07/12/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Oy. Have a Dream?

FISA. Faith based initiatives. Couldn't fist-bump that kid.


Disappointment in our elected (or yet to be elected) leaders seems sadly inevitable. Hell, if anything is exposed to the elements for too long deficiencies will unintentionally crop up or be forcibly teased out. For those of us who laud certain persons for espousing ideas of grandeur and eloquence which inspire and delight, the shift from rapture to resignation can be crushing. And after repeated plummets taken by similarly hopeful luminaries, it is met with a kind of fatalism that can dim the light that defines the essence of the American dream: that all here are equal, that all can get a fair shake, that somewhere out there is a president who can lead the country capably.

When I was a kid, I pored over my already brittle American Heritage encyclopedias and sparked to the paternal, grandfatherly FDR. He shepherded the country through the Great Depression, through World War 2. His fireside chats. Even his leg braces signaled a quiet yet indomitable strength which, in spite of my young age, I found stirring.

Same with JFK's New Frontier: the space program hand in hand with The Peace Corps. Camelot's accessible and intoxicating élan. The hippest president ever. Eloquent, witty. Inspirational rhetoric and back-room grit. And his subsequent martyrdom searing his stature onto the face of the Republic. I loved those American Heritage encyclopedias. It was The History Channel without he monthly bill. And my heroes were perfect.

But later on, they all fall. And the inevitable exposure of their flaws -- their humanity -- leads to certain disappointment. Even analyses of Lincoln's physiognomy suggesting psychological instability or acromegaly (or whatever the hell else bored historians can cobble together to get attention) tarnishes his demi-god status to a degree. One can only imagine the layers of disappointment in a nonagenarian having been assured of the perfection of a succession of articulated goals and dreams only to witness the inescapable imperfection of the dreamers.

Then there is Ronald Reagan, who by most gauges was far from heroic or in possession of a Lincolnesque intellect and who -- in a reversal of process -- is remade, his gaping flaws spackled over and reborn into the iconic leader of the Republican creed by those in whose interest his undeserved status serves. The fungibility of perspective and the manipulation of historical facts for political purposes is here amply demonstrated.

When impeachment was declared "off the table" it seemed a frustrating but necessary step toward restoring the lost luster wrought by the abuse of the Bush years. Deals with the devil come in all degrees, from the small and the personal to the ones writ large upon the American psyche. Against emotional momentum, reason has no chance of winning the day and when the Democrats took their long awaited control of congress they also traded justice for political expedience.

Oy. And sigh.

Our expectations for our leaders need to be modulated, but not necessarily lowered to accommodate their actual abilities. George Bush lowered expectations to the gutter. The guy may have made a respectable regional manager of a Quizno's but possessed little in the way of presidential timber (which is not to say that a person supervising the distribution of those rather tasty Toasties must therefore exhibit criminal tendencies).

But as the dream of American democratic society becomes more and more an historical relic, the expectations we have for our leaders should either be lowered to reflect the inevitable entropy or otherwise raised to combat it, and the chosen leader then held firmly accountable. Yet the circumstances our would-be leaders are subjected to in effect force them to reveal their less attractive aspects; indeed their political ambition should necessitate rigorous vetting. Then why shouldn't private citizens be subjected to the same tests of patriotism, mental health, fiscal responsibility and whatever other tests used to determine a person's aptitude? Only when we accept our own imperfections, even the imperfections of our dreams, can we accept the realities of those we have lead us. And then things can get done.

The rapturous reception that greets Obama is warranted insofar as the dream he pitches, while idyllic, is theoretically attainable. But in his quest to be seated in the president's chair, his dream -- and hence the dreamer -- has become adulterated and the exaltation of his ascension is bearing hints of diminution.

Which is disappointing.