Voting is so old hat

AFTER a week soaking in campaign news, campaign polls, campaign editorials, campaign debates, TV and print analysis of campaign debates, not to mention the campaign insights, reflections, clarifications, expostulations, whinings, wheezings, sneerings, cheerings, frothings, sermonizings and rationalizings of pundits, both printed and tube-borne, I'll tell you how it feels to me.

It feels like Bill Clinton has already been president so long that I'm tired of him.


It takes me back to 1948 when I had the same feeling about Thomas E. Dewey, who was elected by the press shortly after Labor Day. By Election Day I was crying, "Time for a change!" and voted to get him out of office.

The press has since diversified into an octopus called "media," but it is just as impatient with democracy as it was in Dewey's day. Why wait for people to vote when you can tell them ahead of time who they're going to vote for?


Getting the new man in office pronto enables the news-opinionizing-entertainment industry to move on to fresh subjects. Who'll be the new secretary of State? What prize for the kingmaker who delivered the crucial state of South Billingsgate during the primaries? Will he be rewarded with the coveted ambassadorship to the Court of Zippity Zap?

The press' passion for getting things like elections over and done with usually puts it out of sync with the voting public. For instance, take a historic staple of old-fashioned election reporting like the "voter apathy" story.

This usually appeared in early October when reporters who had been covering politics for a solid year were bored sick with the campaign. The result: a spate of stories about alarming apathy among the voters.

In fact, the average voter rarely paid much heed to politics until after the World Series -- this was back before baseball became a winter sport -- and was just starting to find the campaign %J engaging as the press was getting fed up with it.

The "voter apathy" story led naturally to the "taking off of the gloves" story. In this one the reporters, as though fighting their own apathy, depicted the campaign as moving on to new levels of violence which would surely end the deplorable "voter apathy."

The story usually announced that the candidate "took off the gloves" by saying something tart about his opponent. This invited the "hit back hard" story, in which the opponent was said to have "hit back hard" with whatever his reaction had been to the "taking off of the gloves."

Was voter apathy dispelled by this paper violence? Who knows? I can only testify that it certainly gave reporters the energy needed to keep going until Election Day.

These primitive tricks are laughable to today's reporters. They have been blessed by the perfecting of sciences that explore the human psyche in order to exploit the human it operates.


These sciences produce avalanches of data that make life easier not just for cereal tycoons eager to know whether America is ready to breakfast on hay flakes, but also for media people eager for something more elegant than "voter apathy" and "taking off the gloves" to overcome ennui.

They have provided the stuff that makes it possible for the press to give us President Clinton without tiresome waiting for the polls to open. The advantage of this is that it gives you a chance to think again before the polls do open.

I get accustomed to new presidents faster and faster as the presidencies roll by. After a month of Ronald Reagan, I missed Jimmy Carter. After two weeks of George Bush, I missed Ronald Reagan. After one week of Bill Clinton, I miss -- well, never mind that . . .

I hesitate to dwell on Mr. Clinton's flaws just now when the usual press buildup is in progress. When the press was hailing Gerald Ford as the new Lincoln because he toasted his own English muffins for breakfast, I was called cynical for saying, "Sure, but can he fry an egg sunny side up without breaking the yolk?"

All I'll say now is that Mr. Clinton strikes me as a president who could make us miss Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge had so little talk in him that he wouldn't even reply when people said, "Hello." Say "Hello" to Clinton, and he gives you a 14-point program to fix whatever ails you.

His inauguration isn't until Jan. 20. The speech could run through Lincoln's Birthday.


Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.