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A veto override at last

It speaks volumes about American priorities that when Congress finally found what it takes to override a George Bush veto, the adrenaline flowed from something as relatively unimportant as cable television.

This is certainly no brief for the cable barons, who have deserved this day ever since they got Congress to stamp out local rate regulations in 1986. Nor is it to suggest that American households don't have better uses for the money they may save.

But cable TV, while nice to have, is not quite a necessity. The world could get along without Madonna and MTV. Who knows, it might even get along without Larry King.

People do need jobs, though, and they need to know the jobs will be waiting for them if they need to take time off for a sick child or dying parent. They need to know that they'll earn at least a minimally decent wage, that they will be hired and promoted on their merits without regard to race or sex and that they won't be left to starve if the economy goes south and they are laid off.

When they are pregnant, they need to know what all their options are _ and they need the advice from competent professionals.

They need a government that's not in the pocket of campaign contributors.

To each of these necessities, Bush has at least once used his veto to say no.

When government intervention might have saved Eastern Airlines from being done to death by a strike, he said no. When the courageous people of China looked to the United States to bring economic pressure on the despots who rule them, the U.S. Congress said yes; George Bush said no.

In several instances, Congress was able to come back with new bills that he grudgingly accepted. But he had prevailed on 35 consecutive vetoes before Congress finally won the cable TV showdown this week. What a pity the string wasn't cut a few days before that, when the second family and medical leave veto was up. That bill, of course, had a lot of special interests arrayed against it; but for Bush, the cable industry lobbied alone. His consistency would be admirable if he wasn't so consistently wrong.

Bush was haranguing a group of Dallas police officers the other day about the crime bill he claimed to want so badly. If he really wanted the bill, he could have had it. It was a Republican filibuster, after all, that stopped it in the Senate. But those senators weren't willing to pass any bill that had gun control in it, and Bush wasn't willing to lobby them. He preferred to lose the bill rather than lose his fair-weather friends at the National Rifle Association.

It defies rationality that there could be a comprehensive crime bill without some reasonable restraint on handgun sales. (I will hang up on any more callers who curse or shout over this issue.) If Bush cared for America's police half as much as he pretends, he'd listen to what they say about it; they wanted the waiting period in the crime bill. But with Bush, single-issue voters like the gun lobby come first.

If the polls are right, the people are finally seeing him for what he is. My brother-in-law, a career Army officer who has always voted Republican, served notice last week that he is voting Democratic this time. It was the crime bill filibuster that pushed him over the brink.

For many other Americans, the economy will be the deciding issue. Or it will be health care, which is a major economic issue in its own right. If Bush were serious about his plan, flawed as it is, he would have sent Congress a bill to implement the insurance premium tax credits and deductions that are at the heart of it. He didn't, and the reason isn't hard to figure: He would have had to say how to pay for them. Even the American Medical Association has all but given up on him.

At an AMA dinner last month, its executive vice president, James S. Todd, said that while he wasn't endorsing Bill Clinton's health reform plan, he thought it was more "comprehensive" than Bush's and that Clinton was more serious about carrying through. Under White House pressure, Todd ate some crow the next day. But he did not retract the comparison.

Todd also disclosed that in June 1991, after the AMA had devoted an entire issue of its journal to the health care debate, he and other AMA officials were called on the White House carpet by John Sununu, the then-chief of staff. "They didn't want us to stir the pot," Todd said. "We were told, literally, to keep still."

The May 15, 1991 two-volume edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association was a milestone in health care politics. One volume set out 13 of the leading reform proposals. "An aura of inevitability is upon us," declared an accompanying editorial. The other volume looked in detail at the health care problems of children and other uninsured Americans.

No plan was reported from the Bush administration because it didn't have any. It may have one now, but it bears remembering which presidential candidate didn't have to be pressured.

Martin Dyckman is associate editor of the Times.