I've been reading David Boren's Letter to America and this slender volume is taking me a week longer to get through than I ever thought it would because I'm scribbling notes on every page. The former US Senator from Oklahoma and current President of the University of Oklahoma never caught my attention during his tenure in the Congress, though I do remember his name mentioned when he served as Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee for many years.
His thoughts on the state of our nation and on what we must attempt if we are to survive as a society and a culture are certainly not "radical" by any definition. This is a gentle, thoughtful and wise man reflecting on his understanding of how we have arrived at our current state of affairs and offering his recipe for turning it around.
To me what makes Boren's insights so valuable is that his approach is not that of the policy wonk, full of technical solutions and specific recommendations sharpened through a committee process and honed by experts and consultants. Instead he takes a step back and speaks of us as a people; of trends, wrong turns, attitudes and values.
He thinks we have wandered far from the vision of the giants who wrote the Constitution. He argues that in Iraq we have missed the golden opportunity to renew the Marshall Plan which rebuilt Europe after World War II and which made the US the most admired nation in the world for our generosity and our altruism. Now he sees the US as a great empire but one in the final throes of decline.
Boren's solution is interesting: he would start to restore our Democratic values and rediscover what made this nation great in the first place by dismantling the imperial Presidency. We need to remember that the Founding Fathers were obsessive on this point: in the US we elect temporary leaders, not royalty. So, to restore balance to our governmental processes we begin by stripping away the aura which has been built around the Executive Branch. No more "executive privilege."
Much has been written of the dangers in selecting for President a "guy you'd feel comfortable having a beer with." This "likeability" factor has proven to be a disastrous criterion for electing someone to the White House. Ironically, the candidates we select for their "likeability" have been the quickest to assume the broadest of imperial powers upon being elected.
In a country where reading has become a darkly suspicious act; where "economics" means little more than "what's in it for me" and where "issue analysis" amounts to which talking head speaks faster and shouts louder than the others on the television panel, I fear that this year we are once more in danger of picking our President on the most superficial of bases.
This makes me weep for Democracy, much as David Boren does. At the same time, though, I am encouraged that Barack Obama, the likely Democratic candidate this year, does seem to understand the importance of returning to a balanced Democracy. He conveys a calm, reflective and humorous attitude, frequently self-deprecating. He comes across as the antithesis of an Imperial President. He seems capable of listening to others...and of understanding what they are saying.
Last week I heard an incredible example of what we have allowed "POTUS" to self-inflate into. ("POTUS" is the acronym for President of the United States by which the Secret Service refers to whoever is running the country at a given moment.) Well, the office of POTUS has just ordered a new helicopter to replace the one which we see on C-SPAN or the networks, whisking our President off from the White House lawn to Camp David or Air Force One or wherever he needs to go. Fair enough. A new helicopter doesn't seem outlandish...it makes sense to have a vehicle with all the best safety equipment possible and to replace the old one regularly to avoid mechanical problems.
Even when we are told that one of these flying gizmos will cost the taxpayers $400 million, I could argue that's probably a reasonable expenditure. But it turns out we aren't being asked to buy one new helicopter for POTUS...and we're not talking about one plus a couple of spares to insure an always working chopper is available, day or night. No, the full order that our imperial office of the President is making is for (hold on to your hat) twenty eight of these little gems. That's a cool $11 billion worth of spares (and not for the entire Pentagon; just for the White House!)
But when you are Leader of the Free World, who's to quibble with a teensy weensy extravagance? Nothing's too good for POTUS; no expense should be spared.
It turns out that $11 billion is what it is estimated it would cost to educate 100 million Third World students in their home countries for one year, the full number of school age children in the entire world who currently go without schooling.
Inestimable good would result from that simple gesture; good for the US and good for the whole world, with beneficial consequences rippling for years to come. $11 billion is about what we are spending on the bottomless pit that is Iraq...every month.
We face many and enormous problems as the Bush Administration finally ends.
The agenda for putting our National house in order is a lengthy one. The place to start, I think, is where David Boren suggests: lets strip away the Presidential trappings and honorifics. Let's start restoring Democracy by making our President answerable to the people. He doesn't really need twenty eight new helicopters, so don't give them to him. Make him beg for one. That'll do all of us a world of good.