Wednesday, April 22, 2009
IN MY OPINION (Column)
Populist Truth, Not Bamboozling Politics
By TED RUHIG
Painfully, we are living in a two-culture society — one in which Wall Street brokers get millions in bonuses while thousands are homeless. The news on the front page of the New York Times includes a picture of a tent city with the IN MY OPINION (Column) “Tent Cities Arise and Spread in Recession’s Grip.”
The sub-headline highlights the emerging new “Hoovervilles” in Fresno and Sacramento, among others. Last month it was reported that Governor Arnold Schwarzenneger and Mayor Kevin Johnson planned to move Sacramento’s encampment of 125 residents, tenting along the American River about a mile northeast of the Capitol, to the state fairgrounds until at least July.
The move, according to the governor, would give the homeless a “dry shelter, reliable health care and warm meals.” Another article concludes with a round-up of news about the homeless. Oprah Winfrey, a Swedish newspaper and the “Today” show have all carried stories about the homeless in their tent cities.
The labeling of tent cities as “Hoovervilles” is a relic from the presidential term of President Herbert Hoover. Hoover was an engineer by training and a Quaker by religious practice. As a president, he could not foresee the severe depression of the 1930s. Instead he was a president who saw only hope and possibility. Consider these soaring inaugural words:
“Ours is a land rich in resources, stimulating in its glorious beauty, filled with millions of happy homes, blessed with comfort and opportunity. In no nation are the institutions of progress more advanced. In no nation are the fruits of accomplishment more secure.
“In no nation is the government more worthy of respect. No country is more loved by its people. I have an abiding faith in their capacity, integrity and high purpose. I have no fears for the future of our country. It is bright with hope.”
That was Herbert Hoover on March 4, 1929, giving his inaugural address.
Ultimately, however, a president is saddled with his policies and buffeted by world events. He is judged, as he should be, by more than just speeches. Given the deepest Depression the country found itself in, the only conclusion one can reach is that Hoover was blind to reality. He instead bamboozled himself into thinking things were going to be OK.
And then we have George W. Bush. President Bush also began with an inauguration speech that, taken as a whole and judged purely as a piece of writing, was “shockingly good.” That was the assessment of Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker.
His praise was notable, not only because Hertzberg is considered to be a liberal, but because he helped author President Jimmy Carter’s inaugural address. Hertzberg said of George W. Bush’s first inaugural address: “It was by far the best inaugural address in forty years …unifying in its tone and content.”
So what went wrong? You already know the answer. Presidential rhetoric sets the stage. The show is in their policies and in the world events which unfold around them. It’s how they respond to those events. Take just one Bush goal, that of increasing homeownership through the deregulation of the banks and other financial institutions.
Homeownership didn’t broaden during the great bulk of dubious sub-prime lending which took place from 2004 to 2006. Millions of foreclosures occurred before Bush left office, leading to a level of homeownership lower at the Bush administration’s end than it was at the start.
The rhetoric of George Bush told us that he never recognized this situation. And since he couldn’t face the facts, new facts were invented to fit his ideology. Everything was going to be OK because the president said so. This is the “bamboozlement” approach. This approach never solved Hoover’s problems. It never solved Bush’s problems, either.
So now we have the growth of tent cities. Calling the current tent cities “Hoovervilles” misses a vital point. These are, in reality, Bushvilles, and they should be so called. They are a product of the legacy of bamboozlement.
What kind of rhetoric does Obama apply to the current homeless situation? In a recent statement, he said: “The first thing I’d say is that I’m heartbroken that any child in America is homeless. And the most important thing that I can do on their behalf is to make sure their parents have a job. And that’s why the recovery package said, as a first priority, how are we going to save or create 3.5 million jobs?”
It’s refreshing to hear the president acknowledge so many of the things homeless advocates repeat until they’re blue in the face: “Homelessness affects children. Families are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population. Homeless stereotypes are not representative of reality. Nobody should be homeless in a wealthy country like the United States.”
As one homeless advocate observed in response to Obama’s comments at a news conference: “It’s empowering to hear the president deliver a compassionate and pointed, articulate response to a difficult question about the most vulnerable victims of our economic crisis.”
Part of the president’s job is communicating to the American people the truth in a difficult period of time. Right now, Obama is riding the tide of populist outrage at companies being kept afloat by the government while their leaders rake in huge bonuses. His willingness to be responsive to this outrage as well to those who have nothing will shape his legacy in the years to come.
— Capitol News Service