“Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.” –John F. Kennedy
It shows my age, I guess, that I can actually hear this quote in my head in John F. Kennedy’s own voice, with its distinctive Boston accent. This particular quote comes from a speech he gave at the Loyola College Alumni Banquet in Baltimore, Maryland, on February 18, 1958, while he was still a senator from Massachusetts. It’s one of those statesmanlike quotes that seem appropriate in a lot of different situations, including the one that the U.S. Congress finds itself in today.
Here’s another apropos quote, from Kennedy’s nomination acceptance speech, given on July 15, 1960. “But I think the American people expect more from us than cries of indignation and attack. The times are too grave, the challenge too urgent, and the stakes too high to permit the customary passions of political debate. We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light the candle that can guide us through that darkness to a safe and sane future. As Winston Churchill said on taking office some twenty years ago: if we open a quarrel between the present and the past, we shall be in danger of losing the future.”
My dad has always maintained that when adults argue about education, the kids lose, every time. I think that same principle works when members of the two major political parties in this country argue back and forth in Congress. The American people lose.
Meanwhile, the American people are beginning to show that famous “can-do” spirit and “Yankee ingenuity” that has made us the strong and vibrant nation that we are. Some “Shutdown Rebels” have begun to ignore or work around the shutdown orders. Groups of World War II veterans have repeatedly ignored the closure of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. A private restaurant that sits within a national park in North Carolina refused to close until armed rangers came to close off the parking lot entrance to the restaurant. The owner has gotten email support from people around the world, as well as from people in his own community.
In Idaho, a park employee continues on his own, without pay, to search for a missing 63-year-old hiker. In Wisconsin, some state parks that get partial funding from the federal government are staying open, by order of the state’s Department of Natural Resources. The mayor of Washington, D. C. has declared that all city workers are deemed “essential,” and therefore can continue to receive pay.
A fellow in Washington, D.C. was mowing the lawn around the Washington Monument, on a volunteer basis, but was told to quit. Why? What are we missing, here? Why aren’t we allowed to volunteer? What if we opened up more so-called “government jobs” to volunteers?
Although the military is deemed “essential,” one of the things that has been affected by the shutdown is a check for $100,000 that is paid to all families of servicemen and women who die in combat. The check is normally issued within three days of the death. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are upset about this. A private foundation has stepped up to the plate to guarantee checks to the families during the shutdown.
Some people just aren’t that lucky. Cancer patients are waiting for treatment, kids can’t attend Head Start classes, and tribal governments that do not have gaming profits to fall back on are stymied. Edward Thomas, president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes, said, “Any interruption in federal funding, especially for a self-governance tribe like ours without gaming or other substantial economic development, means we must borrow money – from an expensive line of credit we cannot afford – to meet our payroll obligations to child welfare workers, to job trainers, to housing workers, and to natural resource subsistence protection.”
There are a lot of people out there who are saying that we should never have started to raise the debt ceiling in the first place. They may or may not be right – I am not in a position to judge. But I think President Kennedy and Winston Churchill were right: “…if we open a quarrel between the present and the past, we shall be in danger of losing the future.” The issue is no longer what we should have done in the past. The issue is what shall we do now. We cannot and must not go back to the way things were in the past. Things have changed, and we must change with the times. I agree that we need to seek “the right answer,” and that may not be “the Republican answer or the Democratic answer.” I also think that we need to find a long-term answer that will carry us far enough forward that we won’t have to re-visit this issue again and again every few months.
Maybe it’s a good thing that the government has shut down. Once in a while, Americans need to remember to appreciate the way our government works, and maybe we also need to get mad enough to get more involved in the issues. We are, after all, supposed to be a government “of the People, by the People and for the People,” not a government of the President, the Congress and the Supreme Court.