The Bad Old Days

THE BAD OLD DAYS….This is just a trifle, but as long as I have my 1958 copy of Newsweek in front of me, here’s another interesting blurb:

HOT SPRINGS, VA. ? Expecting a good-size drop in the number of jobless, Administration officials are trying to speed up preparation of the October unemployment report. The idea, of course, is to announce it before Election Day next month. Normally, the figures wouldn’t be ready until after Nov. 4. Commerce Secretary Sinclair Weeks says a decline of 600,000, to 3.5 million jobless, is a good possibility.

What a bland, workmanlike announcement! If there were even a hint that the White House was finagling a release date like this today, it would be treated like a minor scandal. Back in 1958, it was treated as a routine and unsurprising piece of political maneuvering.

In a similar vein, it was delightful to learn (from An Unfinished Life) how candid JFK was in trying to get his 1963 economic plan passed on purely political grounds. He wanted to avoid a recession that would hurt Democratic chances in the 1964 election, and apparently felt no particular need to hide this. Today even a backbench congressman from Paducah would be too savvy to fess up to something like that.

I sort of miss this. Sure, it’s a good thing that government bureaucrats are more insulated from political pressure than they used to be, but at the same time modern political discourse often seems to have become almost an arid, scholastic parody of itself, with politicians inventing ever more sophisticated evasions to pretend that political motivations are beneath them. In a weird inversion, the rest of us talk about political process obsessively while politicians themselves pretend it doesn’t exist.

In a similar way, the strength of political discourse has become increasingly flavorless and insipid as well. Sixty years ago a vice presidential candidate could give a tub thumping speech that inspired the headline “Nazis Prefer GOP” and hardly anyone noticed. Today, Howard Dean and Karl Rove trade a few barbs about each other’s party and you’d think we were all going to expire from the heartlessness of it all.

I’m not pining away for the good old days or anything. Still, it’s hard not to feel a little nostalgic for a period when politicians didn’t spend all their time pretending they weren’t politicians. If nothing else, it was a little more colorful.

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