In Washington an age of moral and philosophical sterility is deeply entrenched, and as Elizabeth Drew’s reporting in these pages attests, the result is not pretty.1 The decline dates from the end of the cold war, which suddenly and shockingly left Washington without any purpose that could be called visionary or even faintly noble.
Since then government has seemed to be mostly about raising money to get elected, and then reelected repeatedly in order to service those who put up the money. There is no moral urgency in it, no philosophical imperative at work.
Not surprisingly, accounts of Washington doings are suffused with a sense of pointlessness, a suspicion that it is an insider’s game not meant for rubes. Even the rancorous abuse that passes for political discourse feels phony—billingsgate designed to manipulate a dulled electorate. Manipulation is now such a common way of life that Washington has invented a word for it—“spinning”—and the press reports admiringly on how the press itself is “spun” by cunning “spinmeisters.”
In this atmosphere history has a dreamlike quality. A war is said to be in progress, and the President describes himself as “a war president,” but, except for military professionals, no one is asked to fight or sacrifice or even, as in World War II, to save waste fats and grease. We are asked only to shop with a generous hand, to accept a tax cut, and to be scared.
Being scared when war is in progress is no longer considered cowardly. In olden days Americans did not scare, no matter how grave the danger. Beset by truly formidable foes in the 1940s, they exulted with foolish and utterly unjustified cockiness in their certitude of victory. With Spike Jones they sang, “Heil! Heil! Right in der Führer’s face.” Unlike today’s worried patriots, they were swashbucklers. Citizens eager to become warriors.
Now fear is officially authorized. Fear manipulators issue baffling color-coded “alerts” and hair-raising speeches. As this is written, Vice President Cheney is on television in the next room raising goose bumps on an audience of Republican money donors. He praises the satanic ingenuity of the axis of evil. He hints at possible nuclear catastrophe. Death and devastation are near.
And maybe they are, but between now and then might not Washington think of some attitude more uplifting than a cringe? In Washington a president once made a devastated nation’s spirit soar by delivering a pep speech. Nothing to fear, he said, but fear itself.
Speeches that lift the spirit would sound false from the Washington operatives of whom Elizabeth Drew writes. Speechwriters still abound, but now they dream of the perfect manipulative sound bite: “read my lips,” “I feel your pain,” “axis of evil.”
The absence of any purpose more interesting than surviving another election probably explains why the men in Ms. Drew’s essays strike us as small-time connivers rather than creative thinkers, or dreamers, or even statesmen. This may be unfair; if so, they must blame the sterility of the age…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.