We are in an era of no confidence in any people or institutions, extreme incivility in public discourse and even in respectable journalism, whiplash changes in public attitudes and the status of public personalities, and an addiction to magnifying every problem to an epochal crisis of terrifying proportions. There are other familiar symptoms of such times, including an otherwise irrational rise in the price of gold, frequent changes of government in even the stablest and most advanced countries, and wild poll fluctuations for almost everything. Fickleness is a manifestation of instability, but conditions are not, in fact, as dire as these symptoms would indicate; there is just a lack of confidence, as opposed to seething and potentially uncontrollable and violent discontent (of which there is little sign in any important jurisdiction).
There has been plenty of regretful comment about the tendency of American political faction leaders to apostrophize each other in absurdly exaggerated terms, amplified, where that is possible, by much of the media. A casual but observant person arriving in America from a completely tranquil place would likely conclude that Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, and some others are primitive hate-mongers and advocates of official barbarism, supported by masses of apparently tea-drinking humanoid troglodytes. They would be encouraged to this view by Speaker Pelosi’s assertion that opponents of the recent health-care changes were happy to march under the emblem of the Nazi swastika, and by frequent references by politicians and even judges to those with reservations about same-sex marriages as religious bigots, their feet and minds locked in the cement of Old Testament absolutism requiring the death by stoning of any dissenter from the most rigorously traditional behavior. And they would have been given to understand that any lack of enthusiasm about constructing a 15-story mosque a few hundred yards from the site of the deadliest assault ever conducted on the territory of the United States by people purporting to be virtuous, aggrieved, militant Muslims, is an unpardonable affront to American traditions of sectarian tolerance.
If the same observers, arriving like Pan from a very different place, alit into the opposite camp, they could be pardoned for thinking that the president, vice president, speaker of the House of Representatives, Senate majority leader, mayor of New York, and many, perhaps most, other prominent elected officials in contemporary America are cowardly, treasonable, Americaphobic appeasers of the enemies of all that the United States has ever aspired to represent and promote in its most idealistic moments.
With Nancy Pelosi, as with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, there is an understandable reservoir of doubt about someone who promotes abortion on demand at the public’s expense, an identical status of heterosexual and homosexual arrangements, and the commendability of assisted suicide as “death with dignity” (all respectable arguments even to those who do not agree with them), while pitching to the mainstream Roman Catholic 25 percent of America. They observe the outward signs of devotion to that faith: The House speaker demurely kissed the ring of the pope before the cameras of the nation when the pontiff, as is normally the case when visiting North America, offered his hand for a conventional handshake and no acts of deferential veneration, on the White House lawn. (Again, it is perfectly correct for a co-religionist to do this, and Mrs. Pelosi managed it with the flirtatious elegance of Graham Greene’s colonial communicants in A Burnt-Out Case, but it is slightly incongruous for someone who so strenuously champions legislation contrary to important official tenets of the Roman Catholic faith.)
It is not three months since the New York Times was blazing away at every apparent revelation, no matter how remote or implausible, of alleged clerical sexual misconduct in the Roman Catholic Church. The anti-Catholic media of the West were fatuously advising the Vatican to “rebrand” itself, and the Church’s ancient foes were doing a St. Vitus’s Dance of solidarity as the giant bumblebee of Roman Catholicism prepared to fold its wings and fall down dead after its imposture of 20 centuries. In fact, there was no such occurrence, and there was no noticeable impact on either religious observance or new vocations. The Ark of the Faith is almost invulnerable to the notorious failings of mere men.
The media were enabled to desert this falling comet of oversold urgency and leapt to the next apocalypse, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. It quickly emerged that the entire ecology of the world was going to be severely disturbed. The fact that pollution on this scale continued for years on end in the world wars, and yet the world regained its equilibrium, was not allowed to muddy the waters of irretrievable disaster. We were for it, right up to the day when President Obama confirmed that the well had been plugged and that 76 percent of the oil that had been spilt had been collected or assimilated into the ocean. Even if this was an exaggeration, and even if the yelps of incredulity from the victims of the problem, in the fishing and tourism industries of the southern states especially, were more than complaints of the swift sunset on the lucrative relief programs that had been put in place, it was the end of the world-shaking crisis that had been touted from the rooftops of the media for three months.
It seemed to me that a world record had been set by former Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, who descended from an approval rating of 80 percent (vs. 18 percent disapproval) to a disapproval rating of 78 percent (vs. 19 percent approval) in nine months. But the new deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom, Nicholas Clegg, seems to have surpassed that, by going from a 72 percent approval rating in June, the highest of any British party leader since Winston Churchill (when he was head of an all-party national government, Britain’s greatest statesman in Britain’s finest hour), to an approval rating of 8 percent in August.
No one appears to have any purchase or perspective on the tide of events. This is aberrant, but will only subside when the foremost pillar of international secular stability, the United States government, regains the confidence of the world, which has looked to it since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s time as the ultimate source of assurance and continuity. The rough ecclesiastical equivalent, the Holy See, to the disappointment of its detractors, has just shown how to manage a severe crisis: Acknowledge it, express a believable determination to deal with it, and produce and implement a plan of action to do that. Pope Benedict XVI is not above reproach and, contrary to widespread mythology, does not claim to be infallible, but he has acknowledged the evil of child and adolescent molestation in the clergy and put believable controls and personnel in place to eradicate the problem as swiftly and justly as possible.
Public discourse would be less contentious and the usual barometers of confidence — such as currency, precious metals, vital commodities, and stock-market values — would quickly improve and stabilize if the president of the United States plausibly tackled the greatest problems he was elected to address. If he unveiled a plan to reduce spending, raise revenues, manage the national-debt crisis (including Social Security and bankrupt states), and ensure reasonably non-inflationary money-supply increases for the balance of the decade; proposed an energy program that would drastically reduce dependence on foreign-oil imports, cut the current-account deficit and the world oil price, and devised an environmental-protection plan that did not exceed the scientifically proven extent of global warming and related problems; produced a bipartisan plan to reduce health-care costs while increasing availability, by increased competition and the taxation of sumptuous care not now paid for by the recipient; and stopped this demeaning charade with Iran and militarily smashed its nuclear military program — the comparative resulting calm would replicate the serenity that followed the inauguration of Ronald Reagan and release of the Iran hostages in 1981.
There is no precedent in the history of the U.S. presidency for someone to run such a brilliant campaign for the nomination of his party and for election as the incumbent president did, and to have as much difficulty getting to grips with the main problems he decried and promised to solve once decisively empowered to do so. Amongst the very most astute campaigns for the presidency ever waged were those culminating in the elections of Andrew Jackson in 1828, Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and 1940, Richard Nixon in 1968, and Ronald Reagan in 1980. In each case, the four years that followed were among the most eventful, and successful, in the nation’s history, even when terrible but just wars had to be fought and won, in the 1860s and 1940s. America and the world are still waiting, with dwindling hope and patience, for President Obama to be the worthy heir to Candidate Obama. While waiting, the national interest requires the Republicans to elevate a suitable replacement this autumn.