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John Craig: Big (good) government

The American people owe much to politicians

Sunday, June 10, 2001

David McCullough made any number of insightful observations Wednesday night, but particularly appreciated was his warning that we not fall into the trap of believing in the inevitability of events.

  John G. Craig Jr. is editor of the Post-Gazette ( 

The native Pittsburgher and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian was at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center talking about the second president of the United States, John Adams, who is the subject of his latest biography.

Big things do not just happen, McCullough said. Many paths can be taken, decisions do matter and history is made by the decisive acts of human beings like John Adams.

This reminded me again of the dangers inherent in the current craze for bashing government at all levels and the characterization of the people in public service as dumb, self-serving parasites.

Yes, yes, I know, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were the noblest of the noble; it is the current variety of politician the American majority has in mind. We would be well rid of the lot of them. But, as truth would have it, those men in Independence Hall were just as human as the public figures of our day, which makes all the more extraordinary, as McCullough was quick to emphasize, what they were able to accomplish by their individual and collective deeds.

This is by way of introducing a list of "Greatest Endeavors" supplied by the Ford Foundation Report in its spring edition, a compendium that I have been saving as ammunition for a column on how important government has been (and is) to our life, our liberty and our pursuit of happiness.

Here in order are the top 10 achievements of the U.S. government in the second half of the 20th century selected from a list of 50 assembled for the Ford Foundation by the Brookings Institution:

1) Rebuild Europe after World War II. This effort was launched with the Bretton Woods Agreements in 1944 and driven by the Foreign Assistance Act of 1948, known as the Marshall Plan.

2) Expand the Right to Vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the centerpiece legislation, supplemented by extensions in 1970, 1975 and 1982 and two constitutional amendments, the 24th outlawing the poll tax and the 26th lowering the voting age to 18.

3) Promote Equal Access to Public Accommodations. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Open Housing Act of 1968 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 were the three principal laws.

4) Reduce Disease. Brookings says the Polio Vaccination Act of 1955 was the first in an array of statutes aimed at dangers like lead paint and smoking as well as the promotion of research on diseases from cancer to stroke.

5) Reduce Workplace Discrimination. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was notable here, but the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Age Discrimination Act of 1967 also were important.

6) Ensure Safe Food and Drinking Water. Nine statutes are cited from the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act of 1947 to the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996.

7) Strengthen the Nation's Highway System. Eight statutes were important with the 1956 Interstate Highway Act being most notable.

8) Increase Older Americans' Access to Health Care. Medicare, which had its fledgling beginning with the Kerr-Mills Act of 1960, was pivotal.

9) Reduce the Federal Budget Deficit. Six statutes are cited, including the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Anti-Deficit Act of 1985.

10) Promote Financial Security in Retirement. Twenty-one laws were part of an effort to "reduce poverty among the elderly through expanded benefits, pension protection and individual savings, including 12 increases in Social Security benefits."

I am sure that the Libertarians will be quick to retort that McCullough also noted in his talk that John Adams to his last days valued "independence" before all else. They also will probably have one theory or another about what is wrong with much of the law included in this list of 10. But theory is different from reality, and politicians from Adams to George Bush have to operate in the real world, have to make decisions.

Do we fight or not? Do we aid Europe or not? Do we tax the public to raise money to attempt to stop cancer or not? Do we build an interstate highway system and a National Institute of Health or not?

Talk all you want about big government, wasteful government, oppressive government -- and ours is all of that -- but there is overwhelming evidence that it also has been a government that responds to needs.

Though it may break many a heart, including not a few talk show hosts', it is as plain as the nose on your face:

We would be lost without a strong, democratically elected national government, a government conceived and established by very fallible and very courageous people like the Adams family of Massachusetts and, despite rot and numerous assaults, carried forward for over 200 years by equally doltish and glorious human beings to this present day -- a magnificent edifice, indeed!

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