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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - David Shribman

RealClearPolitics - Articles - David Shribman

Last Build Date: Sun, 12 Apr 2009 00:00:00 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2009

The Recovery Cometh

Sun, 12 Apr 2009 00:00:00 -0600

It may take years for the cost of this recession to be paid back -- and if you are young, the scars from this recession will be with you always. You'll be leery of the stock market, careful about buying a house, afraid to spend -- all good things, I hasten to add, as long as they are adopted in moderation. (A little moderation a few years ago might have prevented this whole mess. But this morning we're looking forward, not backward.) Yet for all the gloom, there are some bright spots -- not enough to think that 2009 will be a bright harvest of prosperity, to be sure, but enough to think that this downturn, in our economy and in our outlook, won't last forever. Just as the prosperity of the last decade sowed the seeds for this recession, this recession is sowing the seeds for the recovery. The most important national story of the past week may have been a poll. That's a sentence I never thought I'd type, but the New York Times/CBS News poll showed rises in two very important cultural and economic markers. There is a dramatic increase in the rate of Americans who say that things are going in the right direction. And the gap between those who think the economy is getting worse (still the preponderant view) and those who think it is getting better is narrowing substantially, especially when measured against the soundings taken only six months ago. Economists talk in a peculiar dialect -- they put the jumbo in mumbo jumbo -- but a lot of the dismal science can be distilled down to three syllables: confidence. Confidence is the oxygen of the stock market and of the pedestrian marketplace. If you feel good at the mall, you might actually buy something. If they feel good on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, your portfolio may actually look pretty good, or at least better, at month's end. (Check yours for this month and you will see what I mean. It may not yet be safe to open that envelope, but if you take a deep breath and break the seal, the horror may not be as terrible as it would have been two months ago.) I'm not arguing that the recession is over. I'm merely arguing that it will be over, and if you agree that the ultimate measure of the American marketplace is the motorcar industry, you may agree, too, that prosperity may not be just around the corner but that it is not too many blocks away. The reason is simple. Lots of people bought cars in the past decade. In fact, the average American car is nearly a decade old. Many of those cars need to be replaced now, or needed to be replaced two years ago. Soon it won't be possible to put off the inevitable anymore. And when that happens on a mass scale, there will be a recovery in the automobile sector. You thought economics was complex and forbidding? Maybe it's as simple as looking at the nation's odometers, or your own. All of that is not even considering the potential market of greener cars. The manufacturer who comes up with the greenest one will be producing a lot of green of its own. There may be no profits in the auto industry in 2009, but there may be big ones in years to come. Let's look for a moment at some of those poll results that prompted this discussion in the first place. The number of Americans who thought the country was going in the right direction has more than doubled since mid-January. The number of Americans who thought the economy was getting worse has dropped by about a third. These are big changes. They both reflect the national psychology and create a new national psychology. From the start it was clear that in this recession, the warfare was psychological and that the most we had to fear was a fearful, and fearsome, sense of despair. Not that the sun has broken through the gloom just yet. This recession has been horribly resistant to the usual remedies, and horribly resilient. It began, after all, in December 2007 -- 16 months ago. Modern recessions last about 11 months, give or take a month or two. This one roars on, five months past its life expectancy. Meanwhile, Americans' average net worth is down by more than a fifth. Investm[...]

Big Change

Sun, 05 Apr 2009 00:00:00 -0600

"What has transpired in the last six months in the U.S. and elsewhere is that the forces of the universe overwhelmed everybody in ways that have forced change, and at a circumstance not of our choosing," says Michael Useem, who directs the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. "We're making change in a reactive way and not a proactive way. We can wish we had driven the change a few years ago." But that's a wish, and it's too late for that. For in truth this is a period of historic change. It is a period almost without precedent in terms of the speed, breadth and depth of change. When your grandchildren read about the period we are experiencing right now -- and let's hope they read -- they may study things like this: Manufacturing. China now is the world's leading exporter of manufactured goods. The last big change of this scale was the emergence of the United States as a manufacturing and exporting colossus in the 20th century, and the implications of that were profound. It meant that American goods were predominant abroad, of course, but it also meant that American culture made inroads in other societies and that American ways of doing business became the global ways of doing business. That's over. Just last week the Manufacturers Alliance distributed a report with an ominous title: "China Displaces United States as Dominant Exporter of Manufactures in Asian Markets: What Happens Next?" One terrifying fact: At the turn of the century, American machinery, telecommunications and electronics exports to the principal Asian trading partners were nearly four times as big as those of China. Last year, Chinese exports to those trading partners were more than double American exports. The dollar. For the lifetime of almost everyone on Earth, the dollar has been the medium of world commerce. That has been true in good times and in bad, even during the recession of the 1980s and during the emergence of Japan and the other Asian economic powers at the end of the 20th century. The symbol of this is the fact that oil is traded in dollars. But now Iran and Venezuela are talking about pricing oil in other denominations. There are rumblings out of China that it is growing tired of buying American bonds and that perhaps a new global currency should be created. The result almost certainly will be a fundamental change in the role of the dollar and in the way the world does business. Automobiles. For nearly a century, America has measured its economic health by the health of its motorcar industry. That is the origin of one of the most popular and misunderstood comments in American history, the remark by General Motors President Charles E. Wilson about America's fate being tied to that of GM. Now Washington is deciding whether what is good for GM actually is good for America. Early this year Toyota supplanted GM as world's biggest producer of automobiles, a title GM had held since wrestling it away from Ford in 1931. The automobile industry is in turmoil and trouble, and that is a symbol of a broader transition away from established ways of doing business, from the back office to the assembly line. Banking. Americans fought over the role of banks in the days of George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, and we are fighting over it in the days of Barack Obama. No longer is it impossible to contemplate an American financial scene dominated by banks that are dominated by Washington. We have witnessed the virtual nationalization of America's banks, and the most remarkable aspect of it is that the process began in the most conservative presidency since Herbert Hoover's. Wall Street. This fabled part of lower Manhattan has long been a favorite American metaphor. Now many people, some of them members of Congress eager to tax corporate bonuses at rates as high as 90 percent, regard it as a giant crime scene. Wall Street hasn't been this much in disrepute since 1929. Already some of the titans of the S[...]

Three Mile Island

Sun, 29 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

"I can't stand the sight of the things anymore," Machita said to me that afternoon. I called her up the other day and together we relived the frightening time we shared so long ago. Machita is now 67, a retired secretary, and what she said was eerily similar to her remarks three decades earlier: "I couldn't stand the sight of the towers." As news of the accident circulated, Machita and her family packed their suitcases in their home by the Susquehanna and fled -- her neighbor told me she was more afraid of the panic than the radiation -- and a year later they sold the place, just to get away, moving about 15 miles north. But the story of Three Mile Island, and the spring when technology seemed to turn from wonder to threat, never fully left her. Machita, her husband and her daughter all developed thyroid problems. Proving causation in these cases is a difficult task, but, she said, "I think it is unusual three members of the same family have this and it is not hereditary, not in our family." And Machita was left with a lingering doubt about the people, then and now, who are supposed to know and understand what she doesn't know and understand. "You couldn't trust what anybody said, the government or any authority," she said last week. Three Mile Island was a technological failure, a political challenge and a cultural marker. It was that moment when the word "meltdown" was transformed from metaphor to menace. Those who were there, and those who watched in fear from afar, were shaped by the notion that nuclear accidents could be real and imminent, not simply the stuff of movies like "The China Syndrome," the Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon film that was showing at the East Five theater complex only miles from the nuclear plant that week. One line of dialogue stuck out to everyone who crowded into the special 11:30 p.m. showings: "It could render an area the size of Pennsylvania uninhabitable." Three Mile Island didn't do that, of course. But it chilled a nation, and it chilled the nuclear-power industry for decades. It also showed the power of rumors and news snippets to produce mayhem. When reports circulated that an expanding bubble of hydrogen gas could lead to an explosion in the damaged reactor, waves of panic surged through the Harrisburg area, prompting Gov. Richard Thornburgh to call an unforgettable midnight press conference in his office. "I appeal to all Pennsylvanians to display an appropriate degree of calm and patience," he said, as anxious reporters, worried about their Sunday-edition deadlines and about whether they might soon be dead, crowded around his desk. Thornburgh exuded calm. He later served as U.S. attorney general and today is a Washington attorney. Last week he was a featured guest at a Nuclear Regulatory Commission session on the accident. His topic: emergency management. It is important to remember that the accident in the Pennsylvania countryside came only five years after Watergate and only four after the end of the Vietnam War. The president of the United States at the time was a nuclear engineer. All these factors combined to underline the toxic mix of betrayal, distrust and skepticism that Three Mile Island fed upon -- and fostered. Government had recently left Americans disappointed and dispirited. Two presidents in a row, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon, were found to be mendacious. The military had been discredited in Vietnam. The clergy was under siege. Universities had become ideological battlegrounds. Now technology was being revealed as, to borrow a poignant phrase from the Cold War, the god that failed. "The first lesson learned is to expect the unexpected when you are dealing with technology, particularly one that has the potential of being life-threatening and ecologically disastrous," Thornburgh, one of the few heroes of Three Mile Island, said in a conversation last week. "You should never say 'this can't happen here' and you have to have a healthy skepticism toward technology." No one knows how [...]

The Tragic Story of Monte Cassino

Sun, 22 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

At the center of the battle was a great hulking monastery, which, founded by St. Benedict in A.D. 529 and used as the model for abbeys throughout Western Europe, was one of the most sacred sites of Christianity. With five courtyards, with the echoes of centuries of pilgrims' footfalls and with one of the greatest repositories of Christian writing dating to antiquity, Monte Cassino was by any measure one of the cultural gems of what still might have been the world's most powerful continent and what indisputably is one of the world's great faiths. Everyone recognized the monastery for what it was: a cultural icon situated on what inevitably was described as one of the greatest defensive positions in all of Europe. The cradle of the Benedictine Order, it was, as David Hapgood and David Richardson put it in their 1984 account of the Cassino conflict, "a treasure literally without price." So much so that, months before the battle, Italian museum officials had alerted Allied officials of the treasures that rested within its walls, 20-feet thick at their base, and Lt. Gen. Mark Clark specifically called for great care to preserve the monastery. A month before the battle, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the Allied supreme commander, sent a message to "all commanders" that said: "Today we are fighting in a country which has contributed a great deal to our cultural inheritance, a country rich in monuments which by their creation helped and now in their old age illustrate the growth of the civilization which is ours. We are now bound to respect those monuments so far as war allows." But there was a caveat to Eisenhower's entreaty. "If we have to choose between destroying a famous building and sacrificing our own men," he said, "then our men's lives count infinitely more and the buildings must go." Eventually the Allies faced this choice, between saving men and saving a building built by men in celebration of their God. It was a difficult, wrenching debate, made all the more agonizing by persistent suspicions that the Nazis had converted an immense monastery into an impregnable fort -- suspicions fueled by reports, never confirmed, that 30 machine guns were installed in the monastery, or that someone saw field glasses in an abbey window, or that shots were coming from the building. Finally a U.S. air wing intelligence analysis concluded that Monte Cassino had "accounted for the lives of upwards of 2,000 boys," adding: "This monastery must be destroyed and everyone in it, as there is no one in it but Germans." And so the bombing proceeded -- "swarms of bright pellets tumbled toward the abbey," Rick Atkinson wrote in "The Day of Battle," his masterly account of the war in Italy, "as if heaven itself were throwing silver stones." There were, as it turned out, no Germans in the abbey, though the destruction of the monastery by 250 bombers dropping 600 tons of high explosives and incendiaries provided the Germans with a crude high position, militarily and morally, that they had not occupied before the bombing. No one knows how many were killed inside the abbey, though 148 skulls later were found, a figure that almost certainly does not account for the full toll of monks, pilgrims and visitors. For the Americans who fought and survived the battles that preceded and followed the abbey bombing, the war was not over. There was still the passage to Rome, still the capture of the Eternal City, still a year more of a conflict that itself seemed eternal. For the sake of those who fought and died, this story cannot be forgotten. "Blasted to oblivion before their time, they would not want to be thought of as heroes; and to be truthful, they were not," wrote Harold L. Bond, who fought at Cassino and wrote an affecting memoir about the battle. "They were simply young men caught in the grim web of modern history, and they deserved to be remembered as men who, when the time came, did what was asked of them." Harry Bond went on to teach Gibbon and the King J[...]

The First-Hundred Daze

Sun, 15 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

But from the start that was an unfair comparison or, if you are one of the many readers who think the press is rooting too hard for President Obama, you may prefer calling it an inappropriate comparison. FDR faced the worst economic conditions in the history of the modern world. Obama faces the worst economic conditions in about three decades. More than 4,000 banks had failed in the two months leading to the Roosevelt inauguration and a quarter of American workers had no job. Things are bad now -- no, they are terrible -- but they are not as bad as they were in Roosevelt's first few months. Not even close. So far we have nothing to compare with the creation of FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., any one of which has a more solid claim to socialist roots than the Obama plans that have returned "socialist" to its position as one of the deadliest, and least-accurately applied, sobriquets in American politics. But that doesn't mean nothing has changed. Nor does it add fuel to the argument, made by real socialists in countries where there is a real socialist tradition, that there is substantially no difference between America's Democrats and its Republicans -- or that American politicians are so stuck in the center-right that their views run the gamut from A to B, which was Dorothy Parker's description of Katharine Hepburn's emotions. It is true that the Obama administration largely has adopted, not adapted, the Bush administration's approach to bailing out banks, big investment houses and other capitals of capitalism deemed too big to fail. (In that regard, ironically, the Bushkins were as socialist as the Obamatrons. But that is another column.) Even so, it is possible to look across the American landscape and see substantial alterations in the terrain. From the biggest questions in jurisprudence to the biggest questions in science, there has been not a tremor but an earthquake. Here's a tour d'horizon of the new world order: Taxes. The president may not get his way -- it's a good bet that the big-money interests, plus charitable institutions, will besiege the Ways and Means Committee and put a stop to the Obama plan -- but for the first time in a decade there are serious conversations about changing some of the fundamentals of the tax code, at least at the higher-income levels. Past presidents have been chary of openly calling for tax increases. Obama apparently has no such reluctance. Constitutional questions. George W. Bush issued scores of signing statements, presidential remarks that sometimes adjusted the meaning of legislation and sometimes provided roadmaps for bureaucrats to blunt the intent of legislation. During the 2008 campaign, Obama criticized this practice, and though he has said he will not discontinue it completely, it already is apparent he will issue far fewer of these documents and do so with far more restraint. Military matters. Obama has trimmed back slightly his campaign proposals for a swift withdrawal from Iraq, but it is clear he views the conflict as a burden for the United States rather than as an opportunity for Iraq -- a substantial change in Washington's emphasis and approach. At the same time, he has ordered 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. The net effect of both of these is to shift the equilibrium between the two wars away from Iraq and toward Afghanistan. Science. Obama last week overturned the Bush administration's ban on federal funding for research involving embryonic stem cells, a move that cheered many researchers and angered leaders of the anti-abortion movement. This, too, represents a change in the political equilibrium, away from anti-abortion advocates and toward other interest groups, including supporters of legal abortion. Another important scientific initiative from the Obama camp: a clear signal that the administration regards global climate change as a challenge to [...]

Is Obama Trying to Do Too Much?

Sun, 08 Mar 2009 00:25:00 -0600

Now that the Dow has given up half its value, the government has thrown trillions of dollars into banks and investment houses, and unemployment is doing a high step toward alarming levels, Obama is calculating that hope is not enough. He's using as his playbook the promises of the Obama campaign. Already the Obama opposition is developing, engaging one terrifying word (socialism) and two scary ones (too much). The question of this troubled hour is whether the president is trying to do too much, spend too much, risk too much. Many years ago former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo used to say that a governor could do anything he wanted, but he couldn't do everything he wanted. Obama, who was 21 years old when Cuomo was first elected as governor, may not have heard that message. So he's going for the full monty. (Check out the movie of that title and you will see, appropriately, that it was a story about a bunch of unemployed guys.) He wants to provide universal health care (and believes it's possible). He wants to attack global warming (and believes it's warranted). He wants to change the way education is underwritten (and believes it's essential). In the old days the budget curmudgeons worried about billions. That is so 2008. Some perspective: Reagan won the White House in part by deploring Jimmy Carter's budget deficit, which was $73 billion. All of Washington was aghast -- in shock! -- at that figure. Obama is contemplating a budget deficit of $1.75 trillion -- 24 times bigger than Carter's. That is enough to make former Sen. Everett Dirksen gag, even though he's dead. (Dirksen remarked that "a billion here and a billion there and pretty soon we're talking about real money." Now, a billion has become a mere rounding error.) It's not hard to see why Obama is doing this. The financial crisis has one terrific asset. It diminishes the barriers against doing the really difficult things the government hasn't been able to afford for years. Obama's predecessor threw around billions, maybe trillions (we may never know how much), to save AIG and some of the biggest financial firms in the country. When the government in the flick of an eye can obligate more than $700 billion for mortgage-backed securities, it sure takes the sting out of a health-care plan that averages out to $63 billion annually over 10 years. Here's a measure of that: The first time I typed that sentence, my fingers inserted the word "only" before $63 billion. Then my brain kicked in and I deleted the word. There was a time when conservatives argued that deficits didn't matter. That was when deficits were (relatively) diminutive, and when the economy was growing. The notion was that tax cuts would fuel more growth, which would increase tax revenue, and even if deficits increased for a while everything would come out OK in the end. There is negative or little growth now, and the great incalculable is whether all this government money sloshing around in the economy will spur growth or create the mother of all deficits and the mother of all crises for some other year. Some other year like 2010. Even the people who are supposed to know these things don't pretend to, which is another reminder, as if we needed one these days, why economics is oftentimes called the dismal science. But the president, who counts audacity as a measure of character, is using the crisis to do what would be more difficult to do if the economy were more nearly normal. If things were good, he'd have a harder time committing tens of billions to green the economy, expand health care or overhaul education. And so, the crisis is setting Obama free. But the things he wants are not free, even if Jack F. Kemp, Newt Gingrich and other movement conservatives used to argue that deficits didn't matter. Maybe deficits don't matter in some eras and they matter in others. Maybe small deficits don't matter and big ones do. Maybe big deficits are not bad i[...]

Obama's America

Sun, 01 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

The president is a luminous figure, a symbol of American possibility, the personification of decades of dreams, particularly for black Americans. (So was John F. Kennedy to Catholics, and Ronald Reagan to conservatives.) But for almost a month's time the world's most hopeful character had become one of the world's biggest downers. Let's leave aside this morning any qualms we might have about a man who can pick up and then put down the hope handle with such apparent ease. Instead let's examine the tension between optimism and pragmatism, and the difficult equilibrium between rallying the country for a challenge and providing it with a sobering view of that challenge. The president's nationally televised speech was something of a wedding reception. Something borrowed: His address subtly embedded phrases from two men who held the same seat in the Senate, Daniel Webster ("something worthy to be remembered") and Kennedy ("twilight struggle"). Something blue: He issued a clear warning of the dangers ahead. But he combined all of that with a clarion call for action and an assurance -- this you might think of as Reaganesque -- that Americans could pull out of the current crisis and pull off something remarkable, like providing health care to all Americans. It's hard enough to do that rhetorically. It will be doubly difficult to do it realistically. Yet last week marked a significant passage in the current crisis. Americans have known for some time that the economy was in turmoil, and they have seen their neighbors if not themselves lose jobs, savings, confidence and, yes, hope. But last week the crisis seemed to have been transformed from something transitory to something stubbornly resistant to reasonable and customary remedy. That's why the Obama address in the House chamber Tuesday was so important -- one of those moments, like Franklin Roosevelt's speech after Pearl Harbor or Lyndon Johnson's speech after the Kennedy assassination, when the nation welcomed a big speech in a big venue about a big topic. Never mind that the Obama speech had strains of his Iowa caucus victory remarks and his acceptance speech at the Denver convention. The president had the nation's attention, and with his speech he scratched on the wall of history. For all the talk of the president's Lincoln obsession -- one cannot fault the man's taste, though perhaps his hubris -- this was a speech that seemed deliberately to use FDR as its model. The president pointedly used the word "rebuild," but in truth the blueprint he set out last week was not only to rebuild the country, but also to build a different country. Roosevelt's task, too, was to rebuild a country wracked by Depression and hobbled with hopelessness. (Obama's challenge, right now at least, is not quite as great.) But Roosevelt used the crisis to construct a different kind of country entirely, one where the federal government no longer intruded on the ordinary citizen's life only when he went to the post office (the model used by the three Republican presidents who preceded FDR) but instead played an activist role in stimulating the economy and perhaps actually running the economy, or at least some sectors of it. The irony is that some of the modern equivalent of FDR's New Deal began under perhaps the most devoutly conservative president since William McKinley; it was George W. Bush's administration, after all, that put Washington in such a commanding position over the nation's banks. But Obama, deftly building on the idea that an economic crisis is a political opportunity, clearly wants the country that emerges from the current upheaval to be a different country, with substantially different financial, health and educational infrastructures. Last week's speech was the functional equivalent of a State of the Union address, though Obama technically won't give one of those for another 10 months. But State of the Union[...]

Washington's Legacy

Sun, 22 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600

It is true, too, that America doesn't really need the Lincoln Memorial. Lincoln's memory lives in the nation's splendid diversity, in its ennobling spirit and in its resilient hopes even in the face of economic adversity and foreign threats. But if Lincoln saved the country, Washington created the country. As a citizen, he won the war that set it free. As a general, he established the tradition of civilian rule. As a ruler, he assured that the United States would be a democracy, not a monarchy. Born an English subject, he died an American patriot. The two men had one important thing in common. Lincoln and Washington looked at the great suffering of war and knew that to redeem it, they had to make their wars -- the American Revolution, the Civil War -- mean more at the end than they had at the beginning. In both cases, that cause was freedom and democracy. So we err this month if we focus on Lincoln to the exclusion of Washington. The historian Gordon S. Wood, perhaps the most complex mind ever to examine the colonial and Revolutionary period, expressed Washington's impact in perhaps the simplest sentence ever written in a classic book of historiography: "Washington was truly a great man and the greatest president we ever had." Washington remains the model of presidential greatness. In his new biography of Andrew Jackson, Jon Meacham says of the Tennessean: "(I)f he chose to, he would make himself a factor in deciding any question in American life." So was this true with Washington, but the difference is that Jackson played this role only in life, while Washington has played it in life and in death. Jackson's reign was eight years. Washington's is more than 220 ... and counting. In his 2004 biography of Washington, "His Excellency," the historian Joseph J. Ellis wrote that Benjamin Franklin was wiser, Alexander Hamilton smarter, John Adams better read, Thomas Jefferson more sophisticated, James Madison more astute. "Yet," he argued, "each and all of these prominent figures acknowledged that Washington was their unquestioned superior." Ellis described Washington as "the most ambitious, determined and potent personality of an age not lacking for worthy rivals." Earlier this month I set forth four lessons that Barack Obama, with his obvious attraction to Lincoln, might learn from the 16th president. On the birthday of Lincoln's distinguished predecessor, here are four lessons the new president might learn from the first president: Remember that the value of power is not in its possession but in its use. "The pleasing emotions which are excited in ordinary men on their acquisition of power," David Ramsay wrote in his early 19th century biography of Washington, "were inferior to those which Washington felt on the resignation of it." American history is full of examples of the relief presidents felt on relinquishing power. But American presidents, with the exception of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, felt obligated to relinquish power after eight years because Washington made it unseemly not to do so. By 1951, Washington's custom had been transformed into law. But that isn't the lesson. The lesson is that power is a tool to be used -- to shore up a nation's economy, to cite an example relevant both to 1789 and 2009 -- and not a prerogative to be guarded. Liberate yourself from the consensus of today and seek broader truths beyond. Washington has been criticized, along with other members of the founding generation, for his ownership of slaves. At one point, Washington expressed the sincere desire to see "a plan adopted for the abolition" of slavery, but he backed away from pressing the matter in Congress and kept his slaves in bondage during his lifetime. Still, Washington understood justice more profoundly than did many of his contemporaries, including the great exponent of liberty, Thomas Jefferson. "I can for[...]

Lincoln's Legacy

Mon, 16 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600

So what are we to make of Thursday's 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, coming as it does in the first month of the administration of Barack Obama, the first black president? Mere coincidence? Or some celestial mystery whose message we dare not ignore? These questions perhaps are better suited to the Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung than to the newspaper columnist. (Tantalizing fact: Jung was born during Reconstruction only to die during the civil rights movement.) But this remarkable moment surely offers lessons for Barack Obama. Here are some that Lincoln might endorse for his spiritual successor: Be the friend of the soldier, the scourge of the generals. Lincoln biographies are full of stories of the strong affinity between the man who prosecuted the war and the men who fought it, a bond that was sealed at the cottage on the grounds of the Soldiers' Home on the outskirts of Washington (where Lincoln would later write the Emancipation Proclamation) and in visits to troops in various theaters of battle. "Lincoln never came to regard the army as a mere machine, never forgot the individual men who made it up," the great 19th-century journalist Ida M. Tarbell wrote. "From the outset, he was the personal friend of every soldier he sent to the front, and somehow every man seemed to know it." As faithful as he was to the soldiers, he was equally skeptical of the generals, particularly Gen. George B. McClellan, who eventually would run against Lincoln in the 1864 election. So impatient with McClellan's procrastination and excuses was Lincoln that he finally remarked: "If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a time." Obama has made a start, at least on the first half of the matter. His beloved grandfather fought with George S. Patton in World War II and may have passed down some of his attitudes on military matters. Serving under Patton tended to make soldiers more devoted to each other and less devoted to their generals. Many of them thought that Patton, known as "Old Blood and Guts," fought with their blood and his guts. But like the last two presidents, Obama is not a veteran. Neither, it might be added, was Lincoln. Don't let your views on race or fundamental principles get watered down in the White House. Lincoln was a white man full of the traditional views of his time, but he also possessed an extraordinary conscience that allowed him to break out of the prison of conventional thought. "Though Lincoln shared the prejudices of his white fellow countrymen against the negro," Frederick Douglass said in 1876, "it is hardly necessary to say that in his heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery." Much of Lincoln's world view was on prominent display in 1858, when he ran against Stephen A. Douglas for the Senate in Illinois. The transcripts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates provide the most detailed glimpse into the views of race of any American president -- until Obama, at age 34, published "Dreams From My Father." Even so, a letter Lincoln wrote to James N. Brown, a friend and prominent Sangamon County, Ill., politician, provides an important insight. "I have made it ... plain that I think the negro is included in the word 'men' used in the Declaration of Independence," Lincoln wrote on Oct. 18, 1858. "I believe the declara(tion) that 'all men are created equal' is the great fundamental principle upon which our free institutions rest." It is not too much to say that at Gettysburg, in November 1863, Lincoln transformed the Declaration, which had no legal force in the United States, into a document with a moral power even greater than the law. But that was not a view he adopted or adapted in the White House. It was one that came with him. Do more than face the crisis. Lincoln had one pre-eminent task: Save the Union by winning t[...]

Pride of the Yankees

Sun, 08 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600

But he is, or soon will be, the secretary of commerce. President Barack Obama selected him last week -- the third Republican in his Cabinet -- and in choosing the senior senator from New Hampshire he inadvertently brought to a close more than a century of an important, though quiet, cultural and electoral phenomenon. Flinty New England conservative, R.I.P. When commentators bemoan the eclipse of a potent strain of New England Republicanism, they're usually talking about left-leaning moderates or liberals, men in the mold of Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Connecticut and Edward W. Brooke of Massachusetts (both still alive), women in the mold of Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine (both still in office). They're an endangered species, but Gregg is from a different genus entirely. He's from a line of men with huge Adams' apples and no small talk -- one of them, Rep. Perkins Bass, the son of a governor and father of a House member, was known, approvingly, as "small-mouth Bass" -- who have now faded from public view. Gregg is the last one, the lineal descendant of Charles Tobey, John G. Winant, Styles Bridges, Robert O. Blood, Sherman Adams, Norris Cotton, Lane Dwinell, Walter Peterson and his own father, Hugh Gregg. They all served a term or two as governor (excepting Cotton, who served only in the House and Senate), never imposing a sales or income tax, never even thinking of it, and some of them went off to Washington, where their deep silences, which matched the mountain fastnesses of their home state, unnerved the panjandrums of the capital and, in some cases, terrified them. These were party men, to be sure, but you never, ever, saw them at a party. They tended to be lanky and lean. They looked like they wore the same sports jacket (brown tweed, a little worn around the edges) and shopped at the same two stores (McQuaid's on Elm Street in Manchester and Campion's on Main Street in Hanover, both sadly now out of business but whose wares still sit comfortably in the closet of the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). It suited these men even better if these jackets were purchased in college, and in some cases they almost certainly were. Gregg is a worthy representative of this Yankee tradition, whose members were sometimes ridiculed for their haberdashery and their reticence but were never discounted for their intelligence and character. (Gregg's only two known indulgences were attending Columbia, which is not located in New Hampshire, and being a member of the university's golf team. In some quarters he has been forgiven for one but probably not both.) These men shared a domestic policy, which was to marry strong, sometimes fierce women. Styles Bridges' second wife, the formidable Doloris, is known even today as "The Widow Bridges"; her effort to succeed her husband, who as chairman of the Appropriations Committee was probably the most powerful New Hampshire senator until Warren B. Rudman, ruptured the Republican Party in New Hampshire in the early 1960s. Gregg's wife, the formidable Kathy Gregg, once had her legs and arms bound by knife-wielding home invaders but persuaded the intruders to drive her to a bank for money -- at which point she escaped. Bill Clinton didn't face down a House invasion nearly as effectively, or stylishly. Gregg came by his non-style style honestly. It is often said in New Hampshire that no one got more out of two years as governor than did his father. A half-century ago the job of governor was not exactly a full-time occupation -- Blood, who served from 1941-1945, was a practicing physician in Concord even as he served in the governor's office -- and so Gregg's father ran his furniture and cabinet company and the state at the same time. Once out of office, he became something of a king-maker, playing prominent roles in th[...]

Portrait of a President

Sun, 01 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600

But before long Obama is likely going to want to make some changes in the most famous office in the world. Indeed, a top White House official said in an e-mail exchange last week that the president isn't going to stick with the portraits Bush selected. Nobody much cared whose picture was on the White House walls until Ronald Reagan hung a portrait of Calvin Coolidge in the Cabinet Room in 1981. The 30th president hadn't been a model for anyone outside New England since he left office in 1929, though his virtues of thrift (in spending and speaking) and integrity (personal and political) have become more prized in an era of verbosity and vulgarity. Plus, no other president had been sworn into office by a notary public (his father) by the light of a kerosene lamp in the early hours of the morning in a remote Vermont town with a population of 29. You can imagine what Coolidge might have recounted if he, rather than Obama, had written a book called "Dreams From My Father." Now, the selection of presidential portraits for the Oval Office has immense symbolic importance. A brash, nationalistic president might want an Andrew Jackson portrait, or maybe one of Theodore Roosevelt. A quiet, contemplative president might select Woodrow Wilson, a onetime professor and college president. A president with rural roots would inevitably be drawn to Thomas Jefferson. And every president wants a little bit of Abraham Lincoln, whose 200th birthday is less than two weeks away. That's because Lincoln appeals to Republicans' sense of their heritage, to Democrats' sense of justice and to all Americans' sense of possibility and destiny. Like Lincoln, Obama found a home in Illinois after years of wandering in wildernesses real and metaphorical, and as the first black president he naturally feels a kinship with a man who once said that if slavery was not wrong, nothing was wrong. Nine months ago, when he was campaigning in the Pennsylvania primary, I asked Obama whose portrait would rest on his presidential walls, and he immediately answered: "The last Illinois president," apparently not in reference to Ulysses S. Grant (who lived in Galena) or Ronald Reagan (who grew up in Dixon). "The reason that he's, in my mind, the first among equals," Obama said of Lincoln, "is not only did he guide the country through our biggest crisis, but he never lost sight of what Americans had in common and didn't demonize the other side. I think better than anybody (he) appealed to the better angels of our nature." George Washington -- already hanging over the Oval Office mantel, in the form of a celebrated Rembrandt Peale portrait -- also has a claim on the new president's affections. He was the only president other than Bush whom Obama cited by name in his inaugural address, quoting Gen. Washington's determination to prevail "in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive." Now we again are in such a winter, with hope and virtue in short supply, but with historical lessons for the new president in ample supply. So when Obama gets the itch to redecorate, he has many portraits from which to choose. For the ability to identify with an embattled and fearful people there is Franklin Delano Roosevelt. For the ability to set difficult goals and to leave office having achieved every one of them there is James K. Polk. For the ability to give voice to a nation's idealism at a time of national challenge there is John F. Kennedy. For the ability to feel a nation's pain and to redeem a nation's promise to the striving and the forgotten there is Lyndon B. Johnson. For the ability to remember a nation's greatness at a time of diminished expectations there is Ronald Reagan. Those are easy choices. Obama attracted enormous criticism from Democrats when he even dared acknow[...]

The Eloquence is in the Moment

Wed, 21 Jan 2009 00:00:00 -0600

For yesterday the nation paused -- not in grief but in remembrance, not in celebration but in solemnity, not in raucous joy but in quiet fulfillment -- a fulfillment not only of a man's dream but also of a nation's promise. Seldom in more than two centuries of American history has there been a moment of such profound symbolism. And if Barack Obama's Inaugural Address lacked a quotation for the ages, it was because what the nation saw was so much more important than what the president said. The nation saw millions of its people filling the Washington Mall, their eyes focused on a black man taking the oath of office at the West Front of the Capitol, two miles and 46 years away from the moment at the Lincoln Memorial when a black man pleaded for his people's freedom, and for the liberation of us all from our most ancient civic sin. The nation saw a black hand resting on the burgundy velvet of a Bible used to swear in the first president from Illinois, a lawyer and onetime rail splitter who saved the Union, redeemed America's promise to future generations and freed more than the slaves. The nation saw a black chanteuse of incomparable range, the first lady of soul, serenade the woman who would soon become the first lady herself. The nation saw, in the reflecting pool of its own conscience, the better angels of our nature -- angels that Lincoln alone saw even in the darkening clouds of the Civil War, that Woodrow Wilson summoned as he took America into World War I, that Franklin Roosevelt revived in the depths of a Depression both economic and spiritual, that John F. Kennedy mobilized in a hundred thoughts he sowed into the nation's conscience, and that Ronald Reagan revived when he reminded us that America still awoke to a bright morning and wasn't destined to expire in a dark twilight. Seldom in more than two centuries of American history has there been an intersection of such profound symbolism. It was more than a day of two presidents. It was instead a day of one nation, and if Obama is to be saluted for the genius and perseverance of his climb to the presidency, his Republican foes are to be celebrated as well for the grace of their withdrawal from power and the eagerness with which they embraced a moment of change that they recognized was more than just the transfer of office, a quadrennial occurrence that America -- born in revolution, tested by tyranny abroad -- has succeeded in converting into mere ritual. And yet the biggest transformation of Jan. 20, 2009, may have been in Obama himself. For until yesterday at noon he was -- this was praise and ridicule alike -- mostly a man of words: author (of the most introspective and courageous memoir any president has ever written) and orator (beyond contemporary peer, perhaps the best since Webster). His ascendancy took flight on an updraft from his own words -- words that brought him attention at his party's Boston convention four and a half years ago, words that made his two books bestsellers, words that tamed the Clinton political dynasty even as they gave shape to an image of his own. And yet one searches in vain in yesterday's Inaugural Address for words for the ages, words that even remotely match the deed and the day. But there was poetry in that as well. Because in taking the oath of office, Obama no longer was trying out for the job but was performing the job. No longer was what he said most important, but instead what he did. The transfer of power works in more than one way. For two years Obama spoke truth to power. Now he has power. Even in a speech without great applause lines there were plentiful indications of the new presidential style. He identified four areas of conflict -- big government versus small, taming the markets versus freeing them, pr[...]

The Tyranny of History

Sat, 17 Jan 2009 00:00:00 -0600

This slogan from one of the nation's most storied military units, the Seabees, has a special meaning for this season of hope and renewal in American civic life. The new president will be expected to do everything, and to do it well. He can't, and he won't. No one could. This isn't merely a matter of high expectations, which in this year of deficits we have in surplus, nor merely a matter of managing expectations, which must be one of Obama's premier priorities. It is also a matter of presidential pacing. New American presidents labor under the tyranny of many historical factors, none more oppressive, more distorting or more distracting than the precedent of "the hundred days" -- a phrase that dates not to Franklin Roosevelt but to Napoleon and his return from exile on Elba, his defeat at Waterloo and his final exile at St. Helena. Even so, the notion that FDR accomplished the difficult and made a healthy start on the impossible in 100 days is (accurately) part of the American collective memory. So much so that at least two books on the subject are selling briskly, and the New-York Historical Society has mounted an exhibition on FDR's first hundred days called "A New President Takes Command." In that period Roosevelt won passage of more than a dozen pieces of major legislation, including an emergency banking measure, the first big federal relief program, landmark agricultural legislation that paid farmers not to plant crops, the creation of federal insurance for bank deposits, the establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and even the beer bill, legalizing beer and light wine and, in doing so, lifting American spirits. This burst of presidential and congressional activity -- accompanied on Day 9 by the first fireside chat -- wasn't intended to be a model for anything, just as George Washington's decision not to seek a third term wasn't intended to establish an eight-year presidential tradition that wasn't broken until 1940. "But to the press this business about the hundred days meant a great deal," says William E. Leuchtenburg, the emeritus University of North Carolina professor who is perhaps the leading authority on FDR. "It has been the mark ever since of a president. A president never reaches a hundred days without someone putting together a report card." No one's report card can begin to measure up to Roosevelt's, which Obama almost certainly concluded after having read Jonathan Alter's "The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope." It may also be why the Obama camp shows impatience whenever the subject of the hundred days comes up. For in truth, it's not only that FDR's hundred days weren't intended to be a model. They weren't intended to be anything. There was no hundred-day plan, no playbook, no nothing -- which, of course, explains more about the New Deal years than a pile of wire-service stories and Web sites on Roosevelt's legacy. "The Hundred Days were to a large extent an accident," Tony Badger, the Cambridge historian who wrote "FDR: The First Hundred Days," argued in the latest edition of The Nation. John F. Kennedy was aware of the tyranny of the hundred-days myth, the victim of it and, in some sense, the author of one of the most poignant effects of it. His hundred days were modest. The principal achievement, though one that has resonated in history and in the lives of millions, was the executive order on Day 41 creating the Peace Corps. By Day 88 he was up to his eyes in the Bay of Pigs fiasco. But in his Inaugural Address, Kennedy inoculated himself: "All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days," he said of his presidential vision. "Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand d[...]

The Obama Era

Tue, 13 Jan 2009 00:40:00 -0600

Which is why the boasts of the trumpet's call to arms in American inaugurations are almost always accompanied with the whisper of humility, a word that actually appears in six presidents' inaugural addresses. "I assume this trust in the humility of knowledge that only through the guidance of Almighty Providence can I hope to discharge its ever-increasing burdens," Herbert Hoover said in 1929. Harry Truman's remarks 20 years later hit the same note: "I accept with humility the honor which the American people have conferred upon me." Barack Obama, accomplished autobiographer and welder of a historic political accomplishment, comes to his particular intersection of biography and history with an unusual combination of humility and audacity. There is, of course, a surface contradiction between the two, just as there is a contradiction between the speed with which he must move and the caution that he must exercise. In fact, the Obama inauguration marks a series of American contradictions. The richest nation on earth is struggling with a financial crisis that may be rivaled only by the Great Depression. The strongest nation on earth is wrestling with its many weaknesses, including its inability to suppress insurgencies of the weak and powerless. Obama's inauguration will mark the ascension of the Democratic Party even as he speaks of a new, less partisan style of governing. He promises a new era in Washington and his administration is full of old hands, few older than the hands that belong to Leon E. Panetta, who last week was designated director of central intelligence and whose main qualification for the job is that his deft fingers have touched most parts of government before. Yet this seems to be a moment of great renewal. A liberal California Democrat, committed to abortion rights and prominent in the outer rings of the Obama Venn diagram, called me the other afternoon to say how grateful he was that the president-elect has chosen Rick Warren, an outspoken abortion opponent who runs an evangelical mega-church, to deliver the invocation at the inaugural ceremony. That gesture built a bridge between this liberal, a political operative, and his conservative niece, a civilian. What will Obama say? His hero and model, Abraham Lincoln, said a lot while speaking very little, an art that Obama's most recent Democratic predecessor never mastered. Lincoln spoke, in his great second inaugural address, of the great war, but his speech was more about enduring themes than about whether the Union would long endure. (He used an even shorter speech, at Gettysburg, to declaim on that.) My guess is that Obama will give a message that is both brisk and bracing. He need do little more than note the historic significance of a black hand on Lincoln's Bible at the West Front of the Capitol. The picture on the front of every newspaper in the land Lincoln saved will tell the story. Obama's job is to soothe and to inspire. He must say that we have troubles, but that we have had troubles before, and overcame them. He must say that we have challenges, but that challenges are what made the country, and will remake it. He must say that our finances are shaky, but that a measure of a nation is not its treasury but its character. All of these things are relevant to the world of Jan. 20, 2009, but none of them is confined to that date. They could have been said a hundred years earlier, or later. Who would have thought that in the days leading up to the inauguration of the first black president, a columnist might quote the inaugural address of a rambunctious white-bread president who caroused his way through his White House years at the beginning of a great economic boom and is regarded as one of t[...]

The Men Who Go to Lunch

Sun, 04 Jan 2009 00:00:00 -0600

They are coming together in the house whose heritage they share at the invitation of George W. Bush to honor, warn, counsel and commiserate with Barack Obama. The occasion is reminiscent of a somber moment the day Franklin Roosevelt died. Harry Truman asked Eleanor Roosevelt if there was anything he could do for her. "Is there anything we can do for you?" she responded. "For you are the one who is in trouble now." All our troubles soon will become Obama's, and only four people on Earth know and understand that burden. Presidential gatherings are rare and rarified. Presidents don't just drop in for lunch with other presidents, so there are few opportunities for spontaneous meetings like the time, in 1888, when Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Grieg all just happened to be at the same party in Leipzig. (How could Rimsky-Korsakov have been left out? Must have been busy that night.) The protocol for presidential funerals -- and five presidents were at President Ronald Reagan's funeral, which is likely to serve as a model for future such events -- is formal and predictable. But there is no protocol for lunch. So Wednesday's proceedings, and the direction of the conversation, are likely to be free-form, befitting five men who personify Lord Beaverbrook's assessment of David Lloyd George: "He did not seem to care which way he traveled, providing he was in the driver's seat." Before long, only one of the men at the presidential lunch will be in the driver's seat, and it will matter a great deal which way he travels, for he will not travel alone. The other four will know what obstacles to avoid, though they may be chary of mentioning them: Don't be surprised by volatility in Iran (Jimmy Carter), don't ever neglect the economy (George H.W. Bush), don't be distracted by your own bad habits (Bill Clinton), don't let what you want to do overtake what the circumstances say you must, or must not, do (George W. Bush). Presidents are like regular people, only more so. They don't like to dwell on their errors. But they also are like regular people in thinking their own experience, and their own successes, have relevance for the future. So Obama may hear a lot about the prospects of reconciliation in the Middle East (Carter and Clinton), the benefits of building broad international coalitions (Bush 41) and the advantages of single-party rule (Bush 43). Obama is respectful of his elders, and of history, but he also knows that he got invited to this lunch because he didn't defer to his elders and because he was willing to defy history. Obama knows, too, that there is something to learn from each of the presidents in the room, and of course from the many who have been in the White House before him. From Carter, the new president can learn the persistence of the energy challenge (lesson learned with high cost), the importance of personal relationships on Capitol Hill (lesson learned too late), the eternal appeal but frequent futility of trying to impose American values abroad (lesson never learned), and the resilience of the Washington establishment (lesson learned by others, as well -- so much so that Reagan would have had the same saucy stories to add in this regard, after Washington was the target of his attacks in 1980). From the senior Bush, the new president can learn the importance of the gentle, personal touch, the enduring value of behaving with decency and chivalry, the dividends of humility, and the dangers posed by leaning too far in one realm of the presidency (foreign policy) and too little in the other (domestic affairs). From Clinton, the new president can learn the value of passionate engagement in every aspect of the presidency, the use of the bully[...]