HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

November 17, 2008
From Liberty Street

National Health

John Turner


For at least a decade now I've thought that the American people were behaving so foolishly that we were heading for a national crackup. I can't be sure the critical moment has arrived. I have hopes for Obama's leadership. His election was a sign that the nation may be emerging from intellectual decrepitude. Still, we can scarcely expect one man, regardless of his intelligence, to carry us to the promised land.

There are questions any serious people would wish to see answered which are rarely discussed in our public debates. Here are a few:

  • How many people have been killed, with our acquiescence, by George Bush's ill-considered decisions -- persons whose deaths served no good whatsoever?

  • How much American treasure has been thrown away on destructiveness?

  • How many people have been tortured by agents of the American government?

  • How much money has been stolen through corrupt or loose deals the government made with rapacious businesses?

  • How often has the Constitution been violated by the Bush government?

  • Do the American people actually think their government can slaughter tens of thousands of people and waste at least a trillion dollars and there be no consequences?

When people make themselves the servants of viciousness and greed, other people notice. How could they not?

We like to say other governments have done worse things. We point to Germany and the Soviet Union in the first half of the 20th century. But we spend scarcely any time reflecting on the horrors suffered by the people of those regimes. Tens of millions of central Europeans suffered hideous deaths and we say, "Well, that was just history."

Americans seem to be convinced that we don't live in history. We are always looking forward, never looking back, no matter what it is we are leaving behind us.

With the advent of the new presidential administration there will be talk about what to do about the crimes of the past eight years. And some will say, let's don't worry about that. We shouldn't be spending our time on witch hunts. We've got the problems of the present to solve. And, indeed, we do have the problems of the present.

Even so, it will be a great mistake if we don't make a sincere effort to face up to what we have just come through. It doesn't have to be a witch hunt, but it does need to be an acknowledgment.

I watched Scott McClellan speaking at the Miami Book Fair over the past weekend. He has made the sort of transition many more Americans need to make. From a zealot inside the Bush administration he has transformed himself into an inquiring citizen. It would be a mistake to think his transformation is complete, but he has learned lessons that make a difference. And the most important one is that a people cannot have good government if political position is all the managers of government care about.

He spoke of the way political manipulation and spin come to be accepted as the way things are, of how the permanent campaign has poisoned the atmosphere of Washington, of how a culture of scandal came to create rampant hostility, of how a philosophy of politics as war ruled all decision-making. And most forcefully of all he asserted that the president was led to embrace all the features of the current game

We can tell ourselves all we want that everything's fair in politics, and that we can have perpetually vicious campaigns without poisoning public life. But it's not true. Campaigns of the sort the Republicans conducted to put Bush in the White House insured the failure of his government. You cannot have Karl Rove as your brain and do anything for the health of your country. You cannot admire the skill and genius of Karl Rove and have journalistic integrity. You cannot lie your way to political paradise.

Barack Obama seems to have an almost visceral grasp of all this. In his public guise, at least, he professes a deep disdain for hatred and understanding that nothing of worth was ever built out of hatred. Let's hope the face he shows us is the real man, and the knowledge he professes is his genuine belief.  But, now, we have to allow him to apply that knowledge. No man is incorruptible. It is very hard for a president to be dramatically better than the people he serves. I hope we've learned enough from who we have been to help him be a different chief executive from the one we've had.


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