WE HAVE A NEW class in this country: the deserving rich.
They are the people who, having earned their money, believe they are entitled to more. They know about the poor -- many of them grew up poor themselves -- but they seem to believe that, by living the good life, they motivate those who shiver in cold tenaments, stand in surplus cheese lines and can't find jobs despite the plethora of want ads in the Sunday paper.
The president is the leader of the deserving rich. He gave huge tax breaks to corporations. He made it possible for them to buy each others' tax liabilities and to buy each other. Congress was so moved by this pageant of greed that it recently voted itself an exemption on its congressional salary of $60,662.50 -- an amount which presidential assistant Michael K. Deaver recently declared inadequate.
To paraphrase Vince Lombardi's favorite dictum: Money isn't everything with this crowd, it's the only thing. As a Doonesbury character -- who is leaving government to go back to the private sector to make more money -- said the other day, "Mr. President, you've made it fun to be rich again."
The deserving rich do nice things for each other. Comforting the unafflicted is something that comes naturally to them.
They send money to the Reagans to redecorate the White House. Fashion designers send dresses to the First Lady. They are not gifts, it seems. They are loans. When this unusual arrangement came to light, there was talk that when Mrs. Reagan finished wearing the donations, she would donate them to fashion museums, and the word was that Blass, Adolfo and Galanos could claim tax deductions for their "charitable contributions." The idea was quickly scotched -- as soon as someone realized how tacky it would look if women who patronize the design salons of the Salvation Army and the Goodwill Industries, would be indirectly subsidizing the First Lady's wardrobe.
The arrangement has the marks of altruism, Reagan style, which is to help the helped. Mrs. Reagan's press secretary explained that due to the "inordinate interest taken in everything she wears, the First Lady had been looking at how to take this interest and turn it to the benefit of one of the most important industries in the country."
One of the most important yes. But hardly, thanks to the opulent standard set by the White House, depressed. Designer Geoffrey Beene sniffed to the Los Angeles Times that he hadn't understood that the fashion industry needed rescuing.
The deserving rich like to throw the lifeline to someone standing on the shore.
Our millionaire president has cut the government's allowance to the unfortunate, the old, the cold, the young, the slow. But he cheerily informs us that any big holes in the safety net will be mended by volunteers from the ranks, apparently, of the deserving rich. It is an appealing notion, recalling the frontier, the neighborhood, the covered-dish supper, the church raffle, the hat passed at the club meeting.
Recently he went to New York to make a pitch to the rich to help the poor. The host organization, the New York City Partnership, epitomized the "spirit of shared sacrifice."
"You," the president told the Partnership, "are that tough little tug that can pull the ship of state off the shoals and into open water."
The president could have ended the speech with a pledge or a check: "And to keep the ball rolling, I am donating ..."
When he was asked at his first anniversary press conference if he intended, in the light of his exhortations, to increase his contributions to private charity, the president exhibited a chuckling unease. He realizes "the publicity that has attended upon the tax returns of someone in my position." What he meant was that in 1980, he gave $3,089 in charitable contributions out of a gross adjusted income of $227,968.
He went on to say that he gives away one- tenth of his income to charity, "but not in ways that are tax-deductible."
Everyone understands the president's warm feelings for individuals, his chilliness towards constituencies and organized groups. Many find tax-deductible giving unrewarding. Better to see the light in the eye of the recipient instead of feeding your gift into the computers of an outfit that will spend half of it on as much red tape and overhead as the dear old federal government.
And for some people, let's face it, making charitable contributions is a form of tax dodging, futile as it may be. Some of us who really don't want to give for poison gas or missiles write checks for Amnesty or St. Ann's Infant Home, not just because we want to endorse what they are doing, but to keep our money out of the clutches of the Pentagon, another well heeled entity which has Reagan's entire sympathy.
But if the deserving rich are going to save the country, the First Volunteer in the White House maybe should start showing them how.