Memo to the president

Leslie H. Gelb

June 13, 1991|By Leslie H. Gelb

MANY WHO support you and wish you well are trying to tell you something that goes to the heart of your speech Wednesday evening on domestic affairs. Here is their message:

1. Our nation is falling apart, even if we pull out of the current recession and even if the Dow Jones average continues to hover around 3,000.

2. Only you can lead and bring us together, first by reordering your priorities and paying more attention to America than the world.

3. If you fail to restore America's internal strength, our power to protect our interests abroad will wane as well.

What alarms and disheartens is that none of this seems to touch you. When you traveled recently to promote your education programs, a youngster asked what you liked best about being president.

"I love coping with the problems in foreign affairs," you responded, and then added a few words about education and drugs.

Listen to what Jack Kemp, your secretary of housing and urban development, is saying: "There are problems of poverty and despair and economic decline in many people's neighborhoods which the president has both a moral and political obligation to address." His point by inference is that you are not doing so.

Listen to Kevin Phillips, a conservative Republican who helped shape the GOP's winning presidential strategy for the past 20 years.

His data show that the richest 2.5 million Americans earn as much as the bottom 100 million, and that consequently the American Dream is fading.

Listen to Ross Perot, a hard-headed industrialist. Domestic problems, he says, are "controversial. They're difficult to resolve. It's kind of like cleaning out the kitchen or taking out the trash or cleaning out the barn." Seeing the decay and decline all around him, he asks you to put your "primary focus on cleaning up our problems here at home. . . ."

Listen to William Hyland, editor of Foreign Affairs and a former senior national security adviser to Presidents Ford and Nixon. "The U.S. has never been less threatened by foreign forces than it is today. . . . Taking on new commitments in the Middle East and Persian Gulf while maintaining most of the old ones in Europe and the Far East cannot be justified in the face of a disastrous domestic agenda."

Listen to Robert Hormats, now at Goldman Sachs, who served Ronald Reagan as a top foreign economic adviser. The Persian Gulf war, he writes, was "the first U.S. military operation in this century that America felt unable to pay for by itself."

He concludes that "If America's economy does falter, so will the underlying source of its international power. Thus this nation's central foreign policy priority in coming years and its central domestic priority must be the same: strengthening the American economy."

Listen to Bill Moyers, who probably knows as much about what is going on in this country as anyone: "Beneath the euphoria of the moment much of our society is in shambles." Between 30 and 40 million Americans live in poverty, more than the populations of eastern Germany and Hungary combined. More Americans are without health insurance than all the people in Central America. Half the children in urban primary schools will drop out before graduation.

Listen to the Time/CNN public opinion survey published this week. Only 39 percent approve of your handling of the economy, nTC and 71 percent say you are spending too little time on domestic affairs.

In your only recent foray into general domestic concerns, you condemned President Johnson's Great Society programs as ineffective. Yet as this week's editorial in the New Republic (which likes you more than it does most Democrats) points out, these programs included Medicare and Head Start, and your "domestic policy rhetoric has no substance."

Your friends and allies and the American people are not demanding that America withdraw from the world. They want our country to play an active, powerful and constructive international role.

They are not saying they have the answers to domestic ills, or that new efforts will escape mistakes and waste.

Rather they ask that you consider these thoughts: We cannot sustain our power abroad unless we are strong again at home, and we cannot be true to our heritage unless you mobilize the nation to beat back the internal rot.

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