'Why Can't We?'
As was mentioned, I have spent the last nine months working in the office of US Senator Barack Obama. Now, Obama is a seriously special dude. I have never come across anybody like him in public life. But Washington can be awful! Thousands of people are running around in government or in the Democratic government-in-exile. And while there are wonderful exceptions, who will be my friends for life, the ambition of many seems rooted more in a hunger for personal ascent, for access and for power than it seems oriented toward serving the public. As a friend said to me on one occasion this year when I was feeling particularly despondent, "There are people who want to be in Washington, and there are people who want to do in Washington. Sadly, the former vastly outnumber the latter."
But even after my time in Washington, I'd like to use this occasion to defend politics. Many of you went to law school because you cared about justice, and you thought that law might help you promote it. I urge you--no, I beg you--not to shy away from using the one tool available to every American to create a better country and a better world. In his brilliant essay Politics of the English Language, George Orwell wrote, "In our age there is no such thing as 'keeping out of politics.' " In our age--in your age, Class of 2006--there is absolutely no such thing as "keeping out of politics."
Take foreign policy. For too long foreign policy has been settled away from domestic scrutiny and debate. Away from politics. A small group of unaccountable gray-haired men (plus two female Secretaries of State, known tellingly by their first names, Madeleine and Condi!) have crafted US foreign policy behind closed doors. One of the reasons the United States blew the prewar planning on Iraq is that the Bush Administration said, "Trust us, we know what we're doing." And most of the rest of the country went along, leaving war to "the experts."
But it is not the architects of US policies at home and abroad who pay the price for shortsightedness. It is not their children who are serving their third tours in Iraq. It is not their grandparents' bodies that still have not surfaced in New Orleans. It is not they who feel the pinch caused by $3-per-gallon gas prices. And it is not they who worry about how they will explain to their children where the glaciers went, or how the planet warmed an entire degree in our lifetimes.
Every single scandal and calamity that has struck America in the last five years was avoidable. Every single scandal and calamity that has struck America in the last five years resulted not from a shortage of information but from a failure of imagination.
Let me start with the most trivial. I'm a baseball fan, a serious fan. And since I grew up a Pittsburgh Pirates fan and I'm speaking today near San Francisco, I'd like to say a word about Barry Bonds. In 1992, the year I graduated from college, Bonds was the runner-up for the National League home run crown. He hit thirty-four home runs, his highest tally in what was already an illustrious seven-year career. Flash-forward to 2001: Barry Bonds won the home run title with seventy-three home runs (out of 156 hits. That's one home run out of every two hits. His slugging percentage was .863!!).
Something wasn't right, and each and every one of us knew what that something was. The doubling of Bonds's home run total was accompanied by a virtual doubling of his cap size. Yet instead of facing an inconvenient truth, we all averted our gaze--players, Major League baseball officials and fans--focusing instead on the glorious trajectory of a ball that flew higher and higher into the sky and further and further out into the San Francisco Bay.
As a result of our indifference, thousands of high school students have taken steroids in the hopes of emulating their buff heroes. A game whose majesty derives from the timelessness and precision of its statistics is discredited, its numbers deformed. Because we refused to face the underlying truth, we will now never be able to compare Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds, a shame for both men.
In politics this refusal to face inconvenient truths carries life-and-death stakes. And yet only after 3,000 American lives were lost on 9/11 did it become evident that FBI agents had warned of the danger that terrorists would hijack American planes and fly them into tall buildings. Only after more than 800 Americans died in New Orleans and tens of thousands of lives were ruined did we go back and read the stellar reporting in the Times-Picayune and see that people had been yelling and screaming about the vulnerability of the levees for years. And only after gas prices hit $3 did George Bush begin talking about freeing the United States of its oil dependence and speeding up the production of hybrid cars. We have known about our energy crisis since the OPEC crunch of the 1970s. Why are we only now, suddenly, talking about rushing to mass-produce hybrid cars?
Samuel Johnson was most certainly right when he said, "Nothing focuses the mind quite like a hanging." But we can't afford to wait until we stand at the gallows to change the way we govern our country and live our lives. As individuals, as citizens, we have the power to focus our government's mind, to get resources allocated, to save lives. We have the power to concentrate the powers of the American imagination. This power comes through politics. It is the rare politician who thinks more about the collective good than he does his or her individual fortune. I believe that Senator Obama is one who does. But politics is too important to be left to the politicians. It is up to the rest of us to demand that our representatives are attentive to the human consequences of their decision-making. And that means making ourselves heard. It means, according to Lesson Number Three, not turning our noses up at politics. It means using politics to trigger the imagination and to face inconvenient truths before a crisis strikes.