Thanksgiving Guest Post #2: 'This Is What Is Happening'

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On my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving Day, I am (sincerely) grateful and reflective for all the blessings received by my family, my friends, my work mates, my country, the world, and so on.

Operationally I am also very grateful to have finished the most ill-starred day of my memory, yesterday, in which I was: a participant in a car crash in Maryland in the morning (no one injured, to my surprise as I watched it all unfold in super slo-mo from the passenger seat); immediate observer of another crash in Florida late at night (miraculously no one injured, but this involved waiting for an hour at midnight on the shoulder of I-75 south of Ocala, to show the Florida Highway Patrol where the vehicle in question had come to rest, in the scrub brush, after hitting the left guard rail and then flying over other cars and off the road to the right); and managing a mid-flight electrical failure in a normally trusty small airplane in between. Surprisingly, no meteors struck the house after we went to sleep. The whole saga at some other point, because it was intellectually, culturally, and emotionally instructive. My wife and I, who made it via rented car, after the airplane was disabled, to join her mother and many other family members in southern Florida, are more than normally grateful and in a "this puts things in perspective" mood.

In the spirit of gratefulness, and before returning to other topics in a couple of days, let me give the podium back over to my friend Michael Jones. He appeared here a few days ago, in a role as a self-announced "0.1%-er" who said it was time for politicians and the public to recognize the human pain behind the protests of the "99%." He follows up, with the help of another reader, below. This post features an imagined presidential speech to address the concerns of the era. Among its other virtues is an ending that should be a model for future presidential rhetoric.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.
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Guest Post:
'This Is What Is Happening Around Us', Part II

By Michael Jones

Part I encouraged you to experience the lives of some of the thousands who've bared their souls at the WeAreThe99Percent website. It asked you to review your judgement of Occupy Wall Street in the light of your new understanding of the greatness of the people and the severity of their despair. That request followed Thomas Jefferson, who wrote "I look to the diffusion of light and education as the resource to be relied on for ameliorating the condition, promoting the virtue, and advancing the happiness of man." Jefferson's light is the light of knowledge, a power that I revere. I suggested that WeAreThe99Percent Americans and Occupy Wall Street Americans want to be heard and are looking for leadership; in essence, that they seek a Churchill for deliverance from their dark night of the soul.

Today's Part II considers what that leadership would look like by imagining that the White House's Office of Public Engagement read James Fallows's blog, circulated it to the President in his 5am morning clip reports, that an epiphany on his part would happen as he invested the time to read the linked stories, and that his awareness, prayers and tears would move him to bold and constructive action. That leadership would begin with a holiday address to the American people, delivered today. Here is that speech, as imagined and written by William Carleton of Seattle, Washington.

"My Fellow Americans:

"I had an epiphany last night, and I want to share that with you today on Thanksgiving, that uniquely American holiday recognized by proclamations of Abraham Lincoln when he was President.

"I know most of you are cynical about your government.

"The cynicism is compounded by a national confusion over the proper role of government. On this fundamental question, we are a divided people. Many of you want the federal government to do little more than provide for the common defense. Others of you, however, think the federal government has a necessary role in setting national policies, building infrastructure and providing for the common welfare.

"We're going to have to figure that out. What is the proper role for the federal government, in serving the people of America.

"But before we can do that, the people need to be back in charge of government.

"As divided as we may be on government's scope and influence, we all agree that politicians in Washington today have lost their way.

"When I became President, I thought my job was to learn as quickly as possible the inner workings of the Executive Branch and the levers of influence for dealing with Congress. I thought my job was to work the system, as an insider, on behalf of the people.

"As you may know, I look up to President Lincoln as a model and have tried to learn from his example. I read Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, 'Team of Rivals,' and that influenced decisions I made about my cabinet, about working with Congress, about compromising with interest groups, because I thought that was the essence of American political leadership. Accept the system as it exists today, and work within that system to effect incremental change.

"The epiphany I have had is this. I have made a mistake. I have drawn the wrong lessons from history. I have failed to appreciate an essential, central lesson of our past that should be informing our direction today. Changes in the 21st Century yield a unique opportunity to reclaim that most American experiment, a representative democracy, and, so far, I have been squandering that opportunity.

"What I've done wrong was put best by Dave Winer on his blog, Scripting News. 'Communication,' Winer wrote, 'isn't just getting your message out. If Obama had been listening, he might . . . have had a better feel for the crisis happening with users of real estate, not just developers and financiers. It was naive of the President to think that, once elected, he could ensconce himself in the gridlock and somehow his charm would overcome Republican barriers. They weren't charmed by him, and they saw his reliance on charm as a weakness, and took advantage of it. Had Obama kept his army of discourse' - and here Winer is talking about the grass roots methods I used to get elected - 'Had Obama kept his army of discourse mobilized, developed it, we would be able to now tell him exactly what to do to get us out of the ditch he drove us into.'

"Our time is not President Lincoln's time. When President Lincoln established his team of rivals, he did so before communication between the people and the people's elected representatives was frictionless, before information could be shared by posting a picture or a link to Twitter. President Lincoln built a structure and a method that was of his time, designed to permit him to hear the widest variety of views from the largest diversity of sources that was then possible in the mid-19th Century. In a way, he was making sure he had all the information that the social networks of his day could give him, that he was connecting with the people, largely through daily interaction with their representatives, but also with the people who came to the White House to visit.

"What I failed to understand about President Lincoln's example should have been obvious to me all along. It's not how he built a cabinet to a 19th Century scale or cajoled Congress in tying our nation back together at a time of civil war. It's the timeless, sacred aspiration he set for us as a people, as a nation. The powerful idea that this great nation would embody democracy. Government of the people. By the people. For the people.

"Not government of the lobbyists. By the campaign contributions. For the benefit of corporations.

"I have been listening to the wrong people. I have been playing a game with insiders who have long since broken the government's accountability to the people. I should have been listening to you all along.

"Deadlock persists in Washington because deadlock serves the interests of the plutocrats who have no interest in what to them must be the most subversive of ideas: government that cannot be bought. Government that is not for sale. Government of the people. By the people. For the people.

"Time's wasting, and here's what I'm going to do. Effectively immediately, I am shutting down all efforts of my campaign to solicit cash contributions. All money on hand from donors that can be identified will be returned. If anyone wants to work for my campaign for re-election, I appreciate that, but they will have to work as volunteers. I am going to learn how to blog and how to make my own YouTube videos. I'm sure that one of the perks of being an incumbent president is that news media will continue to follow me around and thus I can get my message to you out that way, as well.

"Other details of how I will support my campaign for re-election will have to be worked out. If he's willing, I will reach out to Jack Abramoff and ask if he would serve me as an unpaid advisor for how to set up rules to banish all lobbyists from access to my campaign. I know Abramoff is a convicted felon, but he has served his time, and how better to anticipate the ways of crooks than get advice from the reformed among them.

"But before I start pushing out messages, I'm going to take some time to listen.

"Later today, the First Lady and I, and our two daughters, are taking the train to New York City. We mean to set up a tent and live with occupiers for a few days. We are borrowing the tent from Camp David, and it even has a presidential seal on it. It's going to be a very nice tent. It should be. You paid for it!

"And you know this about me, I'm always wanting to make sure I make overtures to both sides of the spectrum. When I can figure out how best to learn from the Tea Party movement, I will spend equal time among those who identify themselves that way. You'll forgive me if I bypass the Tea Party offshoots that have been co-opted by the Republican party and the oligarchy that does not really believe in President Lincoln's vision. I will need your help in identifying the right Tea Partiers, though I do know they are out there.

"I am going to listen. You won't hear me spouting off or hawking any agenda, at least for the next few days. Of course, you may see me on videos people may take with their phones. I'm worried that I'm going to be caught on tape, sneaking a cigarette behind the tent. But so be it. In 21st CenturyAmerica, all citizens are members of the press, and so we add to speech, assembly, religion one more right under the First Amendment that is equally the province of all Americans, and not just those with press passes, or credentials fabricated by some overreaching authority.

"Some members of my cabinet are upset about my new plans. Frankly, the staff are freaking out. To assuage these concerns, Vice President Biden has agreed to be on call at the White House, receiving the endless rounds of briefings I traditionally receive, and otherwise remaining ensconced in the Washington bubble, doing those things that seem so important and vital to do, at least when you are inside the beltway. I am not turning over the power of the office of the President to Vice President Biden under the Constitution. If I decide at any point to do that, you, Joe, but not anyone else in Washington, will be the first to know. In fact, better yet, I'll let you tell me if I should think of doing that.

"When President Lincoln first uttered those words that beat like a drum in our blood, words that require so much more of us as a people than any other nation before us, he did so at Gettysburg, in the context of telling the American people that the Civil War was testing whether government of the people, by the people, and for the people, would vanish from the earth. He wasn't saying that democratic government in America was inevitable. He wasn't predicting that government for the people was a sure thing. He was telling us what was at stake. What we were fighting for then, at Gettysburg and Shiloh and Chickamauga. What patriots are fighting for today, in New York, and Atlanta, and UC Davis.

"The American narrative is unique like that. It may explain why our national anthem ends, not with an assertion of inevitability, but with the sobriety of an open question: 'Oh say, does that star spangled banner yet wave, o'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?'

"We are plenty brave. I should say, the patriots across America today holding us to our own ideals; the service men and women who come back from fighting our wars abroad to say, we didn't fight to bring democracy in other countries only to fail to defend it at home; the elected leaders - rare, but growing in number - who understand that the people are the bosses, even if they don't have jobs and can't bundle contributors to their campaigns - all these Americans are brave. And today's patriots are telling us, our freedoms are at stake. The system is broken. The federal government as we know it today is not legitimate."

"Of the people. By the people. For the people. That is our narrative. The reason the American people today are so disgusted with their federal government is that their elected representatives have forgotten that. To use a British expression, we have 'lost the plot.' I have lost the plot.

"I'm leaving Washington, not to raise money, not to campaign, but to find the plot. That is the best way I know at this moment to observe my oath to defend the Constitution and to exercise this great office that has been so sullied by the corruption in Washington and my own willingness to compromise with a system that is so fundamentally broken.

"Make no mistake. I will be fighting. But the power to set the agenda is not mine. It is not the super-committee's. It is not the lobbyists in Washington. The power to set our national agenda is yours.

"Happy Thanksgiving. Thank you for letting me intrude on your family holiday. God bless you. God save the United States of America."

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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