Bob Dole said farewell to the Senate recently and will henceforth be free to campaign as undistracted by the pressures of the public business as President Bill Clinton’s journeyings already suggest he is. Dole’s valedictory sounded the key he has made so familiar to those of us who cherish a presence that can be so charming about what used to be and so vague about what might be.

A while ago, the Senate named its three office buildings after Richard Russell of Georgia, Everett Dirksen of Illinois, and Philip Hart of Michigan. Then, having run out of edifices, it took to naming rooms after Howard Baker of Tennessee, etc., until it had exhausted all interior spaces and had to confer upon this best-beloved of colleagues no grander symbol of immortality than “The Robert Dole Balcony.”

This also happened to be the day when the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)issued its annual report on “The Progress of Nations.”

And, lo, the United States of America turns out to show a larger percentage of its children living below the poverty level than any other industrialized nation. The per capita income gap between the richest and poorest of our children is wider than anywhere in Western Europe.

UNICEF classifies 30 percent of the children in the United States and Britain as poor; but by taking account of public expenditures on social programs, UNICEF has adjusted the actual percentage of children in need downward to 10 percent in Britain and 22 percent in the United States.

After a decade and a half of Tory rule with scantier resources, Britain can still demonstrate generosities toward the deprived that alternating cycles of Republicans and Democrats have yet to approach. Husbandless mothers are heads of 21 percent of American households, a proportion five times Italy’s and twice Finland’s. The percentage of our children who die before they are five years old is higher than Cuba’s and equal to Jamaica’s.

The percentage of our children who are under five and underweight is unknown because we, who count everything else all the way through the annual consumption of bellywash, apparently don’t bother to count ill-nourished babies, even though El Salvador and Haiti do.

The suicide rate of American males older than fifteen and younger than twenty-four exceeds that of twenty other nations identified as advanced and falls dramatically behind only when compared with Russia.

UNICEF manages, however, to credit the United States with one significant improvement in gender equality. Fifteen-year-old boys and girls register the same 10 percent portion of smokers, while sexism so prevails everywhere else as to mandate a male- over-female smoking ratio of 2 to 1 in France and 4 to 1 in Germany.

How can Americans look at a record as shame-making as one like that and not be appalled to see it ruled entirely outside relevance so far in the presidential campaign?These candidates should be taking alarm at what we are doing to poor children and pledge themselves and us to stop doing it, and summon the country to rouse itself and begin to travel toward the decencies of equity.

Instead we waste our wind on conjuring up scandals in most cases petty and sometimes not scandals at all, when the real and never-to-be mentioned scandal is the condition of our poor. Everything else is a figment; and, in the absence of this single overriding concern, only figments are left for debating.

Copyright © 1996 Newsday, Inc.

This Issue

July 11, 1996