Washington Memo: Searching for Causes of Youthful Angst

New York Times, May 10, 1999
By John M. Broder and Katharine Q. Seelye

WASHINGTON -- When violence strikes yet again in the schoolyard, Washington's search for villains is never far behind. Democrats tend to finger guns and their powerful lobby, the National Rifle Association. Republicans are more inclined to blame Hollywood and the glorification of natural born killers in movies, music and video games.

President Clinton, ever seeking a triangular third way, said in the aftermath of the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado that neither uncontrolled guns nor vulgar culture was singularly at fault.

In a search for a meaningful public response to Columbine and other recent deadly incidents, Clinton convenes a White House meeting on Monday to address the causes of violence by teen-agers. The session will include entertainment executives, representatives of hunting groups and gun manufacturers, clergy, education officials, nonprofit organization leaders, law-enforcement officials and students.

But Clinton does not intend to make scapegoats either of Hollywood or the gun lobby, mindful of both groups' political influence and very deep pockets. The president, in effect, will try to find a solution in the space between the First Amendment's protection of free speech and the Second Amendment's guarantee of the right to bear arms.

The answer, conference planners said, may be found in a therapeutic definition of violence as a public health problem to be addressed by a range of solutions that go well beyond the control of violent images in the media or restrictions on gun sales. White House officials said the conference would explore the roots of youthful angst and alienation, a safe target that is unlikely to fire back or withhold contributions. There is, as yet, no alienation industry with a lobbying arm in Washington or a well-funded political action committee.

The goal, organizers say, is to devise a national strategy to stem violent outbursts by adolescents, but the only concrete action likely to emerge on Monday is the announcement of a new study on violence by Surgeon General David Satcher. The study will take a broad look at the roles of popular culture, peer pressure, mental illness and the availability of guns in triggering homicidal rage by young people.

"Violence is a serious public health issue that claims the lives of more than 13 young people in the United States every day," Satcher said Sunday in a statement to The New York Times. "While we should not wait to implement preventive measures that have already been found to be effective in surgeon generals' reports on violence issued in 1972 and 1985, our new report will build upon those previous studies and look at factors not present when they were issued, such as the Internet and video games."

Following the Colorado tragedy, Clinton proposed a modest set of gun control measures, but at the same time announced he wanted to "bury the hatchet" in his years-long feud with the gun lobby. The NRA issued a ritual denunciation of the president's plan, but said it would propose gun-control measures of its own this week. Representatives of a hunting group, the American Shooting Sports Council, endorsed the president's proposals and will attend Monday's meeting.

The president also took a mild swipe at Hollywood, even as he praised the entertainment industry's willingness to take voluntary steps to limit youngsters' access to violent material. But Clinton has said nothing to jeopardize attendance by entertainment industry leaders at a $1.5 million Democratic fund-raiser next weekend in Beverly Hills that will be held by David Geffen, the music magnate and co-founder of Dreamworks studio. Clinton is the featured speaker.

In fact, White House officials and Democratic fund-raisers have labored over the past week to reassure donors in the entertainment complex that the president had no intention of launching a new moral assault on Hollywood. Top executives from CBS, ABC and the cable, movie and music lobbies have accepted invitations to Monday's meeting.

"We have to help kids get connected up," said Secretary of Education Richard Riley, one of the participants in Monday's session. "This alienation of young people where they become 'loners' is troubling in this complex society we live in. There's no reason for any child to feel alone or to feel alienated."

Leaders in the entertainment business said they saw no harm in another earnest White House talk session on youth and violence, so long as it did not infringe upon artistic freedom or mistake conversation for change.

"It sounds like a good thing and I have no doubt they're sincere," Geffen said in a telephone interview.

"But I wonder if they'll have pharmacologists there to explore teen-age minds. Clearly these are very disturbed kids. Before you talk to people in music or entertainment or video games, or even gun control, you need to talk to psychiatrists."

Geffen expressed the frustration of many in the entertainment world with Washington's instinctive reaction to look to popular culture as the wellspring of youthful fantasy and action. "Where were the parents?" they ask over and over. "Where were the teachers and counselors?"

"Why not blame the libraries? They're full of violent books," Geffen said. "If you're looking for violence, what about the evening news? America is bombing Yugoslavia; it's on every day. It's not a movie, it's real."

Another top movie industry executive, who insisted he not be identified because he often worked closely with the White House, said that the Monday meeting was likely to produce little of substance, beyond showing the president's concern about an issue that troubles virtually all Americans.

"Everyone is trying to do a 30-second commercial, produce a sound bite and move on," this executive said. "Clinton believes if you say something it's done. He's always mistaken talk for action."

If the president was serious, he added, he would take on the gun lobby and propose tough new gun laws. "But nobody wants to take on the NRA, both sides have vulnerable seats and they know the NRA could pour a lot of money into those districts. So they seize on TV and the movies and cable as the source of discontent in our society."

The White House did not invite the rifle association's most prominent officials, like Charlton Heston, the president, to its conference. Instead, it invited a lower-profile member of the board of directors -- former Rep. Bill Brewster, R-Okla., now a lobbyist in Washington. It also invited gun manufacturers and other gun lobbyists who have practiced more moderate tactics than the rifle association.

The NRA's political action committee donated $1.35 million to Republican congressional candidates in the 1998 election cycle and $283,000 to Democratic candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group. PACs and individuals in the entertainment industry gave $4.4 million to Democrats and $2.8 million to Republicans in the same period.

Clinton, as is his custom, is trying to steer a path between the clout of the NRA and the cultural reach of the entertainment business. The White House conference was originally intended to explore the link between youthful violence and media influence. But after sharp protests from the president's Hollywood patrons and the increasingly powerful Internet lobby, the focus changed to a broader look at society's responsibilities, including the role of school, family and faith-based institutions.

A media lobbyist who attended a White House planning session last week said that officials made it clear that the president did not intend to blame violent images in the media for real violence in the schoolyard.

The president said Friday that he was engaged in a search not for scapegoats, but for solutions.

"We are turning the tide on all kinds of social problems. Now we must turn our intense efforts to this issue of violence," Clinton said in a brief Rose Garden statement, " We will not ask who takes the blame, but how we can all take responsibility. And I will challenge everyone there and everyone in America to do their part."


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