There seems to be a spreading belief that we are living in horrible times, and a reflection of those times is the bitter atmosphere in Washington. Hatred! Vilification! The politics of personal destruction! Fanaticism! Oh, I just can’t go on.
We have to put things into historical perspective. The atmosphere in Washington today is not at all unusual. Historians will usually point to the vicious politics of the early decades of this Republic, but even within the lifetimes of many of our readers we’ve had episodes of political barbarity far worse than what we see today.
Many don’t realize the hatred that was directed at Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was, at one time, one of the most loved and most despised presidents in American history. My father told me that he was on a train on April 12, 1945, when the conductor came through to announce that President Roosevelt had died. My father reported that half the car erupted in applause, such was the loathing…by some.
FDR’s successor, Harry Truman, was ridiculed as “the little man from Missouri,” even though he had been an important member of the Senate and had made the cover of TIME during his service in Congress. He was subjected to lines like, “To err is Truman.” When he fired General of the Army Douglas MacArthur for insubordination during the Korean War, Republicans spoke openly of impeaching him. He left office with approval ratings in the 20s, still the lowest ever recorded.
The Vietnam War brought out the worst in American politics. I was a young editor at The New York Times during this period, and I recall riding in an elevator with James Reston, who spoke of the “poisonous” atmosphere in Washington. Many so-called “anti-war” demonstrations were viciously anti-American. The musical “Hair” featured a song in which America was called “a dying nation.” In 1968 we saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The Democratic convention in Chicago that year was the scene of riots, beatings and chaos. College students took over administration buildings on their campuses to air whatever grievance they had that week. At Columbia University, in New York, professors’ papers were burned by marauding students. President Lyndon Johnson was effectively forced from office. The new Israeli ambassador to Washington later commented that he couldn’t believe this was the country Israel depended on.
The Vietnam era also featured regular race riots in American cities, and a soaring crime rate that made the nation’s capital one of the crime centers of the country.
And then of course there was the Watergate episode, a stupid but minor burglary turned into a national scandal by the breathtaking ineptitude of the Nixon administration. And we saw the first presidential resignation in our history.
And while it’s generally recognized that Jimmy Carter was a failed president, we tend to forget what the atmosphere was in Washington during the last two years of his presidency. Things got so bad that he was seriously challenged for his party’s nomination by Ted Kennedy, an almost unprecedented challenge to a sitting president of one’s own party. The new Iranian regime, run by the mad mullahs, took Americans hostages, and our citizens felt impotent, a rare feeling for the American people.
Poison was drunk in large quantities again during the latter Clinton years, featuring an impeachment of a president for only the second time in our history. While Clinton was acquitted in a Senate trial, he still would wear the label “impeached president,” and he was disbarred by Arkansas. The White House was widely seen as sullied.
And let us not forget the atmosphere that greeted George W. Bush when he took office in 2001. Many Democrats did not accept the legitimacy of the 2000 election, one of those rare split elections when one candidate, Al Gore, won the popular vote but the other, George Bush, won the decisive electoral vote. Conspiracy theories flowed. A hard core refused to believe that Bush had actually won the state of Florida, whose electoral votes decided the election, even though it was pretty clear to rational people that he had indeed won it, although by a narrow margin.
Although the Iraq War did not produce the campus protests of Vietnam, the chant of “Bush lied, thousands died,” was commonplace. An increasingly biased press kept feeding the fire, with many Americans led to believe that a president of the United States had lied about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in order to get us into a war. While stockpiles of those weapons were not found, the programs to manufacture them were in fact found, something conveniently left out of most news reports.
So let us not think that the current dissension in Washington is unusual. Politics in America is a contact sport. It always has been. True, there are spikes in tension and combat, and also periods of relative calm, as in the latter years of the Eisenhower administration. And whenever tensions grow, some pundits predict the end of the nation as we know it. It’s the “we’re tearing ourselves apart” argument. Well, we only truly tore ourselves apart once, and Abraham Lincoln had something to do with fixing that.
When examined objectively, the current political atmosphere would probably rate only a six on the heat meter, with zero being political slumber and ten being the late sixties. We are having our fairly routine heated discussion about the great issues of the day. The Republic remains intact.
FROM URGENT AGENDA (WWW.URGENTAGENDA.COM)
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