Easy Chair — From the April 2018 issue

Forget About It

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One of the benefits of turning fifty, which I did in November, is that your memories become useful in unexpected ways. Throughout most of the Bush years, I was in my thirties — old enough to remember a time when there wasn’t a Department of Homeland Security, young enough to feel the novelties of the era. Middle age provides you a different perch. You get to watch, in real time, the shock of the new get absorbed by the soft cushions of the American tradition.

When Bush left office in 2009, he was widely loathed, with an approval rating of 33 percent. Today, 61 percent of the population approves of him, with much of that increase coming from Democrats and independents. A majority of voters under thirty-five view him favorably, which they didn’t while he was president. So jarring is the switch that Will Ferrell was inspired to reprise his impersonation of Bush on Saturday Night Live. “I just wanted to address my fellow Americans tonight,” he said, “and remind you guys that I was really bad. Like, historically not good.”

This is how a member of the younger generation viewed Bush in 2003, after the United States had invaded Iraq on the basis of false claims that the country possessed weapons of mass destruction:

The damage to this country and our body politic is staggering. . . . For our Government to be lying to us as they invoke our ideals in their rhetoric sickens me to the core of my being. It means something has gone so rotten. . . . It’s the bile you swallow in the back of your throat but keeps rising back up. It is a pattern, a pattern of cruelty, trickery, deceit, crass politics, and manipulative actions. It’s something that I can no longer ignore and it is absolutely shattering my optimism. . . . And that is a terrible thing, when our Government destroys the idealism of our young.

Strong stuff, suggesting the kind of experience you don’t easily recover from. If such feelings of betrayal don’t overwhelm you with a corrosive cynicism, inducing you to withdraw from politics, they provoke an incipient realism or an irrepressible radicalism. The Gulf War, which happened when I was twenty-three, set me on the latter path, guided, I’d like to think, by some sense of the former. But whether one opts for realism or radicalism or both, such great disillusionment would seem to preclude making statements like this, fifteen years later:

I’ve never seen anything as cynical in politics as Republicans spending four months refusing to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program, then attaching reauthorization to another controversial bill, then blaming Democrats for not supporting CHIP. It’s breathtaking.

You get to lose your innocence only once. But Ezra Klein, the author of both these statements, loses his every night as he scans the day’s report of the latest Republican Party outrage. American liberalism is also a party of the born-again.

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October 2018


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