26.11.19

CHALLENGES POORLY FORESEEN?

I recently pulled out my well-worn copy of Theodore H. White's Breach of Faith to see what, if any, commentary he offered on the angry reaction by Richard Nixon's voters to those [expletive deleted] redacted [inaudible] transcripts.  (Not much: Mr White is more a chronicler of Official Washington than of Public Opinion in his works.)  I must make one correction to my posts:  Richard Nixon thought Lyndon Johnson's vanity taping system wasn't good enough, and he had a better vanity taping system installed, along with some controls to turn them on and off that might have had some role in what followed.

What interested me, though, were some of the observations, Mr White always devoting some of his chronicling to the Other Stuff occupying Official Washington whilst scandal, or, more commonly, a President being made, is under way.  I had forgotten, for instance, that he had offered an explanation of the role of the economist that I really liked.  "Economists are very much like reporters -- and as necessary.  The best of them can tell you exactly where you are, the exceptional ones can tell you how you got there -- but none can predict how you go from where you are to where you want to get."  I made money off that one for years.

But long before we got to that, we read about a crop failure.  "The 1974 drought in the Midwest, some American scientists thought, might conceivably be only a cyclical phenomenon, but they had other reasons to believe that it might be a harbinger of a longer cycle, one of those millennial changes that transform deserts to gardens, forests to deserts, dooming ports to become landlocked cities, or changing coastal plains into underwater fish warrens."  The notion of "anthropogenic" had not yet arisen, whether because that science was still rudimentary or because the dirigiste impulse had more convenient expressions is for a different historian.

Technocracy was still a Good Thing, then, that despite a generation gap between G.I. generation leaders and the most vocal and privileged of the early baby boomers that well have midwived Watergate itself.  The Victory Dividend, though, was still generally a Good Thing, those war protesters wanting to devote more of the resources going to prosecuting the limited war in Vietnam to Nobler Purposes.
All planning, both public and private, was bottomed [c.q.] on this assumption of limitless, ever-growing prosperity. The prosperity invited fancies, dreams, ideas that had seemed unreal only a few years earlier. Economic growth incubated a mood of experiment, and so, in all forms of life -- social, governmental, corporate, private -- experiments began. Few of the experimenters could foresee the consequences of their planning and successes.
Success is harder to absorb than failure. Failure leaves things as they are; success changes the conditions of life and brings new, undreamed-of problems -- above all, in politics.

Looking backward, one could pick up the thread of experiment - success - new - crisis almost anywhere in the early 1950's, and each thread interwove with another.
One of these days, I'd like to see people use "crisis" more prudently. A state leaves the Union? Crisis. A road is congested? Annoying.  Particularly, as each annoyance ratchets up the calls for Government Action.

"All such problems locked on the President's desk."

"Every group had to press its leverage in Washington, by fair means or foul."

Perhaps that was the lesson, a quarter-century after Victory that was after fifteen years of Hard Times.  "The experience of those twenty years between 1932 and 1952 had taught millions of Americans that when they talked of power, power meant Washington."  Never mind that Richard Nixon himself struggled to square two conflicting ideas.  "He held, as a leadership credo, that the President must control the government personally; but he held, as a political credo, that the Federal government must get rid of most of those controls -- social, administrative, economic -- which the Democrats had so long concentrated in Washington."

That hasn't gotten any better in the half century since, and the administrative state might well have entrenched itself further, no matter which party holds the Executive or the Legislative.

I wonder, also, whether Mr White could defend this passage today.
In America, however, "patriotism" is one of the old-culture words, like "motherhood," "honor," "family," "flag," and embarrassing to intellectuals. The patriotism of most Democrats is as deep and genuine as that of most Republicans; but Democrats hesitate to campaign on the theme, for it exposes them to the mockery of the thinking and university classes to whom they normally appeal for guidance and support.
A dozen campaign seasons ago, it's unlikely that those "thinking and university" classes would endorse the scorn national Democrats have recently shown ("bitter clingers" or "mean country" or "deplorables") toward those old-culture voters.

Perhaps, one of these years, we will come to understand the implications of "The Presidency had become a job of paralyzing complexity and bloated power" and ask whether the White House really ought be the "center of action" for "the price of your milk" or the school curriculum or the hangnail you're suffering from.

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