We need leaders who speak truth

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By DON VOWELL

I see that Michelle Obama and I will celebrate our birthdays on the same day.  That is probably the sum of our similarities.  Our most radical difference is our freedom of speech.  Michelle Obama must parse every word that she publicly utters.

If tomorrow I stand at the corner of River and Chemawa Roads yelling conservative tripe and then liberal drivel in alternating 15 minute bursts, nobody will care.  And if I had bangs, no one would care if I changed them.  That’s the greatest freedom of all, and we should think about restoring this right to our leaders.

Barack Obama was elected almost solely due to his remarkable gift for oratory.  That gift seems hidden in storage these days.  From wherever speech originates in his brain it is now screened through dozens of filters before making the dangerous leap from mouth to microphone.  Those filters must prevent him from sounding too black, too white, too liberal, too conservative, too secretive, too open, too pro-business, too welfare state, too Democrat, too Republican, too environmental, too religious, too secular, or excessively anything.  Any speaker or thinker observing those guidelines is certain to rob all that he says of compassion or content.  It is almost painful to see President Obama visibly struggling through press conferences, careful to not stray from rigid talking points, careful to offend no one.

We haven’t always needed that pampering.  George Washington said, “Few men have the virtue to withstand the highest bidder.”  James Madison: “The truth is that all men having power ought to be mistrusted.”  Chester A. Arthur said, “If it were not for the reporters I would tell you the truth.”  We used to be strong enough to bear up under the idea that our presidents were imperfect, just like us.

James Madison warned, “I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of the freedom of the people by the gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.”  Then James Garfield, “Whoever controls the volume of money in any country is absolute master of all industry and commerce.”  This is about the NSA.  This is about distribution of money and its influence in government.  If only a president could speak this plainly now. These statements are so completely timely, that we should briefly pull away from the Miley/Duck Dynasty morality wars to consider them.

Winston Churchill has never been president, but was always a fearless speaker.  “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter,”  he once said. It is our civic duty to make that untrue about America.

Neal Postman, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, thinks we may be approaching the America in Huxley’s Brave New World rather than Orwell’s 1984. Orwell feared oppression, the banning of books.  Huxley feared there would be no one who wanted to read one.  Orwell feared the withholding of information.  Huxley feared such an onslaught of information that we’d be reduced to passivity and egoism.  Facebook, anyone?  Cat videos and inane political forwards.  “Like” this brightly colored flag picture if you’re a patriot.  Easy enough, and you can do it in your pajamas.

Sometimes I can think of no ending for one of these rants.  Today is that day.  I long for a leader who is unafraid to address our faults, unafraid to seek needed fixes.  Woodrow Wilson said, “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.”  Where will a powerful and unifying leader come from if every word he speaks must be poll-tested?

(Don Vowell lives in Keizer.  He gets on his soapbox regularly in the Keizertimes.)

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