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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Sunday, November 25, 2007

From a Lost World

This may sound rather odd, but my principal complaint about Arthur Schlesinger's Journals, 1952-2000 is that they are much too short at 858 pages. His editors--two of his sons--explain that they culled them from about 6000 pages, and I suspect I would have been delighted to read every one of them. Bowing presumably to the brass at Penguin, they have also slanted the editing heavily to appeal to younger readers. There are only 60 pages on the 1950s, 260 on the 1960s, and 160 on the 1970s, while the 1980s and 1990s get 265 and 180. Forty years ago such a book (like the British Harold Nicolson's diaries, which have some important similarities to these ) would have come out in several volumes. Given that the author was a historian who frequently discusses the need to preserve sources (he was appalled to learn that a member of the Truman family had managed to destroy Harry's weekly epistles to his mother and sister), I am confident that his heirs have made arrangements to deposit the full text in an appropriate archive--perhaps the JFK library--where they will be opened at a suitable moment. (This morning's New York Times reports that they have been sold to the New York Public Library and should be available in a couple of years. Anyone want to put me up?)

Schlesinger was born in 1917, making him an exact contemporary of John F. Kennedy, although he was Harvard '38 and JFK was Harvard '40. He made an early splash as an American historian with The Age of Jackson and in the 1950s became one of two Harvard historians to begin grand-scale biographies of Franklin Roosevelt (Frank Friedel was the other.) Neither of them ever got close to a conclusion, but Schlesinger's three volumes (The Crisis of the Old Order, The Coming of the New Deal, and The Politics of Upheaval), appearing in the late fifties, became Book-of-the-Month Club selections and best sellers and inspired the new generation of Democrats of which he was a part. His real love, however, as he freely admits, was politics. He regarded teaching as a painful necessity (I suspect, actually, that he was somewhat better at it than he lets on), wrote prolifically (but more effectively, in my opinion, about the present than about the more distant past), and hated academic environments per se. Like Henry Adams--with whom I feel even more in common--he inevitably gravitated to Washington under Kennedy, and thence to New York, where he lived out his last forty years in the midst of literati, glitterati, and politerati. It seems rather fitting, as well as enviable, that he died of a heart attack at a New York restaurant last fall just before reaching the age of 90. (The last entry published is from 2000, and I was very sad not to see any post-9/11 comments on the Bush Administration--it is not clear whether any were written or not.)

Interesting from many points of view, the journals struck me above all as a generational portrait, chronicling the progress of the moderate left wing of the GI generation. The 1950s section poses a mystery that I have often pondered--the extraordinary adulation that a whole generation of liberals bestowed upon Adlai Stevenson, who invariably seems even in their own accounts to have done so little to deserve it. Yes, Stevenson was very charming (Schlesinger's friend John Kenneth Galbraith wrote that few men possessed in equal measure the talent of making one feel that there was no one to whom he would rather be speaking at this moment than one's self), clever with words, urbane, and eminently successful on foreign policy issues. Yet he was not much of a liberal domestically, especially on civil rights (as Schlesinger amply documents), and his tendency to deny his own ambition was the despair of his supporters as well as the ruin of some of his own hopes. In 1952, 1956, and 1960 he declared again and again that he did not want his Presidential nomination, forcing his party practically to get on its knees and beg (as it did, twice, with disastrous results.) Had he simply bowed out and endorsed JFK in 1960 he might well have become Secretary of State--where he and Kennedy might actually have worked very well together--but instead, his coyness made the Kennedys so angry as to rule that out. As late as the spring of 1960, even Schlesinger, who already knew Kennedy and who retrospectively has been viewed as the Kennedys' court historian, endorsed JFK only with public regret that Stevenson was not running. Schlesinger had a moment of which he was particularly proud in the fall of 1960, when both Kennedy and Stevenson asked him to write their speeches for the same event, the Liberal Party dinner in New York. "I could not resist the thought of doing both, so I did," he wrote, "a fact I have carefully kept secret from everybody (especially the two principals). . .[Stevenson's] speech was a great success in the evening, but so was Kennedy's."

Schlesinger had written speeches for Stevenson, and speechwriting remained his principal political role--literally, it turns out, until at least 2000. Kennedy brought him into the White House as a special assistant both to write speeches and offer political advice and to help on some policy matters, especially with respect to Latin America. He was one of a few major figures to oppose the Bay of Pigs, but that didn't increase his influence very much. As I discovered writing American Tragedy, he was rarely if ever involved in policy towards Southeast Asia, and he was not part of the Excom during the Cuban missile crisis. Thus he seems to have been genuinely unaware that the Administration had covertly promised to withdraw American missiles from Turkey to settle the crisis. Kennedy evidently regarded him as his contact with liberal intellectuals, about whose attacks he frequently complained. Schlesinger, not unreasonably, replied that such attacks should give the President more flexibility, since they tended to portray him as a centrist.

Although Schlesinger periodically demonstrates some capacity for hatred--Richard Nixon was, understandably, his favorite target, leading to amusing complications in the 1980s when Nixon bought the house behind his own on the upper East Side--he generally remains rather calm and unemotional. At one point, he muses perceptively about the difference between the New Deal and the New Frontier. "The New Dealers were always great talkers and philosophizers. . .Moreover, the New Deal had its distinctive rhetoric. [New Dealers] could talk about 'the people,' about their ultimate wisdom, and about the importance of doing things for them in a way quite alien to the New Frontier. The heart was worn much more on the sleeve then. The New Frontier has a deep mistrust of what it regards as the pat liberal sentimentalities and cliches of the thirties. . . .The difference in rhetoric does probably signify a deeper difference in commitment--a change, in a way, from evangelists who want to do something because it is just and right, to technocrats who want to do something because it is rational and necessary. The New Frontier lacks the evangelical impulse--in part no doubt because there is no audience for it." Thanks to Strauss and Howe, I immediately recognized that as perfect characterization of the difference between a Prophet generation (like Roosevelt's Missionaries, born from the mid-1860s to the mid-1880s, or the Boomers) and a Hero generation like the Republicans (Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison and company) or Schlesinger's own GIs.

Yet Schlesinger was overcome by his emotions after the death of JFK--and in a most unfortunate way. Like Robert Kennedy, to whom he immediately became closer, he simply could not in his heart accept the idea that Lyndon Johnson was now President and that there was nothing they could do about it. (The contrast in this respect between him and figures like Galbraith, Bundy, and McNamara is noteworthy.) Although Schlesinger did not deny LBJ's legislative achievements he clearly never saw the man as Presidential timber, and more importantly, he encouraged RFK's belief that Johnson might be pressured into making RFK the Vice-Presidential nominee-which, of course, he could not be. Sadly, Schlesinger's resentment of Johnson even corrupted his work as a historian. In A Thousand Days, he propagated the myth that Kennedy had not really meant to select Johnson as Vice President--that he had half-offered him the job as a courtesy, only to be amazed when Johnson jumped at it. There is nothing in his contemporary journal entry (p. 76) to support that--only confirmation that, after JFK had decided on the selection (for, as it turned out, excellent political reasons), RFK tried to talk Johnson into backing out--the beginning a long and bitter hatred into which Schlesinger allowed himself to be drawn after November 22, 1963.

Schlesinger's most endearing quality, for me, is his consistently sensible attitude about foreign policy. He is skeptical about foreign intervention throughout, and was an early opponent of escalation in Vietnam. (As excerpts in the New York Review of Books showed, Robert McNamara began telling him as early as 1966 that he opposed escalation and wanted a negotiated settlement--something which would have come as quite a surprise to McNamara's fellow Administration heavyweights at that time, since he expressed no such sentiments to them for more than another year. He reports long conversations with George Kennan in 1961-2, when Kennan was Ambassador to Yugoslavia, about the danger of the Berlin crisis spilling into war. (By the time of Kennedy's death, Kennan had become a great admirer of the President's foreign policy.) During the Nixon Administration Schlesinger allowed Henry Kissinger, who had apparently been a protégé of his when a grad student (albeit in another department), initially to persuade him that Kissinger wanted a more rapid winding down of the war, even telling Schlesinger after the Cambodian invasion that he had wanted to resign over it but could not do so yet. Gradually, however, he acknowledges that Henry is obviously telling him what he wants to hear.

Schlesinger returned to the political wars, of course, in 1968 on Robert Kennedy's behalf, and was even more devastated by his assassination than by his brother's. The denouement of that year's campaign was surely a shock. In an extraordinarily ironic entry written in November 1962, Schlesinger recounted both Nixon's California defeat and apparently permanent eclipse ("you won't have Nixon to kick around anymore"), and the funeral of Eleanor Roosevelt, which Hoover, Eisenhower, Truman and Kennedy all attended. "As we drove from the church to the grave," he wrote, "I reflected that, if anyone had said in 1940 that the next three Presidents of the United States would be Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, it would have provoked total incredulity. . . .I swore not to hazard any predictions about the man who will be inaugurated in January 1969." He certainly would not have had Nixon on his list. In his last entry for 1969 he referred to the sixties ad "the worst and saddest decade of one's life, that 'slum of a decade,' as John Updike has called it, the decade of the murder of hope." Once again, generation is everything. From his perspective that reaction was perfectly understandable and I knew many of his contemporaries who felt the same way; but I although he and I would have agreed on most things about politics (and he gave American Tragedy a nice blurb in 2000), for me and my contemporaries the 1960s will always be the decade in which we discovered ourselves, our feelings, and what made life worth living. (Actually I enjoyed the 1970s even more.) But he is right--American politics have gone downhill ever since.

During the next three decades Schlesinger was consulted again and again by various candidates, including George McGovern (for whom we share a very high regard), Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, and even, to my astonishment, Al Gore in 2000. (Apparently Democratic Boomer politicians, at least, had some conception of how much they could have used their elders' counsel.) In 1988, in the last week of his disastrous campaign, Dukakis finally declared himself a liberal in the tradition of Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy--something Schlesinger had called upon him to do privately on September 1 of that year and publicly on October 21.) It was much too late. Clinton often asked for his advice but rarely followed it. His conversations with Gore are among the most humorous of the book. In a private meeting right after his vice-presidential selection in 1992, Gore talked about "values." "Our duty is not just to what helps us as individuals but to what is good beyond ourselves. . .People living unto themselves feel that their lives have no meaning. We must work to reestablish the balance of nature, and we must work to reestablish the balance of society. . ." "All this had become urgently clear to him," Schlesinger continues,” as a result of his son's accident. When the little boy was struck by an automobile and nearly killed, 'it forced me to think again about life and to focus on what is really important and vital.' He went on about regaining authenticity in living by getting back in touch with nature, his discourse had a holistic, even mystical fervor. I began to wonder what this sort of talk reminded me of. Suddenly the name swam into my consciousness: Henry Wallace." Wallace FDR's visionary Vice President from 1941 to 1945, whose Progressive Party candidacy in 1948 fronted for the Communists and cost Truman the state of New York. Schlesinger's biggest arguments with my generation were culinary rather than political. As the decades wear on he increasingly bemoans the proliferation of political and social occasions where no hard liquor is served. While I have never drunk as much as he did, generally confining myself to pre-dinner and eschewing pre-lunch, I agree with him on that one.

Meanwhile Schlesinger's continuing contacts with Kissinger remained valuable historically if not politically. Nixon, Kissinger told him in 1975, "was both more evil and better than people supposed. He was at his best when he was under pressure and cornered. That brought all his faculties into play. . ..It was a great myth that he was a hard worker. He was one of the laziest men I have ever seen. I don't think he ever read the Vietnam armistice agreement, for example, or the SALT agreement, or the preliminary papers on China. He worked in spurts of energy, as at the time of Cambodia or Laos or the mining of the North Vietnamese harbors. Then he would collapse into a condition of lassitude that would go on for weeks. His work habits were very much like Hitler's as described by Speer." (In the same conversation Kissinger admitted that he had favored both the Cambodian invasion and the mining of Haiphong.) And on June 14, 1989, Schlesinger had a rather extraordinary conversation with Julie Nixon Eisenhower, who favored "the complete abolition of the CIA on the ground that it has become a dangerous source of secret power in our democracy. She also said that the ovation for Goldwater at the last Republican convention almost made her change her registration from Republican to Democratic--though this may be a reflection less of liberal views than of the fact that Goldwater has described her father, to whom she is devoted, as the most dishonest individual he has ever met. She is easy to talk to, and her friendliness suggests that she has never read anything I have written about Daddy."

Schlesinger was appalled by the renewal of the Cold War under Reagan and enjoyed confronting his Harvard classmate Cap Weinberger about it. (Weinberger insisted that the Soviets were bent upon world conquest.) He amply documents something that has been almost completely forgotten: how conservatives young and old (including Richard Nixon) insisted as late as 1989 that Gorbachev only sought to make the Soviet Union a more dangerous adversary. And one of his best entries is from October 1983. "On Tuesday, the 25th, Reagan invaded Grenada. An enormous triumph for the republic--a nation of 230 million launching a surprise attack on a small island of 110 thousand. Fortunately we won. This will certainly make the Russians think twice." But he quickly adds that when he conveyed these thoughts to "a group of IBM executives and customers," the talk went down with a "dull thud. It is obvious that the Grenadan victory fills many Americans with enormous pleasure and pride. The polls report intense approval."

One Democrat did not consult Schlesinger: Jimmy Carter. And the New Yorker returned the snub with interest, refusing to vote for him either in 1976 or in 1980--the first time, he claimed, because Carter had declared his belief in the literal truth of Genesis. (He did not vote for President in 1976 and voted for John Anderson in 1980.) In retrospect that looks to me like a relatively rare lapse in judgment. But it also encapsulates the tragedy of Schlesinger and the whole bicoastal liberal movement of which he was such a part.

To those born from 1905 or so until 1925 or so, the New Deal and the Second World War had proven the validity of liberal Democratic values, grounded in a mixture of identification with the common man and rational policy analysis. Their mistake--parallel to the mistake of the Midwestern Republicans who had fought and won the civil war eighty years earlier--was to believe that those triumphs had established the truth of their beliefs for all time. In fact the United States would never have had anything like a New Deal (and the subsequent GI Bill, progressive tax structure, and cheap credit) without a catastrophic depression and a huge war. Moreover, both Southern whites and Republicans always resented what Roosevelt and Truman had done, and passed their resentment on to later generations. By 1968 the New Deal coalition had been reduced to less than 45% of the vote. In my opinion Schlesinger was wrong not to vote for Carter in 1976 because Carter, who carried the South, was the only Democrat who could have won that year, and wrong again in 1980 because Carter was indeed better than Reagan. (Ironically, I must admit that the world might have been better off had Ford, not Carter, won in 1976; but that wasn't Schlesinger's view.)

Like the Republicans who never stopped frothing at the mouth over the New Deal, Democrats of my age or older who will die longing for the good old days are arguing with history. Certainly events of the 1960s--notably the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam--accelerated the collapse of liberalism, but I now believe the backlash was inevitable. The baseball theorist Bill James once defined the law of competitive balance. Winners and losers, he argued, pursue different strategies for the future, the net effect of which is to benefit losers. For the last forty years Republicans have aggressively sought new votes where they could find them while Democrats have tried to live off the past--even while one of their most important constituencies, organized labor, has withered away. Republicans have held the White House for 28 out of those forty years. (Their "victory" in 2000 was largely the result of a more determined attitude and an obsession with winning at all costs.) The question now is whether liberalism can revive during the next ten years, or whether generations as yet unborn will revive it after several decades of Republican ascendancy. I hope that if necessary I can eventually reconcile myself to either outcome.

P.S. Cliopatria, a site run by historians, is accepting nominations for the best individual historical blog of 2007. Anyone wishing to make one can go to:


Monday, November 19, 2007


Something wild is going on in the bizarre world of Democratic campaign politics, and I have a hunch I know what it is. Since no one else wants to talk about it, I'm going to.

The blogosphere has been buzzing for a few days over a scurrilous column by Robert Novak, claiming that Hillary Clinton's campaign has some kind of devastating information about Barack Obama but--guess what--doesn't plan to use it. One might naturally infer that this has something to do with sex (assuming, which I certainly would not, that there is anything to it at all.)

Now as many of my friends know, I have taken the position for more than twenty years that politicians' sex lives should be their own business. At the height of the Clinton-Lewinsky madness, I wrote an op-ed fantasizing about the consequences if Jefferson, FDR, and Martin Luther King had been driven out of public life by revelations about sex. No one would print it. I still believe that--but most of the world does it. The man whose sex life is hanging like a black cloud over the current campaign is Bill Clinton's, and several different people from different walks of life have told me that the Republicans are only waiting for Hillary's nomination to spring some new revelations. Inevitably, it seems to me, that has to start other Democratic candidates asking themselves why, if there are damaging revelations to come, we should wait until after the convention to hear them. My hunch is that the Clinton campaign used Novak to threaten a preemptive strike.

Now I repeat--in a better world (such as the one I grew up in), what Bill was doing wouldn't make any difference--and it shouldn't. But in the world we are living in it could make a lot of difference--specifically, a disastrous election of Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney. I have no idea what kind of information is out there--indeed, there may be none at all. But if there is, may I suggest to both newsmen and rival campaigns that it would not be fair to the country to hold it until after Senator Clinton has been nominated. If it is going to come out, let it come out now, so that my fellow Democrats can make an informed choice about the candidate most likely to win.

Saturday, November 17, 2007


This week I read The Ghost, the new historical novel by Robert Harris--a typically multi-layered and well-written book by a very successful novelist. I have loved Harris ever since he wrote Selling Hitler, a nonfiction account of the marketing of the Hitler diaries in the 1980s, and have enjoyed Fatherland (which is set in 1964 and imagines that Hitler won the war in Europe), Enigma (about British codebreakers in the Second World War), and Archangel (about renascent Stalinism in Russia). The history in The Ghost is more recent; it tells the story of a ghostwriter hired to complete the memoirs of Adam Lang, a recently retired British Prime Minister who is obviously Tony Blair. Unfortunately I cannot say what I want to say without giving away a part of the plot, and those who want the fun of the book should skip the latter sections of the post (I'll let you know when), but I find it sufficiently significant to write about it.

Harris is a player in big-time publishing and he tells a good deal of what he knows in this book. The central character says a lot about ghostwriters, the largely anonymous souls who actually write the prose marketed under the names of celebrities. (On any given Sunday a large percentage of the Times non-fiction best-seller list has been ghosted.) Their task, he explains in the first person, is to humanize their subjects, to find the kind of psychological detail (often a trauma such as child abuse or drug addiction) that will hook the public. They must accept little if any acknowledgement (their name almost never appears on the title page) and they often are not even invited to the book party, where their presence might be embarrassing. Nor is this all; the funniest part of the book, in my opinion, occurred when Lang's name became newsworthy again (he is accused of collaborating in American war crimes), and the editor called the hero to move up his deadline. When the ghost complained that the existing manuscript needed a lot more work, he was told not to worry--"now is the time to bring it out, and we know no one is going to read it anyway." (My sales are not in the celebrity range, but I like to think that most of my purchasers actually get through the book and are glad to have done so.)

Harris is a good historian who obviously enjoys research, and one of the highlights of the book for me was the cameo appearance of one of the most famous Americans of the second half of the twentieth century, who is living in retirement on Martha's Vineyard. Harris never identifies him by name and I am not going to give the joke away, but he provides some data that leaves room for only one conclusion. The real interest in the book, however, is the central plot line, and regretfully, I must suggest that anyone who doesn't want to know it should stop here. (The Sunday Times reviewer was very discreet on this point too.)

Throughout the book, everyone the hero speaks to wants to understand one thing: how "Lang" could have come so completely under the influence of the American President (who isn't given a name at all.) Gradually, the hero discovers that his predecessor on the job had stumbled upon the answer. I am not going into all the details and twists, but essentially, what emerges is that the PM had been under the influence of the CIA since his days at Cambridge, and that that, presumably, explains the decision to support the Iraq war and collaborate in the exralegal treatment of suspects.

I would like to ask you to pause for a moment to realize what this means. It's as if John Grisham or Michael Crichton wrote a novel suggesting that George W. Bush was being blackmailed by the Mossad over some youthful indiscretion, or that leading neoconservatives knew all about 9/11 but allowed it to happen so that they could try to militarily control the Middle East. Harris certainly has a stature in Britain equal to theirs here, and he has chosen to imply that a once-popular Prime Minister was nothing less than a traitor who sold the British people out to a foreign power. And he cannot have done so simply from a profit motive.

Let me make it clear that I do not think that the accusation could possibly be true. My friends in the intelligence community assure me that the United States and Britain have had a gentleman's agreement not to spy on each other for 65 years, and I see no reason to doubt it. I find it very difficult to believe that Harris thinks it's true, either. The book therefore is interesting because of what it shows about the state of a certain segment of British opinion--the Labor voters who regarded Blair's collaboration with Bush as a complete betrayal. It is a powerful indicator of how much harm the current Administration has done to our overseas position, especially among our traditionally closest allies, and how desperately we need a new President to start restoring it.

Yet it is also seems to me, frankly, a rather cowardly way out on Harris's part. Several well-informed Brits have suggested to me that Blair was most motivated by religion--he is born again as well, and he sent Bush a book of devotions penned by an Evangelical for British soldiers serving in the Middle East during the First World War, which essentially exhorted the Christian soldiers to march forward for the glory of the Lord. He, like Bush, really believed he could strike a blow for freedom. Neither his Cabinet nor his party, both of whom evidently opposed him, had the courage to stop him--further proof that the British Constitution now allows a Prime Minister with a substantial majority to act almost as a dictator. We Americans have plenty to apologize for and plenty of soul-searching to do, and many of us are doing it. To blame it all on us, frankly, is both inaccurate and unfair. Indeed, I have been troubled for seven years that European leaders have been so reluctant to put forth an alternative foreign policy around which western men and women of good will could rally.

"The fault, dear Brutus," a famous playwright once wrote, "was not in our stars, but in ourselves." I believe he was English.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Styles of empire

Late in the 5th century B. C. E., Sparta and Athens, who had together defeated the Persians some decades earlier, were on the verge of war. The Athenians enjoyed a huge empire all over the Aegean, which they ruled with the help of democratic parties in their client states, while the Spartans led the Peloponnesian League, which included most of the states of southern Greece. In 431, three separate issues were coming to a head. On the west coast of Greece, Corinth, a Spartan ally, was trying to subdue Corcyra, which Athens had decided to support because Corcyra (today, Corfu) had a substantial navy. Close to Athens, Megara, strategically located on the isthmus between Athens and the Peloponnese, was involved in disputes with Athens that had led the Athenians to bar the Megarians from Athenian marketplaces--an ancient form of economic sanctions. And in Thrace, in the northwest, the aristocratic party of Potidea had revolted against the Athenian-allied democratic party, and had asked for an received some help from Sparta--a precedent which the Athenians wanted to nip in the bud. As Thucydides the Athenian reported years later, the Spartans held a Congress of their allies to decide whether to agree to Corinth's demand that they go war with Athens, and some Athenian businessmen who happened to be in Sparta were allowed to present their city's case. Here is some of what they said, as translated in the 19th century by Crawley (I would rather have quoted the Penguin translation by Rex Warner, but it is not on line.)

"Surely, Spartans, neither by the patriotism that we displayed
at that crisis, nor by the wisdom of our counsels, do we merit our
extreme unpopularity with the Greeks, not at least unpopularity
for our empire. That empire we acquired by no violent means, but
because you were unwilling to prosecute to its conclusion the war
against the barbarian, and because the allies attached themselves to
us and spontaneously asked us to assume the command. And the nature of
the case first compelled us to advance our empire to its present
height; fear being our principal motive, though honour and interest
afterwards came in. And at last, when almost all hated us, when some
had already revolted and had been subdued, when you had ceased to be
the friends that you once were, and had become objects of suspicion
and dislike, it appeared no longer safe to give up our empire;
especially as all who left us would fall to you. And no one can
quarrel with a people for making, in matters of tremendous risk, the
best provision that it can for its interest.
"You, at all events, Spartans, have used your supremacy to
settle the states in
Peloponnese as is agreeable to you. And if at the
period of which we were speaking you had persevered to the end of
the matter, and had incurred hatred in your command, we are sure
that you would have made yourselves just as galling to the allies, and
would have been forced to choose between a strong government and
danger to yourselves. It follows that it was not a very wonderful
action, or contrary to the common practice of mankind, if we did
accept an empire that was offered to us, and refused to give it up
under the pressure of three of the strongest motives, fear, honour,
and interest. And it was not we who set the example, for it has always
been law that the weaker should be subject to the stronger
. Besides,
we believed ourselves to be worthy of our position, and so you thought
us till now, when calculations of interest have made you take up the
cry of justice- a consideration which no one ever yet brought forward
to hinder his ambition when he had a chance of gaining anything by
might. And praise is due to all who, if not so superior to human
nature as to refuse dominion, yet respect justice more than their
position compels them to do."

We too have lived in an age of empires, but few if any of them, for many centuries, have dared to speak so frankly. Both Christianity and the Enlightenment have committed western man, at least, to some idea of the common good, which even the strong are supposed to work for--and thus the French under Napoleon, the various European powers in Africa in the nineteenth century, the Soviet Union in the twentieth, and the United States since the Second World War have never acknowledged such selfish motives, nor appealed to raw human emotion to justify their conduct. (The Nazis and the Japanese were certainly at least partial exceptions, and Hitler was particularly blunt, privately at least, in arguing that history was nothing but a Darwinistic struggle among peoples.) Are we in fact wiser than the Greeks? On the one hand, the theoretical commitment to the common good does strike me as an advance for civilization, but since it never wholly explains the behavior of powerful states (the Athenian delegates were surely right about that), it also leads to greater hypocrisy. Today, as I have pointed out, the United States government simply declares (as Condoleezza Rice did in 2003) that the world must coalesce behind American policy for the good of all, and President Bush insists that we are simply promoting freedom and democracy around the world. To many others around the world, however, things look very different. Many Muslim activists, moreover, have no even theoretical commitment to the common good, since they make no provision for the interests of heretics and unbelievers.

The specifics of our policies suggest that we, like the Athenians, are most interested in rewarding our friends and punishing our enemies--even when democracy turns out to put our enemies in power. The Hamas victory in Palestine has made us cling more tightly to Mahmoud Abbas, even though we cannot offer him anything more than the Israeli government is willing to give him. In Pakistan we are now frantically trying to balance our desire for democracy (which could easily have completely unintended consequences there, too) with our terror lest the Pakistani government and its nuclear arsenal fall into unfriendly hands. (Press reports over the last few days have said, first, that we are picking out possible new Pakistani leadership from within the Pakistani Army, and second, that we encouraged the return of Benazir Bhutto, which has triggered the state of emergency.) Meanwhile we still continue to refuse to accept the legitimacy of the Castro regime in Cuba--which has been in power for a mere 48 years--and which President Bush, in a speech at the State Department, openly invited the Cuban Army to overthrow. In Afghanistan six years of American occupation have not managed to prevent an impressive resurgence of the Taliban, which now rules parts of the countryside. In Iraq, 155,000 American troops (which will in the next year be reduced once again to about 130,000) have succeeded in reversing unfavorable security trends in Sunni areas, but only by taking on the traditional role of an imperial power, that is, by striking up alliances with local tribal elites. Meanwhile, the dollar during the Bush Administration has lost half its value, the price of oil has tripled, and our credit structure is cracking.

I have been noting here for weeks that the idea that the United States must get whatever it wants all around the world has not really been challenged by any of the major candidates. (Barack Obama has at least suggested we might talk to our enemies, but that is only a small step away.) This mindset has plagued us for about sixty years--the spread of Communism in Eastern Europe, the Communist victory in China, the Castro revolution, the fall of South Vietnam and the fall of the Shah, as well as numerous other setbacks, have struck far too many Americans as deviations from the natural order of things that should never have been allowed to happen (and which therefore have been blamed on treachery within the United States.) But the experiment of the last seven years proves, at least to me, that the United States cannot get whatever it wants, and that further attempts to do so will further erode our position. That has indeed been the fate of most previous empires, from the Athenians (whose catastrophe began with the expedition to Sicily, of which more later), to Napoleon, to the Germans in the twentieth century. We can perhaps take some encouragement that the British, our nearest relations politically and constitutionally, managed to give up their empire peacefully and without sacrificing their political and cultural legacy. But whether we can realistically assess our world position--which could still be one of leadership, if we can accept something less than complete hegemony--remains a very open question, and I am not particularly hopeful.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Politics and Fourth Turnings

As many readers know by now, William Strauss and Neil Howe, who wrote Generations and The Fourth Turning, divided American history into periods of approximately 80 years, called saeculums (Latin for a long human life.) In turn they divided each such period into four "turnings," a High, an Awakening, an Unraveling and a Crisis. After the civil war crisis, the High lasted approximately from 1867 to 1885, the Awakening from about 1885 to 1905, the Unraveling until 1929 or so, and the crisis through 1945. In our own time the High ran from 1945 to 1965, the Awakening from then until the mid-1980s, the Unraveling from about 1985 until. . .sometime in the last 8 years. (Future students will decide when the crisis began largely based upon what happens in the next ten years or so. I suspect that if there is a Democratic resurgence and a turn away from low taxes, income inequality, torture and imperialism in the Middle East, the Bush years will rank as the end of the Unraveling, but if present trends continue--which frankly seems more likely to me these days--we shall date the crisis to 9/11/2001.)

Each turning has a different style of politics. The High is the era of consensus, with cooperation between the major parties but intolerance of any extreme dissent. Because it follows the crisis it is also often an era of relatively high taxation in an effort to shrink the accumulated debt. The Awakening generally involves a loosening of social bounds, some reforms of obvious injustices, and the emergence of new concerns such as the environment (which was a very hot issue in each of the last two Awakenings.) It also has always been a time of greater interest in women's rights. The state weakens, politics become more partisan, and cultural issues become important during the Unraveling, while aging professional politicians struggle to find enough common ground to hold things together (as Bill Clinton did in the 1990s.) But the Crisis is an apocalyptic period. Rhetoric becomes controversial and absolutist, and opposing world views fight to shape the next five decades or so.

Karl Rove, I feel quite sure, has read Strauss and Howe. Although they have never been seriously treated at length in a major newspaper or magazine (and the only really good review either book got in the mainstream press was written by yours truly), they are known through the grapevine, and Rove is obsessed with history. But in any case, the Bush Administration and the Republican Party have generally held the initiative for the last seven years--and seem to have regained it since their 2006 defeat--precisely because their rhetoric has been far more appropriate to a crisis era than that of the Democrats. The past, they have proclaimed again and again, is irrelevant--we are in a new era calling for new principles. Holding their beliefs with religious fervor, they never admit a mistake. Most of all, they stay relentlessly "on message"--the tactic which one White House official predicted would enable them to prevail even against a Democratic Congress. And indeed, it has.

Triangulation remains the Democratic tactic of choice. The Congress has repeatedly caved in on civil liberties issues, and now, thanks to Diane Feinstein and Chuck Schumer, it will confirm the third consecutive Attorney General who has proclaimed that Presidential power is absolute. Charles Rangel is now introducing a bill to roll back some of the Administration's tax cuts, and the Democratic leadership is running for cover. The Congress does not want to close the loophole that allows hedge fund managers to pay 15% taxes on most of their income, while upper middle class Americans pay a marginal rate of twice that. It continues appropriating money for the Iraq war while trying to make capital of scandals like Blackwater which are the inevitable consequences of fighting it in the first place. And on Iran, the pressing issue of the moment, most of the candidates are not disputing the idea that Iran must somehow be prevented from having nuclear weapons and that a US attack cannot be ruled out. None of the front-runners, for instance, suggested during last week's debate that we should not attack Iran without a Security Council resolution authorizing an attack (which, obviously, we would never get.) Barack Obama is emerging as an exception simply because he's willing to talk to the Iranian government.

And no one, clearly, is triangulating more enthusiastically than the most likely Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton. The other night she tied herself in knots trying to support and oppose her own Governor's plan to give illegal immigrants drivers' licenses at the same time. She talks repeatedly about wanting to go back to the 1990s (I doubt even Alf Landon or Wendell Wilkie expressed nostalgia for the 1920s in 1936 or 1940.) And, of course, she voted to declare the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization and claims only to oppose a "rush to war."

A few weeks ago I wondered here whether Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, who led us so brilliantly through the last two Fourth Turnings, had faced the issues before them squarely before they reached the White House. Now I am ready to answer that question.

In Lincoln's case the answer turns out to be an unequivocal yes--even though Lincoln, amazingly enough, did not make a single speech of any note between his nomination as President in May 1860 and his election in the fall. Campaigning as we know it was not yet an established part of Presidential campaigns, and agitation was left to the party faithful while the candidate maintained an Olympian reserve. But in New Haven on March 8, 1860, Lincoln defined slavery as the critical issue before the country and left no doubt where he stood.

Now these two ideas, the property idea that Slavery is right, and the idea that it is wrong, come into collision, and do actually produce that irrepressible conflict which Mr. Seward has been so roundly abused for mentioning. The two ideas conflict, and must conflict.

Again, in its political aspect, does anything in any way endanger the perpetuity of this Union but that single thing, Slavery? Many of our adversaries are anxious to claim that they are specially devoted to the Union, and take pains to charge upon us hostility to the Union. Now we claim that we are the only true Union men, and we put to them this one proposition: What ever endangered this Union, save and except Slavery? Did any other thing ever cause a moment's fear? All men must agree that this thing alone has ever endangered the perpetuity of the Union. But if it was threatened by any other influence, would not all men say that the best thing that could be done, if we could not or ought not to destroy it, would be at least to keep it from growing any larger? Can any man believe that the way to save the Union is to extend and increase the only thing that threatens the Union, and to suffer it to grow bigger and bigger? [Great applause.]

Whenever this question shall be settled, it must be settled on some philosophical basis. No policy that does not rest upon some philosophical public opinion can be permanently maintained. And hence, there are but two policies in regard to Slavery that can be at all maintained. The first, based on the property view that Slavery is right, conforms to that idea throughout, and demands that we shall do everything for it that we ought to do if it were right. We must sweep away all opposition, for opposition to the right is wrong; we must agree that Slavery is right, and we must adopt the idea that property has persuaded the owner to believe -- that Slavery is morally right and socially elevating. This gives a philosophical basis for a permanent policy of encouragement.

Continuing, Lincoln denied any desire to harm slavery while it existed but insisted that it must be kept out of new territories. He argued effectively that the language of the original Constitution showed that the Founders had regarded it as an evil (since they had avoided any use of the word "slave"), and that if restricted, it would eventually disappear. Lincoln, as I have shown here, had grasped the essentials of the Strauss-Howe paradigm as early as 1838, in his Springfield Lyceum speech, and he knew the country was at a turning point. Whether he knew it or not, he had laid the foundation for the civil war in the New Haven speech--and I would guess that he at least suspected it.

In his acceptance speech in 1932, Roosevelt touched more bases than Lincoln, and made some contradictory promises. He pledged both to alleviate terrible economic distress and to balance the budget, and he took the Republican leadership on with respect to two specific party issues, the tariff (which he argued was too high) and Prohibition, which the Democrats as a party had finally decided to oppose. But his conclusion was equally sweeping and even more forward-looking. It also referred quite explicitly to the shift from a third turning to a fourth.

One word more: Out of every crisis, every tribulation, every disaster, mankind rises with some share of greater knowledge, of higher decency, of purer purpose. Today we shall have come through a period of loose thinking, descending morals, an era of selfishness, among individual men and women and among Nations. Blame not Governments alone for this. Blame ourselves in equal share. Let us be frank in acknowledgment of the truth that many amongst us have made obeisance to Mammon, that the profits of speculation, the easy road without toil, have lured us from the old barricades. To return to higher standards we must abandon the false prophets and seek new leaders of our own choosing.

Never before in modern history have the essential differences between the two major American parties stood out in such striking contrast as they do today. Republican leaders not only have failed in material things, they have failed in national vision, because in disaster they have held out no hope, they have pointed out no path for the people below to climb back to places of security and of safety in our American life.

Throughout the Nation, men and women, forgotten in the political philosophy of the Government of the last years look to us here for guidance and for more equitable opportunity to share in the distribution of national wealth.

On the farms, in the large metropolitan areas, in the smaller cities and in the villages, millions of our citizens cherish the hope that their old standards of living and of thought have not gone forever. Those millions cannot and shall not hope in vain.

I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people. Let us all here assembled constitute ourselves prophets of a new order of competence and of courage. This is more than a political campaign; it is a call to arms. Give me your help, not to win votes alone, but to win in this crusade to restore America to its own people.

The New York Times notes today that President Bush's name comes up far more frequently in Democratic presidential debates than in Republican ones. So it does, but the leading Republican candidates have yet to express any significant difference of opinion with the incumbent on any issue. They are equally as militant abroad, equally as anti-government at home. It seems, in short, as if only one candidate next fall will be using the sweeping language of a Lincoln or FDR. His words will, to be sure, have far less relation to reality, and the policies they call for will probably bring continued disaster. But the Republican candidate could yet carry the day, simply because his rhetoric will more closely match the mood of the country. Democrats, take note.