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Willem Lange: New Year Can’t Top Old One for Education and Entertainment

Montpelier

I’m writing this in the shadow of the looming “fiscal cliff” that’s supposed to occur tonight at midnight. It’s not clear from the metaphor, coined by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, whether the dreaded cliff will tumble down upon us in a rock slide, or if we’ll careen over it and fall to our national doom on the rocks below. It’s also not clear whether Congress has what it takes to grab this bull by the horns (to coin another metaphor) and, as they say, get ’er done, or will instead kick the can down the road again (yet another).

I was just going to say, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” but I do. I get nervous, for example, whenever I hear Congress debating changes to Social Security benefits as part of a deficit-reduction package. Sen. Bernie Sanders is right: The fund is solvent, and has nothing at all to do with the national debt or deficit. A few tweaks here and there — according to my consultants at the Tuck School — and it’ll be in good shape for more decades to come. I’ve been paying into it as a retirement fund for 60 years now, and get upset when it’s disparaged as an “entitlement.” The military budget? Don’t get me started.

Whatever happens, the coming year probably can’t be as entertaining and educational as the one just finished. Because of the pervasiveness of the “24-hour news cycle” and what are called “social media,” all of us, if we wish, have been able easily to stay abreast of breaking news, professional commentary and the vast, boiling pot of private remarks and abuse poured anonymously into the interactive blogosphere. It’s been fascinating.

The year’s big story, of course, was the presidential election. For months we were treated to a beauty pageant of the right — actually, now that I think of it, more like a long-distance steeplechase reported by breathless ESPN suits — as first one primary candidate and then another surged to the front of the Republican field, with each surge breathlessly reported by eager media and dissected by the ubiquitous talking heads. I frequently felt as if I were in Wonderland. It was obvious from the start that Mitt Romney would prevail; yet the furious rush by most of the others to attract the Republican “base” (a well-chosen term, in my opinion) continually pulled him right along with it. I was frequently reminded of Barbara Bush’s comment on the list of Democratic Party primary candidates in 2000: “A pretty sorry bunch.”

Unfortunately, Herman Cain and his “9-9-9” tax scheme were already gone before 2012 started. He’d shot to the front initially and then faded as his catchy tax plan, and some allegations of sexual hanky-panky, were given more attention than they could stand. There were others: Buddy Roemer, Michelle Bachmann, Gary Johnson, Thaddeus McCotter, Tim Pawlenty and Ron Paul (who made good sense until you read a transcript of what he said). Remember them? Poor, hapless Rick Perry came out of nowhere, claiming he carried a weapon as he jogged (Oh, the accidental possibilities there!) and to have killed a coyote with it. He vowed during his worst debate performance to, if elected, eliminate three government agencies. What the third one was he could not immediately recall. After he quit, many of his supporters continued to vote for him. Newt Gingrich, supported by Sheldon Adelson’s casino millions and with his faithful blonde companion by his side, seemed to hang on forever. Jon Huntsman, the only primary candidate who made any sense, and whom the White House feared more than anyone else, quite early took a look around the room, shook his head and wisely bowed out. Rick Santorum, guarding the citadel of social conservatism, won Iowa, did well elsewhere, and briefly had me worried — not because there was any chance of his prevailing in a general election, but because of what the support for him indicated about the views of a large portion of our population. Truly, we Vermonters live in a bubble.

Once the steeplechase was over and Romney declared the winner, the contest became more like a prize fight, its blow-by-blow and recaps reported breathlessly and nonstop by reporters reminiscent of Don Dunphy and Bill Corum on the old Gillette Blue Blade weekly boxing bout. The president badly lost the first round in the debates, and a touch of anxiety crept into the souls of the faithful. But the challenger’s knack for tone-deaf remarks — in England, Poland, Israel and in Boca Raton, where his remarks to a roomful of fat cats were caught to devastating effect on amateur video — eventually did him in. Apparently only the challenger himself was surprised by the results on election night.

Many Americans declared themselves bored or disgusted by the barrage of news, sound bites and campaign ads; I was enchanted. What a window into our national psyche!

Only five weeks after the election, another window opened, when a troubled young man with unsupervised access to what doughty defenders of the Second Amendment have euphemized as a “modern sporting rifle” slaughtered his mother and over two dozen children and teachers in an American primary school. Before the day was over, the finger-pointing, name-calling and bullying began. Once again, I get the feeling that a rational, meaningful discussion among all interested parties of the limits of personal weapons designed primarily to kill human beings may not occur.

In that regard, I disagree with pundits who found National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre’s subsequent speech totally inappropriate. Delusional as they may sound to many of us, LaPierre’s opinions represent those of many thousands of our fellow Americans who sincerely believe that an armed society is a “polite” society, and fear deeply any infringement of their right (a right that has been, and will be still more times redefined) to possess and carry weapons with names evocative of Green Berets or Revolutionary-era patriots. Any change — and there will without doubt be change; it’s becoming epidemic — must deal sympathetically with the fears of all of us. This nation is, after all, the home of the brave, right?

Willem Lange’s column normally appears here on Wednesdays. He can be reached by email at willem.lange@comcast.net.