Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Op-Ed Columns

Pausing to reflect on quarter century of change in D.C.

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 extension of rights. The period began with the overtones of the civil rights movement, one of the most consequential events in modern American history. The political significance of that movement cannot be overstated, but its philosophical significance was limited. It granted the rights enjoyed by some Americans to all Americans, which was no small thing, but it did not carve out new rights.

    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 assault on the political establishment. The Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of President Nixon in 1974 was a watershed in American civic life, leading to a strain of discontent with the political system that was wide and deep. By century's end, however, it was clear that that sentiment was not tied to a particular series of political episodes - the Nixon deceits and the coverups that followed - but, rather, was becoming a permanent characteristic of American civic life.

    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 celebration of business on the left. The astonishing economic growth of the period left no part of the political world untouched, including liberals. Democrats impatient with the GOP's success in raising money from business began an offensive of their own to court corporations. The major Democratic figure of the period, Mr. Clinton, embraced the values and outlook of bond traders - and signed a welfare overhaul that was supported by business leaders and deplored by advocates of the poor.

    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.

  • The acknowledgement of the importance of government on the right. By reinvigorating conservatism, fostering distrust of centralized authority and questioning the primacy of government in the economy, Ronald Reagan was one of the most influential figures of the period. Even so, belief in the indispensability of government flourished on the right, where activists sought to use government to fight abortion, reintroduce prayer to the schools, enhance the position of religion in public life, win advantages for business, and police the public morals.

    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.

  • The continuing eclipse of the Congress despite alternating cycles of growth and diminishment in the power and profile of the presidency. The period began at one of the modern high marks of congressional power, the forced resignation of President Nixon, the humiliation of President Carter on Capitol Hill, and, under the leadership of former Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O'Neill, Jr., the reassertion of congressional prerogatives in budget matters, especially Social Security.

    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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