WHERE ARE THE GREAT MEN (OR WOMEN)?
When I was a teen-ager and in my early twenties I was an avid partisan. In the pre-internet and pre-Talk radio era, I devoured newspapers, TIME, US News, Newsweek and the slick political magazines ( National Review, TNR). I followed all the nuances of issues like Contra aid or the 1986 tax reform. While I was thoroughly Reaganite in my convictions and found liberal hacks like Senator Pat Leahy to be odious fools, I could also look across the aisle to find figures of decency, civility and conviction like Senator Paul Simon and see people whom I could respect.
And now ?
I find it incredibly disillusioning that in what passes for political “debate” these days that a majority of the Republican presidential candidates, Senator McCain excepted, are endorsing torture (!) while most of their Democratic counterparts are enthusiasists for surrender. Except for Senator Edwards who, while being strongly in favor of retreat has one-upped the rest and declared that the war on terror does not even exist ( he’s a fantasist).
This is not the country I grew up in. The nation deserves better.
This is one reason why I very seldom venture into discussing political news here. I find it difficult to believe that much of what scripted sound bites are being uttered represent core beliefs of the candidate rather than artificial nonsense lines designed to pander to splinter special interests divined through exhaustive focus grouping. My fear is that the American political class have reached the point of degeneration that these noxious superficialities do indeed reflect what some of the candidates think.
First rate minds have always been rare in politics, historically speaking, but America has always mustered enough for the tasks at hand. Our revolution benefitted from an unusual abundance of great men precisely because the British imperial system of the Hanoverian monarchs so completely shut out American talent from their system. The early Republic saw giants like John Marshall, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John Calhoun, to say nothing of Abraham Lincoln who strides across American history like a titan.
The twentieth century boasted no shortage of sage statesmen either, starting with Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson to FDR and his successors who were ” present at the creation” to the peaceful closing of the Cold War with Ronald Reagan and the father of the current president. America was rich in leadership. We had severe trials but seldom were we to be found wanting because our leaders, at least some of them, were authentic. You could disagree with Ronald Reagan or Hubert Humphrey but you were disagreeing with a person who thoroughly represented important and substantive values. Values worth debating.
While I have no empirical basis for this to stand upon I suspect that the last few decades have seen fewer and fewer individuals of this caliber enter politics. The nastiness of the political process, the invasiveness, obtuse stupidity and lack of respect by the media coupled by the greater rewards of private life have kept them away. It reminds me of the climate, if not the form, of the later 19th century which was dominated by corrupt machines and party bosses like Mark Hanna, William Marcy Tweed and George Washington Plunkitt. As a result, we get people running for office or currying favor for appointment who see their opportunities and take them.
The good news is that the raw talent and creativity is out there. There are 21st century equivalents to George Marshall or Henry Kissinger or John F. Kennedy. She may be an Asian-American CFO at a software company or a midwestern entrepreneur in Kansas City or a 21 year old infantryman, a child of immigrants, on patrol right now in Iraq. You may know someone who would make a great city councilman or school board member, state legislator or simply a voice for the community, if only someone will encourage them to speak.