The presidential campaign has turned into a race to see which candidate can quarantine himself more completely from the press and the people.
So far, Ronald Reagan is winning. He moves around the country with his staged events. 3-by-5 memory cards and his aides who seal him off from spontaneous contact with reporters and voters.
One long-time Reagan campaign associate, Lyn Nofziger, counts a successful day as one that excludes the media from questioning his boss. Almost everyone around Reagan thinks plastic: Keep Reagan from his gaffes and blunders but evoke his extremist past and he’ll win the election. But that is the nub of their campaign strategy.
Now, Reagan doesn’t have to debate Carter, either. Carter’s biggest campaign blunder was refusing to debate Reagan and Anderson Sept. 21 in Baltimore. It made him look as if he was being picky and running away from a debate. No matter that Carter wants to debate Reagan alone, clever Ronald can appear like a fair player when he insists that Anderson be included.
So Reagan, the arch-opponent of many consumer, environmental and worker rights, has succeeded in sealing himself off from Carter, making the Georgian look bad while doing it. To make matters worse, the Carter criticisms of Reagan from afar appear harsh, though they are fully merited and substantial in content. The cool Californian with the ever-amiable smile currently is riding high with his image-makers, while Carter has nearly disqualified himself from making Reagan his campaign issue.
But, like Carter, Reagan has to be the campaign focus. Over the years he has taken many a position, uttered many an assertion, that make him a reactionary extremist which no 1980 Madison Avenue veneer should be able to camouflage.
He courts blue-collar workers though he has for more than 10 years poured contempt on worker health and safety laws and several other key labor causes.
He tells farmer audiences that Carter has kept food prices too low and then travels to cities to blame Carter for price inflation. He appeals to the elderly population without telling it about his past opposition to Medicare and hospital cost containment.
Carter also seals himself off from the press, but not as much as Reagan. The chief executive does hold his version of “town meetings” in high school gymnasiums where people ask him questions.
Since May, he has held a few, not many, extensive press conferences. He has appeared on a Sunday interview show, which Reagan has ardently avoided. And when he was a challenger in 1976 he sought out the media and its questions.
Presidential campaigns in a democracy are supposed to be occasions for national debate and voter participation in the campaign process before election day. Such happenings are not likely to occur without the initiative of reporters and citizens. The shaping of campaign practices should be increasingly a measure of good journalism and good citizenship.
The-thousands of citizen, neighborhood, consumer, labor and elderly groups, whatever their candidate preference may be, need to join together and demand debates between at least the two major candidates —Reagan and Carter. In city after city, these groups also need to inform the candidates that their visits have to jettison some theater and backslapping in order to include a town meeting of some duration with full media access and questions from local citizens.
Not engaging the issues and the people is a major campaign failure that invites highlighting. The press has not been sufficiently aggressive in fulfilling its trusteeship for the public. It needs to start covering the campaign with some depth instead of reverberating herd-like to the manipulations of the candidates, led by the master of that dubious art, actor Ronald Reagan, and his advance men.