Softball with John McCain
July 19, 2006
If the comments that I heard from David Gergen, Sen. John McCain and Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson at the July 1 event in the Benedict Music Tent (“An Evening of Words and Music”) represented the quality of thinking at high levels of politics, journalism, think-tankdom and graduate training for government service in America, then our country’s prospects don’t look good. (Besides the U.S. Senate and the Institute, institutions with ties to the speakers were: U.S. News & World Report, and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.)It was clear by the end of the program that this event was not a serious forum for the discussion of public issues, but the Music Festival’s and the Institute’s generous (and questionable) donation to Sen. McCain of face time with a large Aspen audience that enabled him to push pieces of his stump speech and attract possible new campaign donors for his incipient Presidential campaign.The hyperbole of Walter Isaacson’s introduction of Sen. McCain, in which he named him an equal to political “wise men” of earlier generations like Dean Acheson and Ben Franklin, demeaned the Aspen Institute, Isaacson’s own credibility and the intelligence of the audience. For someone with the senator’s earnest but modest intellect, the usual bland bromides would have been a more appropriate introduction than such ludicrously false encomia.And while I didn’t expect David Gergen – as the moderator of the forum – to advocate positions on the issues raised, for my $50 I did expect him to ask incisive questions, and to challenge boilerplate rhetoric, misstatements of fact, and shameless dissembling. What I saw and heard instead was slow-pitch softball with Gergen as the pitcher, in which Sen. McCain hit a few weak ground balls and a lot of pop-ups, most of which Gergen and the senator’s questioners left littering the infield, pretending (or maybe thinking) they were hits. To be specific: The biggest, fattest pitch from Gergen was the question: “What are the most urgent priorities for the U.S. in the next five to 10 years?”Sen. McCain outlined five topics. He framed three of them as our needs, respectively: a) to pursue the “war on terror” produced by “radical Islamic extremism”; b) to find “sources of oil” in the context of the “challenges” of “populism” and “left-leaning movements [in oil-producing nations] in our own hemisphere;” and c) to reduce the federal budget deficit, but only in relation to the Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid budgets.Neither David Gergen nor any member of the audience asked Sen. McCain even one of at least three obvious questions on these three topics:a) When you speak of our need to pursue the “war on terror,” do you include our need to restrain the devastating military and economic violence that we and our client states have so often visited on other peoples (long before Sept. 11, 2001)?b) How do you propose that we prepare for the likely drastic economic, social and physical consequences that the imminent permanent decline in world oil production will soon force upon us?c) Without the inclusion of the Medicare budget in our federal operating budgets – an Enron-worthy accounting trick adopted around 1973 – current and recent budgets would have shown a much larger deficit. Why did you speak of the federal deficit in relation to the Social Security budget without also speaking of two of its major current causes: the recent large cuts in income taxes, and the long-term, cumulatively destructive economic and fiscal effects of military expenditures?Lack of equal access to the microphones in my wheelchair put me too far back in line at the July 1 event to make the cut for asking questions. I may have missed one or two questions while I was in the backstage elevator, but those that I heard disappointed me with their blandness, the more so when, on my way out of the tent, two Aspen residents to whom I had vented my displeasure said to me (separately) that they shared my concerns about the program. My question to them (and others of our ilk in the audience) is: Why didn’t you get in line early and ask the hard questions that were begging to be asked?John Breasted is a tutor at Simon’s Rock College of Bard in Great Barrington, Mass.