All the Pretty Words

By BOB HERBERT

The New York Times

August 2, 2004

They were able to sustain the eloquence for most of the week, which had to be a surprise. Bill Clinton told us that "strength and wisdom are not opposing values." Barack Obama called America "a magical place." John Kerry said, "The high road may be harder, but it leads to a better place."

There was no shortage of pretty words and promises at the Democratic National Convention in Boston last week. But there's a big difference between the rigidly crafted reality at the heart of a political campaign and the reality of the rest of the world.

"Practical politics," said Henry Adams, "consists in ignoring facts."

The facts facing the United States as George W. Bush and John Kerry joust for the presidency are too grim to be honestly discussed on the stump. No one wants to tell cheering potential voters that the nation has sunk so deep into a hole that it will take decades to extricate it. So the candidates are trying to outdo one another in expressions of sunny optimism.

President Bush and Dick Cheney deride "the same old pessimism" of the Democrats. Mr. Kerry counters by saying to the president, "Let's be optimists, not just opponents."

The voters deserve better in an era of overwhelming problems. Consider Iraq. Neither the president nor Mr. Kerry knows what to do about this terrible misadventure that has cost more than 900 American and thousands of innocent Iraqi lives. The war is draining the U.S. Treasury and has made the Middle East more, not less, unstable. Dreams of democracy taking root in the garden of Baghdad and then spreading like the flowers of spring throughout the Middle East have given way to the awful reality of bombings, kidnappings and beheadings.

You won't hear straight talk about this all-important matter from either camp. And you can forget the chatter about an exit strategy for American troops. There isn't one.

Or consider Afghanistan. Not long ago American officials were claiming a decisive victory and the Bush administration was trumpeting the liberation of Afghan women from the clutches of the Taliban. But the proclamations of success were premature. Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar are nowhere to be found. Warlords and insurgents are in control of much of the country and the growth industry is the opium trade. The extraordinarily courageous group Doctors Without Borders is packing its bags and withdrawing from Afghanistan after 24 years because five of its staff members were murdered and the government will not bring the killers to justice. On Friday the U.S. government warned American citizens against traveling to Afghanistan because of the danger of being kidnapped or killed.

Some victory.

Employment here in America is another topic on which the presidential candidates will not tell the voters the cold, hard truth. There are not nearly enough jobs available for the millions upon millions of unemployed and underemployed Americans who want and desperately need gainful employment. The population in need of jobs is expanding daily and no one has a viable plan for accommodating it. Families are being squeezed like Florida oranges as good jobs with good benefits - health insurance, paid vacations and retirement security - are going the way of the afternoon newspaper and baseball double-headers.

These are incredibly difficult issues and an honest search for solutions can only come from a sustained effort by the broadest array of America's brightest and wisest men and women. What the U.S. really needs is leadership that could marshal that effort.

Unfortunately, we've become a society addicted to the fantasy of a quick fix. We want our solutions encompassed in a sound bite. We want our leaders to manipulate reality to our liking.

So there was President Bush in a hard-hit industrial region of Ohio over the weekend telling voters, "The economy is strong and it's getting stronger." And the Kerry-Edwards team is assuring one and all that "help is on the way."

The voters may deserve better, but there's a real question about whether they want better. It may well be that candidates can't tell voters the truth and still win. If that's so, then democracy American-style may be a lot more dysfunctional than even the last four years has indicated.