Saturday, November 11, 2006

Broken Politics? I Think Not ...

Altogether too many of us accept the conventional wisdom that today "politics in America is a broken institution." There was a recent PBS special on that very subject, with most of the panel defending the affirmative. But the historical record shows that politics has always been down-and-dirty in America ... indeed, when compared to some eras in the life of our nation, political discourse today is positively gracious and well-mannered.

For specific instance; during the debate over the Alien and Sedition Acts in the administration of John Adams, one Congressman, Matthew "Spitting" Lyon, earned his colorful sobriquet by walking across the aisle of the House and spitting in the face of a fellow representative who'd just uttered the 18th Century equivalent of "There is a suspicious and unhealthy diversity of species in your family tree." The spittee then attacked the spittor with his cane, at which point Representative Lyon grabbed up the fireplace tongs and tried to give as good as he got. The two were finally separated, rolling on the floor, kicking and punching, by their fellow legislators.

Also, in the 18th and 19th centuries, some members of Congress routinely carried, in addition to their walking sticks, canes with swords concealed within, daggers and pocket pistols onto the floor of the House and Senate.

One is inclined to comment, "Walking sticks and knives and swords and loaded sidearms may break my bones, perforate my flesh and make me die, but inflamed rhetoric can never hurt me ... "

Fast-forward to the 21st century: Part of the problem of perception we have regarding the "broken politics" of our era is the availability of instant plebiscites on every single issue. Pollsters have their place, but the passions of the moment often obscure the real bones of the debate, the eventual good or ill which may accrue to any given policy. To put it another way, in the long haul, who cares about George W. Bush's approval ratings? Such numbers are ephemeral and tell nothing about the eventual consequences of his - or any other elected officials' - competence at the fine art of governance.

I seriously doubt the historical record will ever elevate our current Commander in Chief to the upper ranks of American presidents, but who can know? Harry Truman had far lower poll ratings during the last year of his administration than has George W. Bush at this point in his second term. And those of us who follow such things distinctly remember that back in the 1990s, every flipping candidate on both sides of the aisle wanted to prove he was a lot more like Give-'em-hell Harry than was his opponent.

For that matter, Dwight Eisenhower, in his day, was seen by many commentators as an "amiable dunce," the sobriquet Ronald Reagan came to be tarred with in the 1980s. Yet today, historians have more than rehabilitated Eisenhower's reputation, putting him solidly into the upper reaches of the second rank of Americann presidents and identifying him as precisely the right man for the times.

That's the thing about history; it has a tendency to rehabilitate, and sometimes damn retrospectively, some of our most beloved and despised characters.

Which brings us to the discussion of a military-political dynamic they didn't teach you in 9th Grade American History: While he was alive, a lot of Americans said terribly unkind things about The Father of Our Country. At his first inauguration, David McCullough writes that one senator was overheard muttering to a friend, "I fear we have traded George III for George I."

Also, throughout the Revolutionary War, Washington was constantly assailed, slandered and attacked behind his back by members of his own general staff, all of whom wanted his job ... and none of whom (with the probable exception of Benedict Arnold, who was a Washington loyalist before military politics drove him into the arms of the enemy) was even vaguely qualified to do it as well as Mrs. Washington's little boy, George.

One of the chief anti-Washington conspirators, General Charles Lee, was so convinced the Continentals and militia soldiers of Washington's army could never stand and deliver against British regiments, he retreated halfway back to camp when he stumbled upon a smaller force of Redcoats at Monmouth Courthouse. Washington had to personally stop the ill-advised retreat, reposition his guys and then fight the battle defensively when he could have had a decisive victory.

Had General Lee had only done as he was ordered, things might have gone far better for the Continentals on that day. Lee himself rode his horse all the way to the next town, many miles distant, then claimed he had engaged in an orderly retreat for tactical reasons. He was, blessedly, cashiered after the near-debacle.

Another conspirator in the anti-Washington cabal was Horatio Gates, a semi-competent commander who lucked out and accepted Burgoyne's surrender after Burgoyne's own hubris and poor logistical planning - plus the harassment his troops suffered at the hands of Hudson Valley militia units - had already substantially defeated the Lobsterbacks.

To sum up, history shows us that Washington was precisely the right man for the times, but during the years of his service to his country, he had plenty of detractors. History has absolved George Washington of his rumored military incompetence and lust for power ... as it has cleared Truman of his lousy approval ratings in his final year in the Oval Office and Eisenhower of his reputation as being too dim a bulb to do the job he was elected to do.

Here's the nub of it: No matter how well or ill one performs one's duty to one's country, there are always going to be second-guessers, mostly the ever-present corps of persons blind with ambition and exhibiting levels of character disorder that would kill most folks. These misguided persons often see themselves as the Man on the Horse who will deliver us from evil, and their actions are, by their own lights, entirely logical and patriotic.

The abiding truth is that only history is fit to judge, and only after the fog of war has lifted and long-range results can be objectively analyzed.

Broken politics in 21st century America? I think not.

Rather, we enjoy nothing less than the salubrious rough-and-tumble of political discourse characteristic of any healthy democratic republic. Comity has its place, and I for one would be ecstatic if all the ad hominem attacks upon the character and intelligence of our leaders - so much in vogue in this and every other era - could be dispensed with.

And yet, having said that, I must confess that on balance, I'll take the sometimes nasty, always impassioned debates - ad hominem attacks and all - of our democracy over the illusory ideological solidarity of the totalitarian state in any civilization, in any century, on any day.

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