Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Beyond Indignant

I was going to save this for a year and run it after the next presidential election, when, as I expect, there likely will be a change of party in the White House and a lot of screeching and ranting. Maybe I'll do that anyhow, since no one will remember it that long. But this week, as I poked my head into the wider blogosphere, I thought, "Let people find it now."

Maybe just a few will read it and think a bit differently before they speak or post. Maybe there will be one less post than otherwise had been, saying:

"You were so indignant about THAT; why aren't you also indignant about THIS? That proves you're a hypocrite!"

"THIS thing is happening somewhere in the world, and my foolish domestic opponents have responded to it indignantly, without realizing THEIR FAVORED IDEOLOGIES ARE EXACTLY THE SAME THING!"

We're a country with plenty of problems. But too many Americans with voices can't talk about the problems because they're too busy talking about the politics. They can't even see the problems, though they can name them. All they can see is the politics. And each other. Indignantly.

This was said on Nov. 4, 1952, when the country also faced a lot of problems, such as a shaky economy and unpopular wars that it couldn't afford to lose. The sides shook out differently then -- the Democrats were under attack for pushing the unpopular war and for spending too much on the military. But it was the same America; those kinds of differences are trivial and temporary.

Watching election returns that night at home were the then-Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, and some friends, including Acheson's mentor, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Most of the people there, however, were young: junior staffers and children of the elder officials.

As the Republican victory became clear, the younger listeners felt despair, almost panic, "as though they were suddenly learning of a stunning natural disaster, which they could not believe or bear." They were bitter about the "stolen" election and the rise of "demagogues."

Now you get that kind of panic after every election. It is somewhat comforting to know Americans felt like this in the past, even about the amiable Eisenhower, but this was an exceptional election, because the Democrats had been in the White House for 20 years, which probably exceeded the functional memory of most people in the room. And the GOP of 1952 also was the party of Joe McCarthy and many others of that kidney.

Acheson talked to the young people to give them some guidance, and Justice Frankfurter thought what he said sufficiently wise that he urged those who heard it to write it down as they recalled it. Or perhaps that was his contribution to calming the waters. At any rate, the impromptu performance of the great diplomat has been preserved.

He told them the change of administration, which shocked them, was normal, natural, and bound to happen. And he told them how to handle themselves.

From this moment you should not go on fighting battles that have been lost. ... Do what nature requires, that is to have a fallow period. Just let the field of your emotions stay barren, let new seeds germinate, until May, or next year, or until 1954; that is what happens in nature. Have different activities, think of something else. Don't read The New York Times from cover to cover every day.

Then when you come back to the scene, you will come back fresh. And you should think of the problems that exist then, and not of the problems that existed a year before. Say, "These are new problems. I am going to attack the new problems in a creative way."

This gets us to the point of how you should act now. The people who come in will have a responsibility which they haven't had for twenty years. Actually the problems will remain the same. They are very difficult problems, in some cases just about insoluble. The new people will find this out, and the chances are that they are not going to be able to find miraculous solutions any more than we have done. But now they will have the responsibility. They will have fresh minds and a fresh approach, and it is possible that they will be able to think of some things that we haven't thought of and to do some things that we haven't done. If so, that is all to the good. And we should give them a chance to do their best.

One thing that we shouldn't do is reduce their chances of getting somewhere. We probably could if we tried. Because the new people won't understand the great complexities and the ramifications of the things they have to deal with. But that's all right, because they will soon, and we should try to help them as much as we can. Whatever we may have thought of some of the men who will come into the new administration when they have been so critical of us, there's no sense in continuing to voice these past opinions of the new men. We must give them a chance. Their purposes are the best interests of this country, just as ours are.

So that's the second thing to keep in mind: Don't undermine the whole foundation by hammering at mistakes the Administration will make from the beginning and by discrediting the new Administration as rapidly as its problems arise. This is not only tempting, but extremely easy. Quite a few of us know enough to make life intolerable for the new Administration. We should not by our actions make it impossible or more difficult for them to accomplish what all of us have been trying to accomplish over the last seven years.

Above all, we shouldn't organize ourselves into factions that are anti-this or anti-that. We shouldn't form anti-Dulles clubs, if he is the next Secretary of State, or anti-anybody clubs. That doesn't get you anywhere.

After things have settled down a bit and the new people have taken over and are doing what they can, we will have ideas about how to solve some of the difficult questions that will come up. We will have a chance to be constructive by throwing out those ideas. If they are wise ideas, they will be picked up and will be helpful. We probably won't be able ever to put our ideas into operation ourselves. But if we can think of them, and advocate them, the new people in the Democratic Party, people whom we don't even know yet because they haven't appeared, will have something to go on. There is no sense in having our ideas simply ideas of how badly the Republicans are doing things. What we need to have and what the country will need to have are ideas that are constructive and helpful in solving new problems that it will face.

Nowhere does he say anything about "patriotic," or "American" values. He doesn't have to. It's all over the speech.