Sunday, September 5, 2010

Hypocrisy and the Damage Done

If anyone confuses me with a George W. Bush supporter, I can only conclude that person
  • doesn't know me, or
  • hasn't read much in this blog.
Perhaps (or maybe that should be probably) both.

After all, Bush was still president when I wrote that his actions in office needed to be investigated.

I still believe that to be true, but, after revisiting that particular post, I feel I need to amend what I said — if only to make what I feel are somewhat obvious points about hypocrisy.

I'm not saying that Barack Obama was dishonest about his intentions in Iraq — but he has been, at the very least, inconsistent in what he has said.

On the surface, Obama appeared to be gracious toward his predecessor when he said, in his speech informing the public that he had fulfilled his pledge to end all combat operations in Iraq, "[N]o one can doubt President Bush's support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security," and he went on to observe that "there were patriots who supported this war, and patriots who opposed it."

But there has long been a rising chorus in America of people who believed that the Bush administration (the president and all the others whose names will be forever linked to this tragedy) lied to the people to further its own agenda. And one of those voices had been Obama's.

In the now–forgotten days before the economic implosion, Obama's opposition to the war in Iraq and his desire to end American military involvement there was one of the main things that drew voters to him, not unlike Gene McCarthy's insurgent candidacy against LBJ four decades before.

It may be hard to remember now, but the campaigns for both parties' presidential nominations were conducted with the unpopular Iraq war as the backdrop, not the economy.

"There was no such thing as Al Qaeda in Iraq," Obama told an audience in Ohio during the 2008 presidential campaign, "until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq."

Hmmmm. Seems to me Obama was asserting on that occasion (and on others in the spring of 2008) that both Bush and McCain had been guilty of lying when they pressed Congress for the authority to invade Iraq.

After all, the primary reason for going to war (which has long been discredited) was the alleged existence of "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq, weapons that supposedly were aimed at America, ready to launch at a second's notice. And those allusions to mushroom clouds from folks like Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, et al., drove that message home.

And, because Al Qaeda was such an emotional subject for most Americans in the months immediately following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the proponents of a war with Iraq tossed around the suggestion that Al Qaeda had used Iraq as a base of operations. That, too, proved to be false.

But, without those two arrows in their quiver at that time, the so–called neocons never could have frightened the American public — or the American Congress — into going along with them.

Lying about the reasons for launching an invasion doesn't seem very patriotic to many Americans — especially Americans who were passionate about their opposition to the war (and believed their opposition was a valid expression of their own patriotism) and yet were slandered as unpatriotic by those who supported the war.

How do you suppose they feel when they hear Obama praise Bush's "love of country" in connection with the Iraqi operation?

Does it seem hypocritical to you?

Hypocrisy isn't an easy thing to confront, is it? Of course, no one is perfect, but Eugene Robinson, an Obama enabler from the Washington Post who complains that American voters are petulant "spoiled brats" who are ready to turn over the Congress to a party they loathe because Democrats haven't produced improvements fast enough to suit them, frets that what voters appear all but certain to do in November makes no sense.

Actually, in the context of the American experience, it does make sense. At the very least, it is consistent. In the midterm campaigns of 1982 and 1994, respectively, both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton repeatedly reminded the voters that they had inherited bad economies.

And surveys showed that the majority of respondents agreed with Reagan and Clinton — but the voters had moved on. They weren't thinking about who started the fire. They were thinking about who had been chosen to extinguish the fire. And, in both cases, that had not been done.

Robinson doesn't think it is fair, and maybe it isn't. But what does fair have to do with it? It's the way American voters have behaved as long as I can remember. It shouldn't surprise anyone.

I'm inclined to think Robinson makes a valuable point when he says Obama can "point to any number of occasions on which he has told Americans that getting our nation back on track is a long–range project." Yet, in the very same column, Robinson admits that, when he was running for president, Obama's "campaign stump speech ended with the exhortation, 'Let's go change the world' — not 'Let's go change the world slowly and incrementally, waiting years before we see the fruits of our labor.' "

And that's the point. Obama raised the bar for himself by making "change" the centerpiece of his campaign. And his words had an urgency, an almost revolutionary sound, to them.

Now, not only is change coming too slowly for some, most can't agree on what kind of change the campaign was really about (and, therefore, the Obama presidency should be about).

Nevertheless, the fact remains that Obama campaigned under the banner of change, and change is what the voters expected. If the voters can't see it, that doesn't mean it hasn't happened. It might mean it isn't the kind of change they expected, or there hasn't been enough of it to make a difference in their lives.

It may well be true, as some have suggested, that some economic indicators are doing better and that this is a stubborn economy — and that, even though it will be years before most Americans see any change in their health care, it is a landmark achievement (that could well be repealed if the other party takes legislative power in a few months) — but real change, the kind that makes a positive difference in people's lives, is hard for many to see, especially when the latest report from the Labor Department showed unemployment moving back up in the direction of 10%.

Perhaps that explains why Gallup reports finding that less than 40% of Americans approve of the job Obama is doing on the economy. And, while Obama may be proud of passing health care reform legislation, he would be wise not to bring it up too much if Gallup is right. His handling of that issue is only marginally more popular than his handling of the economy (Gallup's finding, by the way, is confirmed by CNN polling, which tends to be more pro–Democrat than the typically neutral Gallup).

Some voters continue to take it on faith that the economy is getting better and blame the previous administration for all their difficulties, and Obama eagerly embraces that approach, as other presidents have.

But it just seems hypocritical to me that the same man who, in the days before his inauguration, urged his countrymen to look to the future instead of the past by investigating his predecessor's actions in office — who launched his presidential campaign with an eloquent plea for taking responsibility ("We've been told that our crises are somebody else's fault. We are distracted from our real failures and told to blame the other party, or gay people, or immigrants, and as people have looked away in frustration and disillusionment, we know who has filled the void") — now excuses his own failings by reminding people, at every opportunity, who was in office when the recession began.

And then he praises his predecessor's patriotism as he concludes a war that predecessor began.

This isn't exactly what I would call an "alternate history." If you're looking for something like that, may I recommend David Brooks' piece in the New York Times this week?

While his column rightfully could be considered an example of Monday morning quarterbacking, Brooks does suggest a plausible scenario in which the prospects for the midterm elections wouldn't be as dire for the Democrats — even if the employment numbers were fundamentally unchanged.

American voters may seem like petulant children to Robinson, but the lessons one learns from childhood do have a staying power all their own. They can continue to guide one's steps in adulthood.

And, while I may seem blase about the concept of being fair, I do understand that desire for fairness, justice and all that — and the bitterness one can feel when fair treatment has been denied.

I recall that, when I was about 6, I found myself in a situation in which the people around me were discussing something of which I knew nothing. I don't remember the specifics — or what I opted to do in that situation except that, whatever I did, it must have backfired on me because I felt compelled to discuss it with my mother.

(For some reason, I think this incident involved a discussion some of my peers were having about a TV program. But not everyone had a TV in those days, and it seems to me that, at the time, my family didn't have a TV set, so I knew nothing about TV programs. I probably felt left out of the conversation and decided to change the subject to something I knew about — resulting in a predictable outcome.)

Anyway, Mom told me there would be times in my life when the people around me would be discussing something in which I had no interest or knowledge to contribute to the conversation. In such situations, she told me, there were three things I could do. I could
  • ignore the feelings of those I am with and change the subject to something I feel more comfortable talking about,
  • try to contribute to the conversation, even though I have nothing to add to it, thereby embarrassing myself and wasting the others' time, or
  • be respectful of those who are talking and remain silent.
She told me the third option was the best. And, although I don't remember the specifics of the incident that led to this conversation, I still remember what she told me: "Show courtesy and respect for others, and wait your turn."

I loved my mother very much, and I always wanted to please her. I don't recall if her answer made sense to me at the time, but it made sense to her, and that was all I needed to know.

As I think back on moments from my childhood, it occurs to me that I accepted many of the things Mom told me on face value. I didn't always understand the things she told me or the advice she gave me — and, in that case, I may well have been equally influenced, even if I didn't realize it, by the admonition that supposedly came from Mark Twain that "It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt" — but if she believed it, I believed it, too.

I guess I should have asked more questions, though, because there have been times since Mom died when I have wondered if the sense of justice and fair play that she passed along to me might have been somewhat askew. Or maybe I've just applied her lessons wrong.

I know of at least one occasion about five or six years ago when I was having lunch with a group, and the women in the group were discussing something to which I had nothing to contribute. I don't remember now what the subject was, only that it was something I knew nothing about.

I was in a situation I had neither foreseen nor prepared for. I was also sensitive to traditional gender roles, and I was aware of the issues that always exist just beneath the surface, even if they aren't spoken out loud. I didn't want to trample on anyone's feet. And there were other factors at work as well.

So Mom's advice kicked in. I sat there in silence. I thought I was being courteous and respectful. Apparently, it wasn't taken that way. I say "apparently" not because any of the women in the group ever showed me the courtesy of telling me that my silence had been offensive to them in any way but because one of them told someone else — and he told me.

I've been paying the price for my "transgression" ever since. So much, I suppose, for the sense of fair play and justice in which I believed since I was a child.

Well, that's on a very small (albeit personal) scale. And it may not be entirely applicable.

Maybe I would have gotten the same response if I had said something stupid or insisted on changing the subject. Considering what I have long known of these people who have crucified me ever since for remaining silent, I was in a no–win situation. I believe there was nothing I could have done that would have been right in their eyes, even if I had had hours to carefully consider my options because nothing I have ever said or done has been right in their eyes.

I guess the moral for a president, who faces more demanding critics, is that there are times — especially when the economy sucks — when a president is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't.

Maybe it's like the moral I always drew from "Short Cuts," Robert Altman's film of several Raymond Carver stories that eventually intersect.

One of those stories dealt with a young boy who was hit by a car being driven by a woman who was distracted by her personal problems. The woman tried to persuade the boy to let her take him to his home, but he seemed OK and, because his mother had always told him never to accept a ride with strangers, he politely refused her offer and insisted he was all right.

But he wasn't. Apparently, he had severe injuries that became more and more apparent after he got home. He fell into a coma and was rushed to the hospital, where he eventually died. His parents spent virtually every waking moment by his side.

Meanwhile, a baker who had been commissioned to bake a cake for the boy's upcoming birthday grew angrier and angrier as the days passed and no one came to pick up the special order (and pay him for all his hard work). The baker, knowing nothing of what had happened to the boy, began making harassing, anonymous calls to the parents' home.

It's always seemed to me that the moral was that life would be a lot simpler and things would turn out a lot better if people knew the whole story before they jumped to conclusions (as neatly as such conclusions may fit their particular world view).

The baker probably wouldn't have made those calls if he had known the family was facing a crisis. And that crisis might have been avoided if the boy had realized that, when his mother told him not to accept rides with strangers, she didn't mean to turn down a ride from someone who has hit you with her car and wants to make sure you are all right.

For that matter, the driver of the car never knew the fatal consequences of her inattentiveness. She told her husband about the incident, but she believed it had been a narrow escape.

Anyway, the grieving parents put two and two together and confronted the baker about the phone calls. When he learned what had happened to the boy, he regretted making the calls and tried to do what he could to make amends for his behavior, offering them some of his freshly baked rolls. "You should eat something at a time like this," he said. And they accepted his offering, perhaps more as a courtesy than because they were hungry.

And the rolls were good. I haven't read all of Carver's short stories, but I have read that one — eventually, I'd like to read the others that were brought to the screen in Altman's movie — and it describes the reassuring flavor of the rolls and the soothing warmth of the kitchen. The parents had not asked for the rolls, but they were good and the parents were grateful for the baker's act of kindness.

But the baker couldn't give the parents the one thing they did ask for. When the mother asked if she could see the cake he had made for her son, he had to confess that he had thrown it away.

And maybe that really is the moral of the story.

Sometimes the damage is done. Sometimes it is too late to know the whole story — or for that knowledge to make a difference.

No comments: