ISOLATED WASHINGTON has really done it this time. That island in the Potamac Inhabited by bumbling bureaucrats, mercenary lobbyists, vicious newspaper people and a giant Congress that is paralyzed by special interest groups has plagued the rest of the country with the energy crisis. But that, mind you, is not the half of it. Nefarious Washington is behind a crisis of confidence "that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will."
Those of us in Washington who thought the President was going to tell us about the energy crisis and what he was going to do about it Sunday night were in for quite a surprise. The energy crisis and the gas lines, it turns out, are the least of our problems.
"The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy th social and political fabric of America," President Carter warned. There's more. "Looking for a way out of this crisis, our people have turned to a federal government and found it isolated from the mainstream of our nation's life. Washington D.C., has become an island. The gap between our citizens and our government has never been so wide."
So there you have it, once again, from the Carter White House, which still somehow perceives itself as separate from the rest of Washington, and even above it all. "I can't think of a better place for gas lines than Washington, D.C.," declared Jody Powell from Tokyo. "No place should have a longer gas line than Washington."
"It's the same old thing that comes particularly out of the Carter White House," says Washington demographer Eunice Grier. "That somehow the people of Washington deserved the gas lines, that we were somehow different, uncaring, perhaps responsible for what's going on. The fact of the matter is the people of Washington are just as affected as others, and we have just as little control. The notion that this is an upper-class, limousline-riding community is perhaps more symptomatic of the isolation of the Carter administration than the isolation of where they live."
"We're not an island," says her husband, George Grier, also a demographer. "We're in the mainstream of American life and suffering the same problems. That was one message he did not get at Camp David."
We are not a town full of GS-16s making $50,000 a year, nor are we a town full of unscrupulous lobbyists making $100,000 a year and having three-martini, expense account lunches at Duke's every day. Only 29 percent of all workers in Washington are employed by the federal government, and although this makes it the largest single employer, it also means that two out of three of us work for somebody else. And if we have some of the highest income levels in the country, we also have among the highest food and housing costs. The American Automobile Association says we had the worst gasoline lines of any area of the country.
Who, then, is isolated from the ills besetting the country? Is it the notorious Washington press, which has headlined daily the gasoline crisis since it started in California in April?
Is it Congress? Is that really who President Carter is talking about? Look at some numbers. Members of the House receive two million pieces of first class mail every month from constituents, not including all the constituent mail routed to the Hill from government agencies. In June, senators received almost 2.5 million of first class mail. (The President averages 140,000 pieces of mail a month.) Each Senator spends an average of $50,000 a year on telephones, telegrams and traveling to keep up with constituents. The house has a budget of $18 million for constituent contact. Together, the House and Senate spend $64 million on official mailing, most of it to constituents. Is this isolation?
The point, of course, is that this time at least Washington has not been isolated from the mainstream of American life. The energy crisis has been a great equalizer, a problem those of us in Washington share with each other and with people across the country.
We, too, have driven around our communities searching for open stations and we, too, sat in lines for hours, fretting at the waste of gasoline in idling cars. We, too, have ordered our children to walk or ride bikes and fought with our spouses over whose turn it is to get gas. We, too, have been hit by double-digit inflation and now the recession. And we, too, have considered the questions of what kind of car to buy or whether to expand our present home. We have pondered and read and tried to talk to experts, and we have looked to Washington for answers about our economic and energy future so that we, too, could plan our futures.
And we know, those of us who live Washington and lead rather ordinary lives, that these are not the kinds of problems confronting presidents. Most of us who live and work here have never seen a president, but we know he has a chauffeur and a limo and a big rent-free house and enough gasoline for himself and his family. We know he's not rolling over at 6:30 a.m. and telling Rosalynn to get up, that it's her turn to get gas in the limo.
We know that President Carter is protected from aggravations that plague the rest of us, but we also know that he doesn't have to be insulated from them. President Carter has access to newspapers and the six o'clock news. If he wanted to find out what was on America's mind, all he had to do was get in his limo and drive around town looking at gas lines and talk to a few of us while we waited.
But, of course, that's not what he did. His profound mistrust of Washington took him to Carnegie, Pa., and to Martinsburg, W. Va., to find out what was on the minds of real Americans. Carnegie had gasoline problems that were comparable to Washington's, but Martinsburg merely had mild problems in the last week of June, according to the American Automobile Association. Martinsburg, it appears, was pretty well isolated from the problem.
But never mind that. People in Martinsburg aren't Washington, so they must be okay. President Carter listened to them and made a big show of listening to all sorts of Congressmen and senators and governors and labor and business leaders (none, it should be noted, from the automotive corporations) who were summoned to Camp David.
This, of course, is what he should have been doing all along, so that he could have gone on the air two weeks ago when he planned to and given us specifics about what he and we should do to get ourselves out of this mess. The gasoline lines, after all, started in May, but apparently the president didn't realize how bad the situation was. He hadn't been to Martinsburg and Carnegie and Camp David, so by July the president was not prepared to lead us out of this crisis.
He needed more time. The show was postponed and new voices were brought in and new writers worked on the script and finally, after a huge buildup, President Carter took to the airwaves and told the nation that our problems are deeper than gasoline lines and energy shortages, deeper than inflation and recession. We are having a crisis of confidence in ourselves, and in our future, and only isolation, inaction, "paralysis, stagnation and drift."
There's some truth to that. We, here, have also been struck by the paralysis, stagnation and drift, not so much of Washington, but of the Carter White House. We were struck by it as early as two years ago when the President's energy package was savaged on the Hill, and again in May when the gasoline lines started getting bad and we looked to the White House for leadership and no one answered.
But we are not isolated. We feel the same emotional pulls and worries troubling people across the country. We share their desire to preserve as best we can our quality of life, their desire to care and protect our families, to be able to plan our futures. We share a willingness to sacrifice and a profound belief in the stubborn resourcefulness and tenacity of the American character.
And we share one other thing with the rest of the country. We share a crisis of confidence, not in ourselves, but in the president.