Monday, June 06, 2005


My friend Houston Steve sent me a copy of a letter he received from his congressman some years back. At the time, Steve was a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy. Later, he would go on to serve in the Navy’s JAG Corps after completing law school.

The topic of the letter was how much the views of a representative’s constituency should influence the vote of that representative. Here are some extracts:
To exert leadership, I must weigh the will of the people; I must study the issue indefatigably; I must look at the question regionally and nationally; and in the final analysis, I must do what I think is right. If my judgment is wrong, the people have a final remedy – they can and will vote against me. I will not be reelected if the people feel I am wrong more than right...

Take the surtax as an example. The people don’t like it. A poll would show 95% against it. Yet after considerable study of facts, which the average voter doesn’t have available, it seemed to me essential to enact the surtax to stem inflation, to cut our huge deficit, etc. The momentarily popular vote would clearly be against the tax. The right vote was clearly, to me at least, in favor of the tax. The tax is still unpopular, but without it, we’d be in much more serious trouble as a nation.
What was this surtax? It was enacted in the late 1960’s to reduce the deficit in the face of the spiraling costs of our involvement in Vietnam. War isn’t cheap – then or now – and you either pay for it as you go or you pay for it later.

Our approach today seems to be “pay later.” Whether or not you feel the war in Iraq is a good thing, most Americans would grow much more impatient with the grinding pace of events there if they were paying for the costs as they are incurred rather than tacking them on to the Great National Revolving Charge Account. They would insist on clear objectives and a plan for carrying them out. They would insist on knowing the criteria for success: those goals that, once achieved, would be the signal for the end of our involvement.

But there is a Generation Gap.

A generation ago, we were fighting a war in Vietnam based on grand geopolitical principles, but for which we were ignorant of all of the driving forces. To us, that war was part of our struggle against the worldwide encroachment of Communism; to our enemies, it was a war of nationalism. The war in Iraq is being driven by different forces, both for us and for the various factions of Iraqis on the ground. It’s a different sort of war, although we are having to deal with similar issues related to the asymmetricality of the conflict. That’s not the Generation Gap to which I refer.

I’m referring to the Generation Gap between father and son. The letter, you see, was written in April 1969 by Congressman George Bush, of the 7th Congressional District in Texas, father of the current President. The George Bush who would become Ronald Reagan’s Vice President and eventually President himself, whose politics would swing rightward. George Bush the Elder, back in the day when he would do the right thing rather than the politically popular thing.

Ain’t it funny how time changes things?

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