On Wednesday through Friday of last week, I attended The Atlantic's First Draft of History event at the Newseum. Here are some of the notes I jotted down during the sessions. The First Draft of History is a forum sponsored jointly by The Atlantic and The Aspen Institute (David Bradley and Walter Isaacson, respectively).
The kick-off event was Wednesday evening at the home of Katherine and David Bradley: a dinner for about 200 most of whom are Washington insiders. The dinner was followed by a panel discussion led by David Brooks of the New York Times. The panelists were George Will, a columnist, Walter Isaacson, President of the Aspen Institute, and David Kennedy, a historian from Stanford University.
Question: What is the most significant historical event of the past year?
George Will: A fundamental realignment of the power of the state. The power of the state retreated under the Reagan and Thatcher governments. That trend continued until last year. It has dramatically reversed.
Walter Isaacson: The economic crises that did not happen. We thought we were on the brink of a Great Depression. We avoided it, thanks in large measure to state intervention.
David Kennedy: We could have been but are not in a Great Depression, thanks to lessons learned (he wrote a book on the Depression). Andrew Mellon's advice to Hoover was to liquidate all assets in order to purge the system of bad practices. The result was a profound and prolonged depression. Massive government intervention, using the tools and knowledge fashioned in the 1930s, seems to have helped us avoid what we feared was a depression.
I think the most important trend in the last year is the disappearance of news organizations. With a strong, independent press, how with 9/ll we have an informed citizenry.
(The discussion that followed this comment focused on the increasing fragmentation of the public into self-selected isolated groups of like kindred people and voters. The fragmented press now serves smaller but more homogeneous groups. People want to learn the news from people they trust who share their political beliefs. Fragmentation of the press and reporting with a point of view has generally been true in the past and is re-emerging. The 50 years post World War II that saw news reporting dominated by three major networks and tightly edited newspapers and magazines is rapidly ending.
Question: Is Obama trying to do too much at once?
Isaacson: Yes. The only consolation is that not much is getting done.
Kennedy: Too much emphasis is placed on FDR's first 100 days. True, 15 bills were introduced and passed, but only two of those--The Glass-Steigel Act, which amongst other things created the FDIC (Federal Insurance for bank deposits), and the Tennessee Valley Authority--endured. The most significant legislation, the creation of Social Security for the elderly and the unemployed, came later in the administration.
Follow up question. Did FDR have a clear idea of his social agenda when he entered office?
Kennedy: At the 1930 Governors Convention, he laid out a three point reform agenda: Federal Unemployment Insurance; Federal Old Age Pensions; and Federally Supported Healthcare.
Before Francis Perkins accepted a cabinet job, she demanded to know whether or not FDR planned to keep his campaign pledges. FDR said yes. Ultimately, federally supported healthcare was dropped from the agenda.
Question: Is there a growing lack of trust for government?
Isaacson: Yes. In the 1950s only 15 to 17 percent of people polled distrusted the government. Now 60 to 70 percent of people polled don't have faith in government to do the right thing.
Kennedy: It isn't only government that people don't trust. There is a general distrust of authority and all social institutions including the church, large corporations, the financial system, Congress, the military, even the boy scouts.
Will: The government is not only forcing a redistribution of capital, it is moving toward telling us where to live and how to think. Government needs dependencies. Capitalism is a system of profit and loss. Here I emphasize the loss because companies like GM should go broke. Were there riots when Studebaker went bankrupt?
Question: Is Obama more liberal than you thought?
Will: Definitely. He believes government can and should control our lives.
Issacson: Yes. I thought the political climate would change and that bipartisanship would soften under Obama. The opposite has been true.
Question: What should we do about Iran?
Issacson: there will never be a solution. The best we can hope for is resolution. I believe tough sanctions can work.
Question: Are Americans willing to sacrifice for war as they did in World War II?
Kennedy: Probably not. In World War II, the U.S. commanded an army of 16 million people. Today we have an all volunteer army that is proportionately 4 percent that size. We do not suffer the pain of war directly. Perhaps pain-free wars are moral hazards; it is just too easy to enter and fight wars.
Questions from the floor:
How great is the public distrust of Congress?
Is right wing control of much of the print and radio broadcast media detrimental to policy and politics?
At the Newseum
Walter Isaacson shares a few words:
Washington used to be a city of ideas, but today these ideas are obscured by partisanship. But the Atlantic and the Aspen Ideas Festival do celebrate ideas. The Newseum is dedicated to the First Amendment.
David Gregory interviews John McCain
McCain. It is not a pleasure to be here! (His first words).
Question: Has the country become more difficult to govern in the last ten years?
Answer: Yes. More partisanship makes it more difficult to govern. He attributes it to the media and instant news. Partisanship makes it hard to govern. "When Social Security was going broke Reagan and Tip O'Neill negotiated a deal. We couldn't do it now."
Q: Is there a vast right wing conspiracy that wants Obama to fail?
A: We don't want Obama to fail. The left wing also mounts vicious attacks.
Q: Is it just the media or have people become convinced that the President is illegitimate?
A: I am not concerned. They tried to nail me on being born in the Panama Canal. We can't reach consensus without compromise. No one wants to compromise now.
Q: If you were President would be talking health care?
A: Yes. It is a problem we need to address. We don't have a President's plan. They over- learned the lesson from the Clinton effort: letting Congress take care of the legislation is a mistake. Not a singe Republican will back the bill that will most likely be presented.
Q: What would you support?
A: I wouldn't support public option but I would support malpractice reform. I would do it piecemeal. Something is going on in America. People come to town meetings, people initiate tea parties. There is incredible dissatisfaction. That has not helped Republicans or Congress or the President. People are concerned about the debt and deficit.
Q: What is the dissatisfaction about? Is big government returning?
A: Government has an important role to pay in times of financial crises
Americans see us running up a debt. They see us owning GM and Chrysler. They see government moving into the private sector
Q: What would you have done differently?