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April 7th, 2009
09:00 AM ET

Dear President Obama #78: Ten things – losing the real culture war

Reporter's Note: President Obama would like Americans to give him advice about the country. As part of my quest to answer that call, I am writing a letter a day to the White House. And today I am launching a series within that series called Ten Things You Should Know About America, But You Wouldn’t Know From Watching The News.

This is Part One.

Tom Foreman | Bio
AC360° Correspondent

Dear Mr. President,

Yesterday I promised that today I would launch into a ten part subset of these letters dealing with issues that we in the media would like to report on, but have trouble getting our hands around. They don’t constitute advice as such, and I beg your forgiveness. I know you asked for ideas on how to drive the national race car, and I’ll be sort of describing the engine instead, but I still hope you’ll find it useful.

And I’m going to start with a wild idea about the biggest issue you are wrestling with right now. The economy. Here it goes. I think our problems with mortgages, banking, savings, earnings, Wall Street and Main Street are not economic. They are cultural.

Now, before you crumple this letter and toss it into the Presidential wastebasket, please hear me out. You and a great many leaders have long talked about the American Dream; the idea that if Johnny American works hard, plays fair, plans for the future, tends to his family, community and profession, he can get ahead. He can have a house, a wife, two-and-a-half children, a dog, some goldfish that wind up being flushed down the toilet, daffodils in the yard, and a barbeque grill out back. (Sorry to make it all so gender specific, what with all the single mothers out there, but I just couldn’t navigate all the twists of making that sentence gender neutral.)

All of those things certainly involve the economy. You can’t buy a Labradoodle, a pool table, or put up bail with Monopoly money. But I think you are mainly talking about a social contract of trust, earned rewards, and shared goals. That is culture.

Think about all the problems in the financial sector. Folks there had their own American Dream. They wanted extraordinary incomes that allowed them to own two or three houses, a stable of fast cars, and a rec room full of spoiled children being raised by an au pair from Switzerland. They wanted to eat at restaurants that charge too much, wear ridiculous golfing pants, and ski on snow that is somehow colder and whiter because you can only reach it by helicopter. Sure, they could afford all that for five or ten million dollars a year, but they wanted 15 or 20 million. Because the bigger numbers made them bigger winners. And again, that’s culture.

Why did we start buying implantable breasts and televisions as big as drive-in movie screens? I will assure you that not one company came to us and said, “Hey, don’t you really want to spend yourself into debt today?” No, what they said through flashy images, driving music, and slinky models caressing products, is “the American culture is now all about being rich, owning much more than you can take care of, having things you don’t need, and if you are not buying in, you’re being left out.”

I’m not blaming marketers, although they certainly bear some butt-kicking. This was our fault, because we believed their sales pitch. Suddenly we all started thinking that we should live like rock stars or multi-million dollar athletes or…forgive me…the President.

And in our quest to live the great life, we started denigrating the good life. Like the last scene in Goodfellas, we started viewing the person who holds a good job, raises good children, attends a good church, and is a good citizen as a nobody…a schmuck.

The thing is, the “nobodies” made this country what it is. The titans of business played a role, but they overvalue themselves. They could not build the railroads, string the power lines, pave the roads, or educate the children without millions of “nobodies” bending their backs and brains to the job. If we want to fix our economy, we must begin by repairing that rip in our culture. We have to raise up all the “nobodies” out there, and recognize once again that the measure of greatness is not just who collects the most power, the most money, or the most possessions.

Great economies are built on great cultures, not the other way around; and if the culture is sound, even in bad times, great nations prosper.

At least, that’s what I think. Time to put away my soapbox. Hope all is well with you and yours. More tomorrow.

Regards,

Tom

Find more of the Foreman Letters, here.

soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. sandyinohio

    sorry, a "view" is what I meant to type.

    April 14, 2009 at 6:32 pm |
  2. sandyinohio

    Why hypocrisy? (sp!) do you think you have a niew into his soul, or what?

    April 14, 2009 at 6:31 pm |
  3. Ave.Joe

    Hipocracy at its finest. I wonder how many materialistic thing Tom owns.

    April 14, 2009 at 10:20 am |
  4. Roger D Smart, PO1, USN, Retired (Georgia)

    I feel the President is not trying to save money here in the US. There are so many countries that owe us lots of money; Why can't we get some of that back? Since I am on a roll of saving money, How come we still send former spouses money when they have remarried and also to top that, why are they receiving a cost of living raise just like the military retirees?

    April 7, 2009 at 8:22 pm |
  5. Aynes

    Couldn't have said it better Tom! I really wish the President would read this letter!!! The example must start from his leadership...his congress...all of Washington...dems and republicans and work it's way down. We have not seen that from our leadership over the past 78 days!!! Spend, spend, and more spend. I pray that if Obama hasn't read any other letter (and I feel he has read them all), he will at least read this one.

    April 7, 2009 at 8:21 pm |
  6. KatchProFILMS

    "Great economies are built on great cultures, not the other way around and if the culture is sound, even in bad times, great nations prosper."

    Succinct, wise and "spot on". (Thanks.)

    April 7, 2009 at 8:14 pm |
  7. Annie Kate

    Great letter Tom. I think you hit the nail on the head. For a long time I thought getting ahead and having a good salary, a nice house, and a nice car, and being able to buy my children not only what they needed but what they wanted, was the ultimate dream to aspire to. So I worked hard and actually got there but it didn't make me happy; I found myself thinking about the days when I was as poor as a church mouse but at home with the children taking care of them. For me at least I already had my "American dream" before I even started to work – I just didn't realize it because of all the competing messages around it. Sometimes the grass is greener in your own back yard.

    April 7, 2009 at 5:10 pm |
  8. L. Carilo, H.R., CO

    Hey Tom,

    Thanks for using your time and place to "represent." You've become our hearts, eyes, ears, and words and put them out there for us to be recognized and hopefully hard to ignore. Thanks. ~ L.C.

    April 7, 2009 at 12:29 pm |
  9. RLWellman

    Tom,
    Good article. This nobody is tired of paying for the mistakes of all those who are trying to become somebodies. Guess what? It's going to stop because I'm not the only nobody that feels this way. All of us nobodies are going to band together and the somebodies will have to listen. Especially since we are the ones who do the paying.

    April 7, 2009 at 11:36 am |
  10. carmen tickal

    Wow what an incredible letter! Eloquent and exact! Well done!

    April 7, 2009 at 11:31 am |
  11. Beverly HaynesLove

    Sorry I meant thanks Tome Foreman and AC360

    April 7, 2009 at 11:00 am |
  12. Beverly HaynesLove

    You are so right, without us noobodies, who are somebody to our family and friends, the rich couldn't get richer. They certainly don't want to do the work that makes them rich. They would never work in the service industry. They wouldn't be able to pay someone else to do all their dirty work while they play.
    And most of them are our senators and legislators that have sold us out to fill their own pockets. Deregulation, and revision of the bankruptcy laws have hurt more people than you can imagine. Maybe if the people who lost their jobs could have filed bankruptcy as a way out they might have been able to keep their home.
    Thanks Anderson Cooper for telling it like it really is.

    April 7, 2009 at 10:59 am |
  13. Louie

    While there is much truth in that essay, the real question should be, "What do we do about it?" Blogging helps, but maybe it should be the lead story tonight on 360? The marketers surely have to bear their share of the blame, but the paid to put those messages on TV, magazines, etc.-so the media has to take it's fair share. It truly is a shame that there doesn't seem to be a way to get this cultural malaise issue up front and center. But how do you compete with athletes, celebrities, and titans of industry? I believe there are more stories out there worth telling. Let's find them.

    April 7, 2009 at 10:53 am |
  14. Michael C. McHugh

    Our real cultural problem in America is not about sex, abortion or anything like that, it is a worship of money and material things to the point where it's a sickness. Our religious leaders would do well to mention that sometimes, especially in a world where the majority of people have little or nothing, not even the basic necessities of life.

    April 7, 2009 at 10:51 am |
  15. L. Carilo, H.R., CO

    Sorry Tom, haven't had the chance to finish reading today's entry but totally looking forward to it, as I am every day. First glance already tells me it is, as Susan K mentions, "spot on!"

    #78! Whoo Hoo!

    P.S. Good News: Husband is home from job in Mexico. (Don't know if you read all blog posts, mine is the story which goes...Husband laid off from job in home building industry for the second time since 2001, found job with same pay down south, kids and wife home in U.S. hoping he will have work to come home to sooner than later and that this job remain until then... ~ L.C.

    April 7, 2009 at 10:42 am |
  16. Bri

    I agree 100% with you on this one. There's absolutely nothing wrong with having the finer things in life because if you earned it (and by earned I mean honestly worked hard for it) then you deserve it. However, people should always plan for the future because material things come and go. The relationships you share with family and friends are priceless and should be treasured more than any Lamborghini or 5 bedroom mansion.

    April 7, 2009 at 10:39 am |
  17. Tara

    Wow. It's nice to hear someone who is actually think about the majority of Americans. Thanks for being a voice for this nobody!

    April 7, 2009 at 10:28 am |
  18. janice

    Hi the ten things thats loosing the culture thats whats happening around the world its whats human race is doing having hit for this planet that we walking on we should live better each day every body around the world thanks for having great article every day

    April 7, 2009 at 10:20 am |
  19. Lora

    Very true! America is greedy always has been always will be!

    April 7, 2009 at 10:13 am |
  20. Susan K

    Spot on!

    April 7, 2009 at 9:31 am |
  21. Michael "C" Lorton, Virginia

    I think our problems with mortgages, banking, savings, earnings, Wall Street and Main Street are not economic. They are cultural-–a so true statement---It is call the "culture of greed,"---and it is part of human nature. The measure of greatness is not just who collects the most power, the most money, or the most possessions--sad to say it is-–and as far as the "nobodies,"--that is a slander against those who have not. You looking for cultural divide--when in essence it is "economic divide,"--where does one rank in the socio-economic table.

    April 7, 2009 at 9:26 am |

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