What is it about the human condition that we seem never to learn from the past, much less from others? Why do we keep making the same mistakes, over and over again?
Consider the elections of 1994, when Newt Gingrich and a band of intrepid allies wrote a Contract for America, promised a new and reformist Congress and won an overwhelming victory over the Democrats, in power for decades. In less than 10 years the Republican majority had become as entrenched, self-aggrandizing and downright corrupt as the Democrats had in 40 years in power and were dispatched in 2006 with not a tear being shed.
But that’s just the political class. What about the people, the men and women in the streets? Surely they are not as shortsighted as those they elect. Why, even our mediocre candidate-class regularly flaunts its faith in and respect for the “average American.”
And yet half of these average American voters appear ready to hand the White House to a totally unproven candidate whose principal claim to fame seems to be his stirring, if largely empty, rhetoric. No matter that he has, since his youth, fraternized with extreme leftist radicals; unimportant that one of them, William Ayers, orchestrated bombings of the Pentagon and Capitol and is unrepentant.
Does it register on the average voters that a prime political and financial mentor, Tony Rezko, was found guilty and imprisoned, or that Illinois’ leading elected Democrats, the governor and Senate majority leader, are under investigation, with at least Gov. Rod Blagojevich expected to be indicted within months?
Can so many average Americans turn a blind eye to Barack Obama’s self-proclaimed “spiritual mentor” for 20 years, a man so radical he routinely spews anti-white hate and brazenly implores God to damn America?
There is, however, the totally avoidable financial crisis, where average Americans got it right. When the Bush administration and many congressional leaders sought to ram into law a $700 billion or more “bailout” that would be totally absorbed by American taxpayers, average Americans revolted - overwhelmingly - and told their Washington representatives there had to be a better way.
Except for a few stalwarts like former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Republican Reps. Mike Pence of Indiana and Jeb Hensarling of Texas, the political class stood firm, effectively absolving themselves and the financial gekkos who caused the mess from any blame whatever - and went on to approve a bill almost no one considers can solve the crisis. And even though more than 70 percent of average Americans opposed the bailout, good sailor John McCain backed it and very possibly lost the election doing so.
Living overseas and observing the United States from a distance (I have often been quoted as saying I love my country too much to live in it and observe close-up its willful self-destruction), it all seems too much to believe, until I look around.
Here in Colombia, a country that has long struggled for stability, the presidency of Alvaro Uribe has in the last six years enjoyed a military and economic success unparalleled in the lives of most citizens. Sadly, it appears to be entering a self-imposed period of crisis that can only be attributed to the Uribe administration.
Consider the events immediately following Operation Check, the July 2 liberation of 15 high-profile hostages from the narco-trafficking FARC terrorist organization without a shot fired. His popularity soaring at 90 percent, President Uribe held a summit meeting with longtime nemesis Hugo Chavez a week later, on July 10.
After nearly four hours’ private talks, Presidents Uribe and Chavez emerged to declare themselves brothers who were turning a new page in their personal and national relationships. Among other - strictly oral - agreements, Mr. Chavez announced he and Mr. Uribe would collaborate in the fight against narcotics trafficking. This, despite the Venezuela’s dictator long documented support for the FARC and his equally well-documented collaboration in exporting via Venezuela vast amounts of Colombian cocaine to the United States and Europe.
Had the Caracas criminal become someone Mr. Uribe could trust? Hardly. Two months later, a statue of the FARC’s founder, Manuel Marulanda alias “Tirofijo” (colloquially, “Sure Shot”), was ceremoniously unveiled in a prominent square in one of Caracas’ most populous neighborhoods.
By honoring the worst terrorist and professional assassin in Colombia’s history, Mr. Chavez, once again, showed his true colors. And Alvaro Uribe, instead of leading a regional campaign against Mr. Chavez, squandered his popularity on the hemisphere’s worst scoundrel, who promptly - and predictably - gave him the most insulting affront possible.
Examples abound, current and ancient. Consider a personal incident 40 years ago during the reign of a military government in Thailand. The junta had proclaimed its unswerving opposition to communism, particularly the expansionist Viet Cong, and its support for the United States. A young, inquiring journalist - this writer - had written several stories for the Far Eastern Economic Review and the now defunct Washington Star, detailing the extent of communist incursion in northern Thailand and had spoken of his findings to a luncheon gathering of Bangkok’s Kiwanis Club.
Enraged, the prime minister, Gen. Prapat, publicly denounced the allegations of communist activity and threatened to declare the author persona non grata for nothing more than reporting the danger against which the government was fighting. (Journalists and other friends eventually calmed the governmental furies and I was allowed to remain in residence.)
Perhaps the most poignant example comes from the experience of Sen. John McCain. Having courted the press for years, Mr. McCain enjoyed extraordinarily positive coverage, especially for a Republican, and privately considered the fourth estate “my base.”
Until Barack Obama. Suddenly journalists found a new and comfortably leftist champion, and John McCain was relegated to fractional coverage, most of it disparaging.
Way back in the 1960s and ‘70s, Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul & Mary sang a plaintive song “When Will They Ever Learn,” and its mournful tones became an anthem of the antiwar left. Today, unfortunately, it can be applied to much more than wars, as America’s financial debacle relentlessly unfolds and both Wall Street and Washington remain tone deaf to us “average Americans,” at home and abroad.
John R. Thomson has lived in 11 countries and has reported on events from Bangkok to Bogota, Manila to Mexico.