Our leaders are only human.
We sometimes forget that those in charge of us are just like us. Once they get into office, the fact that they have trials and tribulations of their own fades into the background. We never remember that in a democracy, the people about whom we bitch and moan are the people whom we chose to lead us.
Helen Thomas, the longest-serving member of the White House Press Corps, spoke on Thursday night in the McCormick Tribune Center at the invitation of the College Democrats. She reflected on our presidents: the men who have held the highest position in the land, elected by tens of millions of people, culled from the best of the brightest (hopefully) and chosen for a multitude of qualities. These men have risen to the top of the heap and have proven to the country that they can be responsible for us all.
And then they let us down. Thomas spoke nostalgically of John F. Kennedy, a man with far-fetched goals but the power to inspire a nation to believe in them. She turned her scorn on Richard Nixon, who broke the country’s spirit after the Watergate scandal, and his successor, Gerald Ford, who claimed to end the “long national nightmare” but according to Thomas, simply perpetuated it by pardoning Nixon. Thomas weaved tales of these presidents and their mistakes, to the delight of the aspiring journalists and political junkies who seemed to be carried away by her anecdotes. It was like hearing your grandmother reminisce, in a docile tone, about her childhood, as if those were the better days.
Thomas broke my heart and then put it back together. As I listened to her wistful tones, I myself felt nostalgic for a time I had never experienced. She talked of a country that was hopeful, a “golden era” as she called it. As she stood, slightly hunched behind the podium, she asked us, “Who are we? What have we become?” I was taken aback. She’s right — what has happened to us? How did we get here?
And it made me think: Our country is a lost adolescent. The United States is that awkward, rebellious teenager, who gets drunk one night and ends up with a tattoo the next day in a language that he doesn’t speak. As a nation, we’re simply making it through each day, hoping that the mistakes we make don’t permanently scar us.
Some of us know where we’re going in life (damn you, HPME students). The rest of us, well, it’s up in the air. We’ve experimented with English classes and tried engineering, only to declare a major in art history. We’re unsure if it matters, since we’re going to grad school anyway. If we could have our way, we’d major in having a job after graduation, with a minor in not hating every moment of said career. The specifics are incomplete, and the path to recovery is unclear.
Thomas’s speech made me think that our country is jumping around in a similar way. We tried a Republican administration for a while, now we’re letting new people run the show. But what’s going to happen next is the scary unknown. This could be the worst depression since the Great one, or we could be okay in a few years’ time. If we pull our troops from Iraq, we could be ushering in an era of peace, or we could be making a huge mistake and leaving a country in ruin.
Thomas reminded us of this uncertainty as she talked of the mistakes our presidents have made: the wars, the deaths, the domestic policies gone awry and the simple human errors. Every decision our president makes has the potential to bring the end of the world, as Thomas explained, or could redeem past mistakes to be the beginning of something amazing. She comforted us by saying that “Obama’s on the right track” with his economic policies.
We think it’s our prerogative to criticize the government; after all, we elected them. But we should also be aware of whom we’re critiquing: a teenager, much like we are now, trying to figure out what the next step is. Thomas, like anyone’s grandma might do, reminded us that while the golden days might have been better, the future is anyone’s game.