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The Last American Hero

Author: Gary Hart

In the 21st century is it possible for anyone to achieve the heroic status of John Glenn?  There are many reasons to think not.  Some years ago the so-called mainstream media, traditional newspapers and networks, abandoned any respect for privacy of public figures in an effort to compete with entertainment journalism, emerging social media, and advocacy networks for sensationalism.  Very soon, political leaders, and then even astronauts, were treated more or less as movie stars had been for years.

There is an old saying: No man is a hero to his valet.  Today we would say the same for a woman and her maid.  This isn’t simple an observation about the human body without clothes.  It is an observation about familiarity on the margin of intimacy.  Nothing like seeing a famous person performing mundane human duties to destroy any hope of extraordinary character.

Very difficult to locate a hero using a microscope.  Heroes are best viewed through long-range lenses.  Heroism requires a degree of distance, and distance is necessary for mystery.  How does she hold public office, raise children, and write poetry?  How does he defy death in space and crawl out of the capsule grinning?  The hero is someone who does extraordinary things while seeming to be like the rest of us.

Entertainment has played a role in destroying true heroism.  Special effects make Tom Cruise seem like Jack Reacher.  Arnold Schwartzenegger started out human, then became an android, and then was replaced by action comic figures.  Difficult to have a truly human hero up against Spiderman or Batman.

I was in high school before I ever met a Member of Congress.  I was impressed.  That would not happen today with the ritual hazing and thrashing every politician routinely receives.  And, sad to say, too many deservedly so.

When we went to Washington in December 1974 so that I could take up my duties representing the State of Colorado in the U.S. Senate, I asked my daughter and son, 10 and 8, who they would like to meet, and I meant from the President on down, they both said, without a thought, John Glenn.  He was by then in all their history books.  He was famous.  He was legendary.  He was an authentic hero.

We were sworn into office together.  I admit to being in awe.

Someday, after some of us have long gone onto the next life, a small group of astronauts will try to get to Mars.  Aside from single-handedly rescuing a plane load of children from highjackers, that is one of the few ways to become a hero these days.  (Even then, some reporter will find a DUI years ago.)  The devils of expose’ must be served.

Were Simon and Garfunkle lamenting the passage of heroes when they sang “Where have you gone, Joe Dimaggio?

Adding to the economic frustrations of global competition is the sense that there are no more heroes.  Some commentators—including those who have contributed to the process–have observed that public figure have become gradually smaller.  Some of the reasons have already been mentioned.  But the process of dismantling privacy, distance, and mystery drives figures of stature away.  After earning respect and demonstrating self-respect, who among us wants to submit to the adult equivalent of fraternity initiation simply to serve our country.

When we permit a demeaning system of humiliation to become a gateway for public service, we also deny ourselves any chance of heroism in the public arena.  John Kennedy would find it difficult if not impossible to write Profiles in Courage today.

I liked John Glenn a lot.  Even more, I admired him, not only for his physical courage and flying skills but also for his basic humanity and decency and his fundamental insistence that he wasn’t any different from the rest of us.  In his mind, he was just a lucky guy who happened to be at the right place at the right time.

He had that backwards, though.  We who knew him were lucky to share that place and that time with him.

Getting the Shot

Author: Gary Hart

Some years ago as a national candidate I had the benefit of protection by the U.S. Secret Service.  To a person they were as professional and effective as the best uniformed Special Forces and I was, and am, completely convinced any one of them would have jumped between me and a shooter.

But, like all other national candidates, I also had virtual round-the-clock companionship (“coverage”) by the political press corps.  Contemplating the possibility I might actually be elected President, if not then possibly later, I once asked the head of the Secret Service detail, a great public servant Steve Ramsey, whether, once in the White House, I could periodically leave by a side door, take a three car motorcade to Andrews Airforce Base, and fly unscheduled to any one of hundreds of small or medium-sized American towns.  We would then drive unannounced to that town’s Main Street and I could walk up and down a few blocks shaking hands and dropping into shops to say hello along the way.

“Can’t be done,” Steve said.  “Won’t work.”

“What do you mean,” I responded with some heat.  “I’d be President of the United States.  Why couldn’t I do that as a way of listening to what everyday Americans were saying and thinking.”

“The press won’t let you,” Steve said.  “They’d raise hell.”

My response: “They can’t tell me what to do and what not to do.  Why do they care if I take an hour or two out here and there to meet informally with real people and without the cameras and flashbulbs.”

“They don’t want to miss the shot,” Steve said.

At first I thought he meant getting pictures of relaxed events like this.  That is not what he meant.  He meant the assassin’s shot.

This all came to mind with the recent hub-bub days ago surrounding the President-elect’s dinner at a famous New York restaurant a few blocks from his tower without notifying the media.

Since then columnists and commentators have uniformly responded with outrage.  How dare he, they fomented.  Doesn’t he recognize the right of the people to know what the President is doing?  Isn’t he aware of the public interest in everything he does?  Implicitly: Hasn’t anyone told him he now has no privacy?

In none of this cacophony has even one journalist, to my knowledge, stated the blunt truth: We want to be there if someone tries to kill you..

Journalists are in the story business, and that’s a big story.

But the First Amendment guarantee of a free press is not also a guarantee of an omnipresent press.  The peoples’ right to know, found only implicitly in the Constitution, relates to the peoples’ business, the public business of our Government.  Jefferson, among others, linked a free press to the public’s knowledge of public business.  It is a journalistic construct to extend that implicit right into an intrusive insistence on being nearby every private minute of a President’s day.

James Madison, it may be safely assumed, did not believe the public had a legitimate reason to know where a President was dining, with whom he was dining, and what he dined on.

Former President Clinton called the White House the pinnacle of the U.S. prison system. Either a President himself or herself has some right of privacy or he or she does not.  I believe a President does have and should have that right.

It comes down to this: the value of occasional presidential privacy versus a handful of journalists (the “pool”) getting the shot—being there when a President is killed or an attempt is made.

No attempt to kill the President, successful or unsuccessful, will go unnoticed.  The details of such an attempt will be available in minutes if not seconds in an age when everyone is a journalist.

If the cost of a rare evening of privacy for a President is a Pulitzer prize, it is a small price to pay.

Present at the Creation

Author: Gary Hart

In the past MattersofPrincipal has not been used as a book review forum.  What follows is an exception, one made out of respect for the literacy and concern for history of our small band of commentators.

One of the best, some would say the best, book on diplomacy and recent American history is the memoir of former Secretary of State Dean Acheson entitled Present at the Creation and covering in considerable detail and with splendid prose his responsibilities at the U.S. Department of State between 1942 and 1952.

I read it some years ago, have returned to selected sections from time to time, and am now rereading the book from the beginning.  Through one highly-placed man’s eyes, it rehearses the sweep of America’s transformation from fortress America to the world’s leading power following World War II.

Secretary Acheson knew and negotiated with everyone who was anyone on the world state, especially in the creation of the Atlantic Alliance, including NATO, eventually the European Union, the conduct and eventual armistice in Korea, the Marshall Plan rebuilding Europe and Asia, the establishment of the State of Israel, and basically every event of consequence during this period during which almost everything that happened had long-range consequences.

The Creation concerning which Acheson writes laid the foundation and built the international structures on that foundation that have brought us through the Cold War and several regional conflicts but provided relative stability and security for much of the world for seven decades.

The United Kingdom vote last spring to exit from the European Union one might fear represents the first crack in that foundation and the structures resting thereon.  The U.S. election several days ago could possibly widen that fissure or even bring the entire structure down, that is if the President-elect was serious when he promised to demand higher payments by NATO partners for our collective security.  It is doubtful that he recognizes the concern, seventy years after World War II, for a rearmed Germany and Japan.  Other Western European and Asian nations rarely discuss this openly, but that concern is still there.  Further, a go-it-alone, fundamentally isolationist, international security policy, invites more nations to join the nuclear club and develop their own nuclear arsenals to fill the gap left by the departure of the American nuclear umbrella.

During the intense creative days of the early 1950s Secretary Acheson and the entire Department of State were under assault from unchained right-wing forces led by Joseph McCarthy to which today’s alt-right is the successor.  Acheson refers to this continued assault as “the attack of the Primitives.”  He is too polite and too kind in this regard, but he was always a gentleman as well as an unparalleled statesman.

If you do take the time to read even a portion of this book consider whether any American on the public stage today comes even close to the Acheson model, let alone one who possesses the literary skills to write as Acheson did.  This is not dull history.  His observations are clever and his asides are witty, especially about his constant tormentors.

Consider what single book you might recommend to the President-elect if you were invited to do so.  Small chance since he has not demonstrated a great interest in books.  But a nice parlor game in any case.  Mine would surely be Present at the Creation.  It might cause him to reflect before dismantling an international system that has withstood countless storms and maintained relative peace and stability.

Revolt of the Citizens

Author: Gary Hart

A tsunami of political analysis regarding this election has begun and will culminate in a series of books sometime next year.  There will be enough theories, most of them wrong, to accommodate a host of prejudices.  We are already accustomed to words and phrases like anger, frustration, alienation, forgotten working class, fly-over America, and so on.  Separate libraries will have to be constructed to house the dissertations in political science that will continue to be written decades from now about the 2016 political revolution.

A massive departure from traditional politics rarely occurs overnight.  This one traces from the mid-1970s when oil embargoes, foreign manufacturing competition, information revolutions, and mass migrations all collided.

While all this was transforming American economic and social structures, an even more significant change was occurring in Washington.  There was an explosion of special interest lobbying, campaign costs, and the evolution of a governing class composed of insiders of both political parties.  Members of this governing class did not come to Washington as elected officials with mandated terms of office, or administration appointees, who returned home when a new administration moved in.  Those leaving office stayed in Washington and made fortunes using access to an increasingly revolving political culture.

This blatant corruption of the American Republic, though accepted with little notice by a media culture itself corrupted by a need to have access to this insider system, did not go unnoticed by large numbers of American citizens.  Starting in the 1970s it became standard practice for candidates of both parties to campaign against “Washington” even while trying to go there…and stay there.  All promised “change”, never clearly defined, but also never achieved.

Looking back over the past four decades, the wonder is that the citizens’ revolt took so long.  The American people are patient, but as we know now, not forever.

Clearly, forces of the right, taking out racial, gender, and cultural grievances on Barack Obama, also used the Clinton, Inc. complex, augmented by secretive computer servers, to suggest all the corruption was on the Democratic side.  Media outlets underwrote these attacks by insistence on a phony “equivalence” standard, even as they knew that ridiculous excesses on the right had no counterpart on the left.  Nevertheless, there was plenty of corruption to go around.

Despite the age of ego in which we currently live, more important than the President-elect are those who voted for him and did so heedless of his crude behavior.  What legacy was left for their children by burning America’s house down?  What lessons in civility did they think he had to offer?  What standards of behavior would he offer as the nation’s leader?

Most Americans view their world through the lens of exceptionalism— a belief that our experience is unique.  Nevertheless, for whatever solace it offers, virtually all Western democracies are sharing much of our experience: distrust of leaders and traditional parties; suspicion of financial manipulation; domination by a political elite; and insider favoritism.  Most European democracies have an insurgent right wing.

But America is different in its insistence on its own unique principles, principles deriving from our founding as a Republic.  Our Founders were idealists and their ideals can be dismissed only so long.  Our Founding documents incorporate those ideals; sovereignty of the people; a sense of the commonwealth; civic duty; and resistance to corruption.

Those who voted for the President-elect may be under some illusion that he will honor and restore those principles.  A pendulum of disillusionment will return shortly.  Cynicism is no replacement for honor.  Vulgarity is no substitute for dignity.  Egotism cannot replace duty.   Respect, even for a President, must constantly be earned.  And the new administration will be made up of the same insiders the voters thought they were throwing out.

For the rest of us, we must use this diversion from our nation’s better heritage to insist on restoration of our Republic.  Some steps–substantial campaign finance reform, transparency, ethical conduct–are obvious.  Others, such as national service, support for citizen-politicians, opposition to careerists, and replacing Washington’s revolving door with ethical rules, must also be installed and supported.

If such a restoration of republican ideals and principles does not take place, 2016 will mark the beginning of our historical decline in keeping with all republics throughout history.  We are not at liberty to tread so heedlessly on the legacy so many have sacrificed to give us.

A Prayer for America

Author: Gary Hart

Great Spirit, Creator of us all

We Americans continue to seek Your blessing.  We do so in our official events, in public forums, and even in our sports events.  But we seldom if ever provide evidence that Your blessing is deserved.  We take that for granted.  We assume we have earned a Divine blessing because we are entitled to it.

But now, at this critical point in our history, Your blessing is needed more than ever.  So, help us understand what we must do to deserve a blessing in this hour.

Help us learn humility.  Teach us that we are not always right and that others are always wrong.  Teach us to confess our errors and admit our mistakes.  Help us learn that we are human beings too eager to let our petty ideologies replace our nation’s principles.

Guide us in a path of righteousness.  Help us to reject the vain words of vain leaders and to pursue that which is right and good.  We know it is possible for nations, even great nations, to correct their errors and restore the trust of other nations and other people.

Restore our commitment to justice.  Open our minds to the needs of those around us, the poor, the sick, the lost, the aged.  Remind us that an unjust nation will be judged harshly for its failure to care for those in need. Help us recollect that we are all human beings equal in Your sight, that we neglect those in need at the risk of our own souls.

Require us to reject false prophets.  In times of distress, we are tempted to follow the cynical, the self-centered, the boastful, and the divisive figure.  We do so at the cost of our national principles, our proclaimed ideals, and our self-respect.  Those who divide us are not our friends and must not be our leaders.  Open our eyes to the opinions of mankind and the hopes of those who inhabit our fragile world with us

Teach us to respect and protect the natural world You have created.  Warn us of the dangers of childish and selfish damage to the land, the water, and the air that You have given us and told us to hold in sacred trust for future generations.  Remind us that nature is Your gift to us to manage as Your stewards, that it is ours to sustain and not to destroy.

Lead us toward our role as peacemakers.  Remind us that war is easy to start and difficult to end, that the path of peace and reconciliation is not a path of weakness but the way of righteousness.

Finally, Great Spirit, teach us that America still has a role to play among the nations of the earth.  Our greatness is in our principles and not in our weapons.  Our stature is in the bridges, not the walls, we build.  Our spirit is in our kindness, not our enmity.  Our soul rests in our generosity and not our hostility.  Our hope is in a better future for our children and not in our immediate gratification and our vanity.

In the words of the old prophet: help us to “love mercy, do justly, and walk humbly with our God.”

Most of all, Great Spirit, make us worthy of Your blessing.

Amen.

Disgust

Author: Gary Hart

“We are disgusted” she said, “with the political elite.”  A summary to explain the motivation of those who favor Trump.  Meanwhile, the Clintonians are disgusted with Trump supporters as the now infamous “basket of deplorables.”

When and how did the nation of “all men are created equal”, “we here resolve these dead shall not have died in vain”, “we have nothing to fear but fear itself”, the greatest generation, and “ask what you can do for your country” become so disgusted with itself?

To the degree the political elite represents a self-promoting, insider Court of revolving doors maintaining its own access and power through special interest lobbying and campaign contributions, no one is more disgusted with it than I am.  [Cf. The Republic of Conscience, Blue Rider Press, 2015]  How that disgust leads one to support Donald Trump is quite another matter.

Surely, even the most ardent Trump supporter would not include in this elite elected officials, including the President, Senators, and Members of Congress, all of whom are where they are because a majority of Americans, or voters in States and Congressional districts, sent them to Washington.  If you are disgusted with them, vote them out.  That’s called democracy.

When an elected official, the product of majority will, becomes disgusting, anger is best directed at fellow citizens who elected him or her.

Endless analysis has gone into diagnosing the Trump “base”.  Popular media wisdom has it as primarily rural, white, older males, especially those whose manufacturing jobs were eroded by global competition or low wage immigrants.  More intricate analysis, well beyond “deplorables”, is required.  To the degree they are disgusted with the insider power structure described above, they have a lot of company from people like me.

Some of us who are students of American history take comfort from the knowledge that we have been through something like this before, usually during periods of dislocation and fractures in our economic base.  The populist movement in the late 19th/early 20th century is a principal case in point, a time when we were transitioning from an agricultural to an urban manufacturing economy.

As with individuals, the transition of nations through periods of disruption is rarely painless.  The test of great individuals and nations is whether that painful transition is managed with dignity, collective respect, honor, and decency.  These standards are particularly demanded when the nation in question holds itself out to the world as exceptional.

This American election is characterized by disgust but, even worse, it has become disgusting.  If there is a lower level to which it may still descend in the closing days and hours, it is difficult to imagine.  The idealism of my generation to give something back to our nation is being replaced by fear and loathing of politics and government by the current generation of young Americans.

Too many Americans assume this political mud wrestling match is being consumed only by those of us at home.  Regrettably, it is also being closely observed by people around the world.  For those like me, who have had the opportunity to travel through much of the world, it is stunningly obvious that we Americans are more closely studied by people around the world as to how we govern ourselves than most Americans can imagine.

From our founding we have believed ourselves to be exceptional.  At our best we have held ourselves to a higher standard of principle, honor, and dignity than virtually any other nation.  We have even believed it our responsibility to wage war on behalf of democratic ideals.  Our foreign policies have been guided by our belief that others should follow our example.

The effect of this exceptionalism is to submit our nation to international judgment as to the degree we meet our own standards.

How then can our nation disgusted with itself expect others to respect us and our proclaimed ideals.  We are paying a price, a heavy price, for our current failure to conduct a national election with dignity rather than disgust.  History alone will judge the responsible individuals and parties for the descent of American politics to the basement, as well as for enabling of a corrupt political Court in Washington.

After the impending election, we all must participate in clearing the wreckage, sweeping out the political stables, and beginning the long process of restoring order to our system.  Years of effort will be required and women and men of good will and love of our country will be required to participate.

Our final goal: replace disgust with dignity.

What’s Going On

Author: Gary Hart

Among the punditocracy in our Capitol “realignment” is in the air.  A site that draws a small but highly perceptive commentariat such as this one might do well to ponder what shape that political realignment (presuming it does in fact occur) might take.

The insiders now seem to assume that the Clintonian centrist Democratic Party is no longer the home of New Dealers and Great Societiests but whose maintenance of the legacy social safety net attracts the less well-off elderly, minorities, the poor, the better educated, and the young.

More interestingly, the Republican Party, under the influence of Nixon-Fox-Rove, has become a menagerie of evangelicals, white middle class elderly, rural and small town residents, gun owners, less well educated, anti-immigrants, and blue collar factory workers displaced by global competition.

Political journalists cling to the antique categories of liberal and conservative even as those traditional ideological categories seem quaint.  After Vietnam, the Democratic war party became the peace party, and the previously isolationist Taft Republicans became the interventionist, regime change party.  But the Democrats have nominated a somewhat hawkish interventionist and the Republicans have nominated a pro-Russian, Putin-embracing, NATO critic who sounds like “come home America.”

Realignment indeed.  It might be safe to conclude that the last realignment post-Vietnam has run its course and is being replaced by a new, as yet undefined, one.

Ideological language and its meanings cause considerable confusion.  The size of government doesn’t change regardless of White House occupant.  Tax cuts on the 1% may vary a few points.  Military spending stays roughly the same.  The same figures in both parties come and go from appointive office.  Aside from academic political scientists, very few people can distinguish between liberal and left on one hand and conservative and right on the other.  There is a difference in both cases but it is rarely distinguished.

One of the more thoughtful columnists distinguished between traditional conservatism that seeks to apply traditional principles to new realities and reactionary movements, of the Trump variety, that angrily resist all change and seek to return to an imagined better past time.  This is a helpful and important distinction and observation.

As a strong believer in principles, one way out of the current political chaos might be a requirement that both major parties deliver a manifesto, a statement of beliefs based solidly on convictions and principles shared by many.  Not likely in an age of twitter.  But an interesting exercise nonetheless.  Mostly not likely because parties, especially the Republican Party of late, has tried to be all things to all disparate movements.  Draw lines of principal and you surely lose many who say, Wait a minute; that’s not what I believe.

The job of parties is coalition building.  But to persevere a coalition must embrace a central, enduring theme and purpose.  The Roosevelt coalition came apart under the pressures of civil rights in the 1960s and economic stagnation in the 1970s.  The Taft coalition came apart under the pressures of the Great Depression, World War II, and the perceived communist threat.

A Clinton victory in November might forestall a Democratic realignment for a few years, but at its peril.  The Party is not attracting young people, the next generation, the way it did in the Kennedy era.  The Party has a relevance problem.  It adopted “centrism” at the cost of principle.  A Trump victory or a Trump defeat necessarily will lead to an epic struggle for definition and control of the future Republican Party.  Even for those of us not involved, that will be worth close watching.

On Sunday Huffington Post posted an essay written by General Charles Boyd and me the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy.  Out credentials were based on our service on the United States Commission on National Security for the 21st Century (1998-2001), General Boyd as the Commission’s Executive Director and I as its co-chair with the late United States Senator Warren Rudman.  Most notable among our 50 recommendations to the new George W. Bush administration was the urgent need to create a Cabinet-level Department of National Security uniting the Border Patrol, Customs, and Coast Guard with a common data base and communications system.  We did so because, by 1999, we had become convinced, as we publicly reported, that “America will be attacked by terrorists using weapons of mass destruction, and Americans will die on American soil, possibly in large numbers.”

Our essay was to remind Americans, yet again, that we had been warned and that our Government literally did nothing to prepare and to show the costs of neglect, ignorance, and failure to prepare.  And we wished to remind those too young to remember and those who wished to forget that history repeats itself and we suffer when we fail to learn and to remember.  There are new threats for which we are not prepared, especially in the areas of cyber attacks and biological (viral) outbreaks.

Educational surveys show how woefully ignorant too many Americans, students as well as their parents, are of American history, including our recent history, global geography, and current affairs.

The national media paid little attention to our interim reports and warning in 1999 and 200 and our final report on January 31, 2001, eight months before 9/11.  How are the American people to know of such dire warnings if the press does not do its job as the First Amendment intended.  That Amendment was not simply to protect the press’s independence but to insure that it carried out its duties to inform the American people about important information concerning public business.

General Boyd and I submitted our essay and its lessons to the New York Times.  It was rejected.  The editor said the paper already had a piece (ONE PIECE) reminding readers of the 9/11 anniversary.  I responded by suggesting the occasion and the lessons it held might deserve more than one opinion piece.  One might suppose that, having missed the original story and its warnings when issued in early 2001, leading media outlets didn’t want their failure remembered.

What has America learned from the loss of more than 3000 lives, not just our citizens but also our media?  Are we more aware of the world in which we live?  Are our security services, and our elected officials, on a higher degree of awareness and alertness?  If we are warned again, will we find it out through a media (whose own collective memory seems roughly 24 hours), and will we demand greater attention, alertness, and foresight from our president and leaders than we saw in 2001?

We owe no less to those who perished, in the minds of a few of us unnecessarily.

Toward a Better Day

Author: Gary Hart

Even those of a generation that reached maturity in the happy days of the 1950s find it necessary to remind ourselves that, even though our lives were relatively calm, peaceful, and optimistic, we still lived in a racially divided society, a growing nuclear cloud hung over us, and there were struggles going on in many places in the world.

Yet, by comparison to today, it was a pretty good time to be an American.  Of the qualities we enjoyed, optimism about the future seemed commonplace.  Whether explicitly or implicitly we were told we could achieve anything we set out to do.  Life then was simpler, calmer, more civil, and, yes, happier, even for those of us in the humbler working class.

Will America ever be like that again?  Blocking that goal are a variety of barriers: mass migrations, always a fertile field for demagogues in any age; globalization threatening manufacturing jobs; the genuine and dangerous reality of climate change; terrorists with access to weapons of mass destruction; religious fundamentalism; and other new 21st century realities too numerous to mention.

Complicating governmental approaches to these realities are: increasingly bitter ideological partisanship, denial of the realities themselves in some quarters, partisan media megaphones, unenlightening political leadership campaigns, an entertainment industry both violent and adolescent, and the rise of the politics of blame and anger.

So, perhaps the ideal of a return to an era of good feeling, relative happiness, and optimism is purely unrealistic nostalgia.  Let us hope not.  For a nation to let itself be trapped in a negative cage of our own making, dominated by demagogues, and roiled by anger is a depressing outlook.

I for one cannot live the remainder of my life in an atmosphere of distrust, resentment of my fellow Americans, and despair over the decline of our political system.  It is not a natural state for me or for the vast majority of our fellow citizens.  To do so would be to succumb to atomization, isolation, erosion of civil society, and bitterness.

That is not who we are.  That is not what America is meant to be.

Despite slogans about the loss of greatness, our economy is performing exceptionally well, compared to the collapse of 2008, our military remains the strongest in the world by orders of magnitude, our higher education has few rivals, and our inventiveness rivals that of the days of Edison and Whitney.

Our Constitution is a document of human realism founded on a very idealistic belief in the possibility, yea, the necessity, of self-government.  Even during a violent civil war, Abraham Lincoln called on us to follow “the better angels of our nature”.  Despite the current wave of xenophobia, we still have a statue in New York harbor opening its arms to “…your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.’   This welcome does not exclude races or countries of origin.

When America decides to ignore or reject this statue and its welcome, we will no longer be America.  And if we vote against its spirit, we should in good conscience take the statue down or let it stay as a monument to our hypocrisy.

The test of a nation, like the test of an individual, occurs during times of trouble, not times of ease.  The happy days of the 1950s were relative times of ease.  We find out who we truly are in times like these today.  At the very least, at a time when meanness seems the default attitude, we must all do our best to assert our humanity, respect for others, and common decency.

A Tragedy Foretold

Author: Gary Hart

After November, expect an avalanche of analyses as to how the Trump phenomenon could have happened and, in some cases, how it can be prevented in the future.

A persuasive school of thought will link this phenomenon to the loss of privacy two or three decades ago and the consequent decline in the caliber and quality of political leadership in America.  The cost of the loss of privacy is the loss of respect.  And the loss of respect guarantees that men and women of talent and virtue will not submit themselves to the mockery of a mob of anonymous internet trolls and semi-literate political analysts.

Jefferson supposed that America’s future rested with “the aristocracy of talent and virtue”.  He did not mean that only aristocrats possessed those qualities.  He was too radical a democrat to believe that.  Rather, he believed that, largely due to widespread public education, a cohort of leaders with talent and a sense of public duty would form a new aristocracy, one not of wealth, family, and class but one of natural leadership ability and commitment to the common good.

Jefferson would not have been surprised by Abraham Lincoln in the least.

Jefferson would be surprised, shocked might be a better term, at the Trump phenomenon, one that appeals to baser instincts, latent prejudice, and mob hostility.  Like his friend James Madison, as well as the other Founders, he understood the hazards of demagoguery.  But he also believed a free press would reveal demagoguery, ignorance, prejudice, and vulgarity and an enlightened citizenry would quickly dispatch those exhibiting these qualities.

What neither he nor others could have anticipated was an amalgamation of mass media obsessed with sensation and scandal falling prey, virtually lock, stock, and barrel, to a demagogue who cleverly understood those same media’s thirst for daily doses of outrageousness disguised as “reality”.

The First Amendment’s unique protection of the press was for the purpose of providing independent information and enlightenment about the public’s business, not as a guarantee of profits for newspaper barons and corporate networks (especially corporate networks licensed by the public itself).

In the vacuum created by the disappearance, with some notable exceptions, of the aristocracy of talent and virtue, and given the replacement of public service as a noble profession by ideological entrepreneurs eager to please one interest group after another, the Trump phenomenon now looks virtually inevitable.

The Party that permitted itself to be co-opted by a reality-t.v. demagogue will spend considerable time rethinking its priorities after November, seeking to re-establish its true identity, and calculating the cost of a “Southern strategy” that expanded into an evangelical strategy, a gun strategy, an anti-immigrant strategy, and so much else..  Its “family strategy” meanwhile has managed to embrace a thrice-married nominee without so much as a blink of shame.

After the great train wreck of 2016, there remains the possibility of a serious political awakening in which the needs of media sensationalism take second place to the search for a new aristocracy of talent and civic virtue, the rise of a new generation of young men and women looking less for a career in elective office and more for a chance to ask what they can do for their country.

It has been estimated that fewer than 9% of the American people selected the two major party candidates for national leadership.  And it is a distinct possibility that fewer than 50% of eligible voters will decide between these two.  The fact that fewer than a quarter of eligible voters will select the next president should be cause for alarm and a judgment on us who hold our nation’s future in trust.

We could all do much worse, after this descent into democracy’s cluttered basement, than to engage in some soul searching about citizen responsibility for self-government, resistance to demagoguery, serious consideration about our nation’s future, and thoughtful discussion of alternative economic, foreign policy, and security approaches in an age of new realities.

Such a national renewal after the current nightmare would be greatly helped by the re-emergence of statesmen and stateswomen too long absent from the public arena.  But, in the end, it is really up to each of us.