On a recent visit here, I saw two stirring sights. One was a wisp of a child, a severely handicapped 4-year-old, seated in a wheelchair, his arms in slings, maneuvering a fork with his mouth, exhausting his body but not his chirpy spirit in a desperately difficult struggle to feed himself a bit of cheese sandwich. The other was the face of a man watching the boy.
Mayor William Donald Schaefer has a large head, like Franklin Roosevelt. FDR's face seemed made for that famous smile, but Schaefer's countenance, although not exactly woeful, is creased like that of a basset hound. While Schaefer was visiting the John F. Kennedy Institute for Handicapped Children, where briskly matter-of-fact professionals do their unsung work healing bodies and unlocking minds, a change, a slight tautness, came over his face, a change that was the more striking for being so controlled that it was barely discernible.
At the national level, government is a matter of abstractions and formulas. At the local level, government is elemental, even tactile. The sort of human feelings visible on Schaefer's face are a reward, sometimes a risk, of government on a human scale.
The Kennedy Institute performs social services as well as basic research. It is the last hope for some children and the primary hope for some scientists, and it is all of this on a budget of just $11 million a year. Now federal cuts may cost it $3 million. It is up to Baltimore, the community as well as the government, to patch and caulk and keep things afloat.
Fortunately, Schaefer embodies his community more completely than even Richard Daley or Fiorello LaGuardia embodied Chicago and New York. Baltimoreans are only human, so when approached by someone asking them to do good works, their instinct is to take evasive action. But when galvanizing Baltimore's public-spirited sector, Schaefer resembles a German shepherd that has been to finishing school: he is quiet, but you'd better do what he says.
At almost exactly the moment Schaefer was watching the boy struggle to feed himself, Texas A & M University, casting about for some way to augment its near- perfection, signed a new football coach to a contract worth $1.7 million over six years. We are a nation that spares no expense on behalf of the strongest bodies.
On the great contemporary question of whether Atari or Intellivision makes the best video games by which the nation can further drug itself, I remain agnostic. But of this I am sure: it is disgusting for the limbs and minds of children to remain unmended because of a shortage of money in a nation where television commercials, aimed at mass audiences of millions, advertise video disc machines for "under $500." Whatever else can be said--and few adjectives are pungent enough--to describe a society characterized by million-dollar college football coaches and expensive adult toys, it is not a society that has any excuse for neglecting its needy.
I shall make myself tiresome by saying again and again and again that America is undertaxed. That conclusion is compelled by considerations of equity as well as national security. President Reagan was right to cut marginal tax rates, which were having irrational disincentive effects. But especially in older cities like Baltimore, there is an inverse relationship between equity problems and revenue sources for dealing with them. So national revenue measures (such as a value-added tax, or a $1 tax on a gallon of gasoline) are needed.
On the other hand, Schaefer's record supports some of Reagan's essential points. They are that local communities can rise to local challenges more than they realize; that enlarged responsibilities will attract larger persons into local politics; and that $1 raised and spent by someone like Schaefer is apt to do more good than $10 dispersed by the federal bureaucracy 40 miles down the road.
When Reagan became America's most important political figure, Schaefer and others similarly situated became almost as important, not least to Reagan. The moral correctness of Reagan's policy of dispersing responsibilities depends on the ability of Schaefer and others to elicit new material and spiritual resources from their communities. Schaefer must practice what Reagan preaches. By this division of labor, the Democrat can vindicate the Republican.
The 1930s called for an FDR--a great energizer and mobilizer--at the national level. The 1980s call for FDRs at the local level. Of course, something called for need not come forth. But in Baltimore it has.