In more innocent times, Americans could laugh their way through calamity by reading Will Rogers's latest witticism in the papers. "People ask me where I get my jokes," he once said. "Why, I just watch Congress and report the facts. I don't even have to exaggerate." And when the Great Depression struck, Rogers was able to lift spirits by making light of it. America, he said, was "the only nation in the history of the world to go to the poorhouse in a limousine."
We have no Rogers to brighten our mood, but we do have television, especially cable TV. What the country has been seeing, live and close-up, in these chaotic days in Washington is both ludicrous and dismaying. Now everyone, everywhere can see what provided Rogers such rich material. One wonders, however, if even he could do justice to the present political spectacle.
As always, the doings of Congress provide the easiest targets. But, just when the camera freezes some of those political figures into unflattering frames, along comes the bumbling figure of the president to divert attention from Capitol Hill. His "Read my Hips" remark, uttered while jogging in shorts, T-shirt and baseball cap, was accentuated by presidential gestures in which he pointed toward the presidential posterior.
In so doing, George Bush stumbled into a pit of his own making. As the country becomes increasingly apprehensive about the state of the economy amid intensified hourly evidence of inability to deal with the budget deficit, the president permits himself to be seen as trivializing a serious national problem. Worse, he is seen as reeling from one position to another day by day. He has been practicing the politics of inconsistency.
Nevertheless, the current Washington scene does not completely lack seriousness of purpose or even eloquence of statement to coincide with its elements of slapstick. As evidence, I offer two examples of political statesmanship and candor. Both came near midnight on Columbus Day, in the closing minutes of Senate debate about the new budget resolution.
The speakers were the minority and majority leaders, Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and George J. Mitchell (D- Maine). Nothing I have heard better expresses the political condition in which the country finds itself or more properly places blame for the failure on the politicians, the political system and the people themselves.
Those watching C-SPAN live late that night heard Dole say:
"We have had our ups and downs. We have had our problems, and we had the summit and we have been out at Andrews Air Force Base. A lot of us were frustrated, and some of us are still frustrated. Some of us want to reduce the deficit but not touch Social Security, do not raise taxes, do not touch Medicare, do not touch agriculture, but $500 billion is not enough, the same speaker will say.
"I have heard all those speeches, and they are great. But they do not reduce the deficit. And those who say no new taxes, that is fine; that is your position, stick with it. Some of us who did not take pledges on taxes remember certain things that happen . . . . The American people want leadership, not speeches. They may disagree with us. They may vote against us. But they have children, and they have grandchildren. And if we do not act now, when? If we are not capable, who is going to act?"
Mitchell spoke next:
"Tonight, we reap the bitter harvest of a decade of national indulgence. For 10 years, the American people have been told that we can have it all -- more for defense, more for Medicare, less in taxes. Way deep down, in our national heart of hearts, we all knew it was not true. But it was easy to believe, easy to ignore the truth, easy for a nation to indulge itself. And our nation did.
"That is why in the past few months we, the elected representatives of the American people, have been caught in a cross-fire. From one side, we have been hit with the insistent demand that we reduce the deficit. The American people know, and we know, that we cannot go on spending hundreds of billions of dollars more than we take in. But with the other side has come with equal insistence fierce resistance to higher taxes or lower spending . . . . Let us try to begin now and make sure that one decade of national self-indulgence is enough. This nation cannot stand two decades of national self-indulgence."
There is nothing farcical about those words. They are deadly serious and come from opposite ends of the political spectrum. They also contain a solution -- if anyone is willing to listen and act.