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To Bush the Button
W HY do good people stay out of politics? This is the question that haunts me while the world salutes George W. Bush who has just become the most powerful man on earth. If this is the best the most powerful nation in the world can throw up, then there is something radically wrong with planet earth's politics.
We know that America is a land of some extraordinarily brilliant people. And yet their new president's singular contribution has been "Bushisms"—statements that are rib-ticklingly ridiculous. When he said things like "Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream" or "We cannot let terrorists and rogue nations hold this nation hostile", people were forgiving because they assumed he suffered from spoonerism. But his supporters and family say he didn't. In which case, you can neither understand nor forgive his verbal lapses.
Just consider some of these Bush profundities: "Quite frankly, teachers are the only ones who teach our children" or "For nasa, space is still a high priority" or "A low voter-turnout is an indication of fewer people going to polls." His history is weak: "The Holocaust was an obscene period in our nation's history." His geography is weaker: "We have a firm commitment to nato, we are part of nato. We have a firm commitment to Europe. We are part of Europe." He mixes his metaphors rather confusingly: "He can't take the high horse and claim the low road." And he can't seem to count: "One word sums up probably the responsibility of any governor, and that one word is 'to be prepared'." If as his supporters insist Bush doesn't have a speech defect, then the only conclusion is that the man occasionally suffers from a thinking defect.
Can you imagine the dangers of such a man in the Oval Office? He wants to nuke a meteor rushing to earth, Hollywood style, and says "Press the button". But his staff don't, because they assume he must mean "Button the shirt" and the meteorite obliterates earth. Or vice-versa. He says "Button the shirt" and his staff assume he must mean "Press the button" and nuke Afghanistan.
Jokes apart, clearly, there is something drastically wrong with politics. When we look at Indian or American politicians, we see that apart from a few exceptions, those who triumph are mediocre, shameless or corrupt. And yet, we all know that honest, dynamic, intelligent men and women abound. How come they don't or are unwilling to rise to the top in the world of politics?
The few braves one who try to improve the world by joining politics are invariably sidelined or hounded out. Panchayati Raj perhaps gives an opportunity to good people to participate in local politics. But recent elections to local bodies in Kerala reveals a new trend—suicides by candidates or their spouses after losing the election. As a psychiatrist analysed, these politicians, most of whom are professionals, are not seasoned and thick-skinned, immune to scandals and allegations that are the gridwork of politics. We all know the world of politics is so seamy, unfair and corrupt that it keeps good people out. But I do believe the media and even the public is an accomplice in this conspiracy to keep the best people out of politics.
I will substantiate this by taking the example of an American, one who is leaving the Senate after decades of distinguished service, just as Bush and his entourage sweep in. They will try in vain to fill the vacuum left behind by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, former ambassador and Democratic senator, a great public intellectual and public servant of high calibre.All his life, he strove to balance freedom and order, the individual and the public, pessimism and pride in an effort to build a humane society founded on truth. He was committed to equitable urban growth, for the poor.
Yet his tenure in politics was a rough tumble, made rougher by political opponents, the media and the public. In a report published 35 years years ago, Moynihan argued that many of the problems confronted by Black Americans could be traced to a "profound weakening of Negro family structure". It created a furore. He was accused in the media of being a racist and acquired a reputation as hostile to Black aspirations and rights. In reality, it was precisely his concern for Black aspirations and rights, especially for poor Black children, that underlay his report. The motive of his report was to fix the problem. Instead, he got fixed with a terrible label.
Many good people stay away from politics because of a reluctance to be dragged into the mud by persecutory opponents, prosecutorial press and a lynching public. They are discouraged by the inability or refusal of the political and journalistic communities to deal honestly and carefully with subtle and bold arguments. How much good can you get down to doing if you have to spend all your energy defending yourself about something you are not guilty of?
As good people keep or are kept out, the vacuum around the world is filled by politicians heavy with financial clout, establishment support and unscrupulous ambition. That Moynihan persisted in public life despite the widespread and wilful misinterpretation of his views is proof of his convictions, his stubbornness and his courage, but it is a dismal commentary on the way politics is conducted. Even in the Land of the Free, it is not the best man who wins, but the man with the best Daddy. And Daddy's buddies will prop him up. They say Bush is a good learner, but he still has to learn at 54 what we learnt in school. Maybe we should stop worrying and enjoy political oxymorons with yet another Bushism: "We are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy. But that could change."
(The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)