Once as he was about to give an interview to some reporters, President Eisenhower was asked by his press secretary, Jim Haggerty, what he would say if a certain topic came up.
"Don't worry, Jim," said Ike. "If that question comes up, I'll just confuse them."
Those words were a profile in political honesty in expressing something thought but seldom spoken. The capacity for obfuscation is an essential weapon in every elected official's professional arsenal.
Politicians like to be unclear about some things because to take a stand can be divisive. Since re-election is a politician's stock-in-trade, the fear that a significant number of current or would-be constituents might be offended by a given perspective invites rhetorical caution in the savvy solon.
Yet even the most innocuous of public servants sometimes has to decide about difficult things. To be a statesman consistently, one must have an ample quantity of moral courage and the wisdom to know when to act boldly. Thus, given that few politicians have the insight and intestinal fortitude to behave in a statesmanlike way, we can anticipate that necessary change will be at best incremental. And, despite our protestations, we want it that way.
We want government's benefits without its costs. We want its protections without its intrusions. We want its presence in our perceived need and its exclusion in our perceived abundance. We are kidding ourselves, which is to say we are human.
We resent it when policymakers, speaking to us like adults, offer necessary and painful choices about policy priorities. That's why we have long lived in an era of self-delusion and rewarded those who have given it to us.
We cannot abort our progeny and anticipate economic growth. We cannot experience liberty, in its fullness, if we disavow a willingness to fail. We cannot corrode the family unit through divorce, cohabitation, promiscuity and homosexual "unions" and say we care about our children's future.
We cannot sustain massive and growing "entitlement" programs with a shrinking workforce and an expanding pool of beneficiaries. We cannot maintain an adequate national defense if the Pentagon budget is more devoted to retiree health care, among other things, than leading-edge military systems and technologies.
We cannot secularize our society without destroying the unspoken Judeo-Christian moral consensus that always has been the firm foundation of our republic. And as the Psalmist asked, "If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?"
Americans have long been a brave people. We like to talk about the heroic conduct of our armed forces, and well we should. But just as our men and women in uniform show courage in their sphere, can we show it in ours? It is now time for us to see if we can still summon the personal virtue and political courage without which no economy, or nation, can long endure.
This will mean hard choices. It will mean exposure to certain vulnerabilities in order to restore long-term economic health. It will mean we will have to make decisions about things concerning which there might not be great options - but not to choose, to tuck one's head down and pretend that the future will not come, is actually a choice. It is to choose to subject oneself to various events which could be avoided if hard thinking and courage were summoned. Not too American, that.
Let us steel ourselves to the tough choices our Republic deserves, with the concurrent commitment that through the non-governmental institutions of family, church, synagogue, not-for-profit charities, professional associations and small and large corporate enterprise, we will address the needs our sagging Leviathan cannot.
Robert Schwarzwalder is senior vice-president at the Family Research Council.