America's greatness hasn't fled it's just untapped


LAST WEEK I drove to Boston from a friend's home among the frigid high-arched ridges of central Maine. The dismal gray of early spring was shattered by unaccustomed bursts of color. In Strong and Livermore, Phillips and Turner, the brilliant red, white and blue of American flags festooned house-fronts and stores and unfurled from the antennas of cars on the streets and on the hard-surfaced lots of small-town car dealerships. They were the outward sign of the patriotic exhilaration that had inundated these remote towns.

I had not welcomed the prospect of war, but once it came, like most Americans I watched with growing, somewhat macabre jubilation as we moved swiftly toward triumph. We had won one, I exulted. This country -- deep in recession, increasingly pessimistic about its future, cynical about its governing political structure -- badly needed a win, a tangible sign that its greatness among the nations had not fled.

It was a great feeling. But it was, of course, largely an illusion. Within days, statistics showed rising unemployment -- 8 million, probably closer to 10 million American workers without jobs.

Still, the transient wave of patriotic pride had demonstrated a more profound and heartening reality. There was still an America out there. Despite deepening class divisions, the idea of America as a community of citizens with a mutual concern for their nation, and, by necessary extension, for their fellow citizens, was still alive. If that was true -- and it is true -- then it was still possible to summon the immense, partially dormant energies of this country to arrest the steady deterioration of American life. But that is not going to happen. At least not very soon.

The need -- the obvious, self-evident but mysteriously elusive need -- is to invest the still-immense resources and energies of the American nation into building the foundation of the future American economy. The skills and money that developed "smart" bombs and Patriot missiles must be dedicated to modernizing production, directing technology to the construction of products that fulfill civilian wants and desires. Our failed school system must be at least partially abandoned for apprenticeship programs and other training. Businesses must be rewarded for long-term growth and penalized for neglecting the future in favor of immediate gain and immense compensation for transient managers.

Building for the future will require far-reaching changes in the legal and political structures that govern and direct the "free market," a redirection of resources that will require Americans to forgo immediate satisfactions.

Above all, we must be willing to restore the severed links between the world of the intellect and the domain of political leadership. We have an abundance of individuals who have worked to construct new policies, new ideas. But no one -- no one with power -- has shown the courage to act.

What are these leaders afraid of? Losing an election? Running short of campaign funds? Being criticized for "unorthodox" views? Yes. They are afraid of all the unwelcome consequences that will follow advocacy of large changes in the direction of American life. Thus, in order to keep their positions as "leaders," they forfeit the right to lead.

Republicans and Democrats alike are trapped in their own ideologies, restrained by obsolete economic debate and by their corrupting dependence on the centers of wealth and power that benefit most from our unwillingness to take the radical steps that a restoration of American greatness will demand.

In 1968, when political leadership shrank from assaulting the Johnson policies -- the waging of war and the consequent damage to the economic and moral fabric of national life -- there was only one resource. And we found it in New Hampshire. The process of democracy allowed the people to speak -- not through pollsters or politicians but for themselves; with that voice the president was stripped of all the majesty and power of his great office.

Today's needs cannot be encompassed in such simple demands as "end the war" or "freedom now," but they can be formulated as a rallying cry behind which a political movement can be mobilized; a movement with allegiance not to party but to principle, not to victory for politicians but to triumph for America. That is how important change comes to America -- not from the top but from the ascending pressures of a people distressed and angry at the loss of American greatness. For we remain a great country founded on a great idea. Those flags, the thousands points of color decorating the towns of Maine, tell me that millions of my fellow citizens retain the will that, once crystallized in purpose, will be equal to the task of restoring the dream.

Richard Goodwin was an assistant special counsel to President Kennedy and a special assistant to President Johnson.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad