Pocketbook problems are always easy to feel. Causes of pocket-book problems are much more difficult to perceive. Economics, international relations, and foreign trade are not exactly as popular as prime-time TV.
Our perception of events thus often overwhelms reality. This is nothing new, of course. Some political careers continue to be based on public perception rather than harsh reality. We Americans are quite capable of confusing ourselves without government capitalizing on it.
In warm-up hoopla for the Salt II Treaty, analysts say that the missiles aren't as important as the perception that the United States remains strong enough to exert worldwide influence. Experts stress that a deficit of 29 billion dollars is not as important as the perception that government is holding down spending. Sometimes the line gets fuzzy between public relation's grease and flat-out manipulation of fact.
Last October the Defense Department announced U.S. arms sales overseas had been reduced 10% during the past year, thus vindicating Mr. Carter's campaign pledge. The truth is, of course, precisely opposite. Total arms sales did NOT fall: they rose 8%, highest in our nation's history ($13.4 billion up from $11.4 billion). Well, the government explains, if you take sales to only certain developing nations, those sales fell by 10%.
Aw, come off it, fellows!
In recent congressional hearings on efficacy of a certain drug, sponsors claimed the patient's perception of what the medicine did was more important that what the medicine actually did.
When perceptions of nuclear weapons, national economy, arms sales, and health are stressed more than realities, how can we produce rational judgments? How can we escape becoming blobs of humanity, ripe for manipulation against our true self-interest?
I admit that sometimes perception and reality can be at odds, with little harm done. My own early years provide an example.
Some of you may recollect a little girl with clean and curled hair, starched skirts, ruffles, and bows. That perception was wrong. The reality was a kid in blue jeans and sentimental sneakers, dirty hands, dirty face, usually climbing a tree.
In fact, if you will forgive a personal recollection, I never even aspired to be an actress. Even when I was very young, I had three aspirations: to be a surgeon, or an FBI agent, or a pie salesman.
They told me I wasn't smart enough to be a surgeon. After all, I was just three years old. They told me I wasn't smart enough, or big enough to get into the FBI, although I was a perfect 36: thirty-six pounds, and 36 inches tall. Obviously, I was too square for the FBI! Also, obviously, I should not be permitted to get into a supply of pies. However, my voluptuous measurements were ideal for the movies, and so that's how it began.
I don't know where they got the idea I liked dolls. "With me it was always cops and robbers, goods guys and bad.
Having been thwarted at lower levels, I decided to start at the top, and set my sights on the White House. President Roosevelt patted and squeezed me in 1938. Truman, Eisenhower, and Nixon shook my hand, but then I was older. Ford kissed me. Jimmy Carter kissed me in the White House, which means I was even older. And now I am simply female, black, and unemployed.
Yesterday on the airliner from California, I mused about the national debate on energy. Five years ago we were braced by the oil embargo. Everyone agreed that our national energy situation was precarious.
Two years ago the president labeled his energy program the moral equivalent of war. Seven days later he assured us that no sacrifice would be required from the voters. We all relaxed.
Since then: Texas oil production falling for lack of economic incentive to explore and drill, consumption of fuel oil and industrial oil slightly down, gasoline for trucks and autos up 7%, and rising. The Harrisburg nuclear reactor accident has stunned this area of promising potential.
Our coal and oil-shale resource, the largest in the world, is almost in depression. In his State of the Union Message 150 days ago, the president ignored the question of energy entirely.
Last week we are warned that the situation is "very serious and getting worse." We are to have decontrol of oil prices, excess-profits taxes, and redistribution of taxes to vague federal projects.
What have we got here? A true crisis? A hoax? An intricate political maneuver? Public perceptions of the energy problem must be kaleidoscopic. All colors and confusion. I feel like the fellow who knew what he wanted, but didn't know what it was, or how to find it.
Coasting along at 30,000 ft., I realized I was only on the surface of the problem. I do not intend to be partisan. Let me explain. A couple of weeks ago Messrs. Sadat, Begin and Carter signed the triple-sided Camp David Treaty, amid stirring quotes from the prophet Isaiah, and allusions to peace and reward.
The same morning I ate a piece of toast and drank a cup of hot chocolate. What, you may wonder, has Shirley's toast and chocolate got to do with peace in the Middle East?
The price of my toast and chocolate has soared at a torrid pace. (14.5% annual pace) What has this to do with peace? Labor contracts settlements this year are higher than last. The government claims there is widespread price gouging. Certainly there is little sign that the wage-price spiral is slowing.
What, pray tell, has all this toast, chocolate, inflation, and talk of falling purchasing power got to do with peace? In a broader sense, what has American foreign relations got to do with our pocketbook, morning toast and hot chocolate? In our broad perception, foreign relations has had little, if any, bearing on really important things like the cost of bread, taxes, or the quality of life in my neighborhood.
Recent polls asking America to rate areas of major national concern are typical. Concern about inflation and taxes, 75%. Concern for our international relations, 6%. How little we know, as we munch toast and sip cocoa.
Basic cocoa beans come principally from West Africa, but today almost all the cocoa producing states worldwide are members of an international commodity agreement. In effect, the agreement is a producer price cartel in which our only influence is exercised at an international diplomatic level.
Here in Kansas your grains are at the core of my toast. But let's not forget that toast also has strong Middle East connections. High-yield corn and wheat require intensive fertilizers. This must be accompanied by more water, otherwise the fertilizer is not utilized. More water means more irrigation. More irrigation means more pumps, and more power to run them. More power means more coal, and particularly gas and petroleum. The fertilizers, of course, are based on petroleum, particularly gas.
If we use more fertilizer and more water we get more weeds. Therefore we need more herbicide, also derived from petroleum. When we grow more grain we get more parasites, more insects, rodents and fungi. So we need more rodenticides, insecticides, and fungicides, all petroleum-based.
Once we have more grain, we must have more trucks to carry it in and out of silos, diesel locomotives to shift it across the country, mills to grind it, and ovens to bake it. It is a stunning fact that to produce 270 calories of corn in America requires an average of 2,700 calories of energy.
To state what is obvious, (but not tasty!) oil is very much part of our morning toast. The price of oil, the availability of oil, both exert an enormous effect on our slice of bread.
Not everyone agrees, of course. Polls indicate that about half of Americans think the energy crisis is phony, and that with proper incentives we can satisfy American requirements from American resources.
In fact, we import 50% of our petroleum now. Half of all this oil comes from Arab states, with the proportion steadily rising. Few of those states have spoken kindly of our peace initiative. This is one reason why the true implications of the triple-treaty of Camp David must be fully grasped, and why any superficial TV perception of peace and cornerstones must be stubbornly resisted.
However cloaked in subtle words of double understanding, the gospel-truths of the triple-treaty are these: for two years Mr. Carter has repeatedly defined our Middle-East goal as a comprehensive arrangement involving ALL Arab states, and a revived Geneva Conference with the U.S. and Moscow as co-chairmen and the Palestinians present. Israel would be required to withdraw from ALL occupied territories, with "only minor adjustments." Our triple-treaty abandons this policy completely.
Arab states with big oil resources are left out, and strongly alienated from us. Israel has a separate peace with Egypt, without any commitment to do more than talk about the core problem of the Palestinians. The problem of Jerusalem remains ignored, and festering.
America is entangled in the political deal, committed to a permanent "presence" in the Middle-East, and ironically becomes arms merchant to both nations professing peace.
America must pay all the bills, equal to about 30% of our total national deficit. When is America to learn that when we give something, we must get something in return!
Last, and most important, our triple-treaty provides a spectacular chance for the Soviet Union to extend its own influence. Precisely what our long-standing original policy was designed to prevent.
The future price of our symbolic piece of toast is up for grabs. Now, the good news! These gospel truths may be wrong! But, sadly, I think not.
How America is perceived by other states of importance to us is equally vital. Our relations with Saudi Arabia, once a model of cooperation and mutual understanding, is now overshadowed with confusion, and concern.
In recent words of a Saudi deputy minister and government spokesman:
"We have been observing the United States' actions over the past year and at every turn of events asking ourselves, 'why are they doing this?' People out here are beginning to wonder if the Americans know what they are doing."
The questions, he said, were many. "Why is the United States stepping from one fiasco to another? In Ethiopia, in Somalia, in Afghanistan, the United States left the field to the Russians without as much as an attempt to stop them. We persuaded the Somalis to kick the Russians out, and we were stunned when the United States refused to give them weapons with which they could resist a Soviet inspired aggression from Ethiopia."
He continued "the United States failed to anticipate what happened in Iran or to give advice to the Shah until it was too late to rescue the situation. Now the United States is doing it again."
"It is pushing a Middle East peace agreement that is bound to fail. When this happens and we have told the Americans that it will happen, it will only add to the unrest in this region and further damage America's real interests."
I personally do not feel this unattractive perception is totally deserved. It does demonstrate, however, the perils when others become baffled by superficialities, sudden zig-zags of policy, and noble rhetoric.
In summary, what I have said is this: perception of events is becoming more valued than reality. At home, this phenomenon opens the trap-door of misunderstanding and contention. It exposes our public to outright political manipulation. In international affairs it confounds our allies. It presents the United States as unpredictable and foolish, a nation of sharply declining power and prestige.
Having said this, what can be done to arrest this gangrene, growing day by day, where national behavior seems to reflect perception of events at odds with reality?
Leadership is an obvious take-off spot. Each of us probably has a private perception of strong leadership. However, sometimes reality falls short of our ideal.
In such circumstances, what can be done to take up the slack, particularly in foreign policy? I would like to suggest a small step, with giant implications.
I would urge that the executive branch adopt a fresh form of bipartisanship in development of American foreign policy. Create a new and institutionalized bipartisanship, firmly rooted in a new level of executive congressional cooperation.
That world out there is being reshuffled, and America needs fresh and broadly-based insights to be able to respond wisely. Americans are more likely to devise sound foreign policy, .and to recognize it when we see it, if we close ranks and march shoulder to shoulder. The objective is to return to a higher level of cooperation between the executive and legislative branches, and soon.
Obviously there are now briefings, testimony, and some level of consultation between executive and legislative branches. However, most of this seems ad hoc, single-shot, targeted on narrow political votes. In no way does Washington today remind of the sort of bipartisanship we had at other trying times in our history, such as the constructive era of Vandenberg-Truman cooperation.
I do not envisage any change in the separation of power. Congress declares war, and makes treaties. The president executes foreign policy. Both branches already have a substantial, if often adversary, role in foreign policy.
What I do suggest be institutionalized is a system which calls for bipartisan input from congressional leaders before the Executive produces policy on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.
Once informed of policy directions in time to think past initial perceptions onward to realities, Congress could either support the president, or go to the public.
I happen to believe that one of the more serious distortions on congressional inefficiency results from the Executive's monopoly in conduct of foreign relations, and its dominant control of communication and information. If bipartisanship were institutionalized, the necessity for presidential secrecy would be reduced.
There would be less squabbling about respective jurisdictions in foreign policy, intelligence, and so forth. More competing thought would be applied on policy before action, with less back-biting later. And the quality of thought would rise, as illusions, delusions, and misconceptions were stripped aside, and public relations were relegated to a secondary role. The American role in world affairs would be strengthened.
What is needed is an institutionalized procedure which establishes early cooperation between the president and Congress. Without it, we face continued confusion and needless contention, both in our own body politic, and in the eyes of others.
Reality, and perception of reality, tumble over one another.
Skeptics abound. Cooperation staggers. We Americans can do something about it.
My message today is really one of opportunity. America is walking tricky ground, and I mean ALL of us. Republicans, Democrats, and Independents have more reasons to unite than divide. Nobody has a corner on international wisdom.
No longer can Republicans convincingly regard themselves as sole keeper of the constitutional flame. Democrats certainly no longer symbolize the common man. Bless the Independents for criticizing us when we are wrong, and supporting us when we are right.
We cannot afford the luxury of any more major mistakes. Bipartisanship in foreign relations is not surrender of partisan principle. It is a response to changing and perilous circumstances. We can do something about this one.
The fault, dear friends, lies not in our stars. It lies in ourselves. Thank you, Brutus. Thank you, my friends.