TWENTY-FOUR YEARS AGO, I sat in the gallery of the House of Representatives and watched President Johnson give what turned out to be his last State of the Union Address. He had been elected in a landslide in 1964, and the standard political logic of the day had it that LBJ was such an astute politician, such a master of Congress, such an expert in the manipulation of the levers of power that he could not be beaten in 1968 even though his job rating had been slowly deteriorating.
I quickly lost interest in the substance of the speech -- it was the typical combination of self-congratulation, puffery and outright lies that the people had come to expect from President Johnson.
But as I watched the members of Congress, a large number of whom were personal friends of the president, I knew his days were numbered. With their sullen faces and sparse applause, even his friends were telling him it was over.
A few weeks later, Sen. Eugene McCarthy polled close to 40 percent in the New Hampshire primary. A few weeks after that, President Johnson, numbed by his Vietnam burden, quit the race.
I have more than a little fear that as I watch President Bush tonight, I'll be reminded vividly of that night in 1968. There is little room for self-congratulation. Saddam Hussein seems more firmly control of circumstances than does Mr. Bush, and the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union appears to have completely surprised the administration.
This is no time for puffery. Another attempt to cheerlead the country out of recession will be viewed as final proof that the president simply doesn't understand the dimension of what's happening. And it certainly is no time for outright lies.
Mr. Bush must find a credible way to explain how this economic crisis will be resolved. The economy won't fully recover by this November, and I think most Americans sense this. But if the people believe they are finally hearing the truth, and that the man in charge has the will to carry through the struggle to again attain the excellence we all used to take pride in, they will lend their support.
The American economy cannot be handled like Operation Desert Storm; there is no trained force waiting in the wings to rescue it. Nor will it benefit from further nibbling around the edges in the form of small tax cuts for the middle class. Nor is there hope of immediate relief from a so-called peace dividend, for the first results of severely cutting the defense budget would be more unemployment and bankruptcies. Nor can we simply spend our way out of the recession since we are already paying one-fourth of the federal budget in interest on past borrowings.
I'd like to hear what we really intend to do about education, because the economy was dealt a severe blow when we lowered educational standards. I'd like to know how the president intends to correct the cataclysmic situation in the banking industry since, until the people can get credit, there will be no recovery, regardless of how low interest rates go. I'd like the president to tell us what he intends to do about the considerable portion of our economy that has been devoted to the production of arms so that we don't start losing our atomic scientists to Libya.
The people expect a speech written by a pollster rather than a president. If that is what they hear, Mr. Bush will have dealt himself a severe blow. We need his leadership, not indications that he will do "whatever is necessary" to win re-election.
Prosperity is not just around the corner, but if the president and Congress would just stop worrying about losing their jobs and remember that their first duty is to the country, the people would be greatly relieved. Just tell the truth, Mr. President; it's the best political move you could make.
John P. Sears, a lawyer, was Ronald Reagan's campaign manager in 1976 and 1980.