The president's speech on stem cell research was striking for its reasonableness, its lack of rhetorical flourishes, its appeal to a thoughtful audience. It contained no glitz at all. In fact, you could have watched it on color television and remembered it in black and white.
You could have heard it on the radio and it would have had the same impact as the visual.
It was, in short, a well-reasoned, thought-out defense without appealing to politics or ideology. The hot button issues were in the ear of the beholder, not on the tongue of the president. The excitable pundits have had such a hard time discussing it. The reasoning simply doesn't lend itself to food-fight ferocity, the fireworks that are the lifeblood of cable-TV argument.
All those who like to believe that George W. Bush isn't smart found him smart enough to synthesize with succinctness complex information on stem cell research that had the reporters and commentators studying, too.
He listened to a broad spectrum of men and women, scientists, religious leaders, bioethicists, people touched by incurable diseases, and ordinary folks of faith and some without faith. He marshaled facts persuasively to make a reasoned case. Like it or not, it was hard to refute the process or the final product if you consider that it was brought together by the leader of a democracy, not a theocracy, a president not a prophet, a leader of the free world and not the brave new world.
The New York Times grumbled that the president was "William Jefferson Bush," wriggling out of controversy. Nothing could be farther off the mark. His decision was anything but poll driven. His didn't depend on arcane discussion of what the meaning of is is. It was a political success because he didn't pander or manipulate, but attempted to persuade without appeals to special interests.
It's not hard for various groups representing different ideologies to quarrel with certain aspects of the final decision (and I do), but disputes arise with an earnest respect for human fallibility. Mere mortals, rather than the devil, are in the details.
The core of the argument was at the center of the speech. "As the discoveries of modern science create tremendous hope, they also lay vast ethical minefields," the president said. "As the genius of science extends the horizons of what we can do, we increasingly confront complex questions about what we should do."
As Thomas Aquinas might have put it, "If our natures were different our duties would be different." But the president is not a scholastic philosopher and he can't develop an argument as a monk. He must consider what is good for the community, given our perception of the nature of human nature today within a democratic rather than a theocratic society. The advancements in science are secular and must be monitored by ethical secularists who measure morality from different philosophical perspectives.
One of the important offshoots of the discussion over stem cell research is the seriousness with which the public - or that part of the public paying attention - has for once engaged an ethical issue, fully informed and nuanced with ideas from both religion and science. This discussion can't be reduced to something to accommodate a Sesame Street attention span. It can't be trivialized by flashy sound bites. How we confront this issue is as important as the issue itself.
A growing number of Americans, at least the ones who write to me, express concern about how we get information (and misinformation) today - scientific, political, historical - and how "facts" filtered through the media and the popular culture are dumbed down, sensationalized and/or infected with the arrogance of political correctness.
Intellectual and popular trends, of course, have always influenced what we learn and how we learn it, but with our pervasive media culture the public is particularly at the mercy of political fashion and strongly influenced by the instant high-tech discussions on the Internet. It's increasingly difficult to separate accuracy from the apocryphal.
No one knows the full potential of stem cell research. We're probably years away from finding answers to most of the questions that will be sought in this research. The president did not play the exaggeration card in his speech. In fact, it was an exercise in humility. When he appointed a council of leading scientists, doctors, ethicists, lawyers, theologians, chaired by Dr. Leon Kass, a biomedical ethicist from the University of Chicago, he expressed hope that all concerned would be guided by capabilities and conscience.
Nothing more, but nothing less.