Paul Greenberg

Does anybody remember the Contract with America besides historians?

More of us should. Especially politicians, reformers and the increasing number of Americans dissatisfied with where the country seems to be headed -- in a handbasket.

A lot of Americans were worried about the country's direction in 1994, too, when a bright young president from Arkansas who had been inaugurated with such high hopes was foundering, and the country with him. His administration was beset with a spate of scandals of his own making, each with the customary -gate appended to its name, from Travelgate to Troopergate to Fornigate to other -gates galore.

For a while there, the beleaguered new president couldn't even find a nominee for attorney general who hadn't tried to get out of paying taxes for her household help, a particularly low but widely accepted habit among the well-to-do.

To top it off, the new president's health-care plan, which was really his wife's pet project, was falling apart even before it could be rammed into law. (If only the same fate had befallen Obamacare, its author might be a good deal more popular today. Some defeats are victories in disguise.)

The rookie commander-in-chief of the country's armed forces back then had been reduced to negotiating with his generals over the status of homosexuals in the military, if any.

Bill Clinton would finally settle for not asking and not telling. Instead of just issuing an order the way Harry Truman did when he desegregated the military. The only response HST expected from the brass when he decided a military question was the one he got: Yessir. But with Bill Clinton, the buck seemed to stop everywhere but with him. Naturally enough the public's confidence in his sense of command plummeted.

As for the opposition party, the Republicans were no more popular back then than they are now, and the country wanted something more than just opposition from them. It wanted clear, positive, specific responses to the nation's mounting problems, not just carping criticisms of a failing and then flailing president. And that is just what the country got in the midterm elections of 1994.

Republicans campaigning for Congress that year adopted the same national agenda, point by point. They called their program, drawn up and presented by a young congressman from Georgia named Newt Gingrich, the Contract with America.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.