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A Curious, Grab-Bag Political Manifesto

RICHARD GOODWIN, who in the 1960s served as an aide and speech writer to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, has in "Promises To Keep" written a curious and contradictory book. On the one hand, he presents, from a well-left-of-center perch on the political spectrum, a far-reaching, often-bitter criticism of present performance in the United States political and economic system. But then, Goodwin offers a rather limited and eclectic set of remedies, some of which have found their main suppor t on the political right.

The nation's severe plight, as Goodwin sees it, threatens the fabric of its being. For more than two decades, the US has been beset by economic decline. America's competitors internationally have surged ahead, not so much through the vigor of their efforts as through US loss of will and the ineptitude of American business. It has gotten so bad that Goodwin feels compelled to reassure Americans they still can, "if we mobilize and support our talent, make a dishwasher that actually cleans dishes...."

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Behind the economic decline is a moral decay that has grown from the increasing sway of the "money power." "To a significant extent," Goodwin writes, "private power has subordinated the structures of representative democracy to the service of its own interests.... The result - wholly predictable - has been that a few have flourished while the nation as a whole, the common well-being, has begun to deteriorate."

What is to be done? Among his key political reforms, Goodwin wants "a very substantial reduction in campaign spending," "fixed terms for all administrative agencies and most Cabinet departments," reduced congressional staffs, term limits for members of Congress, and mandating of a balanced federal budget. He favors curbing the overbureaucratization of business, laws prohibiting "uneconomic mergers," more government spending of the sort that is "investment in the future," government sponsorship of "a seri es of advanced, highly sophisticated centers to develop technology for the shifting needs ... of the civilian market," protective tariffs to provide, temporarily, respite for struggling industries, and more effective education and job-training.

It's quite a grab bag. Some of the goals are worthy, and some of the specific suggestions for advancing them may even be good ones. Overall, they are animated by a deep frustration with "bureaucracy" but, at the same time, a belief that government needs to do more, especially in the area often labeled "industrial policy." And, apart from their individual merit or the lack thereof, Goodwin's proposals seem wildly unequal to the magnitude of the economic and moral crisis that he depicts elsewhere in the bo ok.

If the tone and argument of "Promises To Keep" sound familiar, it's for a good reason. Goodwin sent copies of his then-unpublished manuscript to a number of Democratic presidential hopefuls about a year ago. One reached Edmund G. Brown Jr., and the former California governor was much taken by it. An account by Robert Reinhold in the New York Times (Nov. 27, 1991) notes that "strong echoes, some verbatim, of the Goodwin treatise can be found in the words of Mr. Brown," including the speech in which he ann ounced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination.

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