1. Archive

The capital's outrage industry runs on overtime

"Where is the outrage?" Bob Dole kept asking in the final days of his unsuccessful 1996 presidential campaign. Dole, of course, was wondering why the voters were shrugging off questions about President Clinton's ethics and character.

As it turns out, Dole was looking for outrage in all the wrong places. The center of outrage in this country is not in the American heartland, where Dole expected to find it, but right here in Washington, D.C., where Dole has resided for more than four decades. In fact, outrage is an industry here. Sure, most of it is manufactured and scripted for political and journalistic consumption, but so is nearly everything else in Washington.

In recent weeks Washington outrage has been concentrated on the behavior of the tobacco industry, the failure of Congress to pass a campaign finance reform bill, the conduct of "out-of-control" independent counsel Kenneth Starr and the press coverage of the presidential sex scandals. Interestingly, the president's own behavior, especially his alleged treatment of women, has provoked little or no outrage, with one exception: Anti-smoking activists were outraged that Clinton celebrated the dismissal of Paula Jones' sexual harassment lawsuit with a good cigar.

Outrage is a growth industry in this town. Reporters use it to hype their stories, and editorialists to simulate the sound of thunder. Interest groups use it liberally in their fund-raising appeals. Outrage is a major ingredient in political posturing, and it's hard to drive a political agenda here without it.

Washington even has an outrage lobby, according to Capital Style magazine. An article in its April issue, titled "Mad as They Wanna Be," described the lobby as a "small but vocal group of utterly earnest spokesmen with an apparently endless supply of consternation" _ people such as Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity, Ellen Miller of the Public Campaign, Kent Cooper of Center for Responsive Politics, Ann McBride of Common Cause and Joan Claybrook of Public Citizen.

These are among the first people Washington reporters call for a snappy quote or sound bite when some public policy outrage is committed by Congress or the White House. These masters of outrage seem to be in greater demand these days than reliable sources, although they still cannot compete with anonymous sources in the city's journalistic and political games.

"They pop up in news articles and TV reports on the bad-government scandal of the day," the magazine said of the outrage lobbyists. "They're the finger-waggers, forever pointing out the conflicts of interest, cases of undue influence and self-serving deals that define business as usual in this town. Depending on your point of view, they're either heroes or pious nags. But one thing's for sure: They're persistent."

I don't mean to suggest that these people are not sincere in their outrage, or that they don't do important work. Many of them are devoted to their causes, and they do their part to keep the politicians honest and the public debate focused. Lord knows there is plenty going on here to be outraged about. I just wish that there was more genuine outrage in Washington and in the country, and that it came from principle and deeply held convictions, not from political spin and posturing.

I wonder, for example, why federal lawmakers who are outraged by the fact that cigarette companies are still in business turn around and vote to continue federal price supports for tobacco farmers?

I wonder why a politician's vote against campaign reform provokes greater outrage than his abuse or violation of existing campaign finance laws?

I wonder why conservatives who are outraged by welfare fraud are so understanding of Pentagon waste and contractor fraud, and why both Democrats and Republicans just shrug off the $20-billion lost in Medicare fraud last year?

I wonder why liberals outraged by the assault on affirmative action in college admissions can't work up any concern, much less outrage, over miserable inner-city schools that are failing low-income children?

I wonder why there is no outrage over the Clinton administration's circumvention of a new law to keep American supercomputers out of the hands of Third World countries known to be developing nuclear weapons?

I wonder why people who go ballistic when protesters burn the American flag aren't outraged by the Clinton administration's steady assault on civil liberties, from habeas corpus to free expression?

I wonder why there is no outrage over the way Washington politicians poison the debate on public education by politicizing peripheral issues that have little to do with improving the nation's schools?

There is plenty of outrage here, but it's rarely directed at problem-solving. I doubt that any anti-tobacco legislation enacted will have much impact on teen smoking. I doubt that any campaign finance reform bill will reduce the influence of the special interests in this town. And I doubt that Al Gore can reinvent government. Just put me down as a concerned skeptic, not an outraged reformer.