Riding the Train Between the Past and the Future

The Saturday before the inauguration of Barack Obama was a news hole – you reported on the anticipation of the event, and on that amazingly inspirational train trip (more than one hundred fifty photos here), but not on the event, as the actual inauguration was yet to happen. And news stories opened like this:

 

Invoking hope and history, President-elect Barack Obama rolled into the capital city Saturday night after pledging to help bring the nation “a new Declaration of Independence” and promising to rise to the stern challenges of the times. He kicked off a four-day inaugural celebration with a daylong rail trip, retracing the path Abraham Lincoln took in 1861.

 

The crowds along the route were amazing, the speeches at the stops stirring, and all the man-in-the-street interviews let you know that just about everyone understood what was about to happen, and was now inevitable, might well change everything. Some of it was that a black man would become president the day after Martin Luther King Day – burying two centuries of racial nonsense and shame – but a lot of it was that we were going to get a decent, thoughtful, careful but bold, articulate president, who was smart as a whip and didn’t have much use for nonsense – he just wanted to get things done. And he’s a nice guy.

 

Things were going to be alright after all, even if fixing so much that had gone wrong would take some time – and we actually elected this guy. Amazing. At one point CNN just let the Ray Charles version of America the Beautiful roll on – no comment, no break for commercial, the whole four minutes. That’ll give you goose bumps. What was happening was like waking up to a freshly-minted morning at the end of a jumbled nightmare, or something like that. And when you thought about the long arc American history, this seemed the biggest event since… well, since we started out so long ago.

 

But it was all Saturday anticipation of a Tuesday event, even if that cosmic conspiracy thing was kicking in – that disaster in New York averted when the pilot of an airliner, having lost both engines, coolly and calmly glided the big jet to a perfect dead-stick landing in the Hudson River, keeping the thing intact, no one seriously hurt, then walking the aisle twice, to make sure everyone was out, before stepping off as the plane slowly took on water and drifted down toward the Statue of Liberty. You had to love the symbolism – the utterly competent pilot, and all the common-man ferryboat folks rushing in to help get everyone to shore, just doing the right thing.

 

Yep, things were going to be alright after all. You just knew it.

 

But everything being alright wasn’t news, yet. All those one hundred fifty-five people in New York were just fine, but Obama wasn’t president yet. Things were still in the air, so to speak.

 

So the news folks, needing copy, had to come up with something. And when you’re between what has happened and what will happen, you write background pieces, analyses and retrospective – thumb-suckers, as they call them.

 

Ted Anthony of Associated Press offered America: What In The World Does It Want To Be? – something to consider while we’re waiting. He seems to have the notion Americans are confused and have no idea what they really want:

 

George Washington, first president, said this: “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.”

 

Eldridge Cleaver, civil rights leader, said this: “Americans think of themselves collectively as a huge rescue squad on 24-hour call.”

 

Toby Keith, populist country singer, said this: “This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage – and you’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A.”

 

Now: Place those three divergent sentiments in a large bowl. Whip vigorously until blended. There you’ll have, in one curious, often contradictory recipe, the world-changing, world-shaking world view of the quixotic species known as the American people.

 

Okay – got it. We do have a complicated history of isolationism and engagement, and that might make things tough for Obama. Anthony reviews our “deep instinct to live and let live that coexists with an equally fervent desire to be a robust beacon of freedom – sometimes by any means necessary.” Obama promises change, but who will be on his side?

 

Anthony cites Eric Rauchway, the author Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America, a book that says from the end of the Civil War to World War One, well, we just messed around, because we could, or actually because our “country’s unique position in the global economy – unmatched flow of foreign capital and labor to its shores, expansive opportunities on the Western frontier – meant that the US, unlike European countries, was not forced to develop complex federal agencies to regulate commerce, assemble statistics, and provide for the unemployed.” So we didn’t bother until we were frightened:

 

Efforts to regulate credit and monopolies, he says, arose not in response to Socialist agitation but out of distrust of foreign bankers among recent migrants in the West. Lacking strong, centralized government institutions experienced in large-scale economic matters, the U.S. was unprepared after WWI to take the leading role in the global economy, a failure that, he argues, led to the Great Depression and would eventually scare Americans into supporting international financial organizations after World War II.

 

And then in the sixties we decided we didn’t much care about any of that, deciding the international economy could take care of itself. And now it can’t.

 

Now what? Anthony gets Rauchway to offer this – “It’s a very plastic moment.”

 

That’s not helpful. Bush was interventionist and Obama’s wants to “restore our moral standing.”

 

Anthony presents the dilemma this way:

 

Both of those outlooks have their merits and their supporters. In the era after 9/11, particularly, Americans’ hunger for security in the “homeland” is fervent – enough so that we re-elected Bush in 2004 more than a year after he ordered the invasion of Iraq on a false premise.

 

Nevertheless, polls show an increasing dissatisfaction with how America plays with others in the international sandbox and the neoconservatives who pushed a more aggressive American position toward the world – men such as Donald Rumsfeld, John Bolton and Paul Wolfowitz – left the Bush administration years ago.

 

But when a new president gazes out upon the republic and looks for clues to consider the American mood toward the world and craft policy accordingly, sometimes it’s all quite difficult to figure out.

 

Here’s the mood as Anthony sees it:

 

We are a welcoming people who have embraced waves of immigrants who have changed us – and keep changing us – in productive ways. Yet ours is a suspicious land where accusations of Frenchness helped sour voters against John Kerry and, days after 9/11, anti-Muslim sentiment claimed the life of an Indian Sikh — the cultural equivalent of mistaking a pine tree for a chrysanthemum bush.

 

This is a country where ordering Chinese takeout has become a fundamentally American activity, yet also where legions of non-passport-holders who devour the mediated experiences of “Morocco” and “Japan” at Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center would never dream of visiting the real thing.

 

And this is a nation where festivals celebrating faraway cultures are held in the smallest, least diverse of communities — but where an average senior citizen in Frederick, Md., will issue whispered warnings about black helicopters and the one-world government that’s surely going to usurp our sovereignty.

 

And he cites Schuyler Foerster, president of the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, on the core of the problem – “We need others and others need us. And we don’t like that.”

 

That’s a problem. Obama talks of community and everyone pitching in, locally, nationally, internationally – and after all the long years of the conservatives convincing everyone that rugged individualism and personal responsibility are all that matters, and that what a sense of community eventually develops into, a government, is always the problem, Obama has his work cut out for him arguing the opposite. Landing a massive airplane in the river between Secaucus and Hell’s Kitchen would be easier.

 

And Anthony cites Jack Holmes, a political scientist at Hope College, saying every few decades we move two phases, “introvert” and “extrovert,” and Obama may have timed this right:

 

Americans are never quite happy with what their role is in the world. Either they want to show the world how to do it, or sit back and set an example that the world can follow… The American public is at a very important moment when it comes to how this country sees itself.

 

So the whole idea that “inspiration is our export” may be an okay idea right now, as whatever we’ve been exporting for the last six or seven years hasn’t inspired much of anyone. And Anthony point out that our saying, and demonstrating, that we don’t give a damn what the world thinks of us, has pretty much run its course, even if we hate thinking about the rest of the world and like things to be simple:

 

It matters because, like it or not, the domino effect isn’t just about communism anymore. Markets fail in Asia, and Americans convulse. Jobs shed in Dubuque show up in Dubai. And, most dramatically, foreign-policy decisions executed in far-off lands can have direct security effects at home.

 

At the same time, engaging Americans in the nuances of foreign affairs has often proven difficult. Not only does geography keep most things far away in concept if not in fact, but many of the 21st century’s diffuse global realities are difficult to wrangle because they lack visual, Hollywood-style iconography.

 

Instead of dust bowls and bread lines, we have intricate financial networks that connect us with the world but are impossible for all but experts to visualize. Instead of menacing footage of Nazi rallies or Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe, we have an undefined enemy who roams the globe surreptitiously and hides in plain sight. And instead of the movie ending with a climax – an Iraq invasion, say – the aftermath trickles on and the mission is not, in fact, yet accomplished.

 

That US Airways pilot had it easy. Obama has to lead us out of this mess. We could get bored, or hostile, and replace him with Sarah Palin in four years, who knows nothing about any of this stuff, and doesn’t want to know, and tells us that’s just fine, justifying another “whatever” president.

 

This is the sort of thing you think about while you’re waiting for the inauguration.

 

As for looking back, see Ross Douthat on George Bush here:

 

Watching Bush’s farewell address last night, what struck me above all was how long it’s been since he felt like the President. Bush never had the gift of persuasion, the ability to give a State of the Union address or a press conference that left his enemies disarmed, but there was a time when he at least seemed like a leader – like someone consequential, active, and important, whatever one thought of his actions and their consequences. But that air of authority and leadership dissipated somewhere between the failure of Social Security reform and the 2006 midterms, and for the last two years Bush has projected the air of a bystander to history, as though events, and his presidency, were largely out of his hands.

 

Yep, it was odd to have him in the pilot’s seat. That another thing you think about while you’re waiting for the inauguration.

 

Or if you’re Daniel Gross, the financial writer for Newsweek and Slate, and the author of Pop! Why Bubbles Are Great for the Economy (they purge the system of stupid products and useless services, allowing better things to come along) you spend your time wondering about other questions. And here’s one that fascinates him. Will Anyone Give Bush a Job?

 

The answer is no, probably not:

 

For many of President Bush’s critics, the fact that he is now seeking work in the worst job market in a generation is poetic justice. As Bush noted in his farewell press conference, he is too much of a Type A for “the big straw hat and Hawaiian shirt, sitting on some beach.” (He might want to reconsider: Thanks to the recession, tropical resorts are running great promotions.)

 

Given recent history, Bush probably expects to profit from ex-presidency. Bill Clinton reported income of more than $90 million from 2000-07. But Bush is very unlikely to earn Clintonian numbers. Ex-presidents peddle image, presence, and experience. In Bush’s case, each is tarnished. To aggravate matters, many of the industries in which ex-presidents make easy money are a) doing poorly, and b) based in the Washington-Boston corridor where Bush hostility runs deep.

 

Gross goes on discuss a possible book deal. No one is interested. And Bush may not make it on the lecture circuit:

 

Ronald Reagan flew off to Japan to make $2 million for a few speeches soon after leaving office. Clinton, to no one’s surprise, has been a prolific speaker. But speaking agents I talked with expressed little interest in Bush – and not, they say, just for political reasons. “I’m in business to make money, and I don’t think I’d make money doing it,” says Bill Leigh, chairman of the Leigh Bureau speaking agency.

 

The biggest spenders for the high-profile speakers have traditionally been investment banks and asset-management companies, such as Merrill Lynch and Citigroup. But many firms have disappeared, and those that remain are wards of the state.

 

He’s been hoist on his own petard, as they say. And no one will give him what outgoing politicians always get, a seat on a corporate board or two. It’s Sarbanes-Oxley – boards have fiduciary responsibility now, and you have to know things and do things:

 

That leaves the time-honored and highly lucrative field of crony capitalism, or, as it’s known more genteelly today – private equity. Out of public view, magnates routinely provide nice incomes to pols who can open doors and help raise funds. Former Vice President Dan Quayle and former Bush Treasury Secretary John Snow hang their hats at Cerberus Capital Management. Bill Clinton was dealt into a fund run by ally Ron Burkle. The Carlyle Group has been a bipartisan haven for Washington A-listers, including former President George H. W. Bush. Bush the Younger has friends in this world, including Tom Hicks, the private-equity baron who helped W. make his fortune with the Texas Rangers.

 

Well, it’s something. And then there’s Jimmy Carter:

 

He probably has a lot to teach Bush about how to rebuild a reputation and build a fortune. At the recent gathering of ex-presidents in the Oval Office, Bush couldn’t stand far away enough from Carter. That might have been his final strategic mistake.

 

But maybe if Bush hadn’t crashed to plane in the river and killed so many people things would have worked out.

 

It’s all hypothetical – something to consider while you’re waiting.

 

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in America's Loss of Respect, Bush after the Presidency, Intervention versus Inspiration, Obama and Hope for the Future, Obama as Lincoln, Obama Calm and Steady, Obama the Pragmatist, Obama's Train to DC, Obama: What Works, US AIR Crash in NYC. Bookmark the permalink.

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