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Did We Blow Our Chance? Reflections on the Kaiser-Moderated Ashcroft/Lieberman Discussion

Gene Van Loan

May 31, 2014

Category: Society > Government and Politics

The following comments are reflections on the event at our 50th reunion at which Bob Kaiser, former newspaper editor, moderated a panel discussion between John Ashcroft and Joe Lieberman, former senators. About the only difference between this panel discussion and the "Firing Line" format which dominates the cable-news channels (exemplified by the Bill O'Reilly and Chris Mathews shows) was that Bob Kaiser (for the most part) at least let the panelists say what they wanted without interruption. Otherwise, it offered little solace to those who were expecting to hear how we could cure Washington gridlock, pave over our cultural divisions, and generally achieve world peace and thin thighs.

But perhaps the fault lay more in the postulate of the program than in its format. The postulate was, first, that there are all these problems out there that NEED to be solved and, second, that WE can solve them. I reject both the doom-and-gloom aspect of the first part of this postulate and the hubris of the second part.

Let's start with the doom and gloom. Of course we have trouble right here in River City. We have poverty; we have persistent unemployment; we have crime; we have pollution; we have decaying infrastructure; we have urban blight; we have climate change (whether man-made or not); we have alcohol and drug addiction; we have child pornography; we have Sarah Palin; and we even have Howard Stern. Yep, we certainly got trouble.

But we also have the most-free country in the world, where people can say what they want and do what they want. We have universal education (and despite all the nonsense about our allegedly disastrous educational system, America is still the place where everyone else in the world wants to go to school).  If measured by quality, we have the best health-care system in the world (it being no coincidence that foreign magnates who can afford to go anywhere they want when they get sick usually come to America — or have an American medical team come to them).  We have the most innovative and entrepreneurial society on the planet. And, of course, we have Coca Cola, McDonalds, and Nike. So, why all the doom and gloom?

Now for the hubris part. Ronald Reagan is criticized by some for having said: "Government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem." But didn't John Kennedy say something similar: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Gridlock in Washington is only a disaster if you believe that, without gridlock, Washington could solve all our problems. But it can't. And why should we assume it can? The very existence of problems is part of the human condition. That doesn't mean that we should not try, but it does mean that we should be more moderate in our expectations, more temperate in our criticisms of those who try and fail, and more willing to look in the mirror when it comes time to ask for volunteers.

So, what has this got to do with the John, Bob, and Joe show? Measured by my propositions that (a) we have problems but they are no worse than they were when we graduated and (b) we should be happy with half-a-loaf solutions and not always looking for the "grand bargain," the show was fine — or, if not fine, at least it was entertaining. As for the answer to the question, did we blow our chance, I still don't understand the question. Chance to do what? Save the world? You have to be kidding!