The Education of the President

May 10, 1992

Tragic it is that it took the Los Angeles riots to compel President Bush to look in "dismay and horror" at what is happening in the black inner cities of his own country. What he brings to his stewardship from this emotional experience can scarcely be gleamed from his own "embarrassed" and "ashamed" mental state or the calculated leaks from self-serving presidential advisers pushing their own agendas. But it is good that Mr. Bush broke out of his comfortable, affluent isolation and went to Los Angeles to see and learn. Now the nation waits to discover what he will do.

Mr. Bush says the "status quo" -- meaning his status quo -- can no longer suffice. We agree. The days when he and the Democratic Congress were content to maintain their indefinite deadlock while millions of Americans were condemned to poverty, violence and hopelessness are over. The times call for extraordinary initiatives.

As a starter, Mr. Bush should invite Gov. Bill Clinton and Ross Perot to meet with him at the White House. The questions raised by the rioting in Los Angeles are too crucial, too delicate to be subjected to ordinary political cut and thrust. If these three white contenders for the presidency can reason together, they will be better positioned to interact individually or jointly with the nation's black leadership.

The president also should move to convene the same kind of executive-legislative summit that two years ago produced the 1990 budget agreement. Negotiators on all sides of urban policy questions should be required to keep meeting until they come up with action programs that can be put in place before the national conventions this summer. Americans of all races need assurance that their federal government is capable of doing something.

In the aftermath of Los Angeles, the nation is awash in theories and rhetoric -- mostly presented in uncompromising terms. On the right, there are the law-and-order advocates. On the left, there are those calling for massive infusions of federal funds into the inner cities.

Neither of these old approaches offers much promise of solution, consensus or realization. Far more encouraging is the search for new directions. The move toward "workfare" was gathering momentum well before Los Angeles. The concept of "empowerment" -- giving poor people the means to select their own housing and schools, much as they now buy food with stamps -- jumps partisan lines. There is interest in "enterprise zones" in which tax breaks would be given to people willing to invest and become entrepreneurs in the inner cities.

We realize there are no panaceas. We know anything government comes up with to deal with the urban/race crisis will be mere first steps. We are aware that even the bully pulpit of the presidency has limited reach. But if Mr. Bush has learned a lesson and if he can convey that lesson to millions who also have averted their eyes from the inner cities, America will get another chance.

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