There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Mother's Day and history on the bus

I'm a child of politics. My mother was a Stevenson Democrat who took me along as she walked precincts in the San Fernando Valley back when there were more orange groves than track homes.

She would leave me in the car and I would complain, "I want to see the motors."

"Voters, dear," she would reply. Or so the family story is told.

Anyway, that in part explains why, after the horror of Ishmael Beah's "A Long Way Gone," I fell back on political history written by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. for my next book.

"The Crisis of the Old Order" is the first of three volumes that make up his "The Age of Roosevelt." The book was originally published in 1957 and the copy I read was reprinted in 2002 for the History Book Club.

The book covers the years leading up to Franklin Roosevelt's election in 1932. Much of this history of the Depression and the failing efforts of Republicans to govern seems to apply equally to today's political climate.

For instance, this discussion of President Hoover could just as easily have been written about the current occupant of the White House:

"The sense of popular hatred wounded the President. ... And it also, perhaps, helped confirm his intellectual rigidities. The White House usher noted that, where Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson liked to send for people who took views different from their own, Hoover preferred to discuss matters with people who he knew in advance would agree with him. Looking back twenty years later in his Memoirs, Hoover himself could see no mistakes committed during his presidency, no opportunities missed, no wrong guesses, nothing to regret."

Today's popularity of the imperial presidency was certainly familiar to Roosevelt. After his work in the Wilson administration, FDR came away with an exalted opinion of presidential power:

"Most of our great deeds have been brought about by Executive Leaders, by the Presidents who were not tools of Congress but were true leaders of the Nation, who so truly interpreted the needs and wishes of the people that they were supported in their great tasks. ..."

But the current White House fixation on political ideology has missed the most important point for FDR:

"Wilson's administration would not have been successful in the War if he had not adopted the policy of calling in the experts of the Nation, without regard to party affiliations, in order to create and send across the seas that great Army in record-breaking time."

Franklin Roosevelt, during the 1932 campaign, told New York Times Magazine reporter Anne O'Hare McCormick, "The objective now, as I see it, is to put at the head of the nation someone whose interests are not special but general, someone who can understand and treat with the country as a whole. For as much as anything it needs to be reaffirmed at this juncture that the United States is one organic entity, that no interest, no class, no section, is either separate or supreme above the interests of all."

This certainly applies to the 2008 election.

In 1986, Schlesinger published "The Cycles of American History," a book that contained a 1985 essay entitled, "The Cycles of American Politics." The essay suggests a certain rhythm to politics.

"People grow bored with selfish motives and vistas, weary of materialism as the ultimate goal. The vacation from public responsibility replenishes the national energies and recharges the national batteries. People begin to seek meaning in life beyond themselves. They ask not what their country can do for them but what they can do for their country."

The cycle is turning today, and Barack Obama is the ideal candidate who represents such a change, a generation shift similar to the arrival of FDR or Kennedy. I strongly recommend Obama's Audacity of Hope.

Now if I could just get the wife to see reason and abandon her adoration of Hillary . . .

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