You never know exactly how to take that droll poet-politician from Minnesota, Eugene McCarthy. He's one of Washington's leading wise men. But his words are so often expressed in a wry, joshing way that, well, you can never be sure as to how much he means what he is saying.
But I think he was quite serious the other day when, while being honored on his 80th birthday, he commented on how he thought the government had "come apart" in large measure because of "a kind of process of purifying, or perfecting, the procedures."
Here he cited the reorganization of Congress: "The Congress as we knew it had committee chairmen. We knew where they were, we knew what their power was, we knew what their responsibility was. They reorganized Congress into ineptitude, that's what they did."
The chief "they" the senator was referring to as the creator of all this purification of Congress, including a code of ethics and indexing, was "Common Cause." To make his point McCarthy said: "Take a look at what's happened to government and politics in the roughly 20 years since all of these reforms were put into place."
My guess (and I probably will hear from the senator that I got it wrong) is that McCarthy was talking, at least partly, with tongue in cheek.
It wasn't an attack on Common Cause so much as a McCarthy satire on how changes intended to improve Congress simply haven't worked out very well - certainly not as intended.
Anyway, it was a very funny speech by a man who was always regarded as one of Congress's truly great speakers. Also it got me to thinking about how the reforms meant to purify our presidential election process haven't worked out very well either.
Candidate Bob Dole is a case in point. He emerged not from the old "smoked-filled rooms" of yesterday, when party leaders pretty much handpicked their candidate, but from a process where, in theory, the voters put him where he is today.
But the truth is that only a relatively small number of voters took part in those primaries across the nation. It was really just a small segment of the electorate - plus the Senate majority leader's ability to raise a lot more money than his opponents - that gave Dole the nomination.
Even so, I wouldn't be too critical if it weren't for the result.
Can you tell me with a straight face that if the top Republican leaders got together they couldn't pick a presidential candidate with a better chance of beating Bill Clinton? Sure, they would have considered Bob Dole. They would have said he was a fine legislator, a man of quality, and a real nice man. But they would have cast him aside as being too old and just too dull to knock the charismatic president out of the White House.
I believe that from a Republican "smoke-filled room" where party sages were assembled would come the choice of a Jack Kemp or a Dick Cheney or a Jim Baker or one of the more popular governors, like Texas' young George Bush. Or maybe they could have talked Colin Powell into running.
The president really is vulnerable - believe it or not. He has zigged and zagged as much as any president of my memory. But it would probably take an opponent with more charisma and speechmaking ability than Mr. Dole possesses to benefit fully from Clinton's weaknesses and defeat him.
Maybe these GOP leaders couldn't select a winner. But I'm convinced they could find someone with more voter appeal than a Bob Dole. Again, as I keep saying, I haven't written off Dole. But I'm about convinced that the president will have to self-destruct - through Whitewater or something else - if that nice, gray fellow from Russell, Kan., is going to be successful in his current endeavors.