Oswald's gun and the de­cline of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics

The Pak Banker - - OPINION - Stephen L. Carter

NEXT week marks a much-over­looked an­niver­sary: It will be 50 years since Lee Har­vey Oswald, un­der the name A. Hidell, pur­chased the Ital­ian sur­plus Car­cano M91/38 ri­fle with which he would eight months later as­sas­si­nate U.S. Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy.

Don't worry: This isn't an­other screed about gun con­trol. In any event, the bolt-ac­tion ri­fle Oswald used wouldn't be touched by any se­ri­ous leg­isla­tive pro­posal of the moment. My sub­ject is the 1960s -a decade, it is of­ten said, that be­gan with the Kennedy as­sas­si­na­tion and ended with Water­gate. Thus the pur­chase of the gun seems as good a place as any to mark, let us say, the decade's pro­logue.

Nos­tal­gia for the 1960s is very much in vogue, from the pop­u­lar­ity of the tele­vi­sion drama "Mad Men" to fre­quent claims by pun­dits who are trans­fixed by the idea that politi­cians got along bet­ter then. The usual drill is to look with de­spair at the cur­rent bud­get bat­tles in Washington, where nei­ther of our elected branches is cov­er­ing it­self in glory, and then gaze rosily back on the era when politi­cians were able to meet in smoky back rooms and make deals over bour­bon and poker. The jour­nal­ist E.J. Dionne, in his book "Why Amer­i­cans Hate Pol­i­tics," ar­gues that we have spent too much time re­fight­ing the bat­tles of the '60s. But per­haps a bet­ter way to think about our re­la­tion­ship to that era is that we have ro­man­ti­cized it to the point where our pol­i­tics is con­stantly squeezed into its tem­plate.

If we want to re­solve a mo­ral is­sue, we ref­er­ence the civil-rights move­ment. Same-sex mar­riage ad­vo­cates in­sist that their strug­gle tracks the fight against anti-mis­ce­gena­tion laws. In the abor­tion bat­tle, both sides claim, with some rea­son, to be heir to the civil-rights tra­di­tion -- one on be­half of women, the other on be­half of the un­born. It is as though we have lost the tal­ent for pub­lic mo­ral ar­gu­ment, and so we rely in­stead on the mo­ral ar­gu­ments made in those seem­ingly more se­ri­ous days, with vic­tory go­ing to the one whose anal­ogy is more apt.

Even our ar­gu­ments over fis­cal pol­icy are fought with the 1960s in mind. Repub­li­cans look with fond­ness on Kennedy's huge tax cut in 1963. Democrats cite in re­turn the high mar­ginal rates paid by top earn­ers even af­ter those cuts took ef­fect. Ar­gu­ing over which side is truer to Kennedy's legacy is eas­ier than de­bat­ing among our­selves.

Lib­er­als seek­ing to de­fend Pres­i­dent Barack Obama's leg­isla­tive agenda of­ten point to Lyn­don John­son's Great So­ci­ety pro­grams - - where, they note, Repub­li­cans worked with the White House to ac­com­plish the larger goal of fight­ing poverty and dis­crim­i­na­tion. Con­ser­va­tives re­spond that John­son gave in on many key points, and that in any case the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for ex­am­ple, was only 70-odd pages long. Which­ever side you take, the bat­tle con­tin­ues over which best em­bod­ies the ' 60s ethos.

The ro­man­ti­ciza­tion of the '60s has gen­er­ated any num­ber of leg­ends -- an ef­fort, in ef­fect, to see the era as some sort of rear­ward ex­tru­sion of our own. Con­sider the Viet­nam War. In pop­u­lar myth, it was ed­u­cated elites who first op­posed the war, and over time they were joined in op­po­si­tion by their less- in­formed fel­low ci­ti­zens. As the po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist John E. Mueller demon­strated in his 1973 book, "War, Pres­i­dents, and Pub­lic Opin­ion," how­ever, the truth is ex­actly the re­verse: It was the welle­d­u­cated who strongly sup­ported the war, and the less ed­u­cated who op­posed it.

Other myths turn out to be bet­ter founded. The War­ren Court, for ex­am­ple, was in­deed the most lib­eral in our his­tory. Schol­ars have cho­sen a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent means over the years to sort the jus­tices' votes into lib­eral and con­ser­va­tive cat­e­gories, but there is a com­mon­al­ity among the re­sults: No mat­ter which method one chooses, at least four and some­times five of the court's mem­bers rank as more lib­eral than any cur­rently sit­ting jus­tice.

But when we put the myths aside, there is a stark and sim­ple dis­tinc­tion be­tween the '60s and to­day -- and a big rea­son, per­haps, that politi­cians and pun­dits con­stantly evoke the era. In the ' 60s, Amer­ica was op­ti­mistic and trust in government was high. To­day, the na­tion is cyn­i­cal, and trust in government has reached his­toric lows. Un­til 1966, more than 70 per­cent of Amer­i­cans con­sis­tently told poll­sters that they trusted the fed­eral government to do the right thing at least most of the time. In the late '60s, the num­bers dipped a bit, but they re­mained well above 50 per­cent un­til Water­gate brought us the end of op­ti­mism, the end of trust, and so the end of the 1960s. To­day the fig­ure is 26 per­cent -- and that's ac­tu­ally an im­prove­ment over the past cou­ple of years.

My point isn't to place blame, and the causes of the loss of faith are com­plex.

But the num­bers make it eas­ier to un­der­stand '60s nos­tal­gia: The high de­gree of trust in government in that era sug­gests a be­lief in Amer­ica as a com­mon project -- a be­lief, alas, that we no longer share.

My fa­ther, a life­long Demo­cratic ac­tivist, was of that fa­bled gen­er­a­tion that came of age in the Great De­pres­sion and World War II. I came of age watch­ing him and his friends grad­u­ally lose their ide­al­ism. He used to say that Kennedy was the last pres­i­dent he truly be­lieved in. He hoped that one day my gen­er­a­tion would have pres­i­dents who sparked in us a fresh con­fi­dence that Amer­ica could ac­com­plish any­thing. Kennedy to him.

But his be­lief in the pres­i­dent was also a be­lief in the era. A weary­ing weak­ness of con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics is its cruel cyn­i­cism, the ten­dency to be­lieve that is­sues have only one side and that there­fore the op­po­si­tion can't pos­si­bly con­sist of de­cent peo­ple act­ing from the best of mo­tives. My fa­ther's gen­er­a­tion, by con­trast, felt re­spect and of­ten af­fec­tion for those with whom they did fe­ro­cious bat­tle.

Let me con­fess that my own case of '60s nos­tal­gia is in­tense. The na­tion wasn't bet­ter off racial op­pres­sion, to take one of a dozen is­sues, was ram­pant -- but the po­lit­i­cal lead­ers mostly acted like grownups. Part of what makes the slide from the bump­tious but op­ti­mistic pol­i­tics of those days to the ado­les­cent name-call­ing of to­day so frus­trat­ing is the sense that we have some­how squan­dered the in­her­i­tance left to us by those giants.

That was

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