Waiting On a Hero.
Respect. Aretha sang about it. Clergy of all faiths evoke it. Politicians pay lip service to it. It is a lofty word, a powerful ideal.
In 1983, I spent several days traveling with U.S. Rep. Mike Synar from Oklahoma, then a rising star in the Democratic Party, as he held town meetings across his congressional district. At the time, Synar was considered by many to be an eventual candidate for the U.S. presidency.
An articulate, thoughtful, and legislatively astute politician — tragically, his life was cut short by brain cancer at the age of 45 (read more about Synar HERE.) Synar did something that I’ve rarely witnessed in recent political campaigns. He listened and responded with sincerity to his constituents at the town hall meetings. It was a unique display of political humility, yet he didn’t hesitate to respectfully disagree with anyone he felt was either misinformed or whose views he did not share. I’ll never forget a constituent confronting Synar following one session in Nowata, OK. “Mike, I don’t agree with just about anything you said today! But, I know you have my best interests at heart and that’s why I’ll always vote for you.” They shared a laugh.
In 1994, Synar lost his re-election primary bid, defeated by Virgil Cooper, a 71-year-old retired teacher who spent only $19,000 on his campaign. However, it was estimated that lobbyists from tobacco, the NRA, Western cattlemen and other special interest groups joined forces spending around $3 million to oust Synar. In the years leading up to his defeat, Synar worked tirelessly on legislative reform of these powerful entities and had refused all PAC offerings. It came as no surprise when Cooper was then summarily dispatched in the general election by a Republican candidate, Tom Coburn, who has since moved into the U.S. Senate.
It was easy to see Mike Synar loved his job as the people’s representative, and believed devoting a life to public service for the greater good was a noble path to follow. How many politicians can make that same authentic claim today?
Contemporary politicians appear far more vested in their re-election campaigns and less interested in leading the country. It’s no secret that money has always ruled politics, but when despotic lobbies with no interest in the general public’s welfare win, we all lose.
Fast forward to April 2008. A late season winter storm punched its way across Western Kansas, closing I-70, and forcing me to seek shelter in a motel for the night. The next morning as sleepy-eyed travelers gathered in the breakfast area waiting for the roads to thaw – FOX News commentators blared ominous warnings that socialism would soon supplant democracy if the U.S. elected Barack Obama as our next President. “And I’m not even sure he’s an American,” one of the talking heads bellowed. I glanced around the WASP filled “dining” area; cream gravy and biscuits filled the plates. The room grew silent, all eyes apprehensively glued to the TV shaking their heads in blind agreement with the latest Sermon on the Mount freshly frothing in their ears. Nearby an elderly gentlemen quietly confided in a friend, perhaps these are the “end days.”
Enter Sarah Palin, stage right. With John McCain’s presidential campaign mired in quicksand, Palin’s selection at first appeared a brilliant countermove to Obama’s rising intellect and affable charisma. That is, until Palin strayed dangerously far from the campaign’s well-orchestrated talking points. Two years later we see a core group of Americans still clinging to Palin as their potential savior, because she’s one of them. The self-described “hockey Mom” now commands speaking fees beginning at $75,000 per appearance and has an estimated income of $12 million (read it HERE) since departing the Alaska Governor’s office in 2009. That’s a far cry from the middle class Palin continually claims to represent. Still, the power of an identity movement remains a strong elixir for those waiting on a hero for their deliverance.
Now we bear witness to yet another incarnation of “white power,” in the form of the disenfranchised Tea Party followers. With claims of “taking America back”, I question from what brink they’ll have the country retreat? When I hear Tea Party candidates promise to provide the nation a clean compass for our political, financial, and moral soul, I wonder if these zealots aren’t just another version of McCarthyism in a freshly tailored suit.
Several years ago, I listened to veteran journalist Sander Vanocur recount his experience as a questioner at the first Kennedy–Nixon debate. You can hear that interview HERE. It was substantive and far reaching policy discussion between the two men and I was fascinated to learn they shared a cordial relationship. This was the first ever live televised Presidential debate and as Vanocur noted, our political and media landscape have since undergone a dramatic transformation.
Watching the spectacle of contemporary American politics, it’s worth asking if this repetitive theatre is corporate Americas well guised version of smoke and mirrors?
Let’s hope Toto will open these curtains too. Sooner would be better than later.