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Extension of primary elections

When the irrepressible Mr Khrushchev came on his turbulent visit to the United States about 20 years ago, he left behind him several memorable remarks. I don't mean that when he was about to leave he made a particularly memorable speech or conjured up grave statements that were repeated far and wide. All I mean is that during the six or seven thousand mile tour of the United States, along which he was dogged by, as I recall, about 650 of us reporters from many lands, various comic or scary things happened to which Mr Khrushchev responded with spontaneous remarks that have stuck in my mind at any rate.

They've occurred to me in the past few days and, taken together, they've suggested to me that maybe it is impossible for us to understand the Russians, just as it has been woefully demonstrated in the past few months, it seems impossible for a Baptist or, for that matter, any westerner, to understand how a Muslim thinks and feels.

What touched this tap root into my memory was a series of interviews that an American woman, an old television reporter, was holding with President Sadat of Egypt, Mr Begin of Israel and the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia. The sharp value of this programme was the fact that these three were interviewed on their native soil and that their responses to the same questions were inter-cut without frills or commentary. In other words, a question about the motives of the Russians going into Afghanistan or the point of the Ayatollah Khomeini's keeping the American hostages was asked in Cairo of Mr Sadat and, immediately after his response, we had the answer from Saudi Arabia and then from Tel Aviv and then back again to one or the other.

Now this is a perilous method of matching points of view and it can obviously be used with much mischief but in this programme it was done responsibly and if it didn't provide reassuring answers to the puzzles of the Middle East, it did show that three men can disagree wildly and disagree in good faith. Mr Sadat seemed to think that the Russian invasion was not a bad thing, in the sense that the Russians would discover something for which they never allowed – for which, indeed, Karl Marx never allowed in his strategic plan for the Communist conquest of different nations – namely the great resisting power of nationalism and of religion.

And whereas Mr Sadat thought, and said quite forthrightly, that the Ayatollah was a man consumed with hatred and could not possibly be thought of as a true representative of Islam, the religion of compassion and love, Mr Begin rejected the notion that the Ayatollah was, in any way, a crazy man.

We heard the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia say, quite simply and firmly, that from the Russian point of view, the invasion of Afghanistan was correct and no threat to the Persian Gulf. The Russians were simply doing what all great powers do sooner or later, namely protecting their borders.

Well, back to Mr Khrushchev who gave us a new if bewildering picture of an alien mind at work. At one point I recall, somewhere in the Midwest, an American reporter asked him – he was coming to the end of his tour of both coasts and the hinterland – the man asked him if he wasn't impressed by the size of America, a continent with four time zones. Mr Khrushchev gave out a noise, halfway between a snort and a chuckle, 'Impressed? Huh! We have twice as many time zones,' he said. 'The United States is quite cosy, so easy to get around.'

In Hollywood, he was the guest at a luncheon party given by one of the prosperous remaining studios. The president of the movie company, a man of Greek origins, got up and obviously thought he was giving Mr Khrushchev a stirring lesson in Americanism. 'Just look at me,' the company president said, 'a poor boy from Greece, comes to the United States, the land of opportunity, works hard and here I am! The president of the largest movie studio in Hollywood. It could happen,' he ended, 'only in America.' Mr K got up to respond with a wicked twinkle, 'Just look at me!' he cried, 'A poor farm boy from Georgia, son of a carpenter and now look at me! The chairman of the supreme Soviet. It could happen,' he said, letting his eyes roam round the Gary Coopers and the Shirley MacLaines and the company bosses, 'I might say it could happen only in Nazareth.'

Most of all I remember a little dialogue faithfully reported from Camp David, the presidential retreat in the mountains of Maryland which, I ought to remind you, was christened by President Eisenhower in honour of his grandson, David Eisenhower, the one who married Mr Nixon's daughter. Eisenhower, doing his best to get along with this brusque, roly-poly and always unpredictable Russian, dared, at one point, to mention the great virtue of a democracy over a totalitarian country. The fact of free choice, of having a president elected by the untrammelled vote of the people. Mr Khrushchev was not impressed, 'Well,' he said, 'it's not such a big difference between us. We both live in big countries with huge populations. In my country, the people have a choice of one man. In your country, they have a choice of two men.'

This is not quite so artful and comic as it sounds, to the extent that in the United States, as in most if not all parliamentary countries too, the party members – in some states the party bosses – dictate which candidate is to be the party leader so that in the actual American election and in spite of third-party candidates and such mavericks as the socialist candidate, the temperance candidate, the farmer labour candidate and about a dozen others, everybody knows that it practically comes down to two men and sometimes, when the presidential election comes around, it does seem to the voters that they have nothing like the wide choice the system ought to offer, that they've come to a choice between two mediocrities.

My old irascible guru, H L Mencken, writing in the 1920s, when the population of the United States was just about half of what it is today, defined democracy as 'that system whereby a population of 110 million people, some of them beautiful and many of them intelligent, choose Calvin Coolidge as President'.

These flip or cynical reminders are very vivid to us today. It's true that it used to be, by the time of the nominating conventions, that each party had only two or three men at most whom the party bosses in all the states had agreed on as the men most likely to win. The word used to be 'available'. 'Is he available?' the bosses used to ask and, nearly a century ago, Lord Bryce, writing about the convention system for the instruction of foreigners, pointed out the peculiarly American meaning of the word 'available'.

'It doesn't mean', Bryce wrote, 'that the man very much wants to be president. It doesn't mean that he's the best politician, the wisest statesman, the most virtuous man, it means he is the man who, in the judgement of the party delegates to the convention, is thought most likely to win the election.'

In Bryce's day and, in fact, until about ten years ago, it was true that the preliminary choice of presidential candidates, what you might call the 'sifting process', was done by the party bosses in the big cities, in the small counties, but it's important to stress these men had not been chosen from the top, they'd been elected from the bottom. They'd been elected in local county and state elections. The late Mayor Daley, as a powerful example could, more often than not, though not always, deliver the city of Chicago's vote to the Democratic candidate but his influence was not wide enough throughout his state of Illinois to stop a majority voting for Eisenhower or Nixon.

Even so, during the past decade, the people have grown restless with the power of party bosses. They've wanted the sifting process to take place over a wider field and they've concluded that the fairest, the most democratic, way of doing this was to extend the institution of the primary election where anybody can put himself up for the presidency and then leave it to the ordinary voter to decide how to instruct the delegates elected to the nominating conventions.

You've heard more about the primary elections this year simply because, whereas there used to be about eight of them that mattered at all, there are now 38 primaries and the contests, directly for the choice of convention delegates, indirectly for a presidential choice, are taking place in the open – in the open field of a state-wide election.

So what it comes down to is this. Nobody can say that Mr Carter or Mr Reagan are the hand-picked candidates of any troop or committee of party bosses. Jimmy Carter, as a supreme example, was standing on street corners four years ago, coaxing people into schoolrooms and small meetings, at a time when the party bosses, busy selecting bigger fish, had never heard of him. Yet he took the fancy of the voters in the big primaries, so much so that by the time the Democratic delegates got to New York, his nomination was taken for granted.

And now, in spite of Mr Carter's near disastrous tumble in the public opinion polls, in spite of the Kennedy surge, in spite of the spreading disillusion with his handling or floundering over the issues of Afghanistan, of the hostages, of the UN vote on Israel, in spite of the sudden soaring of inflation, the prohibitive interest rate of the banks, the almost certain arrival of a recession, he still seems to be the man to beat for the Democratic nomination this summer.

And that is, must be, only because he is the sitting president and can use, as he is doing, the vast patronage powers of the presidency, the freedom to distribute executive funds to states that are wobbling or turning away from him in the primaries.

And on the other side we have, or seem to have for sure, Ronald Reagan. It is quite silly, may I say, to think of him as a mere B-film actor who freakishly went into politics. Quite apart from his strong record as a labour organiser of actors in the New Deal years, he was, after all, elected twice as governor of California, once by a million majority over the man who beat Richard Nixon for the governorship, the second time by half a million over the most wily and powerful Democratic politician in California and that in a state which has two registered Democrats for ever registered Republican.

If democracy is a system whereby 220 million people, some of them beautiful and many of them intelligent, find themselves with a choice between Carter and Reagan for president, the fact remains that so far they are the two candidates who seem, as much to the people as to the bosses, the most 'available.'

This transcript was typed from a recording of the original BBC broadcast (© BBC) and not copied from an original script. Because of the risk of mishearing, the BBC cannot vouch for its complete accuracy.

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