When I was young enough to be taking courses in American history, from high school to graduate school, one of the unquestioned truths I absorbed about our governance system was that "no matter how brainless or dishonest the man we elect President, it doesn't really matter, because the American political system is strong enough to keep on ticking regardless, on automatic pilot, as it were, until a competent fellow comes along." The cases in point were usually Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Warren G. Harding, not so much devious as plumb incompetent, dumb as boxes of blocks.
Now that we have George W. to head the small list of American Presidential incompetents, and since he has only a few more months to finish wrecking our republic, perhaps it's not too early to make a resolution or two about how to behave once the new President takes office.
Mr. Forster Day, formerly choir director of the Nevada United Methodist Church, recently sent me excerpts from the new book by Mr. Lee Iacocca, who not too long ago plucked Chrysler Corp. from the brink of bankruptcy. (It's moved back to the very brink again, I hear.) "Am I the only guy in this country," Iacocca asks, "who's fed up with what's happening? Where the hell's our outrage? We should be screaming bloody murder! We've got a gang of clueless bozos," he continues, his voice rising sharply, "steering our ship of state right over a cliff, we've got corporate gangsters stealing us blind, and we can't even clean up after a hurricane, much less build a hybrid car. But instead of getting mad, everyone sits around and nods their heads when the politicians say, 'Stay the course.'" Boy, this guy sounds hot under the collar, doesn't he? Bet he's not invited to a White House dinner any time soon!
"Stay the course?" Iacocca continues, his voice raw with outrage. "You've got to be kidding. This is not the d-- Titanic! Throw all the bums out! I hardly recognize this country anymore. . . . While we're fiddling in Iraq, the Middle East is burning and nobody seems to know what to do. And the press is waving 'pom-poms' instead of asking hard questions. That's not the promise of the America my parents and yours traveled across the ocean for." It used to be that even the smallest newspapers in the country, William Allen White's Emporia (Kansas) Gazette, for instance, weighed in with its editor's conscience-driven editorials, which carried a moral weight nation-wide that Iacocca probably never realized. Have you examined the typical small town newspaper recently for its moral standing on any issue that affects us all? Nothing?
Aw, shucks! you're kidding!!
If this were Thoreau's and Emerson's day, in mid-19th century America, the halls of our government in Washington, D.C., would be swarming with outraged ordinary citizens, from Maine to California, fed up with the peaceful but nonetheless criminal hi-jacking of popular government. "You can't call yourself a patriot," writes Iacocca, if you're not outraged." Amen, brother!
I believe our country is in serious danger. It's no longer an ocean- and frontier-protected rural utopia that can afford to let the rest of the world go hang while we turn inward and study our navels. Like Uncle Remus's tar-baby, we're involved in a bloody war with no plan for either winning or withdrawing. (As of late March, 2008, we've lost 3,982 U.S. men and women And for what? To save a country that would rather we ran it for them?) We're still saddled with a hair-triggered and hare-brained President who's very likely to start still another war against any country that looks cross-eyed at us.
From a surplus, when he entered office, George W. will leave us with the greatest deficit in our history. We're losing our manufacturing edge to Asia. Gas prices are already through the roof, and nobody seems to have a coherent energy policy. Our borders are so porous they might as well not even exist. "Name me a leader," writes Iacocca, "who has a better idea for homeland security than making us take off our shoes in airports and throw away our shampoo?"
Truth to tell, our system is threatened not only from without but -- and perhaps most profoundly and dangerously -- from within.
From time to time, Jay Leno emcees a trio of teenage contestants, male and female, who try to identify images of people in the news, world-famous buildings, and answer current-events questions nearly anyone of room-temperature IQ could answer without breaking a sweat. When they bungle the answers (as they so frequently do), the audience howls with thoughtless glee, and the contestants smile. From 35 years of facing students, I can tell, the contestants aren't playing dumb, they're trying their hardest . . . and failing. Why, I ask myself, aren't the contestants self-conscious enough to be ashamed of their ignorance? Why do the audience members of Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation" laugh, and not weep at the ignorance of .that American generation to which they're about to cede everything?
We used to be the owners of our republic, until we ceded it to scaliwags and thieves like George W. and Dick Cheney. My resolution for the next four years, then, is to try to watch the new President like a hawk -- and to cry bloody murder when he stops listening to all of us out here. Will you join me?