Tilting at Windmills

May/June 2011 Supreme Amnesia…A slam Dunc…Your thoughts, please…

By Charles Peters

Another problem with today’s media is their ignorance about how the government really works. Consider a recent front-page article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Billions of Bloat Uncovered in Beltway.” It describes the large number of overlapping programs in the federal bureaucracy. On the “continued” page, the article acknowledges that this is not exactly news: “There have been multiple attempts to cull the number of federal programs in recent years.” But it says the attempts have failed because they “often run into opposition from lawmakers who rush to defend individual spending provisions,” or are “ignored or postponed by agencies or lawmakers when they require difficult votes.”

This is so vague that it fails to inform the reader. The real reason that attempts to reform overlap fail is the alliance between congressional committees determined to preserve their jurisdiction over the agencies involved, bureaucrats who don’t want to lose any part of their empire, and lobbyists who see their influence as dependent on the preservation of the status quo.

A slam Dunc

I was delighted to see Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speak out against the disgraceful practice of allowing college athletes to continue to play when they are not on track to graduate. Ten of the sixty-four schools participating in the NCAA’s big basketball tournament this year have fewer than half of their players progressing toward graduation. Duncan challenged the NCAA to remove these institutions from the tournament. Unsurprisingly, they declined.

Sometimes, even those who graduate have taken one scandalously easy course after another, so their credits are really empty. Dexter Manley, a Washington Redskins star of the 1980s, managed to get through four years at his Oklahoma university without knowing how to read.

Defensive foul

By the way, Mark Emmert, the president of the NCAA, was recently questioned about the organization’s policies by Frontline’s Lowell Bergman. Emmert’s answers
were more candid than Curve Ball’s—but just barely.

Your thoughts, please

Since I finished my book on Lyndon Baines Johnson last year, I’ve been thinking about my next book. Two ideas have emerged. One would be a new edition of How Washington Really Works. The most recent appeared in 1993, so considerable revision is needed. The other book would describe how values have changed between the era during which I grew up—the 1930s and ’40s—and today.

Recently, I have been surprised to find that the two subjects are merging in my mind. Bear with me while I try to explain.

In the 1930s and ’40s there were a lot of bad guys, just as there are today. Lynching still took place. Father Coughlin could preach hatred of the Jews. But getting rich was not the dominating motivation that it is now. And on the whole, there was a generous willingness to share that existed in considerably greater measure than it does today.

Almost everyone I have known who lived through the era remembers their mothers unfailingly feeding the often ragged and almost always hungry men who would come to the back door. The same generosity led them to support New Deal programs like the CCC and the WPA that helped give the needy a leg up. The government that provided these programs was respected by most of us, and the willingness to share extended to sharing society’s burdens. In 1940 both the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, FDR and Wendell Willkie, and, according to public opinion polls, a majority of the American people, supported the first peacetime draft in our history. As did a majority in both houses of Congress.

For the next twenty-five years, the willingness to serve would be shared by all classes. And a willingness to share the cost of government was best illustrated when the Republican Willkie criticized FDR in 1943 for not raising taxes enough as Roosevelt was on his way to setting the top rate at 90 percent. Roosevelt even proposed to limit wartime incomes to $25,000.

Of course, there were still Republicans who railed against taxes of any kind. The great humorist of the age, Will Rogers, observed, “I really believe if it came to a vote whether to go to war with England, France, and Germany combined, or raise the rate on incomes of over $100,00, [the Republicans] would vote [for] war.”

But the fact is that back then, there were moderate Republicans like Willkie. Reasonable men in the middle of both the House and Senate could compromise. The filibuster was rarely used for anything other than the protection of racial segregation. Movies of the era made heroes out of the fellows next door, like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or It’s a Wonderful Life. Being down and out like William Powell in My Man Godfrey or Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath could happen to people just like you, not just to people you didn’t know. Snobbery was widely ridiculed. Indeed, this was an era of great comedy—most of it, as with the Marx Brothers and W. C. Fields, aimed squarely at pretentiousness.

It all began to change in the 1950s. The average family was still celebrated on television series like Leave It To Beaver, but as Americans prospered and began to travel abroad, people learned about European art, cuisine, and wine. Gradually they began to look down on those who didn’t know about such things, and Adlai Stevenson became the first presidential candidate people seemed to support because doing so proved they were intelligent. A people whose Norman Rockwellian self-image had been indifferent to social class began to change its tune. An excellent revival of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion in 1946 lasted less than six months on Broadway. In 1956, when it appeared again as My Fair Lady, this story of how Liza Doolittle learned how to rise in social class enjoyed what was then the longest run in Broadway history. We were on our way to becoming a society where parents felt their children had to get into Ivy League colleges.

But some very good things were also happening. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, the rights revolution did much to make this country a better place. First African Americans, then women, and then gays began to assert their rights. In the mid-’60s, these movements were joined by the one against the war in Vietnam.

Unfortunately, all these great causes carried the seeds of trouble to come. In the 1970s, the assertion of group rights turned into the assertion of individual rights that produced the Me decade. The noble causes asserted during the ’60s turned into an explosion of special interest lobbies in the ’70s. Avoiding military service, justified by Vietnam, became a casually assumed right.

In the 1980s, the Me decade turned into the greed decade, as getting rich became the primary motive of a growing number of Americans. Wall Street Week became a staple of Friday-night television, and Ronald Reagan became president, denouncing government and advocating lower taxes.

The reign of greed did not end in 1990. Instead, its hold on the country continued
to grow, until under George W. Bush it exploded into an orgy of irresponsible tax cuts and Wall Street recklessness.

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.


  • clarence swinney on May 11, 2011 9:45 AM:

    OLDUGLYMEANHONEST madmadmad at Inequality in America

  • acura cake on May 25, 2011 10:18 AM:

    Greetings from your ex neighbor, the one who wore a flight suit to work. Just wanted to let you know I read the site everyday, and even though I don't agree with everthing on it, the writing is better than anything else about poitics on the internet. The piece about New Orleans a few months back is the best account of present local politics in my new hometown I've seen anywhere.
    Take care up there. I'll continue to peruse this site. Make me miss DC just the slightest bit.
    Oh, and great ariticle as usual. I've come to expect nothing less.

  • Gerald on May 27, 2011 4:16 PM:

    I agree we should help those who are less fortunate, and my family and I try to help in several ways. I also agree with many of your points in this commentary. But I don't agree that caring for others and for our society extends to willingness for myself or my children to serve in the U.S. armed forces. Serving in the past decade, and for that matter during any other wartime period, demands far more than I am willing to sacrifice, particularly when I do not support our military's conflicts, spending, policies, etc.

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