If there were a draft, we would never have gone to war in Iraq, says the legendary journalist. The end of the draft has permitted a cowardly politics, a huge consequence to who we are as a people.
Question: Do you consider yourself an optimist?
Carl Bernstein: I’ve always been an optimist about this country. I’m not an optimist right now. Too many things aren’t working. The government is truly dysfunctional largely because of the Congress of the United States and one branch of government is broken, perhaps irrevocably. And you know, the founders were very specific about making the Congress the first part of the constitution to be defined in its powers. And in the last 30 years, if somebody can tell me the great accomplishments of the congress of the United States, I’d sure like to know about them and interestingly enough, a couple of them occur on Obama’s watch. You know, it is an accomplishment what has been done with a system of health insurance as rudimentary as it is in its initial phase in the way the legislation is written, but it will be built upon the way Social Security was built upon.
But look at the infrastructure of this country – it’s broken. We’ve got bridges falling into rivers. We don’t have the ability financially to fix our roads anymore. We have schools... my brother-in-law is a school teacher, he’s a substitute teacher, they’ve laid off the substitute teachers in California because there’s no money to pay them. School terms have been shortened. Our education... public education system in this country is broken.
We’ve got huge problems that we haven’t addressed for a very long time. We kicked the can down the road on medical care, on infrastructure, on education, and now we don’t have the financial ability and probably won’t for a very long time to address these questions as well as a question of national will. Our political debate is debased. It’s... you don’t need to say it because people know that that is the case. What works in our country is popular culture, music, sports, entertainment, and certainly we’ve made great, great accomplishments in terms of technocracy, the web. But we’ve got problems that we’re not willing to look at.
And I date a lot of it, I think that the abolition of the draft in this country was a terrible mistake. That if there was a draft, I don’t think for a minute we would have had this horrible war in Iraq. I don’t think members of Congress would have voted to send their own children into that theater, or into Afghanistan, not a chance. That the end of the draft has permitted a cowardly politics, a huge consequence to who we are as a people. I think there’s a need in this country for national service for all young people, for a year or two, whether it be in the military, whether it be building roads, whether it be in public health, whether it be in helping to teach children. But the idea that there is no unifying activity for young people such as could be provided for national service is a terrible shortcoming in our culture.
So we haven’t dealt with our problems. And what our national conversation is about, if you look at the web and you look at television, is there great stuff on the web? Absolutely. Is there great stuff on television? Absolutely. But what are most people watching and what are most people calling up on their computer screens? It’s not so great.
Recorded July 22, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman