WELCOME to the grab-it-and-run political campaigns of 1992.
You doubt it is that bad. Well, then, try to imagine any of the leading candidates standing in front of a considerable crowd and uttering these words:
"And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country."
To be sure, that was Jack Kennedy speaking at his inaugural address after he had been elected, not during his election campaign against Richard Nixon. But an old political reporter senses that the nation is looking for inspiring leadership, not necessarily specific projects for government to undertake. Try to imagine the current candidates saying that even after the election -- and getting us to believe it.
Citizens are saying: Where are we going? We're broke now, and we don't want to just spend more. Is there a way to change the political structure to stop the yammering at each other instead of acting as a team to help people? Who is going to work for the common good?
All of this cries out for something better than the argument over whether the economy is growing rapidly enough. More than Dan Quayle ironically calling Bill Clinton and Al Gore "raging moderates." More than Governor Clinton calling President Bush "the mockery of the world."
Warren Bennis, a professor who has spent his career studying leadership, says, "The leader cannot cut his conscience to fit this year's fashions." Oh, that it were so! In politics, we are seeing exactly that. And the citizens have come to expect very little.
What kind of year is it when the most frequently repeated phrase is: "The economy is weak"? Of course it's weak, partly because every single-issue group in the land has been taught by government to grab something and run. Farm subsidies. Aid to dependent children. Higher Medicare and Medicaid charges. More Social Security pay when it is not needed. Arts grants. Anything that isn't tied down.
In the midst of chaotic change, people grab what they can when they can -- not just grants to East Los Angeles but fraudulent bond bids on Wall Street, not just grants to welfare mothers but deceitful insurance claims.
Most voters say the government cannot manage those issues. How strange it is, then, that the same voters expect politicians to "fix" the economy while insisting those same politicians cannot do anything well.
John W. Gardner, whose writings on excellence should be required reading for would-be political leaders, said in "No Easy Victories":
"Leaders . . . can express the values that hold the society together. Most important, they can conceive and articulate goals that lift people out of their petty preoccupations, carry them above the conflicts that tear a society apart and unite them in pursuit of objectives worthy of their best efforts."
For the briefest moment, Ross Perot approached those values. He began to ask everybody in the society to share in the common effort to get things going in the right direction. Raise taxes on the rich, ask for a 50-cent gasoline tax increase and insist that cigarette taxes go higher to pay off the deficit. Pay attention to the ruinous national debt. Ask, in other words, what people can do for their country.
Alas, he had neither the temperament to carry his campaign to a conclusion nor the faith that his fellow Americans could take that bitter medicine. He didn't like what Seymour Saronson called "the caldron of action, power and pressure" as it applies to elections. Perhaps he was right, since none of the other candidates would dare articulate those goals. The polls have concentrated our minds on single issues -- abortion, taxes, welfare, pollution, crime, drugs, etc. -- to the extent that we seem unable to cope with the larger questions that bedevil us.
Moreover, the politicians savage each other in stinging rhetorical fashion. The Republican leadership believes that President Bush and Vice President Quayle must run against the Democratic Congress to win re-election. Maybe. But wouldn't you like to see the White House and Congress work on something together, solve a problem -- together?
It approaches silliness to wish for a little teamwork during a political year. Perhaps it would be better to ask for a little civility after the votes are counted in November. Not even that is a given in Washington now.
So why don't we all just stop worrying about the special interests and encourage individuals to continue to grab. The nation is addicted to grabbing for grants and special interests. As John Ciardi, that old Saturday Review editor, used to say with irony, "Be selfish. Nothing else makes the human race predictable."
Reg Murphy, former publisher of The Sun and The Evening Sun, covered politics for the Atlanta Constitution.