A Look Under Clinton's Bridge
By Arianna Huffington
September 30, 1996
The Census Bureau has just reported that the percentage of the nation's poor has gone down to 13.8 percent -- a 0.7 percent drop. That may be cold comfort to those waking up on city sidewalks or to the 1-in-5 American children still living in poverty, but President Clinton was quick to use the news to boost his Morning Again in America campaign. "Today, it is clear," he said, "that more and more of our people are sharing in that prosperity. We are growing -- and growing together."
For a truer picture of what is happening to America's poor, we have a chilling, confidential memo sent to the president on Aug. 9, 1995, by Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros. Jack Kemp brought it to light during a rally at a public housing complex in Memphis on Sept. 19 and circulated copies of it to the reporters covering the event. It bristles with an urgency completely absent from the statistics of the Census Bureau. Tragically, the memo was essentially ignored, not just by the president but by a cloistered press corps obsessed with process, personality and polls.
"The time is now or never for a presidential urban strategy," Cisneros wrote to the president. "Daily, we lose more of our inner-city children to drugs, gangs and guns," he warned.
"We are running out of time. ... The cities are hurting badly, and the nation will pay the consequences for many years. ... We can be caught flat-footed by the violent outbreaks which will stem from the anger in the cities."
The power of the pleading memo is not in its prescriptions -- many of which still center on government rather than citizens and communities -- but in the palpable sense of crisis it exudes. Among Cisneros' specific proposals is an expansion of the Bridges-To-Work project to a national scale -- directly connecting inner-city residents to job opportunities outside their communities.
But the president has chosen an empty bridge metaphor instead.
In September alone, Clinton spoke of a "bridge to the 21st century" 243 times in his speeches. Sounding like Stuart Smalley on "Saturday Night Live," he called the bridge "big enough, strong enough and wide enough for everybody to walk across."
In fact, if there is one certainty in this uncertain world, it is that we will get to the 21st century with or without Clinton's bridge.
In the last century, when Victor Hugo wrote "Les Miserables," homeless children were herded under the bridges of Paris. The homeless children of today and the abused ones and the inner-city school dropouts and the gang members and the drug addicts have all been neatly tucked under Clinton's bridge to the 21st century.
And the rest of us -- Republicans and the press included -- are happy to leave them there. Jack Kemp is the only national Republican leader trying to wake up the nation. "Look at the millions under Clinton's bridge," he is effectively saying, using a member of Clinton's own Cabinet as a witness to this tragic neglect. But there is no chorus behind him, and his voice is drowned in the cacophony of a loud but irrelevant campaign. His fellow Republicans are attacking Clinton's bridge to the future, not by drawing attention to the forgotten people under it but by grinchily calling it "a toll bridge -- you pay every inch of the way."
In a foreword to "The Compassionate Conservative," a remarkable book by business leader and philanthropist Joseph Jacobs, Kemp writes about the need for conservatives to "demonstrate a compassionate spirit that considers the welfare of the whole person, not just those needs that can be fed with a little bit of cash."
There are five weeks left in this campaign, and the Republicans are still talking about cash and proudly distributing at campaign events fake checks for $1,261 -- the gain for the average family of four from their 15 percent tax cut. But the public doesn't believe them.
The Cisneros memo urged Clinton to take up the cause of the millions trapped in the inner city and have "a sober conversation with the nation." "It places you," he told Clinton, "in a position above party and above individual gain. You are at your best ... when you lift the national dialogue to a higher, even spiritual, level where you encourage and exhort individuals and communities to fulfill a higher purpose."
All leaders are at their best when they do this. But with the enfeebled Dole campaign landing no solid blows, the president has no incentive to change course. Will the Republican nominee rise to the occasion? After all, he has nothing to lose, and the country has an awful lot to gain."And the righteous hurry past," cries out the chorus of the poor in the musical of "Les Miserables." "They don't hear the little ones crying, and the winter is coming on fast. ...There's a hunger in the land. There's a reckoning still to be reckoned. There's gonna be hell to pay at the end of the day!"
© 2004 Christabella, Inc. All rights reserved.
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