The Great Scott Syndrome

Well, here we are, back in the clutches of the Great Scott! syndrome. This is the exclamatory phase of polities which invariably follows trauma, disaster and/or election-outcome shock. The powers-that-be, scurrying to save the situation--the nation's and their own--slap their hands to their heads and cry out to heaven that they had no idea things had reached such a terrible pass. We have these fits of discovery about every four months. Sometimes the same thing gets discovered for the second or eighth or ninth time, though no one ever lets on that he has slapped his head in exactly this wise and exclaimed his Great Scott! on the subject before. Thus the existence of a crisis in the cities--the phrase has a certain suspicious familiarity for a new subject, does it not?--has just been revealed to our leaders. Purportedly dumbstruck by the news, they are in a mad rush to enact some legislation and also to have their pictures taken in the presence of as many impoverished black children as they can find.

My favorite example of Great Scottism has always been that ludicrous moment, two revelation-packed years into Watergate and a mere several weeks before the end, when scores of congressmen announced that one final piece of evidence turned up had revealed to them for the first time that Richard Nixon might have done something wrong. Waist-deep in the documented muck that had engulfed us all like a sludge flow for 24 months, they nonetheless managed looks of complete astonishment and professions of the most heartbreaking disillusion when they chose to acknowledge what they must have long since known.

Less dramatically, after last fall's surprise victory of Democrat Harris Wofford in a Pennsylvania Senate campaign that made deficient health care and insurance a big issue, the rest of the national political collectivity fell all over itself discovering the inequities of our health-care system and promising new proposals forthwith. Never mind that myriad others, most notably the hapless Dukakis, had been harping on this time out of mind. The situation, in other words, was well known. What it was not until that moment was politically wired.

In short, I don't believe all the expressions of amazement, the assertions of having just learned something new and transfiguring, the I-was-blind-but-now-can-see political re-creation stuff. There are plenty of usual skeptics around who do, who give George Bush and others who suddenly appear to be consumed with concern for the plight of the cities the benefit of the doubt. They talk about these politicians being truly "moved," "shaken" and so on. And some will recall certain episodes thought to have been transforming in the lives of other presidents: Jimmy Carter's assertion that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan explained something about the Soviets to him that he had never fully grasped before, John F. Kennedy's anger at the sight of peaceful black demonstrators being set upon by the police in Birmingham, Ala., among others.

I don't doubt that those politicians who visited Los Angeles were in fact moved and shaken. They bloody well should have been and would have been freaks if they weren't. What I cannot accept is that a man in the seventh decade of his life and the second decade of his time in the uppermost reaches of the national political system, who has been everywhere in the country and everywhere practically in the government (at least through years and years of cabinet meetings), whose adult life has been one long exposure to the obligations and urgencies of national government, looks at the state of American cities in May of 1992 and says, in effect, "Why, I had no idea," or even "Gee, we've got to do something about this."

Yes, it is true that George Bush had a modest, nominal program before Congress to which he gave occasional, pro forma support. And though I've used a mockup of Bush here, it is also true that he is far from being alone in his unconvincing reaction. Plenty of members of his own party and more than plenty of Democrats, too, who simply averted their gaze and redirected their attention for years, are now hustling to be seen doing something in the wake of the Los Angeles events. But none of their wide-eyed, convert-like responses quite reaches the credibility threshold for me.

And yet, and yet ... if I had to choose between believing these officials were being totally sincere and believing they were being politically crafty, I would choose the latter. That is because anyone who had served for years in government and yet was really unaware of the desperate social and economic condition of the nation's big cities before Los Angeles would be too dumb and disconnected to save. On the other hand, if our leaders are merely putting us on, as I suspect they are with all this professed astonishment (and photo-taking), there is at least hope.

Here I come into harmonic convergence, sort of, with a lot of people who believe in the genuine shock of the heretofore indifferent politicians and a lot who don't, but who, like me, finally don't care. All say that if the horror of Los Angeles has created a political imperative to get some action, let's waive questions of motive, purity of purpose and the rest that have been raised by the sudden activity of recent days. I say, fine. We should all summon the discipline to suspend our pickier judgments about dignity, veracity, vulgarity and taste in relation to our government's current, much publicized swoon over the need to help the cities. That will have a critical side benefit: it will enable us to concentrate on the authenticity and seriousness of what is finally done.

Jack Kemp has become something of a folk hero to many who abhor his more abstract fiscal theories because on matters of trying to better the lives of those who live in our horror-ridden inner cities he has been consistent, dogged, obsessed even, for years and years. He is the exception, not just in his administration or his party, but in politics as a whole. There has been no continuity, no cruising speed on this issue. If the present frenzy is to have any meaning, those qualities must come out of it, must be embodied in whatever programs are undertaken. We should be working to avoid yet another Great Scott!, not to say, Gadzooks!, discovery of the same old circumstances a few years down the road.