One can in retrospect trace the causes of dramatic historical events at least twenty years back into history, but they can nonetheless emerge with startling rapidity. Such a moment occurred, for example, in the winter of 1932-3, when Adolf Hitler and Franklin Roosevelt successively took power in Germany and the United States. Another happened here in the US in June 1963, an extraordinary month in which John F. Kennedy first called for genuine peace between the United States and the Soviet Union, and then sent Congress a civil rights bill including a demand to open public accommodations to all. Within a year, both initiatives had born fruit: the Test Ban treaty with the Soviets and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Another such moment occurred, of course, in Eastern Europe in 1989. A great deal hangs in the balance in the US and the world right now, but the last week has been marked by some extraordinarily hopeful signs. We might be nearing the climax of our great national crisis.
Let us begin with the bad news. The United States is still threatened by the Republican Party's determination to destroy the legacy of the New Deal, if not the Great Society, and complete our return to the pre-1900 Gilded Age. Speaker Boehner has once again lost his chance to be remembered as a major figure in American history by giving in to the Tea Party and promising to shut down the government if the President does not give up his health care reform. "Leadership," he said, "is about listening." There is some truth in that, but leadership is above all about facing and respecting reality and, when necessary, insisting upon it whatever the troops may think. Boehner is not that kind of leader. Had he refused to go along with his younger colleagues, split his party in the House, and allowed the government to continue to function, we would be on our way back to sanity again. But he did not. How this will play out remains a very open question. In 1861, in another crisis in a faraway land--the Kingdom of Prussia--Otto von Bismarck, like Barack Obama a Nomad and (unlike Obama) something of an eccentric, became Prime Minister in the midst of a budget crisis related to the organization of the Prussian Army. When the Prussian Landtag refused to pass a budget--a move similar to refusing to raise the debt ceiling--he announced in effect that since the Constitution was not, to anticipate Justice Jackson, a suicide pact, he would simply operate the government under the previous year's budget. It took six years and two brief, successful wars to bring parliament around, but they eventually forgave what he had done. President Obama may have to at least threaten some kind of emergency action to stave off this crisis, too--just as FDR in 1934 was ready to defy the Supreme Court had it ruled his devaluation of the dollar unconstitutional.
So what is the good news? Most of it is on the international front, beginning with the negotiations over Syria which I treated last week. They will not be easy, and Assad is likely to remain in power, as he was anyway, but they are a huge step forward. Already, too, some American observers are trying to turn them into a first step towards broader arms control in the Middle East, which as I have said many times here would involve acknowledging Israel's nuclear arsenal. And today's paper reports major changes in Iran, and in Iran's approach to the nuclear talks. The new Iranian leadership has opened direct contact with President Obama and transferred responsibility for those talks to the Foreign Ministry. A White House spokesman, in a potentially critical choice of words, referred to our determination to get Iran to abandon its "nuclear weapons program"--not its nuclear program or its nuclear enrichment program. The developments regarding Syria and Iran suggest that the Obama Administration might finally be willing to abandon the foundation of George W. Bush's policies towards the Middle East, namely that all dictatorial regimes should be overthrown regardless of the consequences and that the US should attack countries seeking weapons that we do not believe they should have. That will enrage neoconservatives and disturb AIPAC, but those are developments to be welcomed.
Yesterday Pope Francis I released an extraordinary interview suggesting that the Church must shift its focus from homosexuality, birth control and abortion, and even that the Church must foresake the right to condemn homosexuals. For fifty years now I have been hoping to see a new Pope revive the spirit of John Paul XXIII--who died in that same critical month of June 1963--and now that time has evidently finally come. Francis actually said that the emphasis on those issues might bring down the moral foundations of the Church. He also said that the Church needs a new role for women, although he gave no indication that women might help define what that role would be. (His comments on "female machismo" were certainly interesting as well, since he condemned both female and male machismo.) I am neither Catholic nor religious, but the Catholic Church has played an enormously constructive role in many eras of western history and it could easily do so again if it simply travels down the path Francis laid out. And nowhere, not even in Ireland, will his words have a greater impact than among the Catholics of the United States.
And last, but hardly least, Larry Summers withdrew from consideration for chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Few men have done more harm either to American education or the American economy than Larry Summers, and he still owes me and a number of fellow members of the class of 1969 an apology for ignoring our complaints during most of the last decade over the multimillion dollar bonuses Harvard pays to its financial managers--bonuses which continued at roughly the same rate even after they lost 1/3 of the Harvard endowment. When President Obama chose him as his chief economic adviser I was so devastated that I really went into denial. It worked out as badly as I had feared. But at least he will not be an enduring legacy of the Obama Administration in other ways, as well.
I have been fooled once before during my nine years of commentary here, by the election of Barack Obama in 2008. I thought it might be another 1932, and it wasn't. These new developments are at this moment very tentative, and the Republican threat to modern civilization in America remains strong. But they are encouraging developments, better than I would have dared hope for just a few weeks ago, and they make reading the newspaper considerably more inspiring every morning.