In the same week that plans were disclosed for shutting down vast areas of American governmental endeavors, for cutting back funds for child nutrition, poverty, welfare, basic research and public-health protection, and for requiring pay cuts of astronauts, diplomats and Secret Service and FBI agents who risk -- and often lose -- their lives for the public, there was reassuring news about the "Opportunity Society."
CBS announced the signing of two people it regards as stars:
* Phyllis George, a former beauty queen and sometime participant in the halftime chatter of televised football games, was named co-host of the two-hour "CBS Morning News." Reported annual salary: $750,000 to $850,000 (and maybe as much as $1 million).
* Brent Musburger, who reads professional football scores from the news tickers, was signed to a five-year contract to continue as host of CBS' "NFL Today" and to become, among other things, the network's No. 1 play-by-play announcer of college basketball. Reported salary: $2 million a year, and that's no typo, sports fans. (CBS, without specifically stating Musburger's salary, archly noted that his remuneration "puts to shame" the $1.3 million ABC reportedly paid Howard Cosell. ABC, as you'll understand, was supposed to be dickering for Musburger's services.)
Well, terrific. The television network news departments have been moving ever more solidly into the grip of the entertainment division hucksters anyway. This merely reinforces the trend.
Besides, as a nation we've been moving away from the concept of public service for some time. This juxtaposition of headlines ought to clarify once and for all what kinds of efforts are most esteemed and rewarded in this society.
To all those attending or planning to enter schools of foreign service, departments of American government, police academies and the like with the idea of becoming career professionals in the public service, the message is also clear: Forget it. Your government doesn't value your services, and the public long has been conditioned to think unfavorably of your worth.
So get out before it's too late. Those jobs don't pay, they're not respected, and they have no future.
If you're smart, you'll study the example of success of Phyllis and Brent -- everyone's always on a first-name basis on television, even if the acquaintanceship lasts no longer than 15 seconds -- and sign up for the fashion school or Read-and-Rip Voice Academy.
That's where the real Opportunity Society lies. It certainly doesn't lie with the government. Our government's broke -- and that's not all that's bankrupt about it. What we're seeing in Washington is the massive evidence of bankrupt policies. Those fabled chickens have come to roost, but these birds hovering over the capital are no soft, plump variety of holiday fowl. They're tough old vultures.
The word most commonly used to describe the meat-ax approach to governing being proposed by the Reagan administration to solve its historic financial mess is "Draconian" -- that is, by definition, "barbarously severe, harsh, cruel."
Dracon, a Greek who entered history's log in 621 B.C., is remembered as the author of laws so severe they were said to be "written in blood." And well they might, since the penalty for all offenses was death. To carry out his edicts, Dracon overrode the authority of the archons, or chief magistrates, by terminating their powers and ending reforms.
What we have now is a Draconian proposal that would throw out the good with the bad, shortchange the future, jeopardize the public health and safety, make governing more difficult, and heighten the sense of cynicism about public service and with all that is demonstrably unfair.
And all to avoid acknowledging what is and has been self-evident: the need to raise revenues as well as cut all government spending fairly. The best way to accomplish that would be a true across-the-board spending freeze, of the kind Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (S.C.) proposed earlier this year when he sought the Democratic presidential nomination, and a tax increase, whether of the value-added kind, a national sales tax or another sort.
What we also have is what was forecast extensively and blithely ignored in the Oval Office.
Some brief history: On Feb. 18, 1981, when President Reagan presented his first budget, he predicted a period of rapid economic growth as budget deficits declined.
Here's what he told us: In fiscal 1982, the deficit would be $45 billion. The next year, it would be sliced in half to $22.8 billion. The year after, fiscal 1984, a virtual balanced budget would be achieved. And fiscal 1985 would show -- presto! -- a surplus of $5.89 billion.
All this, you'll recall, was based on figures that predicted twice the growth rate for 1982 (the year of recession) as the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office did and far more growth than assumed by most reputable economists. Congress bought the program and by that July had agreed to his package of $35 billion in spending cuts -- and the huge increase in defense spending and great tax cut that would mean a revenue loss to the federal government of three-quarters of a trillion dollars over a five-year period.
If anyone mismanaged a corporation in that manner, he'd be fired. Instead the public has been told to disregard all that scare talk about budget problems and the likelihood of Draconian measures to address them. All's well, watch the boom ignite, don't worry about that gloom stuff. This was the message from on high -- before the election.
As Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), the bright, young conservative, told Hedrick Smith of The New York Times:
"The American people have to feel a little like they thought they were walking into the office of a cruise ship and found out they were in a cancer clinic. My own reaction is dismay at the contrast between the Christmas season and a 5 percent pay cut for federal employes. This is not the upbeat Opportunity Society commercial of six weeks ago. If you are going to persuade people that they need cancer surgery, you've got to persuade them that they have cancer. I thought that was Walter F. Mondale's message."
Not entirely, it seems.
Oh, the hell with it, Newt. You're getting as bad as the rest. Not to worry. The Opportunity Society still exists. We've still got Phyllis and Brent.