During the U.S. invasion of Cambodia in 1970, I volunteered in Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott’s mailroom. My school had gone “on strike” to protest the incursion, and the Pennsylvania Republican was happy for the extra help. Some days later, I was dispatched to the White House mailroom, which was truly under siege. I will never forget the experience.
The political turmoil surrounding the Vietnam War, including the invasion of Cambodia, brought an avalanche of angry public opposition. In those days the main outlets for protest were taking to the streets, shutting down public places and writing public officials, which Americans did in the millions.
At the White House, all letters were read and sorted into piles. Volunteers then categorized them and sent some up the chain of command. But not every letter was a complaint or an expression of disapproval. President Nixon also had his supporters. Some writers offered fiery endorsements of the president’s policy, while others penned cards to tell the president he was in their prayers.
Perhaps it was a good thing that people were praying for the Commander-in-Chief, because countless others ascribed the most far-fetched and contemptuous motives to the president’s military action. Many letters I read called the president every expletive imaginable. A number went immediately to the Secret Service. Most shocking of all were a surprisingly large number of envelopes that included not just profane notes, but also everything from burned American flags to human feces and semen.
Even though Watergate was years away, it was a tumultuous time and the nation’s anger was firmly fixed on the president. I felt dizzy from the hatred and was left to wonder who these Americans were. Rather than discuss the serious business of war or withdrawal, many ordinary Americans seemed so intolerant, so unrestrained, so beyond rational debate.
It took me years to get over what I had seen. But eventually I realized that even the ugliest letters in that mailroom had little to do with the invasion or the foreign policy implications of the war itself. Except for the psychologically disturbed, most of the writers were really expressing fear, uncertainty or powerlessness. These people felt alienated from those in elected office, and they responded cynically and bitterly to a system that was apparently unresponsive. Many of them latched on to the president himself, who had in fact inherited the war from his predecessor.
In more recent years, I’ve wondered what the Congressional and White House mailrooms must be like now. While letters are still written, many of the outcries or endorsements are sent by email, including standardized messages generated by PACs or special interest groups. Election time, however, raises the public temperature. A number of histories of the 2008 campaign, for instance, tell us that the Secret Service expressed noteworthy alarm at the uptick in threats, especially after large-scale, aggressive campaign rallies. I presume that this year has been just as extreme.
Last week I gave a lecture on leadership in transformational times at Gettysburg College’s Eisenhower Institute to students from the Lutheran College Washington Semester, a group of undergraduates from a consortium of thirteen Lutheran colleges. Since most of them were political science majors, I asked how many of them would consider running for public office. Not one hand went up. Their chief reasons for rejecting the idea included the violation of personal privacy and the untold amounts of money that must be raised, but the most common response was the toxic political environment. I sensed wistfulness in the way each student described the America they want but don’t feel they actually have. One said: “I want a country with leaders not performers.” Another longed for a nation where its “citizens can look at the people next to them and acknowledge that they too are Americans” with a stake in our country’s future.
It reminded me again of the exasperation I witnessed firsthand in the Senate and White House mailrooms of the 1970s. I wanted then the same America that these students yearn for today.
The student session underscored for me the importance of dialing back the anger and frustration we all feel—myself included. Just think about what kind of message the generations in power are sending to those who are younger. The kids are listening. From pundits to politicos, the vacuous or at times aggressive handling of the issues in this campaign has given the rising generation reason to wonder if the United States is ever going to get serious about its future.
The media-saturated environment both feeds and responds to people whose frustration and contempt have come to define our discourse. Our national conversation gets louder and nastier because people feel their voices have not really been heard. This feeling of powerlessness sets in motion a vicious cycle.
Students are being molded by what they see and hear now. I might have wanted to run for elective office myself had it not been for the searing impact of the late 60s and early 70s on my young impressionable mind. If the generations in power now are not better role models, we may lose future leaders before they even give public life a try. In improving America’s long-term outlook it might be that cleaning up our political act, especially in public, is as important as anything we might do in the policy realm.