Thinking Small in America


July 09, 1993|By RICHARD REEVES

Paris. -- Buried in the small print of newspapers here last Monday was a report of an explosion in the boiler room of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Seoul, South Korea. Three workmen were injured, but what made the (apparent) accident news was the fact that President Clinton was scheduled to be in the hotel in 10 days and 140 White House personnel were evacuated along with other guests.

Wait a minute. One hundred and forty people! Who? What were they doing? There must be some mistake.

There was. The next day's papers reported that the White House advance team was moving out of the Hyatt Regency and taking 250 rooms at the Shilla Hotel. Two hundred and fifty!

Experience tells me the real number is even larger. For various reasons, including security considerations, many White House people are usually scattered around the city when the big boss arrives. The numbers are ridiculous. Seoul is not even the president's main stop this time. It's more like a two-night layover on the way home from the Group of Seven economic meetings in Tokyo.

The White House is obviously out of control. I am sure that David Gergen and company will prepare a long rationale explaining why all those crucial people just had to be in Seoul. And, making up those excuses will occupy another couple of hundred federal employees for a few days.

Four years ago I had a conversation with Theodore Sorensen, who was counsel and chief speechwriter to President John F. Kennedy, about the size of the White House staff in those good old days. He told me there were three people in his office in 1963 and that he had checked to see how many people handled the same tasks under President Reagan. He stopped counting at 157.

Perhaps all that is only because Americans think big. Too big! Mulling over a diagram of the White House staff -- and ignoring the reality that many staffers are hidden on the payrolls of other executive departments -- I thought it looked familiar. What it looked like to me was a stretch limousine. The White House looks like a stretch limousine. It has trouble getting around curves and corners, you can't see inside the dark windows to find out what's going on, and no one can tell you what's in the middle, or even why there is such a big middle.

Then I realized that it's not just the White House or stretch limos. Americans just like things too big. Maybe there's no reason. Maybe they just make us feel big. Number one -- at least in weight. It is no wonder then that we had to come up with the new idea of ''down-sizing.''

I don't like the word as a euphemism for corporate layoffs, but it does accurately focus attention on the bloated nature of much of modern American life. And I do have my own list of things American that have grown too big for their britches. After stretch limousines and the White House staff, I would down-size:

* California. The biggest state should be broken up because its government and politics have broken down. Never before in a democracy have so many been governed so badly by so few.

* The New York Mets payroll. If baseball is such a wonderful mirror of America, we should learn something from the fact that the highest-paid professional team in the country is also the worst.

* Wal-Mart. The celebration of Sam Walton's evocation of the American Dream ignores the obvious fact that his stores (and their imitators) have thrived and grown and grown by sucking the dreams and life out of the town squares and Main streets of middle America.

* Hollywood palaces. There is something frightening about the proliferation of American castles -- particularly those of entertainment tycoons in Los Angeles and environs -- each costing more than a presidential campaign and seating more people than Radio City Music Hall, each guarded by modern moats of electronic pickets and private guards. Do these people know something we don't? Does this mean the revolution is near?

* Toys. My 8-year-old daughter asked me the price of a stuffed horse the other day at FAO Schwartz in New York. Looking at its rear, I saw it was something over $1,300. We might think about putting that kind of money into schooling rather than play.

So it goes. A grouchy column. I'm sure the Clinton White House does plan to do some down-sizing of its own. Perhaps that will begin when the president's young men and young women come home from Korea and have to go back to school in September.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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