Las Vegas Sun

January 16, 2018

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America could use a little fiction

We need Andrew Shepherd.

“The American President,” a movie I have watched countless times since it premiered in 1995, was a must-see for all Americans because it humanized the presidency and gave people a glimpse into what running this country is really about.

I realize that was 17 years ago, which means that most young Americans were either not here or were too young to enjoy and understand the simple honesty of that film. But, for those of us who were able to watch it, we saw in that film a chance to dream bigger dreams while rekindling in many of us a calling for public service.

Much has happened since Andrew Shepherd was the American president. The issues he fought for are still worth fighting for because they have not been solved. The obstacles to good governance have only gotten worse, and we have more of them. And, most importantly, that flame that needs to burn in our young people that kindles a desire for public service continues to be threatened by that which the worst of our democracy does to prevent us from enjoying the best of what democracy can be.

We hear from many that art imitates life, and so it does. Right now, I believe we need a strong dose of life imitating art. How about we find the Andrew Shepherds within our ranks and let them show us the way forward because, as citizens, we are not doing a very good job by ourselves.

In the aftermath of the tragedy in Aurora, Colo., I was reminded of President Shepherd’s speech in the movie when he commandeered the microphone at a White House press conference. There were talking heads on all sides of the gun control issue doing their best to either scare the American public into action or gross inaction, depending upon which side of the issue one might be considering.

I am also reminded of the movie president’s words — written in Hollywood of all places, but which could and should have been written in every civics classroom in America, if we still teach civics, when the real news carries the daily carnage in places like Syria while the world just watches, waiting for those who can do something to do anything.

I have also been reminded of the movie and its subplots when every day there are charges and counter charges so carefully hurled between candidates for the presidency or, worse, their minions who are doing the dirty work, making our political process even more disgusting than any of us should ever want it to be. Slime is the new defining attribute of what should be the most elevated function in our democracy — our right to vote.

In the movie, which everyone should see at least once, President Shepherd is hounded by an attack dog on the right who, because the president is an active single man, sees his vulnerability to “values” voters on the right. Of course, Shepherd thinks his private life is none of the public’s business and refuses to engage with the cheap shooters. And therein is the recipe for falling poll numbers and a certain nervousness that permeates the White House re-election folks.

Meanwhile, necessary environmental legislation (Remember global warming in the 1990s? It is still here.) is foundering over petty things like the president’s coattails, and the hallmark of Shepherd’s administration, sane gun control legislation, looks like it will remain hostage to the AK-47-loving hunters of the National Rifle Association.

Any of this sound familiar?

Against this backdrop, the likely GOP contender for the presidency, Bob Rumson, continues to have a field day at the president’s expense while needed legislation and the people’s business stagnate on the altar of partisanship and gridlock. Is this art or life imitating the other?

I can’t help believing this country is caught in the writer’s warp of “The American President.” Americans are slaughtered by some nut job with automatic weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition bought legally on the Internet, and no one wants to, at the very least, have a very real conversation about what can be done to prevent the next outrage.

Almost the entire world has accepted the science of climate change, yet the “fixes” to the problem remain buried in some legislative desk drawer because those who argue the opposite and unscientific position seem to enjoy inexplicable equivalence in the daily discussion.

Forget sane tax policy, middle-class mobility and the continuing threat to democracy as the rich get richer and the rest of America gets hosed. There is little or no chance for any responsible discussion amidst today’s partisan gridlock and failure of the American voter to do something about it.

And that leads me back to President Shepherd’s speech to the press corps after he decided that the American public deserved a leader and not a follower, and someone who cared more about his constituents than about the next election. There came a time in the movie when the right thing to do was to do the right thing. And Michael Douglas as the president just did it.

I am going to end with excerpts from Shepherd’s challenge to the fellow who wanted his job and to the American people. It should make each of us yearn for leaders to emerge.

“... America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad ’cause its gonna put up a fight. You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. ...

“I’ve known Bob Rumson for years, and I’ve been operating under the assumption that the reason Bob devotes so much time and energy to shouting at the rain was that he simply didn’t get it. Well, I was wrong. Bob’s problem isn’t that he doesn’t get it. Bob’s problem is that he can’t sell it. We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it.

“He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle-aged, middle-class, middle-income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family and American values and character. And wave an old photo of the president’s girlfriend and you scream about patriotism and you tell them she’s to blame for their lot in life. ...”

And here’s the windup:

“I’ve loved two women in my life. I lost one to cancer and I lost the other ’cause I was so busy keeping my job I forgot to do my job. Well, that ends right now. ... We’ve got serious problems, and we need serious people, and if you want to talk about character, Bob, you’d better come at me with more than a burning flag and a membership card.

“If you want to talk about character and American values, fine. Just tell me where and when, and I’ll show up. This is a time for serious people, Bob, and your 15 minutes are up. My name is Andrew Shepherd, and I am the president.”

You almost had to be there to appreciate the moment, but those fictional words written for a fictional president are what I believe this country needs to hear from the people we will choose to be our president.

We have serious problems, and we need serious people to come up with serious solutions.

If that happens, we will need serious voters to make the serious decisions.

That’s how we should elect an American president.

Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.

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