In With the New

And so we enter the first days of the first year of the new era. Much to be happy about. We’re here, to begin with. Still alive. We often forget that little gift. A new administration is about to begin, which will bring a certain freshness to the proceedings in Washington. At this point all is bright promise. The dreadful blunders will come later, and be pounced upon by merciless and grateful critics, or at least that’s my plan.

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But everything changed in 2008. A new economic era, begun by a terrible and still barely fathomable crash, is here, and many of us sense deep down that things will never be the same, that the past quarter-century’s fabulous abundance—it was the richest time in the history of man—is over. Novelists of our time will, one hopes, attempt to catch what just passed and is passing, try to capture what it was and keep it for history, as F. Scott Fitzgerald caught the Roaring Twenties, as Thackeray did England’s 19th century in “Vanity Fair,” as Tom Wolfe did the beginning of the age of abundance, in “Bonfire of the Vanities.”

New YearI offer in a spirit of encouragement a free image, or observation. At a certain point in the ’00s, I began to notice, on the east side of Manhattan, that the 3-week-old infants, out for the first time in their sleek black Mercedes-like strollers, were amazingly, almost alarmingly, perfect. Perfect round heads, huge perfect eyes, none of the dents, bruises and imperfections that are normal and that tend to accompany birth. I would ask friends: Why are babies perfect now, how did that happen? The answers were the usual: a healthy, well-fed populace, etc. Then a friend said: “These are the children of the scheduled C-sections of the affluent. They are scooped out, perfect.” They were little superbabies whose handsome, investment banking, asset-bundling, financial-instrument-creating parents commanded even Nature.

But the death of Lehman Brothers was “the day Wall Street died,” as the Journal put it this week, and the day the great abundance did, essentially, too. That is a very big thing to happen in a single year. The proper attitude with which to approach the new reality? Consider it “a nudge from God,” a priest said this week. Consider him to be telling us what’s important and what’s not, what you need and what you don’t, what—who—can be relied on, and can’t.

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We will always have politics. (We will always have awkward segues.) In fact in the future we’ll have more of it, because we’ll have more government. And so a quick look at a story that might be called Inevitability Gets Dinged, Part Two.

The difficulty of Caroline Kennedy’s hopes for appointment to the U.S. Senate is that she was in, or put herself in, a position demanding of more finesse and sophistication than most political veterans have. To succeed as a candidate for appointment, she needed the talents of an extremely gifted natural, which she’s not. She is an intelligent woman who has comported herself with dignity through a quarter-century of private life in Manhattan. She would never steal your money, indulge in dark political dealing, or growl, like Blago, into a tapped line, “I’ve got this blankin’ thing and it’s golden,” though let’s face it, it’s a little sad we’ll never hear that.

But life is complicated. If you’re going to run as the princess of a dynasty, you have to act and be like a princess—something different, rarefied, heightened. Her problem in part has been that she spent a quarter-century trying to blend in and not call attention to herself. She made herself convincingly average—not distinguished. She has her parents’ dignity but not their dash. She radiates a certain clueless class.

Hillary Clinton understood that New York demands glamour. She had less natural clay to work with, and yet she got in the stylists and makeup artists and through her enormous self-discipline transformed herself into a chic, well-groomed, bustling little engine that could. Caroline, as everyone up here calls her, doesn’t seem to have given a thought to presentation. She doesn’t seem to have given a thought to intellectual connection, to why exactly the people of New York should want the governor of New York, himself an accident, to appoint her U.S. senator from New York.

That seems less likely now, and there is another reason. Time passes. To many of my generation, the Kennedys meant a great deal, an old connection to a hero of our childhoods. But those were childhoods long ago. JFK went to Dallas 45 years ago last November. It is as if Jenna Bush, having married and brought up children, decided, in the year 2053, to run for office in a Republican state saying, “Vote for me, I’m a Bush.” The reaction, one assumes, would be: So what? Because time passes. There is no sign that the young of New York are engaged by the Kennedy candidacy.

A final point. People who’ve seen politics up close when young tend to be embarrassed to be in politics. This is because they have seen too much of the show-biz aspects, the balloons and smiles and rallies. They are rarely (and this is odd) tutored in the meaning behind the artifice: that the artifice exists for a purpose, and the purpose is to advance a candidate who will advance a constructive philosophy. And so they find the idea of coming up with a philosophy sort of show-offy, off point and insincere.
This is one reason modern political dynasties tend to have a deleterious effect on our politics. When you get new people in the process who think politics is about meaning, they tend to bring the meaning with them. On the other hand, those who’ve learned that politics is about small and shallow things, and the romance of dynasties, bring that with them. (They also bring old retainers, sycophants and ingrained money lines, none of which help the common weal.) Those who are just born into it and just want to continue it, bring a certain ambivalence. And signal it. They’re always slouching toward victory. It’s not terrible, but it doesn’t do any great good, either.

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I end with the new administration, and Barack Obama. For me, the quote of the year was from a Democratic political strategist, a black woman, off air on election night. She walked up to an anchorwoman who is white, and said, “I’m trying to figure out what so moves me and I realize it’s this: You meant it.” The anchor shook her head. “You all said you would vote for a black man,” said the strategist. “You all said you’d judge him on his merits, race wouldn’t stop you. I didn’t know until tonight that you meant it.”

When I heard it, I emailed the strategist, who told me that for a year America’s open-mindedness toward a woman or a black had shown up consistently in the polls. And yet, “It’s still hard to believe it. I grew up believing all things are possible through Jesus. Well, this tops the world of possibilities.”

The thing about America is it is always ahead of the clichés, always one step ahead of an assumed limit. It has been, for all our woes, a good year for ground breaking. And so: onward.