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
Reagan also liked to identify himself with everyday heroes, who were regularly invited to White
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
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.