The More Things Change
When we look around at the cruelty, greed, dishonesty, and cynicism rampant in the world, there's a natural tendency to feel that things must be worse now than ever before. Funnily enough, this tendency is bolstered by vanity; as Robert Frost wrote (way back in 1935), "We have no way of knowing that this age is one of the worst in the world's history. . . . It is immodest of a man to think of himself as going down before the worst forces ever mobilized by God."
The truth is that world is pretty bad, always has been, and probably always will be. Which is not to say that life isn't worth reveling in, or that the good fights aren't worth fighting. It is, and they are.
All of which brings me to my latest summer book report.
While reading an advance copy of The Most Exclusive Club: A History of the Modern United States Senate by historian Lewis Gould (to be published by Basic Books in November), I was struck repeatedly by contemporary echoes in the stories Gould tells from the 1920s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. For example, consider what happened in 1935 when President Roosevelt proposed that the US should participate in the World Court at The Hague (one of the internationalist initiatives of Wilson that had been shot down by conservative isolationists after World War I). The proposal would need to be approved by two thirds of the Senate:
By the end of the month, when Majority Leader Robinson scheduled a vote for the following Tuesday, January 27, it seemed as if the administration had prevailed. Over the weekend, however, the combined efforts of the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, the homespun humorist and political columnist Will Rogers, and the right-wing radio commentator Father Charles E. Coughlin produced a deluge of messages and letters from constituents to wavering lawmakers which changed the outcome. When the votes were cast, the pro-World Court coalition fell seven votes short of the needed two thirds.
Talk about a vast right-wing conspiracy! Just substitute the names Rupert Murdoch, Rush Limbaugh, and Jerry Falwell for Hearst, Rogers, and Coughlin, and it could be a story from today. All the familiar elements are there: the manufactured fake "outrage" over a proposed liberal policy; the imprimatur of religion (as if Jesus would take a position on the World Court); the grass-roots wingnuts ready for overnight mobilization; and the cross-media coordination around the "issue of the day," all centered on bullying a timid Congress into doing the bidding of the far right.
Now for a more recent example. Gould's recounting, from a senatorial perspective, of the notorious 1964 Tonkin Gulf episode is a reminder of just how egregious an abuse of presidential power it was. As Gould explains, this international crisis grew out of an attack on the US that may have been wholly fabricated:
Whether the shelling of the Navy vessels [by North Vietnamese forces] had actually occurred or not was unclear at the time, but Johnson seized the opportunity to obtain congressional authorization both for an immediate retaliation against North Vietnam and for what amounted to a blank check in Southeast Asia to wage war as he deemed best.
Using his patented arm-twisting techniques, Johnson got J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, to ramrod the Tonkin Gulf Resolution through the Senate, allowing minimal debate and no investigation of the facts on the ground. Johnson went on to use this hastily-passed resolution to justify a war that would last a decade and cost over 55,000 American lives (as well as countless Vietnamese).
In the process, Johnson became the first of four presidents in my lifetime who clearly deserved impeachment on legal, constitutional, and moral grounds (none of them named Bill Clinton, BTW).
Hmm . . . an arrogant president dragging the US into a pointless war based on phony premises . . . where have I heard that one lately?
Historical parallels like these don't make me feel much better about the America of George W. Bush. But I take a modicum of comfort from this thought: Somehow we survived the 30s and the 60s, despite the worst efforts of people like Hearst and Coughlin and Johnson. Somehow we'll survive today, too.