Cheerleader for a grim message Campaign: Presidential hopeful Richard Lamm says America must take bitter medicine or face chaos. Can destiny smile on a man known as 'Governor Gloom'?

Sun Journal

July 21, 1996|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A lanky figure swathed in a crisp dark suit, presidential hopeful Richard Lamm plunged into a breakfast with reporters last week by passing out his "indicators of decline."

He warned that "all American institutions are becoming dysfunctional."

He insisted "America's problems are outrunning our solutions."

And then he took a sip of coffee, sat back and declared, "I'm not gloomy. God, life has been good to me, I can't tell you! I have succeeded beyond my fondest expectations."

Even with a chortle, it was no use. Lamm, 60, the former three-term governor of Colorado who is challenging Ross Perot for the presidential nomination of the Texas billionaire's Reform Party, is such a doomsayer, such a political party-pooper, that people are calling him "Paul Tsongas without charisma."

Although Lamm's talk of "hard choices" is as politically incorrect -- and suicidal -- as talk of "malaise," the silver-haired maverick makes no apologies.

America, he says, in balancing its books and retiring the baby boom generation, faces a choice between "the unacceptable" and "the unpalatable."

What is "unacceptable," says the former Democrat, is robbing today's young adults, and their future children, to pay for the retirement of a vast generation, much of which is well-off and not in need of federal subsidies.

The "unpalatable"? Lamm, Colorado governor from 1975 to 1987, has a medicine chest full of bitter pills. His fiscal remedy calls for slashing federal entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare by raising the retirement age to 70, reducing entitlements for anyone with an income over $40,000 a year and increasing Medicare premiums, just for starters.

"There are no happy solutions when you've got an aging society," says the candidate whose cloudy forecasts earned him the nickname "Governor Gloom" in Colorado.

A Unitarian who speaks in lofty, often biblical, terms and is said to enjoy the limelight, Lamm sees his mission as no less than transforming the entire political culture.

"If you really want to see chaos, you wait until the baby boomers start to retire," warns Lamm, who heads the Center for Public Policy and Contemporary Issues at the University of Denver. "We're going to have such social tensions -- we're dealing with social dynamite here."

It is no accident that Lamm is best known for the remarks he made in 1984 about the soaring cost of today's high-tech medicine. "We've got a duty to die and get out of the way," he said of the terminally ill.

But that was hardly the only utterance that landed Lamm in the headlines. He enraged the disabled community by decrying excessive spending on special education, questioning whether it was worth spending $10,000 a year "to educate a child to roll over." He angered Hispanics in his state by pushing for stronger immigration restrictions lest the area become "a Hispanic Quebec."

Although Lamm had been a popular, if not exceedingly effective, governor, such bluntness went a long way toward alienating groups and, in 1992, denying him the Democratic nomination when he ran for the U.S. Senate.

L His blunt talk did, however, earn him a national reputation.

"He sees himself as a crusader," says Rodney Hero, a political science professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "I think he has a genuine and sincere interest in these issues that he feels have to be raised."

Coloradans note that Lamm, elected after leading environmentalists in a fight to keep the 1976 Winter Olympics out of the state, was a traditional Democratic governor for the first 10 years of his administration. But in his last two years, frustrated at seeing his agenda thwarted by the Republican state legislature and, some suspect, bored by the job, he began to use the governorship as a bully pulpit.

"It is this second Dick Lamm who's running for the Reform Party nomination," says Robert D. Loevy, a professor of political science at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. "The question is, is the American public ready for this kind of realism?"

If history is any judge, the answer is no.

Lamm hails from a long tradition of serious, tough-talking politicians who have dispensed unpleasant medicine -- some would say, the truth -- and ultimately failed with the electorate.

"Americans are drawn to an optimistic, can-do spirit much more than a pessimistic, take-your-cod-liver-oil approach," says Thomas Mann, a political scholar at the Brookings Institution.

In the latter mold were, most recently, Democrats Paul Tsongas, who made deficit reduction the hallmark of his 1992 campaign, and in 1988, Bruce Babbitt, whose calls for a national sales tax and cuts in entitlements fell flat.

John B. Anderson, too, won only 6 percent with his 1980 independent presidential bid in which he talked of "rigorous discipline" and "considerable sacrifice" in dealing with economic issues.

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