Politics In A Macaroni Era

In January 1946 Charles de Gaulle, fresh from his heroic role as France's liberator, and disdaining the banal normality of peacetime administration, abruptly resigned as president of the provisional government. Having fought for the grandeur de la France, he told a colleague, with characteristic hauteur, that he did not wish to "worry about the macaroni ration."

The death of most political fighting faiths, and the eclipse of public life by the private sector's productive prodigies, make this a macaroni era in politics. That may be why people fixated on public life (politicians, journalists) ascribe disproportionate importance to minor matters, such as Al Gore's choice of a Jewish running mate.

Gore's choice was nowhere near as bold as Woodrow Wilson's 1916 nomination of Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court. The nomination of Joseph Lieberman does not break a barrier. Rather, it underscores the fact that a barrier has been reduced to rubble by what Lincoln called "the silent artillery of time." Calling Gore's choice "brave" devalues the appropriate adjective left for the Union troops who charged Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg.

In the first flush of his elevation to the glory, such as it is, of being a potential vice president, Lieberman rather overdid the expressions of humble gratitude. He called his selection a "miracle," which invited comparison (now that the Old Testament is on the nation's mind) to the parting of the Red Sea. Please. Lieberman is a former majority leader of Connecticut's legislature, former state attorney general, a two-term U.S. senator and, by the way, an American citizen. So there is no reason for him to think that his selection represents a huge swerve in the human story.

If Lieberman is supposed to appeal to McCainiacs, those famously fastidious voters who supposedly crave "authenticity" in candidates, he should not shed beliefs like last year's snakeskin. Someone once acidly described House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt as having a "versatility of conviction." Last week Lieberman seemed depressingly limber, philosophically, as he had some, shall we say, opportune second thoughts about partial privatization of Social Security, which Gore opposes, George W. Bush favors and Lieberman used to. He also seems amnesiac regarding his prior support for school-choice voucher programs--a prudent forgetfulness on the eve of a Democratic convention, given that teachers unions usually send more delegates than California does.

In the Senate, Lieberman is the Un-McCain. John McCain's report card reads, "Johnny does not play well with others." Lieberman is a gentleman, which means he does not exactly fit the job description of a vice presidential nominee, whose task is to gnaw on the opposition. But then, Gore does not delegate the role of attack dog.

The bitterness with which today's political class practices its craft is strangely, because inversely, related to the declining bitterness in the country, where there never has been less racial, ethnic or class conflict. Today's era of good feeling is partly--probably largely--a product of high public confidence in the possibility of upward mobility. And the political class responds to public happiness with histrionics intended to make that class interesting.

The Clinton era has been characterized by contrived political sentiments. It has been said that Bill Clinton can cry out of one eye. Gore is similarly unconvincing in his latest incarnation as populist defender of "the people" against "the powerful." Gore, ever the environmentalist, recycles formulaic rhetoric against business (oil, insurance and pharmaceutical companies). This at a time when, as historian John Steele Gordon says, the history of capitalism is no longer being written by its ideological enemies. In fact, the first presidential campaign of the 21st century is taking place with the nation in a late-19th-century frame of mind. In 1878, when Thomas Edison visited Washington, the New York Evening Telegram said his visit:

"... illustrates very strikingly the difference between the fields in which American genius has achieved its greatest triumphs in this century and in the last one. The chief benefits which America conferred upon mankind in the eighteenth century were political. The statesmen of our revolutionary period were instructors of the world in the art of government... Our national fame in the history of the nineteenth century will rest upon practical discoveries and inventions in natural science and the arts tending to promote the conveniences of life. The Capitol symbolizes American triumphs in the last century, the Patent Office in this."

As Silicon Valley does today. Which is why the political class is panting in search of new reasons to be at center stage. Both parties think they can derive dignity from making children the focus of politics. Hence Laura Bush told the Republican convention that there is "a great American purpose"-- grandeur de l'Amerique?--in a "$5 billion Reading First initiative" to get every child to read at grade level by third grade. As a political project this does not measure up to Manifest Destiny or the New Deal, and it is not even obviously the proper business of the federal government. But it is something to do in a macaroni era.

Laura's husband says "our nation's greatness" depends on "small unnumbered acts of caring and courage and self-denial." This calls to mind the final lines of "Middlemarch," where George Eliot writes that the effects of Dorothea's life were noble, "though they were not widely visible":

"...the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive; for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

That is profoundly true. However, it is not a vision of politics, which is not hidden but public, and at its best produces leaders who, because of historic acts, one day rest in visited tombs.