February 25, 1993|By RICHARD REEVES

New York. -- "Lap of Luxury'' was the gigantic headline on Page One of the New York Post last week when it was discovered that the government was building a running track behind the White House for President Clinton.

Well, it isn't actually a track, just a 5-foot-wide lane in the quarter-mile driveway around the grounds behind the White House. ''Bill gets private jogging track as our taxes go up,'' was part of the headline, too -- providing some fun for the Post, which espouses a brand of right-wing populism.

Then, Charming Billy, overeager to please as always, said he did want the little track -- as President Eisenhower wanted and got a putting green -- but he agreed that the government and taxpayers should not have to pay for it. So, he said, he sure would welcome private contributions for the thing.

Where I come from, that is known as soliciting a bribe.

I don't like private contributions to my elected officials, high or low. I didn't like the private funding of my president's inaugural last month, as if it were the Sony, AT&T, Bank of America, R.J. Reynolds Free Enterprise Bowl. And, in that case, the money from corporations was only loans, paid back by fees for $l television rights and ticket and souvenir sales. The Inaugural Committee, it seems, thought that all things go better with Coke symbols on them -- rejecting the idea that the government itself has enough loose cash around to lend itself a couple of million dollars for a month.

The populism abroad in the land these days, which I wanted and love, is being drained off, or bought off, by ''chickenship,'' which I would say is defined by John D. Rockefeller years ago tossing dimes into the water hazards and ponds on golf courses where he played because he loved to watch the caddies dive for the bits of silver in the mud.

In other words, chickenship like running tracks, cars and drivers for high officials, and even bounced checks at the House of Representatives bank are not the problem -- they are only symbols that, by falling, make us feel good and look the other way while corporations and other campaign-contributing interests go about the business of subverting government (and thus taxpayers) to their own profitable purposes.

Besides the rip-offs by lobbyists, the principal result of chickenship populism is to make both politics and government safe for rich people. I've seen a couple of examples these past two weeks both here and in Washington that I consider instructive:

* A Californian named Michael Huffington, who paid $6 million of his family's oil fortune to buy a congressional seat last year in and around Santa Barbara, announced that he was donating his salary to a foundation he controls. Isn't that nice? Well, West Coast newspapers thought so, praising the congressman for his generosity and populist instincts. I, for one, would prefer more congressmen who have to live on their salary rather than treat it as pocket change to be tossed on the night table or into ponds on golf courses.

* The president of an American subsidiary of a Japanese company came up to a high official in the White House the other day and said he understood the man was having trouble selling or renting his house back home to buy another in Washington. ''I think,'' said the corporate one, ''I might have someone from the company to take it off your hands.'' Really? Where I come from, that is offering a bribe.

I would recommend thinking about this paragraph from a New York Times story on Tuesday about how mad taxpayers are at Congress:

''If members of Congress could finish all their business in one day, shut down their offices, dismiss their staffs and resign without pensions, they could save the nation's taxpayers $2 billion a year -- about the cost of one B-2 bomber.''

I'm a taxpayer and often mad at what goes on in Washington, but the problem is not congressmen who get free plane rides. Building $2 billion planes we don't need is the problem, along with unexamined entitlement payments and the Visa-like interest payments on multiplying national debts. And so are campaign-financing laws and practices that more and more make it impossible for ordinary people -- meaning those who have to live on their salaries -- to have any chance of holding elective or appointed office without accepting what amounts to subsidies from corporations and other interested parties feeding the trough of government.

If the president wants to run around in circles, that's in a grand old tradition and it's fine with me. He can have his track. We have a big investment in this man's health and energy and peace of mind, and paying taxes for a running lane is a small price, just chickenship.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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