Presidential Silence

June 16, 2003

There is a silence settling over America. The people of the country go on vacation and the president slips out of town, never to appear where the people are. In late spring, he flies to the aircraft carrier Yorktown to make a speech where none but soldiers and press can hear him. Or he dips down into southern defense factories where all who listen depend upon his militarism for their jobs. He goes to kindergartens and awes children with his smile. Earlier he staged a press conference where the questioners were pre-arranged. It has become political cliché that the president is not safe where he might be surprised, where he does not know in advance the questions and the answers. He is fed the lines to show himself a man of the people, but does not ever come to where the people are. He plays golf at Las Campanas outside Santa Fe but does not come to the farmer’s market, not here, not in Boston, not in San Francisco.

In the midst of the greatest public policy reversal of modern times there is no great policy debate. Mr. Bush is quietly rolling back Roosevelt’s New Deal, Truman’s Fair Deal and Johnson’s Great Society, rolling back the idea of social equality, rolling back compassion for the poor, drying up funds for the elderly or for clean-up of the environment, reversing policies of every president since FDR, even rolling back the Republican bedrock of a balanced budget, and doing it without conversation with the people.

Were we to break this silence, were we to be able to mingle with our president, were the president, that is, to come to where the people are, there are some hard questions to ask.

What, for example, is the formula for the president’s war; how many lives lost and how many billions spent justify our parade through the Iraqi desert? If, as is reported, nearly 200 Americans have been lost and more than 5,000 Iraqi civilians, was it worth it to be able to pull the Saddam statue down? Did we win enough in nationalistic pride to make up for the loss of support for American goods which has spread like a cancer from London to Tokyo? Did we do all this for weapons of mass destruction which may or may not have existed?

The two mobile units we found are now said by British intelligence to have not been for biological weapons at all. How did we get it so wrong? The British said that they had something to do with balloons. Who will tell the president that 5,000 lives and \$70 billion for two balloon units is madness? If the president said he was Napoleon, we would think that less insane than that \$70 billion and 200 Americans should be spent to find two balloon units.

Or, we might ask, who’s madness is it now to make economic war on Europe? Is it someone who knows something about economics and jobs and the American worker, or is it the defense secretary again, shouldering out of his way everyone else in the government? Who is pressuring Boeing and other airplane manufacturers not to market their wares at the Paris air show? Rumsfeld again? What real economist thinks that punishing Europe for disagreeing with our Iraq war is good for American wages? And if this is all Rumsfeld, what madness lets the defense secretary dictate American economic policy?

It is not safe for the president to be subject to Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz and not the people. It is not safe for America to be run as an oligarchy of insiders. It is not safe for only five television giants to control the questions. It is not safe for Clear Channel to own 1200 radio stations and drive off the air anyone, like the Dixie Chicks, who might question the president. It is not safe to frame any public policy without public debate, but certainly not safe to dismantle the last 50 years of social legislation without debate. The silence in Washington is deafening. And the antidote for this disease, this dumb speechlessness is for the people, the congress, the networks, to require the president to come out of the closet.

Maybe he is a closet fundamentalist. Maybe he is a closet imperialist. Maybe he is a closet populist and would even like to celebrate the working man and the environment. All things are possible, but none are known because this president acts more like a virtual image than a responsible leader and we do not know him, not really.

Mr. President, come out now. Come to where the people are. Mix your mind with ours. Talk with us. Debate with us. Be a real man of the people.