Clinton, Dole both evade the here and now of poor

September 01, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

As Bill Clinton announced from Chicago that he was building a bridge to the 21st century, a woman they call Mama was curling herself under a bench on Broadway, just above Thames Street in Baltimore, where she drifted into fitful sleep for the night.

Mama has long gray hair and reddened skin the texture of Dead Sea Scrolls from living in the weather. She had her tiny dog nestled next to her, plus the plastic bag she carries containing everything she's accumulated through the seven decades of her life.

She missed the president's speech, owing to no electrical outlets next to her bench. But she might hear about it from Bustaha, who works a couple of jobs in Fells Point, or from Mitch or Ely, two retired fellows who hang out there, all of whom talked about Mama and a couple of other old ladies who sleep beneath benches in the neighborhood every night.

A bridge to the 21st century sounds pretty good, because the current century just isn't working out for Mama. This president, who is no dummy, skillfully manipulated the words of Bob Dole, who announced he wanted to be America's bridge to our wistfully recalled past but found he'd made himself look doddering in the process.

Dole was harking back to the America we think we remember, the land of glorious hindsight. He meant an America of civility, an America where people left their doors unlocked, a place where people might sleep in a Patterson Park on summer nights for the cool air but never beneath a bench on a slab of cement when there was nowhere else to go.

Clinton, seizing on the "bridge to the past" phrase, and on Dole's 73 years, willfully twisted its intent. He summoned us to the future, which is fine, but also ridiculed Dole's implicit message: We're frightened by today. We long for yesterday because we know we survived it, and we ain't so certain about our current fate.

This president wishes to have it all ways. He says he feels our pain, while old women sleep under Broadway benches. He endorses a welfare bill knowing it endangers children, knowing its spirit violates much that he's asked us to believe about his sense of compassion, knowing the country can't create jobs fast enough to handle all those to be displaced from government assistance.

He does these things because they tap into a national mood that says -- quite accurately -- that welfare in its current state doesn't work, and we're fed up with supporting successive generations of the nonworking; and we imagine -- quite inaccurately -- that this bill will fix things, instead of putting more people under benches to sleep, more people into desperate straits from which they'll commit public outrages to stay alive.

What do we do then? Hire more police with the money we've saved from welfare? Build more prisons, constructed by former welfare recipients, to house others displaced by welfare ?? who can't find jobs?

Such details still have to be worked out as we stroll across that sunlit bridge into the 21st century. Is Clinton alone in committing such rhetorical fuzziness? Of course not. Dole, too, wants to have it both ways.

For openers, shame on him for misinterpreting Hillary Clinton's book, "It Takes a Village." Dole's deeply moving story of recovering from his war wounds grips all of us because it was his own entire village -- Russell, Kan. -- that helped nurture him back to health.

As for the gentler America Dole remembers, it lost its civility not only to criminals, but to the uncivil Republicans such as Newt Gingrich who were hidden from prime time at Dole's convention, and the uncivil Republican houseboys such as Rush Limbaugh. And the America so fondly remembered by Dole happened to be a nation of racial segregation, of raw anti-Semitism coming over the radio, of people who were pitifully underpaid who got their heads busted if they attempted to form a union -- and of folks sleeping in freight trains, or on city benches not for the cool summer air, but because they had nowhere else to go.

"Yeah," Bustaha was saying now, on Broadway, "Mama's out here sleeping every night with that little dog. She's one of God's people."

Mitch and Ely nodded. Mama wore an overcoat and a knit cap in the noonday sun. She rubbed the palm of her pale, veiny hand across a leaky nose. On the bench south of her, another woman slept badly, shivering beneath a blanket.

"You take me," Bustaha said. "I work a bunch of jobs down here. I do a little work for this place, a little work for that. I ain't on no welfare. I got to support my daughter, who lives with me. I got to make money for the baby sitter who takes care of her while I'm working. And there goes the money, see?"

He's bursting with theatrical energy, and he's good with his hands. It keeps him employed. The president says he's creating a million jobs? Beautiful. Bustaha can't wait. Maybe one of those jobs will finally give him some medical benefits.

Meanwhile, the various economic agencies in Washington tell us, about 1.1 million Americans will file for bankruptcy this year, up 25 percent from a year ago. The reason? Loss of jobs we once imagined would last forever. Medical emergencies that push entire families over the edge.

Wait till the government starts shutting down welfare. Make a little room under that bench, Mama. Bill Clinton's taking us to the 21st century, and Bob Dole's holding onto the early part of the 20th, but neither's telling us the entire truth about right now.

Pub Date: 8/31/96

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