Growing Community

Bill Clinton's election-night acceptance speech extolled "anew spirit of community" in which "our destiny is bound up in the destiny of every American."

He exhorted his fellow Americans "to be interested not just in getting, but in giving; not just in placing blame, but in assuming responsibility; not just in looking out for yourselves, but in looking out for others too."


Are the makings of distinguished leadership here? Could Mr. Clinton be ready to back tangible sacrifices that would make a real difference in American life?

Maybe. But consider first this sober warning from John W. Gardner, former secretary of health, education and welfare, founder of Common Cause and author of books on leadership and community:


"If the American people maintain the cynicism and self-indulgence of the Embarrassing Eighties, there is no leader who can do anything for them."

It's one thing for Americans to throw out underperforming incumbents, says Mr. Gardner. But turning a moment of new leadership into a vigorous "burst of national renewal" isn't automatic. There must be a dialogue, an interactive process, between national leaders and millions of citizen leaders in business, government and community life, pressing uniformly for change and offering to give up special privileges to get it.

If that happened, we might see an exciting symbiosis -- an articulate new president and a concerned citizenry working together.

President-elect Clinton, to his credit, is opening the dialogue with some challenges, possible beginnings of a new social compact of mutual obligation.

We could achieve "a new patriotism," he said in his memorable election-night remarks, "when we seek to offer young people the opportunity to borrow the money they need to go to college and the challenge to pay it back through national service; when we challenge the insurance companies, the drug companies, the providers and the consumers, the government to give us a new health-care system; when we offer those on welfare new opportunity and the challenge to move to work; when we ask companies to take the incentives we offer to put American people to work and export American products, not American jobs."

The question for 1993 may be whether Mr. Clinton is able to move forward with these challenges and bargains.

George Washington University's Amitai Etzioni, leading advocate of a new "communitarianism" in American life, suggests that the new president rent a football stadium, invite each interest group to come in, and tell them they can't leave unless they leave one special privilege behind.

The unions would be asked to give up the Davis-Bacon Act (which pushes up wage levels on federally backed construction projects). Banks and investors would agree to have taxes deducted upfront on income from interest and dividends (creating a windfall for our deficit-plagued Treasury).


Oil companies would stop fighting high taxes on gasoline. Real-estate interests and homeowners would agree to forsake the home mortgage interest deduction on values exceeding $250,000, and on all second homes. Retiree lobbies would allow means testing of benefits so that rich Americans would no longer pick up full Medicare and Social Security benefits.

Who knows -- could H. Ross Perot be recruited as ringmaster? At a minimum, this would be a way for Mr. Clinton to challenge Mr. Perot and his millions of supporters to help generate national support for shared pain to get the deficit under control and make some vital, overdue investments in the nation's future.

Put the other way, think of the power of persuasion if Mr. Perot and his followers, not to mention hundreds of other American leaders concerned about America's slide toward second-class nationhood, challenged Mr. Clinton to move courageously.

Do we Americans "have it in us to create a future worthy of our past"? That's the question, John Gardner told the National Academy of Public Administration in an address in Washington Friday. His critical point is that the answer doesn't hinge on President-elect Clinton alone; it depends on all of us. And on all the interest groups -- from social workers to laborers to bankers to farmers -- giving up the idea that they're "suffering special hardships and unjustified treatment at the hands of the society at large."

The breakthrough that we must now build on is that we will have a president who understands the stakes, and knows how to articulate the bedrock issues of shared community and mutual obligation.

Neal W. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.