Checking Diversity Boxes
Not just another old white guy.
This happened in my parents' dining room early in 2008.
It was around the time Barack Obama's campaign began to pick up the momentum that would ultimately put him in the White House. There were still several other contenders for the Democratic nomination, not least among them Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. My mother had just expressed her preference for Hillary, saying it was high time we had a woman in the Oval Office. She was also concerned about Obama's lack of experience. "He's my age," I said (actually, I'm about a month older than he is). "Do you feel ready to be President?" she fired back.
My answer, of course, was "No." At 47, my lifelong leadership experience consisted of serving as pastor of several Methodist churches, the largest with a membership of 200; directing church choirs; and teaching public school music. Obama, on the other hand, had spent many years as a community organizer before becoming an Illinois state legislator, then a U.S. senator. The question of readiness at 47, though, was still legitimate. Neither of the other 40-something presidents in my lifetime had taken office fully prepared for the most powerful position on Earth, despite many years of government service. Both Kennedy and Clinton made substantial errors, both political and personal, in their first days in office. Clinton, at least, had time to grow into the job, though his impulsive libido continues to cast a shadow over much that he accomplished. Jimmy Carter, who was 52 when he became president, also had to grow into the work.
Would any of these men have been in a better position to lead had he waited a decade or so to take office? It's hard to say: George W. Bush's entire term was a ramshackle improvisation, tempered by a Cabinet filled with competent, if amoral, professionals. The three presidents in my lifetime who were, arguably, best prepared for the office at their swearing in, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George H.W. Bush, had all served as vice presidents, not to mention years in Congress. But Johnson created the Vietnam quagmire, Bush specialized in short-term invasions of small countries, and Nixon... 'nuff said.
The reality of the presidency is that no amount of life experience can adequately prepare any person for the immense responsibilities that come with the office. It's a job so unique that the only way to amass relevant experience is by doing it. As a music teacher, I have a great deal of sympathy for this reality. No one learns to play an instrument (including the voice) from studying music theory or listening to great performers, and even the greatest of teachers can only provide guidance and correct mistakes. Performing music is a skill you teach yourself, in large part through trial and error, and only with hundreds of hours of practice can you reach an understanding of how much more it will take to become really good at it.
The presidency of the United States is like that, but with vastly higher stakes. Miss a day of practice and a trumpet player might clam a high note during a rehearsal. Bungle a phone call with another world leader and a president might start a war. But gaining the knowledge and, more importantly, the understanding to be able to pull off the daily tasks of the job with some measure of finesse takes actually doing it, preferably in the company of career professionals who can pedagogically suggest adjustments that will make success more likely.
I do have some sympathy, I must add, for the sentiment expressed by Bill Maher that advanced age in high office is nothing to be embarrassed about; that, in fact, a lifetime of experience, coupled with the cooling of passions that begins at midlife, can make for a steady hand on the wheel of government.
Of course, the current regime puts the lie to the previous paragraph. In Trump, we have an old man who is reactionary, incompetent, and corrupt, who refuses to learn anything from the large-scale business failures that fill his own resume; and who has no patience for the advice of professionals, replacing them at the first sign of disloyalty with incompetent toadies.
But back to the real topic of this discussion: the old white man who may very well be the one to topple Trump. And yes, I mean Bernie Sanders.
I come to Bernie reluctantly. I'd much rather have Elizabeth Warren head the ticket, and if she somehow manages to make the kind of comeback that got Bill Clinton the nomination in 1992, I'll be thrilled. But I am becoming resigned to the probability that a steadfastly righteous old man who insists on calling himself a democratic socialist will be taking on the swamp monster this fall.
This is where the title of this essay comes in. It's tempting to sigh and complain about yet another old white man becoming president, as so many have before him (though as noted above, there have been three 40-something presidents in my lifetime, not to mention several who took office in their early-to-mid-50s). I'd call it embarrassing that this country has yet to elect a woman to the presidency, but the Trump regime renders all other causes for embarrassment moot. We've been sent all the way back to square one by this guy. Any non-Trump human being will be a step forward, but it's going to be a very long time before we come close to the esteem we earned by electing Obama.
And there are at least three reasons to feel better, from a diversity standpoint, about a Sanders presidency. First and foremost, his insistence on calling a socialist spade a spade is refreshing. The United States has been practicing socialism since the New Deal--and, it could be argued, since much longer than that. Social security (it even has "social" in its name), a program that shifts part of the burden of caring for the elderly to the state, is the essence of socialism. Go back a hundred-plus years before it, to the founding of public education, and you can see socialism already hardwired into the identity of this country. The great land grant universities of the late 19th century extended public education to include college and even graduate school; the community college movement expanded it to include trades. The Great Society programs--Medicare, Medicaid, public housing, etc.--built out the welfare state in parallel with similar programs in European countries. Bernie Sanders's proposed "revolution" is really just an expansion of already-existing programs to encompass a larger portion of the American populace, coupled with a more progressive tax structure to finance that expansion.
The important thing about this, again, is that he calls it "socialism," attempting to rehabilitate a word that has been slandered by red-baiting Republicans since the 1940s. I've been happy to see conservative pundits embracing the term "liberal" to describe American democracy after decades of dragging it through the mud, and I would like very much for "socialism" to enjoy a similarly clear-eyed return to the lexicon, though I'm afraid it will first have to survive a full frontal assault from the know-nothing who, should he lose his bid for reelection, will most likely insist the result is invalid precisely because the victor is a socialist.
That's actually the least of the three diversity boxes checked by Bernie Sanders. Were he to win in November, he'd also be the first Jewish president, an electoral accomplishment almost as significant as the election of an African-American in 2008. America has had a love-hate relationship with Jews since the founding of the republic, by turns welcoming them with open arms, forcibly assimilating them, and simply rejecting their immigration at the time of their greatest need. Jewish politicians have ascended to some of the most powerful offices in Washington. They've also been on the receiving end of stereotyping and bigotry from legislators and presidents.
Finally, and most significantly, Bernie Sanders would be our first openly agnostic president. I say "openly" because at least two, and possibly three, of the presidents I've known have been, in practice, at least indifferent to the moral beliefs of the religion they've claimed for themselves. Reagan rarely attended church services, despite wrapping himself in the mantle, and claiming the support, of the religious right. And apart from an only marginal grasp of Christian language, Trump regularly flouts and rejects essential Christian beliefs while promoting as anti-Christian a policy agenda as any president in the history of the nation. Sanders, on the other hand, consistently espouses policies that the most charitable and progressive of religious institutions would be proud to claim for themselves, and does so from a secular worldview that is, simultaneously, respectful of the beliefs of others.
Bernie Sanders has plenty of liabilities. I wish he was about a decade younger. I wish he was nimbler with his arguments, more open to dialogue. But in a Democratic field that also includes women and the first openly gay man to be a serious contender for the presidency, Bernie is much more than just another old white guy. Just by being in the race, and holding consistently to policies he's been flogging since the 1970s, he's opened the minds of millions of Americans to the benefits of a kinder, gentler, more generous government that calls on the wealthy to pay their fair share; and he's made it more likely than ever that we can choose a president for high-minded reasons. After four years suffering under the regime of a man who won office by appealing to the basest instincts of Americans in a few key states, we could do far worse than to elect a principled secular Jew who has spent his life giving a voice to workers and marginalized people.
So while this is not an endorsement--I'm still holding out for Elizabeth Warren--it's an admission that Bernie Sanders is a candidate I can get behind, enthusiastically, if we does, in fact, become the Democratic nominee for president.