The Issues of the Day

GIVE Garry Trudeau credit. At least when he complains that there have been few memorable discussions generated by this year's presidential election--a theme close to his heart in recent weeks--he can point to his own record of sharp political commentary. Few other prominent critics of the campaign between Gov. Michael Dukakis and Vice President George Bush have offered a thumb-nail sketch of their own publicly held political convictions, let alone a four-panel cartoon.

For example, Len Downie, currently the Managing Editor of The Washington Post and a highly respected member of the journalistic community says he has not voted in a single political election since taking over his job. In an interview with a Washington magazine, he even said that he would prefer that none of his campaign reporters voted.

Downie explained that such restraints on his personal convictions stem from a deep sense of fair play: How could an editor fulfill his high calling of accurately portraying the election news, knowing he favored one of the candidates being covered?

Although one could imagine a host of issues that might sway Downie, for both personal and professional reasons--such as which candidate will appoint a Supreme Court that is less restrictive of press freedoms, or who is more likely to raise taxes--the Managing Editor will not be lured so easily. With the bad rap special interest groups have received in recent years, one can understand his reticence.

But the Washington Post as a news entity cannot be a special interest or even the product of a more objective new gathering system; it is the product of an effectively one-newspaper town and has the unfortunate responsibility of offending nobody.

Likewise, network news shows have confused their trend of becoming more and more predictable with the vaunted state of being objective. NBC News, for one, has launched a new slogan that claims it is the network that is "first and fair." But all of this seems to be a sign that our institutions have become too powerful to have a stake in politics.

Eisenhower's famed military-industrial complex--by which he meant a network of manufacturing giants beyond the control of any one president--is rapidly gaining hyphens. Make it the military-industrial-journalistic-higher education complex.

ABOUT that last hyphenated addition, take the case of President Bok. Earlier in the year, he was part of an influential panel of higher education leaders which released a report criticizing the quality of campaign debate about education. The report offered a host of problems that need the attention of candidates for high office.

By now both campaigns have announced their education proposals. Dukakis's plan, which would allow students to pay back student loans over their lifetime as a small percentage of salary, is designed for middle-class students, who as a group most rely on borrowing. Bush has announced a more modest proposal, which would create special tax-free savings bonds for future family education, yet exclude families with a combined salary of more than $200,000.

Odds are, with the campaign less than two months away, these are as detailed a treatment we can expect on the issues raised by Bok and the report. Throw into the equation the fact that the University has persistently complained about the Reagan Administration's policy of placing restrictions on government research, and it is clear that even fair Harvard's president might have a favorite in this election.

Yet President, Bok in an interview last week, announced that he is standing by his position of not making endorsements in the presidential election.

WHAT does it mean when important leaders of our society withdraw from the political debate? Can it be that they see themselves as the modern-day equivalents of mythology's Paris--believing that a wrong choice on their part could launch a thousand ships? What a thought. Either these leaders are right about their importance in society--which would be frightening enough--or, more disturbingly, they could be trying to guide our national institutions toward some ideal where values like Veritas and objectivity dwarf the petty concerns of partisan politics.

Of course, this feeling is hardly a new one at Harvard. Criticizing University policy has always been considered a little bit like correcting a rabbi on liturgy during services--sacriligious, audacious and irrelevant. If Bok and the Corporation did not believe they were somehow above the fray political convictions, why would Harvard fail to divest of its South African holdings, after faculty dissent, 10 years of campus protest and a general consensus on the question? Ignoring such ephemeral considerations may be well and good for the University, which one sage aptly described as being here forever, as opposed to the student body which is remade from scratch in perfect, four-year cycles.

But what is disturbing is that, the Harvard community aside, the American polity needs a diversity of opinion to make the best choice for the president. Taxpayers pay for federally financed elections to hold all else constant in relation to political argument.

Bok is in an unparalleled position to explain the difference between the two candidates. Yet our institutions are becoming so large and all-powerful--through the growth of private universities and the decline of two-paper towns--that Bok may rightly conclude that Harvard's interests are so diverse that no one candidate can be better than another. We can all hope for the day when Harvard, the Washington Post and other national institutions recognize their duty to speak to the issues of the day.