A Dad’s Right to a Choice

As we continue this relentless trudge toward election day, I find myself in a dissonant frame of mind this October.

On one hand, the targets for ridicule are almost too easy. George W. still hasn’t settled on a campaign theme song when, to my way of thinking, the obvious choice is “Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered.” On the debate front, it occurs to me that

viewer interest can be revived by retooling them as reality-based game shows: either Guess Which Al Gore Will Show Up at the Podium This Week? or Who Wants to Spend Like a Trillionaire?

And from a Naderesque point of view, I can’t help but wonder: Sure, the Federal Trade Commission may have dropped the ball on Firestone tires, but is it really too late to issue a recall for these two obviously defective candidates?

Yes, the jokes come easily. But, on the other hand, the sad and sobering truth is that, in two weeks’ time, I’m going to enter a voting booth and be forced to choose between Fratboy and the Karma Chameleon.

And somehow my heart just isn’t in it.

For in a room not too far from where I’m writing this diary, our six-week-old twins, Thomas and Elizabeth, have finally fallen asleep. And much as I might like to delve into things like Hillary’s continuing inability to answer a simple “Why us? Why New York? What did we do to deserve you?”, or my suspicion that the shrinking polar ice caps can be directly correlated to the rise of Arianna Huffington, my focus at this moment lies in that nearby room: namely, the future of these two children, born at the start of a new millennium-and my hopes for their civic lives in this next century.

As a first-time father in his 40’s, I would hope that I am wiser, calmer and less anxiety-ridden than I was 15 years ago. And I will spare you whatever private wishes and dreams I have for these two children, other than health, happiness and the hope against hope that John F. Kennedy was wrong and that sometimes life does, in fact, turn out to be fair.

But in the public, civic world, I would hope that my children come of age in more inspiring times than our own-or at least an era where the political process itself is not so toxic and corrosive.

I hope they come of age in a time when politicians no longer cut their conscience or their clothes to fit the opinions expressed by 1,200 people in a public opinion poll.

I hope they come of age in an era when electioneering by anecdote has finally been discredited, and the idea of trotting out the name of a dirt farmer from Sandusky, Ohio, is universally seen as trite, patronizing and irrelevant to leadership.

I hope they come of age at a time when spin has spun out, when politicians like Mario Cuomo or Orrin Hatch will have the courage to appear on television and offer unique, enlightening or unexpected viewpoints-rather than the current-day practice of offering callow, cautious, predictable platitudes to the gods of their respective parties.

I hope they come of age in an era when the Paddy Chayefsky–like media circuses have subsided, and the head of at least one network news operation has the conviction to abandon instant on-air focus groups that add nothing to the public discourse.

And above all else, I hope they come of age at a time when there is a surfeit of the one thing we seem so sadly lacking in now: leaders. Great men and great women who’ll offer substance over sound bites, who’ll have the vision and language to inspire the nation-rather than the handlers and media consultants who play only to our basest fears.

Reading Joe Klein’s masterful profile of Bill Clinton in a recent issue of The New Yorker , I was struck by Mr. Clinton’s assertion that he needed to demystify the Presidency. In a sentence, this sums up my quarrel with Mr. Clinton in these peach-colored pages over the past eight years.

The President of the United States is not the chief executive of Kmart. The office is about power. And leadership. And the wielding of moral authority. It carries with it the ability-no, the responsibility-to inspire the nation, in language and in deed, whether it’s Kennedy announcing that “space is a new ocean, and I believe the United States must sail upon it,” or Ronald Reagan conjuring his shining city on the hill, or even Bill Clinton, at his very, very best, talking about a place called Hope.

Ultimately, the office is about setting a national agenda and defining who we are, where we are going and how we can use our vast wealth and resources and our mighty energies to improve the human condition and be a force for good on this planet.

It is the Jeffersonian ideal made real-at least before the name got co-opted and was used to denote members of the $100,000 donor club in skyboxes at the Staples Center last August.

As I look in on my children, I know that I will enter a voting booth in two weeks’ time and pull the lever based on my concerns about the future composition of the Supreme Court, a dim hope for some kind of rational policy about guns, and a steadfast belief in a woman’s (yes, even my daughter’s) right to make her own most private choices. But I will be pulling that lever with something less than full enthusiasm for the man at the top of the ticket.

When my children come of age, at some future date in the first quarter of this new century, I hope they will be able to enter a voting booth and pull the lever for someone who represents something more uplifting than the “lesser of two evils.”

In the meantime, I hear infants stirring in the next room. And in a very real sense, to borrow an old advertising slogan, their future begins now.