As the slow ride towards sequestration continues it’s hard to find anything more to say. The possibility of a significant economic downturn and genuine pain being felt by many people has failed to move the parties towards any progress. How can government be this dysfunctional? How did it get this bad?
In attempting to answer this question I decided to take the Zen approach of unasking it instead. This led to a wisdom all parties must take heed of – both in this quote and in the larger context:
As we peer into society’s future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without asking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.
This is a part of President Dwight Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, delivered 52 years ago. The whole address, beyond the famous parts, is well worth absorbing today.
The speech, given to teevee cameras three days before the end of his term, was Eisenhower’s attempt to impart some lasting wisdom to the nation. The part that is the most famous falls easily from the lips of just about every lefty like myself:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
Good stuff, in and of itself. What Eisenhower stakes out in this speech is far more wise in that it predicted rather accurately much of what would bedevil the structures built in the postwar period to serve as lasting pillars of decency and progress. Consider this excerpt:
Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers. The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.
How did one man become so prescient? In part it is because Ike was there at the beginning and was able to see the change from the old to the new. Those of use who merely inherited his world have never been able to view up close anything else. Yet there is a question of fundamental values that have been lost along the way. In Ike’s words:
But each proposal must be weighed in light of a broader consideration; the need to maintain balance in and among national programs – balance between the private and the public economy, balance between the cost and hoped for advantages – balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable; balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between the actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future.
Ike, as a Republican, primarily sought balance. Democrats of the day worked for progress. Each had a point and each respected the other. They got stuff done.
We pray that peoples of all faiths, all races, all nations, may have their great human needs satisfied; that those now denied opportunity shall come to enjoy it to the full; that all who yearn for freedom may experience its spiritual blessings; that those who have freedom will understand, also, its heavy responsibilities; that all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity; that the scourges of poverty, disease and ignorance will be made to disappear from the earth, and that, in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.
With these words, Ike’s administration passed into history. Since that time, the values that brought us balance have fallen and our imaginations have become closed to real progress.
When the present is dismal, it’s best to look ahead to a brighter future. If that fails, we can at least look back to see where we have gone wrong. Contemplating the changes and choices of today is difficult, certainly, but when our hearts and heads are weary the wisdom of those who saw through the last era of change can be very comforting.