To drive through the suburbs of Northern Virginia is to marvel still at the widespread wealth, the mansions and mini-mansions that did not exist a quarter-century ago and that now thicken the woods and hills. It used to be sleepy here; it used to be horse farms. I remember looking at one of the new houses 22 years ago. As I explored the heavy, sprawling concrete basement, the agent said, “We think this would take a 40-megaton bomb.” She meant it as a serious selling point. We were near Langley.
The other night, the big houses were strung with glittering white Christmas lights—not all different colors, as we do in other suburbs, but stately white—and from the Georgetown Pike, heading toward Great Falls, we saw a house with a big glass-walled living room that faced the street, and below it a glass-walled entrance room, and each had its own brightly decorated tree. “Two Christmas trees,” murmured a companion, and it captured the air of prosperity and solid well-being of the area.
It reminded me: Government is our most reliable current and future growth industry, and the near suburbs of the capital are where those who run it, work it, lobby it, feed off it and finagle it live. “You have to go farther out to see the foreclosure signs,” said a friend.
At a sparkling Christmas gathering of mostly Republicans, there was warmth, laughter and a mild sense of confusion: “Are we still important?” A handsome former senator, trimmed down and looking younger than he did in office, held forth in the entryway, near a sunny U.S. ambassador who was home for a few days. The ambassador joked that while the country to which she’s assigned has long been peaceful, she still has a few weeks to go back and cause mayhem.
At such a gathering a month ago, there would have been some angry mutterings at John McCain, but not now. He’s come quietly back to the Senate, where one of his colleagues told him of an amazing thing. The colleague had been touring the young democracies of Eastern Europe during the American election, and he found it wasn’t so much Barack Obama that immediately knocked out observers but Mr. McCain’s concession speech. This is the first American transfer of power they’d seen in eight years, and they couldn’t get over the peacefulness and grace with which Mr. McCain accepted the people’s verdict. “It really impressed them,” the colleague told Mr. McCain, and later me. It gave them a template, a guide to how the older democracies do it. When he told me of this, I remembered the observation of a journalist who had covered Russia. The Russian newspapers had generally played down Mr. Obama’s victory, she said, because it got in the way of the establishment line: that the corrupt American democracy is composed of two warring family machines that have the system wired and controlled with the help of their corporate oligarch cronies. It’s not a real democracy but a pretend democracy, and a hypocritical one. This helps the Russians rationalize and excuse their infirm hold on democratic ways and manners. And then the black man from Chicago with no longtime machine or money is elected . . .
So the Russian press muted its coverage. Mr. Obama’s victory upset their story line. They have to think up a new one now. They will.
Back to the Christmas gathering. There was no grousing about John McCain, and considerable grousing about the Bush administration, but it was almost always followed by one sentence, and this is more or less what it was: “But he kept us safe.” In the seven years since 9/11, there were no further attacks on American soil. This is an argument that’s been around for a while but is newly re-emerging as the final argument for Mr. Bush: the one big thing he had to do after 9/11, the single thing he absolutely had to do, was keep it from happening again. And so far he has. It is unknown, and perhaps can’t be known, whether this was fully due to the government’s efforts, or the luck of the draw, or a combination of luck and effort. And it not only can’t be fully known by the public, it can hardly be fully known by the players at all levels of government. They can’t know, for instance, of a potential terrorist cell that didn’t come together because of their efforts.
But the meme will likely linger. There’s a rough justice with the American people. If a president presides over prosperity, whether he had anything to do with it or not, he gets the credit. If he has a recession, he gets the blame. The same with war, and terrorist attacks. We have not been attacked since 9/11. Someone—someones—did something right.
But here is a jittery reality: We are living through the time of two presidents. Or, if you choose to see it that way, the time of no president, with one on his way in but not arrived, and the other on his way out and without full authority. Histories will be written about this moment, and about the administration’s work with the president-elect’s office. But it is jittery because criminals calculate, they look for opportunities and vulnerabilities. This is a delicate time, with a transition of power, a profound economic crisis, and a nation feeling demoralized around the edges.
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We received a reminder of the gravity of the situation this week, with the bipartisan congressional report saying the odds are high the world will see a biological or nuclear terror attack in the next five years. It said, “America’s margin of safety is shrinking, not growing,” and “the risk that radical Islamists—al Qaeda or Taliban—may gain access to nuclear material is real.”
Commission co-chairman Bob Graham, a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and an adviser to Mr. Obama’s transition team, was sober in a Q&A with Newsweek. He said he was most surprised at the risk of biological weapons because of “the ubiquitous nature of pathogens”—anthrax, or a resurrected infectious agent such as the one that produced the 1918 influenza epidemic, which has been re-created in the laboratory.
The report hasn’t received the attention it deserves, nor have its recommendations. Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat, accused the commission of playing the “fear card” and trying to imitate the Bush administration in alarmism and bellicosity. Mr. Graham, a Florida Democrat and former senator, would have none of it. “Our adversaries are gaining greater capabilities,” he said.
Why does Congress prepare such reports? To inform, and to win support for new plans. To show they are doing something. And to be able to say, in the event of calamity—forgive my cynicism—that they warned us. This hasn’t been the first such report. It won’t be the last. But it comes at a key moment for Mr. Obama, because it gives him a certain amount of cover to be serious about what needs to be done. What’s at stake for him is two words. When Republicans say, in coming years, “At least Bush kept us safe,” Democrats will not want tacked onto the end of that sentence, “unlike Obama.”
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By the way, he should both reorder the Department of Homeland Security, that hopeless bureaucracy, and change its name. Homeland is a Nazi-ish word, not an American concept at all. And at this point “Homeland Security” is associated more with pointless harassment than safety. No one knows who came up with it. Probably some guy with two Christmas trees in Northern Virginia.