Are we tearing down the foundation of American government?

I pride myself on keeping up with current events, but it's a struggle. Not because I lack time to read and watch but because so much of what I read and watch is so terribly discouraging, angry and without supporting sources. I can make my own jud...

Terry Woster

I pride myself on keeping up with current events, but it's a struggle.

Not because I lack time to read and watch but because so much of what I read and watch is so terribly discouraging, angry and without supporting sources. I can make my own judgments, decide what I think. I just want some relatively objective, dispassionate sources to give me Joe Friday-like facts. That can't be asking too much, can it? Newspapers still do it, but how many can a guy subscribe to at once?

I know I've written before about lack of fact-based discourse, but it matters. We scream instead of talking and listening. We want to win an argument. Sometimes it seems we start arguments just to win. If we can humiliate the other person in the process, even better. Spike the ball. High-fives all around.

Look, I know how that goes. We sometimes have that sort of discourse during Woster reunions. We all love to talk and to argue. We begin conversations calmly and rationally, but we can go nuclear quickly, shouting and ranting. Just win, baby. It doesn't always happen that way, but sometimes it does.

It's like a parlor game, which is okay for family reunions, I suppose, but which has no place in real public discourse about important issues. As Michael Douglas said in "The American President,'' during that climactic speech to the White House press corps, "We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them.''


Years ago, an older newspaper colleague and I talked early one early morning about presidents, politics, the press and public perception. My colleague worried about the loss of public respect for elected leaders. Leaders can bring some of that on themselves, he said. But some of it, he was convinced, resulted from constant criticism and ridicule of the leaders.

"Night after night on TV, day after day on the radio, comedians and talk-show hosts mock the president,'' he said. "Eventually, people lose respect for the person. Then it's easy to lose respect for the office. Then what?''

That was the early 1980s. Reagan was president, but my colleague noted that Ford and Carter had been ridiculed often enough, too. He didn't see the trend reversing. Sure, his thoughts are too simple. They stuck with me, though. And this was before social media gave us ways to talk over each other every minute of every day. Instead of just Carson or Letterman or Leno ridiculing the leader, we have thousands of angry voices.

It frightens me. We are the people who brought a grand experiment in government into being, and we're in danger of losing control. I learned back in grade school to admire the way America transfers power from leader to leader. Every country transfers power, sure. America does it peacefully. We work like crazy to persuade people to support our side and then we vote and unite behind the new leader. That's pretty amazing. If there is such a thing as American exceptionalism, I'm pretty sure that's it.

In recent times, a number of us haven't dropped the fight and united behind the leader. Instead, we've devoted air time and social-media space to tearing apart everything the new leader does. Sure, we've always had people criticize a new president. But recently, with Barack Obama and George W. Bush, especially, the criticism has been vicious, hateful and non-stop.

I don't think I voted for either of those guys, but I look at them and I think, "Here are two good men who want what's best for the country.'' I can't be the only one who thinks that, but sometimes it feels like I can't think that way of both Bush and Obama. Like one, must hate the other. That's nuts.

But it isn't about Bush or Obama. It's about the presidency, it's about all other levels of leadership, it's about the entire government. The incessant attacks tear at the legitimacy of the office holder until there is no respect for the person. From there, it's a small step to no respect and no legitimacy for the office itself. That frightens me.

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