- The Washington Times - Monday, September 11, 2000

There was a young Greek fellow called Narkissos. One day he looked in a clear pool and knew instantly he would never see anything or anybody as fascinating as himself, including his girlfriend. So there he stayed alone, pining away for himself, until there he died, and she died too.

He got a whole neurosis named after him. Narcissism utter fascination with your image of yourself. Carried on too long, concentration on the reflection can distort its reality and then destroy you and people important to you.

In this presidential campaign, America peers into the pool, looking hard to see itself, so it can pick the candidate who can deal best with what it sees.

But to my mind, America is strangely twisting its own image, seeing itself as lesser, and less intelligent, less adventuresome than it is. It seems to see itself as a country that is interested in and can deal with only two or three matters of self-interest, paying almost no attention to others that are even more important, to itself and the world.

Maybe the mosquitoes at the pool are biting us with a kind of reverse narcissism, lack of self-esteem, which seems to infect only America, Canada and Israel.

From what the politicians, press and voters themselves tell us, Americans are interested only in how much they will have to pay in taxes to get what they want in education for their children and less-expensive prescription drugs. I came from a low-income working-class family, went to free public schools, kindergarten through college, and do not worry about medicine prices because my wife and I are covered by decent medical insurance earned at long employment at decent companies. My sons' education costs were, oh, about the same as those of Rockefellers.

But I do not scream a lot about taxes, which for me include a magnificent collection of federal, state, city, county and township taxes. I am so unwontedly calm because I have a weird idea: I pretty well get my tax money's worth in daily life, plus the incalculable riches of living in the grace of freedom.

Obviously, my attitude will not satisfy families that do not have the insurance or schools they need, and I believe are entitled to yes, entitled. But I know that other free countries have better schools than the U.S. and cheaper, but not as good, health care. If we cannot do better in both fields, and are not willing to pay the taxes to do so, we are simply selling our country short, and our treasury of American optimism.

But it troubles me that in our our inside-out narcissism, we stare at a narrow-faced, narrow-souled image of America. It shows almost no concern with the international dangers that face America. In fact, we do not know what they are and how we will meet them. Neither do our candidates. Militarily, excuse the expression, we are talking about missile defense, which at least is better than not talking. But we do not know from where the bomb nuclear, bacteriological or chemical will arrive. Will, not may. Out there somewhere? Or a terrorist taking a car to some skyscraper, synagogue or cathedral and dropping something outside the door?

There is no return of isolationism in America. As a matter of fact, we are almost convincing ourselves that Great Goody Globalism will wipe international dangers off the screen, just as the choochoo train did.

We do know, but will not show in our national reflection, that we are at war already with enemies who itch to deposit the bomb and will be able to do so, tomorrow or the day after. Saddam Hussein, any number of Afghan gangs, or Palestinians, or very nonreformed Iranians.

Looking into the pool, do we really believe the daydream of the present Israeli government that yesterday's terrorists can lead a Palestine into peaceful cooperation with Israel, not for one year or five but forever? Or that it will even want to?

One thing Israelis and Palestinians agree on: Americans should pay them billions to make peace work. That will make Israel subject to a U.S. veto on its own defense, which will make both countries eternally edgy.

Is there a wrinkle in the reflection about that, or whether we have a military machinery that can protect us, or one as unprepared as Republicans say? Don't we care enough to insist that a full debate be held on that one issue?

Since there's so much talk about our candidates' religion, how about a debate over the persecution of Christians in China, growing neatly in step with our purchases from China, and in the Sudan? Here's a topic where Joe Lieberman should really go because Bill Clinton and Al Gore and George W. Bush and Dick Cheney surely have not.

Put it this way: Before we can wipe the worries off our face, we better put them on before Election Day, preferably today.

A.M. Rosenthal, the former executive editor of the New York Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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