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History Lesson

History Lesson

President elect Barack Obama is a student of recent presidential history. He’s been especially interested in the experiences of President Clinton during the first two years of his administration, hoping to learn from the successes, avoiding the mistakes. It’s been reported that Obama is especially keen on steering clear of the problems that came about when President Clinton tried to push an overly ambitious agenda onto Congress, most notably in the form of healthcare reform, resulting in political backlash and a stunning win for the GOP during the 1994 mid-term elections.

Another Clinton-era lesson our president-to-be would do well to take to heart is the one delivered on April 19, 1995 when Timothy McVeigh detonated a truckload of fertilizer near the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City.

McVeigh saw himself as a soldier and patriot who drew twisted inspiration from the Declaration of Independence and other American Revolution-era documents. He was irritated by high taxes and what he felt was an assault on his constitutional rights. Motivated by, among other factors, a sense that his country’s government was growing more and more out of touch with its people, he acted out his frustrations in a single moment of extreme violence that took the lives of 168 federal employees, and children in the facility’s daycare center.

You see, America is a country born of bloody revolution, yet we’ve been told since our earliest days in elementary school that we citizens have the power and duty to effect political change through the ballot box. Rather than take up arms, we have the opportunity every two years to “throw the bums out” and show our public servants who’s boss.

But few actually believe that to be the case anymore. Congress is more apt to do the bidding of monied special interests, with high-powered lobbyists calling the shots, doling out favors and campaign cash to those congressmen who vote the correct way.

Barack Obama is on the cusp of inheriting a nation where many of the conditions that fostered McVeigh’s terrorism not only remain, but have been exacerbated by nose-diving economic conditions and piqued political rhetoric. Branded as a socialist and terrorist-friend during the last weeks of the presidential campaign, there’s already a fear that, among other things, the federal government under Obama-Pelosi-Reid is going to come hard after the Second Amendment — a short-fuse issue for those on the extreme political right who consider the right to bear arms nothing short of sacrosanct.

There is also concern among many Americans that the federal government will use the current economic crisis as an excuse to seize authority and grab power. Anger is already boiling over the recent $750 billion economic bailout, seen as a hasty solution to a problem created by greedy Wall Street barons and irresponsible layabouts, to be paid for by hard working citizens. How many desperate souls today are facing the prospect of foreclosure, unemployment, and a rising cost of living? How many of those people may hold to an extremist political view that, like McVeigh, see violence as the only remaining answer to their problem?

State governments are not immune to this sort of distrust, either. Here in Massachusetts, where scandal after scandal emerged against the backdrop of a failed citizen’s initiative to repeal the state income tax, there’s a definite sense that the legislature and its 90 percent Democrat majority is more concerned with back-scratching and political hackery than with doing the people’s business. Many people share similar frustrations without taking those feelings to a McVeigh-like extreme; it only takes one to bring about tragedy.

We’ve already got a pretty good idea of who that person is: white, male, intelligent but under-educated, unemployed and with a history of job transience, possibly a veteran, most likely single or in a failing marriage. He may at times be a heavy drinker, and the people he knows are in similar circumstances and can offer little in the way of moral support. He reads voraciously, spends a lot of time online in chat rooms and browsing extremist web sites, has probably studied documents like the Federalist Papers extensively, and believes himself to be cast in the mold of a colonial patriot. He may not be a blatant bigot, but he has racist tendencies.

If he voted, it was probably for a hard conservative third party candidate. He’s prone to accosting strangers at the gas station, diner, post office, or grocery to offer unsolicited complaints about taxes, illegal immigration, creeping socialism, or other forms of what he believes to be governmental oppression. Those offering even polite agreement can expect to endure an irate philosophical monologue of anti-government invective in hopes of discovering like-minded, frustrated “patriots.” Our friend, believing the power of his vote to have been usurped by a powerful and privileged few, may seek other means to show his displeasure.

Barack Obama promised change, and his campaign attracted hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of new voters who responded en masse to eight years of bungling government under Republican stewardship. Some three million people donated to his campaign coffers in small amounts, adding up to hundreds of millions in a political war chest.

But already there are accusations that leftist groups, most notably, will want to see something in return for their efforts. issued a press release shortly after Obama’s victory reminding the world (and, presumably, Obama) of its role in the 2008 election, and many on the right believe Obama will repay in kind.

If the Obama administration is perceived by even a tiny minority of Americans as aggressively advancing a leftist agenda; if his detractors are able to raise a chorus of “I told you so” in the face of taxpayer funded handouts; and if the economy doesn’t improve quickly, with more Americans on the unemployment lines and at the mercy of government welfare programs, things could get ugly – in a hurry. And it doesn’t help matters that there are still too many people in this country who need very little in the way of provocation to take brutal action against a black man.

Although I didn’t vote for him, I will be praying for my new president. I want America to succeed, and so I want Mr. Obama to succeed. I pray he has the benefit of good wisdom and good counsel, and I pray that, like me, the 48 percent who didn’t believe Barack Obama represented their beliefs will give him a chance to prove himself as president. And I pray that our frustrated friend finds a different way to express himself than did Timothy McVeigh.