Two men struggling in different ways and for different purposes for America's attention may be about to be bested by a lady, Danielle Steele. In Nabih Berri's hostage episode and Ronald Reagan's complicated campaign for his recondite plan for tax "simplification," we see illustrated the power, and public benefit, of boredom.
Steele is author of a zillion thick novels with titles such as "Passion's Promise" and "Season of Passion," the sort millions of Americans take to the beach to induce slumber while they court skin cancer through a lather of coconut butter. If Steele, the sun and the soothing sound of the surf have their soporific effect on the public, the Republic may survive the summer.
The hostage episode illustrates the foreign-policy variant of the Theory of Constructive Boredom, which is: Sometimes a democracy's greatest, if elusive, strength is an ability to wait. Given the nature of the beast (democracy, that is), that capacity cannot come from innate discipline. It must be a byproduct of the boredom that comes naturally to a public that has a short attention span born of an addiction to novelty.
It is axiomatic that if you have no choice, you have no problem. There is no way to rescue the hostages, negotiations are pointless if concessions really have been ruled out, retaliation has been as much as promised but is not practical until the episode ends, so now we have an interesting two- part test:
Can a democracy change the subject when the subject of the moment is as hot as a hostage-taking? Can the mere fact that a democratic government has, for the moment, nothing much to say about such a subject cause it to shut up? If it does, will that shut down the saturation journalism that makes maters worse two ways -- by making the fate of the hostages seem to be the overriding issue, and by making it hard for the government to hold its thousands of tongues?
The domestic variant of the Law of Constructive Boredom is: Populist reform, which requires the agitation of the masses, is probably a crummy idea that can, fortunately, be killed by wholesome boredom.
Nabih Berri and his associates have upstaged the president's tax campaign by temporarily changing the subject. But, then, the tax plan is, in part, a device for changing the subject (from the dismal subject of the deficit). Most of the time, most of the public has, at most, a one-track mind regarding public matters.
Even before the beaches beckon, America will not concentrate on a domestic issue while the media are concentrating on the nuances of some nuance-less terrorists. And America will never concentrate steadily, as the president's tax campaign requires, on anything as arcane as the president's plan for replacing today's rococo tax code with one that is merely baroque.
The president understands what is required for his plan to pass, but probably is too congenitally cheerful to comprehend the improbability of achieving that prerequisite. The prerequisite is steady pressure from the general public. His campaign-style stumping is designed to arouse and keep aroused the inattentive many on behalf of generalities ("simplicity," "fairness"). The inattentive many are supposed to defeat the attentive few, who are fighting for particularities.
The public cannot define and Congress cannot deal in large abstractions like "fairness." However, intense little sub-publics can define in detail, and Congress can deliver, bite-size morsels like investment tax credits or accelerated depreciation allowances. (Those are two bits of the industrial good life that the president has decided are blemishes on the nation's tax code.)
An ABC-Washington Post poll, conducted immediately fter the president proposed his plan, revealed -- if that word is apposite -- that 84 percent of the people favor a "fairer" code. I am fascinated by the other 16 percent. Perhaps Washington can study some of them, as ornithologists study exotic species this summer.
They may be among those persons who will forgo the delights of the beach (sunburn, sand in the sandwiches, sand in your trouser cuffs -- is there anything more ghastly than a beach?). They will patiently make their points to Congress, defining the definable and requesting the deliverable. "The people," who supposedly seethe with discontent about the tax code, will be toasting and slumbering on the sand, a lotion- slick Steele novel fallen open on the blanket.