What's Tony Thinking

Is It Gonna Take a Tragedy?


Remember that great old song, “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle.”

In these dystopian times I wonder if the song might be, “It’s Gonna Take a Tragedy.”

A tragedy that stems from the hobbled condition of the federal government.

It might be a tragedy stemming from the a failure in monitoring the nation’s food and drug supply, or in aircraft and flight communications, or in national security. In some areas, no one is at home, doing the job. In other areas, people are doing the job, but without pay which has to increase distraction and disgruntlement.

Is it gonna take a tragedy?

Or maybe the tragedies are already happening, just quietly, off to the side without notice or report? The cut back in food stamps, in homeless services, in national parks oversight and maintenance.

In 1982 I wrote a letter to then President Ronald Reagan. I wrote it on behalf of my Dad. He had been a federal employee, at the Interior Department and then Geological Survey, for his 40 year career.

Over those years, he served the country and the government well, dutifully, faithfully. He worked hard and cared deeply about good government.

I’ve often wondered during this record long shutdown what he would be making of it. I’m glad he is spared seeing it.

What I wrote to President Reagan, who had so gleefully depicted the government as the problem, was that he was undermining the morale and credibility of something important, the civil service. The study of history had made clear to me that a dedicated and principled civil service is hugely important to a nation’s life and health.

Reagan came into power with his memorable line, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’ ’’

It was a great laugh line. And, yes, government too has its bad actors and flawed policies. Sometimes it overreaches. But Reagan really cemented the idea of government as the problem in the American mind.

What he didn’t say is that absent government’s presence, the rapacious wealthy are free to roam the land and wreck havoc while those who wield little or no power are left even more vulnerable and exposed.

In its call for just kings and rulers, Scripture recognized that government was indispensable for the protection of the most vulnerable.

See for instance Isaiah Chapter 11, where the prophet anticipates the just king who “with righteousness shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” Someone has to enforce the rules.

E. J. Dionne lays a good share of the blame for the our diminished view of government’s importance and of the current shutdown at the feet of Ronald Reagan.

Another trademark Reagan line: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

I do not wish to grant government a blank check, nor unlimited powers. There is a legitimate limit on what government can and should do. It is hardly the answer to every problem.

But the shutdown can trace its roots to the tide of mindless anti-government rhetoric that Reagan legitimated, that Newt Gingrich weaponized and that has allowed Trump to boast that he is “proud” to shut down the government.

Now one of my sons is a federal employee, a clinical social worker and therapist at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Seattle. He is every bit as dedicated to his work as his grandfather was. He is considered “essential,” so he is still working caring for veterans who struggle after their time of service.

I am so weary of selfish, rich people playing the populist card by dissing government. It’s cheap — in several senses of the word.

I am so disgusted by a President who asks others to work without pay, while he refuses to do his job, that is to govern.

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