The Breakfast Table

Public Prayers

Like the White House today (as described by a Clinton aide in the Washington Post), I’m “not in an attack mode, [but] in a forgiveness mode”–whatever that means. But how am I to concentrate on the global economy when my colleagues are still giggling over footnotes in the Starr report?

The fact that you can’t untangle the economic news from the Monica news is, of course, the heart of the problem. At best it would be difficult to know what the strong economies of the world should be doing to help the weak ones and still harder to muster the collective will to do it. But with Congress baying for Clinton’s blood it’s awfully hard to imagine he can get it to do what it wouldn’t do before–vote the $18 billion the IMF says it needs to stem the spread of the contagion.

Not that I think the IMF is the answer to the stock market’s prayers. (I must say it didn’t take much to rekindle the traders’ enthusiasm did it?) You say you are mystified by international finance. That’s most discouraging to amateurs like me. It ought to make me shut up on the subject entirely. But I’d feel less abashed if the dominant economists–with their textbook prescriptions for international trade and fiscal and monetary policy–hadn’t made such a hash of things in recent years. Did anyone with the slightest knowledge of the everyday realities of Russia’s economy and people think that a dose of privatization and free trade would quickly accomplish a transition that the West spent centuries accomplishing? Well, yes, a lot of experts did. I remember running some of their pieces in the Washington Post’s Outlook section back when I was its editor, and wondering at the time.

And, as you say, Russia’s problems are obviously totally different from Japan’s, or for that matter from those of the rest of Asia. Japan needs, at long last, to stop relying so heavily on exports to sustain its strength and to develop its internal market. So does China–whose export might and determination have been sapping strength not only from the other Asian tigers but from Japan as well. The great enthusiasm now is for a cut in interest rates by the U.S. and Germany. But both of our economies are still roaring along. Do lower interest rates really make sense for us? And is Mr. Clinton willing and able to move beyond the simple formulation he gave in his Council on Foreign Relations speech yesterday to grapple with the particulars?

Why am I not comforted in this regard by the revelation on the New York Times’ front page that Mr. Clinton has added a circle of ministers to the coterie of caretakers who try to restrain his worse impulses? To be honest, the thing that already bothered me the most about all of Clinton’s shenanigans (not just Monica) is the Elmer Gantryism of it all. Here he is signing proclamations and giving speeches about values and families just before he hustles off to snuggle with his sweetie or cozy up to a few foreign donors. Say what you will about John F. Kennedy, you never caught him presiding over a prayer breakfast.

Today’s professional Christians are big on the Bible but somehow they seem to overlook the parts in which Christ expresses his disdain for the Pharisees who flaunt their piety and counsels that we go into our closets to pray. Sure the example of our leaders is important in setting a moral tone for the country, but actions still speak louder than words.