Picture, if you will, a runaway train. I'm sitting there screaming, while the engineer is whistling merrily and the other passengers are absorbed in their newspapers. That's how it feels these days when I look at the nation.

Only it's not a runaway train, it's a runaway government. In very quick order, the quality of our life in America is deteriorating.

President Bush's actions in the Persian Gulf are driving us to an inevitable violent denouement, the economy is ailing, and permission to be racist is coming from high levels of government. Though it may appear that the lack of a diplomatic resolution in the Mideast, the economy, and a rise in racism are unrelated, when one looks at these connected phenomena, it is not out of order to question what is happening to the American presidency.

With the current war fever mired in emotional and moral dilemmas, the administration's stance against Saddam Hussein began to harden into concrete in the two weeks Congress has been in recess, leading to President Bush's announcement Thursday of a massive new buildup.

Though there remains sharp disagreement over the interpretation of the War Powers Act and whether the president needs congressional approval before declaring war, even the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, William S. Broomfield, of Michigan, has called for "improving congressional debate on matters of war and peace."

But once again, as in Vietnam, Grenada and Panama, the country appears to be heading into an executive-driven war, while Congress sits passively by and the public is merely whimpering, at best.

But I am left with a feeling of alarm that we are on the verge of sacrificing unknown numbers of America's young people for possibly the wrong reasons.

The time for proper debate about the policy is before the body bags begin coming home. The process as it now stands, however, is a low blow to democracy.

Meanwhile, George Bush stood by silently Thursday while his general in the so-called drug war leveled a series of verbal blasts that were uncalled for, at best, and racist, at worst.

As William J. Bennett, the national drug policy director, stepped down from his post, he labeled Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Narcotics, a "gasbag"; described the District of Columbia as a "basket case"; and voiced his suspicion that, all along, Mayor Marion Barry's interest in cocaine and crack was different from his.

So Bennett picks on a black member of Congress, a mostly black city and a black mayor who is already down.

He calls names and takes potshots at the drug problem, while concentrating 70 percent of spending for the problem on law enforcement instead of treatment and education.

This is the kind of behavior that lends credence to those who argue that the government is unwilling to attack the root causes of the drug problem in inner cities.

Certainly, it was terrible that Marion Barry used drugs, but he could not be held responsible for all of this city's drug and crime problems. Barry did not manufacture drugs, sell guns or launder drug money. Bennett could have used his extraordinary bully pulpit to deal with this broader dimension of the problem, but he didn't.

President Bush should have reproached Bennett, or later even disassociated himself from such personal attacks. For if Bennett could say such things in public, he probably has long said them in private. This kind of derision of the District has become par for the course in the federal government, however. Though many other cities have horrendous drug crime and violence, it was primarily the District that drew Bennett's special ire.

Not only was it a cheap shot, it was in keeping with the current pattern of blaming the victim, which is part of a resurgent racism. Conflicts between segments of society, such as the politics of race in southern elections, always increase with economic downturns. Now, the Ku Klux Klan marches in Washington, racist David Duke scores handsome gains in Louisiana, and Jesse Helms regains his Senate seat using a blatantly racist appeal.

It is in times like these that we need a president who would appeal to the higher angels of our character. Instead, George Bush is appealing to our baser instincts, giggling and saying, "Read my hips," while the train picks up speed and voices can be heard saying, "Let me off."