Looking forward, not left or right

This is a small book that poses a big question: How long will the United States remain the world’s leading superpower, or at least one of the world’s most influential nations?

According to this thoughtful and thought-provoking volume, the answer is: Not for long — unless we take quick and decisive action to reform our political system, address our most pressing domestic needs and prepare for a world with multiple superpowers.

Former Sen. David Boren (D-Okla.), who has headed the University of Oklahoma since leaving the Senate after three terms in 1994, says the “modest objective” of his “Dear America” letter is to share what he has seen and learned during more than 30 years of public service.

But there is nothing modest about this book. Indeed, it is a bold and ambitious call to action to regain the world’s respect — and its genesis was Boren’s interviews of finalists for the Rhodes Scholarship. Boren, a former Rhodes Scholar himself, was dismayed to learn that the finalists assumed that America would continue to dominate the world stage in the 21st century as it did in the 20th.

“At the end of the day, I found myself haunted by the failure of the very best and brightest among us to focus on the things that would determine our future,” he writes in explaining his motivation for writing his book.

He also makes it clear, as he did when I met with him while teaching at the University of Oklahoma last fall, that the book is timed to coincide with the 2008 presidential election.

“Perhaps it was the irrelevance of most of the public discussion in a crucial presidential election year that finally caused me to put pen to paper,” he writes.

Boren decries the destructive nature of elevating partisan advantage over the national interest, which “is exactly what happened in recent years.” This has fueled a cynicism that “undermines the foundations of our political system by leaving people with a sense that they cannot make a difference by getting involved.”

As a response, his corrective measures echo the promises of the presidential candidates, ranging across the domestic and foreign policy front.

But I am convinced that Boren had an even more ambitious agenda in writing this book: to prepare for a possible independent presidential bid by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In January, Boren hosted a bipartisan “unity” conference at his university, which was attended by Bloomberg and most former elected officials seeking new ways to solve partisan gridlock.

Bloomberg declared at the time, and several times since, that he is not a candidate for president. But the December conference — and Boren’s book — were clearly designed to pave the way for that to happen should neither of the two major parties produce a clear front-runner, as appeared likely at the time.

And even though that has not happened and the Boren initiative has been overtaken by events, the proposals and ideas he puts forth in this challenging book still deserve serious consideration by all Americans.

A Letter to America
By David Boren
University of Oklahoma Press, 2008
112 pages, $14.95