Wednesday, November 3, 2010

You think this was bad...

The passing over the weekend of Ted Sorensen, coming on the heels of the current election cycle begs obvious comparisons between the politics of the past and the politics of today. Sorensen was best known as one of President Kennedy's chief aids as well as the speechwriter responsible for some of the most memorable, eloquent and poetic phrases in the annals of U.S. political history. From Kennedy's inaugural address, Sorenson is responsible for this:

Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans--born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage--and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

And of course, this:

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

Refreshing isn't it to read after listening to politicians with little or no vision of their own resorting to the most viscous attacks on their opponents for the past six months.

Every year the pundits and public alike decry that campaigns get dirtier and dirtier and politicians wring their hands and say something must be done to stop this. Then comes another election cycle and more of the same.

By far the most atrocious ad that I heard this year was one that urged voters not to approve the retention of Illinois State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride. In the ad, actors read first person accounts of criminals recounting their crimes. One began: "I sexually assaulted a woman and her daughter, slit their throats and burned them..." It then continued: "...but Judge Kilbride let me off." The ad was sponsored by a special interest group that opposed the judge's rulings on placing caps on malpractice suits, but apparently felt that this angle was more likely to get voters' attention.

It turned out that Justice Kilbride won another term to the state's highest court, but only after waging what turned out to be the most expensive campaign for that post in the state's history. He won with 65 percent of the votes in the affirmative, (he needed 60 percent). One can only assume that many of the the 35 percent who cast no votes (an unusually high number) were influenced by that ad.

The fact is that ads that play on people's fears, despicable as they are, work. Who can forget Willy Horton?

Or this, perhaps the most shamefully manipulative, and effective political ad ever.

Lyndon Johnson won that election by a landslide, thereby sparing the little daisy girl and the rest of us from Armageddon.

Attack ads have been with us since the beginning. Looking at some of the mud that was slung during 19th Century campaigns makes today's political discourse look like an afternoon social.

What I find startling in reading Kennedy's speech so beautifully crafted by Sorensen, is the call to commitment and sacrifice that stands in marked contrast to what we typically hear from office seekers of today.

The utter self-interest that has dominated the current election season is appalling and disheartening to me. Certainly no one wants to pay higher taxes, especially during tough economic times. It seems inconceivable however that higher taxes are not in our future as the government, especially at the state level, is fast becoming insolvent. Yet I can think of only one candidate in Illinois at least, who openly admitted this in his campaign.

No, the current mantra is "lower taxes and cut spending." This is music to the ears of much of another generation, born after depression and war, tempered at least until recently by prosperity and as a result, lacks discipline, is practically ignorant of its heritage, and is more than willing to let go of hard fought human rights that it feels do not directly concern it.

Well let's see, where do we cut the spending? How about education. People without kids have always griped about having to pay for others' kids' education. Never mind that children whether they're ours or not are our future.

What about public transportation? Folks who drive everywhere continually moan about paying for transportation they don't use, conveniently forgetting that infrastructure that allows them to drive their cars also costs a lot of money. Then how about cutting spending on roads? No way!

Security and defense cuts are OK for some until something terrible happens and then comes the universal cry: "why didn't we do anything to prevent it!"

One of the most appalling suggestions that has been bandied about frequently in the "let's cut the budget" ads has been to cut the pensions of state workers. People working in the public sector have been getting a bad rap lately and this message resounds with the anti-government crowd.

Of course if anyone suggested cutting the pensions that they themselves worked so hard for so many years to accumulate, the anti-govs would cry bloody murder.

And so it goes, "balance the budget, cut the stuff I don't need, and whatever you do, don't raise my taxes", is the rallying cry of a growing segment of the population whose political power appears to be gaining momentum.

It gives me pause to reflect on the words of that tremendous speech delivered almost fifty years ago. They inspire us to greater heights through hope and promise by encouraging us to work together for the greater good of the world, not just for ourselves.

One "sound bite" comes particularly to mind that stands chillingly in contrast to the muck we've been thrown in the past few months:

To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required -- not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. (emphasis mine)

If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

I think those are good words to reflect upon today, cleansing our pallets after months of empty promises, lies, accusations, disinformation, and if I dare say it, an all out fear and hatred of those with different opinions.

For those of us who are particularly appalled and relieved that the election is over, all I can say is this: just wait a few months when the arduous presidential campaign begins in earnest.

In the words of Al Jolson:

Folks, you ain't seen nothin' yet.


Francis said...

Your points are well taken, and I generally agree. However, the government's bills do come due, and public sector spending today is so much greater than it has ever been that it is hard to see how taxes could ever be structured to pay for it all. That leaves cuts--the conclusion gutsily reached by Cameron in England. And your statement about "virtually every economist of any merit" is waaaay wrong. But you are absolutely right about political rhetoric. There is a debate to be had in America today, but we're not having it.

jamesiska said...

Thanks for your comment, I'll strike the economist remark as pure hyperbole. You know you can't believe everything you read on the internet!

You're right, more taxes will not solve everything (and the band played on) and government absolutely must restructure spending. But this attitude of "cut everything as long as it doesn't affect me" isn't going to go very far in terms of getting us out of governmental insolvency.

The State of Illinois for example has a budget gap of 13 billion dollars (ok I made up that amount too, but I think it's fairly accurate), and its bills have long ago come due.

We can't pay our bills simply by "tightening our belts", we need revenue. We could sell off all our assets as Mayor Daley is doing here in Chicago, but those assets are also our future and they won't last forever. We're simply running out of options.