There are two kinds of urgency in Washington, real and false. After a while you get so you can tell the difference between them. This generally involves, first, wholly discounting the evidence of your eyes and ears. The amount of frenzy and attention a subject generates, the miles of newsprint and TV footage devoted to it, the number of somber official pronouncements it inspires tell you nothing. In fact, it sometimes seems as if there is an inverse relationship between the amount of public commotion an issue causes and the degree of seriousness with which it is taken. If you don't understand this, you won't be able to understand the great federal deficit debacle of the summer of '85.
We have an almost perfect case study here of real urgency versus false urgency in Washington. If I were to send my computer on a search for the number of public references to the phrase "deficit reduction" in Congress and in administration briefings over the past several months, it probably wouldn't return until sometime just before Thanksgiving, and the number might not even fit on my screen. Yet the constant anxiety expressed, along with the resolve to take action this year, was, except on the part of a few of these pols, never quite real. The conviction was simulated, thin, ready to be toppled by whatever conflicting political priority came along. So in the end you got a phony, paper budget solution that created the appearance of a much grander deficit reduction than was being made, and for this we and people around the world shall pay.
Don't attribute the gap between word and deed to the hypocrisy of politicians as a class. This is a favorite prejudice of Americans, but it doesn't really tell you what is going on. You have to begin with the fact that there is in Washington a built-in bias against making real things happen. Everyone knows about bureaucratic inertia. Those in Congress and the administration who like to complain about it are generally just as inert themselves, only they make more noise and fuss while being inert. It is fairly easy to make small (and often squalid) things happen here by means of lobbying pressure, backstairs deals and the rest. But large, important public-policy changes are something else. They involve conflict, risk, uncertainty, giving something up, admitting error or at least a lack of omniscience in the past. The immediate gain will not be considered commensurate with the cost. This city resists.
I suppose that some part of this is owing to the endless unrealized predictions of disaster that have emanated from the press, the think tanks and the challenger politicians in recent decades. People only half believe in the dire consequences they themselves occasionally predit. And it is also true that even when the worst happens, it doesn't seem so terrible after all. This, I think, is because our discourse has taken on an apocalyptic tone, so that anything short of global destruction or total economic and environmental collapse is seen as no big deal. Indochina fell and a couple of presidents fell and OPEC did its worst and Reagan cut all these programs and a bunch of banks failed and the ayatollah made us grovel and we're all still here, aren't we -- eating pizza and watching our video cassettes just like before?
Being an abstraction and one that depends in some measure on the credibility of economists' forecasts, the looming danger of an undiminished deficit was a natural for the creation of a false urgency. Maybe it wouldn't happen and even if it did it was a long way down the road and probably it wouldn't be so bad -- we'd still be OK. Politicians have also absorbed at least subliminally the message that our political system is not one that provides for instantaneous or even timely retribution: governments and parliamentary majorities cannot "fall" for their major failings here as they can elsewhere; people have to wait until a fixed political term is up to register their displeasure. And although politicians do fear history's ghastly judgment, well, that is then and this is now, just as the pressures not to raise taxes or not to cut expenditures are now, as distinct from a down-the- road, may-never-happen then.
It is an oddity of life in Washington that we operate this way where well-documented dangers to public well-being are concerned. Practically everyone on all sides of the issue will acknowledge and worry about the predictable impact of these deficits if left as little changed as Congress and the administration are leaving them now. Yet most seem also to believe that real and painful action is not yet absolutely required. "Knowing" is almost never enough to impel action in Washington. Usually there must be some vivid example or episode which in itself tells us nothing we didn't already know, but which becomes the great energizer. Legislators who did not fully grasp until the so-called smoking-gun tape was released in 1974 that Richard Nixon had been up to his ears in the Watergate cover-up probably should themselves have been impeached for stupidity. And the same could be said of those who earlier this year professed shock and a change of heart about the Sandinista government upon learning that Daniel Ortega was off to Moscow.
These were of course excuses, attempts to get right with the mood of the electorate on a public issue. Other of these galvanic events just make an abstract reality vivid. Birmingham Police Chief Bull Connor's men, savaging peaceful, middle-class, middle-aged and elderly black civil-rights demonstrators on national television in the spring of 1963, gave political concern in Washington over racial injustices a real urgency, as distinct from the false urgency that had filled the air with pious expressions of dismay until then. Bull Connor, as was later widely recognized, gave us the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Mel Brooks, in his role as the 2,000-year-old man, being earnestly interviewed by Carl Reiner, is asked of those ancient days in which he purports to have lived, "What was the means of transportation then?" His answer is wonderful: "Mostly fear." Fear will certainly beat a Chevrolet every time. The trouble is your national government only professes to be afraid of the all-but-inevitable impact of these untamed killer deficits. It isn't really afraid yet. It should be. So should you.