On the wall beside our kitchen table where I grew up were two pictures of the people who inspired us to do more and to be better. One, of course, was Jesus, who preached love, tolerance and forgiveness. The other was John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy was a true hero in our small Franco-American community, in the south end of Waterville. The country’s first Catholic president. An Irishman. A war hero, who during his campaign walked into a gathering of hundreds of hostile Protestant ministers and left to a standing ovation that would essentially guarantee him the election.

Kennedy was the last in a line of four presidents who should be enshrined in a 20th-century Mount Rushmore. The first of them, Franklin Roosevelt, came to power in a Depression that rocked the foundations of our democracy. Despite being unable to walk, he inspired a nation to overcome its fear of the future and unite in a war that tipped the scales toward democracy over authoritarianism.

Harry Truman was the everyman and accidental leader who became president upon Roosevelt’s death and touched Americans with his toughness, homespun humor and innate goodness. Dwight Eisenhower was a lifelong military man who led the Allies in Europe and ended his term by warning Americans of the power of the “military-industrial complex.”

And finally, there was Kennedy. A man of both vision and grace who in his three short years in power inspired a generation to engage in public service and transformed America’s image in the world.

None of these men was perfect, as we can all see through the lens of time. But perfection is a poor measure of human beings that too often ignores historical context in favor of modern sensibilities.

What would follow after these four leaders was something of a roller-coaster ride. LBJ’s war would overshadow all he tried to do on civil rights and poverty. Richard Nixon’s insecurities would lead to Watergate, which would make us more skeptical about leaders in general.

By the time Ronald Reagan came along, Kennedy’s call to public service had been replaced with derisive attacks on government. Since then, the American middle class has been in a freefall, and anger and division have risen to troubling levels.

Increasing numbers of Americans are looking for someone to blame. Egged on by 30 years of anti-government rhetoric and billions of dollars spent on negative political advertisements that paint all politicians as depraved liars and thieves, too many Americans seem ready to destroy the country in order to save it.

It’s hard not to feel a sense of sadness about how the country is descending into a political and societal vulgarity that cannot bode well for our future. A generation of American voters has been raised on the mother’s milk of anger and hatred. And now, the results of that diet are emerging everywhere. In violence against “others.” In the election of extremists and a dysfunctional Congress. In the sneering fourth-grade language of Donald Trump. And in the diminishing quality of our candidates overall.

The nomination of Donald Trump has turned this election into something of an IQ test for America. If we fail that test and elect someone so obviously unequipped to lead the country, we’ll suffer incalculable and further damage to our economy, democracy and stature in the world.

Mainers know better than most where this all takes us. It takes us to a Paul LePage-style presidency, where party matters most and facts matter least. And where nothing of substance can get done. It takes us to more anger and division. And ultimately, it will take us to the greatest challenge our democracy has faced since the Civil War.

There are, of course, still leaders like Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy among us. They are keeping the country moving, building businesses and rebuilding communities, and bringing people together to make good things happen. But increasingly, these leaders are avoiding government service at precisely the time when we need them most.

We’re in a desperate “war” for tomorrow’s jobs, here and across the country. It’s a war that can’t be won if we’re fighting each other all the time. It’s a war that requires transformational leadership.

What can we do? As voters, we could start by rejecting indiscriminate anger in favor of decency and respect for differences. Take a hard look at your candidates, at all levels. Are they talking about their ideas or what’s wrong with their opponent? Do they seem to be consumed with partisan feuds? Do they have a track record of working with people who don’t agree with them?

Start by supporting those people who are part of the solution. Then encourage others of good will to run. Maybe even run yourself.

Alan Caron, a Waterville native, owns Caron Communications and is the author of “Maine’s Next Economy” (2015) and “Reinventing Maine Government” (2010). He can be reached at: [email protected]


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