March 2005: In Decency We Trust

Do decent politicians exist only in an alternative universe?
March 1, 2005

Since the re-election of George W. Bush, much has been written about what it means to have such a militant right-wing ideologue running the world’s most militarily powerful country. Predictions of what we can expect over the next four years range from more “pre-emptive” invasions of other countries suspected of being pro-terrorism to doomsday scenarios of a global nuclear holocaust.

During the November election, the talk was all pro-Bush or anti-Bush, pro-Kerry or anti-Kerry. Nobody talked about what kind of president would be best qualified to lead the planet’s only remaining super-power.

I think the one quality that could most accurately describe such a leader is decency. The president of the United States should be a decent person. Sounds silly? Could any politician be really decent and still get elected?

Maybe only in an alternative universe, a concept often developed by the writers of fantasy and science-fiction. But let’s go back half a century and imagine an America led by decent presidents.

It’s 1960 and John Kennedy has just been elected. After his inauguration, he flies to Cuba, where Fidel Castro has toppled the brutal Batista regime and started nationalizing U.S.-owned industries on the island. Kennedy puts his arm around Castro’s shoulder and says, “Good for you, Fidel. You got rid of those gangsters and you want to take control of your own resources. How can we help you?”

Consider what would have followed: No Bay of Pigs. No Cuban missile crisis. No embargo. Friendly U.S.-Cuban relations. Maybe a much earlier thawing of the Cold War.

The same generosity of spirit moves Kennedy to stop American aggression in Vietnam. He pulls out all U.S. troops, then flies to Saigon or Hanoi and tells the Vietnamese leaders: “Congratulations on winning your independence. We did the same thing a long time ago. If we can help, just ask.”

Again, think of the outcome: no bombing, no napalm-dropping, no Mai Lai, no Laos, no Cambodia. No millions of Asians or tens of thousand of American soldiers killed in a prolonged senseless conflict.

We could go on and on. No CIA subversion of Allende in Chile, no attacks on Panama or Nicaragua, no invasions of Grenada or Iraq.

In this alternative universe, political decency somehow becomes the norm. Under a succession of decent presidents, the U.S. supports the United Nations and its peacekeeping efforts, leads a universal nuclear disarmament initiative and launches serious campaigns to eliminate world poverty and clean up the environment.

In this universe, the U.S. is widely regarded as a friendly, generous, peace-loving country, and its example is followed by other nations. Imagine living in a world where hunger is unknown, a world where billions are spent teaching and caring for children instead of dropping bombs on them. Imagine living in a world where politicians are sincerely devoted to improving the lives of all their constituents instead of catering to a wealthy élite. Imagine a world in which fear or greed or hate or religious fanaticism are not the main determinants of how we vote or who we vote for.

Utopia? Of course. Such an idyllic world will probably never become a reality. But surely we can do better than the world we now inhabit. And maybe the first step toward that better world is to dream a little.

(John Keen lives in Riceton, Sask. A Korean war veteran and retired farmer, he is a vocal observer and critic of current social, economic, and political affairs.)