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Second "Great Malaise" gripping U.S. as lack of leadership continues to prevail

The cable network HBO has been broadcasting a mini-series in recent weeks entitled “John Adams,” based on the superb book of the same title by David McCullough. Both the series and the book are heroic portraits of our second president, and of his courage, wisdom and leadership in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

And it wasn’t just Adams. He was surrounded by great leaders — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin — none of whom had any experience in forming a new country, but all of whom were more than up to the task.

What brings this to mind, among other things, is the continuing debate over a new farm bill, and the fact that we are now well into 2008 without one.

It just makes you wonder. If the same leaders who are in power today were running things back in the 1700s, would they have had the courage, the intellect and the fortitude to form this great nation? Judging by all accounts, it’s not likely.

There seems to be an unprecedented leadership vacuum in Washington, D.C., today, and it cuts equally across party lines.

In a democracy, we can expect great debates over contentious legislation, but this farm bill should have been relatively easy. The much ballyhooed “listening sessions” leading up the Bush Administration’s farm bill proposal should have told anyone who was really listening all they needed to know — that farmers, for the most part, were satisfied with the previous legislation. It was working, which isn’t true for every piece of legislation that comes out of Washington. Perhaps a bit of tweaking was required — especially from a budgetary point of view — but for the most part, it was sound legislation.

And, after all this time and debate, we’ll probably get a slightly altered version of the 2002 farm bill, with minor adjustments so that it’ll comply with budgetary restraints set by the Administration, including possible payment limits.

It’s little wonder the approval rating for Congress hovers at around 20 percent. The only thing this esteemed body has agreed upon in recent months has been the economic stimulus plan — a piece of legislation that requires our government to give money it doesn’t have back to the taxpayers, in hopes that the taxpayers — rather than paying off their personal debts — will use their rebates to get further into debt. The only way this plan works is if consumers spend the money, at a time when many have maxed out their credit cards and are drowning in debt. It represents the height of cynicism on the part of Congress and the Administration.

Many parallels can be drawn between the events of today and those that existed almost 30 years ago when a peanut farmer from Plains, Ga., named Jimmy Carter was serving his first and only term as president.

In 1979, the United States was facing an energy crisis, the economy was on the skids, and there were problems in the Middle East. Carter addressed the country in what would become known as his “Great Malaise Speech.”

His original intent was to speak to the nation about the growing concerns over looming oil shortages and to urge energy conservation.

However, he chose to talk more frankly about another growing crisis — the lack of trust and faith the American people had in their government.

“The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways,” said Carter. “It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation. The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America. The confidence we have always had as a people is not simply some romantic dream or a proverb in a dusty book that we read just on the Fourth of July.”

Some decried the speech as “preachy,” and others contend that it contributed to Carter losing the presidency to Ronald Reagan. But it was something we don’t hear much from politicians today — a harsh truth.

And as he concluded the speech, President Carter offered some hope. “First of all, we must face the truth, and then we can change our course. We simply must have faith in each other, faith in our ability to govern ourselves, and faith in the future of this nation. Restoring that faith and that confidence to America is now the most important task we face. It is a true challenge of this generation of Americans.”

It’s a message that rings even truer today, in the midst of war and an economy bordering on disaster.

One more thing about those great leaders of the past, including Adams and Jefferson — many of them were farmers. Maybe there’s something about having a special relationship with the land that enhances your ability to lead. Whatever it is, we need more of it in Washington today.


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