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Armed, angry, and acne-prone; no one ever said cutting the budget was gonna be pretty....

"We interrupt this program for an ABC News special report. From Washington, here's Peter Jennings."

"Good afternoon. After watching nonviolent attempts to reduce the deficit fail for years, America's children have taken matters into their own hands. Approximately 20 minutes ago at the downtown Marriott Hotel, Richard Darman, the president's budget director, and Robert Reich, one of Bill Clinton's senior economic advisers, were taken hostage at gunpoint. A group calling itself Overindebted Underage Terrorists for Radical Approaches to Generational Equity--OUTRAGE--is taking credit for the kidnapping. OUTRAGE says the group will kill Darman and Reich if their deficit-related demands aren't met in full. Standing by live at the Marriott is ABC's Brit Hume. Brit?"

"Peter, the trouble began during a youth leadership conference at which Darman and Reich spoke today. According to one woman who escaped the early gunfire unharmed, the two advisers had just agreed that, though the deficit really is the biggest problem the country faces, it couldn't be honestly discussed in the campaign because the American people aren't ready for the hard choices required to fix it. Suddenly an Uzi-toting 15-year-old sent a burst of fire flying by Darman's head. A phalanx of other teens sealed the room after evacuating bystanders and clubbing two secret service men unconscious. We've been told the teenagers have locked Reich and Darman in a small closet. We await details on OUTRAGE's demands."

"Thanks. Brit. Right now we're going to take you live to the Pentagon for a press conference with Colin Powell, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff."

"General, I understand the White House has asked that the military be put on alert. What can we expect?"

"Budget-related terrorism has traditionally been a low priority for us, Peter. However, army intelligence has accessed information showing that, yes, the government had dumped trillions in debt and unpaid promises on the next generation that may well have doomed their standard of living and condemned them to spend their lives servicing debts that paid for our consumption. But we simply don't have contingency plans for young budget vigilantes."

"Any concern that this may not prove to be an isolated incident?"

"We're advising citizens, especially well-off social security recipients, to stay indoors as much as possible."

Later that night

Tom Luce rubs his eyes, fumbles for the phone, and squints at the digital clock. It's 3:18 a.m. A few months earlier the Dallas lawyer might have expected a state petition organizer ringing for more instructions. But with the campaign over, only one person could be calling this late.

"Tom," says the familiar Texas drawl. "I've been talking with Paul. You and the boys get over here right away. We've got another rescue to mount."

Noon, Wednesday, October 14

"... and so to our demands: First, starting tomorrow, and continuing indefinitely, we want every network's evening news to devote half of each broadcast to explaining the deficit and options for fixing it. We want Ted Koppel to run a nightly show on the debt, as he did with the Iranian hostage crisis. In addition, we insist that during prime-time hours, all channels display a series of budget facts along the bottom third of the screen.

"During all other hours, the bottom of every channel must feature a digital |National Debt Clock' showing the spiraling total and the per-household share. Large scoreboard-style versions of these debt clocks must also be hung in every congressional office, as well as in the Oval Office and on the White House lawn.

"Finally, we demand that legislation granting instant voter registration for all 18-to 30-year-olds be passed within three days, along with an appropriation for a $1,000 cash payment that these young people will be eligible to collect at the polls in three weeks if they vote.

"If these conditions are not met, make no mistake: Richard Darman and Robert Reich will die...."

The message ends. The MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour wastes no time in unleashing its favorite pundits, David Gergen and Mark Sheilds.

"Well, these kids have picked an interesting tactic by demanding better coverage and education from the media," Gergen says. "It could backfire though, because Darman in particular is not liked by the press. It's quite possible that a number of network executives would let Darman die rather than risk their ratings."

"Mark?"

"These kids have handed Bush a real election-eve gift. With only three weeks to go, the president has a golden opportunity to call in troops to crush their rebellion. He'll be known as the guy who kept the world safe for debt as we know it."

"Let's go now to Roger Mudd, who has the two candidates standing by. Roger?"

"I'll be speaking first to Bill Clinton, who joins us from Chicago. Governor, what's your take on these demands?"

"Roger, I call for the immediate use of all necessary force, including air strikes and ground troops, to end this crisis and restore order. Let me say, however, that I do understand and agree with those who say negotiations could bring a breakthrough and avoid a senseless loss of life."

"Let's turn now to President Bush in Kennebunkport. Sir, some conservative strategists are saying you should take this opportunity to dump Richard Darman, or at least unleash a massive rescue assault that assures him martyrdom as a face-saving exit. What do you plan to do?"

"Roger, when that phone rings late at night at the White House, the person who answers it better be thinking about more than just killing off inconvenient subordinates. I just hope that for once the liberal media acts responsibly and ignores this cheap attempt to expose people to budget realities that Barbara and I think American families will find obscene."

Later that night

News presidents from the three networks and CNN huddle in an emergency meeting in New York.

"We can't run this stuff," says NBC's Michael Gartner. "The elderly groups will be on us like a cheap truss. Listen to this. |Contrary to popular myth,'" he reads from OUTRAGE's fact sheet, " |Social Security beneficiaries get back between two and five times what they paid in to the system while they worked. Payroll taxes on the younger generation's smaller workforce will double in just over a decade to honor the generous retirement benefits we've voted to give our retirees.'"

"Can we check this stuff out with our own people?" asks Tom Johnson of CNN.

"Get real. Our news division doesn't know squeeze about economics or budget issues."

"Same with us," says Roone Arledge of ABC.

"Bo-ring."

"Wait--maybe there's an angle here," says Arledge. "Those OUTRAGE kids aren't bad looking. And some of them are from ritzy families. I could see Diane being blindfolded and taken in to interview a kid while Sam does the parents in their Park Avenue duplex. A split-screen special. Reaching out for love in spite of the budget that divides them. I'll bet it does a 30 share."

The others look at each other.

"We could run a promotional tie-in around whether viewers have learned the budget factoids," says Eric Ober of CBS.

"How long do you think we could drag this thing out?"

The four men smile and extend their hands to one another.

11:30 p.m., Thursday, October 15

"I'm Ted Koppel, and this . . . is |Nightline.' Tonight, on day three of |Debt in America: Bankrupting Our Children,' we'll bring you a world exclusive --the first statement from hostages Richard Darman and Robert Reich. But before we do, let's check in on the Bankruptcy Watch. Here's ABC's Forrest Sawyer."

"Ted, glance at the Prudential toteboard and you'll see that the national debt rose by another billion dollars today, to $4.02 trillion. That means that the average American household is now on the hook for nearly $43,000--more than its net worth. At this rate we'll add about $400 billion in new debt this year, which means interest payments next year will increase by about $30 billion. What's that all mean? Next year interest payments alone will rise by 10 times the amount it would take to fully fund Head Start, which the government says we still can't afford. Kinda makes you woozy, doesn't it? Back to you, Ted."

"We go live now to the Marriott, where the hostages are about to get their first chance to speak. Let's listen in...."

The camera reveals two expensively dressed, well-groomed hostages seated behind a long table, like co-anchormen.

"I'm Dick Darman."

"And I'm Bob Reich."

Together: "And for years both our parties have lied about how we got into this deficit mess and what it'll take to get out of it."

Reich: "Democrats love to gripe that the Reagan tax cuts of the early eighties caused the yawning budget gap we're plagued by now. That was true for a brief time, but not today. Despite the myth of the low-tax Reagan years, subsequent tax hikes agreed to by both parties--especially on the regressive payroll tax--have the federal government taking about 19 percent of the GNP in taxes today, the same amount it claimed in 1980."

Darman: "Republicans who squawk about |big spending' are ready to cut everything except the only programs big enough to bring us into balance. Our explosively growing entitlement benefits now make up 45 percent of the budget--which works out to a whopping 60 percent of what's left over if you take out interest and deposit insurance payments, on which we simply can't default.

"But because the media never caught on to this simple math, we've been able to fudge it with rhetoric for years. It's a great deal for everyone--unless you're planning to live past the year 2000."

Reich: "This campaign season we've dreamt up even more sophisticated ways to lie. Democrats are saying it's okay to borrow as long as you spend the money on long-term investments, like infrastructure, R&D, and education. That's true enough. But no one's yet noticed that while the Clinton plan calls for $200 billion in new investment over four years, it adds a nifty $1.1 trillion in new debt. We're screwing our children big time!"

Darman: "Don't be too hard on yourself, Bob, because we Republicans also have fancy ways to bugger the kids this year. We say you don't have to cap Social Security, just Medicare and other health-related entitlements, because they're the ones that are really growing so fact. But Social Security is heading toward bankruptcy within the decade, unless it's bailed out by huge tax hikes on our kids. Naturally we'd prefer to let that happen on some else's watch. So we won't raise a peep about controlling the benefit side now--though with $15 billion a year going to households with incomes over $100,000, there are plenty of ways to save."

Together: "What's the upshot? We hold budget summits each year striking sham deals that defer urgent investments while saddling our kids with fresh mountains of debt. The media never gets it, and the charade continues."

The screen goes black for a second.

Ted: "The joint statement appears to be over. Back now in our studio to talk with Norman Ornstein. You've been around the block a few times. What do you make of it?"

"Painful to watch, Ted. This statement was obviously made under duress. Candor like that doesn't come easy to seasoned pros."

1:30 p.m., Tuesday, October 20

A copycat group calling itself TWISTED--Teens With Insufficient Savings To Everpayallthis Debt--takes George Mitchell and Bob Dole hostage. Another youth group chains the executive directors of the American Association of Retired People and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security to the giant national debt clock on the White House lawn. The National Guard is called out in Florida to provide perimeter defense of condo communities from Boca Raton to Miami. Valiant seniors stand watch with shotguns on putting greens across the state.

Meanwhile the television keeps blasting budget facts. Toddlers, repeating what they have learned, ask their parents why interest payments now edge out defense as the federal government's largest expense--and why 70 percent of the money we borrow will go for interest on debt already piled up, just like third-world-debtor style. Still, Bob Teeter's numbers, if true, are the biggest surprise: 18- to 30-year-olds would be the swing vote in every key state in the coming election; 63 percent of Americans view a desire to means-test entitlements as the threshold test of a candidate's character.

Hearing this, Bush immediately summons Teeter and other top aides. "Mr. President," Teeter says flatly, "this election will turn on who's got the most credible deficit reduction plan. It's that simple."

The group looks grimly at their leader. Bush repeatedly has pledged never to touch Social Security or budge an inch more on defense.

"All right, gentlemen," Bush says at length. "Let's put a real plan on the table--one that'll make Perot's deficit-reduction strategy look wussy."

His aides bolt into action and scurry from the room, but not before Bush calls out for one of them.

"Stay here a minute, Dick." The president and his defense secretary wait for the room to clear out. "What's the latest intelligence?"

"That Rudman-Tsongas group, the Concord Coalition, has been funnelling arms to OUTRAGE, TWISTED, and several splinter groups we're tracking."

"OK," says the president. "Proceed with Operation Antcrusher as planned. Launch the rescue at noon on Thursday. No prisoners. I'll unveil the new deficit plan the same day, and we'll ride the wave of Strength and Responsibility into the election."

12:15 p.m., Thursday, October 22

The commandos kick down the sealed bedroom door and let loose a hail of bullets. They find the hostages in the living room of the suite. Richard Darman and Robert Reich are munching room-service sandwiches.

"Finishing lunch," Reich says. "You just missed the kids."

"The man who took them left that note," Darman says, pointing with a still-greasy finger to an envelope on the coffee table.

The commanding officer rips open the envelope. There is one handwritten line:

"George--You didn't think I'd let these young heroes fall into our hands after they saved the country, did you? Never leave the brave behind!"

Turning to the window, the troops see a chopper, already half a mile away, with the words "Perot Systems" gleaming in the sun.

Matthew Miller just completed a White House Fellowship.
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:humor
Author:Miller, Matthew
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Oct 1, 1992
Words:2387
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