The Governor’s Apology: Mea Culpa or Ploy?

June 10, 2009

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Gov. Mitch Daniels’ speech apologizing for his generation was quoted in the Wall Street Journal this week. He and others of this year’s commencement honorees described the Baby Boom generation as selfish.

But one expert on the cultural impact of the generation, Neil Howe, told the newspaper that the apologies sounded like a ploy rather than a mea culpa: “You think about what an apology does, it allows you to maintain the moral high ground.”

Indeed, the though occurs that Indiana might survive a selfish citizenry but not survive a self-centered officialdom.

There are serious, knowledgeable people who believe that classical liberalism, i.e., Western Civilization, is testimony that selfishness works to this extent: The most prosperous, the most tolerant, the most comfortable societies are those that allow each individual citizen maximum freedom to solve their problems as he or she sees fit.

That, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, might seem a horrible arrangement except for all the others that have been tried. What doesn’t work is high officials spurring us to “live for others, not just yourselves, for fulfillment not just pleasure and material gain, for tomorrow, and the Americans who will reside there, not just for today,” to pick up the commencement rhetoric.

In any case, we Baby Boomers are familiar with the governor’s point. As pimpled teenagers we were urged by John F. Kennedy to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

The words came over our AM radios as we cruised main streets in small Midwest towns — communities, incidentally, that thoughtless changes in official policy (on taxes, on trade, on inheritance) would soon decimate.

This was only a few months before we began taking our draft physicals in mass for Vietnam Era service. And the words were still on tattered bumper stickers as we drove to job interviews trying to find work that would pay the bills in the inflationary malaise of the Carter administration.

All of that said, by the time you reach the age of today’s Baby Boomers you own a long list of mistakes and misjudgments that can be blamed on no other person, place or thing — not even government. And it gives no comfort to look in the rear-view mirror and know that the great many were more stupid than selfish.

My question, though, is when does government put its list on the table?

Self-centeredness and high office have become tautology. The career of an Arlen Specter would not have survived the talk at the coffee shop even a decade ago. He is the perfect modern political machine — a constituency of one.

And in a circular logic that would please Lewis Carroll, the justification for this self-centeredness is itself self-centered. Votes of expediency, transfers of state residency, redefinition of term limits, even outragious shifts in party affiliation, are defended solely because the incumbent thinks himself more principled, more well-meaning, more experienced, more spiritual or more (fill in the blank) than any who might sit in his seat.

There are politicians we admire, including our governor. And yet, how many of even these can be counted on to fight for a principle beyond the point it might endanger re-election and continuance of a lifestyle that is regal in comparison to any our grandfathers would have tolerated?

All of which suggests a subject for next year’s commencement address: real-life examples of sacrifice and selflessness among sitting public officials using their own money and time.

It will be memorable for its brevity alone.

Craig Ladwig is editor of the Indiana Policy Review Founcation.


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