NBC Commentator Plays Cassandra in Print

PERIL AND PROMISE: A COMMENTARY ON AMERICA. By John Chancellor, New York: Harper & Row, 176 pp., $17.95 `THE future can be reclaimed by an America that regains its will to succeed. But success can be achieved only by sacrifice and work, by a return to the spirit that made the United States such a colossus of energy and enterprise during World War II.''

That, in a nutshell, is the point of John Chancellor's ``Peril and Promise.'' In it, the veteran television anchorman and commentator plays Cassandra as he warns America that its future is dim unless - and it's a big ``unless'' - it sets at work in earnest and in haste to put its house in order.

What's wrong? A lot. The American education system doesn't cut it today, and its future looks worse. The industrial base - even the crown jewel of computers and high technology - is quickly losing ground to the Japanese and others. The United States is in danger of becoming a second-rate power.

Chancellor's aim is to sound the alarm, not offer the blueprint. Ironically, he says, in some ways Americans overestimate the seriousness of the situation. Many believe, for example, that the economic competition with the Japanese is over and that Japan has won. Instead, he says, in many areas the outcome hangs in the balance, and the outcome depends on what Americans do now and in the near future. President Bush's vision of a ``kinder, gentler America'' is all well and good, he says. But ``what is needed is a tougher, smarter America.''

America's strengths, he reminds us, are still formidable. ``Its ideology remains the most appealing in the world; its huge free market, bound by a common language and open interstate borders, is the envy of other trading blocs (the goal of the European Community is to become a group of united states). The American network of military and diplomatic alliances, its primacy in world trading and economic institutions, give it enormous influence.''

While styling himself as neither a liberal nor a conservative, Chancellor offers a few modest, and familiar, reforms that would begin to move the United States in the right direction. Presidential primaries should be eliminated and the choice of Republican and Democratic presidential candidates should return to professional pols.

He argues that they will do a better job and save candidates both the expense and humiliation of primary campaigning. And since the public pays for political ads through federal campaign financing, it ought to demand a higher standard for political advertising: fewer ``Willie Horton''-style attack ads and more honest discussion of issues. Real debates should be held, too, on the real issues.

Congress could clean up its act by getting rid of PACs, single-issue interest groups who finance political campaigns and then exert far too much influence over elected officials. Schools should consider operating year round. Some form of national youth service could straighten out troubled kids while undertaking worthy projects. And all of this, he reminds us, can be accomplished without ``tinkering'' with the US Constitution, a document he says is just fine as it is.

Is this modest little book, in effect, too modest? One doubts it would have found a publisher if put forward by an unknown professor of political science. But the Chancellor cachet may attract an audience. Readers will find the kind of lucid writing that is a trademark of his televised commentaries. Cynics and political junkies may stamp this volume with ``nothing new here.'' But citizens looking for a clear, succinct summing up of America at the dawn of the '90s - how we got here and why - could do much worse.

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