Saturday, August 2, 2008


The use of capitals in my title reflects an direct appropriation of the title of the English translation of the memoirs of Simone Signoret, Nostalgie n'est plus ce qu'elle était. It was provoked by the title of Andrew Keen's post today for his Great Seduction blog, "Trumanostalgia." The basic point of this post was to call attention to a few recent incidents of Truman worship coming from the right wing and to balance them with Keen's own left-wing perspective. The first of those incidents was a recent David Brooks column in The New York Times:

Where have you gone Harry Truman, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Or, at least, the right eye of the nation -- that internationalist conservative eye which occasionally peers out, rather nervously, from the op-ed pages of the New York Times. In today's Times, resident right eyed nostalgist David Brooks, confessing to "Truman-envy", waxes nostalgically about an American dominated post WW2 world in which guys like George C. Marshall, Dean Acheson, W. Averell Harriman and, of course, Harry Truman ran the global show.

Keen responded to Brooks' nostalgia as follows:

So what would Brooks see if he opened his left eye? He'd get to see an international system in which all participants -- and not just the US -- have the power to shape events. Brooks' "de-centered world" is really just a place in which Americans aren't running the show. After all, in Harry Truman's world, all it took is a few well-placed Kansan interests to bring a vast global process tumbling down.

This was enough to start me clearing my throat (even if Keen had no way of hearing me). However, in fairness I should first cite his second example:

Meanwhile,the right eyed Edward Luttwak, writing in this month's Prospect magazine, is also nostalgic for Truman. Unlike Brooks, however, Luttwak finds a contemporary Truman and his name is George W. Bush. In "A Truman For His Times", Luttwak argues that Bush 's foreign policy, like Truman's, is massively unpopular and yet will, in retrospect, be seen as successful. For Truman's Korea war, Luttwak suggests, read Bush's Iraq war. For Truman's confrontation of global communism, read Bush's pushing back of the global Jihadist threat.

If Luttwak opened both eyes he would, of course, see an American loathed in the world and still mired in failed wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. However, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king and I can't help thinking that both Brooks and Luttwak make more sense of America's role in the world than the myopic, self-satisfied pacificism of most American leftists.

The purpose of Keen's exercise was to provide a reflection on the prospects (pun intended) for the future occupant of the Oval Office:

And what about in November -- will we get Harry Truman as an early Christmas present? Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to me that neither McCain nor Obama much resemble Truman. One gets us an underbaked JFK, the other delivers a schlerotic Teddy Roosevelt. So a rerun of the Truman Show looks unlikely. History, I'm afraid, will have to wait to repeat itself.

This makes for a clever enough writing exercise; but a closer reading of the text reveals a variety of points far beyond the scope of what Keen, Brooks, or Luttwak could (or, for that matter, actually did) say. Yes, many of us look at current conditions and feel a sense of loss; and, indeed, much of what Keen writes ultimately seems to be about such loss, which, perhaps, he regards as the ultimate consequence of that "great seduction" of technology. The roots of nostalgia lie in recognizing such loss and longing for the time before "it" (whatever "it" may be) was lost; and this is where Keen misses his mark. The real target of our nostalgia (which Keen actually touched on in a recent analysis of the impact of the Internet of journalism) should be for those twentieth-century writers (both left and right) who could keep knee-jerk ideology from interfering with both clarity of analysis and accessible literary style. Thus, I, for one, devote very little of my time to Keen's precious New York Times (my own particular time being spent almost entirely on the arts pages) and his equally precious Prospect, it is because of the impoverished level of both ideas and writing I find in each of those sources. To make my case, let me invoke the words of a failed Presidential candidate, "Let's look at the record."

For all of his foibles, Truman understood a few key principles that rarely appear in the foreground of today's political discourse. Most importantly, he took his Oath of Office literally, particularly that part about preserving and protecting the Constitution. If you examine his career in the Oval Office, you will see that this guided much of his actions and interactions in both domestic and global matters. He also attached great value to the advisers he enlisted (as at the bottom of Keen's opening paragraph); but he took responsibility for his own actions (as in where the buck stops). If Eisenhower had chosen better advisers, we would probably wax as nostalgic for him as for Truman.

Regarding our current prospects, the thing about Theodore Roosevelt is how mixed his bag was. Yes, he played a very active role in the Spanish-American War (which, as I recall, The Nation dubbed "year one of the empire"). On the other hand he was an equally ardent enemy of the legacy of the Gilded Age (one of the better models of our current conditions). Thus, we need to remember him as an energetic reformer on the domestic front, even if he was "that damned cowboy" in foreign affairs. Can anyone say with a straight face that they anticipate McCain reforming anything?

As to Obama, it is too easy to forget that JFK did not have that all much "baking" when he entered the Oval Office. It is even less clear how much JFK acquired from being "baked." Consider the efforts of Jawaharlal Nehru to inform JFK, the young congressman, on what was really going on with the French presence in Vietnam. LBJ was stuck holding the Vietnam bag; but, had JFK paid more attention to those, like Nehru, who emphasized proceeding with caution rather than playing with dominoes, he could have dispensed with that bag (and might have done so, had he not been assassinated). (I would even go so far as to suggest that RFK's decision to oppose JFK had a lot to do with the fact that he had accompanied his older brother on the fact-finding mission at which that meeting with Nehru took place. Unless I am mistaken, Arthur Schlesinger made a similar suggestion in his RFK biography.)

In the long view of history, Obama's approximation to JFK may be better than Keen has suggested. JFK understood the necessary dialectical opposition of elevated goals (which inspire the electorate) and base political machinery (which gets things done). During his brief time in office, it looks like he was on the road to finding the right synthesis of these opposing interests; but we shall never know if he would have ultimately caved into the machine side. Our hope for Obama is that his actions will be informed by the need for such synthesis, which is far more than we can even dream of for McCain!

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