• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, February 06, 2011

A DISTRACTION, NOT A REALITY

Sunday marked the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's birth. Reagan will always be remembered for his eternal optimism and skill as "The Great Communicator." As I have noted numerous times -- whatever one's political views -- there is much positive to learn from Reagan's life and the way he led as president.

Last week also marked the 40th anniversary of Apollo 14. That was the third lunar landing and commanded by Alan Shepard, who in 1961, became the first American in space. I was fortunate to grow up in the age of the Great Space Race and have had the thrill of being included in a VIP group tour of the NASA headquarters in Houston, even getting into the Shuttle simulator and the now-closed flight control room where all the big decisions were made during the Apollo missions. My middle name is Alan. You can figure out why.

The enduring examples of Reagan and Shepard are inspirational: Anything is possible in America, even in the face of great challenge. Remember, Reagan survived an assassination attempt in the early months of his presidency. Shepard was grounded for years by an inner-ear problem, but determined to walk on the moon, he had it corrected by an experimental and risky surgery.

I mention this because, even though Grand-Am put on an interesting Rolex 24 the other week, for the majority of people the racing season gets serious this weekend as NASCAR gets going at Daytona. That is welcome. I must admit, however, this year I see it differently. This year, I see it not really in terms of competition or entertainment, but as a distraction to what is happening in the country and around the world.

Given the respect I have for American heroes like Reagan and Shepard, it's difficult to admit this, but I will: I'm not optimistic.

Please don't be misled by lazy journalists who pick-off the low-hanging fruit news item that the percentage of unemployed went down in last week's government report. If they actually bothered to look deeper so they might understand, the news would have been this was the result of an increasing number of people who are no longer actively seeking work and, thus, not counted in the labor pool.

What I came to realize the other week at the Barrett-Jackson classic car auction here in Scottsdale is there are two economies: For those people who can afford to play in that arena, times are good and getting better. That's reflected in Wall Street bonuses and the rising stock market. They, however, are a tiny fraction of America. Now, two economies isn't new, but this time around it carries with it incredibly serious consequences.

A decade of war and a jobless economic "recovery" is leading to a deeper sense of frustration, outrage and anger in the country. No, don't point fingers at the Tea Party, because its members won't be the ones at the spearhead of what I believe probably will come. It's naive to think some form of what is happening in Egypt and elsewhere can't happen here. Remember, it was only weeks ago in "civilized" England that Prince Charles and his wife were caught in a riot where protesters were shouting, "Off with their heads!"

England, Greece, France, Egypt, Tunisia -- violence in the streets is spreading. With each passing day, it's becoming a less shocking sight, and with standards of what is proper being dumbed-down across-the-board, at some point, the perception will be that it's more acceptable. When that tipping point is reached, all bets are off.

I question if we, as a country and as a people, have the political will and individual strength of character to do what those of the Reagan and Shepard generations did. Mobilize to defeat the enemies to our way of life? Sorry, the "me" generation is too busy with the latest video game and, in general, just doing what it wants. They think wearing a ribbon somehow proves they "care" more than the people who actually go out and DO something about the great issues of the day. Go to the moon in 10 years? We haven't built new oil refineries or nuclear power generation plants for decades because the "not in my backyard" mindset blocks what is good for the nation. Personal and educational standards have plunged because of parents who don't act as responsible parents once did, and by sub-par teachers protected by unions and bureauracy. To me, the flash point is likely to be health care: What a spin-doctorish joke that President Obama's signature piece of legislation is known as the "Affordable Health Care Act." Affordable? Health insurance premiums are rocketing higher and faster than the Saturn V that got Apollo astronauts off the launch pad. An insurance industry representative, with a good reputation, told me that people in good health are getting hit with increases of at least 20 percent; those with claims pay 30-40 percent more. Personally, I'm convinced the insurance companies are stockpiling cash after passage of Obama Care. (And they won't refund it even if the Supreme Court strikes down the law.) What do you think will happen when maybe 100 million hard-working, decent, self-respecting, patriotic people can't afford a basic insurance plan?

NASCAR, unfortunately, saw a commercial and political-correctness opportunity to jump on the ethanol scam -- promoting use of American-grown corn -- just as food inflation has hit the family wallet. I'm sure you've paid more at the supermarket recently. The one happy spot in the economy has been low inflation -- that's ending -- with up oil prices and food costs.

The media elites are in line for plenty of blame, too. Let's see if I've got this straight: Bill O'Reilly had to take-off THREE days from his Fox News Channel show last week to "clear my head" in preparation for a pre-Super Bowl interview with the president? Oh, and we have to "Factor" in that grueling long trip from New York City to Washington, D.C. I'm sure his core audience, just trying to keep things together at home, really understand and sympathize with Bill's need to rest. Carrying around that kind of ego must be exhausting. Laura Ingraham grabbed the opportunity of O'Reilly's rest period to plug "Valentine's Day inscriptions" for anyone buying her Obama fiction book.

Sports media isn't exempt, either. As commented on here, the PTI co-hosts really showed how out-of-touch they were with their audience by taking last summer off. CBS' Jim Nance, trying to keep an audience for last weekend's Phoenix Open, repeatedly speculated on Saturday that the PGA tournament -- delayed by cold weather conditions -- might end on Sunday. This, despite the fact that the Open chairman had already announced a Monday finish. That was the worst bit of sports disinformation since Darrell Waltrip claimed fans weren't leaving Daytona International Speedway in the wake of last February's pothole fiasco.

To me, one of the most wonderful things about racing has always been the passion of the fans. But when I see chatroomers launch into personal attacks on Jimmie Johnson -- calling him a "chicken" because he respects his wife's don't-drive-the-Indy 500 wishes and honors a legally-binding contract with his NASCAR team -- well, that's another reason for pessimism of what our society has come to. Be disappointed, sure, fair enough. Go off on a personal attack without the facts, no, not worthy.

So, sorry, especially given the examples of the likes of Ronald Reagan and Alan Shepard, but I'm not optimistic.

Let the racing begin. For me, it will be a short-term distraction, not something that will change the reality of the world in which we live -- or the difficult rendezvous with destiny which surely lies just ahead.

[ more next Monday . . . ]