Can the Government Be Serious? September 11 Challenges Washington to Return to Its Core Responsibilities

By Nivola, Pietro S. | Brookings Review, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Can the Government Be Serious? September 11 Challenges Washington to Return to Its Core Responsibilities


Nivola, Pietro S., Brookings Review


What had Washington been like in the years immediately preceding September 11? As even an amnesiac will surely recall, the American capital at the end of the second millennium, like Rome at the start of the first, was consumed with palace intrigue, scandals, and arcane legal inquests. The fascination with scandals and investigations, however, had become but one manifestation of a larger change in the nation's public life: call it the descent to low politics. Increasingly, the national government during the late decades of the 20th century had digressed into concerns that carried it far afield from its core responsibilities.

In earlier years, foreign policy had greatly preoccupied presidents and congressional leaders. Politicians were never oblivious to the details of domestic policy, of course, but these did not overrun the national agenda. Indeed, when John F. Kennedy became president in 1961, his inaugural address had contained exactly two words about domestic imperatives. (One sentence in his speech, about tyranny abroad, ended with a pledge to be "unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation had always been committed, and to which we are committed at home and round the world.") But in President Bill Clinton's state of the union address in February 1997, the emphasis was heavily on the home front. Clinton ruminated on such subjects as the enforcement of truancy laws, the advantages of school uniforms, the math tests of eighth graders, the availability of medical insurance to cover mammograms, the appropriate hospital stay for women after a mastectomy, the utility of flex-time for employees, the revitalization of community waterfronts, and so forth.

This taste for appropriating the routine work of governors, mayors, hospital administrators, or school boards was strong during the Clinton years, but it had been building before. As East-West tensions subsided through the 1980s, and the outside world was perceived (or, rather, misperceived) to be far less threatening, the temptation in Washington grew to retreat from entanglements overseas and take up internal particulars, many of which could seem decidedly diminutive by comparison. Players from both political parties and at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue succumbed.

On Ronald Reagan's watch and that of his successor, the federal government got into the business of determining the minimum drinking age for motorists, setting the licensing standards for bus and truck drivers, overseeing spillages from thousands of city storm sewers, requiring asbestos inspections in classrooms, enforcing child support payments, replacing water coolers in local school buildings, ordering sidewalk ramps on city streets, purifying municipal water supplies, regulating where passengers should stand when riding city buses, and much more.

Puttering at Home

The inward impulse of national politics may have seemed especially conspicuous during the Clinton presidency, marked most notably during its first term by detachment or vacillation in the face of troubles overseas. Following a brief and shallow recession, the Clintonites had come to Washington in 1993 convinced that large parts of the U.S. economy needed radical surgery. While that operation was going on, unsettling events abroad were put on hold. The Clinton administration's approach toward a festering crisis in the Balkans was illustrative (at least until the magnitude of Serbian atrocities belatedly stirred the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to intervene). A late--20th-century reprise of ethnic cleansing and national dismemberment on the doorstep of Europe was relegated to the margins of the administration's concerns during its first two years.

The disengaged attitude toward the bloodbath in Bosnia seemed out of step with America's customary leadership role across the Atlantic and would eventually prove unsustainable. While it lasted, though, Clinton's stance was not altogether at odds with that of his predecessor.

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Can the Government Be Serious? September 11 Challenges Washington to Return to Its Core Responsibilities
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