As the song birds tentatively begin their frolic and the wintry states commence their defrost, we are instantly treated to the greatest thrill of the renaissance called spring: the endless procession of awards ceremonies for performing artists.
It appears now to be inevitable that no gathering of two or more show-business types may occur during March, April, or May without at least a sizable minority of them toting away a Grammy, an Emmy, an Oscar, a Drama Circle Critics award, a Tony, a Golden Globe. In America, a land of boundless opportunity, there persists a belief that $45,000 a week, a 26-week work year, and more nonpecuniary returns than one can healthfully risk indulging in this age of untamed virals, is insufficient lucre to justify the investment made in attaining movie, television, record, or concert stardom.
This devotion to rewarding outstanding performance with adulation as well as certificates of deposit is religiously discharged virtually with the zeal with which the Ayatollah K. pursues his ban on coeducational mountain climbing. Curious it is, then, that this rigorous inspection-awards reflex has not yet been applied to that single greatest, most phenomenal entertainment spectacle of our epoch: the quadrennial Presidential Pantomime. (Yes, they do make sounds; but expert judges have yet to rule these meaningful words in a communicative sense.)
It is hardly a revelation to note that the most compelling paradigm from which to view last year's hugely entertaining campaign would be the dramatic traditions. Our candidates for high office now parade before us, celebrity-like, on the stage of politics. The press of an impending curtain call itself imposes a harsh discipline: in this burlesque, no actor will be granted the requisite acts necessary to establish a complex or unique persona. Hence, we witness the overwhelming desire to quickly slip into a tried-and-true character role. The candidates, more now than ever before, strive for dramatic caricature, purposely and laboriously mimicking some giant of legends past.
In 1984, the audience was treated to Walter Mondale doing a pretty good Hubert Humphrey, Gary Hart putting on a rather solid JFK, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson doing an inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. John Glenn, tragically opting to impersonate the American astronaut-hero John Glenn, was quickly eliminated by the informed electorate as boring: Doing yourself is dull.
Yet Ronald Reagan was duly impressive in his rerun as The Gipper, and the Democrats are understandably furious about the formidable skills and experience the incumbent brought to the stage of battle. While blanking on all the issues and looking more and more like a kindly president emeritus, that old Gip charm easily smothered the opposition Thespians.
Now all that remains for this Tinseltown on the Potomac is to begin the march to the microphone and undertake the botching of acceptance speeches in a fashion as embarrassing and offensive as in any other great entertainment fraternity. Let the Ovals commence!
Best-Integrated Party Platform
Nineteen eighty-four can be remembered as the year in which political scientists discovered a method enabling them to record blood pressure readings in the above-zero range: they were able to whip themselves into hysteria over "premature" network television predictions announcing the election's outcome before the polls closed in Alaska. The argument that telling voters how others voted will induce them to abstain, and so should not be told, would most logically be extended to suggest that the networks not tell the people anything at all about the candidates, most of which also encourages people not to vote.
Gary Hart's meticulous Kennedy-wear image was much more than dacron-deep. His attention to fashion detail went so far as to define certain of our military options. When asked in one of the Democratic debates if he, as commander-in-chief, would fire on a lone Soviet airliner cruising over Nebraska, Hart said that he would send up a couple of interceptors to look inside the enemy ship and determine whether the plane was loaded with military hardware or Ukrainian tourists. Soviet air force strategists were shortly rumored to have put in an order for 2.2 million polyester leisure suits with nonmatching Hawaiian vacation shirts from a Taiwan clothing manufacturer and to have undertaken plans for a new "Dress for Duress" fall fashion line, pending Hart's ascension.
Most Embarrassing Hyperventilation by a Major Contender
George Bush, bless his soul, has in no way been deterred by such cynical recent works as John Dean's Blind Ambition. Goodness, no. One really expected the other-directed Mr. Bush, in the heat of debate, to blurt: "And you should've seen our President. Boy, I wish every American could've been there. He knew right where the Oval Office intercom switch was. He told the secretary, 'Send 'im in'—and she did. Wow! And then he laid it out, the whole thing. He knew Brezhnev was dead. He knew Andropov was history. He was a president in command! This is the first president ever to have to learn not one, not two, but three Russian names, first and last. And I'll just bet ol' Andy Gro'—that's what the president calls him since the meeting—I'll just bet AG went back to the Kremlin and said, 'This president really has his head together. We'd better take it his way, or the highway.'"
Most Artful Twist of Argumentation
In denouncing the propensity of Messrs. Reagan and Bush to run against "Carter-Mondale," Democratic partisans Mondale and Ferraro displayed an amazing agility. By anyone's count, 1984 was the 13th time the Democratic Party had run against true-father-of-the-New-Deal Herbert Hoover (not counting those instances in which Mr. Hoover was actually on the ballot). While one can hardly blame a 1984 Democrat for an unwillingness to be associated with a 1980 Democrat, it is apparent to all observers that the New Deal coalition is going to have to update its act. Perhaps in '88 they can run against Richard Nixon.
Most Vicious Denial of an Embarrassing Fact by a Major Contender
Few should be surprised by the selection of Geraldine Ferraro in this tough-guy category. Remember Gerry—she's the one Walter Mondale put on the ticket to "give the appearance of being bold and decisive" (his words).
As the Republicans attempted to capitalize on their chance to score with Jewish voters (in perhaps the sole evidence that their campaign staff was functional prior to the election-night party), Ronald Reagan chastised the Democrats for failing to adopt an anti-Semitism resolution at their convention, as had the GOPers. To which Republican jibe Ms. Ferraro responded adamantly: "The President's remark was incorrect, indecent, and he should apologize for making it.…In an effort to assail us, he debased himself." Perhaps a rugged campaign schedule prevented the hard-charging Dem from checking her mail, but the reliable New Republic had only recently commented in its mid-September issue: "Nowhere in the Democratic platform is there a plank denouncing bigotry and anti-Semitism, and the reason, of course, is that it would have been interpreted as a slap at Jesse Jackson and his friend, Louis Farrakhan. Accordingly, it might well have been adopted at the convention by a split decision, causing the party a huge public embarrassment. Walter Mondale and his aides were even afraid to have such a denunciation voted upon by the Democratic National Committee at its full postconvention meeting in San Francisco on July 20. Instead, it was passed by the committee in a quiet telephone poll weeks later. In contrast, the Republican platform and speeches by Mr. Reagan and Mr. Bush all contained specific condemnations of racial and religious bigotry."
Most Racist Comment
The man whom New Republic editor Charles Krauthammer dubbed "Jesse 'God Isn't Finished with Me Yet' Jackson" after the holy man's San Francisco barnstormer, fully lived up to his unfinished self-assessment in referring to Muhammad Ali's endorsement of the incumbent president as symptomatic of Mr. Ali's "brain damage." Apparently, the former heavyweight champion, by virtue of his birthright, has no cause to express an opinion when the "black viewpoint" has already been decided. Ali must have been quite severely ill indeed not to have realized such evidentiary facts of life.
Most Virulent Attack on the First Amendment
The GOP was sharp. Rather than waste time on side issues like taxes and the budget (Treasury-Secretary-at-the-time Donald Regan persistently alleged that an election campaign is a poor time to discuss fiscal policy), they put on a constitutional-amendment blitz. Most well thought out were the amendments to ban abortion and to allow organized prayer in public schools. Beautiful strategy: if you get the former, no need to legislate the latter—junior high school scholars will be quaking out on the blacktop, praying they're not pregnant.
Most Obvious Need for an IOC Riding
At the Republican convention, former presidential appointee Gerald Ford sailed through a spellbinding peroration, nearly indistinguishable from a good speech. This has so alarmed nonpartisan champions of fair play and Lifetime Members of Common Cause that there is a move afoot to inflict surprise urine and blood tests on selected podium thumpers in subsequent election years in an effort to reveal the illegal use of anabolic steroids or other power-enhancing drugs.
Asking Ronald Reagan, in Debate I, clear out of the blue: What are your plans for government policy in the next four years? C'mon—there should be limits to how far a reporter can dig. Reagan appeared to undergo neuroshock trauma, and many Americans were just plain scared to death by the transgression. "We're going to go on doing what we have been doing," was the president's response under less-tense circumstances. And anyone who sticks his nose out and asks Reagan what it is they've been doing risks a little unnecessary roughness at the hands of the use College Republicans.
Best Effort by a Man Trying Hard Not to Smile
Walter Mondale, in Debate I, was highly efficient. He not only used a pancake base, but health experts have to wonder whether Mondale wolfed down a load of inhibition-fighting "beta blockers." But Mondale strategists still ended up exceptionally nervous during their chief's bold performance because of the former VP's inability to refrain from smiling. Each time Mondale would grin or chuckle, it projected the image of a zoo chimp mimicking a human. His advisors had drilled him in Advanced Nonsmiling Techniques, but the rush of the moment apparently overwhelmed his face muscles on more than one occasion.
Best Off-the-Cuff Confession
Nancy Reagan, sharp and to the point when she appeared in October at a non-campaign function to fight "substance addiction," declared: "We're not here for politics. We're here for the drugs." And why not, Nancy? Nineteen eighty-four was a great year for both.
Contributing Editor Thomas Hazlett teaches economics at the University of California. Davis, and is senior editor of the Manhattan Report on Economic Policy.