Sunday, February 28, 2010

Another president's day

"I have wondered at times what the Ten Commandments would have looked like if Moses had run them through the US Congress."
That's a remark Ronald Reagan made, more than a generation ago, as he considered the Congress of his day. One has to wonder, if he could comment on the current scene, if he wouldn't say something along the same lines, if he wouldn't offer to the current occupant of the White House something like... "I feel your pain."

We were reminded recently on the opinion pages of the MWDN that, what with the recent Presidents' Day, we should be aware not only of Washington and Lincoln, but that none other than our 40th president, Ronald Reagan had a February birthday. We were advised to hold that thought in mind in our future observances of the holiday.

And I do think that's good advice. Along with the annual rite of visiting your local automobile dealership, there should be some broader consideration of American presidents and their legacies on President's Day, and Reagan's is a name often invoked with reverence by his countrymen ...many of them anyway. We should indeed give the man's particular legacy due consideration.

But, just as a clear eyed examination of our Founding Father must acknowledge the slave quarters behind Mt. Vernon, and The Great Emancipator must also be understood as one progenitor of the invasive Federalism some complain of today, The Great Communicator must be held to account for what he said, and what he was taken to mean, and where that meaning stands to this day. A quick perusal of the comment thread following the piece in the on-line version of the paper and you can see even the mention of his name still resonates.

Reagan did indeed communicate a clear message, and with wit and concision, as I hope the quote I posted above demonstrates. But at the same time that sunny humor often travelled along with a good amount of internal contradiction. For all the bon mots about profligate spending and the insensate expansion of government, under his administration the federal deficit and —yes, the size of government— expanded. Along with the occasional witty winking slight towards Congress, came Constitutional contempt of the same in the form of Iran-Contra. And somewhere along the line, all the self deprecating humor about government failings (Reagan was the head of our government after all) was taken up, as not only disdain and distrust for government "of and by the people," but as something of deprecation and resentment of and for the people themselves, towards each other.

I'll confess that's the legacy of Ronald Reagan that disturbs me, the way distrust of government, maybe even a healthy distrust, has devolved to a darker disdain for each other in the democratic debate. Among the ranks of the Conservative Cause, those who hold him in the highest regard as an iconic figure, there are far too many with a readiness to discern the "Real" Americans of the Right ...from the rest of us.

It would be nice to believe that Reagan himself would take dim view of some of the uglier rhetoric we're hearing today, like that you heard at the recent CPAC Convention, where lists of the "enemies" among us were recited to applause. "Enemies" no less.

"It is still morning in America," Conservative Pundit Glenn Beck said at the recent gathering, invoking one of The Great Communicator's best loved lines. "It just happens to be kind of a head-pounding, hung-over, vomiting for four hours morning," he continued. "The question is what made us sit there in the john vomiting for four hours?"

And how does he answer his own question? Who is it that sickens Glenn Beck and his friends so? Wherefore that vomiting?

It's not any outside enemy of the state or our society, not even radicals of the present day or from some by-gone era. No, the "cancer, to be cut out" of the American body politic, as Mr. Beck describes it, is a cancer comprised of all those who disagree with him on policy and principle: "Progressives!"

Mr. Beck announces, to the cheers of his fellow Conservative Crusaders, that he blames Progressives, starting with Teddy Roosevelt! ...for that sense he has that he has been vomiting.

I kid you not.

Were Reagan alive in this day and age, it might be enlightening to hear what he had to say, the man himself, not the hollowed out icon. Not about Teddy Roosevelt, we don't need to check with him on that. He was on record citing this ...Progressive, as a hero and a champion of "the virtues and ideals of Americanism" when he issued a presidential proclamation honoring the 125th anniversary of Roosevelt's birth. No, what I think would be interesting is what The Gipper would have to say to those who now proclaim themselves to be his faithful heirs. I'd like to believe the man himself had a more expansive definition of "Americanism" and its virtues and ideals, such that he would take them to task for describing those who simply differ with them as sickening, as enemies, as cancers "to be cut out of our system." For all his often professed disdain for government, I'd like to think Reagan never went so far as to translate that disdain into such blatant contempt for his fellow American citizens, not of the sort we're hearing today from the likes of Glenn Beck.

Reagan once offered that "Protecting the rights of even the least individual among us" was the only valid "excuse" any government has "for even existing." If all that survives of that sentiment for his professed followers is the disdain for government, with nothing of the respect for the individuals among us, nothing of the respect for each other... Well, let's just say the man's political legacy is lacking these years later ...and hopefully it is still a work in Progress.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The tough get going?

News of Evan Bayh's announced "retirement" has really been grating on my nerves. First of all he's not retiring. He's electing not to seek re-election. To say he's "retiring" is to assume the position of U.S. Senator is and would be his to retire from. He might have been the likely candidate for the job this coming Fall—we might assume he held some advantage as an incumbent office holder in a re-election contest, but he faced a job interview nonetheless. This talk of "retirement" is just more of the same arrogance of assumption that riled so many Massachusetts voters when faced with filling "Ted Kennedy's Seat." (Ted Kennedy knew better than to ever call it that)

Adding insult to injury —in my book Republicans (and a few good Democrats) are right to be perturbed with Bayh for the timing of his decision —it being such that an openly contested primary for the Democratic nomination won't likely happen. Instead the Indiana State Democratic Committee will meet and decide upon a nominee to face who ever wins the Republican contest, a contest involving at least four candidates. (Please don't try to tell me that Bayh's timing was inadvertent.) Maybe the strategy is that a good old ugly primary contest will damage more than it builds for the GOP —and maybe that's clever politics. But gaming the process to dispense with the same such "risk" for a Democratic candidate, it's —well, if it's clever politics, it's lousy civics.

Finally, and what really galls me most of all, was the lip service excuse we're hearing about the ugly polarized partisan nature of the Senate's current debate, about that being his reason for opting out of "his seat." If you ask me, If you want to change the tenor of our politics in this country, an actual principled campaign for election to the U.S. Senate is a pretty damned good place to make a start from.

Instead the Good Senator tells folks he doesn't know just what he'll do exactly next, as he strolls the edge of K-Street looking for inspiration.

When I was just finishing High School back in the late 70's I had quite a few heart to hearts with my dad about what I should do with myself —whither would go my career. I had my different interests and among them were professions where the work spoke to me but something of the culture surrounding seemed ugly or corrupt. That's no excuse, he told me. If you find the work that matters to you and means something, then the things you would change about that work, about the way it's done... that's the real work.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Paint on a "small hinge"

I said quite a while back that President Obama struck a wrong note with me when he said he wanted "to be the last president" to address Healthcare Reform. No one should ever have thought or assumed the movement forward would be perfected in one genius giant step —least of all the President himself. That insistence on being "the last" ultimately contradicts what he himself has said time and time again, that this "isn't about me."

Now, as the prospect of a pared back package of incremental improvements appears, the President offers advice to Congress (Republicans an Democrats, alike) about not painting themselves into rhetorical corners, from where constructive compromise becomes impossible. The hard part in politics and public life (and in life in general, I think) is realizing when you should heed your own advice, live up to your own wisdom.

Hopefully the paint around his own corner has dried.

This piece from Fred Kaplan describes the valid potential value of reform that falls far short of perfection —that is far from the last word. Kaplan proffers the historic precedent of Civil Rights Law long forgotten and little valued at the time it was passed, The 1957 Civil Rights Act, law that had its original advocates "outraged" at the compromised bill that ultimately came to vote and formed law. "Many of them argued that it would be better to kill the bill and start over with a new one. (Sound familiar?)" Kaplan asks and then chronicles how the small measures the bill did contain proved important to the historic progress that followed on its heels.

...Long journeys involve steps —or as Kaplan phrases it "small hinges."

"Sometimes the gates of history swing on small hinges, as the saying goes. The 1957 Civil Rights Act was a preposterously small hinge that helped swing open a very wide gate. It's not out of the question that a pared-down health care bill might do the same."