December 1, 2008
The Hysterical Style
Politicians now predict the implosion of the U.S. auto industry. Headlines warn that the entire banking system is on the verge of utter collapse. The all-day/all-night cable news shows and op-ed columnists talk of another Dark Age on the horizon, as each day another corporation lines up for its me-too bailout.
News magazines depict President-elect Obama as the new Franklin Delano Roosevelt, facing a crisis akin to the Great Depression. Columnists for The New York Times even dreamed that George Bush might just resign now to allow the savior Obama a two-month head start on his presidency.
We are witnessing a new hysterical style, in which the Baby Boomer “me generation” that now runs America jettisons knowledge of the past and daily proclaims that each new development requires both a radical solution and another bogeyman to blame for being mean or unfair to them.
We haven’t seen such frenzy since the Y2K sham, when we were warned to stock up on flashlights and bottled water as our nation’s computers would simply shut down on Jan. 1, 2000 — and with them the country itself.
Get a grip. Much of our current panic is psychological, and hyped by instantaneous electronic communications and second-by-second 24-hour news blasts. There has not been a nationwide plague that felled our workers. No earthquake has destroyed American infrastructure. The material United States before the September 2008 financial panic is largely the same as the one after. Once we tighten our belts and pay off the debts run up by Wall Street speculators and millions of borrowers who walked away from what they owed others — and we can do this in a $13 trillion annual economy — sanity will return.
Gas, now below $2 a gallon, is still falling, saving Americans hundreds of billions of dollars. As housing prices settle, millions of young Americans will buy homes that just recently were said to be out of reach of a new generation.
If it was once considered a sign of economic robustness that homes doubled in value in just a few years, why is it seen as a disaster that they now sell on the way down for what they did recently on the way up? If we were recently terrified that gas would reach $5 a gallon, why do we now just shrug that it might fall to $1.50?
Unemployment is still below 7 percent; it was around 25 percent when Franklin Roosevelt became president. Less than 20 banks have failed, not the 4,000 that went under in the first part of 1933.
We all wish Barack Obama to succeed as president. But there is no more reason to panic and circumvent the Constitution for his early assumption of office than there was for Bill Clinton to prematurely step aside in November 2000 in favor of then President-elect George Bush.
We have now forgotten that by year-end 2000, the American economy was sliding into recession. Lame-duck President Clinton had been impeached. Vice President Al Gore had ostracized him from his presidential election campaign. In the presidential transition, Clinton was considering pardons for Puerto Rican terrorists and most-wanted fugitive Mark Rich.
George Bush is neither the source of all our ills nor the “worst” president in our history. He will leave office with about the same dismal approval rating as the once-despised Harry Truman. By 1953, the country loathed the departing Truman as much as they were ecstatic about newly elected national hero Dwight Eisenhower — who had previously never been elected to anything.
As for Bush’s legacy, it will be left to future historians to weigh his responsibility for keeping us safe from another 9/11-like attack for seven years, the now increasingly likely victory in Iraq, AIDS relief abroad, new expansions for Medicare and federal support for schools versus the mishandling of Hurricane Katrina, the error-plagued 2004-7 occupation of Iraq, and out-of-control federal spending. As in the case of the once-unpopular Ulysses S. Grant, Calvin Coolidge and Harry Truman, Bush’s supposedly “worst” presidency could one day not look so bad in comparison with the various administrations that followed.
But these days even that modest assessment that things aren’t that bad — or all that different from the past — may well elicit a hysterical reaction from an increasingly hysterical generation.
©2008 Tribune Media Services