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Commentary: America's Most Wanted

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 1, 2011 - I'm a little worried about the "American People." You've probably heard of these folks because they're frequently invoked during the eternal campaign that passes for governance in today's Washington, D.C. Politicians of all stripes claim to represent the group when advocating on behalf of their contradictory and mutually exclusive agendas.

"The American people demand that we cut/raise/eliminate taxes on the poor/middle class/rich to balance the budget/borrow more money/default on the national debt so we can create jobs/explore Mars/disband." It would seem that the American people are a contradictory lot; and indeed they are.

I encountered an instance of what divides us at last week's Thanksgiving dinner. Due to the size of our family gathering, my sister traditionally sets two tables -- one for adults, the other for children. Diners at the former table this year ranged in age from 20 to 89.

J. Edgar Whover?

When conversation at the adult table turned to the new Clint Eastwood biopic, "J. Edgar," the assembled quickly broke into two groups: those who had seen the film or were interested in what it had to say, and those who had no idea who J. Edgar Hoover was. Regardless of their formal education, the older adults were uniformly aware of the controversial figure and his checkered legacy. Meanwhile, none of the younger members -- all of whom were either current university students or recent graduates -- had ever heard of the man.

How can citizens of a republic reach a common consensus when they lack a shared memory of how we arrived at the present day?

It's understandable, of course, for different generations to reminisce about different things. My mother, for instance, does not wax poetic about the Doors, and I don't cut a rug to the big band melodies of Glenn Miller. I'm not sure I could name a band that appeals to my daughters and their friends.

But the issue here is not some trifling preference about which music to play during cocktail hour. Rather, it pertains to a historical figure whose stewardship of the FBI raises implications for domestic civil liberty that are as profound today as they were before his death. How do you make it through an American university without hearing about this guy?

And note, too, what may be termed the paradox of ignorance: Those who already knew about Hoover wanted to see the film while those who didn't had no desire to do so. The people most in need of the information were thus the least likely to get it.

Everybody at the table was native-born Caucasian, raised Catholic and would fall within a broadly defined middle class. If this relatively homogenous gathering lacked a common appreciation of the national identity, imagine how difficult it is to govern when we expand our focus to include the 312 million or so highly diversified souls that the Census Bureau estimates to live here.

The fact that we lack a shared vision for the future is often cited as the reason for our current political paralysis. I would argue that problem is, in large part, the by-product of our lack of a shared vision of the past.

It's tempting to advocate greater emphasis on American history in our schools -- which is not a half-bad idea -- but if standardized test scores are any indication, educational remedies are going to prove to be far too little, way too late.

Going for Experience

Imagine that the country is a professional football team composed of some players who are highly motivated and others who are less so. As a citizen, you are part-owner. Who would you select to lead your struggling franchise? Obviously, you'd prefer someone with experience. There are currently five living people who have coached Team USA.

You could retain the present boss, Barack Obama, but his approval ratings are solidly south of 50 percent, and many fans are calling for his scalp. On the other hand, the field of assistant coaches vying to replace him looks less than promising.

Jimmy Carter is still out there, but he was a one-term head coach with a losing record. George H.W. Bush is also a possibility but he, too, was a one-termer and, like Carter, age argues against his selection.

That leaves George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. W's tenure ended on a sour note. In fact, Bill Maher compared the state of the union at his departure to that of a hotel suite in which the fore-mentioned Doors had just held an all-night party.

As usual, Slick Willie remains the last man standing. The man is durability incarnate. Though at times denigrated and despised, he is easily America's most popular living ex-president. Plus he's bright, personable and did a reasonably good job running the team. What didn't you like about the Clinton years -- was it the peace or the prosperity?

Of course, some will claim that Bill is ineligible because he's already served two presidential terms. This is emphatically not true. The 22nd Amendment states that no one can be elected to more than two terms. There is, however, no provision preventing an ascendance to a third.

Should Hillary run for president, she could name Bill as her vice presidential nominee. Once inaugurated, she could abdicate, thus returning Bill to the job for which he is ideally suited because no matter how ill-informed or scatter-brained you may be, he'll feel your pain before doing what needs to be done to keep the ship of state afloat.

Among his accomplishments as the first Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover oversaw the creation of the Most Wanted List. When it comes to politics, I know who's at the top of mine.

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon. 

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