All Talk, No Action

Apparently the Sunday talk shows this week were all atwitter with discussion of John Kerry’s tour of duty in Vietnam over 35 years ago.

Now, I wouldn’t know about that personally, because I have a four year-old. If his pals aren’t talking about it on the playground or it’s not on the Cartoon Network, I can be a little out-of-the-loop.

But I did catch a story in the New York Times referring to continuing discussion about advertisements paid for by an organization known as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, in which Mr. Kerry is being called a liar and a coward, and the validity of medals he earned in service to his country is being called into question.

Anything to avoid talking about real issues, I guess.

I don’t give a rat’s ass about whether or not John Kerry chased down a wounded kid fighting for the Viet Cong and shot him in the back on some sweltering day in the Mekong Delta half a lifetime ago, and it matters not one iota (in the context of this presidential election we have coming up, presumably, in less than three months) whether his boat was under enemy fire when he turned it around to rescue one of his men who’d been jarred off it moments before.

To be fair, I also don’t care whether or not George W. Bush’s daddy got him a cush assignment with the Texas Air National Guard to keep him out of Vietnam during those heady days in the twilight of the Great Society. It would be nice to know for sure whether he actually served in his unit or was, as some have alleged, AWOL for significant portions of his tour, but in the context of what we must decide as a nation in November, that too is immaterial.

In fact, with respect to either man’s military service, insofar as it may have any bearing on the choices he might make tomorrow as President, it is germane that Mr. Kerry’s experience in Vietnam led him to return to the United States and call that misadventure what it was: an illegal, un-winnable war that was costing our country unconscionably in lives and resources. And that he launched his career in public service on an effort to put a stop to that war.

Mr. Bush, we have already seen, has a dangerous propensity to commit American lives and resources to an atrocious endeavor not unlike Vietnam, and to lie repeatedly to the American public trying to justify his bellicosity. He also appears to lack any capacity to recognize a quagmire when he sees one, and just may be so infused with hubris that he won’t hesitate to destroy additional lives and resources on his journey to Armageddon.

Between the two men, Mr. Kerry seems far more fit to lead a nation, whether it’s one at war or one desirous of peace.

That the choice between Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry seems so clear-cut begs the real question, however, one that neither candidate, none of the mainstream media, and very few citizens in the public square seem willing to address: once elected, what is it that we really expect our President to do? What is the American idea of government here at the dawn of the 21st Century? How do we reconcile the ‘self-evident’ truths contained in our Declaration of Independence with the fact that we do not hold them to apply even to every American, let alone to everyone within our borders or everyone on the planet?

A friend and I were speaking last week about how the political conversation in this country has become harder to understand over the onslaught of propaganda churned out by special, largely moneyed interests at both ends of the spectrum. The very terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ seem to have lost their meaning and are now mere labels used to champion or despoil the ideas put forth by anyone with the temerity to seek public office.

What is conservative, for example, about a government that produces deficits in the hundreds of billions of dollars? What is conservative about a government that re-writes its environmental laws to permit wholesale degradation of the nation’s air, water, and natural resources in the service of increasing short-term profits for a few corporations? What is conservative about a government that seeks to abdicate all control of the public airways, transportation, and communication systems, trusting in the blind hand of ‘free market’ competition to produce what is best for people?

And yet, Republicans, and the current Republican president call themselves conservative.

Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper’s Magazine, writes in a long piece in the September issue about how the ‘Conservative Message Machine’ has been grinding out for the last forty years the news that “all government is bad, and that the word ‘public,’ in all its uses and declensions (public service, citizenship, public health, community, public park, commonwealth, public school, etc.), connotes inefficiency and waste.” He writes that it is no surprise both candidates in this year’s presidential election present themselves as embodiments of what they call ‘values’ rather than as proponents of an idea, and asks,

How does one reconcile the demand for small government with the desire for an imperial army, apply the phrases “personal initiative” and “self reliance” to corporation presidents utterly dependent on federal subsidies to the banking, communication, and weapons industries, square the talk of “civility” with the strong-arm methods of Kenneth Starr and Tom DeLay, match the warm-hearted currencies of “conservative compassion” with the cold cruelty of “the unfettered free market,” know that human life must be saved from abortionists in Boston but not from cruise missiles in Baghdad?

As the election approaches we can count on the candidates to continue seeking votes with talk of values. We can count on the pundits and talking heads in the media to continue endlessly debating the irrelevant minutiae of topics like the candidates’ hair, or how often they hug people, or the likely impact of their wives on the women’s movement.

Regardless who wins in November, it will be past time to ask questions like those posed by Mr. Lapham, past time to begin demanding a government willing to address them.

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