In Washington: Gut Check for the Machos

SEN. Phil Gramm of Texas, the Republican of Gramm-Rudman fame, used to brag about facing ``real bullets'' during the early Reagan budget cuts. Tough talk came easy then, when the targets were people who couldn't hit back. Now Exxon, which can, has fouled the pristine waters off Alaska. The Republican macho guys are strangely silent.

George Bush made a big deal about Boston Harbor during the presidential campaign. Yet he's uttered barely a peep since the Exxon tanker ran aground.

That seems to be the pattern: Talk tough when there's no political risk. The Bush campaign portrayed Democrat Dukakis as a patsy who wouldn't stand up to murderers and rapists. Willie Hortons would be prowling the nation's suburbs if the Democrats gained the White House.

Now there's a genuine threat, called the greenhouse effect. It comes from pollution and could really heat up life on earth.

Stopping it means tough environmental measures that owners of industry won't like. The Bush people showed their mettle by pretending the problem doesn't exist. They altered the testimony of a top government scientist to make the global-warming trend seem less severe than it is.

``I can understand changing policy, but not science,'' Dr. James Hansen, of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, told the New York Times.

President Bush has certainly learned something from his predecessor in this respect. Ronald Reagan had a knack for ignoring the unpleasant.

Today, one has the feeling of walking out of a matinee and finding that the sky has clouded over. There were syringes on the beaches last summer. A barge full of American trash with no place to go. Now Alaska.

Somebody's going to have to stand up and be counted. If Watergate merely delayed a conservative trend that was probably inevitable, then Mr. Reagan delayed the nation's day of reckoning with the detritus of its own consumer culture.

The signs of this are legion. ``THE PENDULUM SWINGS back toward regulation at many federal agencies,'' was the caption on a front-page item in the Wall Street Journal. The media may soon be talking - and conservatives complaining - about a ``swing back'' to liberalism as well.

But that's not it at all. The Soviet Union has environmental problems even worse than ours, and more regulation there can hardly be counted a ``liberal'' trend. By the same token, conservatives in southern California are backing land-use controls. Los Angeles may restrict the use of cars, and even some Republicans agree.

This isn't ideology. It's protecting life and property, and facing facts.

Which makes this a good time to talk about leadership. Reagan rode out high in the saddle, and in some ways deservedly so. He restored a sense of stature to his office, no small achievement.

Yet he often made us feel good about the wrong things. Along with tax cuts, for example, Reagan provided a big dose of self-justification. He gave greed a gloss of social purpose. If only the government would let us keep our money, the ``invisible hand'' would work its wonders. Everything would be OK. The way to help others is to help yourself.

Selling that is about as tough as selling third-graders on recess. Mr. Peepers could have done it. Reagan's genius was in making catering to self-interest look heroic - like conquering Grenada.

Real leaders risk the displeasure of their own constituents, not someone else's. Harry Truman once said his job was ``to persuade people to do the things they ought to have enough sense to do without my persuading them.''

That's Mr. Bush's challenge on the environment. The nation has a great opportunity.

The United States could become the world leader in pollution control and recycling technologies - the OPEC of the post-fossil-fuel age. On the other hand, by threatening Alaska's fishing industry, the Exxon spill showed the economic danger of not acting now.

Local bottle bills and recycling ordinances suggest that people are ready. We adapt quickly to such measures. When I'm in a state without a bottle bill, I wince when tossing a bottle into the trash.

Let's hope the tough guys in the White House don't wimp out, now that the nation really needs them.

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