Magazine article Insight on the News

Slick Willie Suits His Era

Magazine article Insight on the News

Slick Willie Suits His Era

Article excerpt

The government of the United States, it would seem, has become an organization m which only two types of people -- the sinless and the shameless -- may serve.

A crazy counterpoint, to be sure, but one that has been a long time coming. And if this country is ever going to put its house in order, a few things need to be said about the situation.

"There is in America today," according to a well-regarded journalist, "a distinct prejudice in favor of those who make the accusations." The pundit was Walter Lippmann. The year was 1914. The book, Drift and Mastery, might be reissued profitably today.

Lippmann was writing at the culmination of the sorely misnamed "Progressive Era": A time when right-thinking Americans accused many people of many things. Big business was guilty of bigness; small business of blocking progress. Big minds were guilty of disturbing the peace; small minds of intolerance. Every male in the republic awoke wondering how he might oppress every woman he encountered that day And everybody (except the Progressives) was guilty of economic self-interest.

Progressivism had a strident tone and an affinity for moral preachment. As late as 1912, Teddy Roosevelt could assure his fellow Bull Moosers that "we stand at Armageddon and battle for the Lord" -- on spiritual matters ranging from antitrust legislation to civil service reform.

Yet the stridency and scriptural allusion belied uncertainty, even in a staunch Christian such as Roosevelt. It wasn't merely that Progressivism was loud but timid -- the protestations of people who, in the end, didn't really want to change things. The problem was that even as they railed and rallied, the moral underpinnings of their arguments -- and their civilization -- were slipping away.

The slippage had two aspects. The first was loss of religion as a commonly accepted, if not obeyed, guide to life. Indeed, the era witnessed the loss of an ancient sensibility -- that human morality had to be grounded in values not entirely of human making. The second aspect seems more trivial than the death of God and the rise of relativism. But, for Americans, its consequences were momentous.

Back in the Me Decade, historian Warren Sussman undertook a study of the self-improvement literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- mainly the how-to-fix-yer-mental-innards manuals now known as bibliotherapy. Sussman (and many scholars since) discovered a sudden shift away from the concept of character and toward that of personality. …

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