Crime and demagogy

January 26, 1994|By Ray Jenkins

LIKE the snake charmer whose snake died, Republican politicians have been frantically seeking a new serpent ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Judging from the exultant mood at the winter meeting of the party's national committee in Washington this past weekend, they have found it in the crime issue. Indeed, "soft on crime" is so close to "soft on communism" that there's not even a need to revise the party strategy manuals for a new acronym; SOC still stands for sock it to 'em.

The tone of the gathering was set by remarks of two of the party's top gunslingers. Newt Gingrich, the heir-apparent to the centrist Robert Michel as the party's House leader, called for President Clinton to convert military bases into "stockades" to confine violent criminals. And Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas described Atty. Gen. Janet Reno as "a very sweet lady" who ought to be running a day-care center instead of the Justice Department.

To be sure, there's peril in the new strategy. A few old-fashioned conservatives may still believe that law enforcement is a state function, not federal. No doubt many proud veterans will fret over the spectacle of uniformed soldiers serving as prison guards.

And many women surely will be outraged over Mr. Gramm's patronizing slur of Janet Reno, just as South Carolina blacks were offended, half a century ago, when politicians like Senator Gramm's aging colleague, Strom Thurmond, spoke of "deservin' darkies."

But leaving these risky considerations aside, the greatest danger lies in the demagogic exploitation of fear as a political issue, and nothing better demonstrates this fact than use of "red scare" tactics over the past half-century.

Historians date the beginning of the Cold War from Harry Truman's embrace of the doctrine of "containment" of communism. Despite this, Republicans, led by an ambitious young congressman named Richard Nixon, used the "soft on communism" issue to a fare-thee-well through forums like the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities until they finally TC goaded Truman into responding by issuing Executive Order 9835 -- the presidential directive which set up the loyalty-board mechanism for ferreting "subversives" out of government.

Historians now sadly conclude that Truman's loyalty program was far more iniquitous than public congressional witch-hunts, because thousands of defenseless government bureaucrats were driven out of government service, and even into suicide, on the basis of anonymous accusations to phantom charges judged in Star Chamber settings.

In the 1960 presidential campaign, John Kennedy, keenly aware of Richard Nixon's proclivity for using the "soft on communism" issue, struck pre-emptively by concocting a "missile gap" which, he maintained, gave the Soviets a strategic superiority over the U.S. in nuclear weapons. The claim was entirely spurious, and President Eisenhower tried to warn Kennedy of the dangers of using such a volatile issue.

But Kennedy continued to campaign on the theme so convincingly that a major escalation of the arms race was inevitable once he became president. He realized his folly only when he nearly got the world blown up during the Cuban missile crisis in 1963.

The next Democrat to overreact in anticipation of Republican charges of "soft on communism" was Lyndon Johnson, who was not about to make himself vulnerable to the charge that he "lost Vietnam." Johnson didn't "lose Vietnam," but he lost his office, and it took another eight years, and 58,000 American lives, before an honorable Republican president, Gerald Ford, conceded that we had indeed "lost Vietnam."

In 1980 Ronald Reagan, taking his cue from Kennedy's campaign of 20 years earlier, warned darkly of America's "window of vulnerability" to Soviet attack. Even though we should have seen by then that the communist empire was about to fall under the torpid weight of its own military establishment, Mr. Reagan embarked on one final binge in the arms race which left the Soviet Union bankrupt and the United States hobbled by a $4 trillion debt that renders our nation helpless to address the most pressing social needs.

Can anyone now doubt how much better off we'd both be if our nations hadn't had to spend themselves into impoverishment before ending the Cold War?

Bill Clinton's State of the Union message last night, which by all accounts was hastily revised after the Republican strategy session over the weekend, made it clear that he is no more going to expose himself to a charge of being "soft on crime" than Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson would allow "soft on communism" charges to go unanswered.

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