Facts Amidst Appearances
It seems a hazardous moment to take up the editorial pen. Why, only a few short weeks ago, President Clinton, responding through his press secretary to a column by William Safire that questioned the credibility of the First Lady, expressed a desire to direct his reply straight to "the bridge of Mr. Safire's nose." Yet, at the risk of leading myself into fisticuffs with the powers-that-be, I embark here on a journey as an editorial columnist.
To find inspiration for this first column, I reread our very own Ralph Waldo Emerson on the duties of the "American Scholar." He delivered an address by that name for the Phi Beta Kappa ceremony here at Harvard in 1837. According to Emerson, the responsibility of the academic is "to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances."
This charge could just as easily be directed toward the American editorial columnist; it is his or her office as well. In the Emersonian spirit, therefore, let me shine the light of conscientious scrutiny upon the President's recent State of the Union message. There remain quite a few facts to be unearthed from the expertly crafted appearances of that evening.
Indeed, I must credit President Clinton with an amazing ability: being able to say something diametrically opposed to what he has been saying all along, while making it appear that he has held that point of view since the ark dried off.
My favorite "changeroo" of the evening was his appeal, boisterously applauded by the Democrats in the chamber, for a "line-item veto." That was truly a show-stopper, especially for anyone who remembers the State of the Union addresses delivered by President Bush. The appeal for a line-item veto was practically his mantra, repeated over and over again in the four such messages he delivered to Congress. In those cases, however, the Democrats kept what must surely be their heart-felt enthusiasm under wraps.
There was also the memorable, if laughable, reference to "family values"--an appeal to tone down Hollywood and an admonition against teen pregnancies. I could just imagine a bewildered Dan Quayle watching as the same man who targeted the Republican cry for "family values" as his principle object of ridicule in the 1992 campaign now spouted it as if he had coined the phrase.
And what about the budget? First, Clinton gave the seven-year balanced budget proposal the "silent treatment." Then, he came forward endorsing a balanced budget--but only if the time-frame were 11 years. Then nine. Now seven--but those pesky Republicans are still "extremists." Funny, isn't it, that most of Clinton's by-now commonplace "about-faces" have been in the Republican direction? One might well wonder whatever happened to the Democratic party.
Fortunately, after Clinton's State of the Union, we have our answer. The new standard of the Democratic party is "yes...but." It's the new fashion. To whatever the Republicans say, the Democratic reply is "yes...but." On affirmative action, Clinton gives in but strives for balance in "mend it, don't end it." Mr. Clinton, should we balance the budget in seven years? "Yes...but only by cutting X; cutting X + 2 percent is evil and amoral." Mr. Clinton, after your call for the end of the "era of big government," may we assume that you now agree that your 1993 budget with its massive tax hike was a poor idea? "Yes...but it wasn't all bad." In short, Clinton's strategy for the election year seems to be to draw the line where there isn't a grain of sand left to be found.
Now, I am not a Democrat, but if I were, that address would not have assured me that the state of our Union is in any way satisfactory. In fact, the only significant olive branch the President held out to the real Democrats was a call for a raise in the minimum wage--but details and proposals were not forthcoming.
All in all, I came away from the address much more at ease. It occurred to me that, whatever happens in November, we'll end up with a Republican in the White House.
Eric M. Nelson's column appears on alternate Mondays.