Washington -- THE TELEVISION networks the other night elected to pass up President Bush's speech to a select audience of some 2,000 politically faithful on the South Lawn of the White House, reportedly on the basis of advice that the president would not be offering any new proposals.
The information was correct, but the networks may have erred anyway, because Bush treated his guests to what may well turn out to be his basic re-election campaign speech next year, especially if he remains high in the polls and the Democrats are still in disarray.
The message, cutting through all the rhetoric, was that the country does have some domestic ills, but Americans had better not count on the Democratic Congress to cure them, and while the government can help, it's going to take good old-fashioned American volunteerism to get the job done.
In other words, Bush's principal answer to the deteriorating quality of life and physical infrastructure in the United States will be a facsimile of what Ronald Reagan's was for eight years and Bush's was for the last two and a half: Be a good neighbor.
For years before he became president, Reagan liked to regale reporters with his fantasy of how to cope with domestic shortcomings such as joblessness, homelessness and the growth of a permanent minority underclass. There was this family whose house burned down, he liked to say. The neighbors got together and rebuilt it in no time, meanwhile feeding and housing the victims. If all Americans did that sort of thing, he would suggest, there would be no domestic problems. To hear Reagan tell it, you could almost believe it.
Bush does not live in quite that much of a fantasyland. He has been around long enough to know that some problems at home are so immense that government assistance is necessary. That's why, in his little pep talk, he called for a team effort of free enterprise, compassionate (but limited) government and volunteerism to produce "an America whole and good."
At the same time, however, he told his audience not to count on much government help because -- you guessed it -- that foot-dragging Democratic Congress won't cooperate with him. As proof, he noted that Congress had failed to meet the 100-day deadline with which he challenged it to pass two relatively secondary pieces of legislation dealing with highways and crime, right after the 100-hour gulf ground war ended.
Bush neglected to inform his audience that Congress has been working at beefing up his rather thin and misdirected proposals in both areas, while advancing a substantial amount of more important legislation in the areas of budgeting, trade, campaign finance, civil rights and others.
Instead, he concentrated on trotting out producers of a number of his favorite "points of light" -- individual examples of community service that are commendable in their own right but hardly the answer for a nation suffering from increasing joblessness, homelessness and a woeful lack of health care on a national scale. You can expect a steady stream of "points of light" to be exhibited by Bush between now and the 1992 election. He even has an office in the White House doing a countdown to the "thousand points of light" of which he spoke in his 1988 nomination acceptance speech.
This approach, combined with continued self-congratulation about the swift military victory in the Persian Gulf, will give the president next year the wherewithal to tell the American people what they like to hear -- that the country has problems, sure, but nothing that good will and good works can't cure, with a nudge here and there from government -- a slothful Congress willing.
"Government and the market, joined with points of light, will overwhelm our social problems," Bush told his South Lawn audience. "This is how we must guarantee the next American century. Every person, every business, every school board -- our associations, our clubs or places of worship -- we all have the duty to lead."
This is the sort of candy-coated medicine that is very easy for voters to swallow. It suggests, with the bark off, that if all these good folks are taking care of the nation's problems at home, who needs more taxes to bankroll government solutions? The pitch worked in spades for Ronald Reagan, even as the country's most severe domestic needs went unattended. George Bush clearly hopes it will continue to work for him too.