The Fleeting Beauty of Opposition

By Meacham, Jon | Newsweek, March 1, 2010 | Go to article overview
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The Fleeting Beauty of Opposition


Meacham, Jon, Newsweek


Byline: Jon Meacham

History can be a problem. if you spend a lot of time thinking about the political past, you tend to see the events of the present time differently than you do if you are consumed by the passions of the hour. A habit of mind that puts most things in context with what has happened before--weighing them, if you will, to gauge their gravity in comparison to ages past--has its virtues and its vices. The chief virtue is that you probably know how we got to a certain point, and that things have almost always been worse. The chief vice is that a historical sensibility can be seductively numbing, producing a kind of reflexive cynicism and even self-importance. Well, if you knew what I know, then you wouldn't think Sarah Palin is an issue--hell, just remember George Wallace. Or: You think Obama's a radical? This guy is a hopeless gradualist. LBJ would wipe the floor with him.

I struggle with this tension between perspective and cynicism all the time, and I suspect many of you do, too. We are currently in one of our episodic bursts of Washington-is-broken conventional wisdom. Twenty years ago, in the administration of George H.W. Bush, it was called gridlock; 200 years ago, in the administration of George Washington, it was called--negatively-- "the spirit of party," an era in which "party" tended to mean faction or narrow interest. We have been here before and will be here again. Evan Bayh is applying for this year's Cincinnatus Award; previous aspirants include Bill Bradley. Given the polls--Obama's approval rating is below 50 percent in the new NEWSWEEK survey--the 44th president looks likely to repeat the experience of the 42nd. After a successful, change-oriented campaign, a young Democratic president fails to succeed politically with a largely center-right country, and pays for it with a thrashing at the midterms. And so it goes.

Knowing that history, though, does not really solve any of the challenges at hand, from unemployment and stagnant growth to entitlement reform and the threat of terrorism. What a long view should do, I think, is give people on both sides of the perennial partisan divide an appreciation that the rhetoric of apocalypticism is hyperbolic and ultimately of little utility.

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