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The Politics Of Fedupness

By Richard J. CattaniRichard J. Cattani is editor of the Monitor. / April 8, 1992



CONGRESS appears ready to disgorge more members this session - by early retirement, let alone in the fall election - than at any other time in recent history.

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Whether it's embarrassment over writing rubber checks on the House bank, a sense of futility as the debt from the past decade squeezes innovation out of public policy, or simple weariness over long weeks away from family, dozens of lawmakers are calling it quits. In addition to the epidemic of fedupness are factors like redistricting: Some members will have their House seats pulled out from under them.

The House Speaker, Tom Foley of Washington, long the voice of moderation and reason, has been sounding hurt and beleaguered. Foley had put himself on a personal regimen of weight lifting and diet for this session. His relative sveltness has not defended him, however, from his colleagues' carping.

Fedupness pervades the White House. Marlin Fitzwater, Mr. Bush's spokesman, reportedly is so dismayed by policy gridlock at the top that he has threatened to resign; he went to Bermuda instead, an option other fed-up Americans might appreciate.

Sightings abound on the presidential campaign trail of angry, teeth-bared Americans, who want leaders to be held accountable.

Other institutions are troubled. Flagship universities like MIT and Stanford have drifted into dire straits. During the 1980s, campuses built up their nonteaching sectors - administration, campus police, profit research - when they were flush with government contract money. Accounting practices did not keep pace. A new generation of presidents, including Stanford's newly elected chief, Gerhard Casper, will have to build a new credibility.

The press has tried to be more responsible in covering this year's campaign than they have been given credit for. Has there not been more coverage than election? The press has stumbled on emotional issues - reputed girlfriends and draft avoidance. But its effort at good behavior - candidate profiles, home-state research - has fallen on dull eyes. No one should expect the press to look better than the candidates they cover, but the media are blamed for creating the candidates.

Minor comedies intrude. Enter wives. Foley's wife emerged in the House banking controversy. Clinton's allowed herself to get drawn into talk about Mr. Bush's private life.

Serious matters have surfaced. In matters of race, the Supreme Court has just declined to reinvigorate its stance on school desegregation. If desegregation remedies, including busing, have not overcome other forces such as housing patterns, this is not cause to intervene, the court ruled. A neoliberal movement on the subject of race is emerging. The black community, unified by 350 years of subjugation, is said to be fragmenting. The Jim Crow legacy of explicit segregation may have ended. But the preponde rance of blacks who are poor, undereducated, or in jail clearly indicates that some residual influence of repression continues. This condition not even angry Americans and fed-up politicians can ignore.

Broader currents threaten to overpower the individuals trying to swim in them. Political parties have been weakened not only in the United States but across Europe. Concurrent are the rise of television as a manipulative medium and the independence of candidates as political operators. And there has been a widespread indifference toward the costs of debt.

These forces work together, negatively. Presidential nominees will look like lemonade-stand candidates if they lack a disciplined party and Congress-backed program behind them.

The House will have to set new limits on perks. Having overspent in the 1980s, Congress will have to lead with ideas rather than dollars. Foley may be replaced in the next session, but he should not be made the fall guy for a membership of independent operators who have insisted on their own conflicted ways.

At the White House, new chief of staff Sam Skinner cannot be blamed for not being Jim Baker, his standout predecessor in Reagan's first term. Bush's boasts about being the environment president, the education president, have flat tires. There just are not many genuine ideas people around the president right now.