President Clinton deserves a gold star for his poverty tour. He has brought us face to face with the deprived and the dispossessed in our society. He has given us the voices of the brave men and women in Appalachia and other places left behind in the great surge of prosperity that has engulfed the rest of the country. We have seen their humility, their hopefulness, their immense dignity.
But Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) says it is "a little late." Jesse Jackson is claiming credit. And--the unkindest cut of all--the first lady bumped him off live CNN coverage of his historic visit to Pine Ridge. She was putting a toe in the New York senatorial waters while her husband was making the first serious presidential call on an Indian reservation. Calvin Coolidge went to Pine Ridge in 1927 but only to pick up a much-photographed war bonnet. Clinton promised help.
Wellstone has a point. The Senate's most liberal Democrat and the only member of his party to vote against the Clinton welfare bill, he says he sees Clinton's concern for the poor as genuine but a "disconnect" between rhetoric and budget requests. But to see Clinton bonding with blacks in an East St. Louis parking lot or commiserating with an Oglala Sioux woman who is responsible for 11 people in her wretched house and 17 other relatives in her trailer is to watch him doing something he was born to do.
Wellstone thinks it is "a tragedy" that Clinton is introducing the country to its most miserable inhabitants in the seventh year of his presidency rather than the second.
Jackson tells people that the trip is "a victory for the Rainbow Coalition." It may be, but Clinton's tour guide was indisputably Andrew Cuomo, the hard-charging secretary of housing and urban development. For the last year, Cuomo has been preaching the gospel of the left-behind. He has insisted that Americans, if they found out about, for instance, the 73 percent unemployment rate at Pine Ridge, would insist on doing something about it.
Happy talk was the usual output of the administration. Only Cuomo went from platform to platform with his daunting statistics, his depressing slides. He spoke with something of his father's eloquence about challenge and conscience and was told he sounded old-hat. He had no reason to think anyone was listening until the president reeled off the names of all the places he is now visiting in his State of the Union speech and spoke of "bringing jobs and opportunities to our inner cities and rural areas."
The people of Appalachia and East St. Louis and other sad centers have seen other prominent public men come through before, expressing sympathy and even outrage. Clinton brings hope with clout. His large entourage is studded with CEOs who profess willingness to take a flyer on the poor, who are prepared to offer Wal-Marts and vouchers for housing and scholarships for the young. Cooperation between the public and private sectors is not a new idea. Republicans have pushed for enterprise zones. Earned income tax credits were passed in the second year of Clinton's administration.
The question is whether Congress will give Clinton the satisfaction of burnishing his legacy by ministering to the poor in the twilight of his presidency. Will the Republicans vote the appropriations necessary to fund tax credits and loan guarantees?
The answer depends in some measure on whether or not the scandal of the left-behind becomes a campaign issue. Vice President Gore has been an ardent advocate of empowerment zones but more apt to do meetings with mayors than encounters with the poor. His nomination rival, Bill Bradley, speaks feelingly of rescuing children from poverty, but without specifics. George W. Bush's views on these matters, as on so many others, are not known. Gore might find the humanity his campaign lacks in pushing these schemes to help the people who have tires and rusting bedsprings in their front yards and no indoor plumbing.
For Clinton, these four days have been reviving. He has eschewed the Hollywood playmates and the Wall Street moguls with whom he so often consorts to stand with the dirt-poor losers. It is always attractive to see a president of the United States exhorting his fellow citizens to do better. There is a tendency, particularly around the Fourth of July, to congratulate ourselves on our accomplishments and our uniqueness, to credit our virtue, rather than our incredible luck, for our enviable state.
It is entirely fitting for Clinton, who has hardly ever tired of pointing out the unparalleled prosperity that has occurred on his watch, to sing another tune. Now he is not only telling the country but showing it that we have an obligation to spread our good fortune to those among us who can't read or write or haven't had a crack at the American dream.