George H. W. Bush -- than whom few if any presidents in our history have served a longer, more varied apprenticeship in the wicked city of Washington -- has discovered the focus of political evil in modern America. It is, paradoxically, Washington.
"How nice it is," the president exclaimed at a rally in Omaha the other day, "to be out where the real people are, outside of Washington, D.C." That was surely music to Omaha ears. There was more, including this in Glen Ellyn, Ill.: "I know Americans are fed up with much of the political debate coming out of Washington. It's the same old inside-the-Beltway hogwash."
Not that anyone will exactly rush to the defense of inside-the-Beltway politics, but so far as is known, George Bush has not been detained here at gunpoint for most of the past quarter century. Quite voluntarily he has lived and labored among the unreal people of Washington, D.C. -- as a congressman from Texas (1967-71), chairman of the Republican National Committee (1973-74), Director of Central Intelligence (1976-77), and of course vice president (1981-89). His only known refuges from the horrors of the capital have been in New York (U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, 1971-72) and Peking (U.S. envoy, 1974-75). Whatever disgust he has felt in pained contemplation of the spoiled machinations of federal government have, till now, been a closely kept secret.
Sure, it's campaign season. And this is "campaign oratory" of the silliest sort, hardly worth noticing -- except that the stale insinuation that political vice begins at the Beltway has been heard so long it has now become part of the problem. It flatters and fosters the popular illusion that American public attitudes (often cynical), political habits (often slothful) and appetites (often covetous) have absolutely nothing to do with the debauched politics of the capital. The responsibility for the mess may safely be disclaimed by the Omahas and Glen Ellyns of this broad land.
If that really were true, however, the paralysis gripping Washington would soon pass. For contrary to myth, there is more turnover in Congress today than there was a generation or two ago. The paralysis, again contrary to myth, has much to do with the fact that constituent views, far from being neglected, are now instantaneously conveyed. The message is usually: Send us more services, but not the bill. And Congress has been happy to oblige. It is, in the short run, the painless way.
Consider, just for example, one of the major sources of the current budget wrangle -- who will pay the soaring costs of Medicare, and especially the costs of Schedule B services, which are financed from the general fund. Americans, as they age, claim a larger and larger slice of all public benefits. Some 50 cents of every dollar, aside from defense and interest costs, now accrue in some way to the benefit of the nation's elderly. Meanwhile, these beneficiaries have mobilized themselves to make their voices heard. Unlike those 35 and younger who are likely to be the ultimate victims of this budgetary tilt, the elderly vote and lobby in vast numbers in their own behalf.
And do they want to pay more? We had a spectacular test of gerontocratic power a year ago when the elder lobby rebelled against a modest, means-tested tax to support a new plan for catastrophic health coverage. Congress promptly and meekly repealed it, every jot and title. This was not an inside-the-Beltway conspiracy against the public interest. It was democracy at work, in its rawest form.
George Bush is, of course, aware of all this, which makes it not only odd but contemptible that even in a campaign season he should be nurturing the illusion that it's all an inside-the-Beltway show. Jimmy Carter's strangest motto was that the answer to all recent political ills was "a government as good as the people."
But in such populistic twaddle, George Bush is unashamed to out-Carter Carter, and even out-Reagan Reagan. At least Carter and Reagan had the slight excuse of inexperience and naivete. George Bush has spent nearly a quarter-century in Washington, and in his case the outsider agin-the-government pose falls flat.
"Inside-the-Beltway hogwash" there undoubtedly is, in plenty, just as Bush says. In fact, it is an excellent description of what he has been saying on the stump.