The code had helped restrain self-interest, support a responsible civic culture and maintain enough civility to enable government to function. Without it, Washington started to feel like “Lord of the Flies.”
Kerry’s portrait of a changing Congress is searing. The old barons had many problems, but at least they were occasionally interested in getting things done. As time and endless fund-raising demands thin the ranks of the old guard, they are replaced by ideologues and demagogues unworthy of their seats. Eventually the Senate becomes “more and more like the House: a daily shouting match, theater.”
The political debasement culminates in the 2004 presidential campaign, in which Kerry is defeated by a younger George Bush (also Yale and Bones), in part because of lies about Kerry’s military record. The shamelessness of the whole episode still stuns as well as infuriates him. “I couldn’t rationalize how good men could make things up about another veteran when they knew the truth.” For Kerry, this was “a matter of honor.” For his opponents — who had smeared John McCain in 2000 and the triple paraplegic Georgia senator Max Cleland in 2002 — it was business as usual.
During normal times, when policymaking operates within an accepted framework, such things may not matter much. Looking back on the 2004 primary campaign, Kerry writes: “Truth be told, I can’t remember the finest policy distinctions. … Basically, we were all reliable Democrats.” That includes his eventual running mate, John Edwards, one of many proofs that decline in character was not limited to one side of the aisle.
When the country’s future is in play, however, it turns out to matter a lot. Just as Tocqueville predicted, aristocrats like the Roosevelts and Stimsons managed to transfer their allegiance from class to country, successfully yoking their personal ambition to larger public causes. They protected the environment, reformed unbridled capitalism, expanded the franchise and developed the modern administrative state to fight poverty, inequality and injustice. Their children and grandchildren carried on the tradition during and after World War II, saving the world from the Axis powers, helping former allies and enemies to recover afterward and creating what came to be known as the liberal international order. It turns out that expanding one’s moral consciousness can become a habit.
Unfortunately, so can limiting it.
Kerry’s memoir appears at a time of crisis. The trends the book chronicles have intensified. All three branches of the government are now befouled and the rule of law itself may be threatened. The administration in power is walking away from the liberal international order its predecessors nurtured, dismantling the domestic state they built to help people and denying the very possibility of universal ideals. It’s as if we’re watching a film of the 20th century quickly rewinding. Now we’re back to Dink Stover’s era and the hot new ideology coming up is social Darwinism.