This Week

Issue: "Missionary hostages," Feb. 20, 1998

Truth deficit

Standing in front of a huge mock-up of a Social Security card at Georgetown University, President Clinton last week field-tested one of the administration's top budget themes for 1998: "save Social Security first." It's a nice slogan-and, clearly, most Americans believe Social Security is worth saving, at least in some form or fashion. But the president is again, to put it in the charitable words of economist Martin Feldstein, engaging in "a highly nuanced construction of language." Mr. Clinton's recent budget proposal does not attempt to "save Social Security first." On the contrary, it puts the future of Social Security dead last in order of budget priority. How? The only thing that puts the president's much-ballyhooed 1999 budget into "balance" is the inclusion of more than $100 billion borrowed from the Social Security trust fund-to be paid back who knows when. This same budgetary sleight-of-hand is behind all of Mr. Clinton's projected "surpluses" over the next 10 years. The surpluses exist only because of borrowing from funds earmarked for Social Security. As Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) explained last week in The Washington Post, "[T]he deficit is not eliminated; the deficit is merely moved from the general fund into the Social Security trust fund." What this means is that Mr. Clinton's claim that he wants to "reserve every penny" of the budget surpluses to "save" Social Security is nonsense. Think about it. This is like borrowing money from your savings account to put in your checking account so you can write a check to pay back your savings account. Surely there must be method to Mr. Clinton's madness? Indeed. By creating this high-sounding linguistic fiction, the president is laying the political groundwork necessary for the following argument-appearing soon on TV sets everywhere-against Republican would-be tax cutters: Any general tax cut would "spend" the surplus, thus destroying all hope of saving the nation's most-loved social program. To support a tax cut is to oppose the preservation of Social Security for future generations. Last week at Georgetown, Mr. Clinton waxed eloquent about his hope that Congress would "rise above partisanship" and join him in working to "save Social Security first." Later, White House aides stressed to reporters that the president's strong desire is to keep Social Security from becoming a partisan issue in this year's congressional elections. Nice try.

But who's counting?

For those trying to keep count, the Clinton Administration faced new revelations in three separate scandals last week. In the most prominent case, Marcia Lewis was forced to testify under limited immunity regarding what her daughter, Monica Lewinsky, had revealed about her alleged affair with President Clinton. On day two of her testimony, she was reduced to tears and a nurse was called to the room. Her agonizingly slow testimony delayed her daughter's court appearance. Another blow came last week when Attorney General Janet Reno agreed to seek an independent counsel to investigate Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. After resisting the move for nearly a year, Ms. Reno's hand was forced when hearings chaired by Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) produced "specific, credible evidence" that Mr. Babbitt's decision to grant an Indian gaming license may have been influenced by the tribes' $230,000 donation to the Democratic Party. The case marks the sixth independent investigation of the administration in as many years. While the Burton Committee continued to probe, its Senate counterpart prepared a 1,500-word report of alleged Democratic fundraising violations. An early draft charges both President Clinton and Vice President Gore with raising illegal foreign contributions and financing their own campaign with "soft money," which cannot legally be used to support specific candidates. Meanwhile, Mrs. Clinton again took to the media, insisting that the scandal talk would dissipate under "the weight of its own insubstantiality." But if the contradictions in the official story are as obvious as the contradiction in that sentence, the coming weeks could be even worse for the administration than the one just past.

Summer's over

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Carl Wilson, founding member of The Beach Boys, the California band that sang about perpetual youth and good times, died on Feb. 6 at age 51, a victim of cancer. Mr. Wilson was born in a Los Angeles suburb about five miles from the Pacific Ocean. In 1961 he formed The Beach Boys with two brothers, a cousin, and a friend, and was often the lead singer. The group produced effervescent harmonies that made it seem as if it would always be summer. Through the 1960s, The Beach Boys sold hundreds of thousands of records with hits such as "Surfin' U.S.A." Two were millionsellers: "I Get Around" in 1964 and "Good Vibrations" in 1966. Other songs that have sunk deep into the memories of both middle-aged Americans and younger listeners to nostalgia radio are "Help Me, Rhonda," "Barbara Ann," and "California Girls." The carpe diem sense of seizing summer days came through clearly in songs with titles like "Fun, Fun, Fun," with its next line of "till Daddy takes the T-Bird away." But Carl Wilson, without evidently realizing the deeper meaning of the words, sang beautifully about providential arrangements in "God Only Knows," which Paul McCartney called the greatest song ever written: "I may not always love you, but long as there are stars above you, you never need to doubt it, I'll make you so sure about it, God only knows what I'd be without you." The Beach Boys sang "Be True to Your School," but, sadly, they were not true to God. Summers apart from Christ ended in winters of dissension and drugs. Dennis Wilson died in a 1983 swimming accident. As Puritan pastor Increase Mather noted in a sermon delivered three centuries ago after two exuberant Harvard students drowned, man knows not his time of death, so it is important to seize the spring, summer, and fall opportunities to learn to "live a life of holy dependence upon God continually."

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