Like a Million Car Radios Stuck on 'Scan'

March 24, 1995|By RICHARD REEVES

Washington -- What was it like when Mr. Clinton came to Washington? ''Bewildering,'' he answered. ''I was bewildered.''

He gave the same answer in two interviews a year apart, and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, has also used the same word to describe her reactions to the capital. Because the Clintons use words so well, I took a look at Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, which defines ''bewilder'' this way: ''1: to cause to lose one's bearings; 2: to perplex or confuse esp. by a complexity, variety or multitude of objects or considerations.''

I then asked Vice President Al Gore Jr., who grew up here, the son of a senator, and came back as a member of Congress himself in 1977, about the difference between the capital city he came to and the one the Clintons came to 15 years later. ''The whole country is different,'' Mr. Gore said. ''All these body blows to the sense of national well-being. The economic transformations . . . the disorienting effect of all this electronic information.''

I must have looked disoriented, so Mr. Gore went on: ''Do you know Prigogine's work?''

Ilya Prigogine is a Belgian scientist (Russian-born) who won a 1977 Nobel Prize for his work in thermodynamics. ''He showed that a system with more and more energy and matter coming in will spontaneously reorganize itself into a more complicated system,'' said Mr. Gore. ''Something different will come out, but what it is can't be predicted beforehand.''

He drew a diagram, a pipeline leading into and out of an empty chamber. Washington is the chamber. More molecules were coming in, more matter, more energy, more heat, more information, more news in new cycles, new action-reaction-action; just more stuff, faster and faster. Pow! Something happens inside -- the vice president scrawls wild zigzag lines and energy collisions of a world coming apart and then coming together in different form inside the chamber -- and then something different, unpredictable shoots out the other end.

Inside the chamber there are new men, new women, new media, new money, new information, new relationships, new sounds, new smells, new laws. A new Washington. Outside, beyond the Beltway, it makes no sense to beholders -- first there is confusion, then contempt.

Pow! A money-information complex instead of the old military-industrial complex. Public opinion democracy -- government of the polls, by the polls and for the polls. Numbers make news. Money makes numbers. Three trillion dollars. Forty-eight percent. Fame is money, and reporters get more of both than the people they cover. Everyone is the same size on CNN. One man plus a fax becomes a majority.

An electronic beltway separates the city in the chamber from the nation. And the nation turns to Newt Gingrich and his Republicans, who promised, above all, to punish the Congress as the symbol of the new Washington -- maybe even to roll back the 1960s and make a new time like the old days when women and blacks and the young knew their place.

In Washington, you would think Bill and Hillary Clinton came to town in beads and bell-bottoms. ''Bitches like her'' is shorthand for undigested revolutions beginning with civil rights and feminism, sexual tolerance and abortion. During a closed committee meeting considering Mrs. Clinton's health-care plans, a Democratic senator of tenure and stature blurted out a Rip Van Winkle theory: ''Jesus Christ! What we're dealing with here are two VISTA volunteers who went to Arkansas 20 years ago and came back here thinking it's still the '60s.''

Life speeded up and heated up in Prigogine Washington in the years the Clintons were away. The capital is information-driven now -- or driven crazy by technology producing instant information. Decision-making is high-speed and interactive; analysis and adjustment are reactive and, more important, continuous. ''Machines can't think, but they change the way people do,'' said one of Mr. Clinton's men, deputy national-security adviser Samuel (Sandy) Berger.

Indeed, the place has become something like a million car radios stuck on ''scan.'' ''These changes,'' said Vice President Gore, ''are not friendly to the linear debate envisioned by the Founding Fathers.''

The electronic din has taken much of the greatest power presidents have: controlling the flow of information to the great democracy. The president and Rush Limbaugh, the New York Times, the National Enquirer and the CIA, the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association, Larry King and you and I find out at the same time these days. All information is created equal -- whether it is the president declaring war or the soldier's wife and crying children who fill the screen next.

No wonder it is bewildering to all of us, beginning with the former governor of Arkansas, who thought he knew all about it until he came to Washington. ''You tell me what's happening,'' said his former counsel, Lloyd Cutler. ''Is this democratization or disintegration?''

9- Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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