I’ve seen a lot of tough eras, a lot of downturns in my life. And, times when we didn’t understand each other. It seems like we’ve lost our heart at times. When the fog of division, discord, and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead. But after those trials, we all rallied around what was right, and acted as one. Because that’s what we do. We find a way through tough times, and if we can’t find a way, then we’ll make one.
Clint Eastwood’s “Halftime in America,” the Superbowl commercial that set people talking, talked about Detroit and America. Eastwood said that if we could work together, remember our common heritage as Americans, we could come through our difficulties and succeed. Then the world would “hear our engines roar.”
Eastwood’s raspy voice, his determined words and striking images command our attention. A note of hope can come unexpectedly. Yet we might read caution into the message’s halftime metaphor. When two football teams retire to their locker rooms at halftime, both take the field again at the beginning of the third quarter. One of them is going to lose.
Suppose the coach of one of the teams said during halftime: “I want to help you guys out. We’ve had too many injuries out there. I’m going to put shackles around your ankles to keep you safe. If you stop colliding with the other players at such high speed, we won’t have so many people getting hurt.”
“But coach,” says the quarterback, “if we can’t run, we’ll lose the game.”
“Impossible,” says the coach. “Go out there and win!”
The players hobble out onto the field in their shackles. An hour and a half later, to no one’s surprise except the coach’s, they lose the game. He’s happy though that his trainers didn’t have to carry anyone off the field.
“Coach,” the players say afterwards, “if you let us play without these shackles, we could win.”
“Don’t be silly. Of course you can win. We’re Americans!”
To his credit, Eastwood didn’t allude to government regulations during his two-minute Superbowl ad for Chrysler. He didn’t mention shackles for safety, or any of the government imposed constraints that hobble Detroit’s automakers in their competition with manufacturers around the globe. Moreover, he didn’t allude to government sponsored entities like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, or government policies that inflate credit and lead to so much misery for so many people. He focused on the people of Detroit, and people everywhere who need courage to get through this terrible time.
Apolitical as the ad was, Karl Rove and others criticized it as Chrysler’s contribution to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. I look at the images of destitution in Detroit, at the neglected buildings and unemployed workers, and I see a monument to Washington’s meddling in an industry that used to stir such pride for us. Automakers can’t blame Washington for all their problems, but they don’t owe Washington a debt of gratitude, either.
Who can say what will happen to the U. S. automobile industry? Who can say whether Detroit can recover? No one. That was a gripping element of Eastwood’s narrative: we have to fight our way through these troubles without knowing the outcome. Yet we can say one thing in the middle of this uncertainty. Whatever it might say, government is not on our side in this fight. When someone in authority gives you shackles, don’t put them on.