SAN FRANCISCO -- Back in 1966, when movie actor Ronald Reagan was seeking his first term as governor of California, he told a story about what he believed would happen if there were no public welfare and your neighbor's house burned down.
Within hours, he said cheerily in an interview aboard his campaign plane, fellow neighbors would take the victim family in, feed, clothe and house it, and start rebuilding the house. Therefore, when we were all our brothers' keepers on a volunteer basis, who needed public welfare?
Twenty-eight years later, that same basic fantasy is being peddled as the answer to public welfare by Republican Rep. Michael Huffington, running neck and neck with Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein in his bid to oust her on Nov. 8.
Huffington, the multimillionaire who is expected to spend a record $20 million or more of his own money to move over to the Senate after only a single two-year term without distinction in the House, is demonstrating by doing so that he believes charity begins at home.
But he does not stop there. He claims to have given other millions to a number of charities and causes and doesn't see why, if everybody pitched in according to his or her means, the welfare problem couldn't be solved without the government spending taxpayers' hard-earned money.
Volunteerism, Ronald Reagan style, is at the heart of Huffington's attack on big government in Washington -- and on Feinstein as a typical "career politician" and big spender. When asked what he has done himself in Congress, Huffington mentions his sponsorship of a bill (going nowhere) that would permit taxpayers who use the short federal income tax return and don't itemize deductions to get tax credit for charitable contributions.
Huffington, in a speech here the other day to the Commonwealth Club of California, made clear he would go far beyond former President George Bush's much-ballyhooed, often-ridiculed "thousand points of light" program. That, you may recall, was the public recognition extended from the Bush White House almost daily of some worthy volunteer program.
"While Bush praised volunteerism," Huffington said, "he never spoke of it as an alternative to government welfare programs. Community solutions were never seen as anything more than frosting on the federal cake. I'm asking you to imagine an America in which each citizen looks around their communities and takes ownership, takes responsibility for at least one problem or one person who needs help."
Huffington's pitch to replace welfare with volunteerism is in keeping with the major theme of his campaign -- that if California voters send him to the Senate, he'll work to get government out of nearly everything, not just welfare.
His Commonwealth Club speech, like most of his other utterances, was an almost nonstop assault on Washington in an obvious effort to tap into the public discontent with Congress and President Clinton that threatens to deal heavy losses to the Democrats in power on Nov. 8.
That discontent clearly has convinced Huffington's campaign managers that his lack of a record in the House is actually a plus for him -- and that Feinstein's reputation as a doer in the Senate is a minus. Huffington doesn't quite say, "Elect me and I promise you I will do nothing," but that is the gist of his message.
The one thing he did promise to do in the speech was "welcome God back into our lives and into our public square. . . . For those who attack me and my beliefs, God is considered a dirty little word, best left unmentioned in polite society."
To all those, he said, "who believe God should in any case be kept in the closet and under wraps, my campaign indeed is a threat."
Huffington did not mention that his own campaign has been plagued by stories of the former involvement of his celebrity wife, Arianna, in an offbeat religious group called the Church of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness. In a recent joint appearance with Feinstein on the Larry King television show, he accused his Democratic opponent of dragging his wife's religion into the campaign, which she denied.
If being for God and against government is what voters want to hear this year, Michael Huffington is giving them an earful. Only two years after the electorate seemed to be telling George Bush they were fed up with his inaction, it may be that he ran for re-election at the wrong time.