Reading the Past, Explaining the Present

Article excerpt

Time for another installment in our series, "The Conservative View of Bill Clinton and of the America that Somehow Elected Him Twice." This subject has taken up a fair bit of ink in this space on Wednesdays, I admit. But the fact is that current and future politics is inexorably shaped by the story lines that emerge from politics past - in particular, accounts for the reasons behind success or failure.

Take the Nixon-Kennedy election. Why did things come out as they did in 1960? Was it the case of a charismatic young politician, the first in the age of televised mass politics, simply overwhelming an old-school pol who had no intuitive feel for the new media? Or was it the optimistic vision of American possibility that JFK put forth? Or did Nixon in fact win the election -only to have it stolen from him by Richard Daley's political machine in Chicago?

Now, to be sure, a nuanced view of cause and effect including these and perhaps other explanations is surely possible. But the fact is that there are usually consequences that flow from giving relatively more weight to one of the above than to the other two.

If you think it was primarily a matter of Nixon's five-o'clock shadow and JFK's Ur-Kennedyness, you may be inclined to think that in politics, style is substance, and the way you use the media is more important than the message you put out. And you are likely to think about the next campaign accordingly.

You will think about the next campaign very differently if the lesson of 1960 is that JFK's optimism is what sells. No glitzy ad campaign, in your view, will be able to revive the fortunes of a candidate whose message is out of sync with American sensibilities.

And if you think JFK stole it, you will on one hand vow to redouble your vigilance against such activity, while on the other hand you constantly seek to remind people of just how corrupt your opponents are and to what lengths they will go. And you will seethe at the injustice.

One might call the first explanation nuts-and-bolts political, the second ideological, the third cynical (or worse than cynical; it's precisely the sensibility that gives rise to the charge of political paranoia). One might even note that if you mix them all together you get, for instance, the Dole campaign. The larger point is that there's a very close relationship between one's reading of the past and one's sense of what to do next. Sometimes one approaches the past disinterestedly, in search of lessons of value; sometimes, however, one approaches the past as something to be mined for material to support one's view of where to go from here. In either case, it's instructive to watch the explanations emerge, since they will surely influence actions down the road. …