“We are so much accustomed to disguise ourselves to others, that at length we disguise ourselves to ourselves.”
Not everyday, but often I think again of a good man from a couple centuries ago, Francois duc de La Rochefoucauld. Passionate for a more just society in revolutionary France, he also had eyes to see that the guillotine was not an answer. Stretched taut between two visions, the French aristocracy and the French revolutionaries, he longed for a world that was not easily found.
On today’s Opinion page in the Washington Post, the columnist Robert Samuelson, one of the rare ones who does not have a partisan position to defend, throws the proverbial cat among the pigeons. The long economics analyst for the Post and Newsweek– longing for the same world that Rochefoucauld did in a different time and place –he wrote:
“You didn’t elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear. You elected me to tell you the truth.”
— President Obama at the Democratic National Convention, Sept. 6
“Is anyone in America gullible enough to believe this? What defines this campaign, in part, is a yawning gap between the political rhetoric and the country’s budget problems. And it’s not just Obama. Mitt Romney is also playing. The consequences are that the victor will either sidestep those problems or, by attacking them forcefully, shock an unprepared public. Perhaps the first presidential debate, on Wednesday, will unmask and discredit the consensus against candor, though this seems doubtful.”
And then argument by argument, promise by promise, Robert Samuelson dismantles the partisan rhetoric of both sides, restating for Obama and Romney what would be required of them if they chose to tell the truth about our political moment and its responsibilities.
For example, naming names. For Obama, ““I have also misled by implying that making millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share will solve much of the problem. It won’t.” And for Romney, “Fellow Americans. The budget outlook is worse than I’ve acknowledged. In the campaign, I pledged to reduce federal spending to 20 percent of GDP. This won’t happen.”
And Samuelson concludes, with a shot across the bow of America and its future.
“The chasm between stump rhetoric and governing realities will haunt whoever wins. It also defines a dilemma of democracy. People want their leaders to tell the truth, but they often don’t want to hear the truth. Genuine leaders escape this trap by persuading public opinion to acknowledge distasteful problems. But these leaders are rare. Most pursue immediate popularity over truth even if this deepens long-term public mistrust.”
The truest truths of the universe are perennial, and always cut deeper than the partisan divide—whether of France 200 years ago, or America of 2012. Having ears to hear is hard, for everyone everywhere.