Jewish World Review June 3, 2002 / 22 Sivan, 5762

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg
JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
John Leo
David Limbaugh
Michelle Malkin
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Wes Pruden
Sam Schulman
Amity Shlaes
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

Conventional wisdom
down the tubes | "Things are more like they are now than they've ever been."

That little gem of convoluted syntax was attributed to Dwight Eisenhower, whose language could be as indecipherable as his smile was disarming.

It was not Ike but another master of broken-field talking, Mayor Daley the First of Chicago, who once asked the press not to quote what he said, but what he meant.

I think I can guess what Ike meant by his circumlocution: that we now find ourselves at the end of an inevitable progression of events that produced the current state of society.

It's a common enough thought, or rather assumption. It is only natural to think that what is, had to be, and that the future is but a projection of current trends. More than one investor has gone broke making just that assumption. And more than one political analyst has missed what was happening right in front of his nose because he was much too sophisticated to see it.

All of which came to mind on opening Rick Perlstein's new and delicious book about Barry Goldwater, "Before the Storm." It begins with some of the now hilarious post-mortems after Senator Goldwater's landslide defeat in the 1964 presidential election. For anyone who savors political irony, they make a delicious smorgasbord of opinionation:

"He has wrecked his party for a long time to come," opined The New York Times' resident sage, Scotty Reston. Four years later, Richard Nixon would recapture the White House for the GOP. Mr. Reston was only continuing The Times' long-standing tradition of tin-eared political analysis, which persists to this day.

Then there was Richard Rovere in The New Yorker: "The election has finished the Goldwater school of political reaction." The New Yorker's talent for political prognosis hasn't changed much, either.

But who could have known, the morning after election day, 1964, standing in the wreckage of the Goldwater campaign, that the rest of the American century would constitute a reaction to all the liberal clichés that Lyndon Johnson had just ridden to overwhelming victory?

Yet the conservative revolution that began with Barry Goldwater's campaign, or maybe with Ronald Reagan's election-eve broadcast for him, now seems the defining movement of American political history during the latter part of the 20th century.

By the end of the century, the country would have a president in Bill Clinton whose talk of balanced budgets and welfare reform would make Richard Nixon, with his guaranteed annual income and wage-and-price controls, look like a wild-eyed liberal. We're all Keynesians now, Mr. Nixon had announced -- at about the time we all ceased being Keynesians.

In the 40 years since the Goldwater campaign, the free market has gone from fading relic to the centerpiece of American economic and political thought. At one point Bill Clinton was willing to consider privatizing Social Security, at least in part -- like Barry Goldwater in 1964.

Moral: Nothing may prove so unreliable as Reliable Opinion, nothing so unrealistic as what we're told is unavoidable reality.

Think of all the conventional wisdom that has proven anything but wisdom over the last half century:

Arms control is the only way to end the arms race.

Co-existence with the Soviet Union is the only way to avoid nuclear war.

Detente is the surest guarantee of peace … and almost everything else the Kissingers, Fulbrights and Great Thinkers told us was so. The great task of American statesmen is to manage our decline gracefully.

What's needed is a more, ahem, nuanced foreign policy which recognizes that the world is a very complex place where distinctions between good and evil really have no place, that certain intractable problems must be lived with rather than solved, and that it is futile to challenge those regimes that wish us ill.

Isn't this what Europe's sophisticated statesmen, pundits and intelligentsia in general are still trying to teach that simple-minded George W. Bush and us more primitive Americans?

In 1989, the year the Berlin Wall toppled, to be followed by the collapse of the whole Soviet empire, Professor Samuelson's standard economics text still noted that the Soviet Union "is proof that contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even thrive."

What was once conventional has become laughable.

The assumption that things will just continue getting more like they are now is really an argument against free will, a fatalistic acceptance of drift over any possibility of mastering events, even changing history.

Ronald Reagan was too unsophisticated to know that he couldn't change things, so he did. There is an unconventional wisdom, too, and it says that nothing is more likely in human events than change.

Like this writer's work? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.

Paul Greenberg Archives


© 2002, TMS