Who will lead America out of the darkness?

February 16, 2003|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

RONALD REAGAN, running for president against Jimmy Carter in 1980, posed an extraordinarily successful question wherever he went.

"Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" he would taunt.

The answer was no. Prices were soaring as the economy was plunging into recession and Iranian fundamentalist hooligans had been holding dozens of Americans hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran for an eternity. President Carter himself acknowledged the national malaise.

It's time to revive the question.

For if one were asked today whether Americans are better off now than they were four years ago, or even 25 months ago, the answer would certainly be an emphatic negative. In fact, I'll take the Carter recession and the Iranian hostage crisis over what life is like today.

There was a Cold War going on, to be sure. In the Soviet Union, America and its allies faced an enemy far more formidable that Saddam Hussein. The Reds were armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

The hottest conflict, though, was to be in Afghanistan, where the Soviets had invaded and America would urge Arabs to join a "jihad" against Godless communism. Yes, a former U.S. diplomat commented last week to a group in Washington that the word "jihad" actually was used by American recruiters. And look what they produced in the end.

But for more than a decade and a half since the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis, people in America and Europe lived with a certain measure of confidence that there would not be a nuclear war. Both sides talked of disarming, controlling, avoiding war. Behind the fiery rhetoric, beyond the little regional wars in Latin America, Asia and Africa, where Western-supported surrogates fought Soviet-supported surrogates, there was an underlying confidence that Armageddon would not happen - no matter how much Reagan came to rant about it.

George W. Bush's father called the post-Cold War arrangement a "New World Order."

I think I miss the Old World Order.

Seventeen months ago America's enemies stunned the nation with terrorist attacks against targets in New York and the Washington area. President Bush declared war against the culprits: al-Qaida, their Taliban hosts in Afghanistan and terrorists everywhere. The Taliban were thrown out of Kabul, but Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida and mastermind of the terror attacks, is still at large, still threatening Americans in video and audiotapes.

Since last weekend America, especially the East Coast, has been in a state of high alert and high anxiety. In the Cold War, at least one expected radar warning of any actual attack. Here, no one can tell us precisely what will happen, or where, but we're told that it is dangerous and that people should plan for the worst, even as they are urged to go on about their lives. Al-Qaida could strike anywhere, any time. Be on the lookout for suspicious things and suspicious people. Be afraid.

On top of this, the Bush administration is preparing America and the world for a war against Iraq, a war that so far does not seem to be wholeheartedly supported by a majority of Americans or by some of what used to be America's most important allies. The naysayers urge patience; the president and his men and woman say they've run out of patience. Remember here, we're not talking just about killing Saddam Hussein and a lot of Iraqis; we're talking about young American men and women getting killed, too.

In addition, North Korea is making some of the scariest noises it has made since the Korean War 50 years ago. And the man in Pyongyang actually does have nuclear weapons, which he might just use. Kim Jong Il, the leader of North Korea, may be off his rocker, but his sense of timing is flawless.

That's the New World Order. Then there's the New Domestic Order.

The economy is a mess. Corporate America is struggling to recover from the impact of Sept. 11 and from a measure of recklessness, greed and dishonesty in its own boardrooms that is huge, disgraceful and devastating for many small savers and investors. Is your retirement plan better off now than it was four years ago? Or 25 months ago?

The Bush administration is spending more on defense and on security - though not enough on the latter, complain some members of Congress - than ever before. The states are running huge deficits, unable to cover the costs of vital services.

Is this all the fault of the Bush administration? No. These crises were in the making before he became president. They are not his fault, but they are his responsibility and there's the flaw.

Americans want reassurance. They want inspiration. They want to be confident that the president is working intelligently and thoughtfully to bring them out of this darkness.

That's what's missing here. The talk is all of war, and tax cuts and debt, of invasions of privacy, one jingo after another. Even Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, possibly the most thoughtful, careful individual in the Bush administration, has joined the chorus.

No, America is not better off these days. The national condition is fearful and somewhat hopeless. In this time I cannot bring to mind a single utterance from anyone in the government to inspire confidence that America will be a better place because of them.

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