The realities of American life look entirely different to those who deal day-to-day with its challenges and those who just pontificate about those problems.
The pontificators in my world of journalism have been having a field day speculating about Texas Gov. George W. Bush's possible use of cocaine earlier in his life. They are so fascinated by the question that they have neglected the most basic obligation of our craft -- finding the facts and assessing the evidence. Without any substantiation, the relentless questioning of the Republican presidential contender is nothing but harassment.
Now, drugs and crime are real problems. But after every pundit has finished posturing and muddying the waters, it is bracing to hear from people who actually might know what they're talking about.
One day last month, I sat in a classroom at Catholic University's Columbus School of Law, surrounded by police officials and ministers of inner-city churches who had come together to talk about practical ways they could cooperate to deal with the plague of drugs and violence in their communities.
About 50 of them gathered under the auspices of the Police Executive Research Forum, a 22-year-old foundation- and government-financed private agency -- drawn from cities all across the country. Attorney General Janet Reno came by to listen to part of the discussion, learning, as I did, from the street smarts of these people.
Dean Esserman, the police chief of Stamford, Conn., established their expertise in a lighthearted way. Surveying the roomful of preachers and cops, he said, "You know, we're two of the few professions that still make house calls." Then, turning serious, he defined what had really brought them together: "I'm awfully tired of arresting children, and you must be tired of going to children's funerals."
The keynote of the program was furnished by three ministers from Boston who had created the Ten-Point Coalition, a group of black churches that launched an intensive outreach program to gang members and their families. The Revs. Jeffrey Brown, Ray Hammond and Roland Robinson and Boston Police Commissioner Paul Evans described how the partnership of law enforcement and probation officers, clergy and laymen had dramatically reduced the incidence of crime and drug-dealing in some of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods.
A "zero-tolerance" policy toward even minor lawbreaking combined with a wide array of prevention programs, from close monitoring of at-risk youths during after-school hours to real job-training and placement programs by Boston businesses, has worked wonders in the community, they said.
But it is no panacea. When the police chiefs of Detroit and Washington, D.C., said they were skeptical the Boston model could be imported without change to their cities, the Boston clergymen agreed that it would be folly to think "one size fits all." They cautioned against grandiose plans. Seek out a few practical projects and let the process of cooperation evolve, they said. Expect setbacks.
What was striking was the combination of practicality and fervor in the discussion, driven by a shared sense that a generation of young people is at stake. It was a far cry from journalistic cheap-shotting or political posturing, the staples of the world in which I work most of the time.
There was a palpable sense of reaching out for solutions -- a feeling among the participants that we're all in this together and can learn from each other. When Reno expressed her concern that today's swelling prison population inevitably means that in the next few years, unprecedented numbers of ex-cons will be moving back into their old neighborhoods, with no certainty that they will not foment a new wave of crime and violence, creative minds immediately grasped the challenge.
"There needs to be some kind of a re-entry program," the Rev. Brown said, "that begins a year or 18 months before their release and helps connect them to resources in the community." The Rev. Winton Hill of Stamford said that prison chaplains often become mentors to inmates. "They could hook them up with ministers in the neighborhoods they're going back to, so the same kind of counseling continues."
And then Benny Napoleon, Detroit's chief of police, asked the question that ought to be on the minds of lawmakers who soon will be shaping the final version of the juvenile justice bill, passed in differing forms by the House and Senate:
"How do we intervene with the 4- or 5-year-old whose dad has disappeared, whose mother is on drugs and who's being cared for by a grandmother who says he's too much for her? We seem to be willing to spend anything on jails -- but not on this. And that kid's going to be my problem -- and yours."