About a quarter-century ago, amid one of the energy crises with which the country was periodically afflicted at the time, Gerald R. Ford went before the nation to urge what he represented as bold action. This included nothing significant in the way of public policy, and a lot of hilariously trivial suggestions about what private citizens could do. The president of the United States stared solemnly into the television cameras and urged the nation's children to be sure to keep the refrigerator door closed while they drank their milk and ate their snacks.
For this the president was widely ridiculed, by me among others, and he deserved to be: He was meeting a serious national problem with bromides instead of substance. Yet beneath his fuzzy and evasive rhetoric lay (whether he knew it or not, and probably he didn't) a hard truth: that public crises require private as well as public responses, that individual responsibility is often as important as collective action.
That thought comes to mind as this part of the country faces or, more accurately, attempts to avoid facing, one of several water crises that have descended upon it since the mid-1980s. It is true that, as these words are written, several inches of rain have just fallen in the Washington area--heavy rain, to be sure, the kind that runs off the soil before it has a chance to soak in--and that Hurricane Dennis may bring additional relief before the week is over. Soon the reservoirs will be flush again, or semi-flush, and it will be business as usual.
Not that it has been anything but business as usual everywhere in the region except Maryland, where Parris Glendening--neither the most charismatic of governors nor the most forceful--somehow found sufficient strength of purpose to require that his constituents make do without such necessities of modern life as gleaming automobiles and lush suburban lawns. For this he was roundly vilified, especially in those affluent parts of Montgomery County where a lush lawn is a status symbol outranked only by a (gleaming) BMW or Lexus in the driveway.
James Gilmore, the governor of Virginia, and Anthony Williams, the mayor of Washington, chose by contrast to take the easy way out. Rather than require their constituents to make even token gestures of sacrifice, they have contented themselves with vague suggestions for "voluntary" measures and expressed, directly or through their underlings, doubt that the drought is a "crisis" at all. One result has been, as readers of this newspaper were advised the other day, the spectacle of verdant lawns in the District immediately abutting brown ones across the line in such quondam garden spots as Chevy Chase and Bethesda.
Perhaps Gilmore and Williams are right; perhaps Glendening overreacted, though the facts of Maryland's water supply certainly suggest that he did exactly what needed to be done. But it is difficult not to see the policies of Gilmore and Williams as capitulations to the mood of selfishness in which Americans are now wallowing, especially Americans of the comparatively privileged classes. By pretending that problems do not exist, these leaders of the public sector are accomplices in the insistence of millions of Americans upon not being bothered, not making sacrifices, not caring for anyone's interests except their own.
The simple truth is that water policy in times of shortage need not be Draconian or punitive in order to be effective. Requiring that plants be watered only after dark, when water has a chance to penetrate the soil rather than merely evaporating in the heat and sunlight, is at worst a minor inconvenience, but try telling that to the suburban lawn freaks; forbidding private car-washing is an almost laughably painless way to cut unnecessary use, yet communicants at the altar of the Great God Automobile howl as if their most basic freedoms had been trampled upon; an across-the-board stipulation that household, business and industrial water use be cut by 10 percent is a no-brainer, but obviously those who would do so haven't heard about every American's inalienable right to keep the tap dripping and the toilet running.
If all this sounds a trifle priggish, well, perhaps it is. In truth, were I forced to choose between state-regimented behavior such as that so beloved by the Scandinavians and the every-man-for-himself individual license that is part of the essence of America, I'd choose the latter without a moment's thought.
But isn't it possible to hold national tradition and custom dear while at the same time believing that sacrifices can and should be made in order to serve everyone's best interests? Isn't there something just a little bit wrong with a society in which politicians are so terrified by the selfishness of their constituents that they refuse to take even the least demanding and most reasonable steps to do what's best for the most people?
Apparently there isn't. Shag-carpet lawns and sparkle-plenty automobiles seem to have become American entitlements, right up there with Social Security and Medicare. Apparently we had our fill of sacrifice during World War II, for we've spent the half century since it ended making up for the self-denial it exacted upon us. First we were entitled to new electric refrigerators, then to jerry-built houses in the suburbs, then to full tanks of gasoline, now to lawns so green they'd make the Queen of England weep. Open up the faucet and let the good times roll.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org