Palme in the cafeteria: keeping track of real life

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THE prince saw his kingdom more clearly through the pauper's eyes. Henry the Fifth mingled with his troops before Agincourt. Nehru drew strength from outstretched hands of thousands of Indians. General Stilwell slogged with his men. Peter the Great disguised himself as a commoner to learn Western technology. Jimmy Carter spent some nights in family homes. Throughout history (and legend) leaders have sporadically tried to keep themselves tuned in through contact with their fellow citizens.

But in nation after nation that contact has shrunk, for security reasons. The shots in Dallas, the bombing of Prime Minister Thatcher's hotel, the killing of Anwar Sadat and King Feisal, a knife-wielding assailant in Tokyo, and a deluded movie fan at Washington's Hilton all have served to raise the walls higher. Even self-isolated Burma found itself the scene of a mass assassination of much of the South Korean cabinet. And now neutral, homogenous Sweden has had its exemption pulled, with Prime Minister Palme shot down as he and his wife went from a movie theater to take the subway back to their apartment.

Are we in an age where no popular leader can any longer mingle with his fellow citizens, either to stir them or learn from them?

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Americans cherish any small sign that their president of the moment recalls those earlier days of the republic when Andrew Jackson could invite the crowds into the White House for inaugural potluck. Considering the overburdened presidency, any such moments today are more likely to be staged than genuine.

But the instinct is a useful one. It is isolation -- not familiarity -- that often (but not always) breeds contempt in leaders. Ferdinand Marcos is only the latest example of the process.

Olof Palme had just become prime minister when I arrived in Sweden on a reporting trip in 1969. I asked for an interview; expected a pro-forma 30 minutes in an austere ministerial office, interrupted by the intercom as often as the Johnny Carson show is halted by commercials.

Instead Mr. Palme asked me to meet him in the parliamentary cafeteria. We went through the line. He hunted for an unoccupied table. Then began a long discussion of why Sweden could be both one of the most capitalist nations in the world, with major industries in the hands of just a few families, at the same time it was a leading socialist welfare state.

Palme talked about the problem of high Swedish taxation, necessary to finance egalitarian welfare but damping the incentive for bright young managers to found new businesses. He chatted with lawmakers who dropped by the table for shoptalk. The chairman of SAAB stopped for a moment to describe a new jet fighter.

Such back-fence behavior was not a product of Palme's American college days. It was traditional. His predecessor, longtime Prime Minister Tage Erlander, had lived with his wife in a Stockholm flat. The first lady went off every morning to teach school.

That kind of rubbing shoulders with real life was not yet extinct. For instance, Austria's recent chancellor, Bruno Kreisky, kept a listed phone number at his suburban Grinzing home in order to hear citizens' opinions. He often dined out at a neighborhood restaurant. A few other heads of government have managed similar escapes from official cocoons.

But, realistically, even democracies cannot expect many moments where leaders consort with the citizens who elected them. Not just security problems but the demands of the job are too pervasive for much trafficking with the voters.

Both the parliamentary system and the American separated-powers system of democracy provide for frequent access to the ideas of the governed. That's what representative democracy is all about. It isn't necessary for a prime minister to list his phone in order to hear from constituents. His parliamentary colleagues should be in frequent contact with those constituents -- as should United States congressmen.

What presidents and prime ministers need to beware of is not isolation from handshakes and backslapping. Not even isolation from subway trips. Most of today's leaders have not seen a subway or bus for decades anyway.

The hazard they face is more likely to be the hazard faced by a corporate CEO or college president whose view of real life is filtered by staffers shaping news from the outside to fit administration programs and views.

Or the hazard may be polls whose Q & A show, not citizen needs, but how an official action may be disguised to make it appealing.

Riding subways and talking to citizens on the phone are only gestures that symbolize being in touch with the public. If leaders are usually too busy to do such things themselves -- and they mostly should be -- then they ought to make sure that some of the aides they depend on make such forays from time to time. The prince need not pose as a pauper. But he can profit from talking to candid associates who know about paupers' lives. For that purpose the congressional dining rooms work as well as a parliamentary cafeteria.

Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.

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