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Riding on malarkey toward re-election

Watching President Clinton campaign as Dr. Feelgood tempts one to write cynical burlesque like the following:

I couldn't decide whether to vote for President Clinton or Bob Dole until the president called for a new emergency telephone number to supplement the overworked 911. Since then it's been, "So long, Bobster _ hello, Mr. President."

Of course, I'd already been impressed by the president's daring stand against smoking and was totally awed when he came out against kids playing hooky. And yes, it took raw courage to come out, the way he did, against teenage sex. Still, it worried me. Being not too old to recall what teenage feels like, I wondered if maybe the president was too old for today's America.

What worried me more was why Clinton didn't come out against cussing. Once kids stop playing hooky, school language is going to be terrible, since students who play hooky are famous for hanging out in the mall cussing a blue streak.

Well, I hear George Stephanopoulos says the president plans a major speech against cussing, which he will deliver at a nunnery yet to be chosen.

As for the president coming out in favor of school uniforms, I don't know. It's going to cost money. Whose money?

Being against smoking and sex and all that is great because it costs nothing. That's the kind of government I want: government that works miracles without costing me a cent. I hope the president will not come out for anything else that costs money, unless it's somebody else's money, and not mine . . .

All right, enough cheap fun. Subjecting humanity to a presidential campaign in high summer is cruel, so maybe we should be grateful to Clinton for letting us off with nonsense. Or perhaps it is his way of trying to match Dole, who has given us a diet of high farce.

That nothing in Clinton's attack concerns anything that has to do with the presidency suggests a contempt for the voter, but so do almost all presidential campaigns. They are commonly conducted on the theory that while you can't fool all of the people all ofthe time, you can fool most of them just long enough to become president.

The malarkey dealt with above is consistent with Clinton's aim to steal every Republican issue in sight. Here he is working to put himself on the angels' side of the so-called "family-issues" issue, long a big winner for Republicans.

The assumption underlying the "family-issues" issue is that government can restore the two-parent family, reduce divorce, suppress violent impulses, end adultery, make the liver bile flow at the rate of four pints a day, and so forth.

What is odd is that the Republicans, who detest government interference in business, should believe in the beneficence of government interference in matters that people have traditionally viewed as the province of clergy rather than their congressmen.

Clinton can afford the luxury of foraging in "family issues" because polls, without which America would be at the mercy of the Huns and the Vandals, are destroying Dole as a plausible candidate. This relieves Clinton of the need to discuss what, if anything, his second term would be about.

So long as public attention stays focused on Dole's ghastly struggle to learn campaigning, Clinton can stay above the whole seamy business by urging everybody simply to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind and _ gosh darn it! _ just plain good.

The danger to all of us is that Dole may never learn campaigning, never become formidable enough to make Clinton lay a few cards on the table. In this century, landslide winners are invariably bad news to the country, and to themselves.

Warren Harding's 1920 landslide led to Teapot Dome(gate). Franklin Roosevelt's in 1936 led to his autocratic "court-packing" plan. Lyndon Johnson's in 1964 _ all of you remember Vietnam and all that, just as you remember that Watergate didn't amount to anything until after Richard Nixon's 1972 landslide.

Landslides beget arrogance and terrible surprises. Come on, Bobster! Out of the chocks! Somebody has to force the president to tell us if he has anything in mind beyond making it easier to dial 911.

New York Times News Service