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A True Capacity For Governance’
Despite his feeling that “we are beginning to lose the memory of what a restrained and civil society can be like,” the senior senator from New York—a lifelong student of history—remains an optimist about our system of government and our extraordinary resilience as a people
October/November 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 6
I said it was possible to see a little way ahead in the fog. Not much, but enough not to go aground on every shoal that lies in wait. I’ll give you an example of someone we know well, and for whom we both have a great fondness—and that is David Stockman, who has just written his book The Triumph of Politics , about what he calls the failure of the Reagan Revolution. Stockman describes how, as a very young man, filled with ideological zeal, he got hold of the fiscal policy of the United States government and set about to trigger a great crisis by creating a huge federal deficit that would then force us to dismantle this terrible welfare state that had emerged in the United States. He got halfway through his revolution—encouraging the deficit—but the second half didn’t work. Congress, the President, and the cabinet didn’t dismantle the welfare state as Stockman said they were supposed to.
There wasn’t that much to dismantle?
Well, there is a lot to dismantle—but it’s there because we want it. And so the next thing you know, we doubled the national debt and suddenly found ourselves a world debtor nation. Stockman now says this was the most irresponsible behavior by government in this century. And I say that a little more understanding of history would have made him a little more cautious about one thing: concealing his purpose, which he did, and secondly, for assuming there were an awful lot of arrangements in a democracy that the people in the democracy actually don’t want and would welcome an opportunity to unload. History teaches otherwise. By the time he realized this, it was too late.
Do you think that most people in government have a good sense of history?
We are not a people with a very strong sense of history. Oscar Wilde said that America’s youth was its oldest tradition. And it continues that way. I remember in 1959 when the New York State Democratic party was in a parlous condition. We were out of office in City Hall in New York City and in the governor’s mansion in Albany and in the White House—so far as I know, the first time ever in all three. Now how far back does the Democratic party go? I wondered. And I started looking at the books a little bit and found myself saying that you could argue that the Democratic party goes back to the 179Os, when Jefferson came up north and went on a botany expedition along the Hudson with Aaron Burr. At the very least it goes back to the 183Os when Van Buren set up a formal organized party. That makes us the oldest political party in the history of the world. But Americans don’t think that way. If you were to ask Democrats or Republicans, “Where are the party records from ten years ago?” nobody would know.
What do we lose or gain by not having a keener sense of our history?
Well, there is a certain freshness of experience and a willingness to experiment in American life that goes with having been “born yesterday.” And we have not inherited many great hatreds of the kind that tear apart other places in the world. I was in Ireland about four years ago, when your brother was having his spring term at Trinity College in Dublin. 1 went up to Belfast and, in a Protestant slum there, I saw painted on a red-brick wall, in black letters, a great slogan: “Remember 1689!” It was the date of the Siege of Londonderry. Some half-educated slum dweller with a long memory. We don’t have that. Good.
On the other hand, at noontime today I walked down toward the Capitol and went over to my rooms in the Russell Office Building, just to clean up the desk. I got down there and 1 was thinking about something very worrisome to me, which is that we have decided to put a fence around the Capitol. The idea of terrorism has us a little terrorized. On weekends such as this we block the roadways into the Capitol grounds with garbage trucks. About three years ago I was driving down East Capitol early in the morning and 1 learned that during the night a bomb had gone off in the Capitol. I thought, Let’s stop and look! I went in and 1 saw that indeed a bomb had been set off in the anteroom of the Senate Chamber, opposite the Republican cloakroom. If it had gone off when we were sitting in late session, which we had been during the previous weeks, perhaps ten Republican senators would have been killed, and a lot of aides. As I left, I went out and went down the stairs, and a group of journalists across the way asked me to describe the damage, which they had not seen, as the building was still closed by the police while it was being searched. In talking to them I said, “You can bomb the building but you cannot bomb the Democracy.”
So what does the fence around the Capitol signify, or symbolize?
I worry about the idea that we’re going to let the terrorist movements frighten us to the point where we retreat. And I think of the Spartans, who never built a wall around their city. Their men were their wall. When you start building walls, you keep people out but you also keep yourself in. If we build a fence, if we build a cage, we’ll be the ones inside it. And the fact is that the openness of the Capitol is part of the openness of our political system. The point is that we ought to know our strengths.