The Shoe Pinches When It's on the Other Foot

ELLEN GOODMAN

June 01, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- My friend and I meet on the corner and fall amiably into our usual, laced-up, speed-walking pace. This morning, however, I notice that my fellow traveler is wearing a pinched look.

We haven't gone a mile when she begins to complain, arms pumping and words flying. These are the phrases that I inhale in great aerobic gulps: ''President-bashing . . . media bias . . . making mountains out of molehills . . . give the guy a break.''

At a red light, my companion finally stops and says into the city air, ''I cannot believe that I am becoming one of those people who complain about the media. I cannot believe that I am becoming one of those people who yell at the television set.''

I have logged many miles with this woman and so it doesn't take me long to diagnose the reason for her discomfort. This is the source of her sudden pain:

The shoe is on the other foot.

For 12 years, my friend was delighted every time Presidents Reagan or Bush stumbled. For four months, she has been appalled every time President Clinton stubbed his toe.

When Nancy Reagan bought her high-budget china and found the teacups on Page One, she pounced on the first lady's behavior. When Bill Clinton got his Beverly Hills blow-dry, she denounced the stories as trivial.

Last year, when George Bush was shown throwing up at a Japanese banquet, she thought the act was symbolic. This year when Mr. Clinton's travel-agency woes hung the headlines, she pronounced the fuss silly.

This co-walker is not the only sufferer from shoe-on-the-other-foot syndrome. All around the country, the same people who once praised Congress for beating back Republican legislation are now yelling ''gridlock.''

The people who once enjoyed the skeptical tag lines by reporters on the Bush White House beat, are now calling them snide.

Even Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, a maligned FOB, has discovered some sympathy for Bebe Rebozo, a disparaged FON (Friend of Nixon). And everywhere Democrats are walking and talking about how the country is being distracted from ''the real issues.''

I suppose that any chiropractor could have warned us that a change at the head of the body politic is likely to be felt in the feet. Nor is everyone uncomfortable in the new gear.

Robert Dole has fit into his role as happily as if it were a pair of old slippers. Ross Perot has re-emerged from under the hood to pronounce President Clinton incompetent, with ''a learning curve that's like a cliff.'' And Mary Matalin, the Bush campaign manager, has now gleefully declared that the Democrats are ''in a perpetual state of snakebite.''

More to the point, walking a mile in the other guy's shoes is probably good for the mind if not for the arches. After 12 years with one party in the White House, we get another, more bipartisan feel for rocky road.

BTC Maybe we are learning that gridlock isn't just caused by having one party in Congress and the other in the White House. It may be paralysis built into the system. Maybe we're learning that the media aren't just attacking one leader and one set of insiders. We may now agree that there is too much entertainment and too little information.

When the shoe is on the other foot, we also learn, painfully, how much easier it is to be a critic than a decision-maker. We learn which troubles come from underwhelming leadership and which come from overwhelming problems.

It's the prospect that our problems are overwhelming and don't change with elections that pinches the ideological toes. The people suffering the most discomfort are, after all, those who believed in, voted for, took a chance on, change. That's what is at stake.

There's an uneasy feeling shared this morning by my co-walker that nobody gets enough time or a chance to make a difference. A feeling that the whole country is short-fused and short-sighted. That every change agent gets nibbled to death in the capital, on the tube, or on a tarmac in California.

These are still the opening miles, the warm-up, break-in time. But if the new group is brought low fast, the people who voted for change aren't just going to try on another pair of footgear whether it's labeled Republican or Independent.

They'll put their feet up on the chairs and join the alienated and the cynical.

That would be more than a little bit uncomfortable. For a country, that's crippling.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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