(Illustration by Steve Dininno)
Enduring American Arguments
We’ve been arguing over the same issues since the Founding Fathers, says veteran political reporter Howard Fineman ’70. As he reflects upon Campaign 2008 and President Obama’s move into the Oval Office, Fineman writes that the arguing will continue — and that is a good thing.
We were flying from Reno to Albuquerque last July when Senator Barack Obama’s aides waved me up to the front of the campaign plane. In the living room–like cabin, I found the candidate in a reclining chair, a pile of papers on his lap. I had interviewed him for Newsweek several times, but now I was on a different, more limited mission: to give him a copy of my book, The Thirteen American Arguments. He glanced at the cover and took a moment to study the contents page. “I guess you’ve got all the answers to all the arguments here, ” Obama said with a smile.
I took his smile to be a wry, knowing one. As a professor of constitutional law and a shrewd politician, Obama understood the idea that had taken me years of reporting and research to grasp. In this country there are no permanent “answers.” There is no dogma, no orthodoxy. Arguing is what we were born and bred to do. No sooner do we settle an iteration of a dispute — generated by that era’s facts and frictions — than we start another.
So I smiled, too. “You taught con law,” I replied, “so you know there are no answers in there!” Then, with his aides watching impatiently, I gave him the gist of my ambitious (and perhaps rather lunatic) attempt to explain all 400 years of our public life in 300 pages about the 13 enduring debates that define and inspire us. “The conventional wisdom is that we argue too much,” I concluded, “but I say that we don’t argue enough — about the right things, the deep things.”
Obama nodded, seemingly in agreement. But he shot me a wary glance, too. Arguing wasn’t what he was selling; national unity was.
Crafted and sold over two years, Obama’s message was that we had endured too much combat for its own sake; that pettiness, fear mongering, and dog-eat-dog division had paralyzed our politics. He promised debate — actually listening to other views and carefully explaining his own positions and conclusions — not another bully pulpit presidency.
He offered, as proof of his intentions, his own campaign and biography. Obama’s Internet-based campaign was a digital exercise in shared experience, cooperative creativity, and the desire for community. His personal life and even his DNA were symbols of reconciliation: white and black, old and young, local and global. Bursting onto the scene in 2004 with a speech to Democrats in Boston, Obama had declared: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there is a United States of America!”
So, on the campaign plane, he was not about to agree with my premise: that our heritage and habit of argument is what makes us unique and keeps us free. However messy (even bloody) the process, argument is indispensible. “I’ll take a look at the book,” he promised.
More than three months later, on a clear night by the shores of Lake Michigan, Obama stood alone on a stage before a crowd of 200,000 adoring supporters. He had just won the presidential election. His victory speech was the exclamation point at the end of a long sermon to the country. On that day, he said, Americans had, with their votes, “sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of red states and blue states: we are, and always will be, the United States of America.”
Accepting the cheers, he urged Americans to sing politics in a new key. “Let us resist the temptation,” he said, “to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long.” As if to prove his point, he reached out to his foes: “And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices. I need your help, and I will be your president, too.”
Watching the “feed” of the speech on a TV monitor at NBC News in New York, I saw a man who seemed to believe in his words of hope and unity. But I also saw a somber, reflective character, whose writings and speeches — whose presidential campaign — bespoke a realistic sense of the American experience. I had listened to him enough, talked to him enough, and watched him on the trail enough to know he understood the challenges he faced.
The main challenge was that he would now have to argue — maybe even vehemently — for his vision of how he wants to change America.
And I know he understands the point. He knows too much about our history and our society not to. His own campaign reflected that understanding.
Who is a person?
Obama’s campaign was paradoxical. He called for an end to division in the midst of asking the American people to choose him over competing men and ideas. However much he called us to a higher purpose, Obama issued a scalpel-sharp critique of the Bush years — an era he derided as full of selfish, dissolute, feckless governance and wrong-headed military adventures.
In his major speeches, Obama took a civil, accommodating, even lofty tone. He always seemed to be speaking more in sorrow than in anger. His campaign machinery, meanwhile, fed the Republicans, President George W. Bush, and Sen. John McCain into the rhetorical wood chipper. Even his fellow Democrats, Obama said equably, had “outworn ideas and politics of the past”; we needed to “disagree without challenging each other’s character and patriotism.” Even so, at the same time, his surrogates portrayed McCain as old, out-of-touch, and unsteady. The presidential debates were useful exercises; the advertising campaigns (from both camps) were the usual toxic stew of outrageous distortions, accusations, misquotes, and caricature.
In one way or another, in one place or another, all 13 “American Arguments” surfaced in the campaign. The most fundamental one was, for the most part, unspoken, but no less profound. It was over race: our agonizing struggle over the question of who is a “person” in the eyes of our law and society.
For nearly four centuries, we argued over whether those “of color” in general, or African Americans in particular, were fully human. Our contradictory views were embodied in our seminal documents. The founders anchored their Declaration of Independence on the “self-evident” truth that “all men” (their term for persons) are created equal, endowed with certain inalienable rights. In the Constitution, of course, those same founders ignored the rights, even the very existence, of a whole category of mankind.
We have been arguing about the definition of personhood ever since. Without saying it in so many words, Obama revived the argument in a new form: do we believe in the idea of personhood enough to choose as president the son of an African goatherd? Ironically, but perhaps inevitably, Obama himself was forced to deal with the question of his race in defensive, negative terms: hadn’t he countenanced racism in his own black church? Rather than cry racism himself, rather than lashing out at his critics, Obama chose to distance himself from the ranting Rev. Jeremiah Wright by recounting our sad, centuries-long history of mistrust and misunderstanding, and vowing to help us surmount that past. It was a masterstroke of political maneuvering because it offered something more: understanding and hope.
On the night Obama declared victory, he had every right to exult — not on his own behalf, but on behalf of the country. “If there is anyone out there,” he declared, “who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”
From now on, the “personhood” debate, in one of its forms, is settled. No one can argue that one’s race is a bar to reaching the highest levels of American society. To be sure, there are other limits in the accidents of birth — poverty, lack of education, crime, poor health, and health care — but the mixed-race son of Kansas and Kenya settled that one.
It only took four centuries.
Economy trumps foreign policy
In America, it is possible to “make” history, or so we always have told ourselves. But history makes you, too. Obama launched his campaign by taking a strong stand on one side of the American Argument over foreign policy. As I see it, the issue is this: must we try to change the world in our image in order to survive in it and honor our moral destiny? Obama was a critic of the idea that we must — or at least that Iraq was the right place to try. His opposition to the war in Iraq made him a grassroots star in 2002, helped him get elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, and fired up his presidential campaign.
In the 2008 campaign, the contrast on Iraq could not have been more vivid. Obama wanted withdrawal of all American combat troops with deliberate haste; McCain wanted to keep them there, perhaps forever. As his presidency begins, Obama’s most obvious political challenge on foreign policy will be to hold true to his promise — sealed by his 365-vote Electoral College victory — to get out of Mesopotamia within 16 months of inauguration.
Another American Argument, however, soon eclipsed the one over the war. It was over the economy — American and global — which was headed into the worst, most dangerous weather since the Great Depression.
We have been debating the essential question since long before the founders met in Philadelphia in 1787: how much do we leave “free” enterprise to its own devices, and how much can or should government do to direct private, profit-making endeavor? The choice wasn’t between no government, or all government; we always have had more of a “mixed” economy than captains of industry would admit. We got our start as colonies in a mercantile system, after all; governmental “public works” had always been sold and seen as lubricants and multipliers of the marketplace. Fortunes were (and are) made on the rights and privileges government bestows for access to our national resources.
But now the question became more urgent: could government save us from ruin? Or would government inevitably mean suffocating bureaucracy, burdensome taxes, and a dulling of creativity? What were the limits of individualism and the market at a time of uncontrollable flows of (or freezes on) global capital and credit? It seemed clear that “deregulation” had gone too far, but “reregulation” could do more damage than good if done stupidly, without reference to the world as it is, or merely as the result of interest group pressures.
Even before assuming the presidency, Obama was being pressed for answers. Did government have a duty to save the Detroit-based Big Three automakers? Could it in fact “save” them, or would more cash merely be propping up a dead carcass? Perhaps it was the better part of wisdom — and a better lesson to the markets themselves — to let the companies fall into bankruptcy as a consequence of their failures of imagination and craft?
What to do about the banks was another pressing question — and fundamental American Argument. Should they be left to lend as they wish, even though they had made so many disastrous bets in recent years? Or did the “infusions” of federal cash into them mean that federal officials should now decide who gets a mortgage or car loan?
And what about his promise to raise taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year? Would he dare pursue that proposal in the midst of a recession? If he doesn’t pursue those new revenues, how will he pay for public works he says we need? And if we merely borrow more money from abroad or, failing that, print more money, do we risk undermining the dollar’s credibility?
Another new aspect to the age-old American Argument over the limits of individualism in the economy is: what if limits need to be imposed by an authority other than our government’s? What if the only way to smooth the tidal waves and sudden
freeze of global capital is to create truly global regulation? Surrendering some of our individual sovereignty is one thing — if it is, as Lincoln said, to a government “of, by, and for the people.” But what if there must be some kind of planetary sovereign in an age of global communication, travel, and business?
This is where two American Arguments merge: one over economics, the other over foreign policy. Bush’s my-way-or-the-highway thinking didn’t work, or certainly didn’t work as well as he hoped. But are Americans ready for the kind of internationalism that Obama has suggested we need, and that his own life embodies?
The country will be listening to his arguments.
A judicial temperament
The presidency is an educator’s job. Especially in the early days after 9/11, the country found strength and reassurance in the certitude of George W. Bush. There was evil in the world, and he named it. But he never understood that such a declaration was merely the beginning of the conversation — the argument — not the end of it.
Unsure of his own abilities in public debate; fiercely bound to his worldview and his decisions once he had made them, Bush was not given to, or capable of, serving as the Explainer in Chief.
Obama is. The first speech I heard him give in person was at Georgetown University in the fall of 2006. His topic was energy and the environment; he had absorbed a series of mind-numbing complexities and now was playing them back in words and ideas that the rapt student audience seemed eager to hear and absorb. There was, frankly, nothing that remarkable in the content. We needed market incentive to promote efficiency, while at the same time mandating higher mileage standards; we had to promote new technology — solar, wind, biomass, etc. It was “green” boilerplate.
But what mattered to the students was the sense of Obama himself: a reasonable man, smart enough to see all sides of all the arguments — and a decent and confident person. He seemed, to them, to be the kind of fellow who would not let ego warp his view of the wisest course to pursue. Obama has a judicious, even judicial quality about him, one that voters clearly found appealing after George Bush’s rigid judgments.
But that same judicial temperament means that, all along, Obama has been all-too aware of what would lie ahead as he prepared to move into the Oval Office. There will be two or more sides to every argument that forms the core of every policy proposal he has made, or will make. America and the world face an economic catastrophe that could cripple social progress on the planet for years, if not decades. Government, the president-elect vowed, will do “whatever it takes.”
But that, Obama knows, is the just beginning of the argument.
With Howard Fineman '70Where did you get your love of political writing?
My dad had been a history teacher and was always able to connect what was happening in the daily paper to the history that he’d lived and studied. My mother was an English teacher. My father’s idea of a treat was to pack us in the station wagon and drive to Washington, D.C., so I identified Washington with family, adventure, and learning. When I was 13, two books greatly influenced me: Advise and Consent, the popular novel about Washington life by a former reporter, and Teddy White’s The Making of the President, 1960, the first great insider account of a political campaign. And the events of the 1960s were so compelling, my natural interest was fired and sealed by the life we were all living.
How did your Colgate experience impact how you analyze and write about politics?
I learned about the power of words from philosophy professor Jerry Balmuth, who insisted on the close reading of texts, and the appreciation of the power of words to create meaning. The English department — people like Frederick Busch, Wilbur Albrecht, and Joe Slater — was way ahead of the curve in examining the relationship between literature and society. I was an English major, but I went on the London History Study Group with Ray Rockwood. When we wrote our papers at the library of the British Museum, he reminded us that we were there to look to primary sources and be meticulous. We got to meet and hear lectures by many of Britain’s great popular historians. He even got us into 10 Downing Street for a session with the prime minister’s press secretary. It was the fall of 1968, and just as America was being challenged by political division and the Vietnam War, amazing things were going on in England, too.
|Howard Fineman ’70 (center) on the set of Hardball with Chris Matthews, broadcasting live from Hofstra University before the final presidential debate in October 2008. Fineman is senior Washington correspondent and columnist for Newsweek, an analyst for NBC news and MSNBC, and a weekly contributor to MSNBC.com. (Photo by Lorenzo Ciniglio)|
Your first journalism experience was the Maroon?
I was a “scrub” from my very first week, and became editor-in-chief senior year. It was a time of turmoil on campus, and some conservatives who thought the Colgate Maroon was anti-war and anti-establishment had bankrolled a competing newspaper, the Colgate News. So one of the things I did was turn the paper from a weekly to a twice weekly, to emphasize news. It was a disaster because we didn’t have enough staff time, but it was worth a try.
Who have been your favorite people to interview?
Intellectually, Newt Gingrich was the most thought provoking. He’s brilliant and widely read; his interests ranged from dinosaurs to outer space. In terms of inspiration, I would have to say Barack Obama, if for no other reason than what he represents given the history that I have lived through.
What have been the most satisfying stories to cover?
It was a happy accident that I had gone to the South to begin my career, which had been the tradition in American journalism since World War II. When I got to Louisville, the busing story broke, and I covered the integration of the Jefferson County schools, an unbelievably riveting story that is now more relevant than it was 20 years ago. The irony was, when I went to Kentucky to cover civil rights, I also saw the beginning of the rise of the evangelical Christians. It’s so often in journalism you go someplace and find a story you weren’t looking for. But until now, that has been the most important story of my time as a reporter covering politics in America. Being in the Bible Belt was great preparation for me to cover people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Now the big story is the beginning of a truly multicultural America. It’s every bit as important, and to me, personally, more exciting.
Tell us about writing your book.
|The Thirteen American Arguments|
Who is a Person?
Who is an American?
The Role of Faith
What Can we Know and Say?
The Limits of Individualism
Who Judges the Law?
Debt and the Dollar
Local v. National Authority
The Terms of Trade
War and Diplomacy
A Fair, “More Perfect,” Union
(Paperback edition available March 2009)
I wanted to go back through my notebooks and take advantage of the reporting I’ve done both on the campaign trail and covering the White House, Capitol Hill, and the bureaucracy here, and to put some kind of shape to it. I wanted to look at the big picture, because that’s who I am — that’s the kind of stuff I do best, I think. The book couldn’t have happened without two Colgate people. I’ve learned a lot of history on the fly in 30 years as a reporter, but I have a lot more to learn. I hired four researchers, one of whom is a brilliant Colgate grad, Amy Dudley ’06, who was the head of the Student Government Association. My classmate James Allen Smith ’70, who is a specialist in American history, was indispensable, giving me overall guidance throughout the project.
Is it a coincidence that there are 13 arguments?
Every Colgate person I see says, “I know why there are 13!” Of course I had good feelings about the number, and I would like to say my Colgate background was a main factor, but it wasn’t, really. I got good advice from my friend, the historian Michael Beschloss, who said, “You don’t want so few that each is so generalized that it’s gauzy. But you don’t want 193. Find a balance between specificity and simplification.” I know this sounds crazy, but I wanted a prime number. I liked the idea of indivisibility. I was also influenced by the poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens.
What are you reading these days?
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, a biography of Samuel Johnson, and a book about the life of Cicero. Having written my first book has gotten me more interested in historical writing. But probably most important is my weekly copy of the Steelers Digest.