Former UMass President Bill Bulger was guest speaker last month at a community breakfast hosted by Mt. Washington Bank. Speaking to a gathering of some 300 local business and civic leaders, Bulger used the occasion to voice a lament for the current tone of public discourse in public issues. Here’s an abridged version of his remarks:
“The ancient Greeks gave us this system of government. They worked very hard to give us a representative democracy, something that was brand new. All around them were these dictatorships and all the rest, but these Athenians wanted no part of that. They wanted to create a government that represented the people who were ruled by that government. It was heroic and it serves as a model for all of us.
“Pericles, a serious political leader, talked about a system of representative government. ‘We serve as a model for others,’ he said. ‘In Athens politics is serious business. And we say that those who do not involve themselves in the political lives of their community are useless.’
“That was his word, a strong word -- useless. And now here we are in the United States and so frequently we disparage every single person who has involved himself in politics. Rightly. Wrongly. I don’t say that to dismiss criticism; it has its place. But it becomes something more than that, sad to say, frequently. We know that we need you, the people in this room, involved in the political life of this community. I urge you to become part of that. It is so important to us.
“When we talk about the economy -- and some of these talkmasters, they will be picking on a toll taker on the turnpike; he’s the cause of all of our woes. A large part of the cause of our woe stems from a decision made by the executive branch of this government without the Congress. And that’s the invasion of Iraq. We have been at it for almost a decade now and it’s costing us a fortune, not just in human terms but in our national treasure.
“I never understood what justified the invasion of Iraq. I remember being at Harvard (in a class) with William Kristol, who said, ‘We should invade Iraq.’ I knew so little about it, but I could honestly take the position that we were not yet justified for an invasion. Remember Hans Blix? He said there were no weapons of mass destruction that we could find; do not invade. And yet there was this eagerness to invade on the part of so many people in our government.
“If the Congress were doing its job at the time -- the Constitution is crystal clear: It is for the Congress to declare war, no one else. But the Congress did not do its job. The president came and asked the Congress for some kind of joint resolution -- in 2002 -- to empower the president to go to war, and it was built on a chain of really frightening ifs. If Iraq succeeds in creating WMDs. If Iraq attacks the United States with nuclear weapons. Or if Iraq gave haven to terrorists or if the terrorists use them, then the extreme magnitude of harm that would result would justify a preemptive resort to military attack.
“All the fear and panic generated by these frightening ‘ifs’ and the desire to pay someone back for the pain inflicted by the attacks of September 11 resulted in Congress’s really supine delivery of what was demanded of them.
“We do have some huge problems, but the Iraq war, not some toll taker on the pike [is the cause]. The invasion was not necessary to our national security. The cost in human and financial terms to the country has been devastating.
“The country needs people like yourselves to be involved. If we are going to have a government that is of the people and by the people, then all of the people should be involved in it. I urge that upon you today.”