Trying to rally a nation to the `creeping crises'

Partway into the interview, the governor of Colorado pulls a printed 3-by-5 card out of his jacket pocket. ``In the end,'' he reads, quoting the historian Edward Gibbon, ``more than they wanted freedom, they wanted security. . . . When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society, but for society to give to them; when the freedom they wished for most was the freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free.'' Leaning back in his chair, Gov. Richard D. Lamm draws the connection between ancient Athens and present-day America. ``I think that democracy is going to go through a period of severe testing,'' says the three-term Democrat who won the governor's mansion in 1974 by walking more than 800 miles throughout the state. ``I think those people who just blindly assume that democracy is a law of nature are going to be in for some surprises.''

It's a familiar message from this High Plains Jeremiah -- so familiar, in fact, that even his friends call him ``Governor Gloom.'' He's a past master of the downbeat quote (``Luxury is more ruthless than war,'' from the Roman satirist Juvenal), the appalling statistic (``256,000 millionaires get medicare''), and the worst-case scenario (``Write me a happy scenario for Bangladesh,'' he challenges). He recently presented his cabinet with a 24-point list detailing the ``Future Problems Facing This State/Nation/World'' that touched on aging, hazardous waste, immigration, race, family, trade deficits, television, urban violence, and more. In conscious reaction to the underlying optimism of John Naisbitt's popular book ``Megatrends,'' Lamm wrote ``Megatraumas: America at the Year 2000,'' published last year.

Yet the youthful, white-haired, soon-to-be ex-governor (he steps down, by choice, Jan. 13) manages to say it all with a smile. He is not by nature a pessimist. He's simply filled with a sense of urgency about a nation he sees as ``lethargic'' in the face of what he is convinced will be long-term decline. ``The toughest thing in politics,'' he says, ``is to try to rally people around a creeping crisis.''

A self-appointed rallier, Lamm uses his relatively powerless office -- the Colorado governorship carries little appointive or budgetary authority -- as a ``bully pulpit.'' He sleeps little, rising well before 6 a.m. to write in a tiny, paper-strewn, book-lined upstairs office at the mansion. There, he composes the speeches and writes or collaborates on the books (five published to date, another two in formative stages) that blast the torpid and blister the indifferent.

What worries him is that Western society may need some kind of cataclysm before it wakes itself up. ``I try to find an example in history,'' he says, ``where an overindulged society has invigorated itself absent some sort of real imperative.'' So far, it's been a fruitless search -- which is why he strives to be heard, even to the point of being impolite. It's all part of what he calls ``Lamm's insult-everybody-a-little-bit plan.''

Now, his governorship coming to a close, he's begun thinking about what to do next. The immediate future is not in doubt: With his newspaper-columnist wife, Dottie, and their two children, he'll spend six months as a Montgomery Fellow at Dartmouth College. ``I have to rewire from 240 [volts] down to 120,'' he quips. But casting his eye to the longer term seems to make him wonder whether he should return to his own profession: lawyering. And that's brought into focus yet another problem: America's legal profession.

``Lawyering is a national scandal in the United States,'' says the former University of Denver law professor. ``We have two-thirds of all the lawyers in the world practicing [here],'' -- which, he says, is a sure way to jack up the cost of doing business. Japan, he notes, trains 1,000 engineers for every 100 lawyers. The statistics are reversed in America. ``A nation of lawyers,'' he notes, ``is not going to beat a nation of engineers in creating wealth.'' He calls it ``legaliflation.''

One can, of course, take issue with his interpretation. Contemporary society is at once so complicated in its laws and so lacking in trust among individuals that hordes of lawyers may well be necessary. But the fact that this problem is becoming one of Lamm's major issues suggests an interesting development in his thought. He's not speaking here, as he sometimes does, about clearly defined problems facing institutions that seem adequate to handle them. He is talking about fundamental weaknesses in the institutions themselves -- in the way society organizes, especially through political and professional structures, to get things done. ``I am absolutely convinced that we need a fundamental change in every institution,'' he says, noting that aging institutions ``tend to become smug, self-satisfied, complacent, inefficient.''

And in that he is not alone. More and more, among people who are concerned about the global future, one hears talk of the failure not of the human spirit but of human institutions. ``My feeling,'' says Lamm, ``is that there's going to be a great search for organizational schemes that can handle chaos.'' Fifty years ago such talk was the province of a few poets, artists, and philosophers. They were branded as radicals. Twenty years ago it bubbled up more widely from disgruntled cynics or from hippies, seed-eaters, and the honey-and-wood-stove crowd. They were labeled anti-establishment.

Now it emanates from a governor's office. Some call it gloom. Lamm calls it realism. It may well be both -- in which case, we better pay attention.

A Monday column

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