The Great Divide in American Politics

October 06, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

CLEVELAND — Cleveland. -- About 15 years ago -- this was after the Cuyahoga River caught fire -- this city defaulted on some bonds, the city council president and a handful of other members were indicted in connection with a kickback scheme, the president of the school board was arrested for ''mooning'' on his way home from a rock concert, and the mayor, in a snit of some sort, withdrew his personal checking account from the Cleveland Trust the day his brother was arrested for robbing a branch of that bank.

Today things are going well, up to a point. The reason they are, and the point at which they are not, are topics about which Mayor Michael White has volcanic opinions.

A 5-foot-7-inch caldron of energy, he seems to pace even when sitting. He became mayor in 1990 at age 38 and was re-elected last year with 85 percent of the vote, an achievement that glitters like, and is a reward for, Cleveland's revived downtown. The symbols, and perhaps the catalysts, of the revival are two new venues for professional sports -- Jacobs Field, the Indians' new ballpark, and Gateway Arena where the Cavaliers soon will play basketball.

The economic justification for public investment in sports emporiums is easier to believe than to demonstrate. The calculation is complex because it is unclear how much of the money spent in connection with the sporting events would otherwise be spent locally anyway. In any case, new sports facilities are a trickle-down approach to building up cities: The viability of downtown facilities depends on the rental of luxury ''skyboxes'' or suites to corporate clients from nearby office towers.

That said, this too must be: The sense of pulsing viability that new sports facilities, and recurring crowds, impart to a downtown, has a cash value, albeit one difficult to calculate. And it has other values as well.

Crowded streets are safe streets. With 11 new restaurants having opened near the ballpark, and a new Ritz-Carlton a few blocks away, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame soon to open, Mr. White, an African-American from the inner city, says happily, ''The suburbs are beginning to be played out.'' People are moving back into the city, he says, ''for the same reason a 55-year-old buys a Stingray after driving around in an Olds 88 for 10 years.''

Rhetorically, he does not crawl along in second gear. He is a paradigmatic urban politician, a materialist optimist: ''Take care of economic problems, and two-thirds of social problems go away.''

Hence his recipe for recovery in the rest of the city, the part away from the line drives and jump shots, is: jobs. Jobs, he says, will cure ''addiction to the mailbox'' -- monthly welfare checks.

How, then, does he explain the fact that the explosion of social pathologies since the 1960s -- welfare dependency, drug addiction and, especially, family disintegration and illegitimacy -- has coincided with prosperity? He says the prosperity passed by the inner cities where there has been a ''depression'' for 10 years.

But there have been severe, protracted economic hardships before that did not result in anything remotely like the revolution in values represented by the 80 percent rates of illegitimate births in many inner cities. The numbers denote the starkest tragedy in contemporary America.

Regarding the possibility of reversing the collapse of the stigma hitherto associated with illegitimacy, Mr. White says with finality:

''We are no more going to go back to the stigma against having sex at 13 than we are going to start wearing chastity belts again.''

Well. Here is the great divide in American politics in the 10th decade of the 20th century. On one side there are those who assert the primacy of material factors, such as the availability of jobs. On the other side are those who believe in the sovereignty of moral values in determining the destinies of communities.

Mayor White argues, correctly, that an emphasis on jobs has a moral dimension. Work is indeed central to the culture of freedom because work requires, and hence teaches, responsibility, discipline and such useful habits as punctuality and grooming. Also, the availability of jobs, which nourishes the hopes that sustain secondary education, is a prerequisite for a successful society.

However, so, too, are well- parented children. Neither the children who have children, nor the children, are a promising work force for today, or tomorrow. Glistening sports facilities and commercial towers, however numerous, are insufficient to sustain cities in which there is fatalism about 13-year-olds having sex and, inevitably, babies.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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