October, 1990: An American Mosaic

THIS is America today, as seen in the fragments the media presents: Iraq, the budget, elections, community ordeals, and the long life of its cartoon characters. The White House has a terrorist situation on its hands in Kuwait. Saddam Hussein moved his aggression into the realm of the irrational where it is hard for Americans to follow. Jimmy Carter never did get the hostages home from Iran. On their own time, the Iranians released them as Ronald Reagan was inaugurated. Was it to punish Carter for promoting peace talks for Israel? We do not know. Nor do we know whether the logic of self-interest will soon dawn on Saddam over Kuwait. War is in the air. Patience is not an American virtue. The Israelis are passing out gas masks. President Bush will truly have to lead against the American inclination either to win or to split.

The Congress will pick and poke at federal budget compromise put together over last weekend, and has until Oct. 19 to pass it. The bargainers came up $10 billion shy of the $50 billion package of spending cuts and tax increases they were looking for. They slipped the balanced budget horizon two years further into the future. ``Cuts'' in defense are of future increases; spending will stay level. The elderly will have to pay more for their health care. This as the country enters the maw of recession. The US got here because of two policy inversions: The Reagan tax cuts of the early 1980s, and the subsequent dollar devaluation. The weakened dollar was intended to help the two deficits (budget and trade): It encouraged exports and sucked investment into the US to cover the national debt. Like it or not, Congress must accept something close to the package it has.

This can be said about the deficit negotiations: The American political system of checks and balances remains in full force. James Madison perceived that the only thing one could count on was the pursuit of self-interest. So the founding fathers set up a system that made it impossible for any branch of government to run off with the ball without first getting the ``crowd'' - the voters - into the game behind it.

The elections show Americans on the brink of revolt. The primaries registered the second defeat of Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis. Democratic voters rejected his party's establishment candidate in favor of maverick John Silber, president of Boston University. The Republicans chose William Weld, a moderate crusader out of Bush's aristocratic class. Whichever wins, it will not be business as usual in Massachusetts. This is not a liberal versus conservative election. It is about results, as the economy slips into decline and taxes rise oppressively. All politicians take note. Regional political differences are in decline. The steady population drift to the southern tier of states is offset by a swirl of population movements among all states. State centers like Columbus, Ohio, and Sacramento, Calif., become more and more alike, as the opportunity class moves about. Jerry Brown's observation that cultural and political innovation is today as apt to flow from the East to the West as from the Pacific eastward appears true, reversing prevailing wisdom.

Communities struggle with prejudice. Wellesley, a privileged Boston suburb that has long bused minority students to its schools, embarrassed itself when its police surrounded a black rookie basketball player outside its post office, mistaking him for a robber. It was the first time anyone had pointed a gun at him, the humiliated young man said. Meanwhile, Boston's Mission Hill community is rebuilding its self-respect after the Stuart case, in which a white man who murdered his pregnant wife blamed it on a black assailant, a stereotype city officials too quickly believed. In an extraordinary gesture of generosity, the young wife's parents set up a scholarship fund for minority youths to redeem the slur.

And Charlie Brown is 40. We laugh at cartoon characters who never seem to learn. Wiley Coyote chases the Roadrunner, Tom pursues Jerry, through disaster after disaster. Popeye's spinach never loses its potency. Prince Valiant's Aleta is eternally worth saving from evil forces. Character persists. Pianist Schroeder plays Beethoven on a dozen keys. Cartoons can be sanity to a society that worships a success that by definition comes to only a few.

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