As the year winds to a close, there is an unsettling spirit in the air. Healthcare, which has been a problem for a long time, seems to be more of a mess than ever. Our deal with the Iranians has more than a whiff of 1938 Munich in it, so gives the unsettling feeling that we may have bought “peace for our time” but only if we are thinking of exiting soon. In the Pacific, a resurgent China demands extraterritorial rights at the expense of Japan, so we make a show of flying B-52s through the disputed zone but sotto voce tell our commercial aircraft to respect the zone.
Of course, every generation has its challenges and it would be self-aggrandizing to think ours are greater than those faced by previous generations. Yet just as psychologists tell us that what children most need and want is a sense that grown-ups are in charge, so what makes the current situation so difficult is a sense that the people and institutions that compose our nation’s leadership are, in fact, not up to the challenges that confront us.
For some this is personal. They see in our President neither the conviction of our righteousness nor the willingness to fight that they consider essential. They see a world in which many countries — Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, to name a few — voluntarily foreswore nuclear weapons because these countries operated under the Pax Americana, with the American nuclear umbrella and conventional military might being their shield. In a new world, where that shield is uncertain, all these countries and more will have nuclear weapons, and that will be a more dangerous and less stable world.
Others see the problem as institutional. Divided power as between the Republican-led House and Democratic-led Senate obstructs the ability of government to work at the speed expected in a digital age. Legacy institutions such as the United States Senate give disproportionate weight to rural and agrarian sectors of society. Lifetime tenure for judges restrains the implementation of progressive ideas.
One might see the problem differently, as a kind of failure of character, in which short-term interests supersede longer-term considerations. The recent decision of the Democratic majority in the United States Senate to change the rules to prevent filibusters of judges and most executive appointments is a case in point. Whether the filibuster should exist at all and certainly whether it should be used on executive appointments is an issue on which men of good will may differ. The problem is that nobody in the whole country believes that this change was a result of deep reflection on the nature of filibusters; they see it as short-term maneuvering for immediate advantage.
Indeed, it was President Obama himself who, when as a Senator confronted with the same proposal by Republicans in 2005, said on the Senate floor: “I urge my Republican colleagues not to go through with changing these rules. In the long run, it is not a good result for either party. One day, Democrats will be in the majority again and this rule change will be no fairer to a Republican minority than it is to a Democratic minority.”
When the 22nd Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed, its purpose was to limit Presidents to two terms after Franklin Roosevelt broke the tradition George Washington had established of limiting tenure to eight years. Yet that amendment contains these lines: “…this article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this article was proposed by the Congress, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of President, or acting as President, during the term within which this article becomes operative from holding the office of President or acting as President during the remainder of such term.” In other words, this amendment was not passed as a device to prevent Harry Truman from running for President multiple times. It was passed because of the considered long-term judgment of our political leadership that multiple Presidential terms were, as Republican New York governor and Presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey proclaimed, “…the most dangerous threat to our freedom ever proposed.”
So if a group of Senators gets together to reflect on the filibuster and wants to propose a change effective with the next President, that would be statesmanship. In other words, if they were prepared to vote for this change without knowing if their party or philosophy would get advantage from it, that would indicate civic-mindedness. Instead, we see them all as hacks, doing short-term things for short-term gains and not building a better country.
No one expects that men shall be angels, and thanks to James Madison and his ilk, we have a government designed to frustrate those who are not, but those who think that one can entirely separate character from leadership misunderstand the nature of both.
The produce industry lost a man of exemplary character and an extraordinary leader this month when Bob Carey, longtime leader of the Produce Marketing Association, passed away. Back in those days, the association didn’t pay much. Bob joined the Reserves because he didn’t have a pension plan, so leaders in his day had to have non-pecuniary motivations.
Bob was wise and funny and supported this columnist and this magazine in its early years because he supported everything that might help the industry. The great character trait he had, often missing from political leaders, is humility. He once told this columnist to never worry about getting credit for one’s work; if you do the right things, for the right reasons, those who need to know, will come to know. It was as wise advice as I have ever received, and I earnestly try to follow it. I wish Bob were still here and we could fund a trip especially for him: Mr. Carey Goes to Washington.