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Bob Herbert's Erosion of Faith

"Sometimes I just watch in amazement and wonder why people are voting the way they do"


"What's odd about America today is that the government is in support of the very rich," says Bob Herbert, whose op-ed columns have appeared in The New York Times twice a week since 1993. "It was once almost a national agreement that we would address difficult social issues collectively and that the force of the federal government and the courts would be behind it. That's changed, and so you have the force of the federal government on the side of the wealthiest and most powerful people in America."

Herbert's newest book, Promises Betrayed: Waking Up from the American Dream (Times Books/an imprint of Henry Holt, 2005) is a collection of columns written by Herbert. With sections titled, "Barely Getting By," he chronicles what he sees as the erosion of faith in this country and the ability to get ahead.

"My parents were children of the Roosevelt era, and their politics were FDR's politics, as well as those of Adlai Stevenson, Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson," says Herbert, describing how his political philosophy was formed. "That was an era when liberal was not a dirty word, and the general feeling was that we were supposed to be in this thing together, that making the United States was supposed to be a collective effort and everybody was supposed to share in the benefits. We believed that the United States, as opposed to other places, would be a compassionate government. I also went to a Catholic school, and that was the idea then. It was an idea of compassion and looking out for the poor. The other thing is that I grew up in the era of the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the gay rights movement and the environmental movement, so I saw a great deal of improvement in society. I was convinced that we could make things work in a positive way. That's never left me," says Herbert,

Herbert describes it as "very difficult" to watch what has happened in this country.

"Sometimes I just watch in amazement and wonder why people are voting the way they do," he says. "And I think that is because we don't have serious discussions about the issues, and the national attention span seems to have shortened considerably. You'll get two minutes of information about the war in Iraq, and then you'll switch immediately to the Michael Jackson trial, which will get substantially more coverage. Then you'll find out in the next segment who got fired on Donald Trump's program. So it becomes more difficult for people who are working hard themselves, who are trying to raise families, to understand the complexities of the issues that affect them and their family directly. I use the word ignorant, not in the same way as being dumb or incapable of understanding, but in not knowing about many of the issues that are important to them."

Herbert, who is a veteran, has strong feelings about the war in Iraq. These deep emotions prompted him to write a column about something personal, something he doesn't usually do. The column, reprinted in his book, is called, "A Fool's Errand." It recounts the story of two of Herbert's friends who died during the Vietnam era.

"One of the fellas, a young guy named Michael Farmer, was killed in Vietnam when he was sent back to do a second tour," says Herbert. "I'm noticing that because of the shortage of troops now, you have people doing two and three tours in the war zone in Iraq. That's just a way of heightening the chances that you'll be killed. If you are going to go into a war zone, one tour is enough, and then it should be somebody else's turn. I believe in the idea of share and sacrifice. And then my other friend basically succumbed to the aftermath of Vietnam. He came home a wreck and ultimately killed his wife and himself. And that's another issue that we're not paying attention to. There are a lot of people coming back from Iraq and depressed now with all kinds of different Post Traumatic Stress Disorders and they are not getting the attention that they need.

"If you are going to be in a war, then you need to go all out to win the war, and the way the war has been conducted by the administration has been disgraceful," continues Herbert. "There never were enough troops in the beginning, and many of them were not adequately trained, not adequately equipped, and we've ended up in a quagmire. You can't just have a precipitous pullout. What I would love to see happen is some of the best minds in this country be thrown together to sit down, go over this entire situation, brainstorm it and find out what are our best options now. It's unacceptable to keep on the way it's going now. It's really easy for people who are not going to be sent into harms way to sit home and cheerlead as though it's a sports event. It's not."

Herbert sees hope in restoring America to what it was--a country that cared about its citizens and where people willing to work hard could get ahead. He believes that the way to accomplish this is for the public to become more involved in civic matters and to believe that would make a difference. Starting at the local level, people can write letters to their congressmen and senators, he says. They can run for local elections.

"I think that it's important for the public to become more actively involved, or they will continue to get the short end of the stick," Herbert says. "Just as a national course of doing business, large corporations are organized in every way that you can imagine. But workers, and by that I also mean the middle class, are not organized. I think a big step would be to form some kind of major association, separate and apart from labor unions. It would represent the vast majority of American workers. It can just be a voluntary association that would look out for the interest of workers. That would create a counter move politically, and then hopefully, before too long, the excesses will be brought under control." o

Published: August 01, 2005
Issue: Fall 2005