John S McClenahen retired from IndustryWeek in 2006

If Not Now, When? If Not By Us, Then By Whom?

Feb. 5, 2014
The State of the Union topics that were treated with immediate indifference have an urgency that should summon America’s best efforts.

President Obama’s fifth State of the Union address, delivered on January 28, drew some applause, some grumbles, but mostly a lot of largely unstudied indifference. Not only from listening legislators in the Capitol and the paid pundits of Washington DC. But also from folks beyond—some well beyond—the Capital Beltway. Apparently the President’s speech, for them, lacked a galvanizing theme, lacked a convincing new conservative or liberal direction, or lacked a brilliant display of commanding leadership.

Perhaps Americans have tired of hearing about economic opportunity, fiscal policy, education, immigration and national security—major topics of the President’s fifth State of the Union speech—and significant topics of just about every presidential State of the Union Message of this century, of the twentieth century, and of the nineteenth century. Indeed, they are topics that date back to the founding of the nation, the beginning of the American experiment of government. That these matters have not been settled for all time and all circumstances says a great deal about their complexity and about the nature of American experiment of government. The nation’s founders insisted on checks and balances over power. They feared a monarch, and limited executive powers. They sought representative government and yet guarded against impulsive legislating. They created a court system, but, intentionally or not, left it to a Supreme Court to define the reach of judicial review.

Just over a half century ago, in 1962, President John F. Kennedy explained that the United States took the decision to go to the moon by the end of the 1960s and to accomplish similar ambitious goals “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” He asserted they would “organize and measure the best of America’s energies and skills.”

Perhaps it is not possible or desirable to define, for all times and for all circumstances, matters of economic opportunity, fiscal policy, education, immigration, and national security. Or all the immensely complex and controversial issues all attached to healthcare in America.

Such issues are, as President Kennedy saw them, hard issues. And results are difficult to achieve within a system of government deliberately designed against the abuse of power. And yet the State of the Union topics that were treated with immediate indifference have an urgency that should summon America’s best efforts.

Two millennia ago, Rabbi Hillel asked: "If not now, when? If not by us, then by whom?"

In more recent American political times, these same serious questions have been asked again, in quite different political contexts, by Michigan Governor George Romney (in 1963), by President Ronald Reagan (in the 1980s), and by President Obama (in his January State of the Union address).

Indeed, if not now, when? If not by us, then by whom?

This is another of a series of occasional essays by John S. McClenahen, an award-winning writer and photographer who retired from IndustryWeek as a senior editor in 2006.

About the Author

John McClenahen | Former Senior Editor, IndustryWeek

 John S. McClenahen, is an occasional essayist on the Web site of IndustryWeek, the executive management publication from which he retired in 2006. He began his journalism career as a broadcast journalist at Westinghouse Broadcasting’s KYW in Cleveland, Ohio. In May 1967, he joined Penton Media Inc. in Cleveland and in September 1967 was transferred to Washington, DC, the base from which for nearly 40 years he wrote primarily about national and international economics and politics, and corporate social responsibility.
      McClenahen, a native of Ohio now residing in Maryland, is an award-winning writer and photographer. He is the author of three books of poetry, most recently An Unexpected Poet (2013), and several books of photographs, including Black, White, and Shades of Grey (2014). He also is the author of a children’s book, Henry at His Beach (2014).
      His photograph “Provincetown: Fog Rising 2004” was selected for the Smithsonian Institution’s 2011 juried exhibition Artists at Work and displayed in the S. Dillon Ripley Center at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., from June until October 2011. Five of his photographs are in the collection of St. Lawrence University and displayed on campus in Canton, New York.
      John McClenahen’s essay “Incorporating America: Whitman in Context” was designated one of the five best works published in The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies during the twelve-year editorship of R. Barry Leavis of Rollins College. John McClenahen’s several journalism prizes include the coveted Jesse H. Neal Award. He also is the author of the commemorative poem “Upon 50 Years,” celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Wolfson College Cambridge, and appearing in “The Wolfson Review.”
      John McClenahen received a B.A. (English with a minor in government) from St. Lawrence University, an M.A., (English) from Western Reserve University, and a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies from Georgetown University, where he also pursued doctoral studies. At St. Lawrence University, he was elected to academic honor societies in English and government and to Omicron Delta Kappa, the University’s highest undergraduate honor. John McClenahen was a participant in the 32nd Annual Wharton Seminars for Journalists at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. During the Easter Term of the 1986 academic year, John McClenahen was the first American to hold a prestigious Press Fellowship at Wolfson College, Cambridge, in the United Kingdom.
      John McClenahen has served on the Editorial Board of Confluence: The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies and was co-founder and first editor of Liberal Studies at Georgetown. He has been a volunteer researcher on the William Steinway Diary Project at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and has been an assistant professorial lecturer at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.


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