It was eight years ago last night that my neighbor, Bob Timm, and I bumped into each other while walking our dogs around the park near where we live. As I recall, neither one of us could believe what we’d just seen on TV. Florida, which earlier in the evening was declared a win for Al Gore, had been flipped, and now appeared to be in George Bush’s column.
This meant George Bush would be the next president of the United States.
It was quiet in the park that night. No one else was around. Just two guys and their dogs in the dark.
Eight years later, we have yet to fully reckon with events set in motion that night. What began with the corruption of our electoral system has ended in an economic cataclysm yet to be resolved. American troops are in the fifth year of fighting on two fronts. Three years after being decimated by a hurricane, a major American city, New Orleans, remains a shell of its former self.
The temptation to lay the blame for all this wreckage at the feet of our soon to be former president and the cackling incompetence of his administration is almost irresistible. But resist it we must.
The fact is, George Bush’s recklessness could have been put in check. But stopping Bush would have meant facing down some of our most closely held illusions. Rather than deal with these shadows, we let George have his way.
It started with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001. Bush had been president less than a year with little to show for it. Those murderous attacks changed everything for him, because they revealed something awful about us.
Though we like to think of ourselves as tough-minded, resolute and cool under pressure, the terrorists revealed a deep vein of American fear. Rather than truly deal with the appalling situation that was thrust upon us, we opted, instead, to rally around contrived symbols like flag lapel pins and invocations of “homeland.” Instead of getting even, we got mad and wrote our president a blank check to go kill people and break things.
When the president told us that the best way we could fight the war on terror was to go shopping, we were happy to oblige. We took our credit cards to the mall and charged whatever we wanted. Our wages and salaries were flat-lining, but so what? Every new credit card that came in the mail felt like a raise. And if the payments got steep, well, the real estate bubble made it easy to take out another mortgage on the house.
Of course, everybody in that house had to work a job — or two — to make ends meet, but, hey, nobody likes to work more than Americans! The fact that fewer and fewer of these jobs provided benefits like health insurance wasn’t a problem because, we reminded ourselves, America has the greatest health care system in the world. And isn’t getting sick really a matter of personal responsibility? Eat fish or fiber and think positive: That’ll take care of that tumor.
Self-reliance, after all, is always the best policy. That’s because government always makes things worse. That is what the politicians we kept electing to manage the government assured us. This seemed like a bold kind of truth-telling — and how smart it made us feel. So we elected people who did their best to make government the way they said it was.
These are the same people, by the way, who said it was best to keep government out of the financial markets because markets could govern themselves. Alan Greenspan said it: The “self-interest” of lending institutions would naturally protect shareholder’s equity. Put another way, the rich really are smarter than you and me. That’s why they’re rich.
Except it turns out they had no better grasp of their self-interest than the rest of us, who approved a blank check to make war, took credit cards instead of pay increases and said we didn’t need universal health care.
Last night I took my dog to the park again. Things, I hope, are about to change. I wonder if we’re up to it.