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The Mood Of Our Nation

The following remarks are from a speech by Austin Kiplinger, who has had a long and distinguished journalism career, including editor-in-chief of Kiplinger Washington Editors, which publishes several newsletters. He spoke in Louisville November 18 at the annual meeting of the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives.

We come together at a time of rising concern about the safety of the world. Americans are accustomed to external challenges but this one carries the risk of eruption in unexpected places at unexpected times. As new as this feeling is in this country, it’s an experience well-known in the rest of the world by people who have lived with hostile neighbors staring at them across the border from a neighboring state. After the attack on the World Trade Towers, a New York friend of mine described what had happened to the psychology of America. He said on September 11 New York joined the United States and the United States joined the world.

In my lifetime the United States has stood up to external attacks from Hitler and his military machine, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Stalin and the worldwide communist revolution, the threat of nuclear war, and enemy missiles within 90 miles of our border. These challenges tested the American spirit each in its own way. The current challenge tests our steadiness in a different way. We are not a fearful people. We will take our chances because we know that the odds are on our side. However reckless and suicidal these terrorists may be, they cannot defeat 280 million Americans living in 50 states scattered from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans and north to the Arctic Circle. They can deliver disruption, but not defeat.

We need to keep our perspective. We need to remember that news by its very definition is negative—things that are out of the ordinary. And sometimes things that do not happen are equally important. You may remember that back in the 1970s we had an oil crisis and over a period of three years the price of crude oil rose from $3 a barrel to $30 a barrel. There were predictions of all kinds of collapse. There was “the crash of ’79” that did not occur.

Another was the great computer meltdown of the year 2000. Our public utilities were going to be brought to a halt. We were going to be brought to our knees. It didn’t happen. Things that do not happen are sometimes as historic as things that do.

We’ve just completed a Congressional election that produced a few surprises. Commentators have talked at great length about the sharp division of the electorate. I see it a little differently. I think there is not a widening gap between segments of the electorate, but a narrowing of political differences and a movement of both parties toward the middle. The parties have put their emphasis in different places, one emphasizing economic strength, the other social equality. But both believe in both of these goals.

I suggest that in the coming session of Congress there will be more progress than we have seen in the last session. It will come because our legislators will recognize the increasing togetherness of American views. I think many of the political campaign managers learned some lessons this year. They learned that negative political ads did not work. These attacks did not tell what their own candidates would do. They did not present alternatives. And voters turned away from them. The lesson of this election for many political leaders is that the electorate wants action on the issues, not stalemate to benefit one or the other party. That’s why I think you’re going to see a more productive session of Congress.

The economy, I believe, is on the threshold of another surge of growth. You notice I didn’t say boom. After three years of slow growth the economy is ready to go to work and produce more solid growth. The price of stocks dropped as a blow-off of hot air. But I don’t think this was a real reduction in value. Now earnings are back on the popularity parade. And real growth will respond. In 2003 our Gross Domestic Product will gain 3 to 4 percent. Not a boom, but an honest record of improvement. Now why can this happen after all the misbehavior and accounting frauds of the 1990s? Because U.S. productivity has continued to improve. Through technology and management, business has continued to turn out more products with fewer hours of labor per unit. This is the unspectacular fact behind the scenes.

And another new technology has been surging ahead—biotechnology. Here too there is danger of speculative fever. But the promise is real and it’s enormous for human health, for the cure of disease, for the prevention of misery in the human condition. There is no limit to the opportunities for human accomplishment so long as we recognize that it still requires work. It still requires dogged determination. It still requires discipline. And it still requires a deep spiritual appreciation of human values.

A couple of years ago I addressed a college graduating class and attempted to tell them what I thought would be their greatest challenge. After prayerful thought I concluded their biggest challenge would be to set their own priorities. In this age of virtually unlimited access to information via the Internet, no fact would be beyond their reach. But the one unexpendable commodity would be time. With everything at their disposal, how would they spend their time? Which of all the things they could have would have the greatest value? At the root is the question of values.

The United States has a responsibility to show the world how people of different faiths, different races, different cultures, different languages, and different origins can live together. That is our great mission in life. We can be proud that the basic concept of American government could be a model for the world. Not that we have always done everything right, and not that other cultures would apply it in precisely the same way. But the underlying idea of different peoples and different cultures existing under the same umbrella is a sound and workable principle for mankind. In a very real sense the history of the Rural Electrification Administration is an example of what people can do to overcome adversity by working together and it’s one of the greatest success stories of our times. I remember those years of the 1930s when economies and governments were struggling worldwide. In country after country, desperate people were trying different forms of government and different ideologies in an attempt to make things work. In this country practical-minded people with vision and energy took different approaches. If they didn’t have power from a massive power grid, if the great utility companies couldn’t bring a better life to them, they would do it themselves. And now see what you have. That great effort is a monument to the pragmatic spirit of this country—a model of how to produce results without conflict and productive ends without harming others. In that spirit I think this country will continue to deal with its problems at local and national levels even in an era of world tension.

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