09/23/2010 01:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

U.S. Won't Be Saved By Shutting It Down, Tearing It Apart

On the ninth anniversary of 9/11, I received an email. It came from an uncle of a young man I've mentioned a few times in writing over the years.

Clinton Caulder wrote to say that he's been reflecting on the great things about America -- those lost in the current frenzy of partisan recrimination -- and what they meant to his nephew, Randy Caulder.

One cannot deny the cyclical nature of history. You might remember that during the 1990s, Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia drafted his "Contract With America" to stoke anti-government fever and marshal a Republican takeover of Congress in the mid-term elections of 1994.

The latest iteration is the GOP's "Pledge To America" and veteran pundits say it has all the makings of a movie re-run.

Paranoia needs an enemy. The federal government makes an easy, convenient target. Extremist rhetoric, however, has implications. Back then, one poster child of angst was a homegrown American terrorist--a racist white male, a self-proclaimed fundamentalist Christian patriot, and a military veteran.

Timothy McVeigh acted on his hate-filled conspiracy theories promoted on the nascent Internet by blowing up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 innocent people, including children.

Today in Congress, certain candidates are running for their elected government positions on anti-government agendas aimed at dismantling institutions that are unique features of our Democracy. That plank reflects tea party thinking.

Of course, there's certainly nothing wrong with expecting government to live within its means. Americans of all parties, tarrying to pay the bills at home, embrace this as a tenet.

But for the sake of historic reference, let us not forget that during Bill Clinton's tenure in The White House, the federal treasury had a balanced budget and generated a surplus. Subsequently, amid the Bush-Cheney years (including six under Republican control of Congress), the windfall of tax revenue evaporated and the country returned to a ballooning federal deficit, much of it owed to a tax cut given to the wealthiest Americans.

Where was the hue and cry of the tea party movement?

Mirroring the 1990s, some legislators now say they will shut down government in order to make a point. They forget the lessons of history. The last time they pulled this grandstanding stunt, in 1995, it backfired.

Fifteen years ago, their refusal to pass a continuing budget resolution to keep government running during the middle of winter resulted in widespread citizen outrage.

Millions of middle and lower class senior citizens worried about not getting their social security and Medicare checks to heat their homes and pay for essential medicines.

This is also where the story of Randy Caulder begins. Caulder was a teenager from Lumberton, N.C., who tragically became stricken with terminal cancer. The simple dream of the once-robust baseball player from a working class family was to witness an eruption of Old Faithful Geyser.

Just once during his life.

Because of the government shutdown and strict orders that no visitors be allowed in national parks, then-Yellowstone Superintendent Mike Finley and members of his staff had to knowingly break the law to grant Caulder his last wish.

Caulder was ferried over the snow on a sled into Old Faithful. The boy, all by himself, saw the geyser erupt several times. A short while later, he died.

The Caulder family, good salt of the earth people, says the smile of contentment that emerged on Randy's face in Yellowstone never left him until the end.

Park ranger Rod Robey said at the time, "I was extremely moved by his visit because rather than going to Disneyland, this young person came here, and to think we can't even keep the place open."

In making Caulder's wish come true, Robey said that "a very important statement was made about values. At a time when morale is an issue, mine was lifted. At a time when our leader-politicians refer to our children's future and then close the parks, this is the reason they should be open."

In the ethereal thermal mist of wonderland, Caulder told one of his chaperones that he believed he had caught a glimpse of heaven. The young man wasn't thinking of petty partisanship. He wanted to see a natural treasure in a sanctuary that he, as a young citizen, felt belonged to him and to other Americans. It gave him a connection to something bigger than himself.

Yellowstone is among the many things this government does exceptionally well; it is the envy of the world, and so is the stability and normal civility of discourse that has been chucked aside, the same as during the mid 1990s.

Joe Miller, the Sarah Palin-backed Tea Party candidate for U.S. Senate in Alaska, says that if elected he would push to have federal lands in Alaska, including crown jewel national parks, handed over to state control and opened to oil and gas development, mining and logging to generate revenue. Parks are special and accrue ever priceless value because they have gone unexploited.

Some believe it's worth noting that even as self-righteous candidate Miller decries government handouts, he and his family earlier received taxpayer subsidies for a farm he owned.

Like those who orchestrated the invasion of Iraq, it has been argued that many of the tea partiers have no plan, no clue, for how to keep this country together once they succeed in shutting it down and tearing it apart.

What's worth fighting to save and honor about America? For a few fleeting moments, it could be seen, reflected in the wide eyes of Randy Caulder.

Todd Wilkinson, who lives in Montana, has been an environmental reporter for the past 25 years. He is author of a forthcoming book about media mogul turned bison baron and eco-humanitarian Ted Turner.