"Something is Missing" in Campaign Coverage, Asserts Veteran Statesman Lee Hamilton '52
August 17, 2008
August 17, 2008, Greencastle, Ind. - "Every presidential election year, I'm struck by a basic imbalance in media coverage," writes Lee H. Hamilton, retired United States Congressman and 1952 graduate of DePauw University, in a newspaper op-ed. "A great deal of time, space and attention go to what we can expect from the candidates -- on their policy stances, their strengths and weaknesses, their frame of mind at any given moment." While that is "understandable," notes the Democrat, "something is missing. This kind of wall-to-wall coverage sends a message that the candidates and their personal qualities are all that matter to our government, which isn't true."
Continues Hamilton, who co-chaired the 9/11 Commission and Iraq Study Group: "There's another half of the equation: the American people. Far too little gets written or broadcast about our role in making this democracy work. We ask the candidates whether they're prepared for their responsibilities. We need to ask the same thing of the American people. Because we have the oldest enduring republic and an ever-robust public discourse, it's easy to forget that our system needs constant tending by the people most invested in its success -- Americans in general. It depends on broad participation in the political process -- participation that goes well beyond simply voting. It depends on an active belief in accommodation and compromise, not the winner-take-all single-mindedness that has come to characterize political culture of late. And perhaps above all else, it depends on a widespread understanding that our system of government gives us all an opportunity to achieve what we want by following paths defined and limited by our Constitution; it does not guarantee that we'll get what we want."
In a nation which is increasingly diverse in many ways, including thought, Hamilton says many Americans must realize that "just because Congress and the president don't produce exactly what we want when we think it's needed does not mean the system is broken, dysfunctional or even unrepresentative. To some extent, a more thorough civic education would be helpful here, both in school and afterward. Many Americans' knowledge of basic concepts -- the need for a balance of powers at the federal level, or the crucial role compromise plays in making the system work -- is weaker than it ought to be." (at left: Hamilton with DePauw student journalists)
The man who served 34 years in the U.S. House of Representatives observes, "One thing that strikes me often as I meet with people around the country is that as unhappy as people get with the president or Congress or the Supreme Court, they don't stand up and say, 'I don't support the Constitution.' There is an inbred respect for our constitutional structure. The challenge for ordinary citizens is to make it work."
Hamilton -- who will return to the Greencastle campus next month for DePauw Discourse 2008 -- asserts, "This is a challenge for every generation. Our system does not function on automatic pilot. Just because it has worked in the past does not mean we will have a free and successful country in the future. To achieve this, we need a citizenry that not only participates actively, but also expects and encourages each of its members to do so. We need debate, deliberation, accommodation, a healthy system of checks and balances, thoroughgoing representation of all voices in the halls of power, and an electorate willing to hold those in power to account when they stray from these basic constitutional principles." He concludes, "There is no replacement in our system for accepting the responsibility that comes with being an American to help make our system work. It requires skill, patience and above all an appreciation for the gift given us by our predecessors and a determination not to squander its legacy."
The complete essay can be found at the Web site of Indiana's Evansville Courier & Press.
Lee Hamilton is president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and is serving on Sen. Barack Obama's working group on national security. Newsweek has called Hamilton "Mr. Integrity," while the New York Times' David Brooks opined, "The country is hungering for leaders like him: open-minded, unassuming centrists who are interested in government more than politics." Hamilton was named one of "America's Best Leaders" for 2007 by U.S. News & World Report.
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