'Proud To Be An American'

Russell Baker

March 31, 1992|By Russell Baker

JOHN KINGERY, 82, physically helpless, emptied of memory by Alzheimer's disease and holding a bag of diapers, was abandoned in his wheelchair at an Idaho dog track the other day. "Proud To Be An American" were the words on his sweatshirt.

Something about the story caught editors' attention. Maybe it was the dog-track angle. Old-timers like Kingery are usually abandoned at hospitals.

These abandonments are common enough nowadays, according to agents of the old-people's lobby, to constitute a trend which they call "granny dumping."

Helpless ancients dumped at hospitals haven't much interested the press before now, but a granny left at a dog track was a story too bizarre to ignore, and it got big play across the country.

Thus I was forced to dwell on it at the very moment the posturing of the presidential candidates was at one of its seasonal peaks.

Former Governor Brown was dilating on the miracles that would flow from a 13 percent flat tax, with blithe disregard for the fact that George Washington himself, risen from the tomb for the specific purpose, could not persuade any Congress -- Democratic, Republican, Whig, Federalist, Tory or Milk-of-Human-Kindness Party -- to enact a flat tax.

Governor Clinton, instead of dismissing Brown's tax promise as irrelevant to real life -- granny dumping, e.g. -- was accepting the Brown theory that most voters are too dim to grasp basic political realities, like Congress's sovereignty in tax matters.

So there he was, gravely denouncing the soak-the-poor nature of all flat taxes as though Brown's might really be enacted.

No wonder so many voters were saying there had to be somebody better than this crowd. The nation is jogging, eating broccoli, losing weight, throwing tantrums every time somebody lights up a smoke in the next county, and what will be its reward when this heroism has carried it safely into grannyhood? The rising probability is that it will be granny-dumped.

Contemplating that future -- that bag of diapers, that "Proud To Be An American" sweatshirt, those dog trainers or supermarket stock clerks or Disneyland Mickey Mouse impersonators saying, "Poor old granny, he doesn't even know his own name" -- contemplating that was no easier after checking the Bush camp.

There, as among the Democrats, it was politics as usual: strict loyalty to the faith that you can fool enough of the people enough of the time to be elected president.

Granny-dumping hadn't come to the attention of presidential speech writers in January when they composed the State of the Union address, but even then the press told tales of the death of civilization.

People sleeping on the streets. Terrorists rampant in filthy, ruined cities. Bankruptive health care and none at all for millions.

Never mind. The president's January speech had dared Democrats to do many vaguely defined things he knew they would not do, and he challenged them to do them by March 20, or else get campaigned against for not doing them.

In short, while pretending to provide us with the governance services for which we pay him, he was posturing for re-election. Congressional Democrats, equally masterful at striking poses, quickly passed a tax bill they knew the president would veto.

It offered small coin to this year's favorite undefinable mass, "the middle class." Bush then danced the next step in this fakers' minuet by vetoing it.

Now they will argue about who most loves the middle class, each boasting of his own role in this stale piece of political bamboozlement as evidence of statesmanship.

Contemplating the possibility of being granny-dumped, there in the wheelchair, holding the bag of diapers, "Proud To Be An American," I wonder if our politicians might be numb to furies seething among Americans as Eastern Europe's rulers were numb to the passions that undid Leninism.

Wake and look, gentlemen. There's trouble out here. People sleeping in the streets. Terrorists killing for fun, money and revenge in filthy, ruined cities. Millions with no medicine, no doctor. The desperate young are abandoning helpless, hopeless Granny.

Some indignation must be voiced, some conviction about public morality expressed, some principles articulated. "Electability" is a shabby substitute for the passion that hates seeing the old county poorhouse revived as a dog track.

Russell Baker writes a column for the New York Times.

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