Political Hay

Requiem for a Columnist’s Dam

Tom Wicker's Christmas rage at Reagan over a private dam and public dollars.

By 12.21.10

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Requiem: Hymn or dirge for repose of the dead.
-- Webster's Collegiate Dictionary

Christmas, 1985.

Tom Wicker was upset.

The longtime New York Times political reporter turned columnist, an icon of liberal journalism in the day, was furious with President Ronald Reagan and his conservative administration. So he sat himself down during the Christmas season and penned a column titled "Requiem at Christmas."

That would be requiem, as in a hymn for the dead.

The subject of Wicker's fury is worth a look this Christmas, twenty-five years later. His tirade was delivered as Reagan and the conservative movement were riding a wave of public popularity just a year after Reagan's 49-state re-election over former Vice President Walter Mondale.

Why is this important enough to take another look? Because this tale of a supposed political Scrooge and the Christmas Past of 1985 provides a glimpse of Christmas Future for conservatives in 2011.

Wicker, you see, was waxing eloquent about a pond at his rural retreat in historic Rappahannock County, Virginia. There, some twenty years earlier during the height of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, the columnist built his pond on his own property. Perhaps understandably for a man who had spent his life as a liberal wordsmith, Wicker saw this moment of pond-building as "perhaps the single most constructive act of my life."

He also paid for the construction of the pond himself. Good man. A liberal who believes in private sector job creation.

But wait! Paid for it all himself? Then why in the world was Tom Wicker so furious at Ronald Reagan and conservatives?

What was this business of a "Requiem at Christmas"?

Well, there was actually more than a pond involved, you see. First, the government of the Commonwealth of Virginia arrived to stock Wicker's pond "with large mouth bass, bluegills and channel catfish," the latter, Mr. Wicker assures us, "to establish a natural cycle" in his new private pond. But there was something else. There was also a dam. And instead of hiring a private sector contractor to design his dam, Mr. Wicker went somewhere else. Guesses, anyone?

That's right. Instead of pumping his New York Times earnings into this task, Mr. Wicker turned to -- you. You as in the taxpayers funding the federal government of the United States circa 1965. Specifically, in Wicker's words, he turned to "Eddie Woods, the district agent for the Federal Soil Conservation Service, (who) designed the dam so well that the water eventually rose precisely to the little red flags he had set out to predict the shoreline of what he called a 'water impoundment.'" 

Said Wicker as his fury rose to what might be called the liberal anger impoundment shoreline of the Times print pond: "That's only an infinitesimal incident in the annals of one of the Federal services dedicated to the American earth and to those who work and cherish it." Indeed, indeed. "Infinitesimal" is precisely the word for whatever federal tax dollars were spent on his pond. Then, without missing a beat or evidencing a solitary thread of irony, Wicker moves his readers from the pond-designing Federal Soil Conservation Service to another agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture: the Agricultural Extension Service. 

There, he fingers Scrooge. Otherwise known as President Ronald Reagan.

While we are left to ponder the fact that good ole Eddie Woods of the Federal Soil Conservation Service was spending his time designing Wicker's private dam on Wicker's private property, Wicker sharply points out: "Now Ronald Reagan wants to kill the Extension Service to save money; if the service is needed his aides say, let the states pay for it."

At this point, Wicker's outrage at this horrifying bit of Dickensian Scroogery from the Reagan White House explodes.

"What effrontery!" he splutters. The nerve of Reagan. Trying to cut back the federal government by suggesting that if a service is so valuable to a state that state should pay for the service and leave the American taxpayer in other states alone.

On a roll, Wicker moves to another outrageous Reagan idea: privatizing the Federal Housing Administration. What a wretched, foolish idea snaps Mr. Wicker. Why, the whole reason for the FHA, a New Deal program from 1934, was that private institutions "failed to make housing loans available to low and middle-income people…in the first place." Translation: mortgages were not given to those who could not afford them.

Imagine that. Way back there in 1985 Mr. Wicker simply can't imagine what could possibly go wrong with forcing the government's way into the private housing market and making sure people who can't afford mortgages get them from the federal government. The very idea of getting rid of such a program made Wicker's bile rise. As with an unrelated Agriculture Department program, this concept of getting rid of government programs is absurd on its face to Wicker and the Times. Wicker scorns Reagan, saying the President and his conservative policy advisers "in their mania for privatization and profit think they can make a buck on the sale, thus reducing the deficit."

Move ahead to 2008, August, specifically. Mr. Wicker is now presumably enjoying his retirement at the ripe-young age of 82. Which is to say one month before the subprime mortgage crisis explodes in the middle of the presidential campaign. Over in the pages of Forbes magazine, reporters Joshua Zumbrun and Maurna Desmond are waving something that might be recognized as a larger version of "the little red flags" planted by a government agent to predict the shoreline of Wicker's now 23-year old government designed pond. This red flag is financial in nature and is being waved to alert readers that, well, a tidal wave is surging toward America's financial shoreline. Says Forbes:

Watch your wallet.

Heralded as a savior in reversing the mortgage market's woes, risks to the agency could cost taxpayers dearly, says one mortgage expert, as Washington morphs the FHA from a helping hand for low-income home buyers into a back door bailout for the imploding mortgage industry.…

"Nobody is talking is talking about it, but in three years the FHA bailout is going to cost taxpayers at least $100 billion dollars," said Guy Cecala, a mortgage industry insider and publisher of Inside Mortgage Finance. "Everybody on Capitol Hill recognizes that there will be significant costs, but they're trying to keep the housing spigot open even if it will bring in some bad water down the road."

Ahhh yes. Red flags and bad water. Says the publication Mortgage Loan.com later after the tidal wave has crashed ashore and started financially pulling Americans financially underwater en masse:

"The FHA has committed and tapped $300 billion to ramp up the Hope for Homeowners program."

Which is to say Forbes underestimated things.

Mr. Wicker's philosophy, in short, more or less had its way with America. There was no requiem for liberal government spending in spite of Wicker's protestations and snappy column title. The significance of the Reagan presidency -- and later the Gingrich Congress -- was to red flag the shoreline of financial consequences for the endless parade of tax-and-spend politicians of all stripes who swarmed Washington after 1932. This disaster, decades in the making, would take decades to resolve. Reagan's administration as the president himself came to realize was merely step one -- recognition of the problem and beginning to apply the brakes. There were politicians -- of both parties -- utterly heedless of the obvious fact that even the highest taxes (if you were a liberal) or the most advanced free market policies (if you were a conservative) could not keep pace if the reality was unceasing, massive spending on everything from today's Obamacare to the pittance that was Tom Wicker's Great Society-era government designed dam.

This Christmas, as economies in places like Greece, Ireland, and Portugal struggle because they listened to and were run by the ideas of their own Tom Wickers, the holiday for millions really is going to be downright Dickensian.

But -- thankfully -- this is America. A country which has a magnificent heritage of self-reliance that, reports to the contrary, is not dead yet. There are millions of Americans who now realize the direct, very stark connection between their joblessness, the almost eighty years of so-called government "services" like designing dams for the rural retreat of a well-to-do New York Times columnist -- and the federal deficit. Not to mention the role played by all those subprime mortgages.

Twenty-five Christmases later, Tom Wicker's dam is symbolic of exactly what is dragging down the American economy.

Too much government. Too much government. Too much government. Not enough money. Not enough money. Not enough money.

There are only two ways out of this mess that has been some 80-years in the making. First is economic growth -- putting an end to the politics of class warfare and envy that liberals like New York's Congressman Anthony Weiner employ to keep their own middle-class constituents economically under-water for political benefit.

And …. cutting spending. Dealing straight-up with not just the tax code but health care costs, entitlements and discretionary spending like that responsible for designing Tom Wicker's dam. Incoming House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan's Roadmap for America's Future, discussed here, along with repealing Obamacare, will be and should be one of the first items on the agenda of House Republicans when they take over the majority in January.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, cited on MSNBC by Joe "No Labels" Scarborough, has made the point in a recent CBS 60 minutes interview. Says Christie: "The day of reckoning has arrived…the credit card has maxed out…it's over. It's over."

Yes, it is.

But when the Mother of All Budget Battles arrives in March (the expiration date for the just passed "Continuing Resolution" that freezes spending at the modest (??!!) current level of $1.1 trillion) expect House Republicans, GOP Senators, and every conservative from presidential candidates to talk radio hosts to you to be called, in so many words, Scrooge.

What you're really hearing, in the inevitable fashion so bluntly described by Governor Christie, is at last -- is it possible? -- a genuine requiem for limitless government spending.

At which point it will do well to remember that twenty-five Christmases ago one columnist in the New York Times crystallized the argument nicely in a fashion he could not foresee.

How did we get to this day of reckoning of which Governor Christie speaks? How could this country and a number of its states possibly be edging to bankruptcy?

By borrowing the money to pay for Tom Wicker's dam.

And a lot more besides.

Merry Christmas.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.