I wasn't alive for Kennedy and I was really a little too young for Reagan. And while Bush 41 and Clinton had some wise things to say, the wisest thing I've ever heard a presidential candidate say came from a character named Fred Picker.
Picker was a decent fellow, a former Florida governor who got into the race after another like-minded candidate became gravely ill on the campaign trail. He was actually ahead in the polls for awhile, but never claimed the Oval Office.
"You know this is a terrific country, but sometimes we go a little crazy," Picker once said. "Maybe that's part of our greatness, part of our freedom. But if we don't watch out and calm down, it might just spin out of control."
I'm afraid the worst fears of Picker -- actually a character in the 1998 movie "Primary Colors" -- might be coming true. As Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Murfreesboro) gets ready to host two town halls next week, many aspects of the health-care debate have already spun out of control.
For example: almost half of Americans believe the plan would leave it up to the government to decide when to stop care for the elderly. Of course, it's utter nonsense.
And more than half believe the plan covers illegal immigrants. That's patently false. The same goes for the notion that the government will start paying for abortions.
The debate has been distorted, when it really should be an easy sell.
Our health-care system is broken. Because of out-of-control costs, nearly 1 in 6 Americans does not have health insurance, leaving that individual a heart attack away from bankruptcy.
Allowing for a public option -- basically removing the "65-and-under" clause from Medicare -- would cut costs and ensure everyone gets the necessary care, something that's happening now.
Please don't get me wrong: There logical arguments to be made against health care, stemming mainly from both the start-up cost and government's spotty track-record of efficiency. There is room for compromise.
But for every rational point, there's dishonest garbage that drowns out both sides of the debate.
The easily debunked "death panels" comment, which originated from an amendment about estate planning, comes to mind. The fact former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and others have twisted the meaning of a Republican amendment into a vehicle for scaring seniors is, frankly, unforgivable.
Then again, rational debate requires time and forethought. Just ask Picker.
"You know the world is getting more and more complicated," he said, "and politicians have to explain things to you in simpler terms, so they can get their little oversimplified explanations on the evening news. And eventually instead of even trying to explain things, they give up and just start slinging mud at each other."
But rational debate needs to make a comeback, especially as we wrap up a wild decade: an election that went to the Supreme Court; a terrorist attack that destroyed 3,000 lives; two wars; an incredible natural disaster; meltdown of our banking system and auto industry, helping trigger the worst economy in 70 years; the first minority President; and a proposed overhaul of health care. And that list doesn't even touch climate change or immigration.
So now's the time for dialogue, not dogma. And while extreme figures like Palin (the left has them, too) stir emotions -- so does a car wreck or a wrestling match -- they don't help the public discourse.
"It's time to quieten things down and start having a conversation," Picker would say.
Let's hope that conversation starts Monday night.
These views are the author's and not necessarily reflective of the Tribune's views.