Bob Driver is a former columnist and editorial page editor for the Clearwater Sun. Send Driver an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the morning of Nov. 4, 1952, I stood hitchhiking on Route 15 in Lewisburg, Pa., with a large sign proclaiming “Voter for Ike.”
I had little trouble getting rides from Bucknell University to my home 50 miles to the south. Most Americans liked Ike. He won in a landslide over Adlai Stevenson, ending 20 years of Democratic rule.
In the 60 years since then, many things have changed. For instance, you seldom see hitchhikers today. Some states and cities have outlawed the practice. Americans (motorists and hitchhikers alike) have grown less trusting. Every stranger might be a killer, thief or pervert. So why take a chance?
Or (in 1952) the stranger might be a Communist. Fear of Communists and the Soviet Union was rampant in the 1950s. With some justification. The Soviets had stolen some of our nuclear weapon secrets and built their own bombs. For the next 40 years we worried that the “Reds” would overtake us. Then, after the Soviet Union fell apart in 1990 or so, we learned that our own CIA had been deliberately exaggerating Soviet military and economic strength.
In 1952, for the first time in hundreds of years, there were no lynchings in America. That was a hopeful statistic, but segregation would still be with us for years to come. Other forms of prejudice are still around, and may always be. If you’re a gay man and play professional sports, better keep your mouth shut about it. If you’re a Republican serving in Congress and see a need for new taxes, stay silent, at least until after election day.
Sixty years equals 15 presidential elections and the swearing-in of 11 men with widely disparate backgrounds and personalities. With my vote, I helped elect (or defeat) candidates from both major political parties. As with Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get when you cast your ballot.
In 1960, I went for Nixon rather than the smiling Irishman financed by his father’s bootleg profits. Four years later I watched as a nation rejected an honorable man, Sen. Barry Goldwater, because of his alleged militarism, choosing instead LBJ, whose outstanding domestic-policy leadership failed to prevent his taking the USA neck-deep into the Vietnam disaster. LBJ’s successor, Nixon, only prolonged the Vietnam carnage and then compounded his crimes by giving us the glory that was Watergate.
There’s no need to extend this recitation, whose details most readers will already know far better than I do. On the one hand we can celebrate the accomplishments of some of the White House occupants; on the other hand, we must shake our heads in amazement and gratitude that our nation withstood the stupidity, arrogance and corruption (both political and personal) of other presidents. In my moments of discouragement, I try to convince myself that America is capable of surviving the people who govern it. On some days I’m not so sure.
A myth that we cling to is that any president has the wisdom and power to set the best course for our nation and then guide us to safe shores. That just isn’t so. Democracy doesn’t work that way. We don’t elect saviors or dictators to fill the Oval Office. From the moment he (or, some day, she) takes the oath of office the president wears invisible handcuffs that restrict him.
These handcuffs have names. They include Congress, the Supreme Court, the Constitution, public opinion, the U.S. and world economies, the acts of foreign powers, climate change, and the maddening unpredictability of you and me, the governed. I can barely keep from laughing when I hear Messrs. Obama and Romney promise or imply that they will lower unemployment, reduce taxes, reform education, solve our immigration woes, balance the budget and perform other miracles. Our planet, our nation and our very lives are like a gigantic, complicated wheel of fortune that keeps on turning. No human force is in control. You and I are merely passengers, hoping to survive the ride and maybe enjoy parts of it.
In closing, let’s listen to what some of our presidents have said:
George Washington: “Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”
James Madison: “The truth is that all men having power ought to be mistrusted.”
William Howard Taft: “Politics, when I am in it, makes me sick.”
Dwight David Eisenhower: “There is nothing wrong with America that the faith, love of freedom, intelligence and energy of her citizens cannot cure.”
Bill Clinton: “If a president of the United States ever lied to the American people, he should resign.”
Bob Driver is a former columnist and editorial page editor for the Clearwater Sun. Send him an email at email@example.com.