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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

What politicians can't do

They chose soul searching over easy fixes. But should they do the parenting?

By Andrew Ferguson

April 26, 1999
Web posted at: 11:38 a.m. EDT (1538 GMT)

TIME magazine

There are moments when politics seems a grand calling, but the eruption of evil among schoolchildren isn't one of them, and so a curious and altogether appropriate quiet settled over American politicians in the wake of the nightmare at Columbine High. Not absolute silence, mind you--there's only so much we can expect of our politicians--but quiet: a kind of humility that suggested they knew they had come up against the limits of their trade.

The response of Richard Gephardt was typical. As ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, Gephardt felt compelled to release a statement, but there was about his words something wan and attenuated. "Ultimately," he said, "the answer will not be found in state legislatures or in the halls of Congress. The answer lies somewhere in the hopelessness and the hateful hearts of the children who have lost their way." Gephardt is an activist liberal, a voluptuary of governmental solutions, so his concession carries an interesting significance. You saw it from the political right too. "There's not a magic wand you can wave," said Gary Bauer, a conservative activist who coincidentally launched his presidential campaign the day after the Littleton murders. Even Pat Buchanan, after firing off a few half-hearted rounds at the "poison of our popular culture," could offer little more than a shake of the head. "There was something sick and wrong inside those boys," he said. "I don't know how to stop it."

As always, it was President Clinton, the most finely tuned politician of the age and the bully pulpit's current occupant, who best captured the prevailing political tone. From global warming to lagging test scores, from car safety seats to unmet alimony payments, the President is quick to launch a program for any problem, no matter how obscure, with three points or five points or seven--the more points the better. And, yes, he did urge school boards to apply for federal grants that would put armed police officers in schools. But in the face of the carnage, he mostly dropped the wonkery and assumed the role of National Grief Counselor. "It is very important to explain to children, all over America, what has happened," he said, "and to reassure our own children that they are safe." If anyone thought it odd that the government's chief executive officer was advising parents on what to whisper to their children as they tucked them in at night, nobody said so. Under the circumstances, the President's words seemed tasteful and well chosen.

This is something new in American politics, but it didn't start with Littleton. It has been in train for many months or maybe longer, and it crosses party lines. A bipartisan consensus--that holy grail of establishmentarians everywhere--has been reached that politicians can no longer concern themselves merely, even primarily, with the workaday stuff of politics: marginal tax rates, crime control, defense expenditures, environmental and labor laws, the international balance of power. Our politicians are transcending politics. They are turning their attention, for better or for worse, to matters of the human heart.

Consider, if you can force yourself to do so 19 months before the election, the current roster of presidential candidates. When they lapse into the hortatory mode, their language is drawn more often from the lexicon of pop psychology than from traditional politics. In announcing his candidacy, Dan Quayle said, "You know, even though we are No. 1, we know that something is missing. Something fundamentally isn't quite there." And where is there? Bill Bradley has an answer: "For starters we can look deeper into the soul of America," he said last week, "to peel back the layers of denial and defense" that obscure our national dialogue. And Republican candidate John Kasich too speaks frankly of "saving the soul of America."

This is more than platitude, or, more accurately, it is a new kind of platitude. It represents at once a new humility and a new hubris on the part of pols: a recognition on the one hand that some difficulties are not susceptible to the manipulation of public policy and, on the other, a determination that they will come to our rescue anyway. With so much going so right in the U.S.--with the creation of fabulous wealth, with falling rates of divorce and crime and abortion--politicians are aching to stay in the game. You are well advised not to dwell on the many contradictions--how it is, for example, that politicians who for years promised to keep government out of our bedrooms now see fit to invite their way into our souls. They have cast themselves as empaths; soul fixing is their job.

Nearly 25 years ago, Jimmy Carter got elected by promising to create a government as good and decent as the American people. Our current candidates seem to be promising the reverse: to make the American people as good and decent as the political class that tries to lead them. I am not sure this is an improvement. But politics is a market-tested enterprise, and politicians respond to the demands of their consumers. Their bet is that America today wants a Therapist in Chief. Another horror like Littleton, and they may be right.


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: May 2, 1999

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