Recession-like? Try recession-real

Sydney H. Schanberg

December 23, 1991|By Sydney H. Schanberg

New York -- GENERAL MOTORS, symbol of American industrial strength, announced that it's going to cut 74,000 jobs and close 21 of its 125 assembly plants in North America over the next four years.

That was last Wednesday. On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the pace of layoffs nationwide will likely accelerate next year "as the wave of job dismissals moves inland from both coasts."

Things are not good. The Wizard of Oz boom years of the 1980s, conjured by the hide-the-deficit smoke and mirrors of Reaganomics, now stand naked on the unemployment line. George Bush was right the first time, in 1980. It was Voodoo Economics. But he swallowed his moment of truth in order to be Ronald Reagan's vice president and move ever closer to the grail.

Once a man erases his essential self (or even just his honest opinion) so as to acquire power, he risks losing his definition. George is completely scripted now. All modern presidents have had speeches written for them, but George has refined the marionette game even further. He has the audience's questions scripted, too -- and then his staff hands him the prepared answers, in the order in which the audience has been rehearsed to ask them.

Once in a while, though, a little snag develops, such as when an audience member has a little too much Coors Light and jumps up and asks Question 4 before Question 3 has been asked. Since Bush is holding the answers in sequence, he gives Answer 3 to Question 4. That's when Bush sounds most like Reagan. Anyway, that sort of script screw-up happened recently at a Bush speech to a group in Anaheim, Calif., and George complained afterward to an aide, over a microphone he didn't know was still turned on.

"We've got to get this sorted out here," he grumbled, not realizing reporters were picking it up. "It happened last week, too. . . . I mean, if I just listen to the question, I can answer whatever it is. But if I think it's going to be on here (the card with his scripted answer), I don't listen to the question. I just look at this."

Goshamighty, it's not easy being president -- you actually have to listen to what people are saying.

It's kind of sad, what's happened to George. He didn't have to listen to anything before this. He could go to parades or flag factories and shout the word "liberal" and then watch the crowd fall upon some protesters and punch them around for a few minutes. His approval ratings soared.

Now he doesn't know what hit him. The scripts don't have any provision for boos. And the liberal shtick doesn't work anymore. The people without jobs know that liberalism wasn't what made them unemployed. They don't much care about political labels at this point, anyway, they just want to work and get a paycheck again.

For a long time, the scripted White House tried to pretend that the only thing wrong with the economy was a few rusty joints that needed oiling. The Tin Man needed some Three-In-One, that's all. George said he didn't see a recession, just a few pockets of difficulty here and there. It's hard to see real people losing their homes to foreclosure if you're doing your looking from the fairways of the Kennebunkport golf course.

John Sununu couldn't see people hurting, either. He was too busy commandeering corporate jets to get to his dental appointments.

So as the pain intensified out there where they couldn't see, the White House crew blamed Congress, blamed the Democrats, blamed the permissive, big-spending, soft-on-welfare 1960s. That's pretty standard hot air for political campaigns, but it didn't breathe any health into the economy.

The president was baffled. His polls were slipping and the re-election campaign was stuttering.

So he got rid of Sununu because the abrasive chief of staff had offended too many people and become a political albatross. Secretary of Transportation Samuel Skinner, a smoother man, replaced him.

Immediately a new strategy was formed. No, not an economic strategy. A public relations campaign. The Bush Boys were finally, reluctantly, grudgingly, going to admit that the country was suffering hard times and then reassure us that Washington was going to get busy doing something about it.

Doing what, however?

Maybe the most intelligent course would be to do nothing short-term, no quick-fix tinkering with cyclical problems. But that surely won't guarantee an upturn before November 1992, and if there's no upturn, George's dream of four more years could go poof. So count on the White House to give us some more public relations about what they're going to do to put roses beck in the economy's cheeks in a hurry.

Remember Herbert Hoover's campaign slogan in 1932: "Prosperity is just around the corner."

Even now, even when Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan goes before Congress and says he hasn't seen such economic unease "in my lifetime" (which includes the Great Depression), some of the Bush Boys still have a hard time saying the word "recession."

Bush's press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, just couldn't let the word come out of his mouth straight this week. He acknowledged that things weren't good but said it was because "we're still in a recession-like economy."

Recession-like? If it walks like a recession and talks like a recession and crawls on its belly like a recession, then isn't it a recession, Marlin -- or maybe worse?

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