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Future Shock: National Debt

 By NBC Washington Bureau Managing Editor Albert Oetgen

Several reporters and producers in the Washington Bureau of NBC News were assigned last week to take a broad look at the implications of the unprecedented level of federal deficit spending and exploding national debt. Their series, Future Shock, begins with Lisa Myers' piece tonight. 

The faces of Everett McKinley Dirksen and Lawrence Peter Berra were shaped for preservation on the likes of Mount Rushmore, their voices tuned for broadcast on old-time radio. Jowly, gravelly. They are American icons.

Each of these wise public men, these plain-spoken armchair philosophers, contributed significant phrases to the American language, memorable phrases that have been been mimicked and repurposed over and over and over again. In and through that repetition, the words and thoughts of Ev Dirksen and Yogi Berra have helped us understand fundamental truths about ourselves and our collective culture.

Yogi, who played on 10 World Series winners, said: "It ain't over 'til it's over."

Senator Dirksen, the influential minority leader of the Senate when Lyndon Johnson was wielding unprecedented power in the White House, said: "A million here, a million there, and pretty soon you're talking big money."

Or so people say.

Yogi himself once said "I really didn't say everything I said." And he has made hay out of the popular reaction to his fractured syntax.

Researchers at the Dirksen Center www.dirksencenter.org say they've never been able to establish that the senator said what he was supposed to have said. In fact, they've found evidence Dirksen once said: "Oh, I never said that. A newspaper fella misquoted me and I thought it sounded so good I never bothered to deny it."

But wisdom has grown from myth since the moment we humans began organizing ourselves. And regardless of what Dirksen really said, in the same fashion that Yogi Berra, perhaps the most skilled bad-ball hitter in the history of baseball, never gave up, Senator Dirksen never gave up on talking about the threat of federal deficit spending and debt.

Here's a story he once spun to complain about a proposal in 1965 to lift the debt ceiling to $328 billion, as documented by the Dirksen Center:

"One time in the House of Representatives [a colleague] told me about a proposition that a teacher put to a boy. He said, 'Johnny, a cat fell in a well 100 feet deep. Suppose that cat climbed up 1 foot and then fell back 2 feet. How long would it take the cat to get out of the well?"

"Johnny worked assiduously with his slate and slate pencil for quite a while, and then when the teacher came down and said, 'How are you getting along?' Johnny said, 'Teacher, if you give me another slate and a couple of slate pencils, I am pretty sure that in the next 30 minutes I can land that cat in hell.' "

Last week, Congress raised the debt ceiling by $1.9 TRILLION, to $14.3 trillion. Maybe that's not hell, but it's making a whole lot of people begin to sweat profusely.

The latest prominent politician to paraphrase Dirksen was President Obama. He told CBS News on Sunday: "The package that we've put together, the Congressional Budget Office says, will cut the deficit by a trillion dollars. Even in Washington, that's real money."

Debt or deficit, there's general agreement that all this red ink is bad for us, and a lot of people think that the long run is finally here. How bad? Some pessimists say the Great American Republic is in demonstrable decline and, just as the 19th Century belonged to the British, and the 20th to the Americans, the 21st will belong to the Chinese.

But then, there's Yogi.

As American as hot dogs, apple pie and, well, baseball, the Yankee catcher is a reliable guide through all of this. The unfettered political environment, the freedom to oppose and thrive, the free-wheeling political crucible in which Everett Dirksen could flourish and influence things from a minority position, is our strength. The planned and managed economy of China might be working now, but the downside is significant.

Here's what Yogi would say about the decline of America:

It ain't over 'til it's over.