Political Animals: See How They Run

October 27, 1994|By RICHARD REEVES

WASHINGTON — Washington.--President Clinton's dangerous trip to the Middle East this week -- along the line where brave becomes bravado or foolhardy -- is as pure an example as we shall ever see of a political animal in action.

No matter what is being said, there is no doubt in my mind that our young president is willing to risk his life in the desert because he did not risk it in Vietnam 25 years ago.

This is not a rational thing to do -- an assassination could bring war rather than the peace that is the object of Mr. Clinton's journey -- unless you put yourself in his place. As a student, he agonized that avoiding service in Vietnam could cripple him in his chosen career, politics, and though he rose to the presidency, the draft-dodging does affect his capability to govern. He thinks he has to show the world (or the majority of males of his own generation) that he has guts.

Bill Clinton did not know that he was cursed, that he was the man getting what he wished for. In his case, reaching the peak has meant forever defending the way he made it there. He is as fast on his feet as any politician the country has ever seen, yet he is reluctant to do live press conferences. Why? I think the reason may be that he is afraid that sooner or later reporters will be jumping up to ask about women he met in 1982 or a conversation he had about money one night that year in a Little Rock restaurant.

It's not just him, either. We are all cursed these days. Our politics has turned sour -- or sick. Mr. Clinton is just one of the animals running for their lives, scurrying this way and that, choking on their own smoke, afraid the forest is on fire -- and perhaps it is. At the moment, the Washington breed are all lying, beginning with the charge-countercharge over the relationship between the federal budget, taxes and middle-class ''entitlements.''

Why? To a man and woman they believe that if they spoke the truth -- that government spending is out of control not because of ''fat'' or ''pork'' or even excess defense spending, but because of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- they would immediately be dispatched back to private life.

Most of us, frankly, would prefer private life. But they are not most of us; they are people driven by desperate need for public acclaim and validation. They must be validated every two years, or four, or six. And the code of their craft is forgiveness for whatever they have to do to keep winning. That is all that counts. In Tennessee and Oklahoma and other places south and west, some of the politicians closest to Bill Clinton are now attacking him, lying about him, lying about themselves. So be it -- in private the president understands, because he would do exactly the same thing to them if he had to.

In California, Gov. Pete Wilson is saying the opposite of what he once said about immigration, legal and illegal, because he believes he has to do that to survive the fire.

In fact, Governor Wilson is both reversing himself and denying himself as he feels the heat of the frightening ethnic coals he is stirring. At the same time he calls for new laws (a state constitutional amendment that would force schoolteachers and welfare workers to denounce students and clients if there was reason to believe their papers were not in order), the governor also says those same laws will probably be thrown out by U.S. courts, because this is America, after all.

Yes, it's America, a violent place. What does the governor think will happen to a teacher in East Los Angeles if she or he turns students over to federal officials for deportation? He must know, which is why he now adds that the real intention of the amendment, Proposition 187, is just to ''send a message.''

And his opponent, the state treasurer, Kathleen Brown, was so anxious to demonstrate that she ''cared'' about crime a couple of weeks ago -- though no one but Governor Wilson said she didn't -- that she began discussing crimes against her own children, rape and assault, on statewide television.

Is that necessary? Is this what it takes to get elected in this day and age? Who needs it?

They do. The political animals. That is why people have contempt for them. That is why people do believe the lies and slander the animals are snarling at each other across the country.

The animals think we will forget the things that are said -- as they forget, because that is part of the code. But, sadly, the rest of us won't forget; it is the way we will remember our politicians.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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