U.S.Presidents

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#334 – Dick Bernard: Part 4. Why are we doing this to ourself?

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

Yesterday the combination of a snow-blocked driveway and Presidents Day led to an unusual amount of television viewing by myself. Being President’s Day, the History Channel had some interesting programs about the U.S. Presidents. I watched some of the programs, and they were fascinating. Being President of the United States is a complicated job.

It led me to think back to my senior year in high school, 1957-58, when my teacher father, Henry, took on the task of reading the biographies of all the Presidents till that time. He would borrow the books from the ND State Library in Bismarck, and to my knowledge he completed his project of reading about all of them. Probably the last biography was of Harry Truman, as Dwight Eisenhower was President during and after his home reading project.

I also was led to think about a famous quotation of H. L. Mencken in the Baltimore Evening Sun on July 26, 1920. In a column entitled “Bayard vs. Lionheart”, Mencken commented on the office of President of the United States and how its elected representative “represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folk of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

Well…I have heard no one say that President Obama is a moron in the White House. He is a brilliant and extraordinary man. But I have heard it said that he is too intellectual (among other assorted complaints), none related to his capabilities.

Fortunately, while Mencken was wrong in his assessment of the deteriorating quality of the occupants of the office of President, he seems to have hit a home run when looking at the quality of the people we are choosing to represent us closer to home, too many in state legislatures and Governerships and Congress. They may not be “downright morons” elected to represent us, but their attitude certainly does not reflect any lofty aims for our country. More and more, they seem simply to be a collection of individualists elected to dismantle to the extent possible the great institution which is the United States of America.

We don’t seem to elect people with the people’s interests at heart these days. We go for the guy or the woman who looks and sounds good,and speaks to our own very parochial and individualistic wants, often fear or anger based. It does not serve us well in the short or long term.

Very stupid decisions are made when driven by fear or anger. Such decisions, once made, are not easily reversed. The very word, “decide”, is a sibling of other words of very clear meaning: suicide, homicide, insecticide. Decisions are not reversible. You can’t undo a killing….

Why are we doing this to ourselves?

There is a long list of reasons, tailored to each one of us as individuals. Even those who might mostly agree with me will say, “yah, but….” We want what we want.

Politicians pander to people’s fears, to people’s anger, to people’s prejudices.

We look at the short term and not the long. We have people newly elected who presume to change long established programs in an instant just cuz they have a majority at this moment and feel no need to respect a minority opinion.

Our vision is limited to the individual or the smallest unit of group activity…to what we understand.

We are, we seem to say, all in this, alone, when we need to be in this together.

My town is not an island; nor is my metropolitan area; nor is my state; nor is my nation. Even in my town, or in my homeowner’s association within that town, there are differences to be respected and appreciated and not steam-rollered because they’re minority.

We need wisdom in our governance, and understanding of other points of view.

Twice today, in various portraits of Presidents, I saw past Presidents of the United States together in formal and informal settings: at the White House, in Indonesia, in Haiti…These were politicians united only by the common experience of attempting to govern a very complex and powerful country. They understood and appreciated each other. They all aged more quickly in office, than before their election.

They all learned how complicated this world is.

So should we.

Related: here, here and here.