Leaders come and go, but it’s always up to us – a Nixonian lesson


“To continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication would almost totally absorb the time and attention of both the President and the Congress in a period when our entire focus should be on the great issues of peace abroad and prosperity without inflation at home.

“Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.”

– President Richard M. Nixon, in his resignation address to the people of the United States, August 8, 1974

Nixonresignation speech

No politician, least of all, the president, leaves office with a positive legacy, until the people find agreement that it is so. The good old boys can pat each other on the back and give each other medals, as was done in the Bush 43 administration, or claim they act in the best interest of their oaths to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” as this administration and its Congressional supporters claim they do. The final word, though, is for the voters to decide whose service we laud, and whose we condemn, before it gets left to history.

By definition, in order to lead, one must have a compelling message, with an understandable plan, addressing important issues in a way that enrolls others to follow. So hungry are we for this kind of leadership, that we transfer our desire to be led to pop-culture heroes, like rock gods and movie stars, who tend to disappoint us because we bestow upon them a mantle, for which the never asked, and shake from their shoulders like an unwelcome chill.

Political leaders, however, are happy to acknowledge that we have high expectations of their service, and are not afraid to indulge us in any quality we want to assume they endorse, if it helps them gain a following, whether they actually have a stated commitment to our pet cause, or not. President Obama, for example, did not hide his disdain for the actions of the Bush administration, when it came to the warrantless acquisition of telephone data, during his tenure in the U.S. Senate, or when he was running for his current office, in 2008.

Then we hear phrases like the one President Obama uttered, Tuesday night, during his appearance on the Tonight Show, with Jay Leno. “We don’t have a domestic spying program,” he said, adding, “What we do have are some mechanisms where we can track a phone number or an e-mail address that we know is connected to some sort of terrorist threat.”

And then he proceeded to talk about how those tools helped with the follow up after the Boston Marathon bombing, to track the cellphone records of the Tsarnaev brothers. (Of course, as part of the investigation, one might assume that any court, FISA or not, would have approved a warrant for such an inquiry.)

What is lost in the plausible explanations offered by the administration strongest supporters – like, now it’s legal, or once you’re Commander in Chief, your perspective changes – is the spirit of change his campaign promises seemed to offer: a clear distinction between our unhindered self-determination, and the disintegration of freedom under a profit-driven, security industrial complex.

But we cannot blame Obama for us letting ourselves be misled by the mythical, Camelot-like persona with which we were anxious to endow him. After all, we were coming out of eight years in the wilderness of terror, war, Dick Cheney, and the blasted stumps of a once thriving economy. We were easily swayed by his heartfelt words that belie the political pragmatism with which he chooses to govern.

All politicians err in carrying out their duties. We leave perfection to the gods, and it is a mistake to expect that of the people we choose to lead us. I’m not talking about the personal sexual proclivities that have been in the news so much, lately. Rather, this is a discussion about whether the women and men in our representative form of government leave us with the desirable impression that they did their best to move our republic forward, that they worked for the interests of every American, regardless of race, religion, gender preference or financial status.

Can my friend get affordable medical care for herself and her three young children, even while holding a full time job? Can anyone who wants a job find one that pays a living wage? Are there children going hungry, unchallenged intellectually, and uneducated? Is my country sending young men and women to their deaths in distant lands to protect us from a direct threat, or is this some construct of propaganda and lies meant to preserve access to exotic chemical resources, and make money for profiteers in our name?

The conservative right and the liberal left can’t agree on much, except they don’t like being shunned from their place at the policy table. The leadership holds the middle, working from the paradigm of political fear and the prospect of losing the next election. Every issue becomes the “third rail,” leaving any meaningful action unaccomplished.

No wonder that even House Republicans have had enough, and are calling it quits. Just this week, Rep. Rodney Alexander, a six term, conservative Republican from Louisiana, decided he was not going to run for reelection in 2014.  In what should be an all too familiar refrain, by now, his statement said:

“Rather than producing tangible solutions to better this nation, partisan posturing has created a legislative standstill. Unfortunately, I do not foresee this environment to change anytime soon. I have decided not to seek reelection, so that another may put forth ideas on how to break through the gridlock and bring about positive change for our country.”

And that brings us back to Mr. Nixon. He was in some deep, deep shit when he decided to resign, 39 years ago, this week. But he was right about one thing – government doesn’t function if the people are distracted by political fighting. “America needs a full-time President and a full-time Congress, particularly at this time with problems we face at home and abroad,” he told the nation.

With our “full time Congress” in recess more than they are in session, and spending part of every legislative day, when they are in session, raising money for the next election, nothing is getting done. For them, showing your support for their agenda is when you vote for them, because that is the only part of their agenda they are ever really committed to.

-PBG

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