Bob Franken

King Features Column

(The usual disclaimer: This column appears here a week after its newspaper release to keep the syndicator happy)

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You know those dopey, backtiming clocks the news channels put in the corner of the screen each time the nation is facing another contrived crisis? We just watched them again, ominously ticking away the hours, minutes and seconds as our politicians lurched toward the fiscal cliff on New Year’s Day. Of course, just past the nick of time, our fearful leaders managed to avert immediate disaster by agreeing to shove disagreement aside for a couple of months, when they see to it that the country’s well-being will once again be endangered.
Maybe we should just keep the clocks going down there with all the other distracting graphic garbage racing past the anchorperson. After all, there are only about 1,400 hours, X minutes and X seconds before we face a financial default, or those debilitating cuts. So we need to know how far away our next national embarrassment is. Some might argue that our elected officials themselves are a national embarrassment, but unfortunately they have the power to cause some real damage. And while we’re at it, perhaps we should add even more to the clutter on the screen with a second clock, one that would count the time remaining till the budget deal that funds all of the U.S. agencies runs out. That’s right, we face another threat of a government shutdown at the end of March, 744 hours from debt ceiling zero hour. We need to know exactly how long we have between calamities. Surely there are some experts on Mayan chronology looking for work, since they blew it so badly on Doomsday.
Actually, with the start of a new Congress, the time has come for time-outs. A system must be established to discipline lawmakers who are behaving badly. When a senator or representative says something that is destructively hostile or otherwise acts out, he or she must spend some Quiet Time. Speaking privileges will be taken away until he or she promises to play nice. The problem is that at any given time, just about all of these delinquents would be stuck in Quiet Time Detention Hall, so all we’d hear on C-Span would be silence. Come to think of it, maybe that isn’t a problem.

The serious point is that time is running out on so many of the problems we elected these people to solve. They can’t duck them forever. This little game of chicken that they play — waiting till the last instant before they sidestep and create some very temporary fix — does nothing to halt the erosion in trust that wears away at our whole society. A democracy, by definition, flourishes with the consent of the governed. The disgust of the governed just doesn’t cut it. But that’s the sad state of mind these days. Far too many believe our “Shining City on the Hill” has been tarnished. The time has come, as President Barack Obama put it, to operate “with a little less drama.”
They need to replace self-serving with public service, and put a stop to all the ambition and outright corruption. Our leaders can’t simply follow the whims of the highest special-interest bidder if they are going to make the hard decisions necessary to set the nation back on course. Not only must they grapple with our crippling fiscal problems but also the societal one. The time is now, for instance, to see if all the expressions of horror over the shootings in Newtown, Conn., will translate into action on guns, as opposed to platitudes.
That’s just one issue; there is a tangle of others that fundamentally affect our quality of life as well as America’s place in the world. In fact, maybe those of us in media need to do a better job. Gimmicks like those countdown clocks are no substitute for meaningful discussion. In fact, they get in the way.

© 2013 Bob Franken
Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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