Friday, May 6, 2011
I want to live in a world that never was
Until I was 17, I believed that the President of the United States could not tell a lie. That conclusion, I decided later, came from my innocent acceptance of the old George Washington and the Cherry Tree myth wherein the father of our country exclaimed, "Father, I cannot tell a lie."
As part of the "Leave it to Beaver" and "Father Knows Best" generation (AKA the "Baby Boomers), I grew up with the notion that lying was a very serious offense that nearly always ended badly. Of course, like everyone I knew, I did my share of fibbing -- and sometimes managed, through prevarication, to avoid trouble or gain benefits -- but I knew in my heart that, when the stakes are high and one's personal honor is at stake, telling the truth was the ultimate right thing to do.
It was Spring Break, 1966, my senior year in high school. I was struggling to complete the seminal term paper of my life: "Opposition to the War in Vietnam." I had completed very extensive research. What I had not completed, however, was my assessment of the evidence and a determination of my point of view. I knew all about the opposition to the war in Vietnam; but I wasn't sure whether I opposed it.
Public support for the war was still high in 1966. This was two years before the Tet Offensive and before the Most Trusted Man in America (Walter Cronkite) first expressed his doubts about our involvement in that conflict. It was less than two years after the Gulf of Tonkin incident where American warships had allegedly been attacked by North Vietnamese gunboats.
I say "allegedly" because the truth of President Lyndon Johnson's report to Congress and the American people regarding the event had come into question. Johnson claimed that North Vietnamese aggression was justification for air strikes against that nation -- and ultimately for a widely expanded war that dragged on for more than a decade and cost the lives of 58,220 U.S. servicemembers and some estimate as many as three million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians.
So the stakes were high in the Spring of 1966 as I sat in the front seat of our family's suburban, bouncing up and down and from side to side as we traversed a dusty and uneven road in Baja California. My father sat to my left, Mom was on the right and, leaning over the back of my seat, Bill Knight completed the chorus. All three grownups were fervently anti-war and though I knew the facts, I was struggling to sort them from opinion -- and struggling to form my own opinions at the same time.
We argued back and fort about the legitimacy of our actions in the context of the 1954 Geneva Accords and about whether we were really invited by leaders who were chosen by the people or those we propped up and controlled. But the sticking point came down to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which was passed by Congress based on the president's account of a real or imagined sea battle in international waters off the coast of North Vietnam.
Finally, after what seemed like hours of taking a pounding from the road and a harranguing coming through both ears and the back of my head, I half-whimpered and half-shouted my ultimate argument in support of the government position...
"But," I croaked. "The President of the United States wouldn't lie!"
That exclamation actually silenced my loquatious interlocutors -- but only for two or three seconds. Then...
It was horrible. Humiliating. It wasn't a matter of one starting to laugh and the others joining in; all three simply burst into spontaneous, uncontrolled hysterics. A few seconds earlier, I had been treated with respect in an adult conversation; suddenly, I was being ridiculed and viewed as a naieve babe in the woods. It proved to be about the worst argument I could have possibly offered -- and it ended the conversation (no doubt on a high note for my tormentors, but with me sitting in a despondent pool of embarrassed discomfiture.
Please note that my Pollyanna-like view of great leaders came eight years before President Nixon (of "I am not a crook," dirty tricks and resigned-in-disgrace fame) waved goodbye and climbed into that helicopter in 1974. These days I'm afraid we'd be hard pressed to find a 7-year-old who believes presidents are always truthful, let alone a 17-year-old.
Oh, I'm sure we're better off, in the scheme of things, to not blindly trust our leaders. In a democracy, the people must judge what is true and just, not their servants. Perhaps it's wise, when erring, to err on the side of distrust and to view presidents and other politicians with skepticism. I know I do, now -- as a journalist, but also as a citizen.
By the time I got back home and hurried to complete that term paper, I was a different person. The seeds were planted and germinated and had begun to grow for a lifetime filled with challenging authority and common wisdom. By late Sunday night, I was not just the author of a pretty good paper about the opposition to the war in Vietnam; I was a well-informed citizen who was opposed to the war in Vietnam.
Still, when I saw the fresh, young, innocent face of a 10-year old boy (whose father was killed on 9-11) in this morning's New York Times, I yearned for the days when it seemed that we all looked up to our President with reverence and absolute trust.
Naive? Absolutely. A passing fancy? Of course.
But, the emotion that brought tears to my eyes as I contemplated the loss of innocence seems to be regret. One can't unring a bell. It's possible to nostalgically get in touch with sensibilities from childhood and youth; but one can't truly set aside life's lessons and return to those halcyon days when it was possible to believe that all the world was as pure and good and benign as we were.
It would be nice to be able to put the cork back in that bottle. I guess I'll have to settle for a bit of vicarious hero-worship captured by Mr. Muhammud yesterday afternoon at Ground Zero.
Posted by Burke Droppings at 9:33 AM