Everyone is noting the 40th anniversary, on July 20, of the moon landing. Good. It was an epic moment in history, though its memory is accompanied by an unsatisfied feeling, as if Columbus came to America and then no one followed. People will ask again why we’ve stopped visiting other places and have instead spent the past few decades watching the space shuttle orbit the Earth. There are many reasons for this (budgets, the end of the space race, an inability to understand the human imagination) but let me throw forward this one: The space program of the past 32 years unconsciously mirrored a change in American psychology. Once, we saw ourselves as a breakthrough people, a nation with a mission to push beyond ourselves. Now, in the age of soft narcissism, we just circle ourselves. Which is what the shuttle does: It is on an endless loop, going ‘round and ‘round and looking down at: us.
We should take our eyes off ourselves. We should go someplace again. It would remind us who we’ve been, which would remind us who we are.
Something about the steely-eyed rocket men of the Mercury and Apollo programs: They weren’t criers. Now, on TV every day as people remember some trauma or triumph, they stop as if on cue—they know this is expected of them—and weep. They think this shows sincerity and sensitivity. But they feel too much about their struggles. I sometimes watch with fascination those shows where people lose weight. They often begin to sob as they fall off the treadmill or remember the Twinkie they didn’t eat. This is now the national style. It makes Europeans laugh. When they’re about to be mawkish or overly emotional they say, “I don’t mean to get American on you.” The men who took the moon will be all over TV the next few days. I bet they don’t cry as they remember “Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.” How moving their dry eyes will be.
The Sotomayor hearings were unsatisfying and relatively unilluminating. She was moderate in tone and manner, said little, will be confirmed, and over the years, decision by decision, we will find out who she is and how she thinks. They’re all a mystery going in and then, paradoxically, cover themselves in a long black robe and reveal themselves. The Republicans questioning her never seemed to gain purchase, never quite succeeded in making the interesting (the Ricci case) interesting. Looking at things shallowly, and let’s, Sonia Sotomayor seemed weirdly overrehearsed, speaking v e r y s l o w l y, gesturing with her hands in a way that was no doubt supposed to look natural and warm, like grandma in the kitchen, but instead came across as artificial and mildly animatronic.
She took refuge (as did some of her questioners) in the impenetrable language of the law, and in what seemed (and this is becoming a regular strategy in politics) to be the deliberate jumbling of syntax, so people at home won’t be able to follow what is being said. To be clear and succinct is to look for trouble. Better to produce a mist and miasma of jumbly words, and sentences that do not hold. You’re talking, so you’ll seem alive—in fact people using the syntax dodge are often quite animated—but as to meaning, you can leave that to the TV producers, who’ll wrestle around trying to get something that makes sense and then settle for the Perry Mason soundbite. (Well, in truth the Perry Mason soundbite is pretty much what they want.)
I suspect the hearings added to a general sense of Washington’s surface comity and essential sketchiness.
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The new senator from Minnesota, Al Franken, signaled in his questioning that he will spend the next few years playing the part of the reasonable fellow who’s awed to be here, eager to learn and ready to work. He’s doing a Full Hillary. When Mrs. Clinton entered the Senate 8 years ago, there was about her the constant air of fisticuffs and scandal. But she did the absolute commonsense thing, keeping her head down and charming people with her hardworking, non-Diva-like attitude. This was not only a great move, which opened her to subsequent journalistic reassessments, it was also probably an actual relief for her. Removed from the daily grind of White House attack-and-defend, with a solid six-year sinecure, she was free for the first time to be what she likely wanted to be when she started out. She tapped into the part of her that really was a policy wonk who wanted to work on legislation, wanted to be liked, and wanted, even, to like. She tapped into her seriousness. We will see if Mr. Franken has any to tap into.
He will devote his time to appearing affable, speaking in a faux regular guy language—the Perry Mason question was his—curbing his crazy, and working well with the big fat lying liars on the other side. His job is to make Minnesota happy he’s there so he can stay longer.
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Mrs. Clinton is in a different position now. By this spring it must have become apparent to her that when the nice new president came and offered her the secretary of state job, and she said yes, she got rolled. What he got was clear: He took her off the chessboard. She wouldn’t be in the Senate being a counterforce, wouldn’t be planning her next move or become the rallying point of anti-Obama Democrats. She’d be on board, part of the team and invested in the administration’s success, for now its success would ensure her future. If their relationship didn’t work, nobody would think it was his fault.
What she would not have known was that she would be a public face of American diplomacy—not the face but a face—and not a decisive inside power. The portfolio for key areas—Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Mideast—was day by day given to others. She was sent off to do interviews on “Good Morning Manila.” In a foreign-affairs apparatus of clashing egos, she’d be just another ego. A Henry Kissinger or George Shultz would never have allowed this. She didn’t even go to the G-8 or the Russia meeting. President Obama, that canny fellow, only wants Obama in the room. It is true she broke her elbow, but they make it sound like a farming accident where her elbow was torn from her arm as she fed the thresher. Tina Brown wrote a witty column saying Mr. Obama should let Hillary out of her burqa.
But you know, one thing Mrs. Clinton’s learned is how to wait. Things turn on a dime, you wake up in the morning and there’s a new headline that changes everything. Sooner or later Mr. Obama is going to get in trouble, sooner or later the trouble will take hold and settle in, and sooner or later she will be the unsullied one who quietly did her duty in spite of the slights to which she’s been subjected. And when that happens, she will emerge—reluctantly, painfully—as the Democratic alternative. The one who almost won, who knew—who learned the hard way—that you can’t do everything all at once, that it’s the economy, stupid.
They will look like kids playing with history. Hillary isn’t a kid. She’s experienced, and has been roughed up by history. Watch. She’ll roll right back.