EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appears in the October 11, 2004, issue of National Review.
CBS, the old Tiffany network that was the gold standard in the days of the Murrow boys, is cracking up with a vengeance, in the same mode as some other old liberal entities that are also mired in woes. Like dissolute heirs to great fortunes, the descendants of the old Democrats, the Kennedys, and the civil-rights movement have been living for years on moral and political capital accrued 40 years earlier–and have at last used it up. In their minds’ eyes, they are FDR, JFK, Martin Luther King Jr., and Edward R. Murrow at their best. In real life, they are Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy, Al Sharpton, and, of course, Dan Rather. What all four have in common is a great future behind them, and prospects ahead that seem bleak.
Between 1933 and 1965, between the Great Depression and the year the last civil-rights bill went through Congress, the Democrats turned in a stellar performance. If Franklin Roosevelt’s grip on economics was never too keen, he did hold a dispirited country together in difficult times. He was one of the first to acknowledge the menace of Hitler, and when war came he pursued it with vision and ruthlessness. Harry S Truman picked up early on the danger of Stalin, and crafted the framework that would win the Cold War, backed up by other Democrats such as John Kennedy and Henry (Scoop) Jackson. Though not initially eager to take on the issue, Kennedy became the first president to define civil rights as a moral imperative, a cause his successor continued.
But Johnson’s second year, 1965, was a point of transition, and the party rapidly went off the rails. Since 1968, they have lost six of nine presidential elections; they have lost Congress and their role as majority party. They haven’t had a good new idea or produced a real leader in more than four decades, and their old model–a picture of FDR sitting beside Winston Churchill–has been supplanted by one of Jimmy Carter sitting beside Michael Moore. You’d think this might tell them something, but they remain immune to argument, secure in the view they are still the vox populi. Can’t anyone see who they were?
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