Col. Nathan R. Jessep: You want answers?
Lt. Daniel Kaffee: I think I'm entitled to them.
Col. Jessep: You want answers?
Lt. Kaffee: I want the truth!
Col. Jessep: You can't handle the truth!
That famous exchange from the 1992 film "A Few Good Men," between Lt. J.G Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) and Marine Col. Nathan Jessep (Jack Nicholson), was the signature moment of the movie. No one who has seen the movie will forget that great line: "You can't handle the truth!"
This coming election will focus on these very questions: Does the American electorate just want to hear answers from the candidates? Or do voters want the truth, and can they handle it?
For nearly two decades now, Americans have wanted slogans and answers - "compassionate conservatism," "the audacity of hope" and other such drivel. Rome has indeed been burning while Nero has fiddled with the figures. We're now living on the "pay-as-you-went" plan, because there is no more "go" in it. We're broke, we're in a mess, and we can't spend our way out of the problem.
So, conservatives, paraphrasing what Bette Davis (in her role as Margo Channing, the aging Broadway star in 1950's "All About Eve") said: "Fasten your seatbelts, conservatives, it's going to be a bumpy ride." The truth about where we are as a nation today is going to be a tough pill for America to swallow.
This is because America is naturally filled with optimists. In fact, it was Ronald Reagan's optimism as much as his conservatism that got him elected in 1980. He exuded confidence in America's future, in its people and in its exceptional place in the world. His truth was rooted in his belief that the best was yet to come.
We are, therefore, clashing with what Americans want to believe about the state of the nation, which we know in our hearts is not so.
We do not want to believe we are broke.
We do not want to believe that the Middle East and Afghanistan are a mess we cannot solve.
We do not want to believe that most of the world does not want what America believes they should want.
Our challenge in 2012 is one we did not face in 1980 or in any election since. We have to convince Americans to nominate and elect candidates, from president on down the line, who can handle these uncomfortable truths about where we are as a nation and what needs to be done now, not later.
That means change in the way business in Washington has been done under both parties ever since Ronald Reagan. (And if that's a tea party position, then so be it.)
Too many of our candidates today are already falling into the trap of sound-bite solutions. At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference gathering, I listened to all of the candidates' speeches. If I had closed my eyes and just heard the words, I couldn't have told them apart. Answers, yes. But did what they said pass the "truth" test?
We're going to have to work harder, expect less and pay more if we're going to compete again in the world economy.
The cutback in government that we are demanding means cutting back on all the programs that we have come to expect as "entitlements." In fact, we will have to stop thinking of them as entitlements, and recognize that we are entitled to a lot less than our inflated egos think we are.
We're in a mess around the world, and we'd better start thinking of how we're going to get out of the middle of every family squabble where the combatants want us as referee - and want us to pay for it.
We're sitting on the largest energy reserves in the world in oil, shale, natural gas and coal. Are we tough enough to finally demand that our security and energy needs are more important than the claptrap we're going to get from the Chicken Littles who want to keep our resources locked up?
It's hard to tell these truths to people who don't want to hear them: the American optimists, just like Ronald Reagan. But if we don't, then we're no better than the audacious people who are now out there spreading more than just answers on the landscape of America. Do we believe, with Lt. Kaffee, that the American people "want the truth" or do we believe, with Col. Jessep, that they "can't handle the truth"? We'll soon find out.
• Larry L. Eastland is a bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a member of the board of the American Conservative Union.
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