I believe that the Buckwheat episode has been vastly underestimated. It serves not simply as a metaphor, but as a manual, of standard contemporary American operating procedure.
Last fall an alleged interview with the “Our Gang” artist was broadcast not on Fox or the Comedy Channel but on ABC, one of the big three U.S. television networks. It appeared not on “Entertainment Tonight” but on “20/20,” an in-depth, thoroughly researched, not-subject-to-the- pressures-of-a-daily deadline news show that is named for medically perfect vision.
They took 15 minutes of America‘s most valuable time to interview a dead guy. A guy listed as dead in all the standard library references. A guy ABC was explicitly informed was very, very dead before the “interview” aired. By no less an authority on the subject than Spanky, who frantically voice-mailed the ABCer in charge: “I told her that Buckwheat had died. The man’s an impostor, clearly. He doesn’t even look like Buckwheat.”
But ABC put the interview on the air anyway. What does Spanky know? (Well, he knows a real, live Buckwheat when he sees one.) Americans ask: Was this some kind of a joke? Yes, it was. Not that ABC is laughing out loud about it today; the network has even fired some low-level staffer as penance. But they couldn’t stop themselves from going with the Buckwheat piece-it was too good a story. That’s the joke. It’s on America. Get it?
Which brings us to the present Administration. After the budget imbroglio, ABC researchers may be fired for airing live interviews with George Bush. The collapse of the president was a shockingly sudden drop from invincibility: He was riding high on the crest of war fever and splat-Bush the Wimp. Again. And all that money shelled out to Peggy Noonan to put something in George’s mouth that would make him a Man, wipe away George Will’s “lap-dog’’ moniker, and get the empty suit with a resume some respect.
The high-priced talent had come through. Ms. Noonan gave George Bush a stunning GOP script for that national convention prime-time audience. And when the then-vice president stepped out of Ronald Reagan’s shadow, he stood tall, lean, tough, confident. “Read my lips,” he leveled, “no new taxes.”
From Clint Eastwood to Jimmy Carter in two quick fiscal cycles. But why? George didn’t have to be Jimmy. When the budget came down, the White House had a loaded .357 pointed right at Congress’s noodle: Gramm-Rudman.
All the President had to do was demand fiscal restraint and veto, veto, veto. Blammo! Gramm-Rudman blows the budget deficit to a pulp. Spend some more, Mr. Foley. Go ahead, make my fiscal year.
But poor, panicky George, fingers all aquiver, tosses his gun in the river, lobs his wallet to the hold-up artists, and pledges his one and only asset of any value (“read my lips?”-yeah, take that, too). And the hold-up men are unarmed.
Come the November elections, Democrats running against tax increases (I’m not making this up) kicked GOP butt; governorships in Kansas, Nebraska, and Florida switched from R to D based on anti-tax outrage. Gov. Jim Florio’s hefty New Deal-style tax hike in New Jersey damn near got popular senator/small forward Bill Bradley unelected. (Florio wasn’t on the ballot, and Democrat haters had to vote elsewhere.) And Mario Cuomo immediately moved to slash the New York state budget, so virulent was the electoral mood. The New York Times summed up the 1990 election message with the headline, “Voters Say ‘No’ to Taxes.”
The National Consensus for Higher Taxes was a Beltway hoax-and George fell for it! All this in a year when the Republicans, on the strength of the president’s big, bad popularity ratings (soooo high until the free fall), were planning stunning advances. Like the big, bad A’s in the Series, going from Oakland to Choakland in four easy humiliations, Bush simply washed out come Showtime. (Many Americans now suspect, in fact, that George Bush is an Athletic Supporter.)
I’ve never personally run a campaign for the presidency, but let me take a stab: When a candidate wins the office by pledging something important on national TV implicating his own body parts, people tend to remember.
There is no more reality in the budget “deal” than in the Buckwheat interview. Taxes were jacked not due to any truncation of receipts but because spending continues to balloon: up 7.5 to 8.5 percent over inflation, even with a real defense spending decline of about 8.5 percent.
Some will point out that we have special needs now. Like the S&L bailout. Isn’t that special? No, Church Lady. Fifty billion dollars to patch leaky federal programs of the last budgetary cycle is really quite typical of what the government spends money on. Ever peruse the ag budget? Even assuming Bush is a wimp, why would he select a policy so vacuous, so boneheaded, so clueless .... Oh yeah, I do recall the Quayle thing. Well, it must just be something very American. Why would the American Broadcasting Co. interview a known dead guy?
So Bush didn’t need to roll over and play dead, and renege on his only promise, and look like a jerk, and get played for a fool by the Democrats, and raise taxes while doing nothing serious about the deficit .... But that’s the joke. Get it?
Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis. This year is a visiting scholar at Columbia University.