HOW we look at public issues often affects what we see. Memory, for the media as well as the public, is too often short-term. We imagine we are looking ahead when our perspective is actually that of the past, or too literally that of the moment. For the media's part, one can sit for an interview and hear the reporter tick off questions you know you have heard before as he rehearses news files of two years ago. This is the Nexis interview. The reporter has done his homework by electronic search of news stories from the past. He may think he is reporting today, sitting in front of you asking questions he takes to be pointed, but he cannot see what is going on with your institution because he is not looking at what is happening now.
Reporting requires seeing for yourself. Raw material for the media include 1) official assertions, 2) the first-hand testimony of principals, peers, or regular folk to flesh out a narrative, 3) the context of mass public opinion, which may contradict official assertions about the will of the people, or may correct the sampling errors of anecdotal reporting, 4) appraisal or analysis by experts with standing but not a stake in policy discussions, which may show historical patterns often misattributed to i ndividual genius, and 5), after all this, the reporter may himself be the first to recognize some new pattern - a reporting first. Some reporters muck around in convention. Others require the flow of events for material and energy. A few review past and present, and plot new directions.
The big story of the moment is President Bush's popularity - an Olympian 94 percent approval rating by one survey. His handling of the economy is rated in a more mortal stratum at less than half that, in the 40 percent range. This was where Ronald Reagan's approval slipped to during the recession in Reagan's first term. Even that was high, given the severity of the recession; it showed an impressive bedrock of support for the Californian, who had shown poise and humor after the assassination attempt, an d had stood up to Congress.
We are still in the process of getting to know George Bush. The Iraq war gave us evidence of a stubbornness, a will to win. His affection for the troops was evident in his Thanksgiving visit to the Saudi encampments last fall.
Bush is a Massachusetts native, something he curiously ignores. Massachusetts politically is the GOP's Iraq, the state of the Kennedys and taxes and Harvard. Former Sen. Paul Tsongas, now a businessman, is launching the first Democratic assault on Bush for the 1992 election.
But Bush was born here in Milton, near Boston. His most decisive actions have been in pursuit of American trading interests abroad, typical of his Yankee ancestors. Bush's political denial of his Yankee heritage is interesting to watch now that William Weld has taken over the Massachusetts governorship. Weld, a young but experienced lawyer with a colonial New England name, is the kind of Republican Bush would like to see succeed.
In Massachusetts the economy is the issue. Unemployment is approaching 10 percent. Banks are shaky. Construction lags. Will Bush help Weld? Or will he show the same political carpet-bombing of the state to take out Tsongas that his campaign inflicted on Massachusetts in 1988 to make sure former governor Michael Dukakis could not win?
We do not yet know George Bush.
The media and the public did not know the two tracks in Jimmy Carter's character, the humble Sunday school teacher and the vain politician who could not admit to any flaw, until more than three years into his term, in the final weeks before his loss to Reagan. Right now we do not know whether Bush really cares about jobs, education, health care, the environment. His vision of "a new order" is for lands, governments, commerce, far from the people at his feet. In this, he shows a typical GOP president's i nterest in foreign affairs, whereas most of the electorate votes on the course of domestic issues.
In 1980 the Republicans, riding Reagan's victory tide, gained 32 House seats, climbing to 190 members. They lost 24 seats during the recession the next election, falling to 166 - exactly where they stand today with the passing of Massachusetts' lone GOP congressman, Silvio Conte. The popular Reagan, and then Bush, could not help them.
It will take more moments than the Iraq war to define this President.