Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

14 July 2013

Speak to Us, Mr. President! (An Open Letter to our Chief Executive)


Dear Mr. President,

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was probably the greatest political genius in American history, maybe all history. He got a self-centered but industrious people to rise from isolationism and meet the threat of history’s greatest military tyrannies, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. He got a nation whose (earlier) Guilded Age had nearly destroyed our economy, and capitalism itself, to spread the wealth, share control of industry with workers, and invent our “consumer society.”

In so doing, FDR not only saved us and our great experiment in democracy. He made us the richest nation in history. He also saved capitalism from its own worst instincts.

How did he do it? He didn’t let his political enemies speak for him or define him. He spoke directly to the people, with his “fireside chats.” And he did so often. Every week.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But it was anything but simple. Those “chats” were unique in history. Unfortunately, they still are, at least here.

Maybe it’s a bit unfair to invoke all of history. Fireside chats with a whole people didn’t become possible until electronic media made them possible. (That happened about a century ago, with radio, which FDR used.) Even in its most democratic period, ancient Rome could not have assembled all of its people in its Forum or its Senate.

But every American can see and hear you, Mr. President, if you choose to speak to us, and we to listen. The Internet only makes it easier, with asynchronous streaming and downloads.

News “conferences” are not fireside chats. Reporters pick the topics by asking the questions. They flit from theme to theme like bees among blossoms. The discussion of each topic is no deeper than a bumper sticker.

Worse yet are news conferences with “spokespeople.” They may be good and careful “professional communicators.” But they are not you.

They don’t have your reputation, character, intelligence or charm. They don’t have your authority. Even the best often sound like beleaguered amateurs trying hard to do a job well beyond their pay grade. And they weren’t elected to anything, let alone after the longest and most grueling campaigns in American history. They are hired champions without knighthood or a lance.

Anyway, learning about factual developments and new policies is best done directly. Our Founders intended representatives to govern us, not to see and hear for us. Our Founders had absolutely no idea how venal, gossipy and self-absorbed our free media would become. As a former professor yourself, should know that real educating cannot be delegated.

Despite all the noise, distraction and racism in this still-racist society, we elected you. We elected you with a clear and unquestionable majority, twice—something we hadn’t done since Ike. Our most productive states elected you by landslide proportions, both times.

At the end of the day, we elected you for your good character, intelligence, even-handedness and good judgment. We elected you because we wanted to welcome you frequently into our living rooms, at least more than John McCain or Mitt Romney.

But we’ve seen you there only rarely. Despite your office, or maybe because of it, you’ve been the invisible man. You’ve let other people speak for you and define you and your administration. You’ve let lies proliferate—even become “conventional wisdom”—without effective response.

So it is with the widespread nonsense about your modest but historic health-insurance reform. You haven’t explained to the doubting Thomases how your reform will not only bring health care to millions who don’t have it, but will make health insurance better for the rest of us.

The sad truth is, you don’t talk too much. You don’t talk enough, at least directly to us.

You’ve made some great speeches in your time. Your 2007 speech on terrorism and how to defeat it was a masterpiece of detailed, sensible policy. You followed it in executing bin Laden, winding down two unnecessary wars, and still keeping us safe. Your 2008 speech on race in Philadelphia called us to adulthood, a status to which we still aspire. (The current code words, “freeloaders” and “takers,” are less explicit but still potent. The folks who use them to play on prejudice and intolerance have made some modest progress in “diversity”: they now include Hispanics.) Your recent speech on climate-change survival called us to realism and the kind of personal responsibility that—until the advent of Fox, Citizens United, and politics by bumper sticker—had always made us Yanks “exceptional.”

Direct marketers have a simple rule. A consumer must get at least six letters or e-mails before he or she even begins to take notice. That rule underlies the entire direct-mail advertising industry. It’s also the motivation for e-mail spam. The senders of these letters and e-mails know their businesses; they rely on repetition to sell.

Fox does also in selling lies, relentlessly. So should you in selling truth. The vast majority of Americans are not like your colleagues on the Harvard Law Review or your students at the University of Chicago, whose law school is one of the best in the nation. They are not quick studies. They need more than incisive and compelling rhetoric, which you easily command. They require endless repetition, just like those consumers who take notice only after getting the sixth e-mail.

Repeating a message may be hard for you, as for any highly intelligent person. But you’ve never shied from doing hard things that might do good. Anyway, you are smart enough to say the same thing in different ways to different audiences, and so to avoid the boredom of rote repetition. (That, after all, was the secret of the Socratic method by which you and I once taught law. The daily, impromptu interaction with students avoids the boredom of hearing and giving your own repeated lectures year after year.)

Your political enemies have put you off the scent by jeering at your community organizing experience and your (relatively rare) speechifying. But of course they are whistling past their own graveyard. You are changing the nature of politics with your “community organizing” on the national level, using the Internet.

As for speechifying, your enemies would praise their jealous God if they could speak, let alone think, like you. The dirty little secret of politics is that it’s all mostly talk. We no longer compel people with whips and chains, like the Pharaohs did building the pyramids. And twisting arms in Congress seems to have died with LBJ. Now we persuade.

So all political action begins and ends with talk. Progress doesn’t happen in Congress much any more, where fixed dogma and a perpetual quest for money have made speaking and thinking irrelevant. But talk can still make change among the people, your constituency. We (or most of us) still listen when you speak. I personally watch or read your every major speech. (That hasn’t been hard because there haven’t been many of them.)

So tell us, again and again, how Ben Bernanke saved our economy despite a Congress paralyzed by an opposition content to do nothing but jeer at you. Tell us why no banker has yet gone to jail for causing the Crash, what you are doing to keep bankers from doing it all again, and how your enemies are aiding the bankers, every day, for no visible purpose other than keeping those campaign contributions flowing. Tell us how you wound down Dubya’s two unnecessary wars, preserving as much of the societal gains in Iraq and Afghanistan as we can, while healing our reputation as a world leader by example, not aggression.

Tell us, again and again, how you got bin Laden and are defeating Al Qaeda the right way, with intelligence (in both senses of that word), finesse, ninjas and drones, not by invading two mostly innocent, sovereign nations. Tell us how complex a place Syria is, how much damage we have done since the Great War by barging into the Middle East without knowing what we were doing, and therefore why your support for Syria’s rebels is cautious and often clandestine. And tell us, as many times as you can before you must leave office, how we must not leave our children and grandchildren a hotter, wetter, less hospitable planet, with less habitable land area, wracked by drought and gigantic storms.

Next tell us about the congressional debacle du jour: immigration. Tell us about the immigrants who invented television and founded Google and Intel. Tell us about Steve Jobs, who co-founded Apple and was the grandson of a Syrian immigrant. Tell us about the folks who invented atomic energy and atomic weapons—the immigrants who fled Nazism and helped us win history’s greatest war. Then ask us why some of us vote for Republicans who want to close the doors to immigrants, who have always made us strong and rich. Ask us why they want us to inbreed like moonshining clans in the Appalachians.

Last but most important, Mr. President, please talk to us about the hideous, corrosive effect of our tsunami of economic inequality. Recently, the great TV journalist Bill Moyers showed us the history of two American working families, one black, one white. They are great spirits by any human measure: hard-working, uncomplaining, responsible, optimistic, resilient, and articulate.

They blame nothing and no one but misfortune and themselves. But like the rest of the 45 million of us now living in or near poverty, they could not make it in America. The white couple broke up. The black one held together as a family, despite unspeakable hardship and the slow death of their youthful dreams. Their obvious love for each other and their faith in God shine from their eyes through the camera lens. Yet one of their five children—after serving in our Navy!—had to go to Afghanistan and work for a military contractor to get a decent-paying job.

These families would be assets in any human society. To watch the parents’ lives decay into desperate poverty just as they reach the age when the rest of us retire is not merely a shame. It is a crime before God.

As we decay into a ghastly caricature of Dickensian England, to the self-deceptive glee of Fox and our right wing, we should understand a few things. We are not England, let alone in Dickens’ time. We have no class system. We have nothing like the grudging respect of poor for rich that it once commanded. We don't (yet) have public floggings and executions.

We are Americans. We are rowdy, disputatious, self-righteous and bristling with guns. If we get much closer to Dickensian England, the culture that results will be nasty and brutish for everyone—rich and poor alike. Please speak to us often about that, too.

We need to hear from you, our elected leader. We need your incisiveness, your good judgment, your political and rhetorical skill, your even temper, and (when you show them) your humor and charm. Can you devote just twenty minutes a week—maybe even half an hour—to speaking to us, your people, directly?

We want to hear from you, not others. We don’t want reporters and self-appointed “pundits” to interpret and “spin” what you think. We want to hear your voice and see your face. We want to know what you know, see and think. That’s why we elected you, twice. And that’s why you are still one of the very few public figures, in politics or business, in whom we have any great confidence.

Those of us who still can think are depressingly aware that there is no national figure even close to your caliber anywhere in the bleak landscape of American politics today. Maybe Jon Huntsman, Jr., is one, but his own party has marginalized him. Corey Booker and Elizabeth Warren have yet to achieve national stature, although both are trying.

For the moment, we can take solace in the fact that we have you for three-plus more years yet. So speak to us, directly, at least once a week. Please. The results might surprise you and change the course of history.

Coda: Even Putin Did It

During Vladimir Putin’s first term as President of Russia, I often watched Russian news, live but recorded, in Russian, direct from Moscow. I did so chiefly to maintain and improve my understanding of spoken Russian.

As a byproduct, I got a lesson in a modern leader’s skillful use of modern media. Putin was on the news almost every night during that time. Many cuts featured him presiding over routine meetings. They were boring and inconclusive fare, but at least they showed Russians a leader hard at work.

Once in a while, something more happened. It made me forget that I was watching to improve my understanding of spoken Russian.

For example, a Chinese reporter once asked Putin what about Russia most troubled or shamed him. After a short pause, he answered simply and honestly, “poverty in Russia.” Then he outlined his ambitious plans to reduce it. We could use some of that here.

Some time later, Putin held a national telethon, in which citizens from all over Russia’s eleven time zones called in and appeared on camera, addressing their president directly. Then Putin replied, also on camera.

If memory serves [Point 6], it was then that Putin explained to Heroes of the Siege of Leningrad, and all of Russia’s people, why he had ordered the city’s name changed back to St. Petersburg. He wanted, he said, to turn the last page on the chapter of Communism, which had destroyed Russia’s economy and its people’s initiative.

Putin didn’t want Russians to look back. So he felt he had to do something as dramatic as renaming an historic city—a step painful for all the people who had suffered and lost family in the terrible Siege. (The analogue for us would be changing “Pearl Harbor” back to its Native Hawaiian name.)

Another caller complained that, although awarded the status of Hero of the Soviet Union for fighting in the Great Patriotic War, he had waited for years to become a citizen in what is now a nation of Russia’s “Near Abroad.” Putin commiserated and said he would look into the application and try to help.

If anyone wants to know why Putin still enjoys a 70% approval rating in Russia, despite his sometimes heavy hand, they need look no further than these broadcasts. For the better part of a millennium, Russia’s supreme leaders had treated their people like surfs. For most of that time, they were. This was a leader of New Russia, speaking directly to his people. Often.

Putin had taken a page from FDR’s fireside chats and had improved them for modern media. I don’t know whether he is still doing so. A few years later, I lost access to Scola, which gave me Russian news live, and I got too busy to watch it anyway.

Of course Putin has access to television in a way that even you, Mr. President, do not. He largely controls Russia’s electronic media, although not its printed press. Even as our President, you would have to beg for news coverage, make sufficient waves to have your pronouncements declared “news,” or pay for coverage.

But I think the White House could easily afford to pay for a half-hour broadcast once a week. A smart media manager might even goad the networks to compete for exclusive live coverage, and/or bargain on price.

Or political contributors could pay. Already I contribute as much as I can to support you and like-minded politicians nationwide. I would much rather my money go toward your explaining your thinking and policies directly to us, the people, than for PR tricksters to use their best video deception to dupe an uncomprehending public. That’s most of what happened in our last presidential campaign, on both sides. Our people and our national future deserve better than that.

So please, Mr. President, don’t fall behind Vladimir Putin. We Yanks invented television and the Internet. Our leaders should know how to use them at least as well as he. They shouldn’t delegate the vital job of educating the public to unelected PR hacks with just a fraction of their character, experience and political skill. Nor should you.

Yours respectfully and gratefully, for all you have done and endured so far,

Jay

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