Friday, January 14, 2011

After Tucson

The President regained his voice in Tucson Wednesday night. That's good for him, of course, for his popularity, and in due time for his administration's programs. Even more, it is good for the country. The American President is, by design, a combination king and party politician. Whenever a President plays king well - as Bill Clinton so memorably did in Oklahoma City in 1995 and President Obama did in Tucson this week - the country is invariably the better off for it.
As others have already pointed out, while the President played his part perfectly, the overall atmospherics of the event left something to be desired. Granted, the amazing announcement (delivered by the President himself with ultimate dramatic effect) that Rep. Giffords had just opened her eyes certainly warranted cheers and genral jubilation. Apart from that spontaneous response, however, the general pre-game rally atmosphere seemed somewhat jarring - at least to someone of my age who can remember when sobriety and dignity still characterized our public ceremonies. (The often repeated contrast between the 1965 funeral of Sir Winston Churchill and the 1997 funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, quickly comes to mind as representing the two opposite poles).
My point in mentioning this is not to carp critically about the esthetics of what was undoubtedly an overwhelmingly positive experience for Tucson and for the entire country, but rather to wonder whether we can actually muster the internal resources to reverse the direction we have been headed in and really recover for the long term some of that sobriety and dignity - and "civility," to use the popular word of the moment - that we will need as a nation if we are ever to extricate ourselves from the present impasse.
The problem, of course, is that we remain a fundamentally polarized people. Resolving such deep-seated differences through rational deliberaiton and debate is difficult - all the more so when the value of deliberation and debate, not to mention rationality have been widely disparaged. Exactly 150 years ago, it proved completely impossible to resolve our differences as a nation, and matters were settled only through a painful, prolonged civil war. Imposing solutions by force of arms is a time-honored practice which has often been quite successful in producing desirable results in the limited terms that define success this side of the eschaton. Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, wars often produce the optimal solution. Even overwhelming military victory does not always fully defeat bad ideas, however. Hence the persistence, a full 150 years after the Civil War, of vehemently anti-national, pro-states rights sentiments in our society.
So we are still very much a divided people. Whether the issue is saving health care insurance reform or protecting the citizenship rights of American born children of immigrants the road ahead will be a difficult and challenging one.
I recently read Ron Chernow's new biography of George Washington. One of the things that really stands out about Washington's character was how hard he worked at keeping his emotions in check and maintaining a posture of distance. Among Washington's many admirable qualities, this was clearly key to his success - and to the esteem and veneration in which he was held by his contemporaries.
Have we evolved as a culture to such a state that a Washington would now be incomprehensibe and unimaginable?

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