February 2 - February 8, 1995


Sorry State

By Jeff Smith

I MUST BE getting soft in the head. That, or a predominance of national opinion-makers have grown so cynical and callous--and so thoroughly co-opted by the bottom-line mentality that equates good and bad with plus and minus signs preceded by the $ symbol--that intangibles such as citizenship, leadership and cooperation in pursuit of public good no longer have meaning in America.

Now if you wise-asses are through chortling over the freebie I dished-up at the top of this column, let's move on to the meat of today's missive:

The state of the union.

In a word: sorry.


In another word: money. It seems the boys and girls in Washington and in most of the penthouse offices in most of the state capitols of America are fixated on the almighty dollar and damn little else. I watched Bill Clinton's state of the union address last week, and found myself moved by what the man had to say. I don't know if it's entirely a function of my advancing years, but my heartstrings hum to the tune of anthems and spirituals more readily now than when I was younger and knew so much more. It cheered me to hear the President speak of the need to put party politics aside and keep our minds on what's best for the country. I enjoyed and applauded the simple sensibility of his observation that it ought not have to take a flood or an earthquake or a tornado for us to act like Americans who believe in the American credo of equality. I laughed when Clinton told about the lady in California who did "what few of you in this room would do. She hugged me and said, 'I'm a Republican, but I'm glad you're here.' "

You know what? That kind of honest, self-deprecating humor is a precious thing to have in a nation's president. Bill Clinton may not have as great a store of other virtues as some might prefer, but he has humor, and he has a gift for stirring speechifying that in less-cynical, less-materialistic times could itself mobilize a nation to achieve great things.

But we no longer seem capable of believing in anything unless it is wedded to our own financial gain. Consider: The last Republican President we had was George Bush. What did George stand for? Thinking real hard I can summon three things from memory: A thousand points of light; a kinder, gentler nation; and restoration of large tax deductions for capital gains. The first two were literary conceits from the imagination of speech writer Peggy Noonan and amounted to nothing, even as symbols. The third was the lodestone of Bush's political philosophy--let's help the rich get richer--but the man was so uninspiring he couldn't even get this piece of self-interest through Congress.

Ronald Reagan was reckoned to be quite the inspirational leader, long on symbolism and feel-good, but what did he truly symbolize? Again, the answer is greater wealth for the already wealthy. Reagan didn't accomplish this by cutting taxes; he did it by deregulating commerce. The robber barons made out like the bandits they are, and the national debt tripled. The gap between the haves and the have-nots in America grew, by every measurable standard.

You've got to go clear back to the inauguration of John Kennedy to recall the last time an American President uttered a call to altruistic public service and was taken seriously. He asked us to ask not for ourselves, and some of us took it to heart.

If John Kennedy had been standing where Bill Clinton stood a week ago last Tuesday, and said what he said 35 years ago, the instant analysis from the networks would have laughed him off the podium.

Clinton tried, bless his heart, and it stirred something deep in my soul--something I enjoy still finding there. He spoke of nationhood instead of party politics. He spoke of compassion and humanity instead of personal gain. He spoke of the need for keeping families together, of protecting them from ruinous medical costs, of a minimum wage somewhat nearer to a living wage...

...and they laughed at him. Not while he spoke, but afterwards, in almost pitying tones. These pipe-dreams will never fly, they said--not just the Republicans, but the press.

And then Christy Whitman, the newly elected governor of New Jersey, delivered the official Republican Party response to Clinton's address, and what did she say?

Cut taxes. Cut taxes, Cut taxes. Oh, and did I mention cutting taxes?

This is leadership? This is what passes today for public service? Any idiot can cut taxes--it requires no genius nor imagination, no serviceable ideas for coping with the complexities of administering to the needs of 250 million people in a perilous world. You just cut taxes, which put a few hundred bucks a year in the pockets of the vast, middle-class majority, nothing in the hands of the poor, and thousands to millions in the bank accounts of the rich.

And the class war looms nearer.

What the hell has gone wrong with this nation? Is it so preposterous a notion to assure the working poor of $5 an hour? The new Republican majority in Congress sees no problem cutting taxes, which costs revenue and benefits the rich more than the poor. They say tax cuts stimulate the economy. Well, a fairer wage for the working poor benefits the economy, too. They've got to spend their raises--it's not enough to squirrel away in savings. Any increases in the minimum wage go right back into the economy, at the grocery check-out line and into the rent check.

I can understand, in all its perversity, the Republican fixation with punishing people on welfare. What I cannot square in my own heart and mind, nor with the Republican myth of hard work and self-reliance, is refusing to let the foundation of the American work force--those who are doing the dirty work, and are at greatest risk of sliding backward into unemployment, the public dole or crime--a fighting chance to work their way out of poverty and into independence.

At present I'm forced to conclude we are a nation of selfish hypocrites. At least judging by the government we have elected, this is the only logical conclusion. It won't stay this way forever.

I only hope I live long enough to see it get better rather than worse.

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February 2 - February 8, 1995

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