And to the Republic

 

by John Tyler Connoley

April 6, 2004

 

The first United States President I really cared about was Ronald Reagan. My parents are missionaries, and we moved from Africa at the very beginning of the Eighties. Before our move, American presidents had been merely pictures in Time Magazine. I was fascinated by the way Jimmy Carter's profile in cartoons looked just like South America, but his Pepsodent grin didn't hold my attention the way Indira Gandhi's swooping lock of gray hair did.

 

The President I knew was Kenneth Kaunda, founding president of Zambia and its leader from 1964-1991. Once, I even saw him in person. He was riding down the streets of Choma in his limousine, waving a white hanky out the window.

 

President Kaunda was a socialist, and I remember him saying that any capitalists caught operating in his country should be hanged. The government ran all the grocery stores, petrol stations, and hospitals -- none of which ever had the supplies they needed. KK, as we children called him, was a sort of father figure for the country, and his paternalistic form of government was intended to provide for the needs of the little people who didn't know as well as he did. We should trust him, because he was the president. Of course, very few of us actually did.

 

There's a joke that captures the African attitude toward government officials: An old man is sitting next to the road when the President drives by in a beautiful Mercedes with his Deputy General. Next a man runs by carrying a pig. Three minutes later a police officer runs up and pants, "Did you see a thief come by here with a pig?" The old man replies, "Yes, but you won't catch him on foot. He was driving a Mercedes."

 

My experiences with badly managed socialism -- standing in line at the hospital for three hours only to find out they don't have any sutures to close your wound, or running to the grocery store because there's a rumor they might have vegetable oil today -- convinced me, at a very early age, that government-managed economies don't work. Likewise, living in Africa during my formative years instilled in me a strong distaste for and distrust of government officials -- particularly presidents.

 

So, when we moved to the United States, my mind was fertile ground for the philosophies of a president who talked about limiting the power of government and giving authority back to the people. I saw the prosperity of the United States, and I attributed it to a tradition of free markets and hobbled governments. When I started learning about the Constitution, and the history of the U.S., I became even more enamored with a country whose founders had the foresight to set up three branches of government that could keep tabs on each other. To this African child, the idea of presidential power limited by Congress resonated deeply. Even as someone who called myself an evangelical Christian, I saw the necessity (and beauty) of the First Amendment's religion clause, and indeed of the entire Bill of Rights. Quoting Yaakov Smirnof, a Soviet immigrant comedian, I walked around saying, "What a country!"

 

So, I called myself a Republican, because it seemed like the Party that most exemplified the ideals of liberty and freedom -- ideals that epitomized America to me. I wanted to belong to a Party that stayed out of people's lives, and let businesses run themselves, and Reagan's Republicans seemed like that Party.

 

Today, I still believe in the land of the free. I still admire our founders for developing a Constitutional form of government with liberty as its driving force, and I still subscribe to the ideals of limited government that Reagan preached (and sometimes practiced). However, I no longer call myself a Republican. The Party that once epitomized America to me has become a Party working to undermine the very ideals that once made me say, "What a country."

 

In the name of protecting our freedom, the Republican-led Congress decreased the privacy of the American people with the USA PATRIOT Act. Republican President George W. Bush has worked harder than any president before him to weaken the authority of Congress to keep him in check. He has claimed broad powers for the Federal Government in holding people incommunicado whom the government claims are evildoers. Like the Zambia of my childhood, the United States now has a president who urges us to trust him because he knows best, while he refuses to give us crucial information about how he came to his conclusions. With Republicans holding control of Congress and the White House, Federal discretionary spending has increased at rates double those of the past eight years -- an indicator that the government has gotten bigger under their watch, not smaller. And now, our Republican President asks us to change the Constitution to limit states' rights and religious liberties by defining marriage according to his religious definition. This is not the sort of American government I thought the Republican Party stood for.

 

Certainly I've lost some of the wide-eyed wonder I had as an African kid, just off the plane from Lusaka. I recognize that no government is perfect, and no political Party will exactly fit my ideals. But, that doesn't keep me from feeling betrayed by Bush's Republicans, and wishing for the days when the Republican leadership represented America -- what a country.

 

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Copyright 2004 by John Tyler Connoley

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