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Jewish World Review May 14, 1999 /28 Iyar 5759

Tony Snow

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Symbolism over substance

(JWR) ---- (

THE AVERAGE POLITICIAN these days much prefers the empty gesture to the completed thought. Example: The White House, spurred to symbolism by the Columbine High School massacre, recently convened a "summit" aimed at saving the nation's wayward youth.

The gathering followed established form. The president invited a "broad cross-section" of people who agree with him and snubbed those who don't, which meant that the panel included only those gun organizations congenial to increased federal firearm control.

In the end, the meeting accomplished one thing: It permitted the president and the attendees to announce that they had indeed convened a confab. This gave television networks an easy story for the evening news.

Events of this sort have become the new opiate of the masses. They are inconsequential by design. They give folks the impression that the government has acted boldly, when in fact it has done nothing. Yet, such production numbers also create an expectation that our government has become so knowing and mighty that it can alter our moral and social landscape instantaneously.

Unfortunately, the White House seems to have fallen prey to this delusion as well. The War in Kosovo, for instance, began as a gesture, an expression of outrage. We didn't like the fact that Slobodan Milosevic wouldn't accept a peace agreement that we wouldn't have accepted (among other things, it called for foreign occupation of Yugoslavia, complete with the stipulation that the NATO-led militias could not be prosecuted for any war crimes that they might commit along the way). So we threatened to bomb him. And we made good on the threat.

We did so on the assumption that Milosevic was as easy to intimidate as, say, congressional Republicans, who scramble for the shelters at the mere hint that Bill Clinton might say something unkind. But Milosevic didn't get the memo. Instead of cowering, he began pushing ethnic Albanians out of their Kosovo homes. In reply, the commander in chief counseled patience and asked for more money.

Now we're in a mess and stuck with few options other than to continue gesticulating madly. Each day, NATO mouthpiece Jamie Shea steps up his rhetoric about Milosevic (let us pray he doesn't compare the Yugo-thug to Darth Vader), and each day the performance sounds both more comical and desperate.

Moral: Even gestures have consequences, and those consequences may force us to make choices we never wanted to make.

Of course, it would be unfair to insinuate that Bill Clinton is the only politico wedded to such histrionics. Many Republicans have fallen victim to such temptations, as well. Consider the case of Elizabeth Dole. She inexplicably has run a Stepford Candidacy, in which she dazzles audiences with her gentility -- rather than wowing them with her most formidable asset, her brains.

In her first comprehensive speech on policy, she inserted a small passage on guns -- a Clintonesque ode to trigger locks and an attack on concealed-carry laws. Although she was lauded for her courage, she was guilty of almost slavish conventionality.

As University of Chicago professor John Lott has pointed out, the trigger-lock idea suffers several flaws. First, kids who know how to use guns also know how to disable the locks. Second, the locks themselves may prevent potential victims of crime from using firearms to scare bad guys away. He says guns are used five times as often to stop crimes as to commit them. Third, the regulation chases a fairly rare problem. He notes that in 1996, only 30 children under the age of 5 nationwide died after playing with guns -- fewer than die in school-yard accidents or drown in buckets.

Gestures of the sort made by Dole seem safe, but they breed cynicism. We have 20,000 gun-control statutes on the books nationally. The Columbine massacre involved as many as 19 separate violations of the Colorado and federal codes. It seems unlikely that one additional law could deliver us from murderous teens.

Perhaps we should not be surprised to see office-seekers preen so shamelessly without bothering to say anything interesting or novel. We have little need or appetite for heroic leadership in good times. Ironically, a decade's worth of gestures out of Washington (my old boss, George Bush, threw out his share of bluster bombs after the end of the Gulf War) may place us in sufficient peril that by Election Day next year, we may find ourselves in need of someone who not only can pose before a camera -- but can also lead a nation back toward the promised land.


05/07/99:Why Kosovo is unique
04/30/99:A blithe acceptance of espionage
04/22/99: Snacking on life-splitting agony
04/15/99: Starr’s last stand?
04/12/99: Combining punishment and proselytism
04/05/99: Now that the ‘honorables’ have returned …
03/29/99: And the senators pressed on
03/25/99: Moronic meddling
03/22/99: Kangas, the Left’s ‘Foster’? More like a diligent nut
03/18/99: Does Forbes have a chance?
03/15/99: Team Clinton aren’t treasonists ...
03/11/99: Blackmun’s burden
03/08/99: The Lewinsky Principle
03/05/99: Buchanan & Ventura’s lure
03/01/99: Open season on women
02/25/99: The birth of political wisdom
02/22/99: Children of optimism
02/18/99: Wake up, Republicans!
02/16/99: Why we feel so good
02/11/99: What exactly does George W. stand for?
02/08/99: Run, GOPers, run?
02/04/99: The languid sigh of waves lapping ashore
02/01/99: Verbal vortex
01/28/99: To be a ‘sell-out’ or an unelectable pol --- that is the question
01/25/99: The apogee of a trend
01/21/99:What my 3-year-old taught me
01/17/99:Don't be fooled, folks
01/14/99: Must a pol be ‘baaaad’ in order to get elected?
01/12/99: Jumpin’ Jack (Kemp)
01/08/99 : Hot air in the Windy City

©1999, Creators Syndicate