Some reflections

Most of the government is shut down today, in an homage to the late President George H.W. Bush.  Americans have been encouraged to reflect on his life.  So I will.  But first, a keen observation by another that mirrors my own thoughts:

It is in no way to insult George H. W. Bush — or any other president, for that matter — to ask whether the retooling of their calendars is an appropriate way for the people of a republic to respond to the death of an elected representative. Tomorrow, the press reports, is to be a “day of mourning” — a day on which the stock market will be closed, on which the federal government will shut down, on which the House of Representatives will begin a week-long break, on which various universities will cancel classes, on which the Postal Service will halt deliveries, on which the Supreme Court will adjourn, and on which major American newspapers will postpone events that they had previously planned to hold. Across the U.S., flags will be flown at half-staff for a month.

Why? Irrespective of whether he was a great man or a poor one, George H. W. Bush was a public employee. He was not a king. He was not a pope. He did not found or save or design the republic. To shut down our civil society for a day in order to mark his peaceful passing is to invert the appropriate relationship between the citizen and the state, and to take yet another step toward the fetishization of an executive branch whose role is supposed to be more bureaucratic than spiritual, but that has come of late to resemble Caesar more than to resemble Coolidge.

Well said, Mr. Cooke.  I’d also add that the current practice of naming $1 billion warships after presidents has the same effect.  (Why not return to naming carriers after famous battles/events in U.S. history?  Honor the many who fought – not the ones who gave the orders from a fortress in D.C.)  Presidents do have an impact on the course of history, and their lives are worth remembering and examining.  But in a Republic, they should not be revered.

So what about Mr. Bush?  Politics aside, I submit his greatest legacy and example is in the 73-year marriage he shared with Barbara — the longest marriage of any president.  This marriage survived the death of a child, issues of depression, and the rough and tumble of political life.  Our nation could use many more such examples of love and commitment.

I have mixed feelings about Bush’s presidential legacy.  Clearly he had a successful foreign policy run.  Desert Storm restored a large measure of faith in the U.S. armed forces that had been missing since Vietnam.  Almost 30 years later, though, one could argue America fell inappropriately in love with its high-tech military, to the point of misapplying it to problems that are not intrinsically solvable by force of arms.  Where Bush’s legacy is likely greatest, though, is in his handling of the end of the Cold War.  As the Soviet Union collapsed, and with it the Warsaw Pact empire, it was by no means a foregone conclusion the great transition would be a peaceful one.  The Bush administration navigated a failed coup against Gorbachev, Yeltsin’s populist revolt, and the thorny question of what to do with Germany after the Berlin Wall fell.  It was not an amateur’s hour, and the nation was fortunate to have at the helm what might have been one of the best-prepared presidents for such a time.

Despite such impactful success on the international stage, Bush was unable to translate the political capital from it to impact issues at home.  Exiting the Gulf War with an approval rating of almost 90 percent, within months his inability to articulate “the vision thing” as he put it, cost him support in an America facing economic turmoil and uncertainty in a post-Cold War world.  As the 1992 election cycle began, six words came back to haunt him: “Read my lips.  No new taxes.”  Only 18 months into his presidency, Bush relented on that pledge as part of a deal that was supposed to include spending cuts.  Predictably, the taxes rose.  The cuts never came.  Once again, the Democrats’ Lucy had yanked the ball away from Charlie Brown, and Bush looked foolish for having trusted his political opponents, who gloated over the misstep.  Coupled with his reference to a “new world order” in the wake of the Cold War, the tax issue cost him dearly among fiscal conservatives and those wary of international entanglements.  This opened the door for the challenge by Ross Perot, who pulled enough support away (including, I regret to say, my own vote) that Bill Clinton was elected president.  Comparing the two men’s resumes, it’s laughable to think America would reject Bush in favor of “the man from Hope, Arkansas.”  But as I’ve pointed out on this blog, critical decisions are made more often on emotion than reason, and in this case Clinton connected with people in a way Bush did not.  And so it was that two of the most conniving political creatures America has ever produced — Bubba Bill and Her Hillariness — entered the White House, beginning a three-decade-long spree of influence peddling and assorted other nefarious activities.

It’s worth noting, however, the letter Bubba found in the Oval Office from his predecessor:

Jan 20, 1993
Dear Bill,
When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too.
I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described.
There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course.
You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.
Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.
Good luck — George

That last line should serve as a model in our electoral system, which has devolved into political total war against those who disagree.  Since that transition in 1993, both Republicans and Democrats have been guilty of wanting to see a president from “the other side” fail, seeking political opportunity regardless the cost to the country.  We need to relearn the ability to stand firmly on principle while still extending an open hand to those of good will and honorable intentions.

We also need to regain the discernment to tell those honorable opponents from charlatans and snake oil salesmen.

Politically, I’m even less of a Bush family fan than I was in 1992, in large part due to what I believe to have been wrongheaded policy by Bush the Younger after 9/11.  Despite all that, I offer my humble condolences to that family on the passing of a man who, regardless any political faults, was clearly a devoted husband and father.  May our nation be blessed to have many more such men.  And may we continue to remember that even when they occupy the highest office in the land, they are still just that: men.

A few modest suggestions

Life’s been busy lately, so posting has been light.  For some time, though, I’ve been working on a list of “things I’d do if I was completely in charge of adjusting the government.”  They center around limiting the influence of lobbyists, making immigration offenses a serious matter, and reducing the ability of a president to unilaterally commit the nation to war.

It’s an ongoing project.  But I’ll post it here for any comments and input on what’s already there.  Warning: it’s a lot of stuff (roughly 6 pages in a word processor).  But then, there’s a lot of stuff wrong with the country, so that’s to be expected.  Use the page numbers at the bottom of the post to advance to the next page.

Constructive input/critiques welcomed.

REFORM  (Federal Level)

General:

No person convicted of a felony will be eligible to hold elective office at the Federal Level.  Convicted felons may not serve in the Federal Civil Service above the grade of GS-5.

The Legislatures of each State will appoint one person to serve on a Federal Civil Service Oversight Board.  Board members will serve terms determined by their individual State.  This 50-member board will have power independent of Congress to investigate accusations of fraud, waste, abuse, or employee misconduct/failure to meet standards within the Federal workforce.  The board, by a 3/5 majority vote, may dismiss any federal employee below the grade of Cabinet Secretary.  The board will also investigate charges of retaliation against whistle-blowers.  With the concurrence of 3/5 of the board, anyone deemed as having engaged in retaliation will be dismissed from Civil Service.  No person dismissed by the Oversight Board will be eligible for any future Civil Service position or for elected office to Congress or the Presidency.

If all men are equal…

…then all bear close watching when given authority.  I say this because I see in some Trump supporters the same “man-on-a-white-horse” aspirations as Obama’s believers in the “Lightbringer” showed eight years ago.

That’s not to say there isn’t reason for optimism.  There have been some interesting aspects to this transition period, and it’s entirely possible Trump may meet or exceed some of the expectations people have for him to disrupt what has clearly become a government run by globalists with little concern for their own constituents.

But to be successful in the change many Americans voted for, they must make sure we don’t trade the cult of Obama for the cult of Trump.  In some respects, they are mirror images of each other.  Both have serious character flaws.  Both promised a lot of things in their campaigns.  Obama delivered on the “transformation” he promised, but many people now realize the changes were not in a positive direction.  We’ve yet to see how successful Trump will be in undoing his predecessor’s damage.

The bottom line, however, is this: a healthy republic does not run on the whims of any single person.  It requires the constant engagement of the citizenry… which is why it’s so hard to maintain.  As the quip goes: “most people don’t really want to be free… they just hope for a good master who takes care of them.”

These thoughts were already running through my head when I read this article:

The idea that a large, complex society enjoying English liberty could long endure without the guiding hand of a priest-king was, in 1776, radical. A few decades later, it became ordinary — Americans could not imagine living any other way. …

As American society grows less literate and the state of its moral education declines, the American people grow less able to engage their government as intellectually and morally prepared citizens. We are in the process — late in the process, I’m afraid — of reverting from citizens to subjects. Subjects are led by their emotions, mainly terror and greed…

For more than two centuries, we Americans have been working to make government subject to us rather than the other way around, to make it our instrument rather than our master. But that requires a republican culture, which is necessarily a culture of responsibility. Citizenship, which means a great deal more than showing up at the polls every two years to pull a lever for Team R or Team D, is exhausting. On the other hand, monarchy is amusing, a splendid spectacle and a wonderful form of public theater.

But the price of admission is submission.

We’ll know we’re succeeding in returning to the Founders’ vision of a limited federal government when it doesn’t matter as much who occupies the White House or Congress.  For now, though, the Executive has become quite monarchical (“I have a pen and a phone” sounds a lot like something George III would have said, had he access to either).  Congress, meanwhile, dutifully plays the roles of courtiers, many of whom have aspirations of eventually occupying the Cherry Blossom Throne themselves (HT: Vox).

I sincerely hope our people didn’t go through two centuries of hard work fighting for, debating, pushing, shoving and reforming representative government just so it could devolve back into an authoritarian regime.  Expect and hope for improvement under Trump, yes.  But let’s also redevelop that culture of responsibility that recognizes “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

That goes no matter whether Team Elephant or Team Donkey is at the levers of power.  Remember that, in the end, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  The more  powerful Uncle Sam has grown, the more corrupt his institutions.

Return  power to the States and the people!