When I was child, I witnessed my father have apoplexy over the results of the 1964 presidential election. He had just watched President Lyndon Johnson defeat Barry Goldwater, and he was livid.
As a staunch Republican, my father couldn’t understand how Johnson could have gained the popular vote. Declaring that the country was going to hell, he vowed never to vote again. He was true to his word, right up to his death in 2008 at the age of 86.
As I got older, I questioned my father’s wisdom. How could you turn your back on the democratic process, I said. You can’t complain about the state of the country if you don’t exercise your right to do something about it. But if my father were alive today, I think I would tell him, “I’m beginning to understand your frustration with the system.”
My frustration has to do with members of Congress who have proposed legislation that would protect french fries and pizza from being relegated to supporting roles in school lunch programs, by prohibiting the Department of Agriculture from limiting the amount of potatoes served on school lunch menus and protect tomato paste as a vegetable in its current measure, which is two tablespoons. (The USDA proposed limiting potatoes to two appearances per week on school menus, and making a half-cup the minimum measure for tomato paste to quality as a vegetable serving.) In the process Congress would undermine all of the USDA’s efforts to make school meals healthier and more diverse, and would be a slap in the face to Michelle Obama, who has campaigned tirelessly against childhood obesity.
All of the efforts of well-meaning school foodservice directors, dietitians and chefs to educate children about the wide world of food that exists beyond burgers, fries and pizza will be for naught should this bill pass. And, true to Congressional form, the provisions are tied to a $182 million measure to fund day-to-day operations of several government departments, including Agriculture, Commerce and Transportation. So a vote against the ill-conceived food measure would also be a vote against those departments, as though one issue has anything to do with the other.
In the interest of full disclosure, I acknowledge that I am a Republican. Under the circumstances, I am embarrassed to admit it. But a fundamental problem has arisen, and it afflicts both parties and extreme political views, liberal and conservative, alike. We have become so polarized as a nation that there is no middle ground among politicians, no sense that some things should be changed simply because it makes sense to do so.
Instead, it seems, congressmen and women have established a two-question litmus test for whether a course of action should be followed. The first question is, Is it a good idea? If the answer to the first question is “yes,” the second question is, Is it my party’s idea? The answer to that question becomes the de facto vote of that person.
Forget all the arguments about Congress being influenced by special interests. In my opinion, this is what the whole issue boils down to: Republicans have taken the stance that because the president’s wife is at the forefront of this movement to make school meals healthier, they are going to do everything in their power to thwart her efforts. It is among the most juvenile displays of power Congress has made to date. These are supposed to be tough men and women, chosen to help guide this country through some tough times, and they care more about their own egos than they do the good of the nation. They refuse to make, or at least accept, some hard choices so that we have a choice of becoming a healthier nation.
Now, I am not prepared to turn my back on the political process; I will not abdicate my right to vote as my father once did because of my anger at the system. But I feel his pain.