What does the country really need? That is the question of the hour in this the summer of our discontent.
Thomas R. Marshall, vice president of the United States under President Woodrow Wilson from 1913-21, once made the mistake of answering this question.
Apparently a likable man, he was a progressive governor of Indiana in his time, and he had a sense of humor, which always brings the chance of trouble.
Unfortunately, it was his fate to be remembered for one impish remark: "What this country really needs is a good five-cent cigar."
In our age, nobody would be in the mood to take the joke. For one thing, smoking is now one of the deadly sins. A condemned man can’t even get a cigarette before facing a firing squad because it would be bad for his health.
For another thing, everyone is so darn serious. What does the country really need? If you have an hour, we can make a long, serious list together, starting perhaps with health-care reform, climate-change legislation, urban renewal, new sources of energy, and then progressing right on down to non-fat doughnuts and executions for people using cell phones in theaters.
And all of this would be right! All, except perhaps the executions for the people using cell phones in theaters. Surely we are not such savages that we would kill people for that. No, it would be much better to take away their cell phones so that they would just die by themselves from loneliness and boredom.
But any laundry list of issues sort of misses the point of what this country really needs. In any such list, the fundamentals needed to achieve even one or two of them would be forgotten.
So for my five cents, what the country really needs first is an outbreak of good sense. Intelligence. Smarts. Call it what you will. I might call it common sense but it shows little sign of being common.
Here’s an example. The other day here at the office I received an op-ed submission titled "Obama Targets Boomers for Extermination."
Well, I grant you, that’s more interesting than something on farm subsidies. However, and I write as a boomer much opposed to government extermination of myself, I don’t think Obama really does intend to exterminate boomers, annoying as we may be.
Instinctively, anybody with just one ounce of sense would know that this is something that fell out of the back of a horse.
Yet here was the writer seriously arguing that part of the Health Care Bill, HR 3200, required seniors to undergo mandatory end-of-life counseling to determine if they are worthy to continue to live. This idea has spread to Internet cranks and even to the halls of Congress.
As it is, I am grateful for Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr., who explained that this provision was really about Medicare funding for seniors with life-threatening illnesses to get information on hospice care and the like.
Such crazy nonsense is all of a piece with theories that 9/11 was a government plot and lunatic notions of Barack Obama being a Marxist, a Muslim and not being a natural-born citizen.
The so-called "birther" movement is a particular affront to intelligence. I am beginning to think that stupidity has now been adopted as America’s official hobby. Nothing now is too crazy for people to believe. These should be boon days for the flat-earth crowd, but I suppose they can’t organize because that would involve flying and falling off the end of the Earth.
Not that liberals are immune from outbreaks of stupidity. I like a beer as much as the next person — actually, more than the next person — but the White House beer summit that Obama called to bring together the black professor who was arrested by the white cop in Cambridge was fairly ludicrous.
I may say, however, that if such an event had to be held, it was a stroke of genius to invite Vice President Biden, a man guaranteed to fill in any awkward pauses in the conversation.
I am not sure how people can rouse themselves to light up their brains. I think it would help, however, if they strived to look at things in a more humorous light. Of course, I am somewhat biased on this point.
A smart person with a sense of humor can have amazing insights. For example, while the DNA of chimpanzees and humans is closely related, Glenn Beck is more closely related than that.
That’s my five cents’ worth. I hope I am not blowing smoke here.
(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com)