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Infantile Spectacle

By George F. Will
Thursday, February 6 1997; Page A23


The infantile spectacle that the State of the Union address has become should carry a surgeon general's warning: "This is harmful to the reputations of the president and the congressional audience, and can cause a spike of cynicism in the watching minority – thank goodness it is that – of the citizenry."

In the name of a report on the country's condition, a president notoriously unparsimonious with words delivers a laundry list of everything he can think of that government might do to nudge that condition toward perfection. And like a pastor intent on the cure of souls, he interlards his list with homiletics, such as "Read with your children every night." All the while senators and representatives, energetic of body and indolent of mind, illustrate the axiom that applause is the echo of a platitude, making the president feel like a lion in a den of Daniels. They signal their waxing enthusiasms for his sentiments by bouncing up and down like two sets – sometimes a single set – of rubber dummies.

President Clinton got off to a good start, doing something excruciating to every fiber of his being – taking a stand against something popular. This is called (the rarity of it may have caused you to forget) leadership. In this maiden fling at it he flatly opposed the proposed constitutional amendment to require balanced budgets. Balancing the budget, he noted, requires only self-control, not constitutional tinker\ing.

But soon his repressed itch to pander got the better of him and he endorsed constitutional tinkering in the form of the victims' rights amendment. This piety would affirm various "rights" to have the criminal justice system function sensibly. (For example, crime victims shall have the right "to a final disposition of the proceedings relating to the crime free from unreasonable delay.") The amendment, an exercise in "conservative compassion" (things were better when that was an oxymoron), would be taught, construed and applied by the president's supporters in the law schools, judiciary and among trial lawyers – the folks who have provoked the proposing of such an amendment by causing the criminal justice system often to congeal in a paralysis of proceduritis.

Disraeli reported a lady asking a gentleman whether he believed in Platonic friendship. The gentleman replied, "After, but not before." That is how the president feels about fiscal rectitude: Let's try it, but after another binge. Having recommended the virtue of self-restraint as an alternative to a balanced-budget amendment, the president then summoned Congress to self-indulgence, the creation of a huge new (mostly middle-class) entitlement in the form of a $1,500 tax credit for each of the first two years of college, most of the predicted beneficiaries of which would be people who would go to college anyway.

Perhaps he has forgotten the Rule of Holes: When you are in a hole, quit digging. The country is in a hole because it has promiscuously multiplied and enriched middle-class entitlements. The president proposes yet another because "every 18-year-old must be able to go to college." Well.

Already there are more college students than high school students. A majority will never get a degree, which suggests that many never should have started, but never mind. More than 60 percent of high school graduates go on to postsecondary education immediately, and others follow after a delay. Almost any 18-year-old with a high school diploma and a pulse can go to college because, of the approximately 3,600 degree-granting institutions (counting community colleg\es), more than 3,000 have, in effect, open enrollment.

They are, says Chester Finn, "veritable vacuum cleaners," sucking in students to fill classrooms and dormitories. Fewer than 50 postsecondary institutions are highly selective (accepting fewer than half their applicants), and only a couple of hundred more are significantly selective.

What about the impediment of college costs? They have indeed been rising at twice the rate of inflation. But the president's proposal would stimulate further inflation with a huge infusion of money to purchase what colleg\es are selling. His proposal, by making renewal of the tax credit contingent on the student's having a B average, would stimulate grade inflation as well.

An alarming number of college entrants must take remedial courses to compensate for the shortcomings of the high school educations delivered by the president's supporters in the National Education Association. His plan to make grades 13 and 14 universal is actually a plan to turn colleges into glorified high schools, churning out graduates unequipped to guffaw when a president utters solemnities at the expense of the education system.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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