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Is it that bad?

By D. G. Martin
Posted Friday, August 8, 2014

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Chapel Hill, NC - Things are good!

Sometimes, like the other day, I want to get up and shout it out.

For instance, last week at a Rotary club meeting, Frank Hill, leader of The Institute for the Public Trust, was explaining his efforts to recruit and train public-spirited people to run for Congress and other political offices.

In case you have not noticed, a lot of the kind of people drawn to politics in the past will not consider running for elective office today.

Hill asked the group of Rotarians if any of them were serving in elective office.

Nobody raised a hand.

Hill, a former Morehead scholar who ran for Congress himself soon after graduation from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says that the participation of Morehead-Cane scholars at Carolina, the Angier B. Duke scholars at Duke and Park scholars at N.C. State is dismal. Only an infinitesimal few have chosen to seek public office.

Hill asked why the Rotarians themselves would not consider running for office. Then he asked whether they would encourage other talented, public-spirited people to participate in politics.

The answers came back to the effect that places like Congress were just too broken, too mean-spirited, too partisan, too terrible, to be considered.

That is when I wanted to jump up and say, “Things are good.”

Good, at least when you compare them to the “good old days” like, for instance the 1970s, as described by Frank Rich in the latest Sunday New York Times Book Review, where he reviewed “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan” by Rick Perlstein.

President Gerald Ford, in his 1975 state of the union speech, said, “I must say to you that the state of our Union is not good.”

Rich reminds us why. “The major mid-70s disruptions -- the Watergate hearings and Richard Nixon’s abdication, Roe v. Wade, the frantic American evacuation of Saigon, stagflation, the dawn of the ‘energy crisis’ (then a newly minted term) -- were adulterated with a steady stream of manufactured crises and cheesy cultural phenomena. Americans suffered through the threat of killer bees, ‘Deep Throat,’ the Symbionese Liberation Army, a national meat boycott, ‘The Exorcist,’ Moonies and the punishing self-help racket est, to which a hustler named Werner Erhard (né Jack Rosenberg) attracted followers as diverse as the Yippie Jerry Rubin and the Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin.”

Rich does not even mention the cold horror of the nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union and the hard political divisions in American politics about how to manage this crisis.

Rich writes, “The mood of the union was not so much volatile as defeated, whiny and riddled by self-doubt. As Americans slouched toward the Bicentennial celebrations of July 4, 1976, pundits were wondering whether the country even deserved to throw itself a birthday party.”

Compared to the politics of those “good old days,” I would rather face today’s challenges.

The so-called tea party activists may be mean-spirited in their efforts to dismantle government, but those who disagree with them should celebrate a political system that gives an enthusiastic minority a powerful voice.

North Carolinians who were stunned by the take-no-prisoner revolution in the General Assembly in Raleigh last year should notice that the revolutionaries, having been confronted by the protests of an alarmed public, backed off this summer and competed with each other to be the champion of public schools.

In our system today, those who care enough to participate have, thanks to our political system, a chance to make a difference this fall by supporting candidates who agree with them.

If they are not satisfied with the results, then, in following years they should consider Frank Hill’s call to participate as candidates.


D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at

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