Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Uncharted waters

I've lived through 11 presidents (well, this one's the 11th; and I barely remember the first).

Of those 11, I can honestly say four of them -- John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush and, now, Barack Obama) have faced terrifying uncharted waters that, whether they like it or not, will define their administrations.

I define "uncharted waters" as particularly thorny issues that -- until they happened, hadn't happened before, whether at all, or to the extend that they occured. They are: The Cuban missile crisis (Kennedy), the Iranian hostage crisis (Carter), the attacks of 9/11 (Bush) and the Gulf Coast oil spill (Obama).

You could also perhaps throw Hurricane Katrina in as well, except that we've had hurricanes in this country before ... and bad ones too.

What makes these occurrences unique, other than the fact that they happened at all, is that the responses to them were just as uncharted as the events. To wit: How do you respond to something when there's no precedent to follow?

Kennedy, of course, faced the Cuban missile crisis, and navigated through it like the sailor he was. I'm sure those were tense times, but it was also 1962 and I was only in the fourth grade. I was aware that there was a "Cuban crisis," but, at the age of 9, it didn't register as anything more important to me than any other "grown up stuff."

We obviously got through it, because I'm here, writing this. But I can't say I was overly concerned. I had a child's view of the world ... that adults were there to take care of us, and that they would, indeed, take care of us.

Lyndon Johnson -- one could argue -- faced the same uncharted waters when he was left to pick up the pieces after Kennedy's assassination. But his situation wasn't the same as the four I've mentioned. I'm not sure Lyndon was the absolute right guy to come in and heal the nation (actually, I think Gerald Ford did a much better job of that after Watergate, even if he did pardon Nixon). But he was all we had, and the nation, at least, was willing to be healed.

Johnson ran afoul on other issues, and a lot of that had to do with ramifications of antipathy between himself and the Kennedy faction. But what he faced wasn't on a par with Kennedy, Carter, Bush and Obama.

Carter, we know, faced the prospect of having U.S. diplomats held hostage in Iran (well, some of them may have been diplomats at least). That was a thankless situation because no matter what he did, it was going to be wrong to someone. He chose to wait the Iranians out, and he took incredible heat for it. But in retrospect, I'm not sure that was the worst thing he could have done. Those hostages came home, alive, one year and two months after they were seized.

In fact, the rescue mission he staged in March of 1980 failed so badly it probably set us back in the overall scheme of things.

Carter may have been the most luckless president we've ever had. Things weren't going all that well with him before the hostage crisis. Half the country hadn't even heard of the word "malaise" until one of his aides de camp, used it in an attempt to explain the speech he was about to give that basically told the American people to buck up and stop whining about everything.

Carter never used the word.

He also had rotten luck in that the hostage crisis happened November of 1979, just when he'd be gearing up for a re-election bid. Sometimes, in life, you make your own luck. Carter didn't have that luxury.

(Of course, letting the shah of Iran into the country -- even for medical purposes -- wasn't his smartest move either, though weather that precipitated the ensuing hostage crisis is still a matter of debate.)

The hostages came home in 1981, when Ronald Reagan was elected president. And while the country certainly had its issues from then until September 11, 2001, none of them were unique to history. This country has fought a war on the average of once every 20 or so years since it was founded, so Gulf War I wasn't any big deal in the big picture. Nothing that happened in the Reagan years rose to the level of 9/11.

So when George W. Bush, nine months into office and still basically feeling his way around, was faced with 9/11, I genuinely felt sorry for him -- even though I didn't vote for him, and didn't really have a whole lot of use for him.

At the time, Bush was in this 50s, the way I am now. He'd been a governor, but other than that, his experience in handling anything this big, and this complicated, was on about the same level as mine ... which is to say none.

And I don't say that as an insult. Remember our definition. Uncharted waters are uncharted in all aspects. He didn't have any experience in dealing with a mass terrorist attack on his own soil because nobody did!

Similar to Carter, however Bush chose to act in response to 9/11 was going to anger someone. And we all know he had his share of critics. I might have been one of them.

But the night he got up and spoke to the nation, I don't think there was a person in America, friend or foe politically, who didn't, at that moment, look at him and say "George, you're all we have. I may not have voted for you, but dammit all, I'm putting my faith in you to do the right thing."

And he did ... in some cases. What impressed me the most about him in those first few days was the lengths he took to warn against branding all Muslims as crazed terrorists. I think the only thing that would have been worse than what had already happened would have been to witness local vigilantes rounding up all the Arabs and Muslims and performing terrorist acts on them.

Later, of course, Bush did a few things that were matters of sincere, legitimate debate ... such as promoting and executing the Iraq war and all-but abandoning Afghanistan after driving the Taliban out. But in those initial days after 9/11 (and throw in the Anthrax scare too), he had to walk a delicate line between responding to a serious situation and keeping a lid on a nation that was primed for panic.

And in that sense, I think he did a pretty damn good job.

This brings us to Obama. He walked into the presidency on the heels of an economic crisis this country hadn't seen since the Great Depression itself. We were in free fall, and -- like a lot of decisions in tough times -- the ones he made were not going to universally popular. But boy, oh, boy, they weren't. I believe that as the times become more uncertain, the rhetoric gets more shrill ... and that the rancor that has followed some of Obama's actions are the natural outgrowth of an uneasy nation. That's understandable. What's not understandable is the willingness some people have to exploit that uneasiness for their own gain. I have a real problem with that.

There's a word for that, and it's "demagogue." And this country, right now, is full of them.

But whatever Obama is facing, or has faced, with regard to the economy pales next to the oil spill.

We've had oil spills before. But Obama is facing the extra-added kick in the pants of having a pipeline that's still spewing oil into the gulf over two weeks since it blew up. The Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons into the Prince William Sound off Alaska in 1989, and there are some scientists who feel that, already, the gulf spill has surpassed it. Of course, there's no way to know. At least there was a finite supply of oil on the Valdez. But in this case, oil is spewing forth into the gulf and there's an infinite supply of it (well, you know what I mean; there's no accurate way to measure it).

This could, already, be the single worse ecological disaster to hit the United States. The pictures cropping up on the internet, and the film footage that's starting to circulate on TV, is heartbreaking. And this is probably just the beginning.

Already, Obama has faced criticism for his handling of the situation ... from the usual suspects, too. Ru Paul (or whatever his name is) called him un-American for turning up the heat on British Petrolium (which owns the rig that blew up and sunk).

The point here is this: In each of the four situations I've mentioned, presidents have had to respond to situations that have on precedent. There's no experience to draw from ... not "playbook" that outlines the proper way to deal with them. No U.S. president has ever had to deal with terrorists who hijacked U.S. planes and flew them into buildings; and no U.S. president has ever had to deal with an uncapped oil rig spewing petroleum into our waters. And I say before you can ever act, you have to know what you're dealing with. And to me, it's impossible for Obama to even know what he's dealing with ... even now ... let along be able to come up with the perfect solution.


Couldn't resist this one: The Orlando Cepedas, sadly, live. Dammit it all. I have Bruins paranoia. I admit it.

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