'Whatever It Takes'

Jesse Jackson was rapping away the other day, cataloging the shortcomings of the candidates, listing all the downtrodden constituencies that are not being sufficiently loved. When his litany reached "our forsaken farmers," the 1992 campaign reached the level of cabaret.

When Lincoln founded the Department of Agriculture it had one employee for every 227,000 farms. In 1900 it had one employee for every 1,694 farms. Today there is one employee for every 16 farms. While we are pursuing perfection--a 1-to-1 ratio--there is $14.6 billion sloshing around in annual subsidies. And when the Democratic candidates were trying to seduce South Dakota they promised that all this would be improved upon. Bill Clinton, who is hot for "change," is cool regarding a proposed change to limit payments to $50,000 per farmer. America's welfare state for the strong is nice to Arkansas rice farmers. Clinton does favor change--upward--in agriculture export subsidies. George Bush must admire Clinton's version of Bush's vow to do "whatever it takes" to win.

Paul Tsongas is proud as punch of himself for making "hard choices" that amount, basically, to "no middle-class tax cut just now." He says to Clinton, " You're not going to pander your way into the White House as long as I'm around." Which may not be much longer. His candidacy may soon be among the bric-a-brac in the nation's mental attic, a subject for political nostalgia, like the candidacies of Bruce Babbitt in 1988 and Mo Udall in 1976, two other game tries by agreeable people.

This year's campaign has a retrospective cast because two candidates have been motivated by large measures of nostalgia. Tsongas wants his hometown of Lowell, Mass., to be the way it was when its manufacturing plants were humming. Pat Buchanan wants the return of the 1950s.

Last week Buchanan even donned a coonskin cap. He was at the Alamo, singing the praises of Davy Crockett, but he also was living a reprise of 1955, when Crockett paraphernalia became the first consumer fad of postwar children. He seems to think of the 1950s as the Golden Age before the nation's Fall. In his mind's eye, those years are enveloped in a roseate glow. Those years may not have seemed so swell to black people who grew up, as Buchanan did, in segregated Washington.

I grew up in the 1950s, loving that chrome decade when America was at the wheel of the world and the new models were always just in down at the DeSoto dealer. But we geezers from the tail-fin years should subdue our middle-age sentimentality long enough to acknowledge that America is a much better place today, primarily because of racial progress. Last week Buchanan described the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade abortion decision as "the ugliest scar ever ripped across the face of America the beautiful." It would be seemly for him to have equal passion about (Dred) Scott v. Sanford.

Buchanan is a Gatling gun firing military metaphors. Until his Super Tuesday shellacking, he was saying, as Grant did, that he is prepared to fight it out along this line if it takes all summer. Trouble is, Bush has the nomination in the bag. Buchanan says he still hopes to make California's primary "the Antietam of the Republican Party," but what does that mean? Antietam--still the bloodiest day in American history--was a horror for both sides but enough of a Union victory to enable Lincoln to announce the Emancipation Proclamation. Is Buchanan, fresh from his pilgrimage to his Confederate ancestor's Mississippi grave, identifying with the Army of the Potomac? Perhaps. Real Confederates refer to the Antietam battle as Sharpsburg. But Buchanan may just hanker for carnage.

He will get it. He is not the only person spoiling for a fight along the Pacific Coast Highway. Buchanan speaks as disdainfully of California's Republican Gov. Pete Wilson as he does of Bush. Wilsons icy reply is: "I have a nation-state of 30 million people to manage. He has only his own mouth to manage, and he's an utter failure at that."

Speaking of utter failure, when George Bush's grovel agenda required him to recant his 1990 endorsement of a tax increase, he said he was sorry, but not because it was bad policy or because it is naughty to break promises. Rather, he was sorry because he got a lot of "flak" for it. So Buchanan says: More flak. Pour it on.

It won't change the choice in November. Bush will still offer himself as Horatio at the bridge, holding off the "big spenders." But under Bush's record-obliterating administration, domestic spending has increased 55 percent more in three years than it did in the 12 Carter-Reagan years. And that dismal total does not include expenditures for interest or the S&L bailout. Clinton, Mr. Elevator Music, will dance a soft shoe with an easy-listening pitter-patter about "change," threatening to no one. He will call himself an "outsider." But Bush at least has a dim memory of life outside of government. Not Clinton, who even as a mere sprat dreamed public sector dreams.

There is a photograph worth pondering, a photograph of Bill Clinton, 16, shaking hands with John Kennedy. Clinton's head is bowed, as though in reverence, or perhaps to avert his eyes from the blinding glare of glory. One's heart sinks: Is Clinton another politician spoiled at a tender age by, exposure to the politics of manufactured glamour and the pursuit of power for its own sake? We have Clinton's own testimony that by 16 he had been dreaming of the presidency for years. Do we want a president who even before his first shave had his heart set on shaving in the White House? What is most dismaying about Clinton is not that as a young man he avoided the draft in a divisive war, but that all his life he has avoided the private sector of society.

Recently another Arkansas politician, Republican Congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt, 70, announced his retirement, saying "I'd just like a little time in the other world." He could easily have won re-election to a 13th term. He has had only one close race, way back in 1974, when he narrowly beat a kid fresh from Yale Law School and determined to spend as little time as possible in that other world: Bill Clinton.