CALIFORNIA's power to cloud men's minds must never be forgot. Under its spell we submitted for eight years to the governance of Ronald Reagan, who had trouble distinguishing history from old movie plots.
Under its spell we submitted for six years to the governance of Richard Nixon, who only did what they all do, I'm told, but did it so ineptly that he broke the California spell and had to resign.
Now another Californian is starting to cloud the American mind: Gov. Pete Wilson. Wants to be President. Californians are like Texans this way: President-crazy.
If you have heard of Pete Wilson, it may be because you caught him on TV recently voting against affirmative action. This is a very Republican thing to do this summer. It shows how hooked on polls the Republicans have become.
Sen. Bob Dole has long supported affirmative action, but recently announced that he was appalled by the injustice it had wrought and could scarcely wait for a showy opportunity to repudiate his entire past on this issue.
Pete Wilson had his showy opportunity recently as a member of the University of California's Board of Regents. It was voting whether to keep its affirmative-action policy on admissions. The governor voted as the polls commanded: to put an end to it.
In an interview with a Boston Globe reporter he later said that although, as governor, he had signed 23 bills containing affirmative-action proposals, the scales had since fallen from his eyes. He now saw that "people who are minority members" were being denied "the equal opportunity that they ought to have."
California is experiencing a powerful wave of anti-immigrant zealotry reminiscent of the Know-Nothing movement of Millard Fillmore's time. In his last election campaign Pete Wilson came down strong for the Know-Nothings, and won.
Where the polls will lead, Pete Wilson apparently will follow. He is, for instance, one of only two Republican presidential candidates who favor abortion rights. (The other is Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.) Well, the party may oppose abortion, but the polls show the nation is substantially pro-choice.
Mr. Wilson's devotion to the polls is hardly singular among the men who yearn to lead us. Since taking office, President Clinton has had the Democratic National Committee spend $4.5 million on polls. Senator Dole's agility in revising his mind to fit the latest poll demands borders on the comic. (See above on Mr. Dole renouncing his own affirmative-action record.)
When the campaign starts going good, all these birds will start singing the leadership tune. Each will thump his chest about his unique ability to lead in these perilous et cetera when America faces et cetera et cetera, et . . .
This is nonsense. Leadership may now be impossible in government. Has there been a major politician with a firm idea of how to do something for the country and a record of trying his best to do it since -- well, since President Bush fought in vain to reduce the capital gains tax?
We no longer have leaders. We have followers. They poll to find out what we want them to tell us. Then they tell it to us. They poll to find out what we want them to do. Then they do it.
Here's the trouble: Our ideas about what ought to be done tend to be indefinite. ("Well, do something, for heaven's sake.") We have very definite ideas, however, about what must not be done. ("Whatever you do, don't dare ask me to pay for it.")
Since we are being followed, not led, our followers -- whom we call "leaders" -- stagger along like blind drunks, trying not to bump head first into the lamp posts. Their one passionately pursued goal is to be elected and re-elected, largely, one suspects, for the honor of being chosen to provide the nation's staggering followership. Last year's disaster on the health-care bill illustrates followership in action.
The nationwide triumph of California's famous Proposition 13 (Down with taxes!) insures a long era of followership ahead. Here we see again California's power to cloud men's minds. It may also make Pete Wilson the people's choice to supply the dynamic followership America craves.
0 Russell Baker is a New York Times columnist.