This is the sixth year that I am kicking off a new year with a post on the overall state of affairs in the U.S. Some three of these posts riffed on the cowardice of our political elite while a fourth was on what I called The End of an Error, the merciful conclusion of the eight-year Bush-Cheney interregnum, which was as visceral an example of cowardice masquerading as courage seen in my lifetime.
And so looking back on the year just passed, I find myself returning once again -- and with even more conviction than I have had in the past -- to cowardice as being at the heart of the malaise that has characterized the new millennium and the paucity of political courage as the biggest reason for this malaise.
Let's get something straight right off the old bat: Although cowardice sometimes comes dressed in partisan political mufti, a politician is not a coward if he may believe that multi-billion dollar stimulus packages are a waste of taxpayer money even though most economists say they are exactly what are necessary to jump start the economy. That is merely a matter of a difference of opinion, and it took no courage to mimic the party line, in this case the Republican Party line.
Where courage is lacking -- utterly so with the GOP and only slightly less so with the Democratic Party -- is to speak up and say that the party lines are why we just can't shake our biggest problem. (See "The Truthiness Of John Boehner" below this post for a superb example.)
That problem is the lingering effects of a recession that have included a jobless recovery -- and the utter abandonment of thinking big, whether it is the kind of infrastructure projects that created millions of Great Depression-era jobs, or in education, technology research and the sciences, three areas where the rest of the industrialized world is stealing a march on us.
The national paralysis is made worse because once what passed for political discourse has been replacing by sand kicking -- loud and angry denunciations and the melding of fiction with fact, be it over global warming or the efficacy of childhood vaccines -- that fly fast and furious in an era where anyone with Internet access can be their own publisher.
Then there is the specter of Republicans denouncing things large and small that were achievements of presidents from their own party.
Three examples: Calls to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency, which Richard Nixon signed into law and was one of his few salutatory achievements. Refusal to get off the dime on the debt ceiling, which Ronald Reagan understood
to be necessary depending on which way the economic winds were blowing. And my favorite for sheer lunacy: Calls to roll back a law supported by George W. Bush to make light bulbs more energy efficient because it smacks of socialism or something.
* * * * *W. Russell G. Byers believed that we were becoming a nation of sheep.
Russell was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and a Republican Party membership card in his diaper. He graduated from Yale the year Bush was a freshman and three years after the graduation of another worthy who also had two middle names, his lifelong friend John H.J. Heinz, the late great moderate Republican senator from Pennsylvania.
Like Heinz, Russell could have done anything -- or absolutely nothing -- but in the finest tradition of noblesse oblige, devoted his life to public service.
I met Russell in 1989 when this genteel and smartly dressed conservative hired on as a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. His editor was Yours Truly, a jeans wearing and bare knuckled liberal Democrat.
Neither of us backed away from a fight and had the conviction of our beliefs, but we deeply respected each other and our relationship thrived.
Ideas flowed from Byers' fertile mind in torrents. Solving the city's homeless problem. Tax reform. The need for more drug rehab facilities. A makeover of the city's tourist industry. But the words themselves usually did not come as easily and that's where I came in.Russell would have burned his Republican Party card in Lafayette Park had he lived to see the disintegration of a GOP Big Tent that once had plenty of room for a John Heinz, let alone the ascendancy of the Christianists who elected a president who promised to champion their culture wars while recklessly starting the kind with real bullets that became America's longest-running conflict by far.
I can hear Russell now, his face becoming flushed as he chain smoked one Lucky Strike after another: "Why are people letting George Bush get away with this? Are Americans sheep?"
Like I said, Russell never backed away from a fight, including his last one. He was stabbed to death a few days before Christmas 1999 by a knife-wielding robber.
* * * * *In the spirit of equal opportunity bashing, I hasten to add that Barack Obama arguably has been an even greater disappointment than Bush because many of us expected so much of him and so little of Bush.
Yes, our expectations were too high following the watershed 2008 election. But even though Obama was a consummate insider and a magna cum laude graduate of the brass knuckles school of Chicago politics, he campaigned as an outsider that would shake up Washington but Washington shook him up instead.
He simply has lacked the political courage that was needed. Does that make him a coward? I will let history be the judge.
While Obama's record includes some signal achievements, he chose many of the insiders who were asleep at wheel or looked the other way as the seeds of the 2008 economic collapse were sewn. He has played much too nice with the Republicans although it became obvious within hours of his inauguration that endless negotiating with an opposition that would not hesitate to bring down the government — and has twice nearly done so in the last year alone — was a zero-sum game.
And he has seemed to be content with a half a loaf when a whole loaf was called for. Yes, the passage of a sweeping health-care reform law is the signal accomplish of his first term, but it lacked key provisions in the original draft in a capitulation to special interests. Ditto with the economic stimulus.
Ahem. In any event, best wishes for a directionless, cowardly and courage-free New Year.