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Clinton long on talk, but has no point


President Clinton arrived in Annapolis yesterday, glanced at 83-year-old State Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein, who's an old political acquaintance, and chuckled, "I was in first grade when he became comptroller." Then the president commenced his speech to a joint session of the Maryland General Assembly, during which an entire new generation of American first-graders had the time to grow up and, if not run for office, at least begin noticing the initial onset of puberty.

Or maybe it just seemed that long. Running time on Clinton's speech was 55 minutes. Walking-out time was maybe 30 minutes. Where I was, watching television in a group, eyes began to wander after 15 minutes, and small groups of people began breaking into conversation minutes later on matters truly gripping, such as the opening of Orioles spring training.

It's not that the presi- dent's speech wasn't important or heartfelt. But didn't he say the same things about welfare a week ago when we heard his State of the Union address? At one point, Clinton acknowledged Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. She's the lieutenant governor of Maryland. But she was a little girl whose daddy, Robert F. Kennedy, issued a cry for welfare reform. That was 29 years and many failed welfare proposals ago.

Clinton also talked about education - as if anybody's against better schools. But it's a little disconcerting when you hear him talk about making technology available "to the poorest as well as the richest schools" so that the poor kids don't fall behind.

Clinton should talk to some teachers in the Baltimore public schools to learn about falling behind. A woman I know teaches at one of our impoverished elementary schools in West Baltimore. You know where she falls immediately behind? When these little second-graders walk into the classroom, and she's got to begin removing the remains of breakfast from many of their faces and wiping their noses, and finish dressing them because nobody at home was paying attention. And then, having expended her own energy, having lost time on everyone's clock, she can begin trying to teach.

Such troubles bring us to the realities of school life - not the president's bland declaration that "politics should stop at the schoolhouse door." He says every 8-year-old should be able to read? Come on, we've got a few generations of high school graduates in places like South Baltimore who still can't put a noun next to a verb.

Among those listening to the president was Nancy Grasmick, state superintendent of public schools. She knows about the politics of education, and also about the kids who can't sit still in classrooms because they're the first generation descended from the crack-addicted. Maybe the president could tell us how to handle those children.

Grasmick's been handed the work of political delicacy around here, trying to sell the notion of $254 million in state aid to Baltimore schools, while the various county legislators say, "Yeah, education is good. But why shouldn't my own district's schools get some of that money?"

Shouldn't there be enough funds to go around? Clinton talked about this a little bit, but again it sounded like an echo of things heard before. We've got peace and prosperity, the president said, noting that such a combination is "extremely rare." We had it after World War II and used the opportunity to help rebuild Europe. We had it around the dawning of the current century and used it to enter the industrial era.

What will we do with this opportunity? "Too many cities haven't felt the uplift," Clinton acknowledged. We're now seven years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Remember the phrase we heard back when the wall fell: peace dividend. Remember? Much of the money that had been drained away by military expenses might now go to rebuild the tattered places in America where people live and go to school.

But such places are still waiting for the big peace dividend, while this president - or any president, but especially this one - finds it impossible to talk of cutting military budgets without somehow seeming unpatriotic. You want to talk welfare payments, let's talk about the Pentagon.

But the welfare this president talked about yesterday was the easier target: "the culture of dependence," Clinton called it.

Nobody wants to argue with Clinton about welfare. Except maybe the kids who could be endangered by welfare cuts. Or the parents who can't find a job after their new two-year welfare limit's up, and they don't know where to turn in their desperation. Or those who worry that such desperation will create a new class of criminals.

Or those who hear the president challenge private employers to hire former welfare people and wonder if employers will find an idea in their heads, leading them to "patriotically" hire welfare recipients at cheap wages but laying off their current employees, standbys who are making middle-class money, to quietly save a little payroll.

But the president didn't talk about such things yesterday. And when he left, after a 55-minute speech full of empty words, many thought it was swell to have him here. But, exactly why did he bother to come?

Pub Date: 2/11/97

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