Published on Sunday, March 11, 2001 in the Boston Globe
A More Truthful Use of Political Props
by Robert Kuttner
IT WAS RONALD REAGAN, that old trouper, who first started using as human props ordinary Americans who would supposedly benefit from administration policies. We became accustomed to seeing John and Mary Doe, the putative beneficiaries of tax cuts and regulatory guttings, seated in the gallery at State of the Union addresses and other political events.
Reagan also liked to identify himself with everyday heroes, who were regularly invited to White House affairs.
Christa McAuliffe, the schoolteacher who tragically died in the 1986 Challenger explosion, gave her life because the Reagan administration needed an education prop. At the time, the administration was under fire for big cuts in federal school funding. Sending a teacher into space, supposedly to perform educational experiments, was mainly a public relations gimmick to divert attention from the administration's actual policies and associate Reagan in the public mind with teaching.
Despite occasional setbacks, the use of human props has proved too tempting for succeeding presidents to resist. George Bush I used them. They became regular features at Clinton events. And, sure enough, there at the Bush II budget address last week were none other than Steven and Josefina Ramos.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Ramos family is from a swing state (Pennsylvania) and a swing ethnic group (Hispanic). Josephina is - what else? - a charter school teacher. You can just imagine the staff work that went into finding this couple. The Ramos family, according to President Bush, will save $2,000 if the Bush tax plan is enacted.
The president quoted Mr. Ramos (or somebody's speechwriter): ''Two thousand dollars a year means a lot to my family. If we had this money, it would help us reach our goal of paying off our personal debt in two years' time.''
After that, according to the president, Steven and Josefina want to start saving for daughter Lianna's college education.
Well. Maybe it's time for Truth-In-Human-Props legislation. The president might have put in a balcony the real big winners of his tax plan.
''With us today is publisher Steve Forbes. Without my proposed cut in his estate tax, his estate would have to pay the government $23 million when he finally passes to his reward. But thanks to my bill, his heirs won't pay a plug nickel. Isn't that wonderful?''
Maybe the entire front row should have been lined with multimillionaires, each with a sign showing how much money he'd save. In the back, we could have nursing aides who won't get raises, schoolchildren who'll still be in overcrowded classrooms, or seniors who won't get needed medicines, all thanks to the administration's budget priorities.
Or take the worker safety regulation that the Republicans in Congress just repealed, which would have protected millions from repetitive stress injury. House majority leader Tom DeLay might have placed Alice Jones of Cosmodynamic Data Entry in the House balcony alongside her CEO.
DeLay might say: ''Ms. Jones here is required to enter 120 names and addresses every hour or she will lose her job. The company doesn't want to spend a few dollars to give her a less stressful keyboard because that might eat into the CEO's stock options. But, heck, there's plenty of immigrants who'll happily take the work when Alice's tendons give out. This one is for the Business Roundtable. Sorry, Alice.''
The other day, the Republicans rushed through a bankruptcy reform bill that makes it easier for credit card companies and banks to seize assets of ordinary people who go broke. The bill did nothing to make it harder for corporations to wipe out debts when they declare bankruptcy.
Senate Republican leader Trent Lott might invite to the Senate gallery Carl Icahn, the corporate raider who a lot of people blame for driving TWA into bankruptcy two and now perhaps three times. Icahn could be seated next to a TWA reservation clerk who will lose her job in the pending TWA fire sale. Lott might say: ''Thanks to our bill, Carl here can still go bankrupt and wipe out his debt as often as he pleases, but if Suzy runs up too much credit care debt, her savings account will be seized. Isn't bankruptcy reform neat?''
Most of us don't like being somebody else's prop. That's why a lot of brave patriots more than two centuries ago brought democracy to these shores. But unless we stop behaving as props and start behaving as citizens, we will be passive spectators at the increasingly contrived sport of politics in America.
Robert Kuttner's is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company