Chairman Bill's Big Blue Book

March 20 1998 3:30 AM

Chairman Bill's Big Blue Book

When did the federal budget become a polemic?

When President Clinton's budget for fiscal year 1999 came out on Feb. 2, we were all engrossed in l'affaire Lewinsky and the spin the White House was putting on it--right-wing conspiracy, executive privilege, Talmudic definitions of adultery, and so on. Perhaps interest in that subject has now abated sufficiently to allow us to turn our attention to the budget. I propose here to comment not on the policy it contains but on the rhetoric with which it is presented--on the spin the Clinton administration puts on its policy.

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What is most striking to a person who has been reading budgets for a long time is how far the cult of presidential personality has progressed. In the past the budget (I refer here to the main book titled Budget and not the other five volumes that come with it) typically had two parts. One was the budget message of the president, written in the first person and signed by the president. Readers knew there was going to be a fair measure of boasting and self-serving in that section. But most of the book consisted of chapters about the functions of government, with such prosaic titles as "National Defense" or "Agriculture." These were written in the third person, had lots of probably boring facts, and one could learn a lot from them. Of course, they reflected the point of view of the administration, but the reader didn't have the feeling that he was constantly being urged to buy the Brooklyn Bridge. The president was scarcely mentioned.

The budget still has the president's message and a section organized according to the functions of government. But now, inserted between these two parts is a long section--this year it's 132 pages--still pretending to explain the whole thing but explaining it as having sprung full-blown from the brow of the president. The section has inspirational chapter heads such as "Preparing the Nation for a New American Century" and "Creating a Bright American Future."

Each chapter and subchapter in this section starts with a quotation from previous utterances of President Clinton, set in italics and enclosed in a box. These quotations are of a banality that is hard to believe. For example, we have this:

Americans want the best for our children. We want them to live out their dreams, empowered with the tools they need to make the most of their lives and to build a future where America remains the world's beacon of hope and freedom and opportunity. To do this, we must all make improving the quality of education in America one of our highest priorities.

There is an irresistible reminder here of Chairman Mao's little red book, except Mao's dicta were more pointed.

In these 132 pages there are, by my count, 113 uses of the word "president." (I include nine cases of the word "his" used in close proximity to and referring to the president.) And what is the president doing on these occasions? Of course, he is working and proposing and having visions and making commitments. But he is not only working, he is, in some instances, working "hard"--to expand health care coverage and improve the nation's health, to improve education and the lives of working families, to eliminate fraud in Medicare and Medicaid, and to crack down on violent youth gangs.

The president also has "initiatives":

The Brownfields Initiative

The Water Quality Initiative