Magazine article Insight on the News

Earnest Sincerity Abounds, but Where's Plain Leadership?

Magazine article Insight on the News

Earnest Sincerity Abounds, but Where's Plain Leadership?

Article excerpt

Conservatives' favorite metaphor for attacking intrusive government is to call it nannyism. The nanny comparison has become even more popular, now that it also calls to mind the Zoe Baird fiasco. But somehow I don't think the nineties liberals in the White House really aspire to national nannydom.

Nannies get to be petty tyrants in the nursery, but they have to change diapers, too, and they serve at the pleasure of parents, who retain authority. If it's power you're after -- the better to tell people how to live their lives -- what you really want to be is a social worker, not a nanny.

Social workers, after all, have a panoply of powers at their disposal that even ambitious nannies don't dream of. They get to tell grown-ups how to behave. (They have ways to make them behave.) Best of all (from their point of view), social worker's power and authority is cloaked in righteousness. They may throw their weight around, but only to protect children or to improve their clients' lives, and only because they care.

So brace yourself for the caring, concerned, social worker state. You might even enjoy it. Is your self-esteem low? Uncle Sam can help. Finding it hard to cope? Call your congressman. Are your needs not being met? Dial the White House. The Clintons will understand your pain.

Gallup is behind the times. Pollsters are still asking Americans questions like: "Do you approve of the president's handling of the economy? Strongly approve? Disapprove?"

More to the point in the social worker state would be this: "Do you feel the president cares a great deal about you personally? Cares only a little bit? Doesn't care at all? Doesn't even know you exist?"

Most people apparently want a president who cares. Remember George Bush reading his cue cards in New Hampshire a year ago? "Message: I care," he said on a cold January day in Exeter. Some of us thought this was the low point of his campaign. But that's not the sort of phrase a president comes up with off-the-cuff. It takes expert scientific research into the psyches of voters to produce a one-liner like that.

Remember Richmond? Bush walked into an ambush there at the second presidential debate, the one with the so-called Oprah format -- lots of randomly selected ordinary citizens seeking an emotional boost from the men on stage, with a compassionate moderator urging them on. Bush plainly didn't understand what Bill Clinton grasped immediately. This was not so much the second debate as it was the first-ever audition for leading the social worker state. These were the tryouts to be the nation's counselor-in-chief. …

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