Still looking for a presidential candidate who inspires us

January 05, 2004|By Cynthia Tucker

THE 2004 presidential campaign begins in earnest this month, and I'm still looking for a candidate. The entire field - President Bush and his would-be challengers - leaves me cold.

I'm still looking for a candidate who draws us together rather than hardening the divide between us, a candidate who calls us to a cause greater than ourselves rather than appealing to our selfish interests, a candidate who inspires us to overcome our fears rather than give in to them.

I haven't found such a man or woman.

This country once produced great leaders, men who were not afraid to challenge Americans to be better than they were. The 40th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy reminded me why he is still revered. It wasn't just the youth, the vigor, the romance - much of which was manufactured by PR-savvy aides and a quiescent press.

President Kennedy also had raw courage - political courage. Just imagine a presidential candidate today saying, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." In the current political climate, candidates spend their time currying favor with various factions by promising to give them benefits or cave in to their prejudices. The benefits are rarely good for the nation as a whole; the prejudices never are.

So, we see tax breaks for the wealthy, prescription drug benefits for the elderly and trade barriers to protect certain industries (and their workers) from competition abroad. None of those is good for the nation, but they do tend to satisfy certain narrow constituencies.

Contrast that to the Kennedy era, when a young president challenged the country to put a man on the moon. In 1961, President Kennedy told a joint session of Congress that it was "time for a great new American enterprise - time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on Earth."

After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, the United States feared it would forever remain behind in the space race. President Kennedy's answer was to tell students and teachers that they must work harder. It was a time when men and women of learning - geeks and nerds - were respected. The federal government would support their efforts with more money for math and science education, but they would have to put in the work. As a result, the United States put the first man on the moon in 1969.

What would have happened if President Bush had responded to the terrorist atrocities of 9/11 with a similar challenge for all Americans? Oh, the president gave lip service to a call for national service, but he didn't mean it. He's hardly mentioned it since January 2002.

What if the president had issued a call for all young Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 to give two years of service to a Homeland Defense Force? There is much work for such a corps to do. Ports remain unguarded, as do railroads, bridges, national monuments and nuclear power plants. They might also be trained as first responders - firefighters, nurses, paramedics. (Any young men and women who volunteered for the military could be exempted.) If such a corps had been started, the recent heightened terror alert might not have been necessary. The nation already would have been prepared.

The Democrats have been no better at inspiration. They, too, have dodged anything that sounds like a call for Americans to make sacrifices. Apparently, that's now the political equivalent of showing up for a casting call for The Bachelor with your dark roots showing.

So it appears that we will trudge through the political season without a call to rise to the challenges of the 21st century.

It is a wasted opportunity.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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