Occasionally you come across a book that never really leaves you. It may be the Bible or the Koran, works of literature or history, fiction or non-fiction. It seems to me that a book that has never left me could profitably be read by the leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties.
Once an Eagleby Anton Myrer is a military book revolving around the careers of Sam Damon and Courtney Massengale. The former is concerned for his men and doing the job right regardless of political considerations, the latter is a schemer who builds a career on charm and contacts and could care less about the men he sends into combat. Published in 1968 by a man who saw combat in the Pacific in WWII, it is still on the reading list at the various US military academies, and in my youth was a television miniseries.
The book is primarily a look at life in the military, and a study of command styles, virtues, and merits. But as I re-read the book for the umpteenth time a particular passage struck me as pertinent to todays political arena.
Damon and his family is on a two month accumulated leave in the 1920’s, and they visit family friends. The host, Edgar Downing, has made a pile of money at his factory, but has a seemingly intractable organizational problem on his hands in the form of a hopelessly tangled storage yard. Damon sees it as a logistical problem, and Downing challenges him to fix it.
He goes to the yard and faces down a gold bricking, bullying yard boss through the weight of his command presence and personality. Damon reorganizes the yard to such strong effect that Downing offers him an executive position with the company.
As he faced down the yard boss, Damon thought about the money men upstairs:
…They would not have understood what made [Damon] stand there in the heat, calmly implacably facing down this petty tyrant: it was not money or advancement or fear or vainglory, but a sense of the fitness of the thing-the essential rightness in doing a job conscientiously and well, bringing order out of chaos. (Once an Eagle, 2002 ed., page 342)
I think we are in the same boat when it comes to the leaders of the political parties. They seem to get no pleasure, find no thrill, or feel no obligation in making the fundamental things right in our commonwealth and country, and instead find ways to veer off-road into backwater pools of partisan fury, personal ennui, and petty differences.
Let’s consider the recent Transportation Bill that has so many folks screaming.
1. Neither side will come out and admit it’s a TRAMOB issue, and that the solution can only be bound in cooperation between parties and jurisdictions to get the bazillion laws, regulations, procedures, and funding in place to address a bevy of concerns from the Dulles Metro to traffic congestion in urban areas to traffic maintenance in rural areas to zoning issues. Instead, all sides call it a “Transportation Issue” and assume more money will fix the problem…
2. …except neither side wants to raise taxes-because the same folks who want things to be better are not willing to pay more money-and neither the GOP or the Democrats are willing to stand up and offer proof that either we don’t need more money because we have enough and it is being spent poorly, OR that the monies we currently have is being spent well and as a result a tax increase is needed.
3. So the GOP, who are more concerned with holding power than solving a problem, propose a budget pulls money from here and there, adds on higher fees for violating certain laws, and puts that to a vote. The Democrats, who are also more with acquiring power than solving a problem, fail to offer or fight for a substantive alternative, instead hiding behind a couple of headstrong GOP senators who disagree with the GOP plan. Ultimately, not wanting to face the electorate without passing a transportation funding effort of some type, the General Assembly approves the GOP plan. No one focuses on the matter that funding based on an assumption (the possibility that people will break the law and pay these higher fines) is not exactly a way of finding a concrete source of revenue.
4. Then The Guv gets into it, flying around the state wringing his hands and having meetings before signing a bill without making substantive changes…oh, wait, he did try to torpedo the bill by amending the bill to say that these heavy increased fines will fall only upon Virginians, and not upon out of state drivers. The legislature approves the amended plan, despite a reasonable few like The Cooch who voted against the amended plan because of the governor’s amendment.
5. The new laws go into effect, and the public raises up against them. Capitol Square is not subjected to a Bastille like assault, but legislators suddenly want an emergency session to repeal the higher fines…but the governor is hesitant to call them back in. So everyone goes back on the campaign trail, willing to mention the new transportation funding they achieved while decrying the very fines they voted for-this, btw, goes for members of both parties.
What is missing from all this? A real attempt to identify assets, to target liabilities, to create a solution, and to determine how to get there. There is no “sense of the fitness of the thing-the essential rightness in doing a job conscientiously and well, bringing order out of chaos” out of the TRAMOB issues we face.
We deserve better than two parties who are more concerned with the levers of power than the in bettering the lives and condition of those who elected them. We deserve a legislature-state and national-that works with vision and vigor when too often we have legislative bodies that once were eagles, but have turned into buzzards picking at the entrails of the body politic.
I wish our leaders would read and heed the ideas of Once an Eagle, would embrace the challenge of bringing order out of chaos and worry more about people and less about power.
I will remain hopeful that one day when we thing of our legislative bodies we are moved to think “Again an Eagle”, but what I see nowadays doesn’t leave me hopeful.