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Election season is starting and the cranks are out.

Sure, cranks are always out, but elections and microphones lure them into the open. Election Day is the national holiday of cranks.As a people, we don't like to discuss crankery. This is a marketplace of ideas, an open society, and every worthwhile notion has at one time been the deranged notion of someone raging on the fringes. "Crank" is so judgmental, and the reality-challenged can be a helpful force in the larger scheme of things.

And yet, well, these people are still cranks. So there. And with modern communications, we not only have a global village, we have global village idiots.

So what is a crank?

"Is that man with the sign a crank, dad?" my daughter asked last week as we were driving in the car.

She had heard the word used against political commercials and people waving signs on CNN. So it seemed a good fit to her.

"No, he's an eccentric," I explained.

"What's an eccentric?"

"Somebody who's strange about a lot of different things but is still nice to people."

"Then what's a crank?"

"A person who's strange about only one or two things, thinks about them all the time, and is mean to people."

Specialization and meanness. That seemed to hold the key. The girl remained confused on the point. Not without reason.

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time," F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote. Actually, the test is more than two, but simplifications are instructive.

The level of public crankery is unusually high just now. An unusual amount of it appears focused on Bill Clinton as the single idea. This is too bad, because crankery is more entertaining when it is focused on a single dumb idea than on a person.

Yet, on radio, cable television and computer bulletin boards, Clinton seems to be causing a harmonic convergence of national crankery. Clinton is Pure Evil. Bad things happen, therefore Clinton caused the bad things to happen. Why he's even bringing police from Hong Kong to take over your local police force, disarm you and rule by decree! Don't you listen to the radio?

Personality politics seems to be debasing the caliber of public crankery just as technology has given them a forum that cranks of the past, with their handbills, posters and soapboxes, could only dream about.

That's sad.

And undoubtedly a government plot.