Hollow promises of debate scare jobless veteran

MICHAEL OLESKER

October 13, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

He sat there Sunday night in Arbutus, with the great men of our time on this television screen offering visions of the American future, and he waited for answers which never arrived.

After all this time, the fear is beginning to creep into his bones. Listen to the numbers and the history: A quarter-century ago, not long out of college, he gave up a job paying $6.25 an hour to join the Air Force. He served in two wars, Vietnam and Desert Storm. Last summer, he finally retired and looked for civilian work. The best offer he's had in four months: $6.50 an hour.

''After 25 years and service in two wars,'' he was saying yesterday morning, ''you'd think I'd be doing better than a 25-cents-an-hour increase.''

He was in Thailand, at an Air Force base where they launched B-52 strikes over Laos and Cambodia, when the war in Vietnam was at its heaviest. Then, nearly two years ago, he was in Iraq, taking prisoners of war.

Now he finds himself a prisoner of the American economy, and the men who would be president are not talking in a language he understands.

The debate was a fraud. Instead of information, it left us with aesthetic impressions: Clinton, with the earnestness of a kid running for student body president; Perot opening his mouth and sounding like Barney Fife when Andy's away and Barney's trying to sound official; and Bush, his hand jammed into his pants pocket for 90 minutes, a studied figure of relaxation and detachment, as if to show us he's been through this stuff before, it's no big deal.

Debate? There is no debate when the longest answer runs to two minutes. Instead, it seemed an overview for a course you might wish to take, with these three professors reading from a syllabus to give you a brief taste of where they're prepared to take you, if only they can get you interested.

''The only one who talked to me,'' he says now, ''was Ross Perot. He didn't have any answers, but he was telling the real-life truth of it: There's no solution except suffering the next few years.''

On television, George Bush talked of the transition from defense peacetime jobs. He said job retraining and education were the answer, and then he said it would take a little time, ''a little longer run,'' and we'd have to be a little patient.

''I've looked all through Baltimore and Washington,'' he says now. He is 43 years old, not a kid anymore but possessed of a certain maturity, a certain honorable history that should count for something.

''I figured with my background, I could do something in security work,'' he says. He had law and criminal justice courses in the service, managed 200 people at Aberdeen Proving Ground, went to leadership training schools in Germany, headed military police units in several countries.

Back home, he gets a nibble of $5.50 an hour from Wells Fargo, $6 an hour from Abacus Security, $6.50 an hour from the Burns security people. The position is assistant manager. For a man supporting a wife and three teen-age children, it is simply impossible at those rates.

Four years ago, George Bush talked of creating 16 million new jobs over eight years. In four years, there are almost no new private-sector jobs. And those that exist come tainted: often low pay, part-time, no benefits, dead end.

''It's a horrible feeling,'' he says now, ''going down for unemployment pay. All these years serving the country, and I come back and find the system's fallen apart. When I was going to college, at UMBC, I was making $6.25 an hour. What happened in 25 years?

''Now I go to the unemployment office, and there's a list of jobs to look over. They go to $6 or $7 an hour, and then there's a big gap to $14 for scientists, computer experts. There's nothing in between.''

He watched the candidates and waited for them to talk about this, about the cold hand of fear that has struck people who see no future. He got no sense of connection from the candidates. Instead, there were memorized statistics, declarations of problems, nobody with an explicit solution.

''I believe,'' he says, ''they really don't understand what's happening out here.''

He says it's OK if you put his story in the newspaper, because he thinks there are lots of people like him who can identify. Then, an hour later, he calls to ask a favor.

''Don't put my name in the story,'' he says. ''My family says it'd be embarrassing.''

The family has it backward. It's the people running the country who should be embarrassed, for all those who listen for answers and never hear the right words.

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