Calling a spade a spade instead of describing it as a blunt instrument for moving earth is one of the lessons that used to be taught aspiring writers. Simplicity and directness are always desirable goals for anyone seeking forcefulness and clarity of expression. On these grounds, two of the president's men demonstrate singular gifts of language.
There's no doubt what Interior Secretary James G. Watt and U.N. Deputy Ambassador Charles M. Lichenstein mean, and none at all about the direct manner in which they express their thoughts.
The question comes over what will be the final reaction to their comments by the only person who matters to them, their boss, President Reagan.
On second thought, that's not entirely true. The president already has answered that question positively about one of them: Lichenstein. At this point the real question about the other, Watt, involves not so much the president's reaction. It concerns the reaction of the people Watt has characterized or--call a spade a spade--defamed and degraded.
One can sympathize with the frustrations of our deputy chief delegate to the U.N., if not with his wisdom and undiplomatic behavior. The hypocrisy and theatrical posing that take place in that institution are enough to upset the strongest soul, and obviously Lichenstein has a sensitive side.
So when he publicly tells his fellow U.N. members that if they don't like it here they can lump it or leave, it is all in character. Certainly he cannot be accused of hiding his emotions or cloaking his meaning in diplomatic niceties. He comes right out with it:
"If in the judicious determination of the members of the U.N. they feel they are not welcome and they are not being treated with the hostly consideration that is their due, then the U.S. strongly encourages such member states seriously to consider removing themselves and this organization from the soil of the United States. We will put no impediment in your way, and we will be down at dockside waving you a fond farewell as you sail into the sunset."
Now you can wonder why someone who feels that way would wish to serve at the U.N., or why we would want to have someone there who holds such views, but not have any doubts about what he believes. Besides, the president has ended the matter--at least from our side--by bluntly stating his own opinion.
Most Americans heartily endorse his U.N. aide's remarks, the president says, and adds: ". . . we weren't asking anyone to leave, but if they choose to leave, goodbye." He suggests that a six-month tour in Moscow for the U.N. members would be instructive, and welcomes it. Close the gates and circle the wagons; Fortress America lives. Who needs the rest of those people anyway?
End of episode, and maybe the United Nations, too, so far as the Reagan administration is concerned.
It is not the end of the Watt episode.
Watt's infamous remarks characterizing the members he appointed to a commission to study his coal-leasing program--"I have a black, I have a woman, two Jews and a cripple"--are being greeted with calls for his resignation.
That has become routine when it comes to the secretary of the interior. He makes an outrageous statement, apologizes, weathers the predictable storm of criticism, and goes on with the president's blessing despite the damage he has done to individuals, groups, the administration he serves, and the nation he represents.
In continuing to keep him, the president implicitly endorses his actions and further hurts himself. Every time Reagan accepts one of those Watt apologies he underscores doubts about his own attitudes. Then he wonders why people criticize him for seeming insensitive or indifferent to the feelings of minorities and other groups of Americans. But that's also part of the routine, and not the point here.
Something even more troubling than the latest outrage committed by Watt--perhaps more saddening would be a more accurate expression--concerns the reaction of the commission members themselves.
Individually and collectively, they were treated with contempt. Their race, sex, religion, and affliction were made objects of humor. Their qualifications were disparaged. Their ability to perform the serious tasks assigned them was undermined. Their real value, as revealed by the interior secretary's cynical characterization of them, was only as a carefully selected group of people balanced to meet political considerations, thus reducing their worth to that of political hacks chosen to make someone else look good.
And what was their response? A bit of a tut, tut, how unfortunate, and on with it.
Forget Watt and the president's reaction. Forget the new questions about whether or when the secretary should resign, or what degree of outrage constitutes a firing offense.
Even if he resigns immediately, as he should, another question about this episode will remain. It is the commission members who should have quit, en masse, over such an insult to their worth and integrity--and they should have done so with a uniform condemnation of a public official who insulted them and, by his words, all other Americans who fit into their varying segments of this society.
Such an act would have been a breath of fresh air in this stale capital and a welcome sign to the country that some Americans will not accept such unacceptable behavior by someone supposedly serving the public.