What Ought To Be
Bobby Kennedy was killed on this date back in 1968. The above YouTube of his speech in Indianapolis are words that RFK spoke to a crowd there on the night of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s asassination. There is something about the lilt in Bobby Kennedy's voice, while he speaks words of hope and reconciliation, that has always drawn me to this particular speech of his — and knowing that he gave it extemporaneously makes it all the more poignant and impressive.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about what passes for leadership in this country these days. There was an op-ed in the GuardianUK several months ago regarding RFK, that had a bit that was particularly sharp:
Nevertheless now, as 40 years ago, the Democrats must navigate the politics of war with both audacity and care. Some New Democrats whose obsession with the centre made Bill Clinton electable, still talk as though the war is almost an irrelevance. Denial like that is catastrophic. But reducing everything to the war could be disastrous too. Remember George McGovern.
That wider understanding was part of what made Kennedy a stronger candidate than McCarthy in 1968. Yet if in 2008 the Democrats find a leader who, faced with the most demanding speech of his life, can summon up the spirit of Ancient Greece "to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world", let us pray that this time he or she will live to attempt the task, not leave this generation to grow old wondering about what might have been.
We live a lot of our lives wondering at the "what might have been" scenarios and potentials, but not nearly enough of our lives in the "what ought to be" aspects.
What was striking yesterday with the Libby sentencing hearing was this from Judge Walton:
"Individuals should understand that when you transgress the law, there are consequences," Walton said. When those in high positions "step over the line," he continued, "it causes people to lose faith in our government."
This could be said to any number of people who hold public office or high political appointment in Washington, D.C., at the moment. That it needed to be said out loud at all is appalling enough. But, striking in its simplicity, Walton cut to the heart of what has been wrong for the last six years: the laws apply to all of us and it is incumbent upon people in public service to understand that they must adhere more faithfully to the spirit and the letter of the law because they ought to both be an example to those they serve and because they must earn the public trust through their actions and deeds.
Throughout the Bush presidency there has either been an orchestrated effort to fail at governing or outright incomptence disguised as inadvertant hackery, or both. And, as Jane rightly pointed out yesterday:
But it does go along way to explaining why the Washington Journal is fueled by the anger of people who believe that the government is never to be trusted or believed. This is a terrible problem, probably one of the greatest that the next President will face. Even as we need to start redeeming government from Grover Norquist's bathtub and begin to have a conversation about what the appropriate role in our lives that government should play, people have been rendered so cynical and so jaded, so thoroughly convinced that those to whom governance has been entrusted like Scooter Libby and his letter writing pals can do nothing right that re-engaging the public at a level necessary to redeem this country from the problems we are going to face will be extremely difficult.
Bad government can be harmful to the public. But good government — resources targeted and used wisely to help those most in need to move forward, to lift up at risk children, to give hope where none existed, to save lives, to protect the nation from threats both domestic and foreign? The list is endless in its potential. That is what government is designed to do at its best.
And it is what the Bush Administration has been doing so very badly for far too long without check or balance.
True leaders stand up as adults and face the consequences of their actions, they learn from their mistakes, and they try to do better once they know better. Bobby Kennedy was far from perfect. But the potential of who he could be, the hope and the renewed energy that he brought to the Presidential race back in 1968 came partly from his flaws: he took them out, looked them over, studied his mistakes carefully and learned the lessons from them — and from those made by others — and strove to find solutions to the very problems in which he had been mired over his lifetime. That is leadership.
If the rogues gallery of letter writers for Scooter is any indication, the Bush Administration's dimmest bulbs and outside props have learned nothing but lessons of cronyism and denial.
What ought to be is that the next generation of leaders in this nation learn from this: no man, no matter how well connected, is above the law. And no loyalty, no matter how true to it you may stay, will save you from prison if your boss has a larger interest in saving himself. There can be no real pardon for Libby because, in the greater context, there is no escape from this hole that he and Dick Cheney have dug for themselves within the larger context of failures and of disrespect for the law of the Bush Administration. Scooter Libby is now, and forever after will be known as, the man who covered for Dick Cheney. And neither he nor Dick Cheney can escape that legacy of shameful manipulation and disrespect for the law.
America is at its best when our leaders strive not to enrich just themselves or their cronies, or to cover their own rearends from public scrutiny, but when they look to the least among us and find a way to lift them up so that we can all move forward together. This is true of our actions at home as well as abroad. We should never be a nation of ever-widening divide and self-dealing cronyism but should, instead, strive to be a nation which holds equality and justice as its guiding principles. A nation which truly works to further "we the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." Because what we do today not only ripples out for all of us — but it will continue to ripple outward for generations to come. It is incumbant upon all of our leaders to understand that their decisions today will be with us for several generations more.
When we lose sight of what ought to be, we lose our way.