Washington comes unhinged


October 14, 1991|By Russell Baker

WASHINGTON is having a nervous breakdown. It has been coming for a long time. The hysteria about the Thomas nomination is not the cause of it, just the final bursting of the dam when all restraints collapse and howling replaces civil discourse, telling us something is terribly wrong.

What could be crazier than the Senate, after giving Judge Clarence Thomas a free pass on the abortion issue, suddenly finding itself shocked -- shocked! -- at the idea he may have made lewd suggestions to Anita Hill?

Yes, of course, sexual harassment by verbal innuendo is vulgar, offensive and, for a man supposedly mature enough to interpret the Constitution with wisdom, deplorable. But the great feminist legal issue of the day is abortion, and it is not just the 98 percent male Senate that has let Thomas stand silent on it.

If women now furious about male insensitivity to women's concerns had got this angry when the Judiciary Committee was letting the judge stand mute on abortion, the nomination might have been fought out, as it should have been, as a purely political question. That question: What kind of Supreme Court does the country want?

This would have brought the Senate edging up toward reality, a territory Washington rarely visits anymore. Congress, for example, feels misunderstood because the public is angry about its big pay increase and special dispensations to kite checks, fix its own traffic tickets and pause at one of the Capitol dining rooms to eat on the cuff before stepping up to the TV cameras to announce there is no free lunch.

Congress is not the only party isolated from reality. It is the president, after all, who started Thomas down the road to agony by using him in a childish political maneuver. The idea was to keep a black seat on the court but fill it with a conservative. What a political cutie. Never mind that it's terribly divisive politics, not to mention degrading to the court.

Then there was that silly public-relations campaign dwelling on Thomas' impoverished childhood: "Never mind the judge's unimpressive legal credentials, folks. In childhood he has known the rigors of the outdoor privy." What was clinically disturbing about this wasn't just its implicit contempt for the public, but also its proof that the White House is willing to reduce matters of state gravity to silly public-relations games.

This isn't the only sign that the White House is as unhinged as Congress. Ponder the appointment of Robert Gates to head the CIA just when the president discerns a "new world order." Gates, of course, is the quintessential man of the old world order, having spent his career warning us that the Russians were coming.

Reality might dictate retiring Gates with honors and appointing a new director to figure out what the agency ought to do in the new world order and whether it can do it cheaper and under public scrutiny.

What the Gates confirmation hearings revealed of the CIA was a depressingly typical government bureaucracy where people spend a lot of energy in vicious internal arguments over how to interpret facts everybody knows.

The agency's inability to figure out that Gorbachev meant it when he said the Soviet Union was in a bad way suggests it's just as happy in Never-Never Land as the rest of Washington. Then of course there are White House, Pentagon and the congressional military-hardware crowd all conniving to build /^ billions and billions of dollars worth of new bombers to blast the bejeebers out of the Soviet Union, in case a new one comes along.

Washington's nervous breakdown may be the natural result of ** suddenly losing its sense of identity. After 45 years as freedom's champion in the Cold War, it no longer seems to have much purpose in life. Europe, Japan and the rest of Asia are going their own way without us, and with disturbing success.

Washington has been numbed by winning the Cold War: powerless to rethink military policy, paralyzed by domestic problems, hopelessly bound to an increasingly corrupt system of political financing, its people fooling around with cheap political stunts to win victories that take them nowhere except to the next pointless election which will send them all back to Washington to keep a tighter-than-ever grip on unreality.

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