In the summer of 2005, Bill Brock stood before the Rotary Club of Chattanooga and began his lunchtime speech with a question that I fear — nearly eight years later — we have yet to hear the answer to.
"What has happened to politics in this country?" the former U.S. senator asked.
The same question gnaws at you, doesn't it?
Brock's rich talk (available online with this column) has a prophetic feel to it. He had already sensed the shifting political plates driving people apart. The slow extinction of civility. The death of the quest for common ground. The end of political kindness.
How far we have fallen from then to now.
Did you wake up Wednesday morning -- the morning after the Chattanooga election -- believing in the goodness of our new political leaders?
Or did distrust kick in like a reflex? The new bunch, same as the old bunch.
In other words, how cynical have we become?
Is it possible for us ever to trust in our leaders again?
How much do you believe that the people we elect can be -- and remain -- incorruptibly honest and good?
To the Rotarians, Brock -- a Republican up and down -- spoke about the friendships he formed with Democrats. Their trust. Cooperation. Dinners. Beers together. Passing bills.
"It did not occur to me not to cross the aisle and find someone who shared my view," he said. "I thought that's the way you should do things."
My son, in elementary school, is learning about George Washington. Lincoln. Adams. The founding fathers.
Already, he has such a love for them. Heroes, in his mind.
I wonder if they could even be elected today.
Lincoln? We'd make fun of his height and lack of early schooling. Washington, and all the land he owned? We'd call him a slumlord. TMZ would make fun of his teeth. Mr. Smith, going to Washington? He wouldn't get past talk radio.
In this post-postmodern land, we've created a flatness, where anything good that tries to rise high is yanked down, our culture like claws from a pack of wolves.
We've made it nearly impossible for people to become leaders. Or to want to be leaders.
And we just complain we're voting for the lesser of two evils.
How tremendously tragic.
"The golden thread running through all this: I have had a lifetime of experience in the absolutely crucial importance of civility, integrity, courtesy, good manners and just plain human trust," Brock said.
Today, we see everything as tainted. Politics. Athletics. Education. Religion. This golden thread, now gilded.
Our distrust may unify us more than anything else in America. We operate from an initial perspective that assumes politicians are unethical. Guilty until proven innocent. We, the people? We, the cynics.
Look, I'm no Pollyanna. I recognize our distrust and pain comes from magnanimous accounts of political fraud and immorality. You've got your long list of examples. I've got mine.
But I refuse to damn the whole lot. I refuse to close the door on the part of me that actually believes that politicians can be honest, good and devoted servants.
Because if our first and last perspective is one rooted in distrust ...
If our ability to believe in the goodness of our leaders has been irreparably shattered ....
If we cannot coax out that part of ourselves that trusts in others ...
Then catastrophe has set in, and the state of our leaders is the least of our worries.
"The people I like to be around are people who care enough to be engaged, who believe good manners and civil discourse are essential components of a civil society, and who understand that listening is a mark of respect, not weakness," Brock said at the end of his speech.
"That lesson has enriched my life. Given the challenges we face these days, both foreign and domestic, it is a lesson we ignore at our own collective peril."
Contact David Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...