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Saying 'No' to 'No, No, No'


SAN DIEGO -- I did not bother to bring a notebook to town for a three-hour visit to say a few words at a 20th-anniversary lunch of the City Club of San Diego, the most significant political forum in this beautiful city where the sun usually speaks louder than words. The main speaker was Lowell Weicker, Connecticut's former Republican senator and Independent governor, and I assumed he'd stick pretty much to conventional wisdom and his own ambitions.

I was wrong, though, and quickly found myself scrawling notes on an envelope and napkins, beginning with his first line, an angry question: "I would like to ask the people currently dismantling the greatest country in the world, what the hell is going on here?

"Is the Constitution deficient?" he continued. "Were the efforts of gaining more equality just time wasted? . . . These are people -- the contract bunch -- who are afraid of change. They are destroying the America that ate the world's lunch because we were the masters of change. Today we're frozen with fear of change, going to one nostalgia event after another.

"These are people who only say 'No.' No to immigration. No to language. No to affirmative action. It's all about saying no. No. No. No.

"In the schools, these are the people who cut out arts programs, cut out sports. To save money, they say, but really they just serve a selfish adult generation. . . . They want to put the country on automatic pilot -- forced budget goals, term limits.

"They're not attempting to do anything. The message is, nothing can be done, there's no money, the government can't do anything, nobody can do anything. Nihilism . . . We're walking off the field."

Part of the walking away he described is the continuing decline in voting in this, the great democracy. New studies by political scientists Stephen Ansolabehere of MIT and Shanto Iyengar of UCLA -- scheduled to be published this fall under the title "Going Negative: How Attack Ads Shrink and Polarize the Electorate" -- indicate that our "leaders" and the consultants who make their television commercials are deliberately attempting to drive voters away.

"As political campaigns have become more hostile over the last two decades . . . negative campaigning reinforces nonpartisans' disillusionment and convinces them not to participate in a tainted process." That's no accident, they conclude, saying: "We believe that candidates who might benefit from low turnout pay for negative advertisements to discourage participation, . . . [a] shrinking of the electorate by political strategists fully aware of the consequences of their actions."

Why it can't be done

Mr. Weicker's railing against the negative touched a responsive chord with me -- meaning, of course, that I agreed with him. When I lived in France, I once wrote that the difference between the United States and the Old World was that Europeans always said no -- "pas possible," in French, "not possible" -- while Americans always said yes, then tried to figure out how to do it.

Now our leaders of the moment give us lists of what can't be done and explanations of why it's all impossible. I was reminded of Robert Kennedy's adaptation of a line from George Bernard Shaw: "Some men see things as they are and ask, "Why?" I see things that never were and ask, "Why not?"

"This is a crock," said Mr. Weicker, asking how America got to be rich and powerful, just and generous if no one, beginning with the government, knew what they were doing all this time.

Mr. Weicker, some say, is thinking about running for president in a new third party -- repeating his 1990 triumph in Connecticut when he defeated the Democratic and Republican candidates in a three-way race. Speaking of the two parties, he said: "They could use some competition, too, like everybody else in this country."

That's a tall order -- for him, for Colin Powell, for Bill Bradley or anyone else, including Ross Perot again -- but I will not take time to list the reasons it can't be done. Most anything can be done around here; that's the American idea and ideal. It's American to try to change things -- to do the impossible -- and I don't mean change them back into what they used to be (or we imagine they were), but to risk and move things forward into what they can be.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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