Political attention deficit disorder

Posted: Apr 27, 2005 12:00 AM

Almost 100 percent of the mental energy in Congress, and at least 50 percent of the White House mental energy is currently being expended trying either to destroy or protect John Bolton and Tom DeLay. A man from Mars would presume that things in America must be shipshape, and the world had settled into a long and restful peacefulness. Otherwise, surely, the American public would be looking with reproach and indignation at their leaders using their often misguided, but considerable, mental energies to brawl over Washington jobs -- if there were other matters with a higher claim on their attention.

 But the Martian would be wrong, as they so often are when human writers draft them into the role of ignoramus ex machina. The American public is remarkably undemanding of their politicians. Let me amend that ? the public certainly expects to be condescended to and given little gifts on a regular basis. It expects -- often demands -- that its misconceptions about the realities of the world be dutifully parroted back to it by its elected representatives. But, as long as life is going forward more or less normally, not only does the public not demand the truth, as one of Jack Nicholson's character once observed: "It can't handle the truth."

 The redeeming aspect of the American public is that it has built and run this country magnificently, despite the usual contribution of government. And that when the public's free-range politicians make a sufficient hash of things -- as episodically becomes manifest on days like Dec. 7 and Sept. 11 -- the American public tends to roll up its collective sleeves and fix the mess. Then they return to their indulgent ways with their hopelessly underachieving politicians.

 But I have to say that the public has let me down, some. It is less than four years since the Sept. 11 wake up call -- the day that the murderous malice of our enemy was so tragically compounded by years of Washington inattention and incompetence -- but after that rude awakening, it seems both Washington and the public have hit the snooze button.

 After Dec. 7, the public expected action -- and plenty of it. From that day on until almost the day he died, FDR rarely let a day go by without vigorously acting on and talking about the threat and how to defeat it. But after a flurry of energy and bold and courageous actions from the Bush Administration in the first couple of years, one has the sense that things have returned to business as usual.

 Whatever the president is doing in private (and one hears he is finally reconceptualizing the nature of the war on terror, which is vital, if overdue) -- certainly he is not publicly keeping the nation, or Washington politicians, focused on the daunting challenges and need for re-establishing an urgent pace.

 It may turn out to be the second tragedy of our time that the president's opposition has criticized him from the weak side of the war effort. If a Democrat had been president on Sept. 11, it is a virtual certainty that the Republican Party (in recent generations the more aggressive military party) would have kept up a daily barrage for the president to do more. They would be howling at the fact that only 5 percent of the cargo containers entering our country's ports are inspected on or before arrival by American inspectors.

 They would be chastising a notional Democratic president for not building up the size of the active and reserve forces of our military. They would surely have held hearings demanding that the Pentagon explain how it would actually invade and occupy, say, Syria, Iran and Pakistan, while also holding Iraq and Afghanistan and fulfilling all the other worldwide responsibilities we have assigned to our troops, with the current strength levels -- should such actions be judged necessary for our national security.

 But as there is a Republican president, his fellow Republicans have instinctively kept their criticisms muted. More importantly, the opposition party, the Democrats (in recent generations the party less concerned with military strength and aggressive defense of the country) instinctively chose to run the 2004 presidential campaign by criticizing President Bush's boldness and aggression in fighting the war, rather than criticizing the inadequacy of his fighting and his defensive preparation efforts. (Only a Joe Lieberman candidacy would have challenged Mr. Bush from the strong side of the war effort.)

 This unfortunate constellation of political forces has tended to push Washington policy toward passivity, rather than assertiveness, toward delay, rather than urgent action. Regretfully, public attitudes have followed Washington's political divide.

 Thus do we find Washington focused on extraneous party matters, and a public that fails to call its politicians back to their urgent central duties.