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Keeping public dialogue away from the issues

IT'S coming up to November, and a sort of silence shrouds the land. Well, silence compared with last November. How nice to have no presidential election!

No paid political announcements -- all sizzle and no steak.

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No ``debates'' that hinge upon the camera close-up of a candidate's shave or the laugh meter on a speech writer's ``ad lib.''

What a relief not to read still another poll!

Ah, the hysteria, the trivia of an election year! How everyone deplored the huckstering, the imagemaking! How everyone longed to get down to -- what was that phrase? -- the issues!

So here it is, a year later, and are we getting down to the issues? The issues, it seems, are what everybody wants to get down to tomorrow. Issues are so dull. Issues are so gloomy.

Who wants to think about the haplessness of the United Nations in its 40th year -- the hope that grew out of the Hiroshima rubble, and then got bypassed? That's an issue.

Who wants to think about how the new idea of the United Nations got replaced by the old nationalism of an arms race, with the ancient refrain of ``I'll stop when you stop''? That's an issue.

Maybe it's time to take collective responsibility for postponing the discussion of issues as cleverly as we postpone our reading of Great Books. We citizens complain about our candidates (and our officeholders) reducing history to grade-B movie scripts, with villains in black hats and heroes in white hats and a showdown on Main Street. But for all our talk about let's-get-down-to-substantive-matters, isn't this the way a lot of us like it? History as a clean-cut contest -- and the more action the better , with or without popcorn.

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The latest case in point: When American jets forced that Egyptian airliner out of the sky, there ensued, amid more moderate expressions of satisfaction, a flag-waving euphoria unmatched since the invasion of Grenada.

Losers, one must assume, are the only people with a taste for the issues. Walter Mondale turned up at Brown University on parents' weekend to tell the students (including his son and Geraldine Ferraro's daughter) that ``Rambo may be strong, but he is also a fool. . . . Complexity is blown away by simple violence.''

The rest of us may not really want our history violent, but we sure want it simple, and at least a bit thrilling.

If one chooses to bring up an issue like the environment, one is advised to bring it up as the cover story of Time just did -- with a grinning skull submerged in polluted water.

The issue of defense comes alive for us when we call the Strategic Defense Initiative something more dramatic, more sci-fi, like ``star wars'' or ``Space Shield.''

Poverty grabs public attention when it gets hotted up as ``the war against . . . .'' Every cause has to be turned into a war -- and the metaphor better not become too fancy. We all know what happened to Jimmy Carter when he made the ``moral equivalent of war'' a touch abstract.

Balance of trade, the budget deficit, the courts, and the Constitution -- these are the gravest of issues, affecting everybody's daily life. But can we concentrate upon them without the diversion of a face, a personality, an anecdote?

It is the despair of serious journalists that human beings (including serious journalists), however much they talk about Great Ideas, tend to gravitate to gossip columns and ``Entertainment Tonight.''

And so, a year after the election when we could be thinking about the real agenda, we're already muttering about who it will be in '88. Kennedy or Hart? Bush or Kemp? Bring on the contest -- and go light on issues. May the most charismatic fellow win.

If the promoters aren't careful, even the Reagan-Gorbachev summit could turn into just another political contest, featuring personalities rather than issues. Is our Great Communicator better than their Great Communicator?

It's the least the world can do to stage this divertissement in November in place of an election.

Perhaps the grudge we hold against issues is that they take us away from ourselves. Issues force us to think of our neighbor, then of our neighbor in another country, then of grandchildren unborn. Issues require the kind of imagination that can conceive of greater disasters and greater blessings than we in our natural provincialism are accustomed to think about.

Are we up to issues? This may be the ultimate issue of our -- until now -- issue-evading times.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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