America: The Incredible Shrinking Nation

When I was a boy in the late 1930s, I was deeply impressed by the size, the depth, and the diversity of my country, (I almost wrote divinity) and the grandeur of the New York City in which I was fortunate enough to live. I went to "pledge allegiance" public schools, we wore white shirts and neckties on assembly days, played stick ball in the less than crowded streets, and saved rubber-bands and tin foil for the World War II war effort. There were no bad foods; a hot fudge sundae, a banana split or a Charlotte Russe (a whipped cream and sponge cake concoction resting on a circle of white cardboard is recalled tearfully by those old enough to remember) was a foretaste of heaven, not a guaranteed clogging of the arteries. Bypass surgery was the destruction of old, decent middle class neighborhoods by the compulsive highway builder Robert Moses. In school I was taught devotion to every president from Washington to FDR, and particularly to Lincoln who in my child's mind freed the slaves with the uncomplicated fervor of Moses bringing down the Ten Commandments from Mr. Sinai. I was, and I remain, proud to be American. But the America that owned my boyhood pride -- for all its failings -- seemed a far larger place than I find myself living in today. We are, I fear, living in an incredible shrinking nation.

As an adult when I began to earn a fair living I recall complaining to my mother (she who had survived four wars beginning with World War I) that my taxes were much too high, and in those days they sure were high. In her practical fashion she asked, "Do you think the streets clean themselves? Do you think the police would protect us if they couldn't support their families? Not to mention the firemen and the school-teachers. Sure there's wasted money. We live in an imperfect world. But be glad you can afford to pay taxes. They pay for everything that makes your life comfortable and safe." That ended my first and last financial tax whine, at least to my loving and pragmatic mother.

But something has been lost, and I hope not irrevocably, in recent days. Let's start with the new Tea Party. If I recall my American history our first and best tea party, that Boston one, was not just about paying high taxes. It was about paying taxes to England without having proper representation for our colonies. It was about a basic right of self-determination, not about the glorification of selfishness. And those Founding Fathers prized the very literacy that will be lost should we further cut back on education in order to save a few bucks, and find ourselves and our children living in a Palin reality TV show of ignorance and moose hunting.

What has happened to the presidency? George Bush, father and son, managed to shrink the country to the size of a gated, restricted country club, but Barack Obama, to whom we looked for a new expansion and definition of America, has issued more "mea culpas" than your average priest hears in a weekly confession. And we can't blame it all on bad PR. Mr. President, you are so much better than you admit, and so much worse than your supporters allow. By overestimating your friends and underestimating your enemies you face a perilously tough two years ahead. Not for you but for the country, and for my very small but very dear grandchildren. Personally, I don't care much about your political fate. Yes, I like you the way I like any friend who is charming but has disappointed me, but I do care about the fate of our country. Yes, jobs, jobs, jobs, is the mantra that every smart politician recites each morning, but the failure went beyond the difficult problem of creating jobs in an economy driven into the ditch by eight years of Republican drunken driving. It was the very timidity of your decisions that leaves you where you are today, admired by some, but a conundrum of others.

Who the devil thought up the great idea of bailing out the banks without getting a signed commitment from them to lend to small business? Who asked them to fix mortgages without flexing some governmental financial muscle? Who thought that a complicated health-care plan that did not allow for a single payer provision would not confuse the entire population? And who could ever believe that the Republican minority who thought nothing of shouting "Liar" at you in a State of the Union Address would reach across the aisle for compromise and amity? And with a John Roberts, who prevaricated his way into his Court confirmation by claiming that he was all for abiding by existing laws, not judicial activism, how could you expect better from his Supreme Court who has delivered our democracy to the graveyard of the deep pockets of the Rupert Murdochs and David Kochs of the world? These men are not just protectors of their vast wealth and privilege, but in their polities deniers of global warming and its destruction of the very air we breathe and the water we drink.

You are a very smart man, but today I can only see a feckless innocence mixed with that intelligence. We voted for one who would know the uses of power for the people and would stretch that power with bold moves, but we found instead we had voted for the great compromiser, our own Henry Clay. There's time. Not much. But before our economy, and worse, our ideals, are diminished to the size of a Third World country by the likes of the Orange Avenger and his trickle down congressional cohorts, (trickle down being the happy drooling of those who see themselves as the winners of their class warfare) would you kindly show some muscle when you roll up those proverbial sleeves? America may not be in a Depression but it sure is depressed. And that's when true leadership counts. Enough with the charm offensive. Happy talk with Oprah and the good ladies of The View is just that, happy talk: it's time for a little street fighting. John Adams stood up against the Boston mob when he defended a British soldier. Lincoln understood that there could be no real compromise with the slave states. Courage is in our DNA. So start the climb back by dismissing insiders who are outsiders to most of America, and find some smart, tough guys who will stick it to the bad guys and let America grow back to its large, expansive, generous size which welcomes newcomers, and demands economic justice for all. A tall order. But anything smaller is sure to fail.