Last week I voted absentee at the Civic Center and emerged from the voting booth with a strange feeling of detachment and disappointment.

As I walked out the front door of the building, I stopped and gazed into the small decorative fountain and thought about the history of this country that has transpired during my lifetime. I wondered if there was a cyclical nature to it, and asked myself: Why am I in such a funk?

I thought about previous election campaigns, and how I had been so enthusiastic about the outcome.

Swearing myself to secrecy as to whom I voted for or how I responded to the various public questions on the ballot, my mind drifted to July 1973, when a family vacation took us to visit my Aunt Vivian and Uncle Walt, who lived in Fairfax, Virginia, not far from our nation's capital.

One bright, shiny Monday morning, I put on my best suit and hitchhiked on Route 50 to the Russell Senate Office Building to witness the testimony of former Attorney General John Mitchell before Sen. Sam Ervin's Select Committee investigating the Watergate affair.

Before a hushed crowd of the press and Washington insiders being televised to millions around the world the highest criminal justice official of the Nixon administration unwillingly admitted to his involvement in approving the Watergate break-in during the presidential campaign in 1972. He was later tried for perjury for lying to the committee.

It was a very impressionable period of my life. I immediately went back to Indiana University the next semester and changed majors from biological sciences to pursue a degree from the newly formed School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

Fast-forward to fall 1980. Working for a small political newspaper on Capitol Hill, I was given the assignment to take a map of the states and predict the outcome of the election in terms of total electoral votes of the three candidates Republican Ronald Reagan, Democrat Jimmy Carter and Independent John Anderson and the net gain in Senate seats by the Republicans.

All year, as a lowly copy boy and grunt on the editorial staff, in addition to my other duties, it was my job to field the "nut calls" and respond to the "nut mail" we would receive from exuberant conservatives who supported the election of Reagan.

My electoral vote total prediction for Reagan was 474 (he defeated Carter by a margin of 489 to 49), and I had predicted a net gain of nine Senate seats for Republicans. The actual increase was a stunning 13. Never again will I be able predict the outcome of a national election so accurately.

Many of us looked upon election night 1980 as an important milestone an affirmation of the ascent of the conservative movement that had been growing for decades in this country.

After Carter's failed presidency, the Iranian hostage crisis and a dismal economy, it was once again "Morning in America," and Reagan was leading his band of revolutionaries into a brighter tomorrow. We were going to change for all time the direction of our world and reduce the size of the federal government.

It did not take too many years of witnessing the grim political realities and chronic partisan infighting of 1980s to diminish our optimism.

We were so young, so determined, so enchanted by the power of our ideas and enamored with President Reagan.

It all seems so long ago.

Looking from the vantage point of more than 25 years, we yearned to accomplish so much with our youthful innocence and boundless energy. Yet, as one peers back through the looking glass darkly, we seem to have accomplished little.

I have been told that many young people today are expressing a profound optimism and a commitment to changing the world. However, the foreign and domestic challenges seem to dwarf by comparison the conflicted world of the 1980s. I wish them well.

They need to realize that the first task is rebuilding the public trust, a challenge that requires a prolonged commitment to personal civic engagement, which the overwhelming majority of Americans have long demonstrated they do not have the stomach for.

Long ago, a wise man made the remark that the people of the United States get the elected leadership they deserve. I used to think that was a preposterous statement, but the older I get, the more I think he may have been onto something.

David Coker is an Evansville freelance writer.