|sometimes it is better to rock the
boat than to sail under false colors. But today we are confronted with
large numbers of Americans who no longer are satisfied with rocking the
boat. They want to sink it.
The danger in this phenomenon is that the American
system, with all its strengths, is a fragile thing which depends on civility,
faith, trust, and the acceptance of democratic procedures by the overwhelming
majority of the people. Indeed, our system has survived only because of
a fragile, unwritten social compact which until now has bound most of us
together with common principles and aspirations. It is a compact of rational
men in which the majority -- the "haves" of the times -- agree to listen
to the grievances of the minority and to act within a reasonable length
of time on legitimate complaints. In return, the dissenters agree that
while they may shout and become unpleasant, they will refrain from violence
and grant sufficient time for the system to work out the necessary changes.
With the tragic exception of the War Between the States, our differences
and divisions have never seriously threatened to destroy the social compact
I do not want to suggest that we are on the verge
of another Civil War, but I do want to emphasize that we live in an age
of increasing instability and polarization. And confronted with these conditions,
we ought to address certain basic questions to those who occupy or aspire
to occupy positions of leadership in this country. Where have our leaders
failed us? What do they owe us that they have not been giving? And what
do citizens owe their society and their leaders?
MORAL FAILURES OF LEADERS
I want to suggest tonight that our leaders have
failed us in three or four major areas: most notably, in challenge, in
faithfulness, and in candor. Moreover, I want to emphasize that those failures
have been fundamentally moral because they involve obligations that have
not been fulfilled. The obligations are implicit, if not generally acknowledged,
in the assumption of positions of leadership.
First is the failure to challenge people and to
arouse a sense of participation. We have accepted such challenges in the
past and shared with each other the spirit of participation. But more often
than not these challenges have been imposed on us from the outside -- World
II is a good example. In the absence of a Pearl Harbor or a Hitler, leaders
have been loath to ask of us more than a minimum.
I believe the American people are capable of great
accomplishments if they are determined, inspired and challenged enough.
The catalog of America's problems is by now an old and familiar one, and
it is a list of shortcomings which ought to challenge and inspire us. Yet
our national leaders do not give us the goals and the programs that might
restore our spirit and give us purpose. I believe that sensible, attainable
programs to rebuild our cities, clean up the rivers, end the pollution
of the air and landscape and reduce racial divisions can be designed and
carried forth. But such programs are not presented to us, perhaps because
they would involve such a radical change in our priorities and life styles.
I believe those elected to positions of leadership
have a moral obligation to exercise leadership. Timidity may at times be
a virtue; if found in a leader in these times it may be a deadly sin. It
is simply not enough to accept a position and then refuse to do little
more than occupy it. In its starkest terms, this is an abdication of responsibility.
I might also note that it is impossible to challenge
and inspire the people of a nation at the same time you are attempting
to divide them. To divide is easy, for it requires only that leaders appeal
to our baser instincts and exploit whatever divisions already exist. We
have seen a good deal of this in recent years, and there are some people
in both parties prepared to gamble that this kind of politics will be rewarded
in a period of tension and confusion. Perhaps it will -- although I doubt
it -- but, whatever the outcome, such men do not deserve the description
leaders. Rather, they merely occupy positions of power and willingly sacrifice
the moral obligations of those positions in order to retain them.
Of course I know that it might be argued that
one of the major causes of disillusionment in modern America is too much
|talk, too many grand programs and
ringing rhetoric, followed by too little action. Well, that's true, too,
for a second failure of our leaders has been the tendency to overpromise
and underdeliver. Since I entered Congress in 1961 we have enacted into
law a remarkable number of progressive and noble measures, with great goals
and promises for the future. Yet these acts of Congress have had relatively
little impact in practice and in some cases, such as the Economic Opportunity
Act, have been all but dismantled.
A mark of the 1960's was the rise in Congress
of what I call "Titlemanship" -- the grand art of packaging noble new laws
with noble new labels that promise all. We passed the 1968 "Safe Streets
and Crime Control Act," but we refuse to fund it while crime rises every
year. Meantime, we are assured that more wiretapping, "no knock" raids
and preventive detention will stop street crime. We had "Model Cities"
legislation, an "Open Housing" law, a "War on Poverty" and all the rest.
In exasperation with this game we play, I once threatened to introduce
a bill labeled the "Veterans, Farmers, Widows and Orphans National Defense,
Anti-Communist Right-to-Work Act of 1966."
Public men have an obligation to deliver on their
promises. When they don't, they can expect disillusionment and finally
cynicism among the followers. You would think we would have learned this
lesson, yet, I am afraid, there persist in public life some men who when
they have coined a slogan believe they have solved a problem.
A sense of perspective ought also to remind us
that the failure to deliver on one's promises is not confined to the political
sphere. A record of promises not kept pervades much of our national life
and has, I suspect, a great deal to do with the disaffection and disillusionment
of the younger generation. To cite only one example: last month the Senate
Labor Committee reported that only a relative handful of American workers
will ever get a penny from the $130 billion now ostensibly set aside for
them in private pension plans. Since 1950, fewer than 500,000 of the 9.8
million workers covered by pension plans received any kind of benefit,
according to estimates.
Linking the first two failures is perhaps the
biggest failure of all -- the failure of our leaders to be candid. There
is something sad and dangerous in the fact that the most prominent, the
most widely used new expression in the lexicon of the 1960's was "credibility
gap," which, put more bluntly, is a widespread public belief that government
lies to its own people.
If the news is bad the American people ought to
be told. More importantly, if the task ahead is difficult and involves
sacrifice, the American people deserve to know it. This is the indispensable
link between the obligation to challenge our people and the obligation
to deliver on our promises. Too often we have been satisfied to proclaim
great goals without honestly outlining the sacrifices necessary to attain
them. Those goals I mentioned earlier -- rebuilding our cities, cleaning
the environment, reducing racial divisions -- they can be reached, but
to do so will involve changes and sacrifices which both the leaders and
the people shrink from. The fundamental failure is on the part of leaders,
for they are satisfied to allow the people to live with the illusion that
sacrifice is not part of the goal.
We need, perhaps more than ever before. the spirit
of Adlai Stevenson, who said in 1952: "Let's tell (the American people)
the truth, that there are no gains without pains, that this is the eve
of great decisions, not easy decisions, like resistance when you're attacked,
but a long, patient, costly struggle which alone can assure triumph over
the great enemies of men: war and poverty and tyranny -- and the
assaults upon human dignity which are the most grievous consequences of
Stevenson knew that in the long run everyone lost if we put the requirements
of the next election ahead of the needs of the next generation.
There is another aspect of this failure of candor
-- the failure of us politicians to tell the people the truth about our
own business. There is a general assumption in this country that much in
politics is dishonest, but I think few people truly realize the extent
to which money has corrupted the political process. This is not the same
thing as the monetary morality I spoke of earlier, for much of this corruption
is conventionally honest according to the rules we now follow, which makes
it all the more dangerous. The failure is with those of us who have