The end of a good run

January 19, 1995|By Richard N. Goodwin

IT HAPPENED in 1968, although we were not aware of it then. Coincident with the deaths of its two great crusading leaders -- Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy -- the most destructive conflict since the Civil War, and the election of Richard Nixon, American liberalism had suffered a fatal blow. It was to linger, brain-dead, for a quarter of a century until the reality of death was pronounced by the election of Newt Gingrich & Co. It was long overdue. The delusion of vitality, of imminent resurrection, had become a burden to the country and rendered impotent some of its most vigorous political men and women.

The collapse of the Democratic Party -- an institution now without ideology or animating belief, a party without a cause and therefore without meaningful existence -- should be cause for mourning. It accomplished great things in its two-century run. But in our own time it has fatally ignored the precept of its founder, Thomas Jefferson, who saw the need for periodic revolutions in American life. The party of Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson -- the architects of modern America -- allowed its contacts with the people and their concerns to atrophy, abandoned boldness of thought and direction and became little more than the custodian of a crumbling status quo.

In the 27 years since 1968, the country and its afflictions have taken a very different form, but the Democratic acolytes of liberalism have failed to change, have, indeed, become captive to the lusts of the same large economic interests they once gloried in fighting or at least tempering. As one historian has written, the nation is always divided into two parties -- the party of hope and the party of memory. Democrats, abandoning their traditional role, became adherents to the party of memory -- the myths of the New Deal, the New Frontier and the Great Society -- while they served the interests of the established order, money and, to a lesser extent, the small vocal constituencies they had helped establish.

Not only did the Democratic Party fail to assert a single imaginative approach to the shifting problems of the country, it ignored the views and ideas of the most vigorous and imaginative among its members. In 1968, although the war in Vietnam was the largest issue, Robert Kennedy called for the decentralization of public power from the federal government to the states ("the smallest unit consistent with the scale of the problem"), asked for "jobs not welfare" and advocated stern policies to suppress domestic disorder and violence. Meanwhile, Martin Luther King Jr. had already made the transition from apostle of legal equality to advocate of economic justice.

In the years that followed, other liberals advocated measures to reform government and to expunge the power of money from the political process that went beyond anything the new Republican majority is now proposing and, hopefully, is putting into effect.

But no one -- at least no leader of the Democratic Party -- was listening. And the people responded to this stagnation of thought and leadership by allowing the Democrats in the White House for only six years out of the past 27, and then only after the failed Republican presidencies of Richard Nixon and George Bush. And when Bill Clinton took office determined to rest his presidency on the half-century-old program of Harry Truman, universal health care, the people finally turned on the last bastion of the Democratic Party: Congress.

And they deserved it. We deserved it. For I have also been a hanger-on at the Democratic conclave, as a creator of the Great Society and a participant in the framing of the New Frontier. But it became clear long ago that historical events and the passage of time had taken us past those concepts -- worthy enough in their time but inadequate to our present condition. The goals of these credos -- a better and more purposeful existence -- remain fixed in American aspiration, but the barricades have changed and, for a long time, have required a very different kind of assault. And the party that should have shaped that assault seems about to pass into historical memory.

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