Carping away

Posted: Sep 04, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- There are contemporary news stories that some in public life apparently do not want to recognize. America is at war. We have already lost more of our countrymen at home than on the battlefield. I would imagine that in the average American's mind, Islamofascism and terrorism loom more menacingly than memories of the Soviet Union once did. Most Americans recognize that in this war we have no alternative but to fight. Yet seven of the fabled nine dwarves now seeking the Democratic presidential nomination are taking acerbic issue with the president.

Said Sen. John Pierre Kerry, the other day in his most intemperate declamation: "Overseas, George Bush has led and misled us on a course at odds with 200 years of our history," and he went on to complain that "he has squandered the goodwill of the world after Sept. 11, and he has lost the respect and the influence that we need to make our country safe." It is an unedifying spectacle, this parade of presidential candidates exploiting the normal anxieties that exist in time of war to discredit the president. Has the republic ever witnessed the like of it? As a matter of fact, we have.

Living as we do half a century from the anxious days of World War II, we forget that even in the height of battle, President Franklin Roosevelt suffered his fill of nags and faultfinders. There is, however, a difference between today's nags and those besetting FDR. His were mostly members of the America First Committee and other conspiratorially minded extremists. President Bush's are members of a mainstream political party seeking that party's nomination. In fact, of all the Democrats seeking the nomination, only Sen. Joe Lieberman and Rep. Richard Gephardt are in the great tradition of Democratic internationalists defending American security.

It is a fact. The carpers campaigning for the Democratic nomination, by stridently disparaging the president's conduct of a war made inescapable by the attacks of Sept. 11, have their historical antecedents only in the carpers who disparaged FDR. There is, however, a difference between the two groups of carpers. The America Firsters existed on the fringes of 1940s politics. They were reactionaries. The Democratic candidates do not see themselves as operating from the fringes. The question is, are they, too, reactionaries. I think they are, and it will take Lieberman and Democrats like him a long time to rebuild their party.

After hearing Sen. John Pierre's offensive diatribe, I took a break from the bitterness of today's unbearably small politicians and picked up Peter Robinson's "How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life," a vivid account of the speechwriter's years in the Reagan White House. Robinson's recollections of the old cowboy remind us of how a great leader led in grim times. When Reagan became president, the economy was in dreadful condition -- worse by far than Sen. John Pierre's hallucinations of today's reviving economy. A military colossus faced us that could do more than hurt us -- which is the Islamofascists' only hope. The Soviet Union could destroy us.

Reagan reversed the course of history in both departments, economics and geopolitical. Robinson in sprightly anecdotes depicts Reagan as "the chief executive so utterly relaxed and at peace that far from conveying any sense of the burdens of his office, he always made your own burdens feel lighter." Robinson frequently reminds us of the old cowboy's great lines and of his personal charm.

There are in Robinson's book, also, scenes of Reagan's unscotchable resolve. A favorite of mine occurs during the height of Reagan's struggle to cut taxes. He meets with his distinguished Economic Policy Advisory Board. It includes economists of international distinction such as Milton Friedman, Arthur Laffer and the venerable Arthur Burns. Burns, then Reagan's ambassador to West Germany, is part of a cabal in and out of the government prevailing on Reagan to reverse himself on tax cuts.

During this meeting, he asks the president to cut a deal with the anti-tax-cut pols. Robinson quotes Reagan as responding: "You know, Arthur, I can't tell you how much I enjoy these Advisory Board meetings. But you know I made a promise when I ran for office that I wouldn't raise taxes, and I intend to do all I can do to keep it. So every minute you spend in these meetings talking about a tax increase is a minute I don't get the pleasure of discussing something I might actually do."

Then the most genial American president since Ike leaned over the table and said, to his formidable confrere: "Never mention a tax increase in my presence again. Is that clear?"

Presidents are often faced with carpers even inside the White House, but the great presidents prevail. In time, Sen. John Pierre will find that out.