Diatribes of Jay

This blog has essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to social 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.

28 August 2008

Acting Like Adults

The great wag Will Rogers had a funny take on the Democratic Party. “I’m not a member of any organized political party,” he said. “I’m a Democrat.”

For the last nine months, I chuckled often as I recalled that bon mot. We Democrats have indeed been a willful, prideful, disorganized herd of cats.

Hillary and Bill waged an unnecessarily vicious and dirty campaign, with unfortunate racial innuendoes. And for what? Were there stark differences in policy and approach? Were great issues at stake? Of course not.

The only stakes in our primary race were personal ambition and style, not substance. The contest turned not on the need for change or its direction, but on who would have the privilege and responsibility of making change happen. It was all about us.

The apex of this childish chest-beating came when Jesse Jackson, on an open mike, threatened to castrate Barack Obama. Here was a path-breaking and widely admired leader threatening a man for achieving the very dream that he himself had fought so valiantly all his life to realize. These were not us Democrats’ finest hours.

But by last night, all that had ended. Someone waved a magic wand and infused all the prideful, resentful and sometimes spiteful boys and girls with a dose of adult reality and humility.

There was Hillary Clinton. Previously, she had kept the entire nation on tenterhooks, wondering if she would provoke a final raucous floor fight in an age where party conventions have become scripted infomercials. Instead, she played the adult and did what she had to do, for her party, her country and her own political future. She threw her support wholeheartedly behind Obama, and she did so with all the power, grace, glibness and passion of which she is capable.

There was Bill Clinton—the same man who had spitefully suggested earlier that Obama was an upstart not ready to lead. This time, he also acted like an adult. He recognized the simple truth that Obama’s meteoric rise echoed his own sixteen years earlier. And he said so.

Not only that. In the powerful, accurate but simple speech for which his Rhodes Scholar’s mind is justifiably famous, he laid out in detail why Obama has the judgment, wisdom and political skill to turn this country around. One by one, he deftly refuted the self-serving lies he had told during the primary campaign.

There was Jesse Jackson’s son, delivering a gentle, implied rebuke to his more famous father. In forceful and unequivocal terms, he explained why Obama is not just the best hope of the Democratic Party and the nation, but of the “movement” for equality for which his father’s generation fought so brilliantly.

Besides Jesse Jr., there was a succession of powerful, articulate, and attractive African-American speakers. Particularly notable among them were Representative Artur Davis of Alabama and Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts.

As I watched their impressive performances, I recalled a basic truth of our society. “New blood” has always enriched and ennobled us, whether it comes from immigrants or from long-resident groups newly admitted to the political mainstream. Our political leadership flourished when groups like the Irish, Italians and Catholics first came of political age. The Kennedy family, honored by Teddy’s courageous and unexpected appearance, were just the most recent proof of that enduring truth. Joe Biden is another.

Now it’s African-Americans’ turn. Like Barack Obama, they have honed their wisdom and character overcoming personal obstacles that most of the rest of us never see in our worst nightmares. They have hardened their steel in the fire of American racism. Having come of age politically, they are ready to serve us all.

There was not a trace of bitterness or resentment among the African-American speakers. They were powerful, well-educated, attractive, articulate and self-confident. They were not victims, but winners and achievers. As I watched and listened in admiration, I recalled what it means to be an American. I was proud to be a Democrat who supported the long and painful struggle that now, at long last, is bearing such fine fruit.

Then there were the military adults. The tragic irony of the last seven years is how poorly Republican leaders have used our troops, just as they used our evangelicals. For them our brave fighters have been props and photo-ops, tools of demagoguery. When it came to body armor, Humvee armor, PTSD care, or providing enough force to do the job, the GOP and its neocons consistently came up a day late and a dollar short.

Just recently, John McCain himself voted against a bill to increase veterans’ educational benefits. His rationale? Better benefits might tempt experienced troops to leave the service before their fifth or sixth tour of combat duty. How cruel and cynical can you get?

John McCain and his party have failed to support our troops in so many ways that it’s difficult to remember them all, let alone to list them. They privatized and downsized our military. They outsourced its jobs to hired mercenaries for higher pay, disparaging our troops’ patriotism and implying that money motivates heroism. In the name of private investment, they so bureaucratized our military procurement that it soon will have taken more than four years—the entire time it took to fight and win World War II—to write a contract for a new tanker plane.

But the thing that gripes me most is their treatment of fallen heroes. Dubya and his Pentagon don’t want us to see the flag-draped coffins coming home. They don’t want us to participate, even vicariously, in the darkly beautiful ceremonies by which we commit our heroes’ remains to the land they gave their last breath to protect.

The Republicans want us to think that we can win wars without blood, pain or death. So they deny fallen heroes the honor, dignity and broad public recognition that their and their families’ sacrifice deserves. And they have the gall to suggest they are doing it all to protect the families’ privacy.

We Democrats treated those lies like adults, too. A succession of military figures, of rank high and low, exposed Republican hypocrisy. Many of them were women. Few were national figures. But they represented our heroes now fighting two wars—one necessary, the other not—in our name and for our benefit. Their dignity, honor and courage showed by example just how low the party of John McCain has sunk.

Last but by no means least, there was Michelle. I’ve already outlined how her perfect pitch on Monday set the tone for the convention. But her contribution didn’t stop there. She remained a dignified, noble presence, to whom the cameras often turned for inaudible but visible reaction.

And what a reaction we saw. Michelle was the consummate lady—our future first lady. Seldom did she emote visibly. She showed brief bouts of joy only in moments of high rhetoric and well-deserved recognition of her husband’s hard-fought triumph. For the most part, she kept her thoughts hidden.

But her tears told who she really is. Did she weep when speakers chronicled her husband’s (and her!) struggle and success? Did she cry when Bill and Hillary—at long last—recognized her husband’s greatness and threw their support behind him? Not a bit.

Her tears came when Joe Biden, with voice shaking, told of his love for his own big family. The tears were self-evidently genuine. More eloquently than any speech, they revealed who she is and what she cares about: Joe’s kids, her kids, your kids, our kids.

What could be more adult than putting kids first? What better demonstrates that we Democrats are the party of the future?

It gave me comfort to know that, no matter how power may tempt Barack and events may test him, Michelle will be there, whispering in his ear and reminding him what really matters. With Michelle and Barack in the White House, our nation will once again become a two-parent family. And both parents will be Harvard Law-trained professionals with razor-sharp minds.

Now our task is clear. Our skeptical and alienated independents are just now tuning in. They will decide the election. In the next two-plus months, we Democrats have to show them who the adults are—who cares about people, as distinguished from ideas, ideology, and scoring political points. We have to let them see that we all, like Michelle, care about their kids, including so many fighting so courageously, in undeserved obscurity, on the other side of the globe.


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