The utter pettiness of public life in our times


As a young man, Abraham Lincoln fretted that there was no opportunity for his generation to accomplish anything important; gone were the days in which the founders had risen to the great challenge of establishing the nation.

Here’s an early passage from Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which I finally finished reading a couple of nights ago:

… Lincoln had expressed his concern that his generation had been left a meager yield after the “field of glory” was harvested by the founding fathers. They were a “forest of giant oaks,” he said, who face the “task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land,” and to build “upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights.” Their destinies were inseparably linked” with the experiment of providing the world,” a practical demonstration” of “the capability of a people to govern themselves. It they succeeded, they were to be immortalized; their names were to be transferred to counties and cities, and rivers and mountains; and to be revered and sung, and toasted through all time.”

Because their experiment succeeded, Lincoln observed, thousands “won their deathless names in making it so.” What was left for the men of his generation to accomplish?…

Of course, Lincoln was profoundly mistaken:

In 1854, the wheel of history turned. A train of events that mobilized the antislavery North resulted in the formation of the Republican Party and ultimately provided Lincoln’s generation with a challenge equal to or surpassing that of the founding fathers.

Every day that he was in office, Lincoln and his administration wrestled mightily with questions of ultimate important and great moral weight. Until very late in the war, the great issues — whether the United States would continue to exist, and whether all its people would be free — were in great doubt.

Along the way, he dealt with a great deal of human pettiness — from the criminal uselessness of General McClellan to the scheming, naked ambition of Salmon Chase, from the everyday grubbing of officeseekers to personal disputes that threatened the government’s ability to function — but his focus, and that of most of those around him, was on the towering issues of the day.

And in spite of all, the challenges were met, masterfully. By Lincoln, whom I am more convinced than ever is the most remarkable and able individual ever to hold the office of president, but also by ordinary people who rose to do extraordinary things.

All the time I was reading that book, I kept thinking how unbelievably petty our public life is today. And I’m not just talking about the partisan bickering that I decry here so regularly. It’s the things that we squabble about that are so depressing.

The whole time I was reading that book — and I read it slowly, over a period of months, mostly at the dinner table, a few pages at a time — the great crisis of our time was the “fiscal cliff.” That precipice was created by our utter inability to deal with the most routine concerns, those of financing the government. And of course, we have a series of unresolved conflicts of the same nature that we must deal with this year, since the can has only been kicked, and kicked feebly, down the road.

In her column this weekend, Peggy Noonan wrote the following, in another of her passages finding fault with President Obama:

All the famous criticisms of him are true: He has no talent for or interest in sustained, good-faith negotiations, he has no real sense of alarm about the great issue of the day, America’s debt….

Really? That’s “the great issue of the day”? How mind-numbingly appalling.

And perhaps she’s right. Politicians in Washington, and all those who ape them in the hinterlands, certainly act as though that, and attendant issues, are the great matters of our day.

But here’s the thing: There are no great moral considerations involved here, people. Figuring out what it costs to run the government and how to levy the taxes to pay for it are matters that a middling accountant could work out in a day, and the issue would be behind us. How much to tax, how much to spend are indeed debatable issues. But they are not issues of right and wrong. They are unworthy of anyone’s passion.

No, I don’t long for us to be engaged in a mighty war to settle whether this nation, or any like it, will continue to exist. I don’t want to see more that 600,000 of my fellow citizen die in settling some momentous issue.I don’t lament, as Lancelot did in a time of peace in The Once and Future King, that “We don’t see many arrows thrilling in people’s hearts nowadays.”

I would just like to see us recognize that petty issues are petty issues, and resolve them, and move on. And no, I don’t consider trillions of dollars to be small considerations; I’m just saying that these issues are eminently solvable, with just a modicum of reasonable behavior on the part of all parties. I’m saying that the “drama” of “fiscal cliffs” and debt ceilings is entirely contrived, artificial and unnecessary.

Getting rid of slavery — now that was difficult. It was the great unresolved conflict that had dogged the nation since its founding. The issue could not be resolved without tearing the nation apart and putting it back together again. The solutions accepted as fact in 1865 were unthinkable in 1860. (Yes, they were “thinkable” in that abolitionists advocated them; but it was politically impossible to implement them until the height of the war.)

We shouldn’t need a national existential crisis to solve the problem of balancing the national checkbook. We should just be able to do it, and move on.

27 thoughts on “The utter pettiness of public life in our times

  1. bud

    Brad you are so smart in some ways but on this you are a complete idiot. And I mean that in a constructive way. It’s not “these issues are eminently solvable, with just a modicum of reasonable behavior on the part of all parties. ” It’s “these issurs are eminently solvable if the damn GOP would act with a modicum of reasonable behavior”. Until you get that then you will continue to flop around in this world view that all sides are equally to blame.

  2. Phillip

    Noonan is now reliably, hysterically funny. It took some effort to get around the WSJ paywall but I managed to find the column in full. There are a couple of funny things about it: one, is that she criticizes (correctly) the GOP for over-the-top criticisms of Obama re “Muslim, anti-colonialist, etc.” yet her own assessment of Obama as being someone out to “change America” or “destroy the GOP” are just as unhinged and exaggerated if less obviously deranged. And it’s that “destroy the GOP” thing that is the second funny bit from her column…the GOP is doing a good job of destroying itself as a party capable of winning national elections, thank you very much, thanks to its ever-increasing drift to the extreme right, alienating large groups of people along the way and being correctly understood as being anathema to the interests of the middle class.

    Simply trying to return to a tax bracket range that predates George W. Bush is seen as trying to “change America”! Noonan talks of redistribution, but of course somebody like Paul Ryan is the greatest redistribution-advocate in American politics today. Brad, in a sense you’re certainly correct that we’re not facing the existential crisis of a civil war today, and that today’s problems (certainly the fiscal ones) should be eminently solvable. But for some on the right, simply the mere fact that this President seeks to rein in the 30-plus-year-long erosion of the middle class and income redistribution to the top 1 or 2% and keep the American dream alive for the largest number of people possible, well that to them is unacceptable to the point of being an “existential crisis,” which is why Noonan and her ilk use the rhetoric they do, and why they are willing to see the government paralyzed and made essentially irrelevant to the functioning of the nation.

    He’s not Lincoln, but whatever his shortcomings, I’m as convinced as ever that we are very lucky as a nation to have as right a person for this time in our history as Obama in the Oval Office, this steady presence. Fortunately, most of the country agreed last November.

  3. bud

    Doug, a balanced budget amendment? Seriously. We already have a balanced budget law called Graham, Rudman, Hollings. How’s that working out. Besides actually trying to attain an annual balanced budget would be a disaster. That’s the type of thinking that has Britain on the verge of a triple-dip recession.

    1. Doug Ross

      Whatever is in place is obviously not working as the government spends far more than it takes in. We’re just now entering “paying the piper” mode.

      1. Nick

        What’s in place, Doug, is a faction of Congress that, on the one hand, refuses to consider increasing government income in any manner, and, on the other hand, preaches the benefits of the “free market” but refuses get government out of that market by cutting or eliminating direct subsidies and tax breaks for corporations. This faction is joined in the latter activity by the remaining Congressmen and Senators, none of whom wish to bite the hand that feeds them by cutting corporate giveaways and subsidies.

  4. Jean Smolen

    I wholeheartedly share your opinion of Lincoln and agree that most of what Washington politicos squabble over today is not worth the spit (Obamacare excepted). Thanks for expressing it so well.

  5. Mike

    I think you miss the Big Question that underlies the budget wars: the scope, if not the survival, of Federalism in the US. The major legislative initiatives of the last 15 years – health care, education, homeland security – have been about the federal government acquiring greater and greater power at the expense of the states or individuals. Homeland security is the only one where the federal government has unquestionably primary authority in the traditional Federalist worldview and even there, they have pushed into the states’ spheres of authority (SecureID, anyone?). The others are power grabs rooted in the government’s ability to tie strings to the money they spend. If the feds spend less money, they have less effective power.

    Now, I think you will argue that the petty brinksmanship we’ve seen over the last couple of years is a poor way of persuading your opponents to agree with you, and I would agree. But to say that there are no great questions being debated is wrong.

    I have to say that Noonan is sounding increasingly shrill and desperate in her recent columns. Not as bad as Rove, but getting close.

  6. Doug Ross

    We cannot fix the government’s economic problems without having some basic rules in place:

    1) Don’t spend more than you take in
    2) The complexity of the tax code encourages bad behavior and is a drag on the economy.
    3) Reduce the power of the Federal Reserve to play with the money supply. It creates booms and

  7. Doug Ross

    I’ve also been reading Team of Rivals and have come away with a different take than you did Brad. I’m only about halfway through but I see Lincoln in a different light. He appears to have made a number of strategic errors right out of the gate after being elected. First, he remained mostly silent about his approach to dealing with the secession of Southern states from the time of his election until the inauguration in March. After the inauguration, he was faced with an immediate decision as to whether to resupply Fort Sumter and risk igniting the powder keg or let it go and focus on a fort in Florida instead. He decided to go ahead and then the mission to resupply was bungled. He also seriously underestimated the anger of the secessionists.

    It has also been interesting to read Lincoln’s own words about black people in general. Some of his comments would have made George Wallace proud.

  8. Mark Stewart

    Doug, I am pretty sure the 150 or so years prior to its establishment proved the need for the Federal Reserve and its money supply powers.

    I finally got around to seeing Lincoln at a Saturday matinee. He did benefit, as a candidate and as a President, by having a real issue out there as a backdrop to help hold things in perspective. We don’t; as mightily as we cast about for one. Of course, everyone else did at the time, too, and yet could not find the resolve to hammer home a solution.

    i think we are, however, about to see the Republican party start to moderate. This experiment with reactionarism has run its course. Funny that the GOP was founded on radicalism. Such a long, long path it has followed across the arch of the right (vs the left).

  9. Brad Warthen Post author

    Doug, Lincoln wasn’t a god, come down to Earth with omniscience and unlimited power to straighten us out. He was a man, an extraordinary man, perfectly suited to leading us through the great crisis of our history, and resolving the conflict that had been beyond the abilities of the founders of the country.

    It is ridiculous to try to judge him by the social mores of the 21st century. He was a man who came up in the backwoods in the first half of the 19th century, a man of great mind and great heart who learned from every experience he had. And it is completely wrong to compare him to Wallace; there was no meanness in his spirit.

    He had to learn how hell-bent on war the South was (especially South Carolina). He had to learn about what black folks wanted, too. Many today condemn him, as did the abolitionists then, for wanting to repatriate freed slaves to a colony somewhere. He met early on with a group of black ministers whom he wanted to enlist in helping him sell that idea. He learned from them, and from subsequent experiences that that was most assuredly not what slaves or freedmen wanted.

    I don’t blame Lincoln at all for exploring that idea. Where was the precedent in history for two races, one of which had held the other in bondage for centuries, living together peacefully? How was he supposed to imagine that it would be possible? Many, many people who deeply opposed slavery thought some sort of separation after emancipation would be necessary in order for former slaves to have any kind of chance to make a life for themselves. But that reckoned without the consideration that black people considered this their home as much as white people did.

    There was a time when Lincoln wanted nothing to do with Frederick Douglass, if I recall correctly. Then, he came to know him, and to value the relationship — as did Douglass, who initially had deep doubts about Lincoln. They both had to learn about each other…

  10. bud

    Let’s take Doug’s points one at a time:

    1) Don’t spend more than you take in

    As an absolute for any given year that is completely unworkable and inefficient. We could not have fought WW II had we strictly adhered to that. Once we start making exceptions for emergencies then the whole thing falls apart. As a practical matter I suggest an alternative approach whereby our government adhere to a net balanced budget over time. Some years we run deficits, others surpluses. It depends on the state of the economy. Sadly we’ve failed to run surpluses most years when the economy was running strong.

    2) The complexity of the tax code encourages bad behavior and is a drag on the economy.

    That’s true but very difficult to change. We can’t even do small stuff like eliminating tax breaks for big oil companies or making all tax rates the same, regardless of the type of income. Why should capital gains be treated differently from wages? We really should get rid of mortgage interest deductions also.

    3) Reduce the power of the Federal Reserve to play with the money supply. It creates booms and

    Completely untrue. We had considerable booms and busts looooooong before we had a Federal Reserve. Not sure why anyone would believe that. Just check out the Andrew Jackson recession. That came about in large part because Jackson refused to allow the creation of a central bank. Since the creation of the Fed the booms and busts have actually been much milder. Here’s what Wiki has to say about the reasons for creating the Fed:

    “The Federal Reserve System (also known as the Federal Reserve, and informally as the Fed) is the central banking system of the United States. It was created on December 23, 1913, with the enactment of the Federal Reserve Act, largely in response to a series of financial panics, particularly a severe panic in 1907.”

    The great recession occured in spite of the Fed simply because the fiscal and monetary policies adopted during the Hoover administration were completely at odds with what is now known to be counter-productive. In effect the Fed policies made things worse because they were inappropriate. Had they been correct according to sound, economic doctraine the great depression would have likely been much tamer. Since the great depression it is beyond dispute that the Feds policies have helped make economic downturns much shorter and milder than before 1913.

    1. Nick

      You forgot to mention, Bud, that the primary source of monetary stability during all those booms and busts was the very thing the anti-Feds want to return to: the gold standard.

  11. Brad Warthen Post author

    Mark, yes and no on the Republican Party being founded in radicalism.

    Abolitionists and other radicals were a part of the coalition, but theirs was not the agenda that won the election of 1860. Lincoln was the moderate choice, and the moderate center of that new party was for preventing the expansion of slavery to new territories. Lincoln had no intention of touching it in the states where it existed; he believed the Constitution prevented that. Which it did, which is why the 13th Amendment would be necessary. But the political reality of 1860 didn’t allow for the possibility of anything like that amendment.

    The Republican Party was an interesting amalgam of wildly different political strains, from radical abolitionists at one end of the spectrum to reactionary nativists at the other. It’s interesting, and ironic, that nativism is one of the surviving elements in the party today (and still makes up just a part of the party, not all of it)…

  12. Brad Warthen Post author

    The thing about Lincoln isn’t that he was an idealist. He was, of course. But that would have meant nothing without his superb political skills, and his unerring sense of when the country was ready for a big step forward. He would still be out in front of the country, but not so far that he couldn’t get the people behind him.

    His sense of timing on the Emancipation Proclamation is an example. There was still hell to pay politically when he did it — there were a lot of Union soldiers whose reaction was that they had not signed on to risk their lives freeing black people — but on the whole the nation was just barely ready to be led in that direction. A moment earlier and he couldn’t have done it.

    The abolitionists were chock full of idealism, but very short on practicality. It took a Lincoln to free the slaves.

  13. Juan Caruso

    “We shouldn’t need a national existential crisis to solve the problem of balancing the national checkbook. We should just be able to do it, and move on.” – Brad W.

    Taxpayers of 2013 need more than simpleton pie charts for federal expenditures and revenues. Additionally, taxpayers should be allowed to vote yea or nay on annual funding of controversial nonprofits receiving federal funds.

    Balancing the budget, even Obama recently admitted, involves more than taxation alone which is hopelessly inadequate. What Obama has avoided (and any middling journalist could appreciate) is that fiscal accountability involves politically toxic limitations on endless entitlements for the lazy and inept. Tax their “benefits” as ordinary income, giving at least a few of them incentive to actually earn their keep.

    Incidentally, read this last Saturday: “Progressives have a new sanitized name for Socialists and Communists….Communitarian.”

  14. bud

    Brad, I will say that the issues and proposed solutions of the day are only petty if you believe they don’t have a very real impact on the safety, health and security of 320 million Americans, not to mention the spillover impact to the rest of the world. I would suggest that given the scale of the nations economy several million people could end up in a life of poverty or suffer a cruel, pre-mature death if the wrong course of action is taken. I would suggest that the term “petty” is inappropriate.

  15. Burl Burlingame

    Trying to ensure that basic health care doesn’t bankrupt the average citizen is a pretty big issue.

  16. bud

    Incidentally, read this last Saturday: “Progressives have a new sanitized name for Socialists and Communists….Communitarian.”

    Progressive, socialist and communitarian are vastly different things. No self-respecting progressive would be in favor of Blue Laws. Frankly I prefer the term liberal. Then again if you’re going to play the label game why not call a “conservative” a “plutocrat”.

  17. Steven Davis II

    Back in Lincoln’s day, people of his generation lived on average to the ripe old age of about 45 years old.

    1. Nick

      Life expectancy and age at death are two quite different things. In the middle of the 18th century, the average life expectancy was strongly influenced by very high mortality in infancy and early childhood. For example, the Lincolns had four children, of which only one lived past the age of 18, and he–Robert Todd Lincoln, the eldest–died only 6 days short of his 83rd birthday. The other three died at the ages of 4 (Eddie), 11 (Willie), and 18 (Tad). Thus, the Lincoln children had a life expectancy of 29, even though only one of them lived to see that age.

      In 1860, the average life expectancy at birth was in the low 40s. But a male child who had reached the age of 5 could expect to live into his mid-50s; if he reached the age of 20, he could reasonably expect to live to be 60. If he reached 40, the average age at death was 65. For women, of course, the numbers were slightly different: a 5-year-old girl could expect to live to her late 50s, a 20-year-old to past 60, and a 40-year-old to almost 70.

      Source: A very neat interactive graph at

  18. Steve Gordy

    Brad, you took issue with a recent post of mine in which I characterized Peggy Noonan as “wildly indignant.” If she were correct on the great issue of the day (she isn’t), why did she sit around in silence when her boss, RR, tripled the national debt in eight years. I think for most people, at least in terms of economics, is how to keep the middle class from continuing to slide backwards. Restore vigorous economic growth and the debt monster will be much easier to tame.

  19. Brad Warthen Post author

    I got some nice compliments on this post, and the Tweet promoting it got reTweeted several times, sometimes with laudatory comments. Howard Weaver, retired VP for McClatchy, called it “Wonderfully worth your while.” Which I appreciate.

    But you know, I felt last night after I posted it that it fell short of fully communicating what I meant. I was just so very DOWN on our politics today the whole time I read it. Going back and forth between the pages of the book and each days headlines just made the 21st century look awfully tawdry. It was an obvious thing to me, but not all that easy to put into words. That is, I know what I mean when I say “petty,” but I’m not sure it communicates fully what I’m thinking.

    I think the people who liked the post intuited what I meant. To those who didn’t, I apologize for not being as clear as I wanted to be.

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