One of the first things you learn as a parent is the fidelity of a promise. If you promise something to a child, you had better well keep it or he or she will bust your chops for not keeping it. This basic moral contract is the foundation of all civilized transactions.
Unfortunately such purity of intent gets short shrift in practice and the child's view is quickly hammered by life's experiences. In the marriage ceremony people pledge to stay together. Fifty percent renege on such a promise. In the law courts people swear on a Bible to tell the truth and often violate the oath. Contracts are written to confirm a transaction but are often broken in practice.
Sadly, the Latin phrase Caveat Emptor, "let the buyer beware," is the more accurate interpretation of what being honest means in real life. If you truly believe in the concept that a man's word should be his bond, you are dubbed a naïve fool. Ask any cop, prison guard, lawyer, diplomat, salesman and countless others in every walk of life and most will laugh in your face if you profess belief in such a concept.
So why get all excited when it comes to politics when you know in advance that a politician's word is not worth, as Yogi Berra might say, the teleprompter it is written on? A politician in campaign mode is merely a conduit for the erratic crowd mind, which shifts its focus and allegiance based on the manipulative skills of the campaign. Forget labels. Forget all the verities like honor, conscience, fidelity, conviction. A politician in a campaign is like a windsock. He promises wherever the wind blows.
Bottom line: He is selling you on his version of what he can offer that will make you happy, happier, happiest. He is zeroing in on your hopes and dreams, your expectations, feeding your optimism that his views, his talents, his experience, will offer you the magic pill that will best solve all those pesky problems that interfere with your happiness.
This was a rather roundabout way to get at the main theme of this essay. Happiness.
Jefferson, by some strangely mythological insight really, tapped into something. He wrote that "the pursuit of happiness" is a self-evident truth. We know that he did have a little editorial help and, after all, the signers had to debate the text, but it baffles me how "pursuit of happiness" was shoehorned into the text of the Declaration of Independence. It seems so jarring, so seductive, so obviously pandering for such a political manifesto.
And yet so true, so right.
What was really meant by the insertion of that phrase in the founding document of the rebellion against its British overlords which subsequently formed the basis of the American experiment?
As near as I can interpret it, it meant that happiness and its pursuit is a universal yearning. All people, all of us, without fear or favor, should be allowed to live a long healthy, safe and secure life without pain, without discomfort, without displacement, enjoying all the benefits and joys of freedom, personal fulfillment and pleasures of the mind and body, and to pursue our hopes and dreams to their full potential. The implication, of course, was that only after the bonds with Britain were cut would the citizens of the thirteen colonies be able to pursue happiness and that we, the signers, held the key to unlock such unfettered pursuit.
To me it is the key phrase of the Declaration of Independence. That other stuff about all men being created equal, as we all know, is a bit of rhetorical overkill for political purposes and hardly the prevailing view of many of the signers. In the age of the double helix, the idea of "creative" equality has lost its cache, not to mention its accuracy.
But that "pursuit of happiness" phrase endures because it carries an essential truth. It is the assertive wish of all mankind and is the bottom line of all political systems, especially ours. Everything is about the pursuit of happiness and every promise made by any political leader is geared to that idea.
The key word, of course, is "pursuit," and the more leeway you have in pursuing happiness the better chance you'll have to attain it. Where repressive leaders reign your chances are a lot slimmer. But in a people's choice democratic government like ours, even with all its flaws, at least you'll have a reasonable shot at attaining it in some realistic measure. It doesn't mean you'll catch the big "H" in all of its manifestations. Chances are you won't. But with luck you might get a piece of it, even though you know it can never last since we all know that this life's final lap isn't much fun.
Of course, there are those who believe that earthly happiness is an illusion and that the real reward, the real happiness, is attained elsewhere. Just ask any suicide bomber, providing you ask him before he wiggles the toggle. Of course there are those who believe in the path to an afterlife that does not require mowing down your fellow man to enter. That is a debate we'll leave for another time, but for now, I'd prefer to stick to events that transpire on planet earth.
Getting down to the concrete in today's political terms, our choice is, as always, between which of the two major candidates, Obama or McCain, will make it easier for us to "pursue happiness." Whatever vision of the future they propose, whatever programs they espouse, whatever promises they make, whatever words they employ and however they're hyped and parsed, it will all boil down to that one very simple idea that found its meandering way into the crucial document of the American experience.
It would be interesting to know how others define the phrase "pursuit of happiness." As for me, I'm running as fast as I can.
Warren Adler is the author of 30 novels, including The War of the Roses and his latest, Funny Boys.