I was struck this past week by remarks from three people involved in public life whom I have known over many years as optimistic, constructive persons.
The first came from Rep. Dave Obey, Democrat of Wisconsin, who announced last Wednesday that he would not seek reelection after 21 terms representing the 7th congressional district.
When first elected, in 1969, he was the youngest member of the House. Now 71, Obey is chair of the House Appropriations Committee and the fourth-longest-serving member of Congress. He has been best known over the past year as the prime House mover of President Obama's economic-stimulus package and an equally important sponsor of his health-care legislation.
Obey carried his district with 61 percent of the vote in 2008. But this year he was facing a stronger Republican challenge than usual. In announcing his retirement, Obey said he felt confident of reelection but was "bone tired...and used up." He also had harsh remarks about the U.S. Senate and its procedures. (House members, it is little known, for the most part hold the Senate in contempt; over the past year, in particular, legislation has passed the House and then been delayed and buried in the Senate.)
Obey, in his off-hours, led a bluegrass band. He was a throwback to the generation that lived public issues but, at the same time, had fun in doing so. I was jolted to see that he had thrown in the towel, even though Washington Rep. Norm Dicks is favored to succeed him as Appropriations chair.
The second set of remarks came from a liberal-icon senator's former aide and, then, personal attorney.
He was simply overwhelmed, he said, by the flood of perplexing events taking place recently: The car-bomb episodes abroad and here; the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and his discovery that the Gulf was jammed with a huge number of offshore platforms; the collapse of Greece and expensive bailout by the European Union; the groundrules regarding President Obama's deficit-reduction commission which, in effect, will make it toothless; the unintended consequences of many of the health-care legislation's provisions; the disclosures of Wall Street greed and cynicism and thus-far-inadequate White House and congressional reform proposals; and the general inability to deal at the national level with entitlement-program reform, a growing debt bomb, and illegal immigration.
My attorney friend came to Washington, D.C. at the time of President Kennedy's inaugural and, like Obey, had been at the center of political/policy life there over several decades. Now, he said, he felt powerless.
The final observations came from a former senior officer of one of the country's five largest financial institutions. He had been particularly involved in the bank's international operations.
He was, he said, worried for the first time in his life about a global financial collapse. The EU rescue package for Greece was wholly inadequate. Several other EU countries were similarly on the brink and would require EU and other international assistance. The American public balance sheet, he said, also was scandalous although the full realization of the problem had not yet sunk in. He feared, most of all, some event or action that would trigger a crisis of confidence and set dominoes falling.
He doubted the leadership of major financial institutions and, even more, of such policymakers as Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and White House economic czar Larry Summers. President Obama, he said, had come to office clearly lacking the knowledge and background to make independent judgments about these issues. If we made it through, he said, it would in large part be because of blind luck.
Now, a caveat. Those of us from a prior generation, with values of that generation, can judge too harshly present-day policies and actions by the people who took our places. And there is something to the saying that Old Times Never Were What We Thought They Were. But my friends — all in their 70s — had always been undaunted, upbeat people. Their present outlooks were surprising.
As I thought about it, it came to me that the observations of these experienced, tough-minded people were not far from those being made by independent voters and Tea Partiers — a general disappointment and disillusionment with things as they are and a frustration that big problems are not being effectively addressed. Perhaps an important sign of the times.