A story is told about a town that suffered from drought (I heard a version of it from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, but if you want to transpose it to a priest or a minister or imam, it will work just as well; if you Google the key words, you’ll see others have done likewise).
People were desperate: the crops were failing, the old and infirm were at risk. The rabbi called the entire community to the shul to pray for rain. Everyone assembled and waited patiently, but the rabbi did not appear. Finally, someone was sent to his study to seek him out. “Rabbi, why are you sitting there? Everyone is waiting in the shul.” “Why waste my time?” asked the rabbi. “I watched the people go in, and not a single one was carrying an umbrella.”
The story was told in aid of praying with conviction, rather than going through the motions, but I want to bring it into another context, politics.
I’ve been on the road a lot during the last few weeks, so my news nose has only been picking up the loudest buzz, the kind that is passed from person to person. Once again, we are being shown how a single human face — Gold Star Mother Cindy Sheehan’s — speaks to the American people with more power and meaning than all the carefully thought-out arguments and white papers in the world. For better or worse, it seems that most of our citizens respond to this: the close encounter with one person’s anguish, the simple words of a single voice, its stark dismissal by the powers-that-be.
Broadcast news often carries these messages, because television cameras love a close-up. But sometimes the mass commercial media don’t get it: A few column-inches on page A19 were all the \New York Times\ devoted to yesterday’s vigils in support of Cindy Sheehan. No matter. The emails fly, people talk about it at the dinner table, and the emperor starts feeling a breeze where his clothes used to cover his tush.
A week and a half ago, \Newsweek\ reported that only 39 percent of Americans polled support the way President Bush is handling the war in Iraq; only 42 percent approve of his performance overall. I don’t imagine the photos of him vacationing while Cindy Sheehan is keeping vigil will improve his ratings.
Many of us have been working and praying that our fellow citizens will awaken to the cost of the war in Iraq in terms of lives lost, of the danger to our standing as a world citizen in prosecuting a war founded on lies, and of the enormous financial cost to our own and future generations whose educational and social programs are being cut to pay for this expensive mistake. In a time of drought, we have been praying for drain, and now it is beginning to fall.
Now I want to ask this question: are we carrying our umbrellas? Do we have a vision and a plan in place to restore democracy to the United States, to clean away the detritus of self-dealing and prevarication that clogs our government, and to install an administration marked by care, integrity and responsiveness?
When I consider the prospect of another campaign like 2004’s, in which a decent (if imperfect) candidate was defeated because his was not a face the American people could warm up to, my stomach hurts. If we leave it to the apparatchiks of the Democratic Party to decide, we can expect another line-up of leading candidates singled out for one quality above all others, the proven ability to raise millions. We can expect another campaign by focus-group and paid political advertisement that once again puts people to sleep, so that again, young people stay away in droves.
As much as I am inclined to join my sixties cohort in scoffing at the Great Man theory of politics, as critical as I am of the notion of investing one’s power in a heroic individual, today I am ready to admit defeat in the face of Americans’ unbreakable habit of attaching to a single human face as the embodiment of our hopes and fears. We need an umbrella big enough to shelter all of us in 2008: a candidate to rally around, a man or woman of unimpeachable honesty, of true courage and democratic vision. We need someone who even in this age of prepackaged “communications” is not afraid to face the voters and speak from the heart.
Right now, I don’t know who that person could be. Do you? If so, start shouting it from the rooftops.
If not, I want to renew the suggestion I made on July 5th, when I wrote that we should “draft Jimmy Carter to return for a one-term reform presidency for the specific purpose of getting the money and corruption out of the federal government and establishing a one-person, one-vote system in the place of government by bribe.”
Otherwise, we maybe in the position of the man in the old Yiddish proverb, roughly translated as follows: “It’s raining soup and he stands with a fork.”