Some little folks help the big guy play in Peoria

MICHAEL OLESKER

January 23, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On the front page of my newspaper yesterday morning was George Bush, president of the United States, sitting with children in Catonsville and talking on an imaginary telephone to an imaginary friend.

The president, we are assured by high-ranking White House officials, does not really have imaginary friends. The man is 67 years old, after all. He hasn't had imaginary friends since he was 20.

But he was in Catonsville, at the Emily Harris Head Start Center, to talk about money and to be charming. The money is $600 million the president wants for next year's Head Start budget. The charm is for this year's election.

There was a simpler time when presidents could announce budget proposals without leaving home for carefully choreographed road trips. What's the point, after all, about discussing finances with a bunch of pre-school children?

But that simpler time was long ago, before the age of photo opportunities, before the staging of an event became as important as the substance of the event. If television shows us the president with children, we assume we're watching a man with a heart. If newspapers show us stories filled with budget numbers, we assume we should turn the page before our brains go numb.

Thus, children are better. Their frolicking with the president becomes a kind of emotional shorthand for voters and a distraction from all that complicated talk about money.

At the Emily Harris Head Start Center, the president chatted with kids about bathtub toys and visits to dentists, while TV cameras captured every moment. Could anyone be heartless enough to question budgets at a moment like that?

Then the president crawled into a wooden playhouse and held imaginary telephone conversations. This is how we found Bush yesterday, on the front page of this newspaper, crouched in a playhouse in his business suit, with his imaginary telephone to his ear.

"Let's pretend we're calling up your mother," the president told one child. "Let's just pretend. C'mon."

When one child placed an imaginary call, Bush answered, "Who is speaking, please? Oh, my boy! How are you? How's it going at school today? Who came to see you today?"

To one little girl, he asked why the children weren't playing outside.

"We're having the president," the girl replied.

"The president of the United States?" Bush said. "Are you teasing me?"

In another time, maybe, but not any more. It recalled a moment, three decades ago, when John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey contended for the Democratic presidential nod. Humphrey was a man capable of talking endlessly without coming up for air. Kennedy showed more public reserve.

"There are certain things Humphrey's willing to do for votes that I am not," Kennedy said, "and one of those things is bobbing for apples."

George Bush didn't bob for apples, but he did the modern version. His morning visit here was brief, but it lingered. In the evening, all the TV stations in town showed him with the children in Catonsville. I was watching from a big office with half a dozen other people, when a little boy asked Bush if they could be friends.

"Isn't that adorable?" chorused the people in the big office.

Nobody asked about the $600 million Bush proposed adding to Head Start's budget. Nobody cared that it was about half of what others have proposed. Nobody knew that it was a six-fold increase over last year's increase. Thus, nobody asked if an election this year might have played a slight role in the $600 million proposal.

Style replaces substance. Immediately following Bush on television came Bill Clinton, the Arkansas governor running for the Democratic nomination. He was about to speak to grown-ups in Annapolis, who weren't as photogenic as kids in Catonsville but happen to vote.

"He didn't come up with any money," Clinton said of Bush, "until his polls fell."

In the big office where I was watching, I heard two voices.

"Isn't he cute?" one said.

"Cute eyes," said another.

They didn't hear Clinton say he'd propose "10 times" more money for Head Start than Bush was offering. Big deal: Talk is so cheap when it's competing with pictures of adorable children.

And thus we come to our modern problem, in which emotional shorthand replaces facts. Is Clinton serious about "10 times" more money? We don't know. It's just dueling sound bites replacing debate.

In America today, families do not survive without both parents working. But both parents cannot work without care for young children. More than 90 percent of Head Start children come from families living in poverty, and 10 percent are handicapped.

The president said his $600 million would open the doors to about 157,000 new kids, although Helen Blank, of the Children's Defense Fund, said it would mean "less than 100,000 [new] children, not 157,000."

The numbers are worth debating. The education commitment of Bush, and of the Democrats, too, should be debated, but instead we've entered that season of indignity where Bush has to crawl on the floor in public.

No, the president wasn't really talking to an imaginary friend on his imaginary telephone. He was calling to see how the kids in Catonsville were playing in Peoria.

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