The Breakfast Table

A Program in Every Pot

Dear Jonathan,

Apologies for the plethora of “p’s”–stop me before I alliterate again. But how can I purge the propensity after spending one hour and 17 and ½ minutes listening to our president’s panegyric of perfectly poll-tested proposals, paring each promise to appeal to a particular part of the populace?

He reminded me somehow of a favorite fairy story of my childhood about the prince whose purse was always full whenever he opened it.

Well, I’ll swear off the p’s. Which also reminds me of an exercise I once indulged in while editing an especially boring article at the Washington P–, er, the capital’s leading daily in which you purge, make that eliminate, the verb “to be” entirely. It did produce, ah, result in, muscular prose, I mean non-fiction, but, as the article in which I read about the technique predicted, no, let me say forecast, the benefit came at the expense of a prodigious, (read roaring) headache. Try it.

Anyway, Clinton was, as expected, in his element. Maybe a wee bit nervous in the first sentence or two, but as soon as he introduced the two widows of the slain Capitol cops, he hit his stride–never mind that they got a far larger ovation than he did. And by the time he came to Rosa Parks, he was in a state of obvious elation. And what a feast he laid before us–a balanced meal of rights and responsibilities catered to every taste. As Sen. Chuck Robb nicely said, “there weren’t many good thoughts that went unexpressed tonight.”

Truly something for everyone: retirees, now and future, the takers of doctor-ordered drugs and those unhappy with their managed care; families wanting school choices and school kids in need of better classrooms and better teachers; minimum wage workers and displaced workers and and women seeking equal wages and disabled jobseekers; working mothers needing quality child care and stay-at-home mothers needing a tax break; communities harmed by fleeing factories and those in danger of losing their greenspaces and historic monuments or threatened by greenhouse gases; new immigrants and Native Americans and adult illiterates; savers and spenders and the unemployed still on the welfare rolls; exploited child workers overseas and trade-threatened workers at home; family farms and tobacco farmers (though not, of course, their dastardly corporate customers); medical researchers and technology innovators and exporting businesses and steel mills; families seeking affordable housing and those needing more leave and a tax break to care for loved ones. Did I leave anyone out? Oh, of course, the military–lots of new money for them as well as for social initiatives in all parts of the developing world. And Hillary. All honor to her too.

And, of course, all this is to be accomplished while solving the Y2K glitch, reconciling the races, bringing reconciliation to Kosovo and the Middle East, integrating China, Russia, and Cuba into the family of nations–not to mention keeping the budget in balance, and saving 3 out of 5 dollars of the surplus for Social Security. Why only that much? After all, not only is the entire current surplus owing to the excess of Social Security taxes over benefits paid out, but the government has been borrowing tens of billions from the trust funds for the last few years–including this year–to cover the cost of the rest of government. Why should workers cover the cost of anything but Social Security benefits out of their (regressive) Social Security taxes? And what about that “surplus”? Don’t I recall that the deal Clinton struck with Congress for the coming years calls for big (but unspecified) cuts in government spending? How come the chief executive didn’t talk about them?

By the by, now I think I know why you’ve been laying on that stuff about savoring that 50-volume history of the Byzantine Empire. I read in Salon yesterday (or actually in an e-mail that Jack Shafer sent me) that, come Friday, you will be among a group of “public (their ‘p’ not mine) intellectuals whose thinking does not fit within conventional ideological bounds.” You are among the lucky recipients of “career assistance” from Norman Lear and the Rockefellers’ new New America Foundation! “Each will be brilliant and will write a stream of articles. … They’ll take advantage of the freedom of well-subsidized funding,” the story quotes the foundation’s “frighteningly energetic” young director as saying.

Well, obviously no one is going to make that cut who doesn’t know their Turks from their Byzantines. So let’s hear some of that outside-the-perimeters ideological deep think!