No Pain, No Gain

RICHARD REEVES

July 01, 1993|By RICHARD REEVES

TRENTON, NEW JERSEY — Trenton, New Jersey. -- Gov. James Florio and I were on our way to lunch last Thursday when his car phone rang. ''Great,'' he said. ''That's good. That's good. Set up a news conference for after lunch.''

''We won on McGuire,'' he said, turning to me as he hung up. The Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission had voted to keep McGuire Air Force Base in southern New Jersey open and also to assign the Air Force's new Northeast Air Mobility Wing at the New Jersey base rather than at Plattsburgh Air Force Base in the North Country of New York state.

The thrill of victory. Governor Florio, a pretty cool character, was practically tapping for joy at his news conference an hour later.

He said the people of New Jersey had worked together to save McGuire with economic arguments, persuading the federal commission that fuel-storage costs would be significantly lower in New Jersey than up in Plattsburgh.

And the agony of defeat. After voting to keep McGuire, the commission voted 6-1 to close down all operations at Plattsburgh Air Force Base.

Within 24 hours I happened to be in the North Country of New York, taking my daughter to summer camp. Gov. Mario Cuomo was there, too.

''Wrong . . . irrational,'' New York's leader said of the closure of the base in his state, promising to mobilize all of New York state's considerable political and economic power to get a reversal of the closure decision.

Plattsburgh, a patriotic little city that has housed United States troops continuously since the War of 1812, was in angry shock -- stunned because the commission had itself overruled a Pentagon recommendation to keep Plattsburgh Air Force Base open.

''Dirty politics --that's all it is,'' growled Alan Tetreault, owner of a bakery shop near the base. A number of Plattsburgh folk blamed the decision on the fact that the chairman of the base commission, appointed by President Bush last year, is a former New Jersey congressman named James Courter.

Not likely. Mr. Courter, a conservative Republican, is a ''former'' because he gave up his congressional seat to run against Mr. Florio -- and got clobbered.

The Plattsburgh paper, the Press-Republican, seemed to be in hopeful mourning, if there is such a thing. The first lead headline Saturday was: ''Cuomo to Lobby Clinton for PAFB.'' Noting that the president could reverse the commission decision, the story began: ''Like a general visiting his wounded soldiers after a tough battle, Gov. Mario Cuomo came to Plattsburgh . . . ''

The next day's paper analyzed the base-closing from every conceivable angle, beginning with the loss of 2,100 jobs in the North Country. Then there were stories on unhappy military retirees in the area who would lose their privileges at the base's hospital, PX and gymnasiums. Civil-rights leaders said there would be even fewer African-Americans in the area. High school coaches said their football teams would be hurt without students from the base. Local movers said they expected good business in the short run but disaster after the Air Force families had all moved out.

All of that is true, I'm sure. And the same thing is happening all over the country. As it should. The Cold War is over, so there will be hard times in the military business. It would be an enormous mistake -- a gigantic welfare program -- not to ''down-size'' the military-industrial complex in the same way other mature industries are being forced to cut back in trying times, in the hope of reinvigorating themselves and America, too.

So, here we are, doing what politicians like Governors Cuomo and Florio and President Clinton said we should do: Cut defense spending. And -- surprise! -- it hurts.

This week, Governor Cuomo will try to pressure the president to keep the New York base open, just as Governor Florio did when the New Jersey base was on the chopping block. Perhaps, Mr. Clinton will stand up to that pressure, although I'm not sure he will. But sooner or later something has to be actually shut down, and some Americans will have to sacrifice for the good of all.

No pain, no gain!

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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