Once Upon a Time in America
A troubled nation needs a real leader, not a storyteller.
The Wall Street Journal: October 1, 2011
At a symposium in Colorado at which thoughtful people from many professions spoke, and later in conversation with people who care about books in California, two things we all know to be true became more vivid to me.
The first is that nobody is optimistic about the world economy. No one sees the Western nations righting themselves any time soon, no one sees lower unemployment coming down the pike, or fewer foreclosures. No one was burly: “Everything will be fine, snap out of it!” Everyone admitted tough times lie ahead.
The second is that everyone hungers for leadership. Really, everyone. And really, it is a hunger. They want so much to be able to respect and feel trust in their political leaders. Everyone hungers for someone strong, honest and capable—as big as the moment. But the presidential contest, the default topic when Americans gather, tended to become somewhat secondary. Underlying everything was a widespread sense among Democrats and Republicans, lefties and righties, that President Obama isn’t big enough, and that we don’t have to argue about this anymore. There was also a broad sense that there is no particular reason to believe any one of the Republicans is big enough, either.
Actually, I saw a third thing. There is, I think, a kind of new patriotism among our professional classes. They talk about America now and their eyes fill up. With business people and doctors and scientists, there used to be a kind of detachment, an ironic distance they held between themselves and Washington, themselves and national problems. “The future of our country” was the kind of earnest topic they wouldn’t or couldn’t survey without a wry smile. But now I believe I see a deep yearning to help, to do the right thing, to be part of a rebuilding, and it is a yearning based in true and absolute anxiety that we may lose this wonderful thing we were born into, this America, this brilliant golden gift.
At the end of Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie,” Tom, the narrator, tells us he never stopped thinking of his sister and his mother and their sadness, for “I was more faithful than I intended to be.” That, I think, is the mood taking hold among members of what used to be called the American leadership class—slightly taken aback by their love for America, by their protectiveness toward her.
The president reads ‘Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters’ by Barack Obama.
The untapped patriotism out there—if it were electricity, it would remake the grid and light up the world. And it’s among all professions, classes and groups, from the boardroom to the Tea Party meeting to the pediatric ICU.
We think patriotism reached its height after 9/11, but I think it is reaching some new height now, and we’re only beginning to notice.
And here we turn to politics. Are those running for president aware of the fix we’re in? I’m not sure they are. For one thing, if they knew, they wouldn’t look so dementedly chipper. And they wouldn’t all be talking about The Narrative. Which is all I heard once I came back East.
The Narrative has nothing to do with what is actually happening in the country. That would make too much sense. The Narrative is the story of a candidate or a candidacy, or the story of a presidency. Everyone in politics is supposed to have one. They’re supposedly powerful. Voters believe them.
Everyone in politics should stop this. For one thing, a narrative is not something that can be imposed, it is something that bubbles up. It’s something people perceive on their own and then talk about, and if it’s true, the talk spreads.
Here I return to Ron Suskind’s book, “Confidence Men.” As noted last week, Mr. Suskind has been criticized for getting quotes and facts wrong. But the White House hasn’t disputed his interview with Mr. Obama, who had some remarkable things to say.
It turns out he too is obsessed with The Narrative. Mr. Suskind asked him why his team had difficulty creating a policy to deal with unemployment. Mr. Obama said some of it was due to circumstances, some to the complexity of the problem. Then he added: “We didn’t have a clean story that we wanted to tell against which we would measure various actions.” Huh? It wasn’t “clean,” he explained, because “what was required to save the economy might not always match up with what would make for a good story.”
Throughout the interview the president seems preoccupied with “shaping a story for the American people.” He says: “The irony is, the reason I was in this office is because I told a story to the American people.” But, he confesses, “that narrative thread we just lost” in his first years.
Then he asks, “What’s the particular requirement of the president that no one else can do?” He answers: “What the president can do, that nobody else can do, is tell a story to the American people” about where we are as a nation and should be.
Tell a story to the American people? That’s your job? Not adopting good policies? Not defending the nation? Storytelling?
The interview reflects the weird inability of so many in political leadership now to acknowledge the role in life of . . . reality.
Overthinking the obvious and focusing on the artifice and myth of politics is a problem for all political professionals, including Republicans. Sarah Palin was out there this week trying to impose her own narrative: that she’s all roguey and mavericky and she’d win if she ran, but she’s not sure the presidency—”the title”—wouldn’t dull her special magic. It was like Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard.” She’s still big, it’s the presidency that got small.
But this is mostly a problem for the Democratic Party at the national level, and has been since the 1980s. It reflects a disdain for the American people—they need their little stories—and it springs from an inability to understand the Reagan era. Democrats looked at him and the speeches and the crowds and balloons and thought: “I get it, politics is now all show biz.” Because they couldn’t take Reagan’s views and philosophy seriously, they couldn’t believe anyone else could, either. So they explained him through a story. The story was that Reagan’s success was due not to decisions and their outcomes but to a narrative. The narrative was “Morning in America”: Everything’s good, everyone’s happy.
Democrats vowed to create their own narratives, their own stories.
Here’s the problem: There is no story. At the end of the day, there is only reality. Things work or they don’t. When they work, people notice, and say it.
Would the next president like a story? Here’s one. America was anxious, and feared it was losing the air of opportunity that had allowed it to be what it was—expansive, generous, future-trusting. It was losing faith in its establishments and institutions. And someone came out of that need who led—who was wise and courageous and began to turn the ship around. And we saved our country, and that way saved the world.
There’s a narrative for you, the only one that matters. Go be a hero of that story. It will get around. It will bubble up.
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