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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Facing Reality

A litle more than ten years ago, when Bill Clinton had been impeached by the House of Representatives for lying about his relationship-such as it was--with Monica Lewinsky, I wrote an op-ed for which I was never able to find a home. It was entitled, as I recall, "If Only the Press had been Doing Its Job," and it consisted of a series of mythical news stories. Here was the first.

Washington, National Intelligencer, May 1, 1805. President Aaron Burr announced today that the French ship La Revolution had brought a declaration of war against the United States signed by the Emperor Napoleon, and that the French garrison in St. Louis, whose numbers have steadily increased over the last two years, was expected to cross into the Northwest Territories within a few weeks. This news marks the climax of the crisis that began two years ago, when President Jefferson submitted to the Congress a treaty calling for the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France for $15 million. Unfortunately, shortly thereafter, widespread reports appeared of Jefferson's long-standing liaison with his Negro slave Sally Hemmings, by whom he had had several children. Pressure, especially from the clergy, forced Jefferson out of office, and the treaty was never ratified. The nation, already embroiled in serious difficulties with Britain over trade and the impressment of seamen, must now face the formidable armies of Napoleon.

Now from the time of the first settlements in the American colonies, our society has been, by and large, far more moralistic than the European countries from which most of the settlers claimed. Tocqueville in Democracy and America discussed the first constitution of the colony of Connecticut, which on the one hand gave all its male citizens equal political rights and provided for elections, while also prescribing the death penalty for adultery. Jefferson himself, when he arrived in Paris during the early stages of the French Revolution, was shocked by the general acceptance of adulterous affairs there. Recent scholarship, however, has shown that colonial sexual practices were much more lenient in practice than in theory--and when one newspaper did reveal Jefferson's relationship with "dusky Sally" during his Administration, the President wisely decided to say absolutely nothing at all, and got away with it. This was the first of at least four occasions upon which leading 19th century politicians survived accusations of sexual misconduct. Andrew Jackson was viciously attacked during two campaigns for having married his wife Rachel before she was actually divorced from her first husband, but won the popular vote in 1824 and 1828 nonetheless (although Rachel, sadly, died just before he took office.) His fellow Tennessean Richard Johnson went Jefferson one better, living openly with one of his slaves and acknowledging his two children by her. The scandal helped cost him his Senate seat in the late 1820s, but he returned to the House of Representatives and in 1836 was elected as Martin Van Buren's Vice President. Most famously, in 1884, Grover Cleveland, the bachelor Democratic candidate for President, had to deal with the revelation that he had apparently fathered a child years earlier by a Buffalo widow. Cleveland, running against the charismatic but financially compromised James G. Blaine, affirmed the truth of the accusation and carried on. A Democratic wag suggested that Blaine, whose private life was exemplary, should therefore be returned to private life, while Cleveland, a reform mayor and then Governor in New York, should put his sterling public character to work in the nation's highest office--and Cleveland won the popular vote for the first of three successive elections (although he lost the electoral tally in 1888.) A majority of 19th-century voters, in short, accepted that politicians were like other men, only more so.

That conclusion is one which, as a historian, I can only endorse. The average politician, male or female, is driven by a great need for love, both from the public as a whole and, often, from those close to him or her. Without such compelling needs few people would even consider undergoing the relentless exposure and the constant demands of constituents which are the essence of public life. In addition, one might note, politicians spend their days trying to meet the needs of others, and we should not be surprised that many (though not all) of them have been more than usually sexually active, often outside marriage. Reviewing the twentieth century, I find very good evidence that Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all strayed beyond the bounds of marriage to varying degrees, with questions also raised about Dwight Eisenhower (Clinton and Harding, to be sure, share the honor of having their affairs described in detail by books written by one of their mistresses.) On the other side, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Jimmy Carter were notoriously devoted and faithful to their wives, while I am not aware of any suspicions about Taft, Coolidge, Hoover, or Gerald Ford. Reviewing that list, I can't see any correlation between marital fidelity on the one hand, and executive ability on the other--and I certainly would not want to have sacrificed the presidencies of those who strayed for the sake of public morality.

New York Times, June 4, 1941. A new government led by Sir John Simon, formerly Chancellor of the Exchequer under the late Neville Chamberlain, took over in London today after a no-confidence vote toppled Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Simon announced that he planned to open peace talks with the German government with a view to ending the war on reasonable terms and laying the foundation for a generation of peace. The fall of the Churchill government became inevitable after military reverses in Greece, combined with a financial crisis that has now made it impossible for Britain to secure supplies from the united States. A year ago, after the Fall of France, former President Roosevelt had announced his intention to support British resistance in any way possible, but the revelations of Roosevelt's long-term affair with his secretary, Missy LeHand, and with various other women printed in the Chicago Tribune led to the collapse of the movement to nominate him for a third term. The new President, Wendell Willkie, while professing support for the British, had not managed to find a way to provide more aid given the obvious financial weakness of the United Kingdom, or to overcome opposition from the isolationists in his own party. Willkie announced that he was confident that the US would be able to maintain freedom in the western hemisphere, no matter what happened in Europe.

As the age of the new mass media dawned in the twentieth century, the taboo against explicit reporting about the private lives of candidates or public officials remained in place. Plenty of reporters had at least heard credible rumors about Roosevelt, JFK, Lyndon Johnson, Nelson Rockefeller, and many others, but the private lives of politicians remained private. Roosevelt himself in 1940, during a meeting in his office, speculated that Mrs. Wendell Willkie, whose relationship with her husband had apparently not been close for some time, might have been bribed to make appearances with him during the campaign, but such talk never got into the papers. Nor did anything about John Kennedy's private life in the 1960 campaign, although one or two hints of shenanigans appeared late in his Presidency. (As I pointed out in American Tragedy, by the way, Kennedy's dalliances, while numerous, did not stand in the way of effective governance. Kennedy's well-organized and compartmentalized life is well documented in his White House appointment calendar. He arrived at the office around 8:30 or 9:00, held meetings all morning, and then, around 1:00, usually disappeared for about two hours of lunch and unspecified relaxation. Then he returned at about 3:00 for several more hours of meetings before dinner.)

It seems to have been the extensive revelations about JFK's sex life in the 1970s, along with the generally loosening climate regarding sex in the United States as a whole and perhaps the beginning of the decline of print journalism, that broke down the taboo by the 1980s. Gary Hart, who very nearly won the Democratic nomination in 1984, had his candidacy abruptly terminated in 1987 by revelations about his affair with Donna Rice after he had most unwisely dared the press to "follow him around." At that time I suggested to the most prominent journalist I knew that it might be well to convene a summit of major media outlets and agree not to report this kind of thing in the future, but my advice, obviously, was ignored. Since then we have had a string of revelations about both straight and gay politicians, most, though not all, of which have terminated the lusty office-holder's careers. In the last year two governors, from the most different states imaginable, have been caught red-handed, Eliot Spitzer of New York patronizing high-end prostitutes and now Mark Sanford of South Carolina in the mist of an intercontinental affair and a failing marriage. Spitzer took twenty-four hours to resign, and I expect that Sanford will be gone within the week.

Washington Post, June 20, 1964. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield announced today that the omnibus Civil Rights Act, including its provision for the integration of public accommodations, had been removed from the Senate calendar after the failure of yesterday's cloture vote designed to end a southern filibuster. The bill's defeat was a terrible defeat for President Johnson, who in the wake of President Kennedy's death had put all his prestige behind it, and a victory for presumptive Republican candidate Barry Goldwater, who voted against cloture. Observers agreed that the turning point of the debate was probably the revelations, initially published in the Dallas Morning News,, of the many sexual indiscretions of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., whose "I Have a Dream" speech last August had initially made such an impression on the country. The accusations, which were confirmed on behalf of the FBI by J. Edgar Hoover, led to Dr. King's resignation from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a noticeable falling off of white support for civil rights.

It is tempting, of course, for an Administration Democrat like myself to take pleasure from the revelations about Governor Sanford, who had already established himself as a prime example of what is wrong with today's Republican party, and who ten years ago called vociferously for President Clinton's removal. That Governor Sanford ascended to a State House in the first place is a regional tragedy (and the same can be said for many of his counterparts), but that does not change my position about sex scandals in the slightest: his marital and extramarital behavior is none of our business. I will always believe that, had law enforcement stumbled upon the Eliot Spitzer affair forty years ago, they would simply have passed a discreet word to the governor's office warning him to clean up his act, and that would have been much better for all concerned, especially the New York citizenry. In the same way Governor Sanford should have been rejected by the voters based upon his attempts to turn down desperately needed stimulus money, not because he did not conform to tradtional, elevated American standards of marital behavior. Should I live another 25-30 years, I hope I shall see the day when the media has become sufficiently interested in the real business of politics and government--and sufficiently respectful of the politicians who do the jobs which most of us would not be capable of doing it--to stop jumping so eagerly on cases like this. That may be a utopian hope, but stranger things have happened--and it would make us once again a more mature and responsible country.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Some Health Care Data

[Veteran readers may skip this paragraph--but believe me, it's necessary.] A fraudulent email comparing President Obama to Hitler continues to circulate under my name (see here The facts are that I did not write it and that it does not represent my views. Yet I hope new readers will take a look at this and other posts, such as A Great Fear, below, which analyzes the broader source of emailed conspiracy theories.

The domestic challenge faced by President Obama, I am increasingly convinced, is every bit as serious as that encountered by Franklin Roosevelt 76 years ago. On the one hand, the nation has so far managed to maintain better economic health than in 1933; employment then was more than double what it is now, and bank failures were endemic. But Roosevelt had three advantages that Obama lacks. First, the very desperation of the country encouraged action of almost any kind. Secondly, the Republican Party included quite a few progressives who served as his allies. And lastly, progressive Republicans and Democrats had a reform agenda they had begun to develop thirty years or so earlier. Now the situation is very different: not only is the Republican Party almost entirely the party of negativity, but the reform tradition of the New Deal days has been dying out, along with some of the key institutions, like labor unions, that sustained it, over the comparable period since 1980 or so, while economic interests have developed new ways to maintain their power. This is going to make it very difficult, I think, for the President to accomplish basic reforms very quickly--especially in health care.

Health care, as we all know, is enormously complex, and I do not have any professional expertise in it--but it is one of the many subjects upon which a little data can go a vey long way. Let's start with some figures from James K. Galbraith's book, The Predator State, which I quoted last week. American health care, as we all know, is the most expensive on earth. We spend 16-17% of GDP on health care, while other advanced countries spent 8-11% of theirs. Right now the Republican Party is having considerable success defining the debate Obama is trying to start as a contest between private and government-run health care. That actually is extremely misleading--quite a large portion of our health-care system is government-run already. Doctors, dentists, hospitals and long-term care facilities received $1.221 trillion in 2006, of which $468 billion--Medicare, Medicaid, Veterans' care, and CHIP--came from the government. $273 billion of that $444 billion--well over half--was in fact for Medicare, which pays for most of America's older, and therefore unhealthiest, Americans. Americans in 2006 paid $481 billion in private insurance, slightly more than what the government paid. It is not clear to me, however, whether this total figure counts money spent on drugs, and I am beginning to think that it does not.

Either way, drug companies and drug company profits are a significant part of the bill. In 2007, the major drug companies had revenues of $383 billion (a good deal of it, of course, not from the United States) and profits of $79 billion. Their profits have been increasing rapidly since the implementation of the Medicare drug benefit. Most people, I suspect, do not realize how the drug companies spend their money, either. The typical big drug company spends about 15% of its revenues on research--that is, the development of new drugs--and two or three times that much on "marketing, advertising, and administration." Americans alone of all the populations of the advanced countries not only pay for the drugs they need, but finance huge advertising budgets to tell them what drugs (including prescription drugs, of course) that they need. They may indeed pay more for the advertising than for the drugs themselves.

Galbraith's most striking fact, in addition to his percentage comparison of US and European spending on health care overall, is this: on a per capita basis, the US government already spends more on Medicare, Medicaid, veterans' health and CHIP (the Children's Health Insurance Program) than the United Kingdom's government spends to care for its entire population. Yes, to those who have good insurance health care may well be more quickly accessible in the US than the UK, but there are certainly no observable differences in overall health care that would reflect such a huge difference in price. The difference, of course, is that in Britain health care has been a public service for more than 60 years, while in America it remains a very profitable industry. And therein, for anyone seeking to rein it in, lies the rub.

Let's take the issue of drug advertising and marketing (the latter carried out continually by a small army of pharmaceutical reps, many of them attractive young women who have been recruited, literally, off of college cheerleading squads.) It presumably has the effect of persuading doctors to prescribe more drugs--if it didn't, it seems hard to believe that the companies would pay for it. Yet to a lay person it seems obvious that decisions on what drugs to prescribe should be made by medical and scientific personnel alone. Television advertising for prescription drugs, actually a relatively recent phenomenon, is another national scandal--certainly men should not need tv to tell them if they need viagara? To put restrictions on marketing and to abolish the advertising of prescription drugs seem like awfully simple and useful reforms with which to begin--but they would also cost some people their jobs, and cost some very important corporations their profits. To my knowledge neither the Obama Administration nor the Democrats in Congres are suggesting this yet.

That drug manufacture is one of the most profitable industries in the US has a lot of other consequences as well. The research and development budgets of drug companies--which as we have seen could in any case be a lot larger than they are--flow, inevitably, towards drugs designed to treat chronic conditions, such as joint pain or impotence, rather than towards drugs that might actually cure diseases once and for all, or vaccinate patients against them. The whole Vioxx scandal grew out of attempts to develop a completely new, patentable anti-inflammatory. Vioxx was not, in fact, more effective than ibprofen or naproxen or even aspirin. Its only real advantage was that certain people whose stomachs reacted harshly to all those readily available and cheap drugs could take it without side effects. Unfortunately, it turned out to have negative effects on their circulatory system as well.

Meanwhile, other important industries--processed foods and chain restaurants--are doing their best to wreck the health of the American consumer, by promoting fructose-sweetened, high-fat foods. Fructose corn syrup has largely replaced sugar partly because it tends to stimulate the consumer to have more. In the last forty years some millions of Americans have become more health-conscious, exercised a lot more, quit smoking, and eaten much more carefully--but they tend to be the better-off and better-educated among us. They have done so largely in defiance of the food industry.

It seems obvious, in short, that the private sector cannot possibly be expected to create a health care system based upon the idea of providing essential care at the lowest possible cost. The patient's stake in health care--including both his or her comfort and, in many cases, life--gives the marketers a built-in advantage which they cannot be expected to ignore. Some months ago, a couple of sabermetricians--that is, sophisticated statistical analysts of baseball--suggested in a New York Times op-ed that the same techniques that have uncovered the relative value of walks, doubles, stolen bases and home runs should be applied to gauge the effectiveness of treatments. The Obama Administration agrees and included $1 billion in the stimulus package for such research. The pharmaceutical and insurance industries are reacting with horror. The Europeans keep their costs lower by relying on such research. They routinely do not treat children's ear infections for several days, having found that most of them will simply go away. European men are not routinely given the PSA test for prostate cancer--a test which, a recent study showed, saves perhaps 2 or 3 lives for every 100 times it is given, while leading to numerous prostate surgeries, and, therefore, a few cases of impotence and a great many prescriptions for viagara, all of which, in one way or another, the broader population pays for. (Prostate cancer surgery has indeed become safer and in many cases has essentially no side effects now, but many of those who have it thanks to PSA screening, it is clear, would live long and happy lives without ever knowing they had anything were the screening not done.)

The European and Canadian kind of "single-payer" system is at this time not even a possibility here in the US. Congressional Democrats are determined to create a government-run insurance option as part of a new plan, although the Obama Administration has not been totally firm on this point. It could be a foot in the door for the plan we eventually need. Medicare, not surprisingly, has much lower administrative costs than private insurance even though it has a much less healthy clientele, and it is not, of course, expected to make a profit. But many doctors and hospitals now resent its low rate of reimbursement. Meanwhile, over the last 60 years at least a third of the population has come to regard "government-run health care" as equivalent to slavery. The other day I actually heard Sean Hannity take a call from a woman (who must have been in late middle age) who talked wistfully about the wonderful private health care she used to have. She had lost her job, she explained, and now had to rely upon medicaid, which frequently put obstacles in her way. Of course, Hannity did not bother to point out the two alternatives to medicaid: 1) universal single-payer care, which would put her on a level with everyone else, or 2) no insurance at all.

Oddly, there do not seem to be any powerful institutions in America that see the benefit to cheaper health care. The costs of providing it has been, of course, a major factor in driving American industries out of business, but that never moved them to try to insist, along with their unions, that something should be done. When times were good they paid for private insurance; when they went bad, they shut their factories down. That, in a sense, is the problem: the media (which lives on advertising), the drug companies, and the for-profit private insurers are growth industries, in a way that iron, steel and automobiles have not been in the United States for many years.

During the New Deal the Roosevelt Administration tried to put one important kind of enterprise out of business: public utility holding companies, which drove up the cost of power for profit alone. I do not know how successful their legislation on that point turned out to be (although I saw a few years ago that it just been repealed), but they also sought to reach this objective by encouraging public power, most notably through the TVA and dams in other parts of the country. The Rural Electrification Administration provided wiring to much of the countryside, something private power had refused to do. That, perhaps, should be the government's approach now: to actually start its own medical service, which would run according to its own principles, just as an option for Americans and companies. I see no other way that such a system could develop.

The personnel may not be lacking. My son, who graduated from college in 2004, has been working in education ever since, first for Teach for America in the Mississippi Delta, and then in a charter Middle School in Brooklyn. He is now busy recruiting new teachers. Teaching in his school is a very demanding job, taking up eight to ten hours a day, and requiring a very high level of commitment; but he is interviewing young people who have decided, after a few years on Wall Street, that it was not for them. I cannot believe that a new generation of medical professionals would not welcome the chance to make care simpler, cheaper, and more readily available. They will however need to be given the chance to do so.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Struggles at home

Since the fraudulent email comparing President Obama to Hitler continues to circulate under my name (see here for more information about it), it behooves me once again to begin by making clear that I did not write it and that it does not represent my views. Yet I hope new readers will take a look at this and other posts, such as A Great Fear, below, which analyzes the broader source of emailed conspiracy theories.

Last week I praised the new President for his rhetorical skills and his extraordinary approach to the divisions that are dividing the nation and the world. This week, I find myself forced to raise some questions about his domestic policies and his medium-term political prospects at home.

During this week, I read a remarkable book, The Predator State, by James K. Galbraith, an economist at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and, I should report, a friend of mine thanks to my frequent visits to Austin during the 1990s and a long-standing connection between our two families. The book, as the author repeatedly and frankly admits, parallels earlier works by his famous father, who indeed in the last weeks of his life in April 2006 jokingly regretted that he was no longer up to the job himself. Analytically Jamie is his father's son, but their personalities closely reflect their generations. Jamie is frequently angry and always combative, as Boomers tend to be; his father, on the Canadian Lost/GI cusp, was always a bit reserved, and more inclined to be amused, rather than enraged, by repeated human folly. The book, in essence, describes what has happened to the American and world economy since his father wrote The New Industrial State in the late 1960s. The story is not an inspiring one.

John Kenneth Galbraith described an economy largely controlled by large corporations, who in turn were run by their bureaucracies, and had to share their profits with powerful unions. Because union voters were Democrats, this economic structure was closely related to the New Deal/Fair Deal/New Frontier/Great Society hegemony of 1933-69--which a good deal of the United States never accepted, and which more Americans repudiated as a result of the civil rights revolution. Jamie shows how the shock of Japanese competition in automobiles and steel in the 1970s was exacerbated, critically, by the Reagan monetary policies of the early 1980s, which destroyed much of American industry and set the rest, as we can now see, on a path of irreversible decline. That not only killed the rust belt economy, but sent millions of Americans heading south, where they swelled the number of electoral votes in the new Republican base. Those monetary policies had, however, another effect--by raising interest rates so high in the US, they strengthened the dollar, re-establishing its threatened position as the leading world currency.

Galbraith (by which henceforth I refer to the son) also gives Reagan credit for Keynesianism. He frankly does not believe in balanced budgets, and indeed argues that they are impossible for a country that runs a chronic trade deficit to finance international liquidity, as the US has been doing since the 1960s. Nor does he regard the Reagan or Bush I deficits as truly harmful, and he regrets the Democrats' emergence as the party of the balanced budget. (I feel a great kinship with him because, thanks to the kinds of families we grew up in, we never forgot much of what we learned about public policy in the early 1960s, even as those ideas went out of fashion around us.) On the other hand, he shows quite clearly how every conservative economic idea--including balanced budgets, supply-side economics in general, and the idea that tax cuts increase savings--has been disproven by data and events. Deficit spending has continued to fuel the American economy for the last thirty years (with private, rather than public, borrowing filling the gap during the brief Clinton surplus period of the 1990s.) What has changed is the distribution of income and the kinds of investments that are made with savings.

Even in the early 1980s, businessmen freely admitted that demand, not supply, fueled investment. When American factories faced increasing demand they built more capacity. Galbraith touches on one of my favorite points here, too: when marginal income tax rates were 91% or even 70%, businessmen had no incentive to pay themselves huge salaries and every incentive to use profits to expand their corporations, creating more employment and increasing wealth. This process reached its climax in the last eight years, when the huge new salaries and bonuses of executives (initially in the financial world) went into mansions and more mansions, most of them built, probably, by illegal immigrant labor. One might indeed define three kinds of investment: investment in public goods like infrastructure (which has been shamefully neglected); investment in private institutions, like corporations, which can also benefit the public; and investment in private consumption, which has the least benefits of all.

It is unfortunate, in a way, that Galbraith turned his manuscript early, it would seem, in 2008, when the subprime crisis had begun but before anyone realized how bad it would be. (The name Barack Obama, interestingly enough, does not appear in his book, although those of Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney do.) The extent to which new financial instruments could wreck the entire world economy was not yet clear. Looking for something that might force a change in our fundamental economic policies so as to favor society as a whole rather than predatory corporations specializing in finance and raw materials, Galbraith seized upon global warming. Now we have a more immediate problem, the return of double-digit unemployment. Unfortunately, it is not clear that the new Administration is anywhere near coping with the depth of the problem we face.

The financial community, to my untrained eye, seems to have decided to put the best face possible on things in the hope of returning to business as usual as soon as possible. Somehow the stock market has had a substantial rally--could it be in part because more exotic financial instruments have lost their appeal? Some of the banks, although not the very biggest ones, have paid their TARP money back to regain their freedom to trade as they wish and pay themselves huge bonuses again. Yet it is not in the least clear that any of this will be reflected in the broader economy. Indeed, I am begin to wonder whether the financial system, built upon one speculative bubble after another, has not become quite detached from the productive sectors of the economy, which need a different kind of financial institution to service them. In short, we may still need to build a truly new economic structure.

The President obviously cannot do that himself and the personnel to do so may be lacking. His team, to repeat, came of age during the last twenty years and has not shown many signs of wanting to go back to an earlier era. My own great fear at the moment is that the economy will continue to worsen and the Republicans will manage to take advantage of it before we have a chance to get back on track. Yet it is still far too early to know. This week's papers report a revolt among Congressional Democrats on health care, in which Nancy Pelosi and others are insisting that any new plan include a government-run option. Health care, about which Galbraith also has a great many interesting things to say, is a subject for another post, but Obama, like Lincoln and FDR, needs to be pushed from the left, as well as the right, to make the decisions we need. I am hoping that that will begin to happen on economic questions as well.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

The President takes up the challenge of our time

Once again my weekly disclaimer: any of the new readers flocking to this site--especially those who were relieved to find that I was not, in fact, the author of the widely circulated email comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler, and that its attribution to me was false--have asked how something like this could take place--how such a screed could become popular, and how some one would dare misattribute it. [More information on the hoax and the origins of the article can be found here. Two weeks ago I tried to explain this phenomenon. This post finishes last week´s, on the subject of of torture. I have been writing these posts since 2004, and the first four years of them are available as a book--simply click on the link at left to order it. Now on to business.

In 1995-6 I read Generations and The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe, and became convinced that the United States would be entering the fourth great crisis of its national history within another 10-15 years, parallel to 1774-94, 1857-1867, and 1929-33. In 2000 I incorporated that prediction into the last paragraph of my book on the origins of the Vietnam War, American Tragedy. That we, and much of the world, have now entered such a crisis has become an unmistakable fact. What became clear while I was in Europe during the last few weeks was the extent to which President Obama understands this, and, more importantly, the unique approach that he is trying to take to the problem of steering the nation through what Strauss and Howe named the Fourth Turning.

Although we face a real crisis on many fronts--including some overseas--the origins of a Fourth Turning are emotional and psychological more than practical. These crises are triggered by Prophet generations, those born in the wake of the last great crisis, who in their young adulthood tend to reject most or all of what their parents have tried to teach them and set new goals for themselves and our whole society. Thus, while the Republican generation (Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Marshall and the rest) regarded slavery as an unfortunate evil that should be kept where it was and, hopefully, allowed to die off naturally, the post-crisis Transcendental Generation (Sumner, Garrison, Jefferson Davis, Lincoln and the rest) regarded it either as a positive good that had to be extended or a curse that had to be removed. In our own time Boomers 40 years ago became convinced by their parents' great mistake, the Vietnam War, that they could safely discount everything their parents said, and that American society was hopelessly evil. Those on the left built up a citadel in academia; those on the right built up the Republican political machine. Since the 1990s the country has been more and more deeply divided on social issues, on foreign policy, and even, as I showed in my last two posts, on the meaning of the Constitution and the nature of American government. The Republican Party in particular has become literally as monolithic as a totalitarian party in the pursuit of its extreme economic and social goals.

At Notre Dame the President, with his characteristic mixture of courage and calm--the qualities,incidentally, required of a great military leader--took on the most emotional issue in our public life, abortion--and told both sides, in essence, to get over themselves. The speech, which really needs to be read in full, began humorously and moved slowly to its real topic. Then the President began by criticizing his own side of the abortion debate--in fact, by apologizing for something that had happened in his own Senate campaign. Here is the key passage from that part of the speech.

"A few days after I won the Democratic nomination [for the Senate], I received an e-mail from a doctor who told me that while he voted for me in the Illinois primary, he had a serious concern that might prevent him from voting for me in the general election. He described himself as a Christian who was strongly pro-life -- but that was not what was preventing him potentially from voting for me.

"What bothered the doctor was an entry that my campaign staff had posted on my website -- an entry that said I would fight 'right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose.' The doctor said he had assumed I was a reasonable person, he supported my policy initiatives to help the poor and to lift up our educational system, but that if I truly believed that every pro-life individual was simply an ideologue who wanted to inflict suffering on women, then I was not very reasonable. He wrote, 'I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.' Fair-minded words.

"After I read the doctor’s letter, I wrote back to him and I thanked him. And I didn’t change my underlying position, but I did tell my staff to change the words on my website. And I said a prayer that night that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me. Because when we do that -- when we open up our hearts and our minds to those who may not think precisely like we do or believe precisely what we believe -- that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground."

I find that passage moving enough in itself, but I was truly astonished by the brilliance of the way in which the President proceeded to address those on the other side of the issue who feel, like the person who originally worked on his own Senate campaign website, feel that no compromise on the issue is possible because it is contrary to the will of an almighty god. To begin with, he put his remarks within the context of a more general exhortation to his listeners, the Notre Dame class of 2009. The utterly Rooseveltian terms in which he addressed them, incidentally, provide additional proof that he understands exactly the nature of the times in which we live, whether he has actually read The Fourth Turning or not.

"Now, you, Class of 2009, are about to enter the next phase of your life at a time of great uncertainty. You’ll be called to help restore a free market that’s also fair to all who are willing to work. You’ll be called to seek new sources of energy that can save our planet; to give future generations the same chance that you had to receive an extraordinary education. And whether as a person drawn to public service, or simply someone who insists on being an active citizen, you will be exposed to more opinions and ideas broadcast through more means of communication than ever existed before. You’ll hear talking heads scream on cable, and you’ll read blogs that claim definitive knowledge, and you will watch politicians pretend they know what they’re talking about. (Laughter.) Occasionally, you may have the great fortune of actually seeing important issues debated by people who do know what they’re talking about -- by well-intentioned people with brilliant minds and mastery of the facts. In fact, I suspect that some of you will be among those brightest stars.

"And in this world of competing claims about what is right and what is true, have confidence in the values with which you’ve been raised and educated. Be unafraid to speak your mind when those values are at stake. Hold firm to your faith and allow it to guide you on your journey. In other words, stand as a lighthouse.

"But remember, too, that you can be a crossroads. Remember, too, that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It’s the belief in things not seen. It’s beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us. And those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own.

"And this doubt should not push us away our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, cause us to be wary of too much self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open and curious and eager to continue the spiritual and moral debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame. And within our vast democracy, this doubt should remind us even as we cling to our faith to persuade through reason, through an appeal whenever we can to universal rather than parochial principles, and most of all through an abiding example of good works and charity and kindness and service that moves hearts and minds."

Barack Obama understood that one simply cannot challenge opponents of abortion by questioning the idea of religious faith and hope to do anything but make things worse. Instead, he challenged them on their own terms, by emphasizing the doubt which, in his view, must always restrain zealotry on behalf of faith. And as I read this speech I suddenly understood why our great crisis Presidents, Lincoln and Roosevelt, had also referred frequently to religious values, in sharp contrast to Presidents during Highs (post-war eras) like Jefferson and Kennedy who almost never did. Religion under our Constitution is not and cannot be the foundation of law or public policy; but religion remains too important a force among the American people not to come into play in difficult times. A wise President will find some way, as Lincoln did so brilliantly in his second inaugural, to use religious imagery in the service of the broader political point that he wants to make. That is what Obama did.

The speech was also filled with asides and references to Father Theodore Hesburgh, the head of Notre Dame from 1952 to 1987, an exact contemporary almost to the day of John Fitzgerald Kennedy who was sitting in the audience at the age of 92. Those of us over 60 will remember Father Hesburgh not only as a university president but as a national figure, very active in civil rights and in many international questions as well. (So active was he indeed that his travels gave birth to a great Notre Dame joke: "Q. What is the difference between God and Father Hesburgh? A. God is everywhere, and Father Hesburgh is everywhere but Notre Dame.") The anecdote the President told about Father Hesburgh was a tribute to the 1950s and early 1960s, the age to which, politically, the President obviously wants to return us without a great war or more bitter internal conflict.

"After all, I stand here today, as President and as an African American, on the 55th anniversary of the day that the Supreme Court handed down the decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Now, Brown was of course the first major step in dismantling the "separate but equal" doctrine, but it would take a number of years and a nationwide movement to fully realize the dream of civil rights for all of God’s children. There were freedom rides and lunch counters and Billy clubs, and there was also a Civil Rights Commission appointed by President Eisenhower. It was the 12 resolutions recommended by this commission that would ultimately become law in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

"There were six members of this commission. It included five whites and one African American; Democrats and Republicans; two Southern governors, the dean of a Southern law school, a Midwestern university president, and your own Father Ted Hesburgh, President of Notre Dame. (Applause.) So they worked for two years, and at times, President Eisenhower had to intervene personally since no hotel or restaurant in the South would serve the black and white members of the commission together. And finally, when they reached an impasse in Louisiana, Father Ted flew them all to Notre Dame’s retreat in Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin -- (applause) -- where they eventually overcame their differences and hammered out a final deal.

"And years later, President Eisenhower asked Father Ted how on Earth he was able to broker an agreement between men of such different backgrounds and beliefs. And Father Ted simply said that during their first dinner in Wisconsin, they discovered they were all fishermen. (Laughter.) And so he quickly readied a boat for a twilight trip out on the lake. They fished, and they talked, and they changed the course of history."

Just two weeks later, the President spoke in Cairo. Here too he used religion, calling upon Christians, Jews and Muslims to draw upon the best, rather than the worst, of the traditions each of their history offers in an attempt to live together. But essentially the speech was a challenge to antagonists--far more bitter antagonists even than we have within the United States--to shed their absolutist principles and to realize that neither Muslims nor Jews could create a Middle East in the image of their religious beliefs, or based upon their view of their own historical grievances as paramount. Unlike President Bush he made no reference to any Biblical basis for the existence of Israel, but cited only an historical one. He acknowledged Hamas's widespread support but said on political, not moral grounds that Hamas would have to renounce violence to do its people any good. He has already enraged both Israeli and Palestinian extremists by putting the Holocaust and the occupation in the same sentence. Most strikingly of all, it seemed to me, he nearly dared the Palestinians to embark upon a campaign of civil disobedience parallel to those of Gandhi, Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr. This President, unlike his predecessor, wants to move the world into a new place without a major war, and that indeed is the only way that we can get through the world crisis without doing horrible, perhaps irreparable, damage to our civilization.

There is much more to be said about that speech, but this post is already too long. I was thrilled and moved when the President specifically repudiated one of the most pernicious aspects of the "Bush Doctrine": "I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not. No single nation should pick and choose which nation holds nuclear weapons. And that's why I strongly reaffirmed America's commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons. (Applause.) And any nation -- including Iran -- should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That commitment is at the core of the treaty, and it must be kept for all who fully abide by it. And I'm hopeful that all countries in the region can share in this goal." That last sentence, obviously a reference to Israel, has drawn little or no attention, but I eventually predict that it will.

On April 14, 2007, I posted here a draft Presidential speech that I hoped to hear sometime during 2009. (The post can easily be found in the archive at right.) When the Obama transition team set up a suggestion box on its website I posted it there. I am not so vain as to think that it actually had any influence; but anyone who compares it to the President's Cairo speech will understand why I feel that I have a kindred spirit in the White House. "A special Providence," said Otto von Bismarck well over a century ago, "looks after drunks, fools, and the United States of America." Once again, in an astonishing turn of events, we seem to have found the President that we needed at the fourth great critical moment of our national history.

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