Friday, February 16, 2007

Wes Clark: Where is the New Commander?

- for WesPAC, 2/15/07

I wanted to express some likes and dislikes as it feels now that we are at the end of something but not yet at the beginning of something else. In fact, we seem to be at the end of so many things; the end of the century, the end of the millennium, even the end of a Platonic Age which is said to bring a turning of the human spirit every 2,000 years or so.

We are certainly at the end of our country’s New York Centuries which, since Alexander Hamilton, would change the world in so many ways, and just at the very beginnings of our Pacific Centuries which are sure to do the same. Already, the Titan has arrived on our Pacific Shore riding his Big White Horse, Pegasus. Until this day we were a North and South nation. No longer. Now we will be East and West. And we will travel this path now for as long as we exist as a people; for a thousand years or so – what preceded so far since the Roanoke landing was only prelude.

I’ve never been so proud to be part of politics as I have been in the last three years. Actually I’d never been part of the public dialog and passage before. I do simple work in life and have esoteric concerns. But crisis, the deceptive and misguided drive to Iraq, brought out a necessity. And since I first stood six feet before Wes Clark when he signed the book in Concord, New Hampshire, to enter the primary, there has built in this country and in the Democratic Party a new beginning. And like all things which last, it begins with a new attitude and a new sense of will; a self-assurance and an unfettered desire to face the crises ahead head on.

Wes Clark brought this forth, challenging the official deceptions at every turn, and bringing in with him new people. Many of them were veterans, some veterans of the war on Iraq. No one was more dedicated to the task of bringing in the new House and Senate in the ’06 elections, here in New Hampshire with Carol Shea-Porter or in Virginia with Jim Webb, in Pennsylvania with Joe Sestak and Patrick Riley and across the country in red and blue states alike.

It is a new sensibility. It is a new Democratic Party. It is a new political culture for a new century. But centuries do not begin at the turn of the clock. The old politics refuse to die for a decade or so well into the new.

And that is what has been bringing a disturbance. As said, my interest in politics is only secondary and my innate directions are elsewhere, generally to religion. So what I have to say is not as a professional, but as a citizen.

Daily now I am concerned about fast, naïve and panicky actions on behalf of Democrats. Yesterday, the Governor of Virginia, who I ordinarily respect, endorsed a candidate for the ’08 Presidential race a full year before the major primaries take place, and probably before the best even arrive on the scene. The day before that, a stand-up comic announced his intentions to run for Senate as a Democrat. Will irony stop malfeasance and illegal politics? I think not. It was the assurance that the others would only respond with irony that enabled the brute to power in the first place. Another announced candidate hired bloggers well-known and notorious for their anti-Catholic screed and was slow to fire them when this was brought to the attention of the public.

These are not issues with any specific individuals. They are symptomatic of a general condition of the public which I would call at best a satisfied malaise, at worse, a smug and nihilistic defeatism. We have come to accept as public practice strategies and attitudes that should be completely unacceptable in public dialog. For example, if you were to go back and look to the major blogs and follow the discussion on the anti-Catholic bloggers, you would find a discourse akin to what one would expect on The Jerry Springer Show.

This bodes poorly for the new generation coming up, many of whom are claiming Democratic allegiance: What should bring shame brings vitriol; what should bring disgrace brings instead a false sense of victory. The public discussion has been territorialized by its darkest side. This is bad for Democrats and for the country. This is a great boon to the Republicans.

I do not particularly want a Democratic Party in which the President proposes to hire Goldman Sacks to run economic policy. That is not Democrat; that is Republicanism with fanciful hair. I do not want a party in which a Democratic mayor of a major city will hire Bain & Co. to run her or his city accounts – it is a masquerade; it is dress up. There is no doubt in my mind that Mitt Romney’s old firm would be very good at that kind of work, but why would I want to vote for a Democrat who is going to hire Romney to do the work of governance?

What I want in the Democratic Party is when a candidate says: “I take full responsibility,” it implies that she or he will accept and internalize the failure and not seek further office and find instead a more appropriate path in life. It is something we used to take for granted. Now “I take full responsibility” only asks that we change the subject

I do not want a candidate who claims they should be the President because they got the highest mark in law school. That does not necessarily prepare one for President. It prepares you for post-grad work and perhaps the quiet life of the chaired professorship.

I want a candidate who says, as one did recently, that he hopes no one votes for him just because he is black. But I do not want one who just the same accepts the ride nevertheless.

But we are getting that up here in New Hampshire. Recently, the leading fund-raiser in the state proposed that one of the candidates hold off on announcing for awhile to “get some stuff done” in the Senate. Ruth Marcus, Washington Post columnist, asked the same for another announced candidate the same day.

It is good advice for a kid who wants to be President: “Get some stuff done” first. But not for one who wants to be President the year after next.

Here in the Northeast we have developed a negative state which I have seen growing for 35 years now. I take it arises from a shift in power from New York and Boston to Texas and the West. We tend to call failure victory. I think it started with the nomination of George McGovern, who lost 49 states in 1972. We became proud of that failure and still are today. I saw it again with Howard Dean. His campaign in ’04 is constantly referred to as a victory on the blogosphere. It was not. It was, of course, an abject failure: He ran for President. He did not win even one state as George McGovern did, nor even a primary.

This attitude does not bode well for Democrats in the upcoming election. It will send us the way of the Whigs. It puts us in the position of defending the indefensible and diminishes our spirit.

We need to change course. We need to find that spark which Wes Clark lit in race after race across the country in ’06 and nurture it. I’d like to propose that we form a new group within the Democratic Party to explain who we are and to tell what we want and to make clear our intentions. It would be a group like the DLC, formed to consolidate a new attitude; an attitude which respects veterans, which expects duty and responsibility of its citizens; an attitude which will respond to public villainy with something stronger than irony in its opposition. And it would be a group to express clearly that we will not be passed by; not by Republicans, not by other Democrats, not by anyone.

Jim Webb awakened our spirit into the world in his address in opposition to the President’s State of the Union a few weeks back. It sent a heroic wave of confidence and élan across the country and even here where we sit under three feet of snow in the mountains of New Hampshire. The other day I saw a bumper sticker which said “Webb” on a car with New Hampshire plates.

Like Clark, he brings forth to the light into the republic; a yearning that the rest of us have felt these past two or three years. Webb also expressed the effectiveness of the political strategy that I call The Bruschi Theorem. Our own famed New England Patriot Tedy Bruschi says, “When you throw a block, your opponent has to feel some pain.”

Webb did so. His talk of “Robber Barons” and Wall Street salaries in which the chief executive makes as much in one day as the average worker makes in 21 years hit a cord. Three days later, the President made public addresses in opposition to said salaries. They felt the pain. They responded. It will be more than irony or the deconstructivst pout from the new people in Congress. They became actually afraid, which was the intention.

These past weeks I received emails from a woman I was great friends with as a child but hadn’t heard from in 43 years. Her son, it turned out, now 25 and a West Point graduate, had been working on Patrick Riley’s campaign. She wanted to know what I thought about the current campaign.

It brought a great recollection of growing up together on the ocean in Tiverton, Rhode Island, where we played on the beach as children in the salt air, and sailed small boats in competition. In old New England towns on the Narragansett Bay each region had its own class of sail boat, and ours was designed by Commander Wood, a retired Navy man.

Commander Wood brought an old New England spirit to our town. Every day, into his 80s and beyond, his face torn open by skin cancer, he marched down the wharf alone to sail - undefeated, undefeatable, invincible - in one of the small sail boats he had designed for us.

I don’t think any of us ever heard him speak and certainly we never spoke to him: It would be like speaking to Triton or Poseidon. But he was a part of us. And he made many of us, like my friend and I, whose grandparents were born in the same town in Ireland, a part of the new world and its work and a part of New England. Even a part of the ocean as we experienced it on those chilly New England mornings. That’s what we needed, I said: A new commander.