There is, I admit, a certain amount of pleasure in watching President Clinton lurch from mishap to mini-crisis to mind-boggling goof. It's not that I wish him ill but that his poor judgments, bad luck and false instincts combine to keep people in my business supplied with things to pontificate about. We are like undertakers during an epidemic: not happy that people are dying but pleased to have the extra business.
In addition, I confess a tendency to view politics as though watching a drama. The bad things that happen to leading characters (no matter how tragic for the characters) enhance the plot and make the play more interesting.
But at the end of the day comes the reminder: Government does not exist to provide grist for journalistic mills or to keep disinterested outsiders amused. Government is about us.
And what does that mean? Not, of course, that journalists should become cheerleaders for (or mindless critics of) particular officeholders. But it does seem reasonable that our coverage of what goes wrong in government ought to convey some sense of the public damage caused by official mistakes, misreadings and misadventures, and some hint as to how things might be set right.
Let me be personal about it. The whole time I am criticizing the Clinton administration, I am hoping desperately that it succeeds. I want Clinton to face up to his mistakes, grow in his strengths, surround himself with the best people, and come forth with the best policies and programs. Not because I have some partisan interest in the success of a Democrat, but because I am an American with a vested interest in the success of America.
I have a lot _ I think America has a lot _ riding on this presidency. Already Clinton has made a breakthrough in what we now call "diversity" that has a good chance of changing the way governments are staffed well into the future. Clinton's breakthrough has been to establish that no government post is closed to anybody on account of group membership.
Two things contributed mightily to Clinton's election: His promise to do something about the high cost of health care and his commitment to reducing the deficit and setting the economy right.
It's fair for journalists to learn as much as possible about the not-ready-for-release health care plan, not merely to beat the competition but to try to gauge how well the administration plan will meet the campaign promise _ and at what cost. My journalistic guess is that the plan will cost more than we've been led to believe without accomplishing what we need. My citizen's hope is that I'm wrong on both counts.
The American public (to the astonishment of those of us who had dismissed our fellow citizens as selfish and greed-driven) has announced its readiness for sacrifice to bring the deficit under control. Clinton seems to believe (though he hasn't made it all that clear) that the deficit cannot be tamed primarily through budget cuts _ that it is also necessary to stimulate the economy to generate jobs. That, of course, will require tax increases.
But is the package he has come up with a near-optimum blend of cost-cuts and economic stimulus, so that it is absolutely necessary to do both things in tandem? Or is it, as critics insist, just another round of raised taxes and increased spending? The journalist in me looks for clear evidence that the stimulus package will in fact stimulate the economy rather than retard its present recovery. The citizen in me hopes the debate over this issue won't become so hopelessly partisan as to destroy any chance of bringing the deficit under control.
And my worst fear is that we will sacrifice programs and increase taxes only to discover that nothing significant has been done about either the economy or the deficit. If that happens, I'm afraid we'll all crawl back into our shells of self-interest and make economic recovery all but impossible.
Of course I'll go on being the pontificating critic, praising and panning as the play moves from one scene to the next. But I'll try to remember that what I am watching is not some free-standing drama but a struggle of real-life importance to America's future.
As a journalist, I could find profit in the ashes of a ruined Clinton administration. But as an American, I have to hope the production turns out to be a roaring success.
Washington Post Writers Group