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Reflections in a college reunion book evoke a sense of national mediocrity

Commentary: Old graduates wonder how to make the US truly exceptional again.
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U.S. President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande during a welcoming ceremony on the South Lawn at the White House on February 11, 2014 in Washington, DC. Hollande who arrived yesterday for a three day state visit, visited Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate and will be the guest of honor for a state dinner tonight. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

OWL’S HEAD, Maine—The pictures of President Obama and President Hollande of France, touring Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, "The Age of Mediocrity.”

The contrast, between today's two living presidents and that earlier epoch of French-US relations, when our first president and the Marquis de Lafayette were close friends, when Jefferson was the US minister in Paris, is such that the White House staffer who suggested the Monticello excursion must be lacking a sense of history.

The comparison between those heroic days of true exceptionalism and the current age of mediocrity is only heightened by the constant reference to President Hollande's missing ''partner.''

The basic problem is not that Obama and Hollande are any more mediocre than their predecessors, George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon or Nicolas Sarkozy, Francois Mitterand and Georges Pompidou. Nor even that the older generation in both countries remembers General Eisenhower and General de Gaulle; it's simply the looming sense that, despite the internet and Twitter, the golden days of the West are behind us.

For France, this certainly is so. They never recovered from World War I, whose centenary we commemorate this year. It was the French, along with the British, that bequeathed the modern Middle East to the world, a gift that will keep on giving long into the current century.

Is it just another of man's follies that, as one ages, the past shines brighter than the present? "Bliss was it that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven," wrote an older William Wordsworth, looking back at the time of the French Revolution and the ideas it spread across Europe.

On the other hand, our parents or grandparents, who in their younger days lived through World War I and the Great Depression, or fought in World War II, would not, as they aged, have seen their world so pessimistically.

What recently brought forward that sense of melancholy was not only the sight of two of today's mediocre leaders touring the self-designed house of an early American genius, but also the arrival of my 50th college reunion book, in which old men I knew half a century ago—and many I didn't—reflected on the last 50 years. Amid many happy memories, it was their pessimism about where we are and where we are heading that stood out.

A few random quotes:

"...  powerful corporate interests whose over-riding objective is to grow by generating profit, including profit from avoiding the environmental costs they create…government that is subservient to corporate interests … an ever-growing world economy that is undermining the ability of the planet to sustain life."

"The global infatuation with America is much diminished. Many recent examples demonstrate that our long-standing assumption that, if we lead, others will follow is obsolete … Europeans are aghast at our unilateralism and deviation from the values of the Enlightenment we once exemplified."

" … it is impossible to oversee a roughly $75 billion per year NSA program established under classified tasking authority, supported by secret interpretations of the law, with occasional briefings of Congresspersons who are thinking mainly about other things."

"Money has polluted our politics, and our Supreme Court seems determined to make that problem worse … When the pollsters ask that question now about trusting our government to do the right thing, just 20 percent respond affirmatively."

"I have never felt anxiety about my own life … it's the dreadful state of the world that fills me with fear and trembling."

"Unquestionably, I have had a good life. But, I wonder, will my children and theirs? … the prognosis is marginal."

"It is difficult to know what lies ahead, but getting our house in order in the US would be a nice place to start. Wouldn't it be nice to have elected officials who are willing to lead with their conscience and are not beholden to anyone?"

"I grew up not really knowing what entitlement was. It was one's accountability that measured the man. These two concepts now seem reversed. Too few are willing to be accountable for their actions, and too many feel entitled to whatever they can."

"Like many my age, I am increasingly appalled at the current path of materialism, greed and deliberate misunderstanding that our country is taking."

And when you turn away from reading their reflections you can see, live, the world they've reflected on: the bread and circuses of the Sochi Winter Olympics, where the ancient Greek spirit of the finest of its youth putting aside their plowshares or their swords, and showing off their amateur skills, seems to have been lost.

Our political system is in disarray: we, or at least our news-deciders, are discussing presidential elections that are nearly three years down the road, President Obama a has-been, or a barely-was. The swift transition from focusing on his reelection to becoming a lame-duck about six months after he was sworn in again leaves about one year of eight to accomplish the people's business.

Remedies for curing the current debacle include an interesting pair of contrasting ideas: a one-term, six-year presidency, thus theoretically creating a post-political president, never worried about reelection, able to give his energy exclusively to what's good for the country. Perhaps that would be the case, or perhaps we would just create an endless series of six-year lame ducks.

The other idea would repeal presidential term limits, and avoid the lame-duck disease that permeates the second term. Of course, this just might encourage the president to spend an interminable number of years focusing on fund-raising and kowtowing to special interests.

We have every right to pat ourselves on the back for the tolerant society we have become over the last 50 years in granting civil rights, women's rights and gay rights.

In the years that lie ahead, we've got to spend more time accomplishing things and less time patting ourselves on the back in the belief that we are exceptional.

Mac Deford is retired after a career as a Foreign Service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owls Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.
 

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