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The first time I was old enough to laugh along with the family was the night my father explained his tardiness to my mother. As a salesman traveling the back roads of North Carolina, his car hit a soft shoulder and sank hubcap-deep in red mud.
The nearby farmer was a nice-enough guy, and Daddy figured he had more than enough mule power in that big barn to extricate him, but Daddy couldn’t seem to budge the farmer from his instinctive position, which was standing there, chewing a twig and muttering over and over and over. “You shouldn’t have gotten so close to the edge. I really don’t think you should have gotten so close to the edge.” It was the country-and-peasant profundity of his tone that bothered Daddy. Daddy agreed. Daddy flashed currency. The farmer was too inflexible to notice.
“I’m telling you the truth, sir,” the farmer drawled on, shaking his head for emphasis. “I just don’t think you should have gotten so close to the edge.”
For all these decades I’d thought that was just a rural North Carolina anecdote. Little did I realize I was being handed a full-blown prophetic vision of the real “State of the Union” today. How many with the “mule power” in Washington today are any more helpful than that farmer? That question becomes stronger over time as the puerile effects of “The Deal” become more apparent.
When respect falls, the awful crash makes that of the Twin Towers themselves seem like a powder-puff falling on a thick rug; or, as Cousin Guerney less elegantly puts it, “like a mouse wetting cotton.” Part of it’s my fault. Maybe I shouldn’t have had that much respect for the American government to begin with.
In the early grades they jack-hammered us with “Civics.” We had to memorize the Constitution’s Preamble; you know, the piece that begins, “We, the People …” I grew up with an almost religious reverence, not just for the country but for the government itself, beginning with the very architecture! A majestic white-domed centerpiece flanked by two chambers, the Senate and the House of Representatives; down the road there’s the White House and the Supreme Court building, making it a triumphant triangle. I respected elected officials even more than I respected football players – quite an emotional achievement in that era and area.
Has the man with the best-looking wife in your town ever been busted with a seedy-looking prostitute? You can’t figure it out. I’d had that same confusion when I’d read about elected officials busted for corruption. “How could an elected official possibly want anything more? Gaining great wealth on top of the glory of being an elected official would,” I thought, “be like pouring salt into the Atlantic.”
Camels make lousy witnesses as to exactly which straw it was that broke their backs, but I remember what brought my respect for the elected-class crashing down. It was fairly late in the debt-ceiling crisis. An elected somebody on TV was explaining what would happen if suddenly we couldn’t borrow any more. There were plenty of billions in standard revenue to play plenty of bills, BUT NOWHERE NEARLY ENOUGH TO PAY ALL! In other words, the old high school plea of “Lend me a quarter!” and the old college plea of “Can you spare any money for the weekend?” has become frozen nationally into “We must borrow bigger and bigger to continue our life, and it’s gone too far to repair, so please shut up and get used to it. We don’t like to talk about it.”
Can you imagine, until just lately, the president saying, “Give me a clean debt-ceiling increase; no cuts or complications”? And how much better are the Republicans who essentially say, “Smoke and mirrors have their place. Give us some to make our voters think that in return for more borrowing, there’ll be real cuts later on”?
I remember how proud I was of America, marveling how the German people stomached Hitler until the entire nation was a smoking ruin and realizing that, if an American president lets interest rates soar to double-digits, we throw him out (Jimmy Carter). We are not a smoking ruin. We are a smoking financial ruin. Real smoke may come later.
We, the People, share this blame. “Retreating” is a worthy tactic. Retreating saved our civilization in the last century. The British, when beaten by the Germans in Europe, retreated back to the home island. The Russians, when beaten by the Germans, retreated all the way to the gates of Moscow. Guess which side won the war?
We’d rather not, but we could “retreat” to a means test for entitlements. We could retreat to a higher age before Medicare and Social Security kick in. But the nasty, unreasoned rejection of any such retreat makes ALL of us “elected officials.”
I feel like saving our country, but I wish there were a way to do it without saving any of those who are the slightest bit responsible for permitting America to sink so catastrophically into unfathomable debt.
I really just feel like standing there chewing a twig and repeating, “I don’t think you should have gotten so close to the edge.”