Joe Burns: Signs of the times

Joe Burns

There’s a “for sale” sign on the lawn of a house just a few doors down from me.

The house is empty. The family who moved there with such high hopes just a short while ago is gone. The two-car garage they built, like everything else they invested in what once was their home, now belongs to the bank.

Foreclosures have become commonplace, and so has the fear of foreclosure. I know a woman who’s gambling with her health because she can’t afford to pay both a mortgage and health insurance premiums, and she doesn’t want to lose her home.

These are tough times and they look like they might be getting tougher. But Americans have faced tough times before. We’ve survived the Civil War, the Great Depression and two world wars. 

Many of us can recall times of trouble and fear. I remember wearing a school-issued dog tag and diving under my school desk during air raid drills. I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. I remember the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King. I remember inner cities burning. I remember hijacked planes crashing into the Twin Towers, The Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. But I don’t ever remember a leader refusing to face the nation during a time of crisis. Which is why it worried me when John McCain announced that because of the economic crisis, he was suspending his campaign and would not debate Barack Obama.

I was pleased to see that he changed his mind, but not that he reversed his decision only after opinion polls showed that an overwhelming number of Americans wanted the candidates to debate. Following the will of the people is important, but so is knowing when to lead and when to follow.

There is no questioning John McCain’s courage, but a leader needs more than just courage. A leader needs to be able to give courage to the country when courage is needed, and that means facing them and calming their fears.

Perhaps McCain believed he was doing the right thing by tending to business. Perhaps he sees campaigning for the presidency as an act of vanity, something to be set aside in times of crisis. If so, he doesn’t understand leadership or democracy.

Had McCain gone through with his decision not to debate he would have undermined the foundation of democracy by denying Americans the opportunity to take measure of a candidate by peeling away the carefully crafted sound bytes and slogans and seeing what lies beneath. Such an act could have set a dangerous precedent. For if campaigns and debates can be suspended in times of crisis, why not an election? And if elections can be suspended, then, ultimately, why not freedom?

But it isn’t only the ease in which McCain seems willing to dismiss the democratic process that makes me uneasy, it’s his refusal to recognize reality.

Again, there is no questioning John McCain’s courage. But a leader needs more than just courage. A leader needs wisdom as well. And wisdom comes not just from experience, but also through learning from that experience. It is something McCain seems either unwilling or unable to do. The military and economic plans that he proposed Friday would take us further down the same calamitous course we’re on now. Americans have faced tough times before, but we’ve always overcome them thanks to leaders committed to changing the course of events. McCain appears to be committed to continuing them.

We not only live in troubled times, we also live in strange times, when grand failure is rewarded through buyouts and bailouts. And so there is the frighteningly real possibility that the political party that gave us eight years of military, economic and environmental mismanagement will be rewarded with four more years to practice their failed policies. And if that time comes, we can only hope that the McCain that showed up Friday isn’t the one who will lead this nation, or the next for sale sign could be yours or mine.

Call Joe Burns at 508-375-4936 or e-mail him at