I’ll start with an aside: I like the New York Times better — much better — when it’s on the outs with the White House.
I don’t care for cheerleaders in the political arena. I gravitate toward people and institutions that challenge the powers that be, that hurl tough questions at those powers, and snort derisively at their answers.
That doesn’t mean I’m cynical about our legislators and representatives. Corporate CEOs, sure. I wouldn’t trust those bastards to hold an old empty wallet I was going to toss in the trash anyway. But I understand presidents, senators, members of the House, governors, mayors, aldermen, statehouse habitués, and the rest are really people. Shocking, eh? But true.
The vast majority of them have fairly decent motivations. They really believe they’re doing noble and necessary work for the greater good. I don’t believe people run for their first elective offices saying to themselves I can’t wait to get my hands on all those goodies! while rubbing their hands together evilly. Temptations arise, naturally, and too many seated pols are seduced, just as you and I would be. And the entire system of big money-raising and eternal campaigning — what our “democracy” has become — is crushing to pols who find fewer and fewer minutes in the day to devote to doing noble and necessary things.
No, I’m not a cynic, I’m a skeptic when it comes to elected officials. Skepticism is a good thing. Cynicism is not.
That’s why a piece in today’s NYT is so important. It delineates the moment in time when we, Americans, threw aside naiveté and embraced cynicism. Karl Marlantes writes of that great transformation. He fought in Vietnam in 1967. Prior to Vietnam, we believed our leaders would tell us The Truth, and when they didn’t, it was gasp-inducing, wholly unexpected. Here’s his lead in today’s story:
In the early spring of 1967, I was in the middle of a heated 2am hallway discussion with fellow students at Yale about the Vietnam War. I was from a small town in Oregon, and I had already joined the Marine Corps Reserve. My friends were mostly from East Coast prep schools. One said that Lyndon B. Johnson was lying to us about the war. I blurted out, “But … an American president wouldn’t lie to Americans!” They all burst out laughing.
When I told that story to my children, they all burst out laughing, too. Of course presidents lie. All politicians lie. God, Dad, what planet are you from?
Before the Vietnam War, most Americans were like me. After the Vietnam War most Americans are like my children.
As far as I’m concerned we’re as screwed when we’re cynical as we are when we’re trusting little lambs. Too much trust results in the presidency of Richard Nixon, the paranoia of J. Edgar Hoover, and the run-up to the second Gulf War. Too little brings us Donald J. Trump, Jeff Sessions, Jared Kushner, Rex Tillerson, and the ongoing normalization of Vladimir Putin.
Trump vowed to “drain the swamp.” That simple, simplistic line sounded so right to tens of millions of us who’d grown up after Vietnam knowing that presidents could lie that they voted him into the Oval Office.
“America,” Marlantes wrote, ” didn’t just lose the war, and the lives of 58,000 young men and women; Vietnam changed us as a country.”
Marlantes didn’t draw the line connecting Vietnam to L’il Duce, I did.
We used to believe in Santa Claus. Now we think every guy in a red suit is the devil. Neither slant gets us a micron closer to understanding the world.