By Leah S. Dunaief
Elections have ended and the newly elected and reelected officials are going to have to cope with a disturbing fact: people don’t trust government. This change in attitude has been a long time coming. It didn’t just happen suddenly. I know, I have lived through the change.
Trust started to fall apart with the Vietnam War. Maybe it even started earlier than that, with the assassination of President Kennedy. I was in my early 20s then, just graduated from college, newly married, in my dream job, looking forward to an unbounded future filled with joyful events. The nation was at peace, there was a young and vigorous president talking about making life better with civil rights legislation, women were speaking up for themselves, it was a hopeful time.
Friday afternoon, a sunny day, business lunch in a midtown Manhattan restaurant with a television on over the bar in the distance, a movie playing about a president who had been shot in the head. But wait. Wait! It wasn’t a movie, it was a news broadcast from Dallas interrupting the regular programming, it was our president, everyone standing up, crying, paying their checks, rushing back to their offices, trying to deal with the unthinkable.
How could this happen? How could Secret Service let this happen? In our country! A president, the President of the United States, could not be protected! Our bubble of safety was bursting, slowly, excruciatingly. Lee Harvey Oswald shot on television while under arrest. In what could you trust?
Who killed Kennedy? All kinds of conspiracy theories, the Warren Commission, an end but never a certainty. Was the government lying to us? Was there a cover-up?
Next came the Vietnam War. First only “advisors,” then military, then body counts, always more Viet Cong than Americans lay on the battlefields. Promises of progress and victory by the government, as casualties and numbers drafted rose. This even as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara privately expressed doubts of victory as early as 1966. But President Johnson was afraid of losing the 1968 election should the United States withdraw. Instead we lost thousands of young men, all of which eventually was revealed to the public. Protests were the order of the day, and more violence, including the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy and the chaos at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. What’s happening to the nation’s authority figures?
We rolled right into Watergate and Nixon’s resignation. Our President accused of being a liar and a crook. What’s left to believe in? President Jimmy Carter held hostage by the Iranians, the Iran-Contra deception of Ronald Reagan’s second term, Bill Clinton making Monica Lewinsky a household name around the globe. Then the Weapons of Mass Destruction lies by the senior administration officials manipulating us into the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. Whom to believe?
Whom to trust? Each lie, each governmental deception blew away more trust, leading to the climax: the disbelief in the COVID-19 vaccine. Even when ex-President Donald Trump urged his audience to get vaccinated on Aug. 21, in Cullman, Alabama, one of the areas struggling to cope with COVID cases and hospitalization, he was booed. “But I recommend take the vaccines,” Trump said. “I did it. It’s good. Take the vaccines.” After that experience, he hasn’t again mentioned vaccination at a rally. But the reaction wasn’t partisan. They were, like Trump, all Republicans who had come to hear him, It was symptomatic of the larger distrust in government.
I was in my early teens when I received the polio vaccination. Polio was a dreaded disease by parents the world over, more so as I remember, than COVID-19. Like today, we were discouraged from assembling in groups or joining crowds. The virus attacks the brain and spinal cord, leaving paralysis and even causing death. When Jonas Salk and his colleagues created the vaccine, we all lined up to take the shot. It was the Eisenhower years. We believed our president.
Those vaccines have eliminated polio from most of the world. That’s what approved vaccinations can do.