Thursday, November 26, 2009

Wishing for the Good Old Days

"What we're in is not a Republican recession or a Democratic recession; both parties had much to do with bringing us where we are today. But we're facing a national situation which calls for the best which all of us can produce, because we know the results will be something which we will regret."

Mike Mansfield

I've heard it called the "good old days syndrome."

It is a desire one often hears expressed by older people, a longing for the heroes of the past. It tends to imply that modern leaders/heroes lack something that those from yesteryear had.

I'm sure you know what I'm talking about. But, just so we're on the same page here, is there any better example of what I'm talking about than the exchange between Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen in 1988?

Quayle compared his qualifications to John F. Kennedy's when asked what qualified him to be president. I suppose he could just as easily have compared his congressional experience to Walter Mondale's and Bob Dole's when they ran against each other for the vice presidency in 1976. But I guess Kennedy's iconic status was too tempting to resist. And Bentsen was waiting to pounce.

Anyway, this week, I've seen a couple of "good–old–days–syndrome" observations:
  • At, Jake Sherman and Michael Calderone write that David Broder, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, believes that Harry Reid is no Mike Mansfield.

    In an ideologically driven era — and, trust me, there have been times in our history when the houses of Congress were led by lawmakers who put the interests of the nation ahead of ideology and party labels — Broder "favors pragmatists over fierce ideologues." He has expressed his admiration for legislators like Mansfield and Howard Baker, and he has been open in his criticism of Reid.

    Mansfield had to negotiate some choppy waters during his years as majority leader, and he took positions opposing the Vietnam War and supporting civil rights that weren't always popular. But he knew how to work with the members of the other party.

    I'll acknowledge that Reid often appears incapable of keeping his fellow Democrats in line. I almost feel like I'm watching a Woody Allen movie sometimes. Annie Hall Goes to Washington.

  • The other interesting article I've seen was written by John Nichols in The Nation.

    Nichols reflects on the presidential Thanksgiving proclamation and compares Barack Obama (unfavorably) to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

    He finds Obama's proclamation to be "no more poetic, and no more adventurous, than those issued by George W. Bush."

    Ouch! Them's fightin' words when you're talking about a president whose speaking skills clearly set him apart from his predecessor.

    But I must admit that Obama's plain vanilla proclamation left a lot to be desired.

    And Nichols makes a good case for not "carrying on where Bush left off" but aiming higher. He sets as the target (unattainable as it may be) FDR's proclamation on Thanksgiving 68 years ago.
    "May we ask guidance in more surely learning the ancient truth that greed and selfishness and striving for undue riches can never bring lasting happiness or good to the individual or to his neighbors.

    "May we be grateful for the passing of dark days; for the new spirit of dependence one on another; for the closer unity of all parts of our wide land; for the greater friendship between employers and those who toil; for a clearer knowledge by all nations that we seek no conquests and ask only honorable engagements by all peoples to respect the lands and rights of their neighbors; for the brighter day to which we can win through by seeking the help of God in a more unselfish striving for the common bettering of mankind."

    Franklin D. Roosevelt
    Thanksgiving 1941

    "Here was a president seeking not to deny economic turbulence but to offer a vision for responding to that turbulence as united citizenry rather than as isolated individuals," writes Nichols. "This message was a constant for Roosevelt as he implemented the New Deal."

    FDR was a tough act to follow, all right. But, for Obama, it seems to me the proclamation was his opportunity to engage the nation as Roosevelt did. As it was with his failure to speak about unemployment on Labor Day, though, Obama the orator came up short of expectations.

    I am reminded of an exchange of dialogue from the final episode of The West Wing. The newly elected president was about to take the oath of office and then deliver his inaugural address. He and the outgoing president were riding to the Capitol, engaging in a little chit–chat, and the outgoing president asked about the speech. The new president replied that it had a few good lines, but there was no "ask not what your country can do for you ..."

    The outgoing president smiled. "Yeah, JFK really screwed us on that one, didn't he?"
Well, there's a good reason why these guys are remembered. They were giants.

And they give today's leaders standards to aim for.

In some ways, I guess, the good old days were better than you might have thought.

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