Never have Americans trusted a government less

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The Independent Online
THE MALL in Washington is a summer pageant; a constant procession of sightseers, joggers, softball players, and tourists in shorts and bright shirts in the blazing sun. Next week there will be an American folk festival on the grass, and workmen are putting up bandstands for groups that will play in every style of American popular music: bluegrass, Cajun, hillbilly, Mexican mariachi, and blues. The crowds will come and drink gassy beer out of paper cups and eat hotdogs as they listen, whooping happily from time to time.

Parents of all the myriad tribes of America bring their children from as far away as California to show them the holy places: Washington monument, Jefferson memorial, Lincoln memorial, the great dome of the Capitol, and the White House gleaming through the trees to the north.

For me, though, this space is peopled with more recent shades. Thirty years ago I listened to Martin Luther King make his great speech from the steps of the Lincoln memorial. I remember talking to Joan Baez in the crowd on the steps, her shoulders California-brown under a madras off- the-shoulder dress. I remember the rhetorical trick by which Dr King made his speech so hypnotic: he attached the repeated phrase 'I have a dream' to the end of each paragraph and then paused, so that a quarter of a million of us waited for the next part of his vision. And I remember running over the grass to file my copy followed by the bell tones of Marian Anderson giving her everything to the last word of the national anthem, the word 'free'.

Twenty-five years ago I was here when the news of Martin Luther King's murder arrived, and black Washington - and even then the city within the District of Columbia was more than three-quarters black - erupted with instant, spontaneous fury, and fires raged within a mile of the White House.

I was here in 1970 when the Nixon administration literally circled the wagons around the White House. They laagered silver buses, bumper to bumper, around it as a barrier against more than half a million demonstrators. Nixon, unable to sleep, went to the Lincoln memorial in the middle of that night with his Cuban valet and argued with campaigners for peace in Vietnam. Now a steady procession of men, women and children, white and black, young and old, moves past the black marble wall of the Vietnam war memorial, sometimes copying a name - a father, brother, son? - on to a piece of paper like brass rubbers in an English church.

A quarter of a century ago I had a seat in the stalls as the United States went through a sort of national nervous breakdown, even a spiritual crisis. It had many causes: among them an oedipal rebellion among the best-educated young people against the complacency of their elders, and a feeling among many of the older generation that a nation whose soul had been spare and godly had kicked and waxed fat. Those feelings, intimate and complex, focused on three themes: the black uprising, the movement against the war, and a rebellion against almost all forms of authority, whether of the President, the parent, the teacher or the boss.

Time has changed the circumstances, as you would expect. The issue of race has not gone away in America, least of all in Washington, but it has been much transformed. Tens of thousands of black people here work as civil servants, either for the federal government in all its branches, or for the government of the District of Columbia, and many of them live in a way that half the population in Britain would envy: they live in bigger houses, drive bigger cars, and can afford to spend more money than all but the most affluent of the British middle class. Yet the other half of black Washington is little, if at all, better off in material ways than it was then. And on top of poverty now there is crime: crack cocaine, car-jacking, drive-by murders, drug gangs and even a crime wave among the police. In many ways, too, black people and white people are annoyed by each other; that was no part of Martin Luther King's dream.

The doubts about the morality of the Vietnam war are almost forgotten, except by an older generation. Americans are proud that they won the Cold War, though they are still in perplexity about how much it is up to them to police a world that seems more mysteriously turbulent than ever.

Ronald Reagan was precipitated into the White House by a popular mood which was, as much as anything, one of revulsion from everything to do with 'the Sixties'. That was shorthand for rioting blacks, unruly students, softheaded welfare programmes, over- mighty government and all the litany of conservative disapproval. The Sixties may have receded into the limbo of forgotten things, followed by Reagan and by his vice-president, George Bush. The White House may be occupied by a child of the Sixties, even if he didn't ever bring himself to inhale. But the crisis of authority remains.

Five months into his first term, Clinton is as unpopular as if he had overstayed his welcome by a decade. As he stumbles and bumbles, he is mauled daily by the Washington media, in a way which may seem exaggerated but is no less significant for that. At the opposite end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the Congress wrestles with the task of reducing the deficit. The lobbyists work themselves up to a feeding frenzy against both spending cuts and tax increases.

Last year, after the (exaggerated) revelations of financial irregularities, there was one of the periodic outcries against 'the mess in Washington'. After several years in which it was thought that incumbent congressmen and senators could not be turned out, several of them lost their seats. So when the new Congress assembled in January, it was seen as a new broom to sweep away complacency. To their horror, the congressmen went home at Easter having discovered that the new Congress is as unpopular as the old.

There is a paradox on display outside my office window. The sprinklers keep the grass on the Mall green in the fierce sunshine, and its once-dreary acres have been landscaped like an English park. Never has Washington looked worthier to be the seat of government for a great and civilised nation. And never have ordinary Americans been prouder to bring their children to Washington. Yet never have they trusted that government less.

The distrust is general. It does not seem to be much affected by whether the government, or an individual member of Congress, is liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat. Pundits and political scientists sometimes ask whether the fault lies with the original separation of powers between President and Congress. Ordinary Americans, though, are horrified at the idea of abandoning their cherished constitution. Bill Clinton has the good fortune to work with a leadership in Congress of his own party. But that has made less difference than people hoped.

Somehow, if he is to be successful, a president must resolve the paradox. He must work effectively with Congress. At the same time, he must reach over its heads to win the trust of the mass of citizens, who love their nation, but despise its government. The man who can unravel that riddle will be as popular as Reagan, and as successful as Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In fact, he could end up in bronze inside a marble shrine, where people from Maine to Hawaii will bring their polite children to eat popcorn before him.