False Spring

In Washington, March is sometimes the cruelest month. The air softens, the low sky opens up and spreads a bit, and the cherry blossoms begin to burgeon along the avenues and riverbanks. The trees were originally a present from the Japanese city of Nagasaki, and the most celebrated of their effusions burst forth around the Tidal Basin and the Jefferson Memorial, creating an almost snow-covered effect that has long magnetized tourists from far away. Lawyers and lobbyists loosen their ties, the young women of the city venture forth in lighter garments, children flood the parks and then--suddenly-- a harsh snap of frigid weather nips the buds.

This spring has echoed and mirrored this bittersweetness. Only weeks ago, it seems, the president gave an upbeat and almost celebratory account of the union's recovery from the dastardly assault of last September. Afghanistan had been liberated, and the dapper Mr. Karzai was there in person to testify to the fact. Wherever Osama bin Laden was, he could not have been thinking that things were going according to a divine plan. In the galleries stood the envoys of many nations, as the saying goes, shoulder to shoulder with the United States. Not an inch of difference divided the two major parties. Ahead lay the task of disciplining those rogue states which, through the "evil" of their governments, had deprived their peoples of a share in the world's growing bounty and lawfulness.

The season turns, and turns again, and the cold has bitten. The flag has shrouded coffins at Ramstein air base. The president has shed public tears in Florida. The European allies and the friendlier Arab regimes have shied and balked at the prospect of a confrontation with Iraq: a confrontation that now cannot be avoided without a complete and unthinkable climb-down on the part of the United States. A sort of background noise--an especially horrible and discordant one--is the daily carnage in Israel and Palestine: a Hobbesian rebuke to the very idea of law or justice or even diplomacy, and a grotesque reminder of the limits to the Pax Americana. Meanwhile, from Georgia in the Caucasus to the southern Philippines in the Pacific, Washington is pledging aid of all kinds to a lengthening list of struggles against the protean Islamic specter. The road ahead begins to look thorny, rather than lined with blossoms, let alone laurels.

This unease has its domestic counterpart. Between increasingly clenched teeth, the Democratic leadership issues increasingly routine statements about bipartisan solidarity. But a sense of being taken for granted, even kept in the dark, is pervasive whenever Democratic types meet and unbutton. It is compounded of several irritations that, when combined, amount to resentment. In no especial order, the discovery of the "shadow government," formed as an ad hoc bureaucratic survivalist tactic after September 11, embarrassed those like Sen. Tom Daschle who found out about it from the newspapers. No majority leader likes to be told that there are special bunkers in rural Maryland and Virginia, from which a posttraumatic regime would be somehow run, and that he hasn't yet even been invited, never mind placed on the A-list. Sen. Robert Byrd, the eccentric constitutional expert of the Senate, was highly voluble on this point, too. And he used the occasion to discourse on the open-ended commitments that the country was, without his personal sanction, being committed to pursue. Many people besides myself find something rather ridiculous about the sheer idea of Senator Byrd, but in a funny way he does represent the ancient dignity of the Senate.

This might have been a teacup tempest were it not for the extremely brusque and even nasty way in which the Republican leadership responded. Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi stopped only just short of accusing Senator Daschle of disloyalty and a want of patriotism. Senator Lott has other reasons to be displeased these days. His personal pick for a federal judgeship, a man from his own home state named Charles Pickering, has been mauled by the Democratic majority on the Judiciary Committee for his past ties to the segregationist establishment, and for his economy with the truth on this point. From his White House podium, Ari Fleischer intimated that if the Democrats wanted to rake up the past, they ought not to be surprised if some of their own got the same treatment. This was widely (and correctly) interpreted as a reference to the same Sen. Robert Byrd, who in his boyhood days as a West Virginia fiddle player was also briefly a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Not content with this, Fleischer also blamed the crackup in the Middle East on the overeager diplomacy of Bill Clinton (but later backed down and apologized). What a difference a few weeks can make. The cherry blossoms always come back, of course, but as with their companion fruit you never really have a second opportunity to savor them.