Monday, February 4, 2008

Betting on the Future or the Past

By Alan Caruba

My own memories of elections go back to Harry S. Truman when I was just a child and had no idea what the whole business of being President was about, but I recall seeing the newsreels with him taking a walk for exercise, usually with a gaggle of reporters trailing at a polite distance. There must have been Secret Service agents close at hand, but those were days when a President could just take a stroll outside the White House and shake hands with whoever was sharing the sidewalk with him.

Eisenhower was a great general and, though we kids thought he was funny because he was not an eloquent speechmaker or speaker, and seemed to play a lot of golf, it turned out that he made a lot of very good, very smart decisions. The man had seen the worst of what fascism could do to people and he set us on a course to oppose Soviet ambitions.

Then came Jack Kennedy in 1960. I was 23 years old at the time and, thanks to the Draft, in the Army. I can remember the excitement of this charming, young candidate, running against the ever-scowling Richard M. Nixon. Those years between 1961 and 1963 seemed to lift everyone’s spirits. There was the Peace Corps and the face-off over Soviet missiles in Cuba, but we just loved to hear him talk because the future, we knew, truly did belong to a new generation. And then, on November 22, 1963 he was assassinated.

Voting for Lyndon B. Johnson was pretty much a no-brainer. I was a Democrat, the son of Democrats. It never occurred to me to vote for anyone who was not a Democrat. The problem with that blind faith was something called Vietnam. I swallowed hard and voted for Hubert Humphrey, even though I thought the war was a very big mistake. Nixon beat him handily. My confidence in the liberal platforms of the Democrat Party was beginning to slip.

Though I had a visceral dislike and distrust of Nixon, neither I nor anyone else could have ever contemplated Watergate. It was so bizarre that only a total paranoid could have sanctioned anything like it. Turned out Nixon was a total paranoid. Gerald Ford, his Vice President, took over, pardoned him (wisely in retrospect), but lost to what is arguably the worst president in modern times, Jimmy Carter. Recession followed along with the seizure of U.S. diplomats by Iranian revolutionaries, held hostage for 444 days.

By then I was casting around for anyone to vote for who wasn’t a Democrat. Along came Ronald Reagan. I am reminded of the words of St. Paul. “When I was a child I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, but when I became a man, I put aside childish things.” I registered as a Republican and eight very excellent years followed. Dutifully I voted for George Herbert Walker Bush for whom I held no strong feeling one way or the other.

What followed, though, was eight years of William Jefferson (Bill) Clinton. It was a conservative nightmare, eased only by the 1994 landslide transfer of power in Congress to Republicans. Every kind of shady deal and weirdness that could come from the Clinton White House was ultimately eclipsed by his tawdry affair with an intern the age of his daughter. Even then, the Senate could not or would not find grounds to remove him from office. If ever there was a low point in the political and moral life of the nation; that was it.

It also marked what, in retrospect seems to have been the beginning of a sharp divide between American voters that continues to this day. Elections have been very nearly 50-50 events with the barest majorities deciding them. This was true of both victories by George Walker Bush.

As Super Tuesday looms, that same division remains and it afflicts both parties, Democrat and Republican. It really is an election about the past or the future. It really is about more Clintonian politics or the fresh face and voice of Sen. Obama. It really is about the 70 year old John McCain, Vietnam War hero, or Mitt Romney, a Washington outsider with a depth of experience in the world of business.

America always seems to do best when it puts its bet on the future, not the past.

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