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The Decay of American Politics: An Ode to Ike and Adlai

By Andrew J. Bacevich / TomDispatch
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Andrew J. Bacevich / TomDispatch

    Adlai Stevenson (left) and Dwight D. Eisenhower shake hands after Eisenhower won the presidency in 1953. (AP)

My earliest recollection of national politics dates back exactly 60 years to the moment, in the summer of 1956, when I watched the political conventions in the company of that wondrous new addition to our family, television.  My parents were supporting President Dwight D. Eisenhower for a second term and that was good enough for me.  Even as a youngster, I sensed that Ike, the former supreme commander of allied forces in Europe in World War II, was someone of real stature.  In a troubled time, he exuded authority and self-confidence.  By comparison, Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson came across as vaguely suspect.  Next to the five-star incumbent, he seemed soft, even foppish, and therefore not up to the job.  So at least it appeared to a nine-year-old living in Chicagoland.

Of the seamy underside of politics I knew nothing, of course.  On the surface, all seemed reassuring.  As if by divine mandate, two parties vied for power.  The views they represented defined the allowable range of opinion.  The outcome of any election expressed the collective will of the people and was to be accepted as such.  That I was growing up in the best democracy the world had ever known — its very existence a daily rebuke to the enemies of freedom — was beyond question.

Naïve?  Embarrassingly so.  Yet how I wish that Election Day in November 2016 might present Americans with something even loosely approximating the alternatives available to them in November 1956.  Oh, to choose once more between an Ike and an Adlai.

Don’t for a second think that this is about nostalgia.  Today, Stevenson doesn’t qualify for anyone’s list of Great Americans.  If remembered at all, it’s for his sterling performance as President John F. Kennedy’s U.N. ambassador during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Interrogating his Soviet counterpart with cameras rolling, Stevenson barked that he was prepared to wait “until hell freezes over” to get his questions answered about Soviet military activities in Cuba. When the chips were down, Adlai proved anything but soft.  Yet in aspiring to the highest office in the land, he had come up well short.  In 1952, he came nowhere close to winning and in 1956 he proved no more successful.  Stevenson was to the Democratic Party what Thomas Dewey had been to the Republicans: a luckless two-time loser.

As for Eisenhower, although there is much in his presidency to admire, his errors of omission and commission were legion.  During his two terms, from Guatemala to Iran, the CIA overthrew governments, plotted assassinations, and embraced unsavory right-wing dictators — in effect, planting a series of IEDs destined eventually to blow up in the face of Ike’s various successors.  Meanwhile, binging on nuclear weapons, the Pentagon accumulated an arsenal far beyond what even Eisenhower as commander-in-chief considered prudent or necessary. 

In addition, during his tenure in office, the military-industrial complex became a rapacious juggernaut, an entity unto itself as Ike himself belatedly acknowledged.  By no means least of all, Eisenhower fecklessly committed the United States to an ill-fated project of nation-building in a country that just about no American had heard of at the time: South Vietnam.  Ike did give the nation eight years of relative peace and prosperity, but at a high price — most of the bills coming due long after he left office.

The Pathology of American Politics

And yet, and yet…

To contrast the virtues and shortcomings of Stevenson and Eisenhower with those of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald Trump is both instructive and profoundly depressing.  Comparing the adversaries of 1956 with their 2016 counterparts reveals with startling clarity what the decades-long decay of American politics has wrought.

In 1956, each of the major political parties nominated a grown-up for the highest office in the land.  In 2016, only one has.

In 1956, both parties nominated likeable individuals who conveyed a basic sense of trustworthiness.  In 2016, neither party has done so.

In 1956, Americans could count on the election to render a definitive verdict, the vote count affirming the legitimacy of the system itself and allowing the business of governance to resume.  In 2016, that is unlikely to be the case.  Whether Trump or Clinton ultimately prevails, large numbers of Americans will view the result as further proof of “rigged” and irredeemably corrupt political arrangements.  Rather than inducing some semblance of reconciliation, the outcome is likely to deepen divisions.

How in the name of all that is holy did we get into such a mess?

How did the party of Eisenhower, an architect of victory in World War II, choose as its nominee a narcissistic TV celebrity who, with each successive Tweet and verbal outburst, offers further evidence that he is totally unequipped for high office?  Yes, the establishment media are ganging up on Trump, blatantly displaying the sort of bias normally kept at least nominally under wraps.  Yet never have such expressions of journalistic hostility toward a particular candidate been more justified.  Trump is a bozo of such monumental proportions as to tax the abilities of our most talented satirists.  Were he alive today, Mark Twain at his most scathing would be hard-pressed to do justice to The Donald’s blowhard pomposity.

Similarly, how did the party of Adlai Stevenson, but also of Stevenson’s hero Franklin Roosevelt, select as its candidate someone so widely disliked and mistrusted even by many of her fellow Democrats?  True, antipathy directed toward Hillary Clinton draws some of its energy from incorrigible sexists along with the “vast right wing conspiracy” whose members thoroughly loathe both Clintons.  Yet the antipathy is not without basis in fact.

Even by Washington standards, Secretary Clinton exudes a striking sense of entitlement combined with a nearly complete absence of accountability.  She shrugs off her misguided vote in support of invading Iraq back in 2003, while serving as senator from New York.  She neither explains nor apologizes for pressing to depose Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, her most notable “accomplishment” as secretary of state.  “We came, we saw, he died,” she bragged back then, somewhat prematurely given that Libya has since fallen into anarchy and become a haven for ISIS.

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