The other day I went looking for a quote from a civil rights speech that John Kennedy had given during a critical moment of American history, as the National Guard was called out to escort two black students enrolling at the University of Alabama. I found the passage I wanted and then went ahead and read the entire speech. It was fairly stunning.
Consider some of the following excerpts:
I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents.
We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.
If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?
We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes?
We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and as a people. It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives.
It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say this is a problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the fact that we face. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all.
Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right as well as reality.
The first thing that's striking about this rhetoric - and a fact which makes the second observation all the more notable - is that it comes from a president who was just barely decent on civil rights issues. Kennedy was young, handsome, eloquent, witty, martyred and canonized by his camp after his assassination, and Americans therefore remember him as a much more successful president than he actually was. More importantly, we give him more credit than is due for his moral courage on issues like civil rights, perhaps the single most important domestic question of the era. (In this respect, it must also be said that two other less-than altruistic motivations leap off the page as you read this speech: the national elite's concern, in the context of the Cold War, about how racism was hurting American efforts to win over hearts and minds in the Third World; and white America's palpable fear of black violence boiling over in response to unyielding racism.)
Kennedy was in fact behind the curve of history in many respects. Brown versus the Board and the Montgomery bus strike had already occurred seven years before his inauguration. And yet he was reluctant to move anywhere on this issue much past where events on the ground pushed him. This is understandable in crass political terms, given that the Solid (white, racist) South at that time was still a huge chunk of the Democratic Party's coalition, and given that Kennedy had won election in 1960 by the barest of margins (in fact, it took the generosity of a whole lot of people in Illinois - who, despite being dead, nevertheless voted for him - to put him over the top).
But that's just it - Kennedy's reticence on civil rights is understandable in crass political terms, but only in those terms. Nobody in our political class likes to hear blunt truth, especially on matters of character, but let's boil this one down to just that: JFK was, in his political calculus, balancing the prospect of a second presidential term for one very privileged single American, on the one hand, versus the equality, aspirations and dignity of one-tenth of the country's population, plus the moral and Constitutional integrity of the entire nation, on the other. And, by and large, he was too often choosing to put his own interests over the country's.
All that said, look again at his words. The second reason they are striking - and my real point here - has to do with the moral power and eloquent clarity of his call to Americans to form a more perfect union. Yes, Kennedy was a flawed president (which, of course, makes him part of a mighty big club), and yes his deeds frequently failed to match the power of his words. But that in fact underscores my argument even more emphatically: Back in the day, even weak presidents could articulate a national vision that was vastly larger and more appealing than anything we remotely aspire to today.
Think about it. Since Jimmy Carter was in the White House, America has been a captive of regressive politics, including that of Democratic presidents and congressional majorities. The only passionate rhetoric you are ever likely to hear in our political discourse nowadays is some bald-faced lies about the urgent need to go to war or to slash taxes on the wealthy. When was the last time anyone spoke out with a moral vision about the environment, civil rights, the American addiction to war, economic justice, or the due process of civil liberties?
It happens, but it is rare in our rhetoric generally, and even more rare amongst our political class. Remember when Robert Byrd denounced the Iraq invasion in passionate moral terms? That episode sticks out precisely because it was such an unusual act. And even that was not done by a president, congressional leader, cabinet member or senior statesman. The speaker was just a senator. Not that senators aren't prominent figures in American politics, of course. But at any given time there are a hundred of them. And that just covers one half of one branch, constituting one-third of the American government.
The truth is that American political discourse in our time has been dumbed down, cheapened, emasculated and impoverished. It is Exhibit A in the case arguing that, if America was ever once a great country, it is not now. We are instead, today, a crouched and fearful giant. We don't lead in the world, other than to lead the regressive opposition (along with countries like Somalia and Libya) to virtually every form of international law and morality. At home, we have two political factions: those who emphatically and aggressively seek to turn the clock back on every form of progress achieved these last decades, centuries and even millennia, and those who sheepishly and timidly defend the status quo, or perhaps favor regressing a bit more slowly. You can see this clearly in the contrast between take-no-prisoner presidents of our time like Reagan and Lil' Bush, versus the hopelessly cowardly Clinton or Obama. You can see it on the Supreme Court. The regressive faction is bold and aggressive. The others on the Court are milquetoast moderates, merely trying to hold the line on existing policy. And, despite all the bullshit rhetoric about balance and fairness and yadda-yadda, Neither Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama would dare nominate a true Warren Court-style progressive to the bench, giving the Court even a single liberal, up against five reactionaries.
No wonder our politics are so bereft of stirring moral rhetoric. We are consumed with the smallest politics of the most narrow self-interest. Our electorate hasn't had a generous tendency in ages, and our political class is populated by careerists, on a good day.
Elena Kagan is a good example. So is Barack Obama, or John Edwards or Harry Reid or Dick Gephardt (now a leading lobbyist) and so many others. (I don't even bother to mention figures from the right, including those like John McCain, once dolled-up by the media and his own campaign rhetoric as some sort of patriot who places country before self.) Look across the political landscape and see if you can spot a Daniel Ellsberg or a Paul Wellstone or even a Lyndon Johnson anywhere on the horizon of our political class - somebody who (even with the enormous other flaws in the latter's case) takes a principled stand on any great issue of our time, and who is willing to risk something of personal value to do so. You won't. It's as rare today as the Catholic Church doing the right thing about pedophilia.
What's perhaps most astonishing about all this is we live in a moment where even self-interest could simultaneously be both the right thing to pursue and politically popular. Even if politicians can't transcend their own bloated cravings for money, power and attention to stand up for repressed gays or shrinking glaciers, couldn't they find it within themselves to look out for the interests of tens of millions of Americans (who just happen also to be voters) suffering under tremendous economic anxiety and worse? What the hell is wrong with Barack Obama - as a politician and as a person - that he doesn't savagely excoriate the sickening monsters of the GOP who oppose extending unemployment rights to "lazy" Americans living on the very edge of survival, and thereby along the way also earn some much-needed moral and political credit for doing so?
This week saw the ignominy of the Shirley Sherrod case, in which regressive hitman Andrew Breitbart blasted across the media a doctored up video of a speech the black former director of the Agriculture Department's Georgia state office gave, decades ago, talking about how she transcended her own impulses to discriminate on the basis of race. Transcended, I say again. But that was the part that got edited out. It was as if you lost your job because you said publicly that "I am not a terrorist", but some right-wing freak (whose parents evidently neglected him as an infant and we're all paying for it still to this day) took out the third word of the sentence and gave the rest to your boss and wife and kids and everyone else, and now you've lost your marriage and family and home and job and no one will talk to you anymore. All because maybe you voted Democratic or something.
What this illustrates for the umpteenth time (as if the Brooks Brothers Riot, or what Saxby Chambliss did to Vietnam vet Max Cleland, or the character assassination of the Swiftboat thugs didn't make this crystal clear already) is that the scum that is today the American right will absolutely say and do anything in order to score political points, while so-called progressives say and do nothing even to stop their crimes, let alone to advance a positive agenda. They do nothing, that is, unless crumpling up like frightened kittens in a thunderstorm counts as doing something.
The distance traveled from Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King (or even John Kennedy) to Barack Obama represents a stunning collapse of empire. Once a powerful country that could, with partial justification, boast of leadership in the moral sphere, we have today shrunken, literally and figuratively, to a nation of Newts looking for some kind of cheap Rush.
For better and, unfortunately, sometimes for worse, this is a country that used to have big aspirations. Now we're like a two-bit drunken banana republic, thrashing about in the gutter of history as we implode from the toxic combination of greed, stupidity, indolence and hubris.
We once used to conduct a war on poverty. Now we just incarcerate the impoverished. In privately-owned, for-profit, jails, no less.
We once used to take care of our aged and elderly. Now our big social programs legislation does little more than redirect huge masses of taxpayer funds to corporations.
We once cared about promoting equality. Now when Oliver Stone makes the movie Wall Street in order to offer a cautionary tale about the perils of greed, a hundred thousand new stock trader careers are launched instead, in proud emulation of Gordon Gekko.
We used to be serious about protecting the air we breath, the water we drink and the land we live on from the ravages of pollution. Now we standby and watch with our hands in our pockets as we toast an entire planet to a lethal crisp.
We once used to explore the boundaries of what civil liberties could be sustained in sprawling industrialized democracy. Now we race to legislate them away as fast as we can, while the state ignores "guaranteed" protections of privacy or due process whenever it wants to, anyhow.
We once used to race to the moon, pushing ourselves to do the impossible. Now we just stick dynastic disasters of DNA dice like George W. Bush before a podium to haplessly call for a yawn-inducing, focus-group scripted, mission to Mars.
We once used to care about how we were perceived internationally, even as we nevertheless too often displayed the belligerence of our power. Now we don't even bother with the former, while we've raised the latter to a high art.
We once used to come together as a whole country to address threats and shared national concerns, all of us making enormous sacrifices toward a common purpose. Today, our presidents encourage us to go shopping.
Is it any wonder that our political rhetoric is so uninspired today? It's the perfect representation of our impoverished moral spirit.
And it's likely to bite us hard in the not-too-distant future, if it isn't doing so already.
It's been nearly half a century since JFK so aptly reminded us, "Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right as well as reality."
And yet we remain well ensconced in the first category.