Failure? Oh yeah: not an option

Today newspapers and blogs are full of praise for Chesley Sullenberger, pilot of US Airways flight 1549, and his crew, and the rescuers who saved every life aboard that plane when it ditched in the Hudson yesterday. And rightly so: Captain Sullenberger had just moments to make a difficult decision, and he made the right one; and then he executed a flawless water landing while superb coordination of resources on the ground meant that several watercraft were almost immediately on hand to pluck the survivors from the icy river. Kudos all around; a tickertape parade would not, in my opinion, be unjustified.

But if all the lionization today and the talk about heroism and miracles seems a little too breathless, I blame — who else? — George Bush. This impressive display of can-do professionalism comes in the final hours of an eight-year interregnum marked primarily by no-can-do incompetence.

You couldn’t ask for a more vivid way to throw the past eight years into sharper relief. America, we were always taught, was the land where an abundance of know-how and elbow grease could defeat the Axis, put a man on the moon, create a succession of world-changing technologies, and be a beacon of justice, progress, and courage for the whole human race. Yet for most of this past decade we’ve witnessed fear dominating our policymaking, the loss of a major American city through neglect, the destruction of our present and much of our future wealth (and the crippling of our very system for generating new wealth), stagnation in the sciences, official disregard for the law, our international alliances in tatters, an assortment of ecological crises growing more severe and numerous by the week, two disastrously mismanaged wars, an avalanche of doublespeak, and a much, much longer litany of abuses and failures than I can bear to put down here but which you can find enumerated in many essays and articles this week reflecting on the exit of the Bush administration. Bush used his farewell address to the nation to make petulant excuses for why things weren’t better under his watch.

That’s not America.

America is where a seasoned pro with a cool hand on the controls can set his disabled jumbo jet in the water and be met by dozens more seasoned pros with a plenitude of training and equipment to rescue passengers who were marshaled out of the sinking wreckage in an orderly fashion by an equally well-trained crew of professionals.

America is where the incoming president has lined up an all-star team of experts and achievers to help him govern, instead of what we’ve grown accustomed to: cronies, patrons, figureheads, and yes-men.

In short, America is where the people are competent. It’s been so long since that was the case, we’ve all forgotten what competence looks like, so that when we see it in action like we did yesterday in the Hudson River, it takes our breath away.

Think of how routinely our parents and grandparents got to see American competence in action, and how little this generation has seen of it. We’re right to laud Captain Sullenberger and the others as heroes, but we’d be wrong to place them on a pedestal. Theirs is the ordinary heroism we should expect from any American in a position of responsibility. If we’re to learn anything from the Bush administration, it’s never to let them lower our standards. No more setting the bar low. From now on, we demand competence.

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