Why Change Doesn't Come From Politicians

GEORGE F. WILL

January 25, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington.--In the soothing ointment of President Clinton's words on Wednesday, one element was especially welcome to people who worry about the political giddiness encouraged, inevitably, by the civic liturgy of an inauguration. The element was the emphasis placed by Mr. Clinton, who as candidate stressed ''change'' propelled by government, on the autonomy of change: ''Profound and powerful forces are shaking and remaking our world. . . . ''

The forces to which he was referring -- forces of communication, commerce, science, intellectual and religious conviction -- are always doing that. But because an inauguration is a festival of government, it is apt to make the political class, and perhaps even normal people, susceptible to a fallacious notion about the importance of politics.

The political class, in its egotism and self-absorption, is particularly apt to find this notion plausible. It is a notion especially pleasing to Democrats, who are disposed to think of government as the sun around which life revolves.

It is a notion stated last summer by Ted Kennedy: ''The ballot box is the place where all change begins in America.'' There is hardly a page of American history that does not refute that insistence, so characteristic of the political class, on the primacy of politics in the making of history.

Change begins in America when a Yale graduate, Eli Whitney, serving as a tutor on a cotton plantation, gets interested in inventing a machine to separate cotton fibers from cotton seeds. Eli Whitney's cotton gin helped produce the economic foundations of slavery. Another change began in America when, in the 1940s, the descendants of slaves, displaced by new cotton-picking machinery, began their migration to Northern cities.

Change begins in America when John Fitch makes the first American vessel powered by steam, and when a Connecticut inventor, Samuel Colt, patents a revolving-breech pistol. Change begins in America when a young blacksmith in Grand Detour, Ill., makes a ''self-scouring'' steel plow suitable for turning the thick black topsoil of the Middle West. Today you can read the blacksmith's name in yellow print on green machines: John Deere.

Change begins in America when young John Rockefeller, who went to work at a produce-shipping firm in Cleveland at age 16, at age 20 starts trading products, including the black fluid being pumped from under western Pennsylvania.

Change begins in America when a voice crackling down a wire from a nearby room says, ''Mr. Watson, come here, I want you.'' Change begins in America when in a garage in Detroit, the young Henry Ford conceives not only a vehicle for the masses but a mode of mass production that will make Americans mobile and prosperous. Change begins in America when two brothers in a Dayton bicycle shop tinker with a contraption that eventually will change how Americans experience America's vast distances.

Change begins in America when Thomas Alva Edison in Menlo Park, N.J., says he has not failed because 80 materials have proved unsatisfactory for making filament for an electric light bulb -- he has succeeded in learning 80 things that don't work.

Change in America begins when a 36-year-old Illinois inventor produces a substance that will make possible new ways of experiencing the world. John Wesley Hyatt produced celluloid -- which, in due time, produced Hollywood.

Change begins in America when in 1954 a traveling salesman of six-spindled milk-shake machines called Multimixers visits the McDonald brothers' restaurant in San Bernadino, Calif., where eight Multimixers were kept busy. The idea Ray Kroc got that day produced not only a great corporation but an entire industry.

But wait. Material change is not more consequential than intellectual, moral and spiritual changes, which also do not begin at the ballot box.

Change in America begins in 1734 when Jonathan Edwards, a clergyman in Northampton, Mass., ignites the Connecticut Valley, and other preachers throughout the colonies spread the religious revival called the Great Awakening, which stimulated Americans' sense of their distinct identity.

Change begins in America when Harriet Beecher Stowe writes a novel. Meeting her in the White House, Lincoln supposedly said, ''So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.'' Change continues in America when, in 1960, another woman publishes another novel on the subject of race: Harper Lee, ''To Kill a Mockingbird.'' Change begins in America when Lincoln Steffens writes ''The Shame of the Cities,'' Ida Tarbell writes ''The History of the Standard Oil Company'' and Upton Sinclair writes ''The Jungle.''

Change in America begins when Mark Twain, Scott Joplin, Edward Kennedy Ellington and others invent American sounds in language and music.

Change in America begins when. . . .

But enough.

In a good society some change, some of it very important, begins at the ballot box. But in a good society politics is peripheral to much of the pulsing life of the society. It is in America, where, without the instruction or supervision of the political class, change is continuous.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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