My phone conversation lasted only a few minutes. My friend wanted me to join a meeting group. I declined. Subject of the meeting? The favorite Beltway political game right now--the search for alternative Democratic candidates willing to stand in the wings ready to mount the convention rostrum in July and be nominated.
It is a fascinating exercise that fills in blank conversational gaps at cocktail parties and is the salvation subject for newsmen on a deadline looking for quirky things to write.
It is also a grand collaboration in political illusion.
The scenario, doubtless the work of unemployed script writers, exhibits what my Hollywood producer friends call "high concept." It goes as follows: No one of the current candidates will be sufficiently armored with support, either popular or primary, to command the vote at the Democratic convention. Hence, someone not now soldiering in the primaries (a tiresome, messy business calling up hopeful reminiscences of those old smoke-filled-room decisions) will gallantly step forward at convention time to unending applause of weary delegates eager to canonize their deliverer who has come, deus ex machina , to rescue them from electoral defeat.
It is amusing to watch political pros in one of their periodic fits of nostalgia. It is also of meager value. That script will not sell.
It has been 35 years since there was a second ballot in a Democratic convention. As the primary system has enlarged and gained power, the suspense at the convention has diminished to the vanishing point. There is a huge number of worthy and capable men and women who would choose to be anointed nominee at convention time, avoiding the trench warfare of primary elections and those interminable, dreary phone calls to recalcitrant money-givers. But put it down as a major, serious truth that one of the seven combatants slugging it out in the primary wars, not some as yet unannounced savior, will be the Democratic nominee.
But "wishing time," those sublime moments of giving voice to "what might be," has such an enticing attraction that normally wise professionals succumb to its allure. The Italians, possibly inured to a whirling turnstile of changing governments, have a joyous phrase for these leaps of political imagination: " si non e vero, e ben trovato "--even if it isn't true, it ought to be!
What those who "wish for a star" forget is the inevitability of fame and glory for those who triumph. The fellow who wins the early spring primaries will quickly display qualities of leadership that were nowhere to be found in the December debates. Nothing so garments a man or a woman in shining new robes of competence and glamour than a victory in the polling booth. We all look differently at a candidate who has just won an election.
After March 8, "Super Tuesday," there will be, besides Jesse Jackson, two and no more than three candidates still in the running. By the time of Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, and surely by California, the top two runners will be Jackson and someone else. If there are any gallant knights in the wings, they ought to hunker down and sit a spell. It will be a long wait.
Meanwhile the grand search will go on until the primaries. The "wishers and the hopers" will still be looking for the non-candidate to be ready to take the mace. Is this illusionary? Yes. But, when some folks are determined to believe, the absurdity of the doctrine only serves to confirm their faith. Si non e vero, e ben trovato.
Paul Conrad is on vacation.