I DON'T REMEMBER the exact date. But I should have made a note of it because it was personally significant -- the day I underwent a change in my political and social views.
It began with a simple phone conversation, much like dozens I get every day.
The woman said: "I have a problem that I wonder if you can help me with."
I asked her what the problem was.
Her voice rose in anger as she said: "I bought a mink coat about 2 1/2 years ago from (store name) on Michigan Avenue. And now the coat is starting to shed. I've complained to the store, but they aren't doing anything about it. So I thought you might want to write about this."
I told her that I was sorry, but I wouldn't write about her shedding fur coat.
"Why not?" she asked.
I explained that it was likely that many readers have problems more serious than a shedding mink coat and they might think it a strange subject for a column.
She accepted that. But then she asked: "What agency should I call?"
"Yes. Who handles problems like this?"
You mean a government agency?
I told her that if a government agency existed for the purpose of investigating complaints about shedding mink coats, I wasn't aware of it.
"Well, is there an agency that would know?"
You mean a government agency that could recommend another government agency that deals with the problem of a mink coat that sheds?
I told her I didn't know about that, either.
"Then what should I do?" she asked.
You might talk to a lawyer.
"I don't see why I have to pay a lawyer for something like this. Isn't there anyone else on your paper who handles things like this?"
I'm afraid not.
"Well thanks a lot," she said, and hung up.
That's when I became convinced that politicians, especially Democrats, had done too good a job of persuading many Americans that if they have a problem, just about any kind of problem, a social agency should be there to solve it. And if no agency existed, a law should be passed creating one.
Why else would that woman have assumed that the great social safety net provides a soft landing for someone whose mink coat is shedding?
Every day we hear about schools and how they are failing to do the job. The administrators get most of the heat, and they deserve some of it. The teachers take their knocks, and some need it.
But you almost never hear about the fundamental reason so many kids drop out of school or muddle through without learning anything. Go to their homes and see how many books or other forms of reading material you'll find. Ah, but the TV set will be going full blast. Ask the parent or parents if they ever check to see if the kid is doing homework. Or if they even check to see that he's home at night.
A teacher in a city school has a room full of kids about six hours a day, nine months a year. Minus
weekends, holidays and summer vacation. And they're supposed to make up for what the parents fail to do the other 18 hours a day, plus weekends, plus holidays, plus summer vacation.
Then there is Armando. He lives in the Washington neighborhood where the riots took place this week. Armando says he is angry at society. He has not found life in this country good enough.
Armando, 29, has been here nine months. He has a regular job as a waiter. He has a place to live. He is not suffering from malnutrition. Nine months, a regular job, shelter and a full tummy, and he's already complaining. I wonder if he's thought about giving Bangladesh a try?
Or maybe he will stick around long enough to complain that his wife's mink coat is shedding and demand that an agency resolve the problem.
Anyway, this is why I'm glad to see that there has emerged in the Democratic Party a faction called the Democratic Leadership Council.
It's made up of Democrats who have decided that the party can no longer try to appeal to every special interest group that believes government must solve their problems; that for every lack of individual responsibility, there is a government program; that for everybody who sticks out their hand and says "Where's mine?" there's an automatic handout.
These radical ideas have upset the Democrats who have been running the party for the last few decades, giving us the political conventions that sent forth Dukakis, Mondale, McGovern and other giants. They say these less weepy Democrats are abandoning the party's traditions of compassion for the downtrodden.
I don't agree. I think that what they're saying is that they want to show the downtrodden how to get up so he doesn't get trod on anymore.
And I wish them success. If they don't make it, we might wind up with the Department of Shedding Mink Coats Investigations.