On January 4, 2018

The worst year ever

By Barrie Dunsmore

This will be my last column of 2017. Traditionally, this has been an opportunity for reflection on important events of the past year, usually with a look ahead – and if possible – a positive spin that the glass is half full rather than half empty. As human beings I believe most of us try to do this with the approach of every new year.

Alas, I confess to having difficulty finding much positivity to cling to this year, because as far as the state of the American Union is concerned, I have never seen anything as bad as 2017.

I am neither Cassandra nor Pollyanna but a veteran realist. As a foreign correspondent for much of my adult life, I have too often seen the dark side of human nature. In this country, I have reported on six presidencies from Lyndon Johnson to Bill Clinton. I traveled abroad with them and frequently with their secretaries of state. In my retirement I have also carefully watched and written about George W. Bush and Barack Obama. With each president there were things I agreed with and things I did not – and, when appropriate, said so in my reporting or commentary.

Richard Nixon was the only one of the eight presidents of my experience whom history now clearly shows to have been corrupt. But even he did some good things – the opening to China, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

They weren’t all brilliant, but compared to the man in the White House now, they were intellectual giants. They all made big mistakes, but – unlike Donald Trump – they were not dedicated to the destruction of the institutions which have made the United States a symbol of hope for much of the world. Nor were any of them as totally and completely morally bankrupt as Trump – a man so consumed by self-aggrandizement that one fears he could start a nuclear war if he decided it would make him look good.

Given my state of mind, it’s perhaps not surprising that something I came across in my reading earlier this month left such an impression. Tom Ricks is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist in national reporting for both the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. He has specialized in military affairs and has reported from all of the world’s hot spots. He has also written several books, including the best-selling “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq” and its follow-up, “The Gamble,” on Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq.

Ricks is currently writing a blog for Foreign Policy. An early December posting caught my rapt attention. This is most of it.

“We are now, in Trumpian America, living through a tragedy. What does that mean? First, it means that things can get far worse than we ever suspected, and end horribly.

“It also means that every day we will see good people dragged down into the mud, while middling people make the wrong decisions and contribute to the erosion of our freedoms. Sen. Lindsey Graham, for example, was a sprightly figure with a gimlet eye for the flaws of others, but lately he seems to be looking only for new opportunities to lick Trump’s golf shoes. …

“When honest people must lie, when mediocre people decide to embrace evil, when evil takes on an air of inevitability – that’s a curtain-raiser for tragedy.

“But there’s more. People stuck inside tragedies often make the mistake of thinking they are nearing the end when they are only in Act I. And that is where I think we stand, still at the beginning of this long ride. All around us, the selfish and malevolent are thriving, flatterers are rising, and good people feel simply powerless.

“What especially bothers me is this: For about a year now, I’ve feared for the future of our country, for the first time in my life.”

I do not quite feel the despair reflected by Ricks in this blog, but it certainly contains ideas I have had, although not so eloquently expressed. Yet I am not ready to give up in resignation to this malicious force that threatens us all. I still believe hope derives from resistance – in this country, not through bullets but ballots.

The results of recent elections in Virginia, New Jersey and even Alabama show that most people are unhappy with the current direction of the country. And this past week, the Washington Post has produced extensive year-end national polling results totally consistent with that conclusion.

In the report on their latest findings, the Post pollsters Scott Clement and Emily Guskin wrote: “In 2017, a highly upbeat economic outlook failed to elevate America’s generally pessimistic mood. Overwhelmingly, Americans have told us and other pollsters that they are happy with the economy – and miserable about their country. It appears that polarization, frustration with Washington, and most of all, antipathy toward President Trump have severed the connection between economic progress and contentment.”

These are the results when Americans were asked, “Would you say 2017 has been a good or bad year for –”

The U.S. overall: Good, 40 percent; Bad, 58 percent
President Trump: Good, 37 percent; Bad, 60 percent
America’s role in the world: Good, 34 percent; Bad, 64 percent
The U.S. political system: Good, 17 percent; Bad, 81 percent
Race relations: Good, 15 percent; Bad, 82 percent

There is much more in the study, but the above findings are generally consistent throughout. What this tells me is that Americans very much want change – and the 2018 midterm elections are the perfect vehicle.

So become an activist. Get involved. Run for office, big or small. Knock on doors, stuff envelopes and contribute what you can. Pay close attention to what candidates say – and check their records of what they have actually done. And most important – get out and vote. Therein lies the basis of hope for the future. A change of 25 seats in the House of Representatives – certainly doable – could make all the difference.

This commentary by retired ABC News diplomatic correspondent Barrie Dunsmore first appeared in the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and Rutland Herald Sunday edition. All his columns can be found on his website, barriedunsmore.com.

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