The retirement of John Paul Stevens marks the passing of the last truly influential member of the GI generation from our national life. There are still four GIs in the Senate (Robert Byrd, Frank Lautenberg, Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka), but none is playing a very prominent role in events. His retirement also reminds us of the passing of two important and related elements in American life: the centrist, responsible Republican Party, which has been dying since the day on which he was appointed to the Supreme Court by Gerald Ford, and the much-lamented, much-misunderstood consensus era of American politics of which it was a part.
Gerald Ford had an extremely undistinguished political career before Richard Nixon tapped him to succeed Spiro Agnew in 1973. An average conservative Midwestern Republican, he had, exceptionally, been elected to the House in the Democratic year of 1948, not in the great Republican sweep of two years earlier that had kicked off Nixon's career. Significantly, he became the first GI leader of the House Republicans in 1965, ousting Lost Charlie Halleck after the great Democratic sweep of 1964. He had attacked Lyndon Johnson for not having prosecuted the Vietnam war more vigorously (especially from the air) and in 1969 he had tried to impeach Justice William O. Douglas. Nixon, already threatened with impeachment, clearly chose him because he did not believe that the Congress would dare to put him into office. He was wrong.
Ford spoiled his Presidency and probably threw away his chance for election within a month of taking office when he pardoned Nixon. He may indeed have promised to do so--or at least indicated that he would give the matter thorough consideration--to Alexander Haig, Nixon's Chief of Staff, whom he then appointed to the Supreme Command of NATO, a post for which Haig was militarily unqualified. He would have done much better to allow the legal process to run its course before, perhaps, commuting any prison sentence meted out to the former President, or even covertly encouraging a plea bargain along those lines. But Ford performed an act of great statesmanship in the spring of 1975, when he refused either to intervene once again to try to save South Vietnam (as Henry Kissinger apparently contemplated doing), or to blame the Democrats for that country's defeat (as Kissinger promptly did.) It was "a war that is finished as far as America is concerned," he said, and no one complained very loudly. Meanwhile, he continued to pursue detente, and a SALT II agreement, until the pressure Ronald Reagan's campaign for his job in the spring of 1976 forced him to announce that our foreign policy was no longer detente, but rather "peace through strength." Reagan's near-victory in the campaign for the nomination was a portent of things to come.
Domestically, however, Ford was a moderate Republican in office, and he made several outstanding appointments. One was his Attorney General, Chicago attorney Edward Levi, who in turn, I believe, was responsible for the nomination of Justice Stevens. Roe v. Wade was only two years old when Ford chose him, and had not become a Republican litmus test. In Sunday's New York Times, Linda Greenhouse reports that Stevens was not asked a single question about Roe v. Wade in his confirmation hearings. (Ronald Reagan, interestingly enough, even ignored that litmus test in 1981 when he appointed Sandra Day O'Connor, much to his base's disgust.)
Stevens was nowhere near as liberal when he joined the court as he later became--but here, too, he exemplified the best of his generation. As he remarked, he learned on the job. Initially a supporter of the death penalty (which was illegal when he joined the court), he changed his mind once again and began to oppose it because he saw how capriciously it was applied. During his last 20 years of service he has helped keep alive, insofar as he could, the ideas of the Warren Court, including its protection of civil liberties and the rights of criminal defendants, and its protection of personal privacy in sexual matters, as well as the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
Today's pundits who continually lament the passing of an age of consensus ignore a critical point. That consensus was based upon agreed values, values initially enunciated by Franklin Roosevelt and affirmed by the sacrifice of more than 300,000 American lives in the Second World War. They included a commitment to basic economic justice for all Americans; a well-regulated capitalism; a highly progressive tax system; an end to legal and economic prejudice based on religion, national origin, or race; cheap education; an American commitment to defend freedom around the world, while carefully avoiding a new world war; and the most effective possible meritocracy. While during the 1950s and 1960s the federal government ran a deficit far more often than not, the size of those deficits was very modest by contemporary standards, and taxes on high income brackets remained very high. Intellectually they also included a commitment to rationalism and science. Socially, they were, by present-day standards, quite conservative. (It was ironically a scientific triumph, the birth control pill, that began breaking down sexual conservatism.) Republicans railed against the growth of government, but did little or nothing to stop it under Eisenhower, Nixon--or Gerald Ford.
The consensus was not universal, but the election of 1964 showed that it included 3/5 of Americans. Barry Goldwater in that year opposed a great deal of it, attacking Social Security, the TVA, the Civil Rights Act, and our fear of nuclear weapons--and received less than 40% of the vote. Yet in The Making of the President 1964, Theodore White, in the most prophetic passage he ever wrote, compared Goldwater in 1964 to William Jennings Bryan in 1896, and speculated that his campaign, however unsuccessful, might have struck chords that would evoke a response in the long run. He was right.
I am not sure that any but the very youngest Americans alive today will live to see another consensus era like that one. The crisis of 1929-45 was uniquely cataclysmic, both at home and abroad, and thus had unique results. The Civil War never created a comparable consensus, and I am inclined to believe that the crisis through which we are now passing will not either. In the last month the Obama Administration has regained critical momentum by passing the health care bill, and this week's conference on nuclear weapons may portend a real breakthrough. The President, picking up on something I pointed out here years ago, has linked the continuing disarmament of the nuclear powers with restraints upon proliferation, just as the 1969 Nonproliferation Treaty calls upon us to do. The conference also seems likely to link the question of the Iranian nuclear program to Israel's nuclear weapons--the reason that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has decided not to show up. But at the same time, today's newspapers report that the Administration has given up on appointing Dawn Johnsen, a forthright critic of the Bush Administration's legal subterfuges, to head the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel--a terrible step backward. The President's Supreme Court choice is also likely to face a violent confirmation fight, and quite possibly a filibuster. Bart Stupak, who accepted a reasonable compromise to pass the Health Care bill, has decided not to seek re-election. The problem we face for the next 20 years is not to create a new post-New Deal consensus: it is rather to hold the country together at all.
The ebbing of the consensus, and the passing of the world that created it, is not altogether a bad thing. Because neither the US nor any other major industrial country can mobilize armies of ten million men anymore, we cannot fight another world war. That represents enormous progress. Personal freedoms, particularly sexual ones, have made great advances. But our capacity to work together to address economic and political problems has been wounded beyond repair, and our intellectual traditions have also decayed. Neither we, nor, I suspect, our children, will be able to match our parents' and grandparents' achievements in those realms, and it will be many years before another Justice Stevens sits on the Supreme Court.