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Mary McGrory

Apologies Are in Order

By Mary McGrory
Sunday, November 10, 2002; Page B07

We do not have the excellent Japanese custom of having public figures apologize for blunders committed on their watches. We should.

In the wake of the Democratic election catastrophe, we have instead a man complicit in the debacle coyly positioning himself for higher office. Richard Gephardt resigned as House Democratic leader -- the better, it seems, to prepare himself for the White House. That is comparable to an architect who designed a house that collapsed during a hurricane standing in the rubble and suggesting he deserves his profession's highest prize. Gephardt served as President Bush's lead lobbyist in the fight for a war resolution.

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Apparently he thought he had to make up for rejecting a previous resolution for a Persian Gulf war that turned out quite well.

Gephardt's punishment will be self-administered. His campaign will go nowhere. His chances against Bush are as dim as those of other contenders. In fact, Democrats would be well advised to form a coalition against participation in the next election. Unless, of course, they can get Karl Rove to defect to the donkey.

Just think of the money that would be saved for the causes they profess to believe in. The campaign of Democrat Gray Davis, the vastly unpopular governor of California, spent $65 million. His wealthy opponent, Bill Simon Jr., who was likable but unelectable, conducted a campaign that a fellow Republican, Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, said was among the country's "worst run." But in one of the most amazing developments of Nov. 5, Simon came within 5 points of Gray Davis.

The Democrats would make the point that being in politics is just a rich man's game -- or a Republican's. Conspicuous fundraisers should be told to put a sock in their pitches. Bill Clinton could do duty in the kitchen of a Harlem homeless shelter, wearing an apron that says, "Soup Without Spin." The Democrats' national chairman, mouthy Terry McAuliffe, should study the Republicans' surprise win in Georgia, where the GOP went door to door, the way Democrats used to.

Worse than the money problem was the Democrats' failure to convince people they cared about anything but self-preservation. They emitted a bleat and mistook it for a message. Now they have to regroup under a banner that says, "Make Amends, Not Speeches" (MANS).

Maybe the new minority members should show up before their shaken shepherd, soon-to-be minority leader Tom Daschle, in wet suits and rubber boots to tackle a nearby pollution scandal, the Anacostia River. Environmentalists are totally bummed that James Inhofe, no greenie, will replace Jim Jeffords as chairman of the Senate's environmental committee.

Al Gore, who writes about the environment but scarcely mentioned it in his 2000 campaign, might wish to make a pilgrimage to East Liverpool, Ohio, and its toxic waste dump situated 500 yards from an elementary school. He promised in 1992, when the dump was under construction, that it would never open. It would be a good time to redeem his promise. He could set up a local protest headquarters.

They care about education, Democrats say. Let them follow Jeffords into a D.C. elementary school and read to a child every week. Jeffords should be encouraged to seek lodgings wherever he can -- possibly one of the school janitors would be willing to share his quarters.

Prescription drugs? Not a problem. Teddy Kennedy could lead periodic picket lines in front of the homes of pharmaceutical CEOs who earn more than $10 million a year. Sample sign: "Don't be a pill: Cough up affordable drugs." What Nov. 5 said to the Democrats is: "What do you stand for? You say peace but vote for war. You say Bush's tax cuts are insane, but you'll keep them. Hello?"

On the war, opponents have reached for various champions, who have evaporated before their eyes. First was Rep. Dick Armey, the burly Texas conservative who, quite rightly, called a preemptive strike un-American; but when the roll was called, he voted aye. Then came the unlikely figure of Kim Jong Il of North Korea, who confessed he was making nukes on the sly. Surely, war foes thought, George W. Bush would be distracted from Iraq and address this new menace. But no, Kim's just going to be talked to.

When that hope fizzled, there was another false dawn with Fritz Mondale. But he got flattened in the hurricane, and now there is no one, except a possibly penitential presidential hopeful, John Kerry, who spoke against war and voted for it. He might want to speak fervently of the uses of diplomacy toward all radioactive lunatics. It's something, at least, that he would never have to apologize for.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company