I'm a big, fat loser. Well, maybe "fat" is a minor exaggeration. But the candidates I worked for lost their races, and I certainly took it personally.

For most people, election night is a terrible bore, or at least it was until 30 years ago when cable TV began offering some evening options - Gunga Din instead of Walter Cronkite. Now, unless it's a presidential year, even the dull old networks usually stick with what they consider to be entertainment.

U.S. citizens isolate themselves from politics, then wonder why leaders so poorly understand our needs and dreams. We form opinions about candidates based on little more than their advertising. It should come as no surprise we end up with politicians who are all colorful plastic packaging and no actual contents, the human equivalents of those puffed rice cakes favored by dieters.

And, anymore, dissatisfaction seems only to breed greater disengagement, not anger and more involvement.

There was a time when personally meeting a politician wasn't just a citizen's obligation, but a rich source of fun. Free hot-dogs and a chance to rub shoulders with the great man. Maybe drink a little of his beer. Poke fun at him, perhaps, or pick a fight.

He's pretty far down my list of favorite presidents, but I got quite a charge out of going to see Reagan once on a press pass. Man alive, that guy was the best ever at saying nothing while making it sound profound.

I guess lots of folks have the same sort of aimless affection for our current president. I sure haven't managed to figure out the attraction, unless it's the fact he doesn't seem to have a lot of pretension. Maybe I'll study up on him and see if I can find a way to like him, since it looks like I'm stuck with him as my president for the next two and probably six years.

But with the exception of presidents and may a few top senators and congressmen, you could promise to pass out $20 dollar bills at the door and still not lure many voters to an average campaign stop. During the two gubernatorial campaigns I've worked on so far - both Republicans, by the way - there were plenty of times we'd set up in some library community room and end up with three or four people.

Even if they're big yawners for average citizens, inside a campaign, election nights are the grand finale, the few hours during which months or years of effort finally pay off or fail.

The candidate and his or her staff haven't strung together four hours of sleep in the past week, and everyone is almost hallucinating from sleep deprivation and excitement. You're all charged up, somehow running on electric ions drawn from the atmosphere. Even if the polls say your cause is doomed, you always hope for divine intervention. Maybe all those disaffected voters will shake off their apathy and turn out at the polls. You'd just as well wish there really was a Santa.

This probably sounds kind of unpleasant. Especially if you end up on the losing end, it is. Seeing the handwriting on the wall in the waning hours of my last job as press secretary, I said on statewide TV that I was going to leave the country. And I did, for months, before moving here to the coast in self-imposed exile. That's putting it kind of grandiose, but then I wasn't drawn to politics by a shy and modest manner.

Once you've worked on a campaign or actively volunteered with one, it's much easier to comprehend their appeal, why politicians are willing to subject themselves to this incredibly life-disrupting process that contains such potential for embarrassment. The rewards go well beyond the possibility you might win. I wouldn't know what that feels like, anyway.

Even on losing end, campaigning is rich and memorable experience. It's a chance to perform, to see areas of the state or nation you'd never otherwise visit, drinking icy cold pops by dusty highways, plotting your next move. On a campaign staff, you're paid to have a rich imagination. You're darned near paid to flirt and attend parties. In short, I commend it to anyone.

And I do wish, just as I wish there really was an Easter bunny, that regular people would show a little more interest. Even from the standpoint of pure spectator, American politics are one of the greatest show on earth. Shame to ignore it.

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