Several months back I listened to an NPR interview by Terry Gross of Ari Fleischer, our President's first press secretary. Mr. Fleischer was pleasant enough to listen to and after fifteen minutes or so I found myself thinking he probably was a bit too smooth, but maybe not a such bad chap.
But as the interview continued I began to develop a strange disquiet that lasted through the end. I began to notice that Mr. Fleischer kept referring to the Left and the Right, Liberal and Conservative, when discussing political issues. I started to listen for any reference to the Middle. But it was as if the Middle did not exist. I began to wonder what ever happened to our citizens in the Middle. We used to have a Moderates in this country. Really.
There was a time in our recent past when it was OK to be a Moderate, center-of-the-road. Both political parties had Left and Right wings, nuts they were often called. Moderates from both parties listened to the more extreme views of their brethren - the ideologically torqued up - and then supported programs and policies that found common ground. They usually carried the day and we muddled through.
Those who looked for their thrills close to either edge were very often bright, committed and attractive. But they were understood as being quite dangerous if allowed to take center stage. Both Hitler and Stalin and the Weathermen and J. Edgar Hoover had more in common than they would care to admit. They serve as a caution to us all.
But things have changed. With a stridency seen but very occasionally in our short history, Americans are now being pulled - or pushed - to one side or another. Everyone seems to have talking point, not ideas. We are citizens of Red States or Blue States, like it or not. Our fourth estate, the eyes and ears of democracy, are now mainly seen as shills for one side or another - as if every issues just has two sides! Politics is now a blood sport, with the line between political dialogue and entertainment fading fast. Liberals v. Lions at 4:30. Conservatives v. Lions at 5. We now have a whole generation who have seen nothing else. They think this is normal. We may debate as to how we got this way, or whether is it a good or bad thing, but here we are.
Jim Hightower, the self-proclaimed America's #1 populist, has scorned those seeking the middle of the road. He wants us to commit to one side of the other, believing of course that most will join him. He reminds us that the most dangerous place to be now is in the middle of the road, the new ragged edge of American politics.
Push come to shove I know which side of the barricade I would join. That part is easy for me. But for the time being I would rather get my thrills searching for that center again. It wasn't so bad.