For the Birds Radio Program: Two-winged Eagle

Original Air Date: Nov. 9, 2004

Politicians in this election likened themselves to an eagle and their opponent as an ostrich.

Duration: 5′32″


This was the most avian national election I can ever remember, with one side likening itself to an eagle and the other side to an ostrich on TV ads, while the other side made the exact same comparison in some speeches, only of course using the analogy the other way around, one of those guys even singing a song about soaring like an eagle. And never before in an election campaign, not even in 1968 or 1972, did I see so many people flipping the bird at each other. Two white-haired elderly women flipped me the bird when they drove past me as I held up a political sign in Duluth one Sunday morning—ironically, they were probably en route to or from church. When I was driving in southern Illinois, I was almost run off the road twice by SUVs with opposing bumper stickers, and in both cases they flipped me the bird, too. I heard of those kinds of bad behaviors from both sides.

This kind of ugly acrimony makes me yearn for a president who is truly a uniter, not a divider, but it’s a little late in the day to go looking for one. Meanwhile, I think about the men who fashioned our national emblem—they were just as divided as the nation is now. There were three of them—John Adams, Ben Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson—so a tie wasn’t possible. That debate revolved around economics (Franklin wanted the turkey because it was so economically important to the colonies) and military issues (Adams and Jefferson wanted a symbol of America’s machismo and military will). Morality also played a part in that debate. Franklin decried the eagle as a bird of “bad moral character” who makes his living by “sharping and robbing.” After he lost the vote, he was as cranky as anyone on the left after this election, writing to his daughter disparaging the decision.

I’ve always pretty much sided with the majority on that issue—for me, the Bald Eagle makes an apt national emblem, symbolizing our nation’s bullying, self-centered ways and blustery bravado, and yet our magnificence, strength, and beauty. But right now, I’m worried about our national eagle’s air-worthiness. One wing has become so long—stretching so very far out into the right that many life-long Republicans, including scientists, military generals, CIA operatives, and even Dwight D. Eisenhower’s son Joh, abandoned their party this time around, understanding the ramifications of one wing extending too far out. Suddenly our national eagle is trying to take to the air with one albatross wing–extremely long and thin, not the robust eagle wing it needs. Albatrosses, of course, are wonderful fliers themselves, once they get airborne, but without favorable winds and wings of equal length, they’re stuck on the ground. And meanwhile, our national eagle’s left wing has shriveled and pulled in so close to the center that it’s become as useless for flight as a penguin’s flipper.

To be truly strong and effective, taking to the skies to realize its many dreams and aspirations, an eagle or a nation needs balance. Too stuck in the center, with neither wing reaching out to its possibilities, and it’s stuck on the ground. An eagle certainly needs a strong center—that’s where the flight-powering muscles reside—but it also needs a balanced and strong right and left wing both, and simply can’t fly if one wing grows too strong or one wing shrivels. Voters seem to sense this. They stuck with Russ Feingold, one of the most strong and liberal senators on the left wing, while jettisoning Tom Daschle, who pulled to close to the center to appease hte other wing that he just didn’t seem capable of getting an eagle aloft anymore. We’ve had a long history of government achieving reasonably good balance overall, our strong right and left wings working in concert. In the late 60s and 70s we soared into our most remarkable decade of envisioning and enacting environmental protections ever, during one of our most conservative administrations ever. It takes that kind of balance to keep eagles soaring.

Right now the nation is mired down economically, stuck in a quagmire in the Middle East, starting to suffer some of the ramifications of global warming with the most extraordinary hurricane season in history, and huge swaths of the arctic permafrost melting, and cars getting no better gas mileage than they did back in the 70s. Shortages of essential vaccinations, long lines and waits in hospital emergency rooms, and insurance and Medicare red tape call to mind the Soviet Union of the 1960s, when their left wing stuck out too far and their right wing had atrophied to nothing. Like Bald Eagles, countries come to a bad end when either wing shrivels.

Even as I think these gloomy thoughts, I look out the window to see a real Bald Eagle soaring in the crisp November sky, its white head and tail glowing in the sunlight, its magnificence a beacon to us, whoing us the way an eagle flies. Attention must be paid.