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Some lessons learned in 1987

FOR those who did not give up on it, 1987 was not such a bad year. On the economic front, the United States struggled, like an aging buck, to maintain its leadership in the world economy - and, against many odds, mostly succeeded.

True, the dollar zigzagged downward. Competition gained elsewhere: Round-the-clock, near-instantaneous financial marketing took off around the world - in spirit not unlike the rush for commercial markets during the clipper ship era of the last century. And on October 19, the stock market sank - whether a correction or a portent, no one is yet sure.

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But the Washington-encouraged dollar devaluation was itself a competitive act - a deliberate risk the Reagan administration took to drive its trade partners to more cooperative policies and to fend off protectionist legislation in the Congress. The US remains the central economic force in the West. America is a paradox: It tolerates a higher level of poverty than do trade partners a fraction its size; it is slow to restructure industries that progress is passing by; but it eventually adjusts to its social and economic needs.

Politically, Mr. Reagan survived the Iran-contra scandal. That episode played out a nightmare of the President's laissez faire management style. In a parliamentary democracy, he would perhaps have been ousted by a vote of no confidence. But he endured the public Iran-contra inquiry. His wayward Central Intelligence Agency and National Security operations were put in new hands. He held to his schedule for a Washington summit and arms treaty signing with Mikhail Gorbachev. He got another installment of aid for his Nicaragua contra force in the year-end budget compromise. Two Supreme Court nominations turned into disasters, but a third, that of Anthony Kennedy, looks like a winner for replacing court centrist Lewis Powell.

Congress did not have such a great year, either. Its overall impression in 1987 was an inability to cope with the volume and complexity of national legislation. Even controlling both House and Senate did not inspire the Democrats to forge a consistent front against the White House. True, the White House itself has played nonconsensus ball on budget matters, even refusing to agree with Senate GOP moderates; the public perception remains, however, that the Congress is responsible for the continuing budgetary confusion. The Congress lived up to its inquiry responsibilities in its Iran-contra and Supreme Court nomination hearings. But the Congress still is better at securing favorable terms for constituents and getting itself re-elected than in setting forth policy objectives. Consistency in policy, and legislative momentum, evidently must await further turns in American political leadership.

Some of the biggest domestic disappointments of 1987 were personal: Michael Deaver's conviction of perjury for his explanations about use of influence after leaving White House service; Attorney General Edwin Meese's inability to extricate himself from the Wedtech inquiry; the Ivan Boesky insider-trading scandal; Gary Hart's Florida tryst with Donna Rice. These showed that the ethical line for public figures needs to be more surely drawn, and that the front line of public affairs remains personal judgment.

In many regards, 1987 was not easy. But difficulties can be made the grist of progress for citizens who choose to look to the future, to learn from mistakes, and to make an asset of experience.

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