Off the Cuff: September 2011

I’m sure all of us are tired of hearing about the lousy economy and the sorry state of Washington politics. But like a lot of people, I’m fearful that something more profound is unraveling in America—I’m afraid we’re falling apart at the seams as a society. Consider the latest episodes of flash mobs in Center City, with downtown seeming just one ugly incident away from the full-scale riots that have ravaged England. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what has happened to us. And as I consider all of it—from the economy to failing schools to our widespread incivility to the mess we’ve made of many of our cities—my disappointment and fear turn to anger: Does anyone really care? Where, I wonder, have our true leaders gone?

No one in Washington seems to give a damn. It is unconscionable that our national legislative bodies embarked on four-week recesses in the face of another looming recession. If the President was the leader we thought we had elected, he would have demanded that Congress—or at least its leadership-—stay in session to work through the month of August. Of course, that was never going to happen—the abysmal and selfish national-debt debate exposed Washington’s real mind-set for all the world to see. I felt embarrassed to be an American.

I keep thinking about The Wise Men, a book I’ve reread recently; it’s the story of the six mid-20th-century leaders—including Dean Acheson and W. Averell Harriman—who interrupted lucrative careers to serve as “the architects of the American century.” These men served their country with noblesse oblige—out of duty, without any possibility of personal gain. Where are men like these today?

The lack of leadership isn’t solely the fault of the President, not when I consider what a pitiful, greedy, incompetent Congress we’ve got. For a long time, I believed Philadelphia politicians were much worse than those toiling in Washington—I thought there were many Senators and Congressmen who actually believed in doing whatever is best for the country. My, such naïveté!

It would be difficult to name more than a handful of Congressmen who would put partisan interests aside for the good of the country.

The Times’s prescient columnist, Thomas Friedman, recently nailed the sorry state of America when he wrote: “Our country is now finding itself in the worst kind of decline—a slow decline, just slow enough for us to keep deluding ourselves that nothing really fundamental needs to change if our future is to match our past.”
My only quibble with Friedman is that the decline is no longer slow. Yet no one is willing to make the difficult decisions needed to get the country back on track economically. Likewise, almost no one has the guts to point out social ills such as fathers refusing to raise their children, thereby dooming them to become thugs who terrorize the rest of us. It’s all of a piece, really: Genuine leaders would have the courage to tell the truth, and then follow through on a course of action. What happened, I wonder, to those Wise Men who would dedicate their lives to exactly that?