WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- It sure didn't take long for the White House to stake out the political terms on which it plans to deal with the Rodney King case and the ensuing Los Angeles riots. It was all Lyndon Johnson's fault.
White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater's bid to retire the Chutzpah Cup was a beaut: "We believe that many of the root problems that have resulted in inner-city difficulties were started in the '60s and '70s, and that they have failed." When asked repeatedly for examples, Fitzwater replied: "I don't have a list with me."
The refrain was a rerun of the favorite Republican answer to problems of the cities that have multiplied in the '80s and '90s: the Reagan-Bush era. That era was marked by assaults on the few remnants of LBJ's Great Society program and the continued underfunding of the one part even George Bush professes to admire: Head Start for preschool children of the poor.
Bashing the Great Society has been regular fare for the Republicans, although in retrospect it scored some notable achievements, particularly in reducing poverty in many areas and helping the young and aged. It could be faulted, certainly, for its excessive but very Johnsonian rhetoric, promising in its "war on poverty" to end it but falling far short.
But to suggest that a program of nearly 30 years ago, and one gutted in major ways by later Republican administrations, was the root cause of riots breaking out in Los Angeles after the acquittal of four white police officers who beat a black man is preposterous on its face.
All the chutzpah being demonstrated by the White House can't be claimed by Fitzwater, however. The president displays a large portion by responding to the Los Angeles crisis with proposals he sent to Congress for a quiet burial long ago, proposals by the one member of his own Cabinet, Jack Kemp, he has virtually ignored up to now.
The Democrats included a centerpiece of the Kemp proposals -- tax breaks for businesses that start up in inner-city enterprise zones and hire minority employees -- in the tax bill they sent to Bush's desk in March. But he vetoed the bill, preventing the imposition of higher taxes on the wealthy, which it also included.
Liberal Democrats in Congress are predictably irate over the Great Society-bashing. Rep. Sidney Yates of Illinois, elected to the House in 1964 as LBJ was overwhelming Barry Goldwater for a term in his own right, says the comments are feeble attempts to shift their own deficiencies to somebody else. "The Great Society helped the cities," Yates says, "and while some programs did not work, the effort was made."
Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois also defends the Great Society while admitting it fell short of its stated goals. The White House bashing, he says, is "unfortunate" because the crisis in Los Angeles could set the stage for more cooperation in Congress on addressing an agenda for the inner cities.
Ben Wattenberg, a speechwriter for Johnson during the Great Society days and now a conservative columnist and commentator, says "what Johnson set in motion was necessary and a lot of it was successful," including an expansion of Social Security that rescued many elderly Americans from poverty. The Great Society, he says, helped build the middle class into which many blacks subsequently entered.
But liberal Democrats, Wattenberg says, "while throwing money at the problems in the '60s," failed to preach modification of behavior of the sort that Bill Clinton now espouses in coupling individual responsibility with opportunity. It would be a mistake for the Democrats now, he says, to react by simply blaming the Reagan-Bush policies of the last 12 years while ignoring public revulsion to the "permissiveness" widely associated with the Great Society years.
In the next days, the ball will be in President Bush's court as he examines firsthand the damage in Los Angeles and considers his long-term response. In turning to the Kemp proposals to which he had given short shrift before the riots, he is reacting to the pressure of events. Beyond that, it is not a good sign that the White House's first impulse has been to blame Democratic policies of 30 years ago, most of them now in shreds, for what has happened on Bush's own watch.