State of the Union - candy or honesty?

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I sat down to watch President Clinton's State of the Union address with a bag of round oat cereal and a roll of flexible wire. I figured I was in for a long sit, and I don't do needlepoint. Stringing cereal on the wire would provide food for the wild birds of winter. I was less optimistic about receiving food for thought from the speech. The birds were the winners.

The pageantry of our president speaking to Congress is a remarkable thing. But the speech Americans needed to hear is the state of the union's soul, and Mr. Clinton isn't the one who can give it. We're hungry for principled leadership, evidence of unity, and progress in our ability to live as a country with diverse backgrounds. The voices of division and self-righteousness try to squelch common sense. The result: a shift from what is right to who is right. Though Americans know the difference, they're too fed up to go to the polls even to register a majority vote.

On Tuesday night we were showered with an array of new government programs to guide us through the minefield of exploding tax surpluses. Politicians are giddy with the prospect of extra money. Democrats like to tax and spend; Republicans like to spend and pay later. I loved the Reagan years. My business boomed, and life was grand, but my children were inheriting a legacy of deficit. Now Clinton says Americans should save more to supplement Social Security retirement income. But isn't Social Security the supplement? In the safety net of Social Security, we lose track of individual and family responsibility. Instead of new government savings incentives, why not stop taxing the interest on savings accounts?

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Most politicians have high aspirations and a genuine desire to make a difference, laboring selflessly in the slow-moving process called government consensus. Business could never survive the process.

The only way to get elected is to tell people what they want to hear. The only way to get reelected is to give people what they want. Candy or honesty seems a hard choice.

In an overpopulated world, we offer $500 tax credits for having more children, we pick and choose among UN resolutions to defend those that don't offend powerful lobbies, and we refuse to really regulate tobacco and alcohol. We pillage our national forests, destroy essential wetlands, weaken gun laws, abandon public schools, and then pretend we're caretakers of the future. Are we becoming shortsighted and antisocial, looking for the quick fix, swallowed up by super stores and computer screens?

The most memorable part of the State of the Union evening was the resounding applause for Rosa Parks. The heroic stand this gentle black woman made for equality gave her the strength to carry the entire nation forward, to begin the lifting of ignorance. She has my vote for "person of the century." We need people who change thinking with the power of their good example, whose ideas are so right that they later seem obvious.

I wish the president had asked every American if he or she had been to a PTA meeting recently, or volunteered at a local charity, or picked up litter in the neighborhood. Our people are our underutilized resource.

Clinton and Congress have slipped from the balance of powers, becoming two fighting bullies. Both have lost credibility, and the country floats in the dreamy calm of economic bliss.

Americans should be honest about their own responsibilities to support schools, libraries, public recreation, a healthy environment. Countless Americans share their talents in unsung ways. The long traditions of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and others come together in this nation to promote the concept of loving our neighbor, of valuing him.

This effort is the real state of the union. Let's support and publicize it more. Who we are as a people defines where we are going as a nation. The measurement of money comes and goes.

Ann Hymes, a former Realtor, writes from Murrells Inlet, S.C.

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