Outside the Beltway, at long last.
For nearly a quarter-century I lived in America's capital at the height of America's power, working as a reporter, editor, and commentator, trying to understand seven Senate majority leaders, six presidential elections, five presidents, four major military engagements, three searing White House scandals, two space catastrophes, and one impeachment.
I lived a few blocks from where President Johnson returned home after the heartbreaking day in Dallas, around the corner from where Sen. Richard Nixon reared his two young daughters. My own two children were born in Washington, struggled to toddle and talk there, chased their beloved cat there, learned and loved and laughed there.
But now that I am a full day into the rest of my life - I feel better already - it is natural to pause and reflect on the important changes that occurred in Washington in the last quarter-century. In the press of news and the pressure of daily deadlines, none was evident at the time. In the clearer light of reflection, they make me wonder how I could have missed them.
The decades that were to follow established new rights not contemplated in the 18th-century Enlightenment that produced the American revolution and its founding document, the Declaration of Independence. Among those rights were the right to a clean environment, the right to privacy, the right to physical access of buildings for the disabled, the right of financial security for the aged, the right of people to find sexual fulfillment in their own fashion, and, had Bill and Hillary Clinton had their way in 1994, the right to health care for all.
The result was a growing distance between the government and the governed that was so great that every successful presidential candidate of the period (with the exception of George H.W. Bush, who ascended to the White House from the vice presidency) portrayed himself as a political outsider. Moreover, the press, which liked to think of itself as an adversary of the political class, increasingly took on the assumptions of the established order - and the disapproval of the public.
The Democratic presidential candidate held in the most contempt by Republicans as an unrepentant liberal was former Gov. Michael Dukakis, who spoke of the triumph of practicality over ideology and whose campaign was based on his ability to work with business leaders in Massachusetts.
In the wake of the 2001 terrorism attacks, President Bush created a new bureaucracy, the Department of Homeland Security. And following the Columbia disaster, the President underlined government support for space exploration.
But since 1983, the Congress has been on the decline. No member of Congress has moved to the White House since Gerald Ford. No Senate leader - not GOP Sens. Howard Baker, Jr., of Tennessee and Bob Dole of Kansas, not Democratic Sens. George Mitchell of Maine and Tom Daschle of South Dakota - exercised power even remotely competitive with that of the President.
The proof of this thesis: A president elected without a popular majority now sits, nearly unassailed, atop a government struggling with economic distress, battling terrorism, and contemplating pre-emptive war. Slip back a quarter-century - a lifetime in politics, and most of my professional life - and that would have been inconceivable.
David M. Shribman began his new job this week as executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after a decade as Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe and reporting posts with the Washington bureaus of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.
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