2010: The Election America Lost

What has happened to America, the shining light of democracy? Is this year’s election really the model that we’re are asking our soldiers to fight for, to die defending?

Every two years, Americans vote in an election that commentators describe as the worst election ever. Shouting and slogans. Charges and counter charges. Well, this year really is the worst, and the most dangerous to the republic.

The candidates haven’t just thrown mud pies at each other and the other party; this time, they have also trashed the electorate and the electoral process. Watching the news, my informal survey shows that stupidity has exceeded lying, pointless slogans have been exceeded by promises based upon arithmetic that wouldn’t pass third grade, and name-calling and labeling have become a new art form.

Even in this Great Recession, we’re managed to spend an astonishing 4 billion dollars on a midterm election! Why should companies invest in equipment or workers, when they can directly and secretly invest in favorable treatment from elected officials? And now anyone with access to a screen can post their own opinion on anything, usually with no wisdom, thoughtfulness, or civility required, just an opinion. We’ve all become experts.

I’m purposely writing this before the election, because I don’t want to be influenced by the specific outcomes. I already know that America lost. I’m gathering my strength for the coming shouting match during the lame duck session of Congress, followed by two years of gridlock that will rival Washington’s traffic jams. Nothing will move.

But, there’s good news, too. The same technology that has brought this cacophony of sound can also be used to enhance democracy. Many groups are already working to put labels aside, to foster civil dialogue on complex issues, and to engage people in strengthening and even reinventing our democratic processes.

Work has already started on changing the primary and nominating processes to involve common citizens, not just the extreme activists and the two political parties. Efforts are also already underway to change the process of redistricting, so that voters will be able to influence their choice of politicians, instead of the politicians picking their voters. All that is needed is YOUR PARTICIPATION. We get what we elect, and that means that it’s long past the time to open up the processes by which we select our leaders. Rest now, for we’ve got lots of work to do in the next two years.

Tribute: Ted Sorensen

I never met President John F. Kennedy, although I admired him greatly, but I did have the opportunity to meet the man who to me embodied John Kennedy, his Counselor, Ted Sorensen. While he will always be identified as Kennedy’s speechwriter, Sorensen was much more, and he leaves behind several generations of people all over the world who have benefited from the role that he has played in their lives.

As noted the New York Times’ announcement of his death, Sorensen “was best known for working with Kennedy on passages of soaring rhetoric, including the 1961 inaugural address proclaiming that ‘the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans’ and challenging citizens: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ Sorensen drew on the Bible, the Gettysburg Address and the words of Thomas Jefferson and Winston Churchill as he helped hone and polish that speech.”

Not long ago, I asked Ted Sorensen if he were the author of my favorite Kennedy quote: “Success has a hundred fathers; failure is an orphan.” Sorensen said “no,” and added that he once asked Kennedy about the origin of that statement. Kennedy replied that it was an old Chinese proverb, but Sorensen said that he had asked numerous Chinese people about the quote, and none had ever heard of it before Kennedy’s utterance. Then, Sorensen smiled, and I got the impression that Sorensen believed that Kennedy himself was the author. Later, I wondered if Sorensen himself, humble as ever and always deflecting the spotlight toward Kennedy, had really written it, or at least played some role in the drafting. I’ll never know, but I’ll never forget his smile and the twinkle in his eyes, even though by this point his eyesight was seriously impaired.

Besides, as Kennedy might have said: “Good quotes have a hundred parents; bad quotes are forgotten.” It’s still my favorite Kennedy quote, and Ted Sorensen is still one of the kindest, most insightful, and most inspirational men I have ever met. Thank you, Ted. The world will miss you … and your smile and the twinkle in your eyes.

The WikiLeaks Papers

Give Peace a ChanceOnce again, we are witnessing the unauthorized release of previously secret documents by WikiLeaks, this time relating to Iraq and previously to Afghanistan. Having lived through the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, which showed the true 25-year history of the Vietnam War, I am mindful of the profound impact that the release of such material did, and now will, have on our nation. I also saddened how those who do not understand and learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Different people will react differently to the materials released, as well as to the act of their release by people not authorized to do so. Yes, governments must be able to keep secrets, and individuals do not have the right to unilaterally overrule the leaders of the government. And yes, leaders do not have the unconditional right to mislead the citizenry. The challenge of democracy is to find the delicate balance between what the public should know and what it can know without compromising safety or other legitimate goals.

Once again, however, the inescapable conclusion is that the public did not know the whole story, and in some cases, was even misled. A vibrant democracy cannot function under such circumstances.

Once again, this is a colossal failure across all of the government, not just of the senior leaders of the administration in power. Congress clearly failed in its oversight responsibilities, and civilian and military leaders clearly did not always exercise the judgment we have a right to expect.

At a time when trust in government and civil discourse are already so low, an orgy of recriminations and shouting will do little to heal an already wounded nation. The way to defeat what the terrorists stand for and to regain our leadership on the world stage, as well as our faith in and respect for ourselves, is to have a thoughtful, civil discussion on how we make certain that this does not happen again.