You Can't Go Back to Woodstock

August 07, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- For President Clinton, life of late has been all Lent and no Easter, and last week echoes of events 30 and 25 years ago underscored his problems. The man who campaigned as the ''candidate of change'' seems uncomprehending of changes pertinent to governing. The man who pledged to ''make change our friend and not our enemy'' is finding that changes in public attitudes are unfriendly to his agenda.

The nation has paid as scant attention to the anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as the nation paid to its passage 30 years ago today. It passed without a negative vote in the House and just two in the Senate. It authorized the president to ''take all necessary measures'' to prevent further aggression in Vietnam. Bitter experience soon caused many people, particularly Democrats of Mr. Clinton's age and persuasion, to assert that such a casual congressional role in authorizing major uses of military force is anti-constitutional. Yet last week, on the eve of the 30th anniversary of what once was widely regarded as a dereliction of constitutional duty, the Clinton administration asked not Congress but the United Nations (Uganda, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia . . . ), through the Security Council, to authorize an invasion to end the menace that Haiti poses to world peace.

In 1945, when the U.N. was born, and before Bill Clinton was, there may have been a significant American constituency for such a dilution of national sovereignty and disregard of Congress' constitutional role. But not now. Virtually all Americans believe that no U.S. invasion of another nation can be justified by anything short of a threat to vital U.S. interest, the protection of which does not require U.N. permission.

In domestic policy, the revival of congressional supremacy, and the miniaturization and marginalization of the presidency, is illustrated by the death of a thousand cuts administered to the president's highest priority, his 1,300-page health-care plan. The executioner has been Congress, which will write any plan that passes.

Last week, when organizers of a 25th-anniversary Woodstock nostalgia concert announced that their show would not go on because they had sold 48,343 fewer tickets than the 50,000 they had expected, a member of the so-called ''Woodstock Generation'' took a stroll down memory lane. President Clinton was out and about doing his daily quota of speeches about health care, and turned up in Independence, Missouri, to note that Harry Truman had favored national health insurance. The force of that observation as an argument for federal supervision of health care today is unclear.

When Americans really want something, the political class does not wait 45 years to give it to them. And when Truman became president, Republicans and conservative Democrats enacted their postwar agenda of cutting taxes, curbing union power and repealing wartime regulations. National health care could not be passed then, even though the mobilization of victory in the Second World War had given the federal government a prestige unmatched before or since, and even though in 1950 a median income family of four paid only about 2 percent of its income in federal taxes, compared to about 25 percent today.

President Clinton's health-care proposal reveals him to be oblivious to changes that have occurred in his lifetime concerning government's prestige and burdensomeness, the former crashing, the latter soaring. For perspective, consider that in 1958, when Bill Clinton was 12, a Gallup Poll showed that only 12 percent of Americans thought Congress was doing a ''poor'' job.

Long before the Second World War, Americans were remarkably ready to concentrate power in new government agencies that, Americans believed, would wield power wisely for long-term planning. For example, regional problems produced such bold improvisations as the New York Port authority in 1921, the Colorado River Compact in 1922, the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933. Today, even if our solicitude for snail darters and spotted owls were compatible with such projects, our reduced confidence in government is not.

This helps to explain the fate of Mr. Clinton's health-care proposal, which his aides, recalling the government-friendly 1930s, have advertised as the ''Social Security of the 1990s.'' His proposal now looks like a political version of a Woodstock revival that no one wants, an exercise in a nostalgia not widely felt, an attempt to revive a vanished and irrecoverable political past.

Nostalgia is often a yearning for childhood, the years of fairy tales. ''The essence of a fairy tale,'' writes literary critic Cynthia Ozick, ''is that wishing does make it so: the wish achieves its own fulfillment through its very steadfastness of desire.''

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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