By William Pfaff
Barack Obama’s decision to be sworn in twice as president (just to be sure!) confirmed the pragmatism and practical prose of his inaugural address. Noted for his oratorical ability and distinction, he seems to have decided that a restoration presidency should begin plainly, and earn its right during the coming years to the historical comparisons that have surrounded this man’s assumption of the American presidency—a man, as he noted in his address, whose father, only 60 years ago, might have been refused service at an American lunch counter.
I call his a restoration presidency because this black man was the only presidential candidate who succeeded in summoning up the better America that was abandoned or repudiated during the past eight years by his predecessor.
The Bush government, which he has replaced, seemed not merely indifferent to the ancient political and moral aspirations of the American nation, but hostile to them as obstacles to the national power and aggrandizement they unscrupulously pursued, at the cost of tens of thousands of American and foreign lives, and to the greed that motivated most of those who were the public face of the government and the economy of the United States during this period.
One cannot ignore the fact that we the people were their enablers during the last eight years. George W. Bush was not an unpopular president until it became apparent how badly he had failed the American nation. Even then, aggression and torture remained instruments of national policy, and were defended by professors, judges, editors and eminent commentators, and even provided a profitable theme in American popular entertainment: America on television was the land that tortures, and was proud of it.
It is inconceivable that this could have taken place during the time of the first Roosevelt, or under Lincoln, to take just two of the men of whom the Republican P arty has been the most proud. Can you imagine it under the commands of George C. Marshall or Robert E. Lee?
It has been argued that moral authority has broken down in modern American society because of the events of the 1960s. Before, traditional hierarchies and a general moral consensus existed in American society, lending legitimacy to the institutions of society.
Authority must have a moral foundation, and has to be voluntarily accepted, being different from power or violence, which compel order in society (or are meant to do so).
Why the breakdown happened is a subject conservatives and liberals have furiously argued over during the four decades since it all happened. I suppose that a simple and reasonably nonpolemical way to describe what happened is to say that the Vietnam War, occurring in a general international climate of post-1945 anti-colonialism, inspired in much of U.S. civil society revulsion or resistance to its government’s policy in what was widely seen, in Western liberal societies, as an unjust war.
The conservative and governing forces of Western, and particularly American, society at the same time suffered a reciprocal loss of nerve. They too could no longer fully believe in the moral basis for that war, although there were a great many political and ideological reasons offered (mistakenly) for why it had to be “won” by the United States.
Much the same had occurred earlier in France, which suffered its own colonial war and crisis in Indochina, followed by an uprising in Algeria, and finally experienced mutiny in the French army itself, because Fourth Republic French governments were too weak to reach a conclusion as to what to do.
The Fourth Republic had lost authority. Only returning Gen. Charles de Gaulle to power in 1958 restored a French government capable of moral decision and action.
In the United States this did not happen. What followed the events of the 1960s was a continuation of the so-called culture wars, whose political extension into national affairs brought to Washington Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan (when something of a truce in the culture war occurred because of the genial personality and sincerity of the president), George H.W. Bush (dominated by the radical Republicans), the disordered Clinton years, and finally the moral collapse in Washington that gave us the George W. Bush administration.
Bush II exercised violence—inspired by an infantile political Manichaeism concerning “Islamic terror”—and a lawless foreign policy that further divided the nation, bringing us to where we are today. The United States became an enduringly divided nation, which has lacked a legitimate, unifying and governing political and moral authority and order.
This, I would say, is what elected Barack Obama. He radiates seriousness, adulthood, confidence and mature values. He is a unifier, not a divider.
No one can say what will come of his presidency. Can he restore national union, a sense of national purpose, a public and governmental morality that the people will accept? Let us pray that the answer is yes.
Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at www.williampfaff.com.
© 2009 Tribune Media Services Inc.