Why George W. Needs a Missile Crisis

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George W. Bush is correct in asserting, in his belated victory speech, that "things happen for a reason." But it's unlikely that he's aware of the deep historical factors at play in the bizarre spectacle of his hair's-breadth ascendancy to the presidency. The ridiculously close election result was neither a product of a nation divided nor necessarily a sign of deep national consensus; it was a symptom of a kind of political weightlessness that has overwhelmed Washington since the end of the Cold War. To a foreigner who has observed U.S. politics from here and abroad over the past two decades, Messrs. Bush and Gore appear to be both symptoms and victims of a malady that has gripped the American body politic since the nation lost its primary enemy, the totalitarian antithesis that had served as a template for its national identity.

When Monica was unthinkable

From World War II onward, the basic premise of U.S. domestic politics was that the nation was at war. Sometimes the war was hot and active; other times it was cold and passive; but the threat of national annihilation by a ruthless and competent foe was ever-present. Exorcising the global specter of communism created a leitmotif for U.S. foreign policy, and a self-discipline in domestic politics that set sharp limits on how far the authority of the man commonly referred to as the commander in chief could be impugned. Impeaching a president for lying about sex was unthinkable. In war, you may not agree with the commander's decision, but every soldier knows that you can't challenge his authority on the battlefield. That same sensibility prevailed in Washington, and the global battle was eternal. Chances are there were plenty of Monica Lewinskys over the past half-century, and the reason we never heard of most of them was that the nation had more important concerns to deal with.

The partisan wars of the '90s were made possible by the absence of an external threat, and they have demeaned not just President Clinton, but the office he occupied. Neither the boilerplate all-hail-to-the-chief patriotism of Al Gore's concession speech nor Bush's campaign vow to "restore dignity and honor to the White House" carry much weight against the manic frenzy of the post-election battle for power. What was most striking to an outsider's sensibility was the impression that the ferocity of the battle for power was matched only by its vacuity. They may have been prepared to burn down the house, trash the courts, and encourage the more suggestible among America's people to believe that military personnel — or African Americans or elderly Jews or any other touchstone group — were being deliberately cheated out of their votes, but ask any of the most rabid partisans what the election was really about, and they'd struggle to answer.

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