HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

January 28, 2008
From Liberty Street

Intellectual Corruption

John Turner


It becomes ever more apparent that most of the American public and a significant portion of the press has no understanding that politics is the process of shaping and directing government. They think, instead, that politics is a panorama produced for their entertainment.

Watching TV over the weekend I heard repeatedly that charisma goes a long way in politics, especially in the presidency. It may go a long way in attaining the office but it goes nowhere in making use of it.

Caroline Kennedy made a big splash in the New York Times yesterday proclaiming that she wants to be inspired by a president in the same way people have told her that they were inspired by her father.  I'm old enough to remember how that felt. I voted for John F. Kennedy, was taken with him, and was saddened by his murder. But since 1963, I have learned more about his time in office than I could imagine knowing forty-five years ago. And I am now not as enthralled by his performance as I was by his image on TV. Admittedly, he didn't have much time in the presidency, but the time he did have was not used in a judicious manner.  He was obsessed with James-Bond-like adventures including numerous plots to murder foreign leaders. His notions of how to make the world right for America were no more mature than his attitudes towards women. I'm not saying that he might not have evolved into a better president than he was. He was a bright young man and, probably, capable of learning. But his record as chief executive was not sterling.  Yet he was, doubtless, the most charismatic president we've had.

The second most charismatic was probably Ronald Reagan, the great communicator. Exactly what he communicated I've never understood. But I know this, it was not the truth about his own administration. In fact, there has never been an administration -- with the possible exception of the current one -- which worked harder to cover up their own behavior. He left us with a legacy of degraded conditions of labor, neglect of the national infrastructure, and violent militarism around the world. We have not yet recovered from any of them.

I can't see that charisma has served us all that well.

Yes, but people will say, both Reagan and Kennedy made the people feel good about themselves. Let me introduce the radical thought that the American people, as an electorate, don't deserve to feel good about themselves. Their conceit that they are always virtuous just became they happen to be Americans has led to some of the most disastrous episodes in our nation's history. It has held us back from selecting leaders who would pursue a sensible foreign policy and it has promoted a burgeoning plutocracy at home which has seriously weakened the middle class and created the greatest gap in the developed world between the superrich and a majority of the people. In education, in foreign policy, in using the nation's resources, in preserving a healthy environment, in maintaining an effective system of public services, in preserving a judicial system that works hard to provide justice for all, the record of the American citizenry over the past three decades has been at best lackluster.

Why should they be praised? Why should they be made to feel good about themselves? And what are the motivations of people who are primarily concentrated on promoting these attitudes? If we want to have the relationship with a president that we had with Kennedy and Reagan, why not just elect Brad Pitt and be done with it?

Now we have Barack Obama and the gigantic wave of sentiment washing over the land which says he can bring us together. I have no idea what that means. I know this: I don't much want to be brought together with Dick Cheney, or Donald Rumsfeld, or Paul (Jerry) Bremer, or Tom DeLay, or Mitch McConnell, or Ted Stevens, or Donald Kagan, or Norman Podhoretz, or William Kristol, or Paul Wolfowitz, or Neal Boortz, or Bill O'Reilly, or Rush Limbaugh, or Tucker Carlson, or Glenn Beck, or Ann Coulter, or dozens of others I could name if I wanted to keep the list going. What I want with respect to them is a president who will reduce their influence on the behavior of the American government as much as possible.

Barack Obama now has a fair chance of becoming president of the United States. And if he does he will be helped to that position by my vote. But we will do both him and ourselves a great disservice if we lead him to think that his job as president will be to inspire us with glowing abstractions delivered through soaring oratory. If he's going to be our president, we should be helping him towards effectiveness by asking the sharpest questions we can about how he intends to manage the government, what he wants to accomplish with it, and what methods he's going to use to overcome the serious impediments within the government that will inevitably rise up against him. We need to make him think as hard as he can about how he's going to govern.  No matter how good and intelligent Barack Obama is, he will not be a good president without engaging in vigorous debate with the American people. And if he escapes doing it, that will be our fault, not his.

The important question facing us is whether we want an effective government that will be used to serve and benefit all the people or a diverting show that will float us along in oblivious self-satisfaction till we wash up against a disaster? Do we want a politics that will connect us to government, or one that will cut us off completely from it?


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