tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The odd couple

The president’s approval ratings are low; I have heard many people describe George W. Bush as the worst president this country has ever had. I even know Republicans who feel this way. David Gergen, a professor at Harvard and editor-at-large for U.S. News & World Report, said in a speech I heard a while back that he considers Franklin Roosevelt to be the best president of the 20th century.

Without commenting on the effectiveness of either the Bush or Roosevelt presidencies, it strikes me that these two presidents are remarkably alike.

Consider that they both served multiple terms, shortly after periods of unprecedented commercial prosperity. The American public had grown familiar years earlier with the names of both men in preceding presidencies held by relatives with the same name.

Roosevelt and Bush both led the country into unpopular wars following a cataclysmic attack on American soil. Neither was able to lead us out of war. And each vastly expanded the size of the federal government.

It is difficult to ignore the similarities between the institution of social security and the prescription drug benefit, both passed, at least in part, to win political favor. While both offer benefits with populist appeal, both will ultimately undermine the financial integrity of the country.

You never really understand the impact of a presidency until long after the man has left office. Years from now, as historians consider the American presidency, I wonder if more people will examine the similarities of these two leaders, who today are rarely linked.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


About a year and a half ago, I listened to a speech by a guy named Dinesh D’Souza. He had just written a book called “What’s so great about America.” The title is a statement, not a question. As he was describing the plight of people who struggle with real poverty all over the globe, he quipped that while we worry about cars and big houses, many people in Africa, Asia and parts of South America would “be happy to have regular bowel movements.” That line got a little chuckle but I realize now that he wasn’t kidding.

In India, I saw many skinny, near-naked people living in squalor. Some bathed themselves in muddy rainwater that collected in the potholes. Collecting trash, others picked through rubble that lined the streets. In the countryside, I saw people thrashing wheat by hand, or digging in the dirt without tools. Everywhere I went with my travel group, we saw beggars. The water they drink is not clean; the food they eat is not substantial nor particularly nutritious; their living conditions are not safe. Yes, I can understand, their bowels are probably not functioning to their potential. If they were, it would be a big deal. D’Souza wasn’t kidding.

This is Thanksgiving Day and I am not creative enough to think of anything else to do with a blog post today than to give thanks. Of course I am thankful for the really big things, like a great wife and kids, a home, work that I enjoy, faith and great friends, but lately I am finding particular joy in giving thanks for the little things.

For example, I am thankful for matching socks, and paper for writing down ideas, pens that work, pencils that are sharp. I am thankful for shoes and gloves and a warm hat. I am thankful for all those free newspapers that are available throughout the city, not that they offer particularly good reading but they tell me I am in a world full of people with all kinds of different ideas. I am glad everyone is not the same. (Oops, I think that is a big thing, not a little thing.)

I am grateful for the little restaurant where I buy my lunch three days out of five. I am grateful for plumbing, let alone indoor plumbing. I am grateful for soap and a dependable razor. I am grateful for toothpaste that tastes good and dental floss. I am grateful for Kleenex and paper towels, sugar and chocolate chips, banana bread and spaghetti.

I am grateful that someone figured out electrical outlets should be standardized, and I am grateful that someone figured out all the rules for driving on the road, and I am grateful that the parking meters in downtown Minneapolis take a rest on certain holidays, including Thanksgiving. I am grateful for my eyesight and my ears so I can drink up all the interesting things that are going on around me. I am grateful for the squirrels and all the little animals that scurry through my back yard, giving me entertainment.

I am grateful for the people who collect our trash and deliver our mail and provide police and fire protection. I am grateful for the operators who staff the 411 telephone service and the people who put together the phone book. I am grateful for the street cleaners and the cable guy and the meter readers and all the other people who do their jobs to keep the city operating.

But, oops, there I go again. These are big things. None of these things are little. Maybe there are no little things. Good health, including properly functioning bowels, is a big thing.

On this Thanksgiving, in 2007, I am particularly thankful for those people in India. I saw a lot of poor people when I was there but I didn’t see people who had given up. They were persevering. They were making the most of what they have. It seemed to me that they were holding onto hope. They must have seen potential that most of us miss. Thinking about all the things for which I can be grateful is helping some of that potential to come into view for me.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The blessing of adoption

November is National Adoption Awareness Month. I wrote a memoir about adoption, something Susan and I experienced four times. This is an excerpt from Emerging Son ( where I reflect on fatherhood, the result of our adoption efforts.

Why do we have children anyway? It’s a question that seems particularly relevant to adoptive parents. Unlike biological parents, we can’t claim any child was unexpected. We took very deliberate, complicated steps to assure our place as parents. Why?

I was responding to a deep inner yearning – a yearning that almost seems in conflict with itself as I was seeking to reclaim my childhood and at the same time seeking my adulthood. I wanted that family I grew up with. Childhood was such a positive, loving, and happy time for me, I wanted it again. But I also wanted to grow up. Like any living creature, I wanted to become what I am – that is, an adult. And somehow I grew to believe that a typical man approaching 40 should know the love of a wife and kids, the security of home, and meaningful work. As a kid watching my dad, I never realized what a bid deal it was to have all this; now I know.

The same way a baby emerges from the familiar comfort of the womb into the unknown, harsh but opportunity-filled world, a man exchanges a carefree, self-centered existence for the uncertain but potentially joyous responsibility of fatherhood. I am grateful for the time I had as a single man, and for the time I had with Susan before we had children, but I am so grateful for this period. Parenthood demands love and trust and faith like no other period in life I have known. Fatherhood is helping me to replace my natural-born selfishness with selflessness. Maturity is figuring out that the whole world doesn’t revolve around me, and fatherhood is helping me to see that, and more important, to embrace that.

I found my home in fatherhood. Now my job, which could take decades, is to help my kids find their home.

I want the same thing for my children as I want for myself: I want them to work all their lives to replace their natural human selfishness with earnest selflessness.

Love that can change the world comes from a selfless heart. Susan and I will give our kids opportunity. They will go to good schools. We will show them many wonderful places in the United States and the world. And I will support them, no matter what their vocation. Their pursuit of any demanding, honest work will make me proud. But people don’t change the world by what they do, they change the world by who they are. And I pray my children grow to become the selfless heroes that the world so desperately needs.