Let the word go forth

On a blue and cold day in 1961, John F. Kennedy stood at the presidential podium and gave what would be a memorable inaugural speech. One line that resonated with Americans was, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

It was an appeal to the idealism of a generation. He then went on to say, "Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans ... unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed and to which we are committed today at home and around the world." Not unlike that day in the early 1960s, as a nation we are ready for new leadership, for representation that will mirror our growing sense of urgency to put right what has been put wrong these last six years.

And we are ready to be told the unspun truth by those we entrust to lead. We ask only that our representatives state clearly, without qualification, what will be asked of us if we are to restore our great country to its rightful place among nations and solve the pressing global and national problems that confront us. For too long we have been ruled by individuals who have put ideology before our Constitution, and had a startling failure of imagination.

We're ready to once again ask what we can do for our country. America is going green, we are becoming increasingly tolerant of one another, we still value decency and we are fundamentally fair-minded. We are also desperate for leadership that will appeal to the best in all of us, not just a narrow base.

And most of our politicians seem not to get it.

What would it be like to have a presidential candidate, a front-runner, boldly state his or her truth about all manner of issues. Fire the handlers, the professional dissemblers. Have courage. Let the chips fall where they may. For professional politicians it may seem counterintuitive, but the results might be startling.

Too often politicians dodge and weave, ever cautious, all the while conducting instant polls, reluctant to speak from conviction lest they offend, their political advisors nearby, wringing their hands, fearful that their candidate might stumble and begin speaking from the heart instead of the script.

But the stakes are too high for our candidates to speak any other way. Polls be hanged.

While listening to the aging Republican presidential hopefuls, lined up shoulder to shoulder at the recent CNN debate, there was a powerful sense that their time has come and gone, their narrow ideas better suited to a century now past. There was a moment when these presidential hopefuls could have spoken out for human rights, fair play and decency. And yet to a man they remained silent, cravenly playing to their perceived conservative base.

Wolf Blitzer, the CNN questioner, asked the candidates if any of them disagreed with the military's "don't ask, don't tell policy." Not one stepped forward and called this policy what it is: a gross injustice and morally reprehensible. Our political leaders argue that to allow gays to serve in the military would be disruptive to the services, engendering harassment, discord, blackmail and bullying and would be an erosion of unit cohesion. It's a pathetic canard, exactly the same argument used during the 1940's when integrating the armed services was debated at length. Blacks were segregated, stereotyped, often hated, simply for being, well, black, and thought to be incapable of fighting on the same par as white soldiers. To view such opinions now, across these many decades, is to marvel that such wrong-headed, bigoted thinking could ever have existed in America. And yet it did. And does today.

Regarding the candidates from both parties, where is the passion regarding the environment? Our planet is in distress. Likely more than we know. The natural resources of our planet are being consumed at an alarming rate. Time is not on our side.

It 's also time to ask the hard questions and commit to finding answers. It won't be easy.

Should America spend half a trillion dollars annually on defense while more than one in five children in America live in poverty, and 8.3 million children have no health insurance? And why has no one mentioned the debacle called Katrina? Our citizens continue to suffer on the Gulf Coast. It's scandalous. As is the fact that in 14 urban school districts across the nation, the graduation rate is under 50 percent. Believe it or not, our infrastructure is crumbling. Globally, Iraq is in shambles as is the Middle East; world hunger is ever with us; the AIDS epidemic continues to rage; potable water grows ever more scarce; and not to forget nuclear weapons proliferation.

There is much to do and we need leadership commensurate with the challenges. Suggestion to the candidates: take positions courageously. Speak your truth. And don't be afraid to ask Americans what they can do for their country. For the world. If asked, they will step forward.

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