What a sad and unworthy place we have come to on the Eisenhower Memorial! Yesterday, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission convened a public meeting to discuss the proposed Eisenhower Memorial. But instead of talking about the substance and feasibility of building Frank Gehry’s design, the commissioners acted as if nothing has changed in this country since 1999 when they started the effort to build a national memorial to the five-star general and two-term president. The commissioners gave nary a nod to the sequester, which has cut public funding to many vital national programs. Nor did they properly assess and account for the likelihood of continuing and future fiscal constraints. Instead, Chairman Rocco Siciliano chose to focus on his frustrations with the Eisenhower family–specifically “the girls”– without properly acknowledging the overwhelming public opposition to the design.
In Washington we are used to political and public policy disappointments, but I have been continually astonished by the degree to which the commission has gotten away with baldly mischaracterizing my family’s position. The attacks directed at me specifically yesterday were a transparent attempt to sideline the views of our father – Ike’s son and executor of his will – John S.D. Eisenhower. Rather than acknowledging my father’s views on this design, as expressed in a letter last fall, Chairman Rocco Siciliano talked about “the girls” – as if my sister and I, the designated spokespersons for our father and siblings, were willful rogues. He also declared that the Eisenhower family had been involved over the years but had not spoken up until recently. This claim is counter to a decade of correspondence to the commission from various family members about our concerns with the process and the design. Lastly he repeated again that my brother, David, had voted for the Gehry design, when in fact David supported the concept of another architect.
The unanimous vote yesterday – defiantly rejecting my family’s appeal for consideration of fiscal realities (see below) – was a sorry show of group-think. The commissioners were appointed to serve the public and guide this effort, which has been funded at the taxpayers’ expense.
The Eisenhower family is united in its belief that the nation and Congress must get this memorial right. The current design will be seen clearly from Capitol Hill, it will reconfigure the traffic pattern in a congested part of Washington, and it will cost far more than current estimates, since the 80-foot metal scrims will have to be replaced over time and the National Park Service will have difficulty in keeping them clean and free of debris.
The scrims remain the central issue. In addition to durability concerns, they serve to undermine an important facet of the Eisenhower legacy: bipartisanship. Our family has pointed out they will create a metal barrier – a curtain – which will separate the Eisenhower Memorial from the Department of Education’s Lyndon Baines Johnson Building. President Eisenhower and then Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson worked together in a way not seen in decades.
Mr. Gehry told my sister and me last year that the metal scrims are a non-negotiable part of the memorial design – the element that makes this a Gehry.
Apparently this consideration has trumped all else.
It is impossible to predict if the Commission will ultimately succeed in getting the Gehry built. But if they do they will have succeeded through the promotion of half-truths, disinformation about Dwight Eisenhower’s family, and most importantly an apparent disregard for the interests of the American taxpayer in this resource-constrained era.
Below is the appeal my family submitted yesterday for the Commission’s consideration.
While the Eisenhower family was not in attendance for this meeting, this blog is based on several reports we’ve received. Chairman Simpson read the following letter on our behalf:
Lewis H. Lapham, former editor of Harper’s Magazine, once said that leadership “…imposes on both leader and follower alike the burdens of self-restraint.” In other words, self-control as a national value is vital in any democracy, especially in one such as ours with a powerful constitutional safeguard on expression.
Last week, President Obama offered us such a lesson on the First Amendment when an unexpected heckler managed to crash his invitation-only speech at National Defense University, shouting to him about the prisoners on hunger strike at Guantanamo and the importance of closing the facility. POTUS let her talk for a minute and encouraged the audience to listen to what she had to say. When he asked to finish his point, she continued to persist. Obama finally stopped her, “Part of free speech,” he said, “is…you listening.”
The miracle of modern technology has given voice to the unheard and empowered the weak. It has created new communities, and opened the door for an unprecedented level of dialogue among other citizens and strangers. It has connected people who’ve lost touch. It has made once lonely people feel part of a bigger social circle.
It has also amplified the noisiest among us and turned people who had once valued social skills into distracted, self-absorbed citizens. No one seems to be listening any more—to anybody on any issue. If they were, empathy, persuasion and open-mindedness might have a chance in contemporary life. Instead, increasing numbers of people believe that influence is about shouting the loudest.
In this context, the First Amendment of the Constitution is now being increasingly evoked—some would say abused—at nearly every turn. This is the price, perhaps, of failing to provide more than a half a semester of civics for students in most of the nation’s high schools. Earlier generations, at least, were steeped in the notion that there is no freedom without responsibility.
The Washington Post’s venerable national security columnist, Walter Pincus, wrote this week about the leaking of highly sensitive national security documents. “When will journalists take responsibility for what they do without circling the wagons and shouting that the First Amendment is under attack?” he asked. Citing a case currently under investigation, he points out that “…I believe the First Amendment covers the right to publish information, but it does not grant blanket immunity for how that information is gathered.” It does not, he went on, include breaking the law.
On another front, federal law enforcement officers have also been investigating a former U.S. Marine and several active-duty Marines for posting threatening and “lewd” messages aimed at President Obama and Congressman Jackie Speier (D-CA). According to USA Today, when Speier apparently reported this to the authorities, these same bloggers “referred to her in vulgar terms and accused her of trampling their First Amendment rights.”
We will find out in the coming months the results of these two cases. But President Obama is right in a larger sense. There is a flip side to our rights. Freedom belongs to everyone, not just to those who outspokenly “exercise” their rights. Constitutional protection may assure you a lot, but it was not intended – as Obama pointed out – to be a license to scream without listening. It does not give the media the right to break the law for the sake of a scoop. Nor was it created so you could slander someone or gratuitously ruin another person’s image or reputation just to get attention. Without responsibility and self-control, the road that lies ahead leads to strife, an erosion of our collective security and safety—and possibly chaos.
Senator Elihu Root, one of this nation’s greatest public servants, summed it up best just after the turn of the twentieth century. “Religion, the philosophy of morals, the teaching of history, and the experience of every human life point to the same conclusion—that in the practical conduct of life the most difficult and necessary virtue is self-restraint.”
It is only in this way that democracy, and the fairness that it promises, can thrive.
Cornell Law School has this to say about the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States:
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution protects the right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression from government interference. Freedom of expression consists of the rights to freedom of speech, press, assembly and to petition the government for a redress of grievances, and the implied rights of association and belief. The Supreme Court interprets the extent of the protection afforded to these rights. The First Amendment has been interpreted by the Court as applying to the entire federal government even though it is only expressly applicable to Congress. Furthermore, the Court has interpreted, the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as protecting the rights in the First Amendment from interference by state governments.
Earlier this week, I spoke at the Nuclear Energy Assembly to help commemorate their 60th anniversary. The multi-day event was hosted by the Nuclear Energy Institute. My speech focused on strategic leadership as exemplified by the Atoms for Peace initiative – and the need again for a view of energy that factors in the long-term perspective.Nuclear Energy Assembly Atoms for Peace . . . 60 Years Later Washington, D.C.
May 14, 2013
Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Guests,
What a pleasure it is for me to address this Assembly today, to help mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Nuclear Energy Institute, originally the Atomic Industrial Forum.
Also sixty years ago this December 8, in a speech before the United Nations, President Dwight D. Eisenhower outlined a strategic vision for the United States and for the world. It changed the way we see the potential of atomic power and ushered in a new era of international cooperation and partnership in a security sensitive area—nuclear science−which until that time had threatened us all.
It was a vision for the future that would be long-term in nature and bold in its results. It placed the United States at the forefront of events, assuring that it would be through our guidance and our standards that the world would make a transition to the peaceful use of this mighty source of power and energy. It brought the Soviet Union back to the arms control bargaining table—leading to the declassification of an entire area of nuclear science, fusion—and it engaged former colonial countries in peaceful cooperation rather than in the pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Would you or I have shown the same courage, humanity and enduring spirit? That was the question I asked on Sunday, April 28 at the Holocaust Museum’s 20th Anniversary dinner. I was honored to receive the Elie Wiesel Award on behalf of the World War II veterans who defeated Nazi power and liberated the concentration camps. Many of them were in the audience, as well as hundreds of concentration camp survivors.
This magnificent award gave me the opportunity to reflect on our veterans’ bravery, but also on the many Jews who saved the lives of other Jews during the Holocaust.
Chairman Bernstein, Vice Chairman Bolton, Elie Wiesel, distinguished veterans and survivors – I am honored to accept this award on behalf of the World War II veterans. It is especially meaningful that it bears the name of Elie Wiesel.
I am also pleased to be here this evening to help celebrate the Holocaust Museum’s 20th anniversary. A remarkable set of accomplishments have been achieved in the last two decades. And what an appropriate place to think about what happened nearly seventy years ago and to reflect on what it means today.
After the terrorist attacks in Boston much has been written on why, in the face of the explosion, some people rushed in to help while others ran away. It has been rightly pointed out that no one can really know what he or she would do until faced with a crisis. Would one rise to the occasion or back away?
In April of 1945, it was a crucial period at Allied headquarters as General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces Europe, was engrossed in decisions about Berlin and other crucial matters. On the morning of the 12, Eisenhower visited the salt mines in Germany where the Nazis had hidden stolen art work. Later that evening he received the news that Franklin Roosevelt had died. As Eisenhower wrote in Crusade in Europe:
“The same day, I saw my first horror camp [Ohrdruf]. It was near the town of Gotha. I have never felt able to describe my emotional reactions when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality… Up to that time I had known about it only generally or through secondary sources. I am certain, however that I have never at any other time experienced an equal sense of shock. I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify first-hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda. Some members of the visiting party were unable to go through with the ordeal. I not only did so but as soon as I returned to Patton’s headquarters that evening I sent communications to both Washington and London, urging the two governments to send instantly to Germany a random group of newspaper editors and representative groups from the national legislatures. I felt that the evidence should be immediately placed before the American and British publics in a fashion that would leave no room for cynical doubt.”
Dwight Eisenhower showed extraordinary presence of mind. Instinctively he could imagine, even in the pressure of the moment, that someday — at some distant time— there would be people who might try to deny such heinous crimes. What would you or I have done at such a moment? Most people at the time thought his insistence on documenting the camps was unnecessary. Yet Eisenhower’s immediate response has had a lasting, historic impact. Imagine today trying to counter the Holocaust deniers, including Iranian President Ahmadinejad, without having the historic evidence Eisenhower demanded.
My father, John S.D. Eisenhower, was serving in the European Theater at that time. He saw his father the day after his visit to Ohrdruf. Based on Ike’s account, a few days later John visited Buchenwald to bear witness as well.
A month later, on June 18, General Eisenhower held a press conference at the Pentagon. The press corps asked him about his determination to shine a light on the atrocities.
“When I found the first camps like that I think I never was so angry in my life,” Eisenhower replied. “The bestiality displayed there… and the horrors I really would not even want to describe… I think people should know about such things…I think the people at home ought to know what they are fighting for…”
From North Africa and Italy, to the beaches of Normandy through France and into Germany, those armed forces fought hard, demonstrating legandary courage and tenacity. At the same press conference, Eisenhower spoke in emotional terms about the sacrifice of the American fighting men. He told of the more than 10,000 of them who had volunteered to fill out important divisions before the decisive Battle of the Bulge. 2,600 of them were American blacks.
“These are America’s fighting men!!” They did their duty, the general said, with “cheerfulness under conditions of unbelievable hardship.”
What would you and I have done in their places? And would we have responded, when the call for volunteers had gone out? We honor our veterans, and salute those who are here with us tonight.
There are many other people from all walks of life who exhibited uncommon bravery during the war. But there is a specific group that has not been given the attention it so richly deserves. They are the Jews in the ghettos and in the camps who risked their lives to save other Jews. I was moved by a recent story in the Washington Post by Menachem Z. Rosensaft. He told his mother’s story – of the tragic loss of her parents, her husband and small son in the Holocaust. Despite this, Hadassah Rosensaft never gave up. While at Bergen-Belsen she and her other campmates found countless ways to save lives—by stealing food, smuggling medicine, and nurturing the orphaned children. She and others like her gave those terrified children not just songs and comfort – but more importantly – hope.
Hadassah Rosensaft and a handful of campmates helped to keep as many as 149 children alive throughout the winter and spring of 1945.
Later, she reflected on the inmates of Bergen-Belsen:
“For the greater part of the liberated Jews of Bergen-Belsen there was no ecstasy, no joy at our liberation. We had lost our families, our homes. We had no place to go, nobody to hug, and nobody who was waiting for us, anywhere. We had been liberated from death and from the fear of death, but we were not free from the fear of life.”
What would you and I have done? With courage and conviction, survivors of the Holocaust rebuilt their lives, and those same people worked hard to help make the United States the free world’s global superpower.
I cannot say it strongly enough: this Museum is more than a place for the remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust and those who liberated them. It is a monument to the indomitable human spirit.
Last week was a stark reminder that in one split second life can end or be altered forever. The bombings in Boston and the explosion in Texas brought home to us this fragility of life. In one case, the death and maiming came at the hands of people whose agenda was terror and tragedy. In the other, possible negligence led to an industrial accident that killed fourteen people and leveled five city blocks. For many of those who survived, life on the other side of that second will be a burden unanticipated, a struggle unimagined. But they still have the greatest gift of all — life.
Of those who died in last week’s tragedies, the majority were first responders. An MIT police officer was killed during the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombing suspects. In Texas, eleven of the fourteen people who perished had dedicated their lives to saving others.
From the outpourings in the paper — as fleeting as they are — we will remember these people as devoted public servants. But how often do we reflect on what that really means? Did we ever really think of how profoundly different their choices were from our own? Their job descriptions were uncertainty; their stock and trade, potential sacrifice. Many of them lived with the prospect that on a fully engaged day of work they might not return to their homes. And this past week, many of them didn’t.
This came to me in an especially personal way over the weekend. I learned that the lives of my colleague and associate Major General Joseph D. Brown IV and his wife Susan were suddenly extinguished in a small aircraft accident on Friday. Both Joe and Sue devoted themselves to this country. Though Joe did not die in the line of fire, he had put himself in extreme danger many times. A 32-year Air Force veteran, he spent more than 4,300 hours in the cockpit — including sorties into Iraqi “lethal airspace” to take out GPS jamming towers — under fire from surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft barrages. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his “extraordinary airmanship and bravery.” And the citation for his Bronze Star read, for “the near flawless execution of over 700 combat missions.”
Later in his career he served as deputy director of the U.S. Strategic Air Command before taking up his assignment as the first Commandant of the newly renamed, Dwight D. Eisenhower School of National Security and Resource Strategy at the National Defense University.
Then, one April weekend Joe and Sue were gone. He was a exceptional leader, an educator, and a defender of our national security — an energetic and optimistic force in these troubling and difficult times.
General and Mrs. Brown, like the others who served the public and lost their lives this week, have left us with a debt — one that is hard to put into words. To say they will be missed does not begin to give meaning to what their lives really represented. With humility and purpose, they made a commitment to clear the way so that others could be first — to enjoy peace, freedom and our days without worry.
Their lives may have gone in a flash, but their legacies of service will endure with every task we undertake and every challenge we will face.
Pundits beware: Punxsutawney Phil gained a reprieve last week, after narrowly escaping lynch mobs and the possibility of time on death row. NBC News announced that “Punxsutawney Phil is innocent beyond a shadow of a doubt.”
An Ohio prosecutor, Mike Gmoser, had issued an indictment for the Pennsylvania groundhog who, on February 2, erroneously predicted an early spring. His handlers eventually took the fall, but frustration and disdain were still directed at the varmint. In no time at all Gmoser’s phone was ringing off the hook. “There’s a lot of people who want a piece of him,” he told reporters. “I know because I’m getting recipes from around the country.”
It’s true. With temperatures still hovering in some places around freezing, the seasonal scene for many central and northern states has been grim. The promise of spring has been, until now, just that—a promise.
That’s why Phil’s narrow escape should be a cautionary tale to all the pundits and talking heads who speak with such conviction and authority about the future. The public is tired of experts who continue to get it wrong.
Weather forecasts aside, as a nation we spend entirely too much television and radio time making unnecessary predictions. A significant percentage of these scenarios are advanced only in the context of now, rather than in reference to deeper underlying trends. A lot of it is just sheer entertainment.
Unfortunately, erroneous predictions in the policy world can cost lives, divert resources or leave the country flat footed. Remember the number of experts who issued dire warnings about the impending disaster of Y2K? (Think of how much money we spent on that non-event!) Or the group-think conviction that the Soviet Union was a coherent country, prompting President George H.W. Bush to admonish the Ukraine in 1991 to remain part of it. Within months the USSR collapsed. And tragically, there were far too many “me toos” who publicly said that the war in Iraq would be easy and that their oil would pay for it. Remember, the military operation would go “swimmingly” (Bill Kristol)? And finding weapons of mass destruction would be a “slam dunk” (George Tenant)?
Conversely, where were the experts and pundits to warn us of the 2008 economic meltdown? Fundamentals clearly pointed to an unsustainable housing bubble, and the toxic financial products that underpinned it.
Wrong-headed political punditry has also reached new levels, though with far fewer consequences. How many pundits told us that Sarah Palin was a brilliant choice as John McCain’s Vice Presidential running mate? How many talking heads predicted Michelle Bachman would be the Republican nominee in 2012—or even Donald Trump?
“The dirty little secret about political punditry,“ wrote Jim Newell in Salon, is that “it requires very little knowledge or skills and there are no consequences for being wrong.” This is a good thing for the community of talking heads, since the likes of Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, Michael Barone, Larry Kudlow, Jim Cramer, and Dick Morris all predicted a run-away victory for Mitt Romney.
Recently, pundits of the other persuasion, including Chris Matthews, James Carville and Ed Schultz, have spoken passionately about Hillary Clinton’s prospects for 2016. As they know better than most of us, any number of things could intervene between now and the 2016 race. President Obama is only 63 days into his second administration and much remains uncertain about his term, as well as the evolving mood of the country and any line-up of candidates that may seek to succeed him.
So if you want a forecast on who will be the candidates and the next president of the United States, there’s no need to tune into your favorite cable station. Why not ask Punxsutawney Phil for a prediction? The LA Times noted that “According to stormfax.com, since Punxsutawney Phil began issuing predictions in 1887, he has been correct about 39% of the time.” According to the writer, Phil Whitefield, this “is a much higher percentage than say someone like Karl Rove and his prediction in the 2012 presidential election, and no one called for Rove’s balding head on a stick.”
On March 19, I testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation on the proposed legislation H.R. 1126, the “Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Completion Act,” which calls for a new design for the Eisenhower Memorial. My testimony reflected my family’s desire to see an Eisenhower Memorial that is “simple, sustainable, and affordable”:
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee,
I wish to express our thanks to Chairman Bishop and the Committee for the opportunity to testify today. I would also like to echo the appreciation we have for everyone—Congress, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, and architect Frank Gehry—for their commitment to a memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower in Washington, D.C.
My sister, Anne, is with us from New York. On behalf of the Eisenhower family, we are grateful to Chairman Bishop for introducing a bill to sustain the momentum on the building of an Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C.
On hearing the news of this bill, Eisenhower Memorial Commission Chairman Rocco Siciliano said in an email reported in the press: “I am saddened by Congressman Bishop’s attempt to thwart the memorialization of one of America’s greatest generals and presidents, Dwight D. Eisenhower.”
My family and I respectfully, but emphatically, disagree:
Congressman Bishop’s legislation is designed to assure a memorial to Dwight Eisenhower, not to thwart it. From the moment the current design was adopted, some members of the Commission and the staff were determined to link the proposed Frank Gehry design to the very future of the memorial itself. This is unprecedented in the history of presidential memorials. This rigidity has damaged the effort to build a memorial. The approach has made adversaries out of stakeholders and alienated even the greatest supporters of this process.
Mr. Chairman, you and Chairman Issa have been the first to address the impasse that has unfortunately developed. We applaud you both for your efforts. We would also like to thank the co-sponsors of your bill. Continuation of the status quo, as you have pointed out, will doom the prospect of building a memorial. You are right that no consensus on the memorial design has emerged and that it is time to go back to the drawing board, with an open process for a new design of the memorial.
Significant stakeholders believe that the Gehry design is, regretfully, unworkable. My family – as well as countless members of the public and the media – thinks the design is flawed in concept and overreaching in scale. The recent durability study notes the limited lifetime of the metal scrims, as well as the potential ice and snow hazard to the public. It also notes that the current design, to meet presidential memorial specifications, would require a duplicate set of scrims to be furnished—with the additional costs that would entail. Yet despite all this, the Commission’s approach is to plow ahead with a design that has virtually no support outside of a percentage of the architectural community—which has understandably rallied more in defense of architect Frank Gehry than for the specific memorial design itself.
For more than ten years my family raised concerns and objections that were ignored. We believe they were never adequately communicated to all the Commission members. Any disagreement we had with them was criticized as an attempt to scuttle the building of the memorial. This could not be farther from the truth. The president’s only surviving son, our father, John S. D. Eisenhower, has been clear about his desire to see a memorial, but one which reflects his father’s values and enjoys national consensus. More than once this year he has weighed in, most recently this fall in a letter to the late Senator Daniel Inouye. I am providing a copy of the letter today, but the key points he writes are this:
- Though “creative, the scope and scale of it [the Gehry design] is too extravagant and it attempts to do too much. On the one hand it presumes a great deal of prior knowledge of history on the part of the average viewer. On the other, it tries to tell multiple stories. In my opinion, that is best left to museums.”
- “Taxpayers and donors alike will be better served with an Eisenhower Square that is a green open space with a simple statue in the middle, and quotations from his most important sayings. This will make it possible to utilize most of the taxpayer expenditures to date without committing the federal government or private donors to pay for an elaborate and showy memorial that has already elicited significant public opposition.”
- “Though the members of the Eisenhower family are grateful to those who conceived of this memorial and have worked hard for its success, we have come to believe that the Eisenhower Memorial Commission has no intention of re-examining the concept, even though there would be ample historic precedent for it. It is apparently interested only in convincing us of the virtues of the present design, ignoring my objections as articulated by my daughters Anne and Susan.”
- “I am the first to admit that this memorial should be designed for the benefit of the people, not our family…You may or may not agree with our viewpoint. However, we as a family cannot support the Eisenhower Memorial as it is currently designed – in concept, scope or scale.”
- ”We request that lawmakers withhold funding the project in its current form and stand back from approving the current design.”
The Eisenhower family does support the effort to revitalize this process. Among the first steps might be to defund the current design, including zeroing out money for staff expenditures, except to provide services related to an open and transparent financial accounting of monies used to date, as well as those already committed. A thorough review of the fundraising studies commissioned in the past should also be undertaken, as well as the current efforts underway so that we can assess financial needs going forward.
To expedite this process, perhaps an effort should be made to establish a neutral, non-partisan group to review the elements mentioned above. They could propose the needed organizational changes required for building a strong, responsive commission that can manage an open competitive design process and succeed in building a national consensus on a new memorial design.
Members of my family wish to thank, again, Chairman Rob Bishop and the Committee for holding this hearing, for their commitment to finding a way to resolve this impasse, and for the opportunity to participate. We are deeply grateful to all of Congress for their effort in building a lasting memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower.
To learn more about Tuesday’s congressional hearing and the Eisenhower Memorial controversy, please see Robin Pogrebin’s piece in the New York Times and Chip Reid and Bob Schieffer’s report with CBS News.
Earlier this week North Korea threatened to break the 1953 ceasefire with South Korea, citing the probability of new international sanctions and U.S.-South Korean military exercises scheduled for later this month and next. Secretary of State John Kerry responded by saying Pyongyang continues to make “belligerent and reckless moves that threaten the region, their neighbors and now directly the United States of America.”
Rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula are one more stunning reminder that U.S. foreign policy must be supported by the international perception that America has its act together. Unwillingness or inability to find a well-ordered approach to our fiscal and budget issues has flagged to the world that in Washington political acrimony is at an all-time high. Don’t fool yourself: overseas they see our domestic and international approaches as part and parcel of the same thing. For that reason, great effort was made, especially during the Cold War, to try and put a good face on our internal political differences. For the most part, we consigned much of the rough and tumble to “behind closed doors”—lest the USSR see a vulnerable America that couldn’t agree on or advance its national interests. And when we failed—amid the discord of the 1960s, for instance—our divisions were exploited abroad though propaganda and manipulation.
Today, the overt demonstration of a dysfunctional political system allows our adversaries to see openings where once they did not. As much as we think we are talking to ourselves and each political machination is for internal consumption only, there is no such thing as a domestic conversation within the confines of a country anymore. Technology today assures that dirty political laundry gets left out to dry and, given its ubiquitous nature, an international breeze picks up the scent.
That’s why the last eighteen months have been especially hard to watch. The international community – including many of our bond holders – has observed the way we handle unfolding events. What many of them have concluded is that our two political parties are intent on putting their ideological fortunes ahead of our national interest. This impacts them. That’s why we, as global leaders, should have provided predictability and cooperation in dealing with these sensitive issues.
At the same time, a number of prominent GOP senators attacked the president’s choice for secretary of defense—a Republican— knowing full well that former Senator Chuck Hagel had the votes to be confirmed. It was an unprecedented display of political grandstanding. I predict that Secretary Hagel will prove his critics wrong. But did those senators, who purport to be national security hawks, really believe that only Americans were listening to their personal slurs of a former colleague?
It appears that our politicians don’t know the difference between politics and policy anymore, which has brought us to a leadership crisis at the very point in our history when our country’s future depends on our capacity to find compromise. Political leadership is about taking responsibility for one’s actions, putting the country first, and demonstrating moral courage. That sense of moral bravery, seemingly absent in recent times, would have required both sides to engage in a series of intensive closed door sessions until they had hammered out a comprehensive deal—which would have averted other rounds of crises. Instead, over the last eighteen months they “negotiated” with each other via Twitter, Facebook and friendly 24/7 cable programs. This wasn’t a serious effort to find a solution for the country; it was only an attempt to talk to their supporters. Guess who was listening and watching?
News just in tells us that President Obama is now reaching out to the Republicans to see if a compromise is possible. This is a welcomed move. We need to reverse our image overseas that the federal government is hobbled by paralysis and dissension. If we don’t, our nation’s rivals and adversaries may have all the information they really need to know. Appearances of acrimonious gridlock or a failure of “collective will” can be more important intelligence for a foreign power than any specific security breech.
Many Americans are deeply concerned about this country’s crisis of governance. I am pleased to have been asked to serve on The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform. Over the coming year we will be engaging the American public on issues of concern, and providing recommendations that may help create an impetus for change. Follow our activity here. They have put together an impressive program that deserves your attention. You may also be interested to read of the Commission’s kick-off event, which was held earlier this month.
The sun rises slowly in southern Pennsylvania, ushering in a day full of promise and potential. Dawn near my country cottage is not the same call to pulse-raising political warfare as it is in the nation’s capital – where adrenaline starts pumping with the morning headlines. There in the quiet of the countryside, silence and space allows one to ease into the day’s challenges.
From that perspective it is possible to look back at Washington and wonder if the nation’s policymakers really understand what they are doing. This morning, like so many other ones these days, the newspaper has catastrophe written all over it. Our morning read is full of struggle, fight and alarm. Who will be blamed for the sequester? How long will the fight go on? Are you the only Washington organization that has not been hacked by the Chinese? According to reports, any institution or computer of any importance here has been the subject of an attack. (I wonder how many status-conscious Washingtonians would be disappointed to discover that the Chinese didn’t deem them important enough to bother.) And I will not even go into the nuclear tests in North Korea and all the other things happening around the world…
Where are our “leaders” who should be grappling with these delicate and potentially damaging developments? The House of Representatives was in session only eight days in January. And the Senate plans to be together only 194 days the entire year. Between their absences from the city and Obama’s perpetual campaign tours to persuade the population that his opponents are wrong, it is no wonder that nothing gets done. No one is in Washington at the same time. So how could they possibly even talk, let alone reach compromise?
With the impending sequester and a debt ceiling crisis looming, the stress level for many people in this city is palpable. Columnists are wrong if they think the consequences can be contained and that the major impact will be confined to furloughs and lay-offs. Many of us who have some dealings with the federal government can say that the ripple effect has already started. For some time, government agencies have been deferring decisions because of the uncertainty, directly impacting companies that are poised to provide even the most basic of services. Other government entities are cancelling events and other activities out of concern for what they think would be unfavorable “optics.” Many important projects have been shelved, even some that serve the vital interests of this country as we reinvigorate our economy and strive to retain our competitive global edge. The uncertainty that has spawned this anxious withdrawal, and the deterioration of trust that has gone with it, speaks poorly of our elected officials and political parties. This has not happened because the nation is divided. It has happened because we don’t have leadership.
Long walks in the countryside can be physically restorative and mentally reinvigorating. This time of the year, the cold, dry bite in one’s nose sharpens the senses and affirms the glory of being alive. Why are we doing this to ourselves? What are our politicians saving themselves for? Why won’t they spend more of their prestige to find some common-sense solutions that will benefit the country as a whole? These are the kinds of questions that come to mind in the silence and the space of a long unpaved road.