Looking for Ways to Make Government the People's Instrument

NEAL R. PEIRCE

January 26, 1993|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

WASHINGTON — Washington.--As with any presidency, it's possible that Bill Clinton's -- so boldly and jubilantly begun in a hope-filled inauguration week -- will expire in bad times or by self-inflicted wounds.

But there's another scenario -- one that every member of Congress, every governor, county executive or mayor ought to be ready for. It's that Mr. Clinton is inventing a powerful new form of government-to-people, people-to-government communication that will alter our public life for years to come.

The first hint was Mr. Clinton's personal, full engagement during the campaign as he listened to and empathized with Americans of disparate backgrounds and cultures. In a ''high tech'' age, this was remarkable ''high touch.''

Clue No. 2 was his economic ''summit'' in Little Rock. For the first time, a national leader showed the courage and imagination -- on national television -- to listen and probe, to ask questions without pretending to know all the answers first, to think through problems with the American people instead of talking at them.

Then there were such inauguration-week events as the huge bulletin board on the Mall on which people could pin their own messages to the soon-to-be president. The scene was dubbed ''the Town Hall of Hope.'' The heartfelt messages ranged from ''Find my Dad a Job'' to ''Get the guns off our streets.'' Mr. Clinton had created a milieu in which people honestly felt he would hear, and care about, their message.

Finally, there were the themes of the inaugural address: a promise that action will replace gridlock in a government of bold experimentation, the talk of an inclusive America, the stress on mutual responsibilities, the call for service by our youth, and -- new for Mr. Clinton -- a warning that Americans must make tangible sacrifices for the common good.

What Mr. Clinton has done is re-spark hope that government can again be the people's instrument, that consensus on such gnawing problems as medical care and the towering budget deficits need not be beyond our grasp.

He may indeed turn out to be a better leader than manager. Yet after a long winter of alienation -- Americans turned off by officialdom's repeated deceptions and elections filled with manipulative campaign ads -- this may indeed be a new spring.

Consider what it will mean if this president goes directly, frequently to the American people, not to propa gandize but rather to solicit their concerns and opinions in a variety of town-hall formats.

The town halls need not be confined to single national-level conclaves like the Little Rock economic forum. The sessions can travel to individual states and cities, televised with full citizen participation. The ''cast'' may include not just the president but Cabinet members, senators or representatives, governors, local officials, selected ''experts'' and leaders from business, academia and community-based organizations.

On some occasions the president could dispatch Vice President Gore or Cabinet members to lead the discussions in his stead. One month's town halls might take up thorny questions in writing a national health plan, the next month defense conversion, another campaign-spending reform.

Fresh doubts have been raised about the infrastructure spending Mr. Clinton promised in his campaign -- that projects aren't as ready to be taken ''off the shelf,'' or as economically beneficial, as first claimed. What better than town meetings around the country to hear opinions, not just of pork-hungry politicos, contractors and unions, but ordinary Americans as well, on whether local projects would leverage real economic growth?

Towns halls would be a challenge and opportunity for senators and representatives -- how to revamp their own, often vacuous home-state appearances to allow true exploration of perplexing issues. Democrats and Republicans would differ in constructing town-hall questions and agendas. Still, the effort to gain broad grass-roots consensus ought to translate, in time, into less antagonism and gridlock, indeed more consensus, in Congress itself.

The approach is so appealing it will likely be picked up by imaginative governors, county and city officials. And why not? State and local budget, education and health crises are just as perplexing as the federal government's. Just as the Little Rock sessions tapped talent rarely seen -- especially by the public -- so could parallel efforts at the grass roots.

It may be a stretch for some governors and mayors to equal the moderator-listener-interrogator skills Mr. Clinton demonstrated in the Little Rock sessions. But as much as presidents, they need to be educators of their publics.

I have heard elitist ''inside-the-Beltway'' politicos and pundits scoff at the town-hall approach as a threat to representative democracy. One can also disparage Mr. Clinton's other efforts to keep the White House in touch with ordinary Americans as self-interested gimmickry.

Of course, if it's all successful, Mr. Clinton will gain politically. But if in the process he starts to reconnect government to millions who have felt disconnected, to reconstruct this country's frayed and imperiled consent of the governed, we will all be winners.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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