The Decline Of Civic Maturity

This commentary was written by's Dick Meyer.

In the traditional seasons of American civic life, January is the time new governments are planted. A president is inaugurated every four years, in January. A new Congress is sworn in every two years, in January. A president addresses the state of the union most every year, in January. It is the time when the victors and rulers, not the mere campaigners, tell their stories and give their accountings to citizens, not voters.

I was taken back 30 years, to the January of 1977, by Jimmy Carter's eulogy for the president he vanquished, Gerald Ford. Carter poetically ended his remarks with the plain words he used 30 years ago to begin his inaugural address: "For myself and for our nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land."

This was a great rhetorical touch, and it inspired me to dig up the rest of President Carter's inaugural address as well as some facts and figures about America in January 1977. What strikes me like a thunderbolt is that the world America faced in January 1977 was far more dangerous and volatile than our world in January 2007, yet the stories our victors and rulers will tell us are scarier and more dire.

Americans, empirically and materially, are better off than we were in the winter of 1977, but we don't feel that way. The wounds of Watergate that President Ford healed were far more severe, for example, than our recent ethics scandals, but the healing comes harder. Our political and civic skills are less mature, not more.

Consider: In 1977, an imminent nuclear war that could annihilate hundreds of millions of Soviets and Americans in a nanosecond was a simple fact of political life. The threat paralyzed some people, brought others to the streets in protests, drew pooh-poohs from others but was acknowledged by the whole political world. Compared to the threat of Islamist terrorism, 1970s nukes were a monstrous Goliath.

But the stories the victors told in January 1977 were mild compared to today's manipulative, fear-mongering tales.

Here's what Carter said about nuclear "MAD" — mutually assured destruction — in his inaugural address: "The world is still engaged in a massive armaments race designed to ensure continuing equivalent strength among potential adversaries. We pledge perseverance and wisdom in our efforts to limit the world's armaments to those necessary for each nation's own domestic safety. And we will move this year a step toward ultimate goal — the elimination of all nuclear weapons from this Earth. We urge all other people to join us, for success can mean life instead of death."

I can't help but compare that understated assessment to a day in August 2004 when President Bush came to the Rose Garden to announce he was creating a new National Intelligence Director. "We are a nation in danger," he declared.

In the 1970s, inflation rates of 9, 10 and 11 percent were the norm. Since 1995, annual inflation has never cracked 4.5 percent. Unemployment exceeded 5.5 percent in nine of 10 years in the 1970s; it has been that high just three times since 1995. Yet our pessimism and insecurity about the financial future is much greater.

In 1977, government agencies such as the CIA, FBI and IRS were digging out from being blatantly hijacked by a president, Richard Nixon, looking to save his scaly skin. Yet we believe today that the webs of government and influence peddling have never, ever been slimier. We're addicted to cosmetic reform and legislative Botox.

In 1977, memories of violent, out-of-control race riots and war demonstrations were two and three years old. Dinner tables were still fiercely fractured by the "generation gap," "women's lib" and the "sexual revolution." Yet in January 2007, we are absolutely convinced the country has never been so polarized. That's nonsense.

Simplistically, I wonder if it's just that 30 years ago, politicians thought the way to get ahead was to make the world and its news appear better than warranted, while now the path to success is to make it all seem much worse.

But in keeping with my diagnosis of our times, I think the explanations are gloomier. The seasons of American civic life are messed up by the global warming effect of the ceaseless campaign. This January, not only will a new Congress be sworn in, but people like Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Mitt Romney and John McCain will officially declare their campaigns for a presidential election that's still 20 months away.

In the 1970s these declarations came at the end of the year, not the beginning. This is melting the foundations of our system. The seasons of campaigning and governing are no longer separate. Victors are not rulers, but perpetual seekers looking for the best angle, pretending to govern. This discourages so many from ever considering public service. And we're dismissed as citizens, but lusted after as voters, and we tolerate that.

In January 1977, Carter plainly said he hoped his term would help "people to be proud of our government once again." After Nixon's egregious corruptions, this seemed like a simple, sensible aspiration. It proved hard to achieve.

The administration President Carter began that January had few successes and just one term. This January, 30 years later, a newly Democratic Congress wants to symbolize its agenda with "100 Hours" of governing — a blip, a sound bite, a gimmick. An incumbent Republican president faces his first Democratic Congress and, unbowed and not at all humbled, promises one more new strategy for a failed war — a blip, a sound bite, a gimmick, but deadly for hundreds of Americans.

In January 2007, pride in government, in those who govern and even in our wisdom as voters is kaput. It's nostalgia. But things change — and in America, they can change fast.

Dick Meyer is the editorial director of, based in Washington.

E-mail questions, comments, complaints, arguments and ideas to
Against the Grain. We will publish some of the interesting (and civil) ones, sometimes in edited form.