In the old Center City of Philadelphia, visitors can stand in the room where a modest group of forward-thinking farmers and merchants drafted the document that sealed our rejection of a too-powerful government that wouldn't listen to its people.
The room is carefully preserved, furnished with artifacts and reproductions that bring those 18th-century debates to life. Looking at quill pens forever tucked into their ink wells, and listening to the booming voice of a National Park Service guide with a Ben Franklin hairdo tell the story of the birth of our nation, it's easy to get emotional about the power of dissent. Visiting Independence Hall is a validating experience, especially for a group of editors and publishers who run alternative newsweeklies—those scrappy papers all over the nation that take pride in challenging authority almost as regularly as they refill the office coffeemaker.
Six blocks away, however, veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh slapped us back to the reality known as George W. Bush in 2008.
"We've never had a government this corrupt," Hersh told our group, which was gathered for an annual weekend of idea-swapping and more than a little beer-drinking. "There's nothing more dangerous than a man like that with that much power ... This is the lowest point in American history."
That was a pretty strong indictment, coming from the reporter whose groundbreaking, award-winning exposés range from the massacre at My Lai 40 years ago to the shame of Abu Ghraib. The author of dozens of books and a former New York Times reporter, Hersh is now chronicling Bush's shenanigans with Iran, which he's convinced Dubya plans to carry out before leaving office in January.
In a speech that made the hair on the back of our necks prickle, Hersh walked us through a short history of the future as he sees it.
On Iraq: "How many psychotic 8-year-old kids are there who've lived their whole lives with us as their oppressors?" He's sure we've only begun to glimpse the effects of Bush's Iraqi debacle, from Middle Eastern children who will grow up to avenge their parents to the return of physically and psychologically damaged American troops.
On John McCain: "The more you get to see him, the more he's going to bother you ... He's very hypocritical about everything he stands for; the day after he signed McCain-Feingold [his campaign finance reform bill], he did six fundraisers with lobbyists."
On the price of oil: "We're looking at $200 a barrel before somebody does something."
On Barack Obama: "It's not my vote he needs to get—it's the guy in Appalachia, the one who's going to walk into a box and decide right then: Is he for McCain or Obama?"
Hersh lamented the mess Obama will inherit if he wins in November, and the centrist positions the Democratic nominee may take before then to attract voters. Hersh then issued a challenge to the room full of fellow journalists: "Let's get him elected, and then start to kick him around."
Down the street, I swear I could hear the authors of the First Amendment chuckling.