THE MODEL FOR WHAT HAS BEEN TAKING PLACE IN Washington is not any of the essentially pro forma, budget-driven shutdowns of the federal government that occurred in years past. This shutdown--being revised, reconfigured and perhaps finally negotiated away as I write -- is different. It's not just that it lasted much longer than any of its predecessors and had a much greater effect on life as it is really lived. It's what the shutdown, with its slightly out-of-control quality, brought out in and revealed about our political leadership and, alas, our political life. Because of these things I think it is best illuminated not by comparison with any previous shutdown, but rather by comparison to a weird, dispiriting political event that took place nearly 20 years ago. I'm referring to the 27-minute near-paralysis of Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford in a nationally televised presidential debate in 1976.
This famous historical oddity was caused by a technical sound failure. The far more fascinating failure was that of either candidate to move around, look at or talk to the other or for the most part indicate, except by the fact of continuing to stand up and thus, presumably, to breathe that he was even alive anymore. Twenty-seven frozen minutes before a twitching, live studio audience, which actually broke into applause when the candidates mopped their foreheads and when Carter finally rested on his stool. When the sound resumed, so did the two candidates -- Carter picking up where he had left off in mid-statement -- as if nothing whatever had happened.
To me this has remained the quintessential tableau of politicians who don't know what to do, and that is surely what we witnessed over the past few weeks as the Washington budget fight first developed unexpected consequences and then took on a burgeoning life of its own that daily became harder to guide or restrain. When I say that for several weeks in 1995-96, as for 27 minutes in 1976, these were politicians not knowing what to do, I don't mean that they didn't have a script -- a message, a political strategy, a game plan. But it was the one they started out with and was no longer adequate to a changed and changing situation, and they didn't know how to change it. So they just stood there, literally in 1976 and figuratively in 1995-96, waiting (and probably praying) for deliverance.
What happened this time, as then, is that the protagonists became trapped in the virtuality of it all, committed to the projection of a particular picture of themselves and ever more fearful of doing anything to jar it or even slightly tamper with it. We are talking posture here, image, impression. We are talking, in the awful locution whereby some advisers demand total, automaton-like one-notedness of their clients, "staying on message." Imagination, improvisation, resourcefulness and/or adaptability in the face of a changing reality were at best suspect and at worst anathema. Every time in recent weeks that Newt Gingrich seemed about to push the pieces around a little differently on the board with a view to reaching a resolution, or Bob Dole behaved as if the had an actual mind of his own and the will to use it to constructive effect, the shrieks would go up from the shriekier part of the constituency, and we of the press would of course gleefully note that the principals were changing their position and maybe even beginning to cave. The same was true in relation to the president and the Democrats, and they seemed equally intimidated by the prospect of generating this kind of complaint. In a wonderfully, if unintentionally, comic formulation, administration staffers recently suggested to a reporter that a deal reached with Republicans could imperil Clinton's "new image as a president of conviction." Across political lines, it was not so much the inmates as the images that took over the asylum.
Whenever my abiding fascination with the fixed figures of Carter and Ford in that debate tableau of 1976 causes me to drag the whole thing out again, I am informed that the two men really had no choice. To my question of why neither, say, simply relaxed and ventured to talk to his rival or in some other way behaved normally, I am reminded that neither knew how long the sound failure would last, that it just proceeded minute by minute and that whoever did move might be caught in mid-step or mid-affable sentence when the sound abruptly resumed. To which I incorrigibly and pigheadedly reply, "So what?" He would have looked human, unintimidated, self-confident, sociable, relaxed. What is invariably argued back is that the candidates would have been taking too big a "risk." The temporarily disrupted debate was unfamiliar, scary territory; too many things could have gone wrong for them politically to hazard doing much of anything at all. It was no time to start rewriting the script. Just stand there. That way you can't make a mistake.
Except, of course, the mistake of just standing there -- which can in fact be a world-class mistake in itself. And that's pretty much where we have been in the capital. I believe of this situation, as I believed of that other, strange interlude two decades ago, that the political opportunity is far, far greater than the risk before which so many grown men seem to tremble. Unswerving fidelity to constituent demands or other prescribed dogma, refusal to be seen modestly altering or adjusting a position, even when this could help attain what you know is a beneficial result--these are often merely signs of political and personal passivity masquerading as dug-in, tough-guy stuff. They are the equivalent of freezing and waiting for technological rescue. My hunch is that this is not very good politics either, even though it is undertaken in the name of political expediency. I think people prefer deliverers to those Who prudently await providential deliverance, just as they obviously want to see their leaders show mastery of a situation, not captivity to it. I think they reward risk-takers and sense when politicians are willing to step outside the misleading image game and take the predictable flak. They admire those willing to disregard the imperatives set for them by others and demonstrate a capacity to make the right thing -- or at least the best thing possible at the moment -- happen. I think the one who shows himself most capable of stepping out of the frozen tableau of 1995-96 wins the match.