03/27/2007 08:45 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Can Americans Reconcile? With Best Wishes For Tony Snow

Last week I took some notes for a blog post entitled "Tony Snow's bad career move." Now, as we learn that his cancer has recurred and spread, I wish him only the best. It's odd how quickly our feelings about someone can change. Odd, and instructive.

Which leads to a question: What will it take before Americans can reconcile with each other? Just five years after that unprecedented spirit of post-9/11 unity, Americans are more divided now than they've been in the decades since Vietnam - and possibly since the Civil War. The bitterness and anger run deep.

That division is the result of a cynical cabal's calculated exploitation of 9/11. They tried to exploit a tragedy for selfish ends, to create a generation of hegemonic Republican leadership.

Granted - but then what? Their lock on power has been broken, and still the cascade of missteps and scandals flows on and on. They're not likely to created the hammerlock on government they once might have, regardless of the electoral outcome in 2008. So what's next?

South Africa faced repression and division on a scale we can't imagine, through a moral crime that exceeds any of the wrongs committed by our government. And they got through it. Nobody in America has done anything that approached the evil of apartheid. But do we have anything to learn from their experience?

The South Africans got past their history, to a certain extent. In large part they did it through the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which encouraged the perpetrators of apartheid to come forward and bring misdeeds to light. In return, amnesty was granted.

I'm not advocating "show trials" for GOP leaders, overly compliant Democrats, or journalists who manipulate the facts to benefit one party and beat the drums of war. Nor am I naive enough to believe that people will freely confess wrongdoing. Many of them are too emotionally invested in proving they weren't wrong at all. The others believe that the political consequences of an honest admission will be too damaging to their careers.

Ironically, I think it would benefit most of them. John Edwards' admission that his war vote was an error has only helped him. The New York Times, on the other hand, has never come completely clean about its pre-war reporting. It has done some fine reporting since then (as well as some flawed work), but its reputation continues to be tarnished as a result of its failure to look honestly at its own actions.

I could provide many more examples, and you probably could too. My point, however, is this: If we're going to reconcile, more people are going to have to be honest in their own self-examination. I'm not talking about Maoist exercises in "self-criticism," but about the honest reflection and amends called for by every major spiritual and ethical tradition.

And, of course, you have to stop the misguided behavior. The press has now tagged all three leading Democratic Presidential candidates with labels as unfair as those given to Gore in 2000 and Kerry in 2004, without laying much of a glove on the Republicans in the race.

Sen. Obama is a Harvard Law School graduate who has worked at the all-important (and often overlooked) community level, and now has state and national experience. Still they call him a "lightweight," although he has more government experience than Abe Lincoln did when he was elected. (Or than Mitt Romney or Rudy Guiliani do - but you haven't heard them called lightweights, have you?)

Hillary Clinton has campaigned with a wry wit and a relaxed presence at the podium, but she's been labeled grim. And now John Edwards is being called heartless for continuing the work that gives meaning to his life, as well as to his wife's.

That's not a promising sign for reconciliation. But I don't want to let go of the possibility.

I wish I had more answers and fewer questions like these: What will it take? How can the process begin? Is it even possible?

None of us has been perfect, and I've certainly said things I've regretted later. But I was an outsider acting out of frustration, not an insider manipulating democracy for my own ends. Still, I'd be a hypocrite if I expected others to do more than I'm willing to do.

As for Tony Snow, I don' think he expected that his job as press secretary would involve dodging questions about potentially criminal behavior. That can't be comfortable. Before this news came out I saw somebody other than the man I see today. Today I see somebody with a family, somebody who loves guitars like I do, somebody who may be fighting for his life.

That doesn't excuse his evasions, or the Administration's actions. But it does lead me to ask the question: Can we Americans ever restore the spirit of unity that we once shared, if only briefly?

I don't have any answers. But as I said at the outset, I wish Tony Snow the best. After all, we're in this thing together.

A Night Light


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