We're mad as hell. Are we going to take any more of it?

Robin J. Holt

March 03, 1992|By Robin J. Holt

SO EVERYONE is mad as hell, and nobody's going to take it any more.

For those with short memories, the above is a paraphrase of the most famous line from the 1976 film, "Network," the climax of which was Peter Finch as "the mad prophet of the airwaves" summoning his viewers to their open windows to cry their collective rage to the heavens. A video Jeremiah.

The biblical allusion to an impending apocalypse is always just below the surface of "Network" (still a popular item at the video stores), and it retains a certain aptness today. So pervasive is the social rot, the corruption and greed -- the sin, if you will -- and so isolated and impotent are we that our only response can be incoherent and self-contradictory shrieks of fury.

It's possible, of course, to take this Old Testament analogy just so far. America is not Jerusalem, nor is this nation about to be sacked by the Babylonians. But the mood is everywhere. From Bensonhurst to Baton Rouge, Americans are increasingly alienated from one another by lines of race and class. The economy sinks ever deeper into recession as public confidence erodes. The schools don't work, welfare doesn't work, the health-care system doesn't work, the criminal justice system doesn't work.

Everywhere around us, the institutions of society appear to be slowly disintegrating. The government begs our indulgence. The treasuries are bare. Little wonder the people are mad as hell, that they look to the chimera of term limitations, for example. Little wonder that a cosmetically deodorized fascist like David Duke is taken seriously by large numbers of voters.

In the relief following Richard Nixon's departure from the presidency, we congratulated ourselves that "the system worked." What we did not grasp, then or since, is that "the system," any system, works only as well as the people charged with maintaining it. The system is an inert machine awaiting an operator, a calibrator, a repairman. Government requires a human hand at the helm to set direction, speed and destination.

Ronald Reagan told us: Government is not the solution, government is the problem. And we believed him. Twice. What he did not tell us was articulated, rather ironically, by a Reagan partisan, George Will, on "This Week with David Brinkley," one unnoticed Sunday morning back in the early 1980s. As Mr. Will explained it, Republicans basically don't like government, but at the moment they're in charge of the government. They don't believe in using government to solve the nation's problems.

The use of government, the hand at the helm, is called governance: the act of governing. It is governance the United States has lacked since 1980.

"This was a PR outfit that became president and took over the country. And to the degree then to which the Constitution forced them to do things like make a budget, run foreign policy and all that, they sort of did. But their first, last and overarching activity was public relations."

Who said that? Michael Dukakis? Tip O'Neill? Barbara Mikulski? The assessment, in fact, is by one Leslie Janka, a deputy press secretary in the Reagan White House. In fact, the guileless candor with which Reagan administration officials admitted the priority of image is astonishing. When questioned about the proposed Strategic Defense Initiative, Mr. Reagan's longtime adviser/manager, Michael Deaver, replied, "I didn't understand SDI . . . I wouldn't know if it worked or didn't work. The concept was a great idea." This is the language of movie-making, not of governance. It is no accident that the 1980s saw the introduction of the "high concept" movie in Hollywood. All you need is an image, a picture -- never mind story, plot or character. "Top Gun," one of the highest-grossing films of the decade, began as just such an airy bubble: an all-American maverick at the controls of a high-tech fighter. A great "high concept." An image, a picture, a photo-op.

In the bad, old pre-Watergate days, Richard Nixon was famous for asking his aides, "Will it play in Peoria?" Will Middle America or the Great Silent Majority (neither one was ever coherently defined) "buy" it? National policy was reduced to a consumer item.

In George Bush, the brand name has changed, but not the ingredients (all of which are "lite"), nor the marketing strategy. The president gives a speech outlining his policy on drugs and, holding forth a small plastic bag, gravely intones that this bag of crack cocaine was bought in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House.

We are suitably alarmed that this evil plague is everywhere. Indeed, we find later, the coke was bought in Lafayette Park by DEA agents who located a dealer on the other side of town and supplied him with directions to 1600 Pennsylania Avenue. Even more mind-boggling was Mr. Bush's utter shamelessness when the charge was exposed. As Larry Speakes told reporters after one of Mr. Reagan's many misstatements of fact, "Well, it's a good story, though. It made the point, didn't it?"

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