Getting Our Swagger Back: What a 110-Year-Old Man Can Teach Us About the Deficit Panic

Authored by Jeff White

[This article was originally published on GovWin]

I think I’ve been looking at this all wrong. A 110-year-old man taught me that this weekend.

I’ve been harping on big numbers a lot lately. In this space, you’ve seen me rant about hundred-billion-dollar budget cuts, trillion-dollar deficits,and uncountable numbers of contractors. It’s depressing stuff, and combined with day-to-day media reports of a politically divided America, it can all seem insurmountable.

Until you realize what we’ve overcome before.

Frank Buckles told us a lot about that.

America’s oldest veteran, and the last American survivor of the First World War, Buckles passed away yesterday. He was 110.

Frank Buckles. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

We don’t have any words left that really describe Buckles’ life. Words like “amazing” and “incredible” are used to describe 3D movies and iPhones these days – which leaves us with no idea how to describe the experiences of someone who was born by lamplight in a Missouri farmhouse in 1901, and died with a Facebook page in 2011.

But Buckles knew what we’d been through as a country. He volunteered for the Army in WWI (lying about his age because he was too young to serve), and spent the war driving an ambulance behind the lines in France. He watched Germany fall under the control of the Nazis, visiting regularly aboard the shipping vessels he worked on between the wars. He watched Hitler fume as Jesse Owens won medal after medal at the 1936 summer Olympics. As a civilian, he was captured by the Japanese and lived 38 months in brutal conditions in a World War II prison camp in the Philippines. He drove a tractor on his farm at 100 years old.

He saw America make it through world wars, depressions, and integration. Would Frank Buckles and his generation have seen the looming federal deficit as a crisis?

I doubt it. Not after what he’d seen this country get through.

After all, Buckles saw the U.S. government run up deficits 87 of his 110 years , but he also saw us pay them down over and over again. Let’s not forget, we ran a surplus as recently as the year 2000.

This current deficit has us all scared. The Speaker of the House just called it “a moral threat” to the country, and suggested we all start to pray. The President is crowing about his decision to cut some of his favorite programs as a response, and his opponents are saying it isn’t enough. We’re all tuned into 24-hour news networks that need a new crisis every few days to keep the ratings up, and the fiscal situation is their newest strategy to keep us all hooked.

It’s working. I’ve been writing about it here for weeks.

It’s easy to panic and think this is a crisis we can’t handle. But, faced with the life of Frank Buckles, I’m not sure we should. Maybe we should face this thing with confidence in ourselves.

After all, Buckles told the New York Times that, as he sailed to France to take on the Kaiser, “Every last one of us Yanks believed we’d wrap this thing up in a month or two and head back home before harvest. In other words, we were the typical cocky Americans no one wants around until they need help winning a war.”

We didn’t, of course, wrap it up before the harvest. But we did win the War to End All Wars. And the bigger one that came afterward. And the Cold War. And we ended the Great Depression. And we learned to fly. And we flew all the way to the moon. We cured polio and eradicated smallpox (still history’s deadliest disease – gone now). And so on. And so on.

That brash confidence that annoyed the Europeans even when Frank Buckles was young has never actually failed us. Those “typical cocky Americans” have proven bigger than every challenge history has ever put before them. They’ll beat today’s challenges, too. And maybe the way forward is not to panic and blame each other, but to believe in ourselves.

Keep it in mind, as you watch the news stories that will dominate the next few months – the budget fights, the credit limit battle, the fear-mongering and finger-pointing as the politicians ramp up for the 2012 campaign. In the end, this stuff is all small compared to what we’ve been through – and we got through that on the strength of our confidence.

We should reclaim it.

P.S. I was trying to find a way to tie this back to contracting, when I realized that I don’t want to. Some things are so virtuous they should stand alone.

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David Kuehn

I appreciate putting the current “crisis” in the perspective of the lifetime of Frank Buckles. It is human nature to react to a crisis but overlook chronic and underlying issues. It is the responsibility of elected and appointed officials to provide perspective and base decisions on accurate information.

Donald A. Donahue

I really like this article, but it has one thing terribly incorrect. By all accounts, Frank Buckles did not have “swagger.” He had, rather and to his great credit, a quiet confidence and the will to do what is right, not because he would gain friends on Facebook or a lucrative professional contract, but simply because it was right. In many ways, Mr. Buckles (how can you call him anything but, absent some other salutation befitting of his life?) epitomizes the many fine folks who serve anonymously throughout the public sector. Doing a job and contributing to a hopefully better world, just because.

In these days when government official squabble over Lady Gaga tickets (OK, I know that is not federal, but it is still sickening as it represents the sense of entitlement and exaggeration some inflict on true public servants), it helps to remember part of what makes this nation enduring is the people who keep it so.

Mr. Buckles passed quietly, in his home with his family, befitting his quiet courage. Rest in Peace, Sir. And thank you for a century-plus of integrity.

Gregory Butera

Elliot, thanks for posting this. If the author reads this post, I’d like to echo Donald’s comment. The post was a very thoughtful piece and invites one to look at the world from a much different perspective. Looking at current events from that context, it is mindboggling to realize how much the world has changed within the period of one man’s life. But I agree with Donald that the word swagger doesn’t really fit. I think what Mr. Buckles had instead was determination and humility. Swagger is probably the one thing we have in great supply. A little more willingness to rise to a challenge and a little less tossing weight around, for politicians, government officials, corporate executives, religious leaders, parents in the PTA, homeowners associations, etc., and we’d all be a lot better off.

Elliot Volkman

Gregory: Jeff will be posting a follow up on this post later today I believe. I’ll be sure to give an extra nudge! Thank you for all of your kind words everyone.

Jeff White

Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful responses.

I just want to make clear – I used the word “swagger” playfully, and not to detract at all from the quiet dignity of the man.

I was so captivated by his description of the young doughboys and their confidence that I can’t help but picture them stepping off the boats with an extra spring in their step even as they were walking into real peril…such a contrast to the pessimism we hear from both sides of the political spectrum today as we face a problem that, realistically, we’ve beaten over and over again.

I picked a confident, decisive word to illustrate that, but not to imply any levity to Mr. Buckles (though his humor was evident in every interview).

Thanks again for reading and for all the comments.