The Hot Air of August

From carpetbaggers and raiders of the Lock Box to the unavoidable Gary Condit, the hypocrisy is so thick, you could cut it with a knife

By Richard S. Dunham

Forgive me, I'm still in vacation mode. After 10 days in the clear, crisp Rocky Mountain breeze, it's difficult to readjust to the hot air inside the Washington Beltway.

Perhaps that's why the politics of the nation's capital seems particularly absurd this late summer day. Perhaps it has ever been thus. Still, it seems to me that this "summer of spin" in Spin City, USA, has been particularly dizzying. Instead of heading for the hills or the beaches, our elected representatives seem to be scaling the heights of hypocrisy with ever-increasing intensity. A few examples:

Defenders of fiscal sanity. Four years ago, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) strongly opposed the bipartisan balanced-budget deal between President Clinton and Capitol Hill Republicans. "We've got to get off this idea that [balance] has to be exactly, mathematically, calibrated each and every year or we're all going to turn into pumpkins," he told Atlantic Monthly in 1997. That was then.

This is now: Gephardt took to the airwaves on Meet the Press on Aug. 19 to chide Bush for fiscal irresponsibility. He now says Bush should come up with spending cuts to balance the budget without raiding the Social Security trust fund. Frets Gephardt about the threatened trust fund: "We already have a budget, unfortunately, that's doing that. And that really worries me." As that great, gap-toothed philosopher, Alfred E. Newman, once said, "What, me worry?"

When is a carpetbagger not a carpetbagger? National Republican strategists ridiculed Illinoisan-turned-Washingtonian-turned-Arkansan Hillary Rodham Clinton when she decided to run for a Senate seat from New York just a year after buying a mansionette in Chappaqua. Message: Carpetbaggers are bad. Turns out, GOP leaders think that only certain kinds of carpetbaggers are bad.

After Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) announced his retirement on Aug. 21, the White House and Republican National Committee officials started encouraging former Transportation and Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole to run for the seat. Trouble is, Dole was registered to vote in Kansas for years and hasn't lived in the Tar Heel State in more than three decades. True, she is a native of her state-to-be, unlike Clinton. But there's something faintly malodorous about the selective outrage of GOP spinners.

Sound the alarm bells in Social Security-land. For years, many congressional Democrats have argued against overhauling Social Security, stubbornly insisting -- against all demographic data -- that the system isn't broken. Now that a Republican is President, the Democratic chorus has changed its tune. The system is broken, they now declare, and President Bush's plan to partially privatize Social Security will hasten its demise. Come on! That move is as inelegant as a donkey trying to pirouette on the dance floor. And smells about as good.

Lock box, what lock box? Remember that bizarre exchange in the first 2000 Presidential debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush? Both promised to protect the tax monies paid into Medicare and Social Security from raids by spendthrift lawmakers. Bush went one step further and said he wouldn't ever allow the Social Security trust fund to be raided, except in the event of war or recession.

Call out the Marines! It now seems quite likely that the Social Security trust fund will indeed be violated, amid sagging tax revenues and generous tax rebates. The lock box has become the silly fad of 2000, much like the pet rock and the hula hoop in earlier years. Maybe it'll stage a comeback in the future? Call it the lava lamp of American politics.

Harried Gary. No summer list of Washington hypocrisy would be complete without a quick reference to California Congressman Gary Condit. Ever heard of him? Yeah, he's the guy with the helmet hair who once called for President Clinton to 'fess up about his relationship with a Washington intern. But the blow-dried Democrat, in his first nationally televised interview on Aug. 23 since the disappearance of Chandra Levy some 100 days ago, stubbornly refused to come clean about his own relationship with a Washington intern.

Yes, the story is tawdry and tabloidish. Yes, we're all sick of it. But in many ways, it summarizes this summer of simmering discontent and economic malaise. Bring on the fall! We need a change in season.

Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BW Online

Edited by Beth Belton

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