The State Of The Union

By James Bennet

Immense Numbers of Visitors

Oration by Hon. Edward Everett—

Speeches of President Lincoln, Mr. Seward and Governor Seymour

So read the headline in The New York Times after the Gettysburg Address, lumping Lincoln’s speech with two others given the day before his. Other reactions to the president’s remarks divided along predictable partisan lines, and even his own personal secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay, in their eventual biography of the president, devoted more attention to Everett’s address than to Lincoln’s. With the words still hanging in the air, it’s a lot more straightforward to note the crowd size than to guess the possible consequences, and it’s a lot easier to score political points than to judge whether the world might long remember what was said there, and who said it better. If you had to write a headline, you’d surely go with the guy who spoke for two hours (Everett), over the one who spoke for maybe three minutes.

The judgments of history may seem inevitable once we’re reared upon them, but they are slow to harden. Surely there’s no more simultaneously hubristic and plaintive claim for any contemporary act than that it is “historic,” though politicians, and journalists, rely on that adjective like, well, a bad simile. A habit of our time is to see not too little history but far too much of it—in the hour’s shouted headline about the gob-smacking hiccup in the stock market, the threatening frivolity of the White House social office, the truly terrible explosion in Pakistan. And yet in these times—during the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression, after the election of the first black president, with America fighting two seemingly endless wars, with new global powers on the rise—you don’t have to be a hysteric, or a Twitter addict, to suspect that history is hard at work. Whether from Johnson, Roosevelt, or Lincoln, our leaders are struggling to extract the right lessons, even as they try to shape history themselves.

We set out, in our eighth annual State of the Union issue, to fit our time into the longer national story, searching for parallels with the past and a clearer picture of the challenges ahead. Given the strain on the international institutions that the United States built after World War II, David M. Kennedy sees a need, and an opening, for Barack Obama to reunite traditional American realism and idealism in foreign policy. In our politicized news media, Paul Starr glimpses, along with considerable dangers, a chance for greater participation in a reenergized “fighting public sphere.” That same political truculence reminds David Frum of the “strangely empty fury” of the 1880s, which ultimately midwifed an effective government-reform movement. And the year-end chorus of criticism that Obama had betrayed his promise of transformation puts David Greenberg in mind of a pattern that stretches at least as far back as Lincoln, and that suggests that any judgments about the arc of this young administration are woefully premature.

All of these pieces lend context to James Fallows’s pursuit of the question that has preoccupied him since he moved home from China last year: Is America going to hell? It is this fear of American decline, I think, that leads so many of us to suspect we have now reached one of history’s hinges. As Fallows notes in our cover story, even though “declinism” has been a hallmark of American political culture since the Massachusetts Bay Colony, we should not be lulled into assuming that this time the declinists are wrong. From dozens of interviews, Fallows concludes that most of the sources of America’s resilience remain strong, save one—its politics. Fallows, long an optimist about the potential of government, now sees a system of governance that “increasingly looks like a joke.” If we do not want to choose decline, this is a problem we have no option but to struggle against.

In his masterful history Lincoln at Gettysburg, Garry Wills marshals many reasons to explain why we remember Lincoln’s few words, not Everett’s many. Among them is that Lincoln was not obsessed with the past. It was Everett who invoked Pericles, but Lincoln who equaled him. “Classicism of Everett’s sort looks backward; but the classic artifact sets standards for the future,” Wills writes. “Pericles rejected the notion that his predecessors had done more than his own generation. It was the challenge of the moment that both Pericles and Lincoln addressed.”

Let’s hope that Barack Obama is capable of delivering a similar summons, and that our polarized polity, and our ironized culture, can still rise to it.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/01/the-state-of-the-union/307834/