Bill Clinton spoke at my daughter’s college yesterday, and today, of course, the entire student body is abuzz with politics. On the other hand, she goes to a pretty politically plugged-in university, so political talk is always in the air, particularly during a presidential election cycle like this one. But yesterday, rather out of the blue, she asked me who I was supporting for president.[Full disclosure: I am a pretty die-hard and left-leaning Democrat, but I have a fierce independent streak, and have been also known to vote for the occasional Republican.] After recovering from my shock that she would want my opinion on anything (much less politics), I began my reply with a deep sigh, dismayed as I am by the current field of candidates in both parties.
But then I related to her my benchmark — my very own litmus test, as it were, for presidential candidates. Forget about supreme court justices; stands on Israel and the middle east; stem-cell research (although all of those things factor into my choices). My litmus test is much harder to pass, particularly in this day of sound bites and spin. But how the candidates measure up to my benchmark determines whether (and in what way) I’ll support their candidacy.
Not that anyone really cares who I support. Me? I’m just one of those soccer moms. But it does help me filter through the hundreds of emails, phone calls, and snail mails I get each month asking for my (financial) support. So the results of that “litmus test” help me decide whether I might simply hold my nose and vote for the lesser amongst evils (if it came to that), or conversely, put my money where my mouth is. And it’s been an awfully long time since I’ve actually voted for a presidential candidate and not against the other guy.
Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, hours after winning the California presidential primary in 1968. I was in eighth grade, already very politically aware, even at 13 years old. Working on the Gene McCarthy campaign as a teen volunteer, I was shocked and horrified at the news of Kennedy’s murder, only two months after Martin Luther King also was gunned down. We actually don’t know how the world might be different today had Kennedy not been killed. Or if it would be better, worse, or no different at all. But Kennedy (at least thinking of him through the distance of time and circumstance) was a visionary. At least he spoke like one (your mileage may vary, so this – caveat emptor – is my opinion). Kennedy often quoted the eminently quotable playwright George Bernard Shaw with these words: "Some men see the world as it is and ask why; others see the world as it might be and ask why not."
Both to my impressionable 13-year-old ears, 40 years past, and my much more ancient and cynical 2007 ears, these are the words of a true visionary; a leader.
And in this presidential election cycle of 2007-8, a presidential candidate that speaks, believes and understands how to accomplish the promise that those words suggest has not only my vote, but my undying devotion and gratitude. And, I suspect, I would not be alone. There is nothing our country needs right now more than a real visionary residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Kennedy’s (okay, Shaw's) words expressed the fundamental difference between despair and hope, cynicism and idealism at a time when this country was even more polarized than it is now. It was a time of upheaval and change.
It seems to me that more than at any time in our nation’s history in those 40 years since Kennedy uttered those words for the last time, we need someone who will look at the state of our country; the state of the environment; the state of the world as a whole and not ask “why?” but looks us in our collective eye and challenges us with a future of “why nots.” We need a real leader. Full stop.
Haven’t you gotten weary of presidential candidates beginning each answer to every question with the words: “when I was (insert: governor, senator, representative), I…?” I might actually like Joe Biden if he didn’t preface each response with “I was the only senator who…”
I might support Bill Richardson if every explanation didn’t go back to: “As governor I was the only one to…” Richardson is a good guy. I actually do like many of his ideas. But being Governor of any state (as we have learned the hard way) is no guarantee of a good, or even competent, president. And we need competence; we need leadership; we need a president with the intellectual power to see the world, to see our nation, as it might be again and ask "why not?"
And one who carries in his brief case a (practical and implementable) plan to make that vision come alive. A person who will inspire the children and young adults of a new generation to reach beyond themselves; to instill a sense of engagement with government (their government); but, at the same time, have the street smarts and common sense to make things happen. Not by fear; not through manipulation of the facts; not by fraud and lies. But through honesty, transparency, creativity, and the hard work of bi-partisanship.
The next president must take stock of the damage wrought by eight years of bad policy and hubris. What happened (and continues to happen) in New Orleans and why? And what can be done, in real terms, to prevent more NOLAs? We need, as a nation, to understand fully what transpired in our government the past eight years. So that it never happens again. We need a president who will insist on it. How civil liberties could be stamped upon in this country; how people’s right to vote was manipulated; how the executive branch became more powerful than the co-equal partner branches of the legislative and judicial branches. And then propose specific steps, being as insistent as in the (so-called) war on terrorism, to correct what is wrong; and seeing to it that Congress works with him (or her) to really make it better. You may say, why revisit the past? What is to be gained from retrospective? To that I say, if we fail to make even a defeated government accountable for its actions then we provide a dangerous precedent for all future presidents (of either party).
We need a president who will help us regain our standing amongst nations; who will renew our status as the shining light of freedom; who will enable us to lead, not with our might, but with our spirit; not with our power, but by our vision and creativity. We’ve had eight years of dithering and sycophancy; of an executive branch out of control with a level of hubris that is both alarming in its breadth and chilling in the degree to which it’s been able to get away with it.
Barring a sudden entry into the race by Al Gore (who has both the domestic and international credibility to get the job done), we have a field of Democratic candidates who (for the most part) try very hard to come across sincere, but in their efforts, merely look like they’re pandering to pretty much everyone; consulting with their political consultants before saying much of anything at all; and then altering the message for another, competing constituency. Some do it less (or less obviously), but they all do it. So, finally off of my soapbox, I suggested that my daughter listen not only to the message, but to be aware, as well, of the massage — what are they saying, how they say it, and how does it change day to day (if at all).
This is not as easy a task as it seems. The mainstream media have their own agenda; their own candidates to love or hate. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews has been fixated on Hillary Clinton for more than a year — and the “talking punditry” seem to be entirely focused on the “Hillary vs. Barak” or the “Hillary vs. Rudy” debate. Ultimately, I suggested that my daughter utilize the Internet to its best effect, which is as a vast and open space for free exchange of ideas. Read the blogs (of all stripes); the e-zines and political sites; look at written (as opposed to speechified and massaged) position papers and find the candidate who, for her, is the visionary among the field. Who will for her, indeed for all of us, see our country as it can be and say “why not?” I did tell her who I support, whose message most matched my personal litmus test, and that is John Edwards. At least for now.