Time was, politicians were expected to rise above mere party loyalties on questions of universal import for society and especially in circumstances affecting national well-being. Obviously, a pluralistic community will always have conflicting values and differing positions on issues. Such conflicts are, at once, the price of democracy as well as a source of vitality and strength. But there comes a time when division and discord reach a “tipping point,” when those qualities that produce consensus disappear and the whole of society suffers from the disintegration.
One of the factors that unite a nation is its shared values – a universal understanding about such things as what is right or wrong, legal or illegal, good or bad. These commonalities were referred to by Philip Rieff, an author of the 1960s, as “a system of moralizing demands.” Those leaders who lived up to the moralizing demands, always a minority, are accorded the title of “statesman” and that high honor is an accolade greatly desired. Such leaders keep the culture from disintegrating by embodying those qualities admired by the public and restating those values necessary for society to be regenerated and renewed for contemporary times. In the absence of such leadership, society crumbles as crucial values cease to be reflected in the governmental and institutional processes. Sadly, statesmen are increasingly rare today and the weakening of society’s fabric reflects the loss.
In recent months, we’ve seen politicians screaming, ranting, attacking America’s foreign policies, and criticizing military decisions in the midst of a war. In recent months, we’ve heard lies and distortions cloaked as “political spin.” The level of political discourse has sunk shamefully as winning-at-all-costs has triumphed with increasing frequency over principled stances. Political rhetoric has disintegrated into demagoguery. Personal attacks and character assassination have become routine.
One of the most egregious examples of these trends is illustrated by the orchestrated campaign against Dr. David Hager, a physician appointed by President Bush to the Food and Drug Administration’s Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Commission. Sadly, those attacks have been brought into the presidential campaign as Sen. John Kerry has joined the effort to discredit Dr. Hager because of his Christian beliefs. Dr. Hager, an outstanding OB-GYN physician from Lexington, Kentucky, is both a medical researcher and a private practice doctor. His resume shows numerous peer-reviewed publications in prestigious medical journals — many highly technical studies about reproductive health drugs — and an impressive array of honors from medical associations; it would be hard to find someone with better qualifications for the commission. His record includes outstanding reviews of his medical practice; patients laud his service and he has been named in popular magazine lists of “best” doctors.
But, Dr. Hager questions the safety of the so-called “morning after pill,” also called “emergency contraception,” and requested further research before it was approved for use. Dr. Hager is also opposed to abortion-on-demand and has spoken out against the approval of RU-486, the so-called “abortion pill.” In addition, Dr. Hager in his personal faith and beliefs is an evangelical Christian.
Because of these principled stances and the centrality of his personal faith, Dr. Hager has been subjected to unprecedented personal attacks and character assassination. His writing in non-professional areas has been distorted and mischaracterized as being the same as his professional and medical recommendations. For instance, in articles and books for Christian journals he has written about the power of prayer — a phenomenon many physicians have seen result in medical miracles that they acknowledge with awe and respect. These writings for a popular audience have been distorted and passed off as his professional pronouncements. Thus, routinely now he is described as “controversial,” as an “extremist” or as a person who is “hostile to women’s issues.”
Hager’s recommendation for further testing on the morning-after pill before letting it be sold over the counter has been linked with disparate quotes from different publications to make him sound like an extremist. Major newspapers have printed absolute lies; for instance, that he would not prescribe contraceptives to single women (which he will do and has done, in spite of his personal beliefs about promiscuity), or that he said it was “dangerous” to compartmentalize life into “categories of Christian truth and secular truth.” Psychiatrists, of course, recognize the danger of compartmentalizing life, but when politicians and reporters take such phrases out of context and link them with other statements, a completely different meaning is conveyed.
It was bad enough that the radical feminists attacked Dr. Hager and succeeded in keeping him from becoming the chair of the FDA’s Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Commission. While the Bush administration caved in and appointed someone else, they had enough courage to at least appoint him to the commission in spite of the unwarranted protests. Now John Kerry has elevated the personal political attacks against Hager by bringing them into the presidential campaign, calling him a “right-wing ideologue” and packing his Web site full of accusations and vitriolic attacks against Hager – especially condemning him for recommending prayer. If relying on prayer is a disqualifier for service to one’s country, few of the nation’s leaders could have held office — including most of our former presidents, starting with George Washington, whose picture of him kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge used to hang prominently in the nation’s public schools.
With such rhetoric, demagoguery and personal vilification becoming politics-as-usual, is it any wonder that trust — a fundamental requirement for democracy to function effectively — is diminishing? Is it any wonder that such “leaders” fail in a basic leadership quality, that of being a symbol of the people? Is it any wonder that such actions by the nation’s leaders fail to provide what James MacGregor Burns called “transformational leadership”?
The eyes of the world look on through 24-hour cable television coverage, and people develop an image of America and democracy from the words and actions that they observe in our political leaders. Given the politics of personal destruction that has come to characterize our political debates since the dishonest and despicable “Borking” of a distinguished American jurist merely because his opponents wanted to preserve the heinous “un-natural” right of a women to murder her infant in her womb, it is little wonder if the world and we ourselves don’t respect what is seen and heard.
Have we become so childish, so selfish and self-absorbed as a people, that we will haplessly embrace politicians equally selfish and self-absorbed? Do we really want to stoop to the Machiavellian standard that to be a leader “you must be a great liar and a hypocrite”?
America has never needed statesmen more — committed, determined, courageous souls who will embody and reinforce the universal “system of moralizing demands” that constitute a civil and thriving society. Will Americans be like the highly-educated Germans who accepted Hitler’s and Goebbels’ lies? Will we, like them, blindly substitute lies for the truth simply because they are spoken loudly, fervently and passionately? Let us hope not.