We knew we could be better

November 09, 2008|By DAN RODRICKS | DAN RODRICKS,dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

There was a memorable moment in the 1980s, during Ronald Reagan's second term in office, when a person I admired - someone who had worked for John F. Kennedy's election, someone who had taken part in student sit-ins of segregated restaurants, someone who had protested the war in Vietnam and who had worked for Bobby Kennedy's election in 1968 - raised an empty bottle of Robert Mondavi estate-bottled cabernet and bragged that he had paid $200 for it at dinner the night before.

That was when I knew the country had changed, and not for the better.

Of course, there was a big party under way in the 1980s, after the recession of the early part of the decade, and various masters of the universe were accumulating wealth and enjoying fast growth in income. Trickle-down economics worked for some people; they acquired bigger homes - and second, even third homes - extra cars and SUVs and large nights-out in an ever-increasing number of upscale restaurants. There were plenty of Gordon Geckos around, and Gordon Gecko wannabes.

I hadn't expected the person with the empty bottle of Mondavi to be among them. He hadn't taken a vow of poverty - even Democrats get rich sometimes - and I wasn't expecting him to adopt the all-outrage-all-the-time, no-fun style of Ralph Nader.

But the conspicuous consumption, and surrender to the times, surprised me.

Long ago disillusioned - by assassination, of course, but also by an elaborate rewriting of 20th-century history that declared the New Deal misguided and the Great Society an abysmal failure - the man with the Mondavi had pretty much dropped idealism and populist politics for the creature comforts of the nouveau riche and acquiescence to the Reagan Revolution.

"If you are not a liberal by the time you are 20, you don't have a heart," Winston Churchill had so cleverly put it. "If you are not a conservative by the time you are 40, you don't have a brain."

And Churchill's quote was often used in the 1980s. The message: Grow up. Get yours while you can. Every man for himself. There were other themes: Government is the enemy of the people, not its protector. Less government is better government. Regulation stifles growth. The free markets will create prosperity for all.

But something was missing in the measurement of the nation's condition in the giddy 1980s - something that returned with Barack Obama.

I don't know when the story was first presented - I guess from the parents of baby boomers who had gone through the Great Depression and World War II - but once upon a time, there was an America less about conspicuous consumption and more about the common good.

There were once leaders who spoke about this openly and who pushed the idea that we're all in this together, that public service is a noble thing, that smart government can protect and help people, and that each of us has a responsibility to be part of serving and lifting up others.

"Ask not what your country can do for you," JFK said in his inauguration speech; "ask what you can do for your country."

There were once leaders who spoke of eradicating poverty, of making the education system in United States a model for the world, of being vigilant against the greed that could shake the economy and shatter the dreams of the working class. We once had leaders who challenged Americans to do their part - sacrifice for the greater good - and who themselves were motivated not by extreme ideology but by tempered desire to leave the nation a better place.

This is something people have been hungry to respond to, and that's why Obama was elected president last week.

We have been engaged in a long cultural war in this nation, with some of the most cynical and negative voices being heard daily across the fruited plain for years. Our kids, the new generation of citizens, heard all that ideological bickering and must have wondered what we've been doing all this time - allowing millions to remain in poverty and without health insurance, engaging in a costly and unnecessary war that damaged our reputation around the globe, remaining dependent on foreign oil, missing opportunities to fully use our domestic brainpower to create alternative energy sources and protect, even improve, the environment. The kids look at us and wonder why, if we're so great, we're leaving them a mountain of debt and a warming globe.

Now they have Obama. And so do we - their parents. Baby boomers know it's time to get serious again - to do as our parents did and fix the country for our children.

Obama knew this when he got into the campaign. He knew that America was better than what we've shown and that Americans can only go so long before our better angels rise and fly.

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