12 September 2005

Criminally uncurious, by Mark Shields

After New Orleans, will it be we or me?

WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- In the enduring American tragedy of New Orleans, President George W. Bush has been libeled.

The foul charge, as untrue as it is unjust, has been made that he is a racist. George Bush is most definitely not a racist.

He is, however, isolated -- and he may be almost criminally uncurious.

Proud of the fact that he neither reads daily newspapers nor watches television news, the president has never publicly questioned why in 2004 -- the third full year of the national economic recovery -- the number of Americans living in poverty had increased from 32.9 million to 37 million, or why 45.8 million of his fellow citizens -- 6 million more than in 2000 -- were uninsured.

Before New Orleans, the condition of poor Americans was not part of the political debate or the public dialogue. Bush administration tax policies were apparently dedicated to closing the socially dangerous gap between the rich and the super-rich.

Democrats, with the conspicuous exception of the party's last vice presidential nominee, John Edwards, mostly ignored the poor, while wooing and flattering the vote-rich middle class and the just-rich abortion rights groups. The press knew that poor children don't sell like Donald Trump, Martha Stewart or flat abs.

Political attention has been fixed on the "Individual Me," not on the "Collective We." Ronald Reagan loved to recall how he had voted four times for Franklin Roosevelt, who asserted what would be contemporary heresy in his Second Inaugural: "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

By the time the Gipper, himself, won the White House, his question was not: Are we better off -- are the strong among us more just, are the weak among us more secure? No, Reagan's appeal was to the self-absorbed individual: "Are YOU better off than you were four years ago?"

Along with paper or plastic and smoking or non-smoking, Americans are regularly asked to decide -- for themselves or for their parents -- between Independent Living or Assisted Living. It is a false choice.

Each of us, irrespective of age or status, depends very much on assisted living. Conservatives like to kid, "Remember, we're all in this alone." But we aren't. We may have come here from different ports, at different times and on different ships, but we are today all very much in the same boat.

After New Orleans, the poor can no longer be invisible.

I have been privileged to attend 17 national party conventions and heard only one serious presidential candidate speak to and for Americans who are poor. I will never forget what Jesse Jackson said:

"They catch the early bus. They work every day. They raise other people's children. They work every day. They change the beds you slept in in these hotels last night and cannot get a union contract. They work every day.

"They're not lazy. Someone must defend them because it's right and they can't speak for themselves. They work in hospitals. I know they do. They wipe the bodies of those are sick with fever and pain. They empty their bedpans. They clean out their commode. No job is beneath them, and yet when they get sick, they cannot lie in the bed they made up every day. That is not right. We are a better nation than that ...".

We may not be the masters of our destiny, but we can certainly be the captains of our souls.

After New Orleans, the appalling silence of good people can no longer be excused. These are our fellow Americans, our brothers and our sisters.

More than our gross national product or all the Dow Jones averages, how we honor and treat those among us who possess the least will tell us more about our national character, pride and values.

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