Bush offers more neglect

DAN RODRICKS

March 11, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

Bush to cities: Drop dead.

That could have been the headline over yesterday's story on the president's address to the National League of Cities, but, this being a kinder and gentler nation than it was four years ago, even George Bush gets a break. In this case, he was spared having his message twisted into sensational hyperbole.

Too bad, too.

Hard as it is to understand this president, his message to American cities seemed perfectly clear. And it echoed the message Ronald Reagan delivered: Forget about federal aid. Politically, Bush owes the cities nothing. He had nothing to lose by telling mayors, in his kind and gentle way, to buzz off.

This speech was about as lame as any we've heard from him. "Please understand," Bush said. "We will never measure our compassion in dollars spent. We will measure it by results."

Yo, George. We've been measuring for years -- measuring urban unemployment, high school dropout rates, teen pregnancy rates, infant mortality rates, crime rates -- and by almost every measure, the results stink.

"Let's not forget," Bush babbled, "that the trials our citizens face each and every day were generations in the making. . . . We can't expect change overnight. But make no mistake. Change will come because change must come."

Bush's solution to the urban crisis? Family values.

Has rhetoric ever been so empty? How does change come without leadership? How do the older American cities, such as Baltimore, stop their decline without dollars?

Once there was an urban renaissance. (William Donald Schaefer with the rubber duckie in the seal pool at the National Aquarium, James Rouse on the cover of Time, with the headline: "Cities Are Fun!" -- how will we ever forget it?)

But the renaissance ended just as it was being celebrated. The policy of the Reagan-Bush era -- there was no policy -- gets a huge part of the blame. No one at the National League of Cities should have been surprised when George Bush offered no specific federal action to counter the decline of cities.

Meanwhile, our cities continue to suffer from the worst of problems. In them reside the poorest of the poor. Their school systems are under-funded, substandard. Their neighborhoods are infested with drug-dealers. Their municipal budgets are so stressed that basic services are threatened.

In Baltimore, "The City That Reads," the mayor proposes closing the schools for a week and closing some library branches permanently. The waiting list for public housing is in the thousands, the old projects are crumbling and the federal government offers nothing to replace them. There aren't enough jobs, and there aren't enough skilled workers to take them, even if more were available.

Sure, Baltimore benefited from the federal redevelopment of the early 1980s. But, in the shadows of Harborplace and the new office towers that presented the image of economic rejuvenation, another part of Baltimore was decaying rapidly, with the permanent loss of manufacturing jobs, the growing exodus of the middle class and the increasing levels of poverty. Those downtown office buildings fill up every day with thousands of people who live and pay taxes in the suburbs.

It takes powerful leadership to confront these immense problems and to tell the rest of the country -- that is, the people who no longer live in cities -- that it can no longer afford to ignore the urban crisis.

Let's face it -- this just isn't George Bush's cup of tea.

It takes a person of great principle to present the issue on moral grounds -- that it is unfair to deprive city kids of a public education that matches the one kids in the more affluent suburbs get. It takes someone equally courageous and creative to say that cities need massive job-training programs and the funds to create solid public works employment. It takes a visionary to suggest, at the risk of being pilloried, that cities and their suburbs need to pull together, and it takes a healer to end the social and political divisions that have kept that from happening.

We -- and I mean all of us, not just city dwellers -- get none of this from the White House. Cities have been allowed to slide for more than a decade, treated as political leper colonies by the Reagan revolutionaries. This week, George Bush said he would extend that policy another four years.

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