Building On Fire

By Patricia Derian

Vol. 5, No. 3, 1983, p. 3

All the groaning that the presidential campaign has begun too early is surprising. It seems to me that it isn't coming a minute too soon. The questions to be decided in 1984 go to the heart of what kind of nation we want to be.

It is no news that the initiatives of the Reagan administration have raised questions, quite deliberately, about the intent of the national will. Every administration does this to some extent in the manner of refurbishing a room or two.

This time, however, the chief executive is pacing through the halls putting the torch to one room after another.

By election day we will have seen so much: the Fourth Amendment assaulted; bad appointments weakening civil rights and affirmative action; worker safety and environmental protection flying out the door; aid to the poor, the handicapped, aged and the sick given grudgingly; jobs disappearing; incomprehensible economic and foreign policies; class differences and conflicts rising with the smoke.

On November 6, 1984, we'll have another chance to say what we do expect. And because the damage is so extensive we need to be equipped to say what we want and know what we are getting. That's why we should welcome the early advent of the presidential campaign. It is the right forum for the national debate on how we will live in this country and it needs the extra time.

Why? Because 1984 belongs to the professionals. In that year all efforts will be directed toward delegate gathering until the national conventions choose the party nominees. Delegate gathering is flat-out voter courtship and bending over backwards is the preferred method. Little is seen of the real men, their ideas or vision. Those who win the parties' nominations levitate to the thin air inhabited by The Candidates, becoming public men programmed to win first and think later. They react to the polls (a modified position is taken), to the publicity firm (a blue suit is chosen), to the campaign managers (Nevada drops off the schedule), to fatigue (a dirty word is spoken in anger). All of that may be somehow instructive, but it is not what we're after.

This year is ours. Here is Askew or Cranston or Glenn or Hart or Mondale in our kitchen, board room, union hall, school, or here he would be if we asked. This is not a paid commercial rehearsed twenty-seven times, this is the living person. While he can be expected to try to tell us what someone in the campaign office has told him we want to hear, this is our chance to demand more.

Has he noticed the condition of the burning house?

What is gone that he thinks we can do without? What must be replaced? How do we replace it? We're going to have to go room by room with each man to determine what he'd do if he were president. And we're going to have to know why he's making the choices he offers, what the principles are which underlie them. The time and place for us to find out are in the long campaign.

Patricia Derian is a past president of the Southern Regional Council.