DALLAS -- The last big American story of 1996 is about change: McDonald's is changing the taste of its burgers because it has concluded customers now prefer Wendy's and Burger King.
The first big story of 1997 will probably last 365 days: Our politics taste like the national garbage.
When it comes to political money and telling the truth about their use of it, the country's first- and third-ranked leaders, the president and the speaker of the House of Representatives, are as amoral as, say, Bonnie and Clyde. This was the Christmas Eve judgment of USA Today, the newspaper sometimes accused of being even blander than the products of McDonald's, stating what surely is the national consensus:
"While political poles apart, Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton share one thing: They are both tainted by political money, scandals and, more importantly, their lack of honesty in responding to official investigations."
So what are we going to do about it? First, throw up.
The immediate cause for my nausea is the language Speaker Gingrich is using to explain the fact that he has been lying to the country and his fellow members of Congress for the past couple of years: "I brought down on the people's house a controversy which could weaken the faith people have in their government. In responding to complaints in this matter, I did not manage the effort intensely enough to thoroughly direct or review information being submitted to the committee on my behalf. In my name and over my signature, inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable statements were given to the committee, but I did not intend to mislead the committee."
"Controversy" . . . "weaken the faith" . . . "manage"? Give me a break. The real words are "cheated" and "lied." This time it was the speaker cheating and then lying, figuring his own troops would cover up for him.
Master of deception
The same, of course, could generally be said of the president nTC and his dealing with foreign political contributors pushing money through legal loopholes into the Clinton campaign. It is harder to catch Mr. Clinton lying. He is a master of verbal deception, massaging the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, into word pictures that would confuse Diogenes, much less government investigations and ethics committees.
The president and the speaker are the leading current practitioners of the new American cycle of cheat, deny, stonewall, confess only to what investigators already know, then mumble the spin litany: "This is just politics" . . . "This is old news" . . . "mistakes" . . . "unintentional" "technical violations" . . . "arcane laws."
The sad thing about the "just politics" defense is that it is very close to the truth. Our politics have become too rotten to swallow. But we are going to be fed this slop every day of the coming year as the president and the speaker try to tango together through a maze of committees, prosecutors and journalistic enterprise.
All that will be done with both of them knowing they might get away with everything because, politically, both sides are compromised by their recent sins. They, politicians, are all in this together -- they need to raise money for television campaigns -- but the rest of us, the people of the country, are not. We are true outsiders now.
Will anything change in 1997? Maybe. Pious appeals to campaign reform are one thing. Having garbage thrown at you from both sides day after day is another. How much can we stand?
Well, there does come a time when people won't take it anymore. Among the most interesting achievements of voters last November was this: Of the 23 House incumbents defeated in the 1996 election, 19 had voted to repeal the federal ban on the sale and possession of assault weapons.
If the events of 1996 mark the end of the perceived invincibility of the National Rifle Association, there is just a chance that the tawdry and bipartisan revelations about the financing of the American political system might lead to some kind of sensible campaign reform before another year has passed.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 12/27/96