close-up study of Ronald Reagan by James Conaway. Another is a reprise by James Fallows of his two Atlantic articles on “The Passionless Presidency,” which last year presciently showed why Jimmy Carter was headed for trouble (p. 45). In Reports & Comment, Stephen Chapman compares the records of Messrs. Carter and Reagan as respective governors of Georgia and California.

But what if Anderson hangs in there and none of the three candidates wins an electoral majority? It could happen, as it did in earlier days of the Republic—and almost happened as recently as 1948, when Truman beat Dewey, and 1960, when Kennedy defeated Nixon. Laurence Tribe, a constitutional expert, and his associate Thomas Rollins contemplate that possibility in “Deadlock: What Happens If Nobody Wins” (p. 49).

Sorry you can’t be here to see the show.

More anon.