What has happened to this America we love? Why are we so disunited? So insecure? Why so hostile and untrusting of one another? Have we outgrown confidence in ourselves? In those seminal ideals – individual liberty, equality of opportunity and limited government?
Have we lost compass and confidence in our own ability to solve problems, lift ourselves and each other, without government direction? Do we not remember how we got to this blessed moment? Don’t free speech and religion, independent and responsible press, fair trials and accountable institutions matter?
And why do so many national leaders puff, preen and point, defining themselves by hatred for those with whom they disagree, failing to see that victory is never secured in America by infinite, emotional, mutual recrimination? Historically, even in recent history, this is not who we are, we Americans.
I was speaking today with a Republican who came to Washington from Maine in 1974, with a onetime young Republican Congressman, named David Emery. Emery had won an upset election at age 26. When he got to Washington, a seasoned Democratic Senator Ed Muskie, also from Maine, took both men under his wing. Muskie, the archetypical Democrat, spent hours explaining congressional processes, rules and traditions to these young Republicans. Muskie was down to earth, not self-impressed. That kindness cost Muskie nothing; it was remembered forever by my friend.
In the late 1990s, when I worked as a staff director and counsel under the US House Oversight Committee, we examined issues tied to drug abuse, national security, public health and safety. My job was working for Republican congressmen, eventually running a task force for then-Speaker Gingrich and bipartisan working group on the period’s drug crisis.
A shock: While differences existed, members of both parties talked often and respectfully with each other in and out of hearings and briefings. Current Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-MD), spoke regularly on shared concerns with Republican committee members, such as Bob Ehrlich (R-MD), Mark Souder (R-IN), John Mica (R-FL), and Dennis Hastert (R-IL). Respect was real and two-way.
As a staffer, I managed the US House bipartisan drug policy caucus (1995-1999). It was amicably and earnestly co-chaired by Republican Bill Zeliff (R-NH) and Democrat (D-NY) Charles Rangel. They cared deeply about kids, public safety and ending that period’s drug crisis. Those two, and a dozen others, including later DEA-head Asa Hutchinson (R-AK) and future Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), as well as countless senior Democrats, talked privately and publicly to get to solutions. They got there, too.
Representatives from Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) to Karen Thurman (D-FL) would assemble regularly with common purpose – listening privately to FBI Director Louis Freeh, DEA Administrator Tom Constantine, US Coast Guard Commandants Robert Kramek and James Loy, Cabinet Drug Czar and General Barry McCaffery (a Clinton appointee). No one interrupted, refused to come for effect, leaked things to the press, betrayed a confidence, or put personal ambition above solving America’s drug crisis.
Similarly, running Speaker Gingrich’s Task Force on Counter-Narcotics, speakers came from both parties to share ideas, Clinton appointees like General McCaffery and Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Rand Beers, non-profit leaders of groups like Partnership for a Drug-Free America, DARE America, and Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America. The Conference of Mayors and National Governors Association worked with us. Party was secondary.
So, I ask again – what has happened? Agreement was regularly reached with relative ease between leaders at every level in both parties – over hundreds of billions of dollars, in an effort to save the country from that period’s drug crisis. Members of both parties cared more about kids, public safety and public health than the next day’s news. They really did, I saw it up close.
Today, we face even more serious issues. The present drug crisis, rather than taking 14,000 lives annually, takes 72,000 young lives annually. Borders are being tested and need securing, along with better drug prevention, treatment, and support for law enforcement.
Public health and safety are not a game. They are deadly serious. American individuals, families, towns and cities, states and regions, and nationally – want real answers. We need to start talking again – and once again become that “One Nation, Under God” to which we pledge allegiance.
You heard it: Conservative Republican President Ronald Reagan and liberal Democrat House Speaker Tip O’Neil met monthly for dinner, with common purpose, no press, no posturing for public consumption, just two Americans talking about getting things done for America. The story is true; I worked in Reagan’s White House. But I ask you – where are those leaders today?
“We, the People” have to make clear – with urgency – what we expect. A return to being proud, cooperative Americans would be a nice start. Average Americans want “real answers” on things like exponentially painful drug crisis, better border security, stronger treatment, prevention, and law enforcement.
How about leaders modeling adult behavior, and appealing in that way to our “better angels”? There will always be rabble rousers, crazy socialists wildly out of sync with America and promising everything for nothing, as well as those who would use centralized government for other intolerance. That is not us.
America is one nation, and we should – at family, community, state, and national levels – start acting like one. This notion that no one can talk to anyone who disagrees with them is hogwash, and frankly – about as un-American as anything on the airwaves now or ever. Americans are just tired of it.
Big problems are not solved by finger-wagging, loud shouting, or an unwillingness to talk and compromise. They are solved by responsible leaders stepping up, being accountable for the solution as if the whole mission depended on you. That is a principle of moral leadership. Now, enough of words. How about leaders sitting down and leading – to outcomes for which they were elected. That is the America we love. Let’s get to it, shall we?