Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Political rhetoric 101

I discovered a letter to the editor that I wrote the day after the 2000 election. This was pre-9/11, pre-Dubya debacle. So my comments shouldn't be taken as over-influenced by all that has happened in the last 7 years. It's just maddeningly true.

Well, the campaigns are over. But I can only say that they have reinforced my belief that all officeholders and candidates for office should be prohibited from using two phrases: "special interests" and "the American people."

These two get trotted out in ad after ad and speech after speech, one always as the group to be vilified and one as the group to be championed. But who is who?

Think about it: If the AARP proposes legislation regarding Social Security, is it the work of a special-interest group? Or is it fighting for the retired portion of the American people? It's both. If a guy spends his life building up his business, no government handouts, plays by the rules, and then has to defend himself against environmental laws that didn't exist when he started, is that a "special interest" (it's certainly special to him) or is he just trying to hold onto the American dream that we're all supposed to be striving for?

And what's wrong with "the American People"? Well, that term includes CEOs and the homeless, gays and straights, polygamists and abortion-clinic bomb-ers, conservatives and liberals and everything in between. All of these have beliefs that they will espouse and fight/defend, many in organized fashion. Our blessed constitution says that if you're born here, or if you take the oath of citizenship, then what you believe is immaterial. You may be oil to your neighbor's water, but you're all in the same geographic pot.

So we are all the American people and we all have special interests. Be careful when you champion or demonize either one--for you are both.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

'To Dream The Impossible Dream'

Maybe you know the song; certainly you’ve heard the phrase. It started as a line of dialogue in a play about the man who wrote ‘Don Quixote’, a play that was later musicalized and became popular worldwide as ‘Man of La Mancha’. Now it’s a cultural cliché, used for advertising and punditry. But I just read the backstory of that play/musical from the show’s author, Dale Wasserman, and as often happens with history, we’ve gotten it all wrong.

“The odd thing about this little phrase is that everyone seems to misunderstand it. ‘The impossible dream’ is customarily applied to ventures that may be somewhat difficult but perfectly possible. A pennant for the Mets. A new spike in the company sales chart. An even faster computer (who needs it?) or possibly the latest burp in technology. When I see these references – and I see them every day – my impulse is to holler, ‘Pay attention, damn it, the operative word is not dream, the operative word is impossible!’

Of course, no one listens. But ‘impossible’ is exactly what I meant: the dream, to be valid, must be impossible. Not just difficult. Impossible. Which implies an ideal never attainable but nevertheless stubbornly to be pursued. A striving for what cannot be achieved but still is worth the effort. As, for instance, peace on earth. Or a gentleness for all who breathe, and breathing, suffer. Or a hope that we may mitigate the horrors paraded for us on the news every hour of every day of every week. That we may reduce the tidal surge of wars, crimes, cruelties to humans and to animals, and the orgies of atrocities that sicken the earth.

These are impossible dreams. Still, quixotically, they must be dreamed.”

(Dale Wasserman, “The Impossible Musical”, New York: Applause, 2003.)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Boy Scouts

Boy Scouts aren’t in vogue anymore, not that they really have been in a long while. Maybe they always were considered a bit geeky, even if its participants didn’t see themselves that way. Kinda like ROTC. But now they’re even less cool because of the gay thing. I wouldn’t care so much – I was a Cub Scout for maybe a year or so when I was a kid – except that I have a son who is on the verge of earning his Eagle award. So my viewpoint is a bit different.

It has taxed him considerably. It has taxed his mother and me considerably. But from the moment he decided to really make Scouts a part of his life, he determined to get his Eagle. Even as friends fell out of the Scout program, even as others finished the program and moved on, even as the fumes (both car and per-) attacked, even as ennui has threatened to swallow it all, he has been set on the goal of getting his Eagle. So what does it mean, to him and to me? (I’ll let his mother speak for herself.)

Like most of the accomplishments in his life, he has followed in his grandfather’s footsteps, achieving goals because of what they mean to him, not to others. He’s certainly an accomplished camper, but I don’t know that he’ll make it the major activity of his life. Ditto knot-tying, cub mentoring, etc. I think rather that he has wanted the Eagle because of what it means he has accomplished for himself, that he set the goal and met it, that he created something simple yet sturdy and lasting in his Eagle project, and that he didn’t give up the fight which means he has the stones to handle future endeavors in a similar manner. This may or may not impress a potential employer or friend or spouse, but it’s something he can and will put stock in for himself – and he already knows the power of that dividend.

He probably doesn’t agree with the Scout organization stance on gay leaders, or maybe he does. I don’t know for sure. The better thing to say is that the Scout stance on gays isn’t what Scouts is all about. Just as the scandal over molestation by priests doesn’t mean you get rid of Catholocism altogether, you don't give up on Scouts for a policy that will most likely be revoked before my dying day, if not his. Scouts is about teaching survival and self-reliance, and it’s also about teaching organization & leadership skills. Those are the qualities he has developed in Scouts, and the ones that will have the greatest impact over the rest of his life. And he knows it, too, which is exactly why he is a Scout and will be an Eagle. It ain't the uniform, the badges, the traditions, the lofty proclamations, or even the activities & campouts; rather, it's the growth and maturity that it fosters within. This above all else is the true mark of an Eagle.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Deja Vu: 1976, not 1960

There’s been a lot of talk of Barack Obama as the 21st century’s JFK. Considering what eventually happened to JFK, I certainly hope that’s not true. I would also remind folks that JFK did not win his presidential election overwhelmingly; in fact, he squeaked in with a margin of victory that makes Dubya’s campaigns look like landslides. He did gain popular support over time, but If you checked the mood of the country prior to the tragedy in Dallas, you would see that JFK had a lot more charisma than actual political capital. Yes, he got us through the Cuban Missile Crisis, but he was also on the hook for the Bay of Pigs. And while it took 25 years or so for the word to get out about his sexual peccadilloes, there were plenty of folks (especially wives) who thought that Marilyn Monroe’s breathy birthday song to him was way out of line.

So JFK in real time wasn’t the young god that time has painted him into being. And an Obama presidency wouldn’t be a Camelot for the new millennium. Nobody’s presidency will be, Democrat or Republican or Ron Paul. Picking a president should be a matter of nuts-and-bolts. Both Reagan and Clinton had incredible charisma, but the success of the terms and their legacy is largely based on one’s personal political leanings. The Democratic candidates talk about bipartisan efforts to bring about change; while I assume they’re sincere, don’t forget that Dubya advertised himself as “the uniter.” The best thing to do is look at not just what a candidate’s goals and visions are for the country, but how he or she intends to make it happen. I’ll admit it’s the dry side of campaigning, but if want to know if you can support a candidate once he/she gets into office, that’s the proof of the pudding.

Actually, my thought is that Obama reminds me not so much of JFK as he does Jimmy Carter. Carter was the white knight on the horse to take us away from the dark days of Nixon & dirty politics. (Yes, I realize he was gone & Ford was in place, but the stain was too deep & fresh to give him a fair shake.) He had charisma, he galvanized the electorate, and he dug the Allman Brothers. He called himself Born Again and was interviewed in Playboy. During the campaign, the man could do no wrong. Then he came into office and tried to make all the changes he promised. The problem was, he tried to force them through, viewing Congress and the ‘Washington establishment’ as hurdles to be cleared, rather than a machine to be used to his advantage. Congress may have a lot of deadweight, but it’s not going away; and if you treat it as your adversary, you’ve made an enemy you cannot afford. Today, Carter’s presidency is viewed as a great failure, which made Reagan’s election in 1980 that much easier. Today also, Carter himself is viewed as one of the great peacemakers and humanitarians, a bestselling author, election overseer in third world nations (too bad he couldn’t have done the same here at home), and volunteer with Habitat For Humanity (not just a spokesman).

Barack Obama certainly has charisma, definitely in the mold of JFK, Reagan, Bill Clinton, and yes, Jimmy Carter. He’s got drive and vision, and a lot of people are jumping on his bandwagon. Comparatively, Hillary Clinton seems too serious, too ‘old hat’. But for me, that’s exactly her appeal. Her policy visions are right in line with Obama’s, but I get a stronger impression she would know how to grease the wheels to get things accomplished. I like that in a president. Maybe she could do as well as vice-president, secretary of state, or chief of staff, but for now, I want to see her as president.