In Atlantic City, a straight-A student wins a class competition to deliver the valedictory address at her high school graduation. Then, while preparing her speech, she's black-balled. Nearly two-thirds of the faculty and school staff sign a petitiion, initiated by a history teacher, objecting to her giving the speech. Their reason: she's an Iranian. She withdrew. The school superintendent agrees with her action. "I think it was a good move," he says, according to The New York Times. "Anything else might be detrimental to her."
In Jacksonville, Fla., a man says he's loading his shotgun and waiting, happily prepared to shoot on sight any blacks who head his way and appear about to get "out of line."
In Fort Chaffee, Ark., citizens arm themselves with baseball bats, prepared to club Cuban refugees if further trouble occurs there.
In Watertown, S.D., a woman says no one should be surprised at the strong reactions of displeasure toward refugees arriving in America today. "Our capacity to assimilate refugees in finite," she says. Refugees are seen as especially undesirable now -- just more empty mouths to feed -- in view of the country's economic problems. She thinks opposition to them "is a demonstration of our dawning realization of those limits we are only beginning to feel."
In Gastonia, N.C., a doctor who has been visiting the nation's capital since 1942 says of his latest trip that "I've never felt as much confusiion, anger and hurt" as he encountered here this spring.
And in his office on Capitol Hill, a U.S. senator speaks of a mean-spirited, vengeful political tide running in the country, one that not even the extraordinary healing talents of a Franklin Delano Roosevelt could reverse. "There's no charity, no sensitivity, no magnaminity," he says, predicting an even uglier period ahead for the country.
To report that all's not well among the Potomac is a bit like telling someone strapped in the electric chair that the forthcoming might hurt. But even in these sullen times and the sense of disarray between Capitol Hill and the White House has to be seen to be believed.
A Democratic Congress didn't just override the veto of a Democratic president Friday for the first time in 28 years; it registered a gesture of contempt toward him. Of 535 members of Congress, the president and the Capitol Hill leadership were able to muster 34 legislators in the House and 10 in the Senate who were willing to stand up for Jimmy Carter. That's more than a defeat. It's a humiliation.
The veto override killing the president's plan to tax imported oil can be explained in several ways. Many in Congress believed the tax to be a political subterfuge. Despite the administration's arguments about the benefits to be achieved in energy conservation, they say the import fee as a revenue producing device aimed at helpng the president achieve a balanced budget. Others felt it would not be an effective conservation measure in any event, while still others frankly viewed if from a short-term perspective of political self-interest in an election year, with the public even more concerned about the pocket book and the cost of living, they weren't about to risk their seats by voting to add to consumer costs even though the action might be in the best long-term national interest.
But none of these motivations explained the nature of the scene on Capitol Hill Thursday night. The House convened only two hours after Carter's veto. When the traditional greeting, "Mr. Speaker, I have a message from the president of the United States" was called out, raucous laughter, cheers -- and also what surely sounded like jeers -- filled the chamber. It was a spectacle better suited to a rural gathering of backwoods legislators than to the Congress of the United States.
It was a disturbing scene. Aside from betraying an underlying lace of respect for the president, it matched the nasty mood rising in the country.
Politically, the timing was illuminating. The president had just achieved what not so long ago seemed an impossibility. He had taken on the nation's most formidable political name, and presumable the most able campaigner, and, against all the odds and forecasts, proceeded to do exactly what he had predicted -- he whipped Ted Kennedy in 24 out of 34 primary contests. His renomination should be assured.
By all normal political logic, Carter should be the favorite for reelection in the fall. He's had some of the most difficult on-the-job training in presidential history, and he brings to the voters two elements supposedly sought by most Americans. He has hard-earned experience and the promise of providing full two-term presidential continuity for the first time in 24 years. p
Yet the norms clearly are not applying at this point. A careful look at the political map today shows Carter in peril in virtually every section of the country, including his native South. Ronald Reagan stand in a strong position to cut into Carter's southern support, claim much if not all of the West won four years ago by Gerald Ford, and contest powerfully in the Midwest. John Anderson's prospects are brighter in the major industrial states of the Northeast and in California; it's not impossible to see his even winning some of these major states. The possibility of an election in which no one gets the necessary 270 electoral votes, thereby throwing the decision into the House, becomes all the more real (of which more in a later column.)
In the meantime, unemployment rises, national frustration intensifies, fear about the future increases, and many citizens react with increasing signs of hostility.
Our political system is supposed to provide a venting for those tensions, a way to find a peaceful solution to problems, a vehicle for change thhrough the elective process by which a majority expresses faith in its chosen leaders. Now voters are registering other, less charitable emotions. They are rejecting appeals to conscience, electing Klansmen in California, and withdrawing into narrow interests. Seemingly they expect not the best of their politicians but the worst.
Batten down and prepare to ram. The ensuing voyage promises to be rough.