Jewish World Review Jan. 3, 2001 / 19 Teves, 5762
For a long time after the destruction of the late 1960s and the early 1970s, the general state of mind of this country was a sulk. Not a great big full-fledged depression, but something more on the level of a long-running low-level bout of the midwinter blues and flu. There was an enduring sense of entropy, of half-dystopia, about the national endeavor. It was not a sense that everything was broken -- indeed, by any sane measurements, the United States was in terrific shape and had been for a very long time -- but that what was broken could not be fixed.
This national malaise began to end when we got rid of a president whose idea of dealing with the problem was to inform us that we suffered from it -- and blame us for it. We replaced this scold with Ronald Reagan. He had, as has been noted, his faults. But he had great virtues as well. It is said that the principal of these was his ability to maintain his focus on only a few goals. This was frequently meant as a backhanded compliment, implying that Reagan kept in his mind just a couple of thoughts because he did not have space in there for more than that.
Actually, Reagan was smart, and smart in the only way that really matters in a chief executive. He knew that all bosses -- with their limited time, energy and power -- face a choice between the tyranny of the little and the lure of the big. You can get 50 small (and relatively easy) things done, or you can shoot the moon on the chance of winning at one or two or three biggies. Reagan knew enough to go for the second option (make conservatism popular again, kill off the "evil empire," change establishment thinking about taxes and deficit spending), and he knew something else.
Because he was from a different, sunnier age than the one he governed, he knew that great things could be accomplished. He knew not only that it was wrong to live in coexistence with the Soviet Union but also that it was not necessary. Reagan's successes were the beginning of a revived understanding (an understanding that has always underpinned America) that what was broken could be fixed, that what was wrong need not be endured but could be redressed.
Reagan's lesson was only half-perpetuated by his successors. The first President Bush grasped the big nettle once in his presidency, to risk all on the Gulf War -- but then lost nearly all in the disastrously botched conclusion to that war. Like Reagan, Bill Clinton understood the importance of a few big ideas. He proved that a president still had the power to reshape the national economy, and (to some degree by accident) he did indeed end welfare as we knew it. He followed Reagan's resurrection of conservatism in restoring Democratic liberalism to respectability. But he frittered the bulk of his two terms away on chasing poll ratings and money and thongs.
The day before Sept. 11, 2001, we were not where we were in 1980. We had to some degree recovered the idea of America as a good and capable and strong nation. In our daily lives, we had seen mayors like Rudy Giuliani prove that our cities were, after all, governable.
But still, as national surveys showed, a majority of Americans clung to a declinist view. We still lived with the underlying notion that the great ills of our times (drugs and poverty, for two examples, and terrorism for another) simply could not be fixed. We were not good enough, strong enough. We know a little bit better now. We know again what we knew in 1941 -- that we Americans are capable of the most extraordinary victories. We do not have to suffer our enemies; we can defeat them. We do not have to endure terrorism; we can destroy the terrorists. We do not have to listen to the self-haters and the self-doubters whose eternal cry is that it is our own fault and that it cannot be done. We just need to do what needs to be done. We can make the next century an American one too.
This is a fragile, ephemeral knowledge, and we could lose it. I hope we do not. I pray we will