|fundamental mistakes, I think, has
been to confine our concern for morality in politics to narrow precuniary
terms. Too often we have been satisfied if our leaders just didn't steal
from us, or at least didn't get caught at it. And too often we've gotten
just what we demanded: conventionally honest men who were content to devote
their public lives to the maintenance of their comfortable positions. There
may have been times in our history when this was enough. But I want to
suggest that this is not one of those times, and that the narrower definitions
of political morality no longer are adequate.
From Confidence to Despair
Every society has had its dropouts, its hippies
if you will, but ours has had to learn a new lesson. We have learned, to
our bitter dismay, that the technological wonders upon which we depend
for our comfort make us pitifully vulnerable at the same time. This is
an age of power, but it is the kind of power that is nearly impotent in
the face of fanatical minorities. Examples abound, from the hijacking of
airliners to threats of urban guerilla warfare. They all point to the same
lesson: that the more complex and advanced a society is, the more vulnerable
it is to the onslaughts of small groups of militant, determined men. Here
is a modern-day version of Dickens' paradox: the greater our power the
less our security.
The danger 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 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 itself.
The Moral Failures of Leaders
I want to suggest 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
War 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 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.
Promises Not Kept
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, 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 refused to fund it while crime rose 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 Rights-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.
The Indispensable Link
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 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