Wednesday, March 14, 2012


I just completed my great eight day cross-country adventure. I agreed to drive my son's 1998 Subaru from Sacramento to him in Washington, D.C. The last time I did this drive alone was 42 years ago in my 1974 Ford Pinto (puky mustard color, white landau top, four-on-the-floor stick shift, $3,450 out the door), and the last time I did it at all was with my wife in 1977 in the same Pinto.

Shortly thereafter the Pinto's tendency to combust on impact was exposed and my wife's parents forbade her from driving with me. But other than that small explosive detail, the Pinto was reliable, sturdy, uncomfortable, and ugly. The Subaru was a lot better on all counts.

The trip sounded great in theory. However, as debarkation day approached and my wife, who undoubtedly is smarter than me, said that she would be flying out to meet me near D.C., I began to question just how fun this would be.

Turns out it was great fun.

I skied in Park City and Taos, New Mexico, two terrific ski areas. After Taos, I had my most memorable day of driving when I went 800 miles. Why 800 miles in one day? There was really no reason to stop other than to eat and use the bathroom.

I left Taos at 7200 feet during a snow shower, drove down through Santa Fe and then onto I-40. Sign on the old New Mexico School for the Deaf's (founded 1885; New Mexico's first public school) marque: "Happy Purim. Celebrate Purim with Chabad." They're everywhere.
From mountains to high plains in a matter of hours. Across eastern New Mexico and the Texas panhandle through a dust storm reminiscent of the descriptions chronicled in Dust Bowl literature.

Then across Oklahoma in the dark with big lightening storms to the north. The lightening lit up the sky and shook the car The radio stations, when they weren't knocked off the air, kept interrupting to give hurricane and tornado warnings. Trouble was they mentioned counties and I had no idea what county I was in. Lots of Indian reservations and casinos, though.

I finally stopped for the night in Van Buren, Arkansas, a few miles across the border from Oklahoma. The night clerk at the hotel informed me that I was in Tornado Alley. Comforting.

I visited the Clinton Center and Library in Little Rock. I was hoping to get the definitive definition of the word "it," but "it" wasn't mentioned anywhere that I could find.

My wife met me in Knoxville, Tennessee, and we drove on to Asheville, North Carolina, to visit my still-going-strong 96 year old aunt. She weaves and knits, reads and watches the news, walks, and still enjoys a nice evening out. Inspiration, for sure.

It was a great trip. Lots of fun, interesting experiences, and a lot of interesting and pleasant people.

One person I did not meet but who seems to be everywhere in the South: Jesus. He's big: big billboards, big churches, big crosses, and big on the radio. My favorite billboard:
"Jesus is Christ Travel Center
Cash or Credit"
Very spiritual.
Speaking of big, the trip reminded me of just how big and beautiful the U.S. is. Gorgeous desert, beautiful snowy mountains, breathtaking sunsets. Even the lightening and wind and rain were beautiful in a scary, wish-I-wasn't-driving-through-this way.

Perhaps because I am old enough to remember the innocent America of JFK's inauguration before his assassination, the Vietnam War, the King assassination, and Watergate, the big and beautiful America evoked for me the great and good American ideals that I grew up with. An America that stands for freedom, for helping others, for doing good.

After 30 years in and around politics, I am often surprised to find that I still have a reservoir of idealism when it comes to America and its goodness. I am usually taken aback when the realization that I still am idealistic hits me. And this usually happens when a little bit more of my idealism is chipped away. I am surprised that there is something there to chip at, but there always is.

While marveling at the beauty of America, and the bigness of America, and the greatness of America, and how nice a lot of Americans are, I could not help feeling that chipping sensation. It just kept gnawing at me. As much fun as I was having, and as exhilarated as I felt, I felt a helplessness, and a bit of shame.

That's because for the eight days I was having a blast enjoying America, the sounds and scenes of Syrians being slaughtered by their own government were constantly with me. (Thank yous to Anderson Cooper of CNN and NPR.) When I wasn't watching or hearing about them, I was thinking about them.

I could not escape them. And I could not escape the fact that my country, "the leader of the free world" as our generation was brought up to think of it, was not doing much to stop Syria's murderous regime or to rally the "free world" to stop the slaughter.

And make no mistake. What is going on in Syria is not a war of any kind. It's not a civil war. It's not an asymmetrical war. As photojournalist Paul Conroy said last night on AC 360, the lopsidedness of this stain on the civilized world makes this nothing but a slaughter.

I am of the generation that grew up in the shadows of World War II, hearing that the world did little to rescue the Jews but it did, finally, stand up to the evil of Hitler. I can recall JFK standing up for universal freedom when he declared "Ich Am Berliner." And I recall Ronald Reagan demanding that that wall be torn down. Words, and actions if necessary, matter.

Where is the "leader of the free world" while Syrians are being slaughtered? I understand the hesitation to involve ourselves militarily, although the recent testimony by a member of the intelligence community before Congress that the fall of Assad would be the biggest setback to Iranian foreign policy in 25 years does provide ample justification for strong action, such as no-fly zones.

But, short of military action, there is much more we could be doing. For starters, the president could use what used to be called the bully pulpit. Instead of saying that the veto of a UN resolution by Russia and China hampers our ability to act, he should be loudly and publicly shaming those countries each day for their vetoes.

He could be taking strong action against those who supply arms, food, oil, and credit to Syria, and he could be loudly and clearly shaming them. Despite all of our problems, the United States is the strongest country in the world. Much power is derived from the perception that one uses it boldly and confidently, and that one is not afraid to be quite clear and unapologetic about it.

Yes, there are many nuances and possible adverse consequences to be considered. But sometimes nuances and adverse consequences are a rationale for inaction, an excuse for not deciding. Sometimes, if you want to be respected as being powerful and doing right, you speak up and you act and the chips fall where they may.

Most often, if you are doing right, the fallout is acceptable. In any event, it is better than the fallout from ceding to evil, from allowing murder when you have the ability to thwart it. It is better than giving up the mantle of "leader" to those whose motivations are less noble.

Of course, to do this you have to believe that you are noble, that your motivations are right, that you are the "leader of the free world," that you have special responsibilities.

I have questioned the rationale for the U.S. being involved in Libya. We had no strategic interest there. The president said we were involved in order to prevent the slaughter of civilians, that that is what America stands for. Noble motivations, indeed.

Well, now we have a slaughter, and yet we are doing next to nothing. Is the rationale for saving lives no longer compelling when it is more complicated and nuanced? Is our purpose no longer noble when there may be greater adverse consequences?

Are noble objectives not enough justification for action when you cannot "lead from behind?" Speaking of which, I haven't heard a more ridiculous oxymoron than "leading from behind" in a long time. How we operated in Libya may have been the right approach. It may have been strategically or tactically smart to let others take the lead. It may have been wise to manipulate, to prod, to convince rather than to lead. But we did not "lead from behind" anymore than one "pigs out to diet."

In the face of the massacre now occurring in Syria, "leading from behind" won't do it. The U.S. needs to lead strongly and forcefully. We can lead verbally. We can lead diplomatically. We can lead with economic resources and strategies. If our strategic interests are truly at stake and we have a once-in-25 year opportunity to set Iran back, perhaps we should lead militarily. But we should be doing something more than what we are now doing.

The president should be reminded that former President Clinton proudly recalls his leadership in saving lives in Bosnia by bombing Serbs, while he deeply regrets our failure to lead and to act to prevent the Rwanda massacres. There were complications, diplomatic concerns, world lethargy. So we did not act and lead. It is a stain on our history and President Clinton's legacy, and he regrets it.

As my once-every-40 years or so road trip again reminded me of what a great country America is, and of its special role in the world, I felt a stain developing. I felt and feel shame that we are allowing the slaughter to go on. There is much we could do to stop it. I hope we wake up soon from our lethargy. I hope we assert ourselves. I hope the President acts as only a real leader does, from the front. And I hope we do it soon.


  1. Nicely told and well argued. Big LIKE

  2. Alan, the drive sounds fun. The first car I purchased in 1976 was a 1972 Ford Pinto, lime green, with the infamous Firestone 500 tires. I am lucky to still be alive.

  3. We are in DC right now and are reminded of the greatness of America--the World War II Memorial, the valor of the American troops defeating Hitler, and the chronicling of American history in the great museums and memorials, including the Newseum. Your Random Thoughts and places like DC should remind us of the potential for the United States to continue to be the leader of the free world. My wife said it best the other day when she said that most Americans don't care about which party wins--most of us just want our leaders to do the right things for the right reason for the American people. We have to be willing to stick our necks out and let the chips fall where the fall, as you have said.

  4. i enjoyed your road trip wife and i stayed in the US the last few years and had great experiences on our road trips...have had some great outings right here in Nor Ca...and really have done a lot in AZ, where my mom still lives. did a seven day death march in 10 and wrote a half baked narrative about battlefields and such in the civil war area around Virginia...i can dig it up and send it if you want.

    as for obama, i wish people would quit saying he is in over his head and the like. i think he knows what he is doing and the things that we think are horrible make him yuck it up with his philosophical and political brethren. wrecking the economy, iran, israel, mubarak is evil but assad, well, never mind, keystone pipeline, drilling moratorium, class actioning the banks, turning BP into a criminal, destroying health care, his grotesque AG, civil trials for terrorists in NYC, catastrophic debt, billions of dollars down crony ratholes like solyndra etc., is all being done on purpose and in line with his marxist/muslim/hate the west/capitalism/freedom philosophy.

    not a pleasant conclusion, but i would be glad to debate it with anyone. i still can't believe he got elected and i hope we don't get him for another term