Watching the Republican debate on Tuesday night, I found myself squinting at John McCain and George W. Bush and playing, once again, the old plausibility game the business of conjuring as one stares at hitherto ordinary politicians and trying to imagine one of them as president. Plausibility is all. All but one of the too-implausibles are gone from the Republican race now. Alan Keyes, the splendid impossible, not only remains, but on Tuesday night would absolutely not shut up. Keyes seemed to alternate between joyful amazement that he was still in the thing (smack in the middle, between Bush and McCain) and the fast-talking indignation of an auditioning actor who knows the hook is coming.
The others are gone, like the montage roll call of characters at the end of a '40s military movie ("She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," for example): Gary Bauer (sigh), Orrin Hatch (what was that all about?), Steve Forbes (honorable but expensive vanity), and before them, a trail of fading memories (Elizabeth Dole, Lamar Alexander, Dan Quayle and the others) who have vanished to that bipartisan Valhalla where they mingle in the mind with Alexander Haig and Michael Dukakis and George Romney and John Connally and Edmund Muskie and William Scranton and, in the mists of history, Estes Kefauver and Robert A. Taft. And with the most glorious implausibility of them all: Harold Stassen, who sits upon a sort of Viking throne, wearing a hairpiece that looks like patent leather and the fixed, dreamy, ever-hopeful smile of a boy wonder long ago.
Sometimes, weirdly enough, Great Implausibles become president. In 1976, Ronald Reagan seemed, to all but his "Viva!-Olé!" zealots, to be a ridiculous idea a B-movie actor, "Bedtime for Bonzo" and all that. After four years of Carter and help from the Ayatollah, Reagan looked not only plausible but inevitable.
For Americans, choosing a president is still an exercise in Platonic idealism, or what might be called Polaroid idealism: We wait for the image to develop. We want perfection. We will settle for plausibility. There may be strange inversions of the formula: In 1992, George Herbert Walker Bush enjoyed the ultimate plausibility of already being president and after Desert Storm, a sort of military hero, too. Thanks to a recession and a campaign conducted with goofy cluelessness (don't cry for me, Argentina, and don't vomit in the lap of the Japanese prime minister, either), Bush managed to lose to an amazing Implausible a playboy Arkansan, hitherto obscure. Now Bush the Elder whispers hoarsely in W.'s ear, like the ghost of Hamlet's father.
Maybe all presidents begin as Implausibles. Franklin Roosevelt seemed in 1932 to many (including Walter Lippmann) to be a lightweight mama's boy from the Hudson River gentry. By the time he died in 1945, FDR was a god, and Americans smacked their foreheads to realize that a Missouri haberdasher, a machine hack named Harry Truman, had inherited the Oval Office an almost accidental usurpation.
Last night I was squinting hard at George W. Bush. The more I looked, the younger and less prepared he seemed. A vice president, I said to myself if that. Maybe Bush will morph into something more presidential as the campaign advances. McCain, on the other hand, seems to be getting more plausible. (I say that dispassionately; I am not one of McCain's media love-struck). But a campaign is always a progression of changeable illusions, an exercise in the anxiously hypothetical, like trying to decide whether to marry someone. We have to be careful of these impressions. Until the dreamboat John Kennedy came along, the most gorgeously plausible presidential candidate that Americans had ever seen was Warren G. Harding.