Neil Armstrong, who died last week, was one of my childhood heroes. It was not that I aspired to be an astronaut – I was a sedentary kid for whom “space” was what separated the sofa from the TV set – but I knew how to recognize greatness when I saw it. There were plenty of greats in the sixties – JFK, RFK, MLK , to acronymise but a few – each in his or her own way pushing the world’s envelope, inspiring an entire generation to reach for the stars.
Today, every time I lift my head from my office desk I look straight at a coffee mug I purchased at Cape Canaveral several years ago. “Failure is not an option”, inscribed on both sides, was the motto of the Apollo 13 mission. The world held its collective breath for 4 days at the turn of that decade as technicians at Mission Control in Texas devised lowest-tech contraptions that they instructed the astronauts on the stricken craft to build in the vain hope of bringing them back safely to earth. Against all the odds, they succeeded. Heady times.
Of course there was plenty wrong with the sixties – the worst of all being that they were followed by the seventies – but that generation always tried to go the extra mile and make a difference.
Before the obituaries to the modest Armstrong could disappear from the inside pages of the world’s newspapers, the headlines heralded the crowning of the pretender to the American throne, Mitt Romney and his valet, Paul Ryan. The contrast with the greats of the sixties could not be more striking. While the Romney and Ryan double act may have its moments of great theatre, this has to be the worst case of miscasting since cuddly Michael Keaton played Batman. The task of a US president is not to micro-manage USA Inc; it is to lead the nation and the world, to inspire the generation to toil for a better future for all.
While Kennedy could capture the collective imagination with “I believe we should go to the moon” , Romney could have come up with “I believe we should go purchase 51% of the moon through a Martian SPV and a partial vendors’ loan, push down the debt and exit within 5 years”. While Reagan could bring down the Soviet Union with “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall”, Romney might have opted for “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall and let my firm put together a consortium to build a shopping centre and condominium complex”. And as for Boy Wonder Ryan, while Kennedy had JK Galbraith as his economic adviser and Reagan had Art Laffer, he has Atlas Shrugged, a work of fiction by Ayn Rand.
This is an entirely Business/Economic ticket. While the GOP team may (or may not) have some valid economic policies the job spec goes a bit further than that. Vision and national leadership are items that come to mind. Businessmen and Economists are not naturally cut out for these tasks. While Mr Ryan – who is, at least, consistent as opposed to his boss who is governed by ever-moving bottom lines – may have a point about the need to cut taxes for economic reasons, his violent aversion to “Big Government” is much more far-reaching. His desire to scale back government to the bare minimum precludes any administration from advancing the nation beyond narrow economic interests. Relief from poverty, foreign aid, sustainability and inspiring national projects all require tax dollars. You name it, it ain’t gonna be there. Ever.
Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were probably the most “free market” minded leaders in the last generation. Neither of them was economist or businessman. They both had visions for society – very positive visions at that – and both lead their nations well beyond the economic sphere – for better or for worse . Romney and Ryan, on the other hand, are one track. No inspiration. No hope. No government (or not much of it) and Every Man for Himself. A sad, sad state of affairs, especially as both men profess to being practicing Christians.
We were blessed a few days ago with a beautiful granddaughter. My prayer for her is that she grows up in a caring world that seeks to cure its imperfections and pushes its boundaries. Nothing suggests that Romney and Ryan are singing from the same hymn sheet.