If I'm writing newspaper headlines the morning after George Bush's State of the Union address, the day's front page looks like this:
"Bush to Cities: Get A Life."
That wasn't a speech the president gave, it was two speeches. First it was a peekaboo inventory, a rapid-fire catalog of domestic concerns without a clue to solutions. It was a 20-minute verbal prologue leading up to the operatic 15 minutes on the war effort, which will assure America of continuing to have the best-defended slums in history.
Are we at war? Yes, of course we are, and attention (and money) must be paid. But for people who have lived in decaying cities for the past quarter-century, many of whom salivated at a so-called "peace dividend" only a year ago, it's also the latest reason to expect absolutely nothing from the federal government.
Remember Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty? Poverty won. Johnson couldn't balance the war in Vietnam with the salvation of the cities. Remember Richard Nixon and cities? Does the phrase "benign neglect" ring a bell?
Jimmy Carter had some feel for urban problems, but he was overwhelmed by the economy and the hostages in Iran. And Ronald Reagan, while declaring "morning in America," never quite noticed the approach of midnight in cities, as he obliterated federal assistance.
George Bush, by the way, seemed very much to have Jimmy Carter and Iran on his mind as he spent the first 20 minutes of his speech largely avoiding discussion of the Persian Gulf. It felt as if he were saying, "I have other business. I'm not a prisoner of Iraq, the way Carter was a prisoner of Iran."
What he told Americans about things at home, though, was not to get our hopes up.
In the cities like Baltimore, the people in charge of patching things together heaved collective sighs of resignation at the president's words and said: "Here we go again, always an afterthought."
Was anybody listening to the president's language?
"As we fight crime, we will fully implement our national strategy for combating drug abuse. . . . We will not rest until the day of the dealer is over, forever."
Give us a break.
A year ago, new anti-drug funds proposed by the Bush administration represented 0.065 percent of the federal budget. All federal funds budgeted for state and local prison inmates were cut from the national budget. There's so little money coming into cities now that police brass and state's attorneys are talking about staff cuts, even in the face of rising crime.
Is that the mark of someone not resting until drugs are wiped out, or are these empty words?
"In the last two years," said the president, "we've applied the creativity of the marketplace in the service of the environment, for clean air."
This, while the government admits that 58 percent of the people live in areas that don't meet the standards of the 1970 Clean Air Act. This, from a president who pledged to plant 5 billion trees in the next five years, but somehow also proposed to cut $32 million from the existing Forest Service tree-planting programs this year.
The president proposed "a banking reform plan to bring America's financial system into the 21st century, so that our banks remain safe and secure. . . . I do think there has been too much pessimism."
Oh, yeah? In the Great Depression, 5 percent of all savings and loan associations failed. In today's Recession That Dares Not Speak Its Own Name, government economists are talking of maybe 25 percent of the savings and loans going under in the next five years.
"Which of our citizens will lead us in this next American century?" the president asked in his State of the Union speech. "Everyone who steps forward today to get one addict off drugs; to convince one troubled teen-ager not to give up on life; to comfort one AIDS patient; to help one hungry child."
This is beautiful language signifying to Americans everywhere: You're on your own. The drug traffic turns entire communities into zones of fear, and the president offers platitudes. The
poverty rate, the sick and the homeless, grow all around us, and the president says: Lend a hand, because mine are busy right now.
"We all have something to give," he said. "So if you know how to read, find someone who can't. If you've got a hammer, find a nail. If you're not hungry, not lonely, not in trouble -- seek out someone who is."
This is empty language masquerading as compassion. In cities like Baltimore, governments hold things together with Band-Aids and string.
Already, the big defense contractors are licking their chops over the end of the war: Look, they'll tell the president, how well spent your money was in the Persian Gulf. Give us more. (And never mind that these weapons were built in case of war with the Soviet Union, and not with a Third World nation.)
Look, they'll tell Congress, how important it is to continue spending money to keep our war inventories up to snuff. (And never mind those who said we might have settled this peacefully if we had waited a little longer.)
And the people in cities will sit back, and watch their world decay a little more, and listen to empty language from the man in the White House. That's what they got the other night. It's the war this time, but there's always something more pressing than life in urban America.