The times, at last they are a-changing

Posted: Nov 11, 2002 12:00 AM
Elections don't change the national character, but reflect it. The national character expressed itself in Election 2002 in a very different way from Election 2000. While there were lots of red and blue votes to go around, they were not so evenly divided as in the endless presidential election of two years ago. This time there was a theme and it was that the Clinton era is over. One of the most telling results was in Arkansas, where Tim Hutchinson, a popular Republican senator before he divorced his wife to marry an aide, was defeated by a decisive margin by Mark Pryor, a church-going family man. With a touch of family-values irony, Tim Hutchinson, a decent and honorable man who had nevertheless strayed over the line, was sacrificed to avenge Bill Clinton's cheating cavalier conduct. This was a throwback to an older morality in one of our most culturally conservative states, where respect had to be paid. Pollsters usually don't ask questions about cultural and moral issues, but beneath the radar in this election campaign there lurked conservative cultural themes that suggest an end to the loosie-goosie morality that excused Bill Clinton's tacky behavior. Gone were the debates over whether we should separate public and private morality. Mere lip service to the verities was no longer enough. The television images that turned Paul Wellstone's memorial service into an orgy of crass politics after Fritz Mondale was dragged out of the deep freeze exposed the cynical exploitation for what it was. New Jersey, Minnesota was not. Death be not proud. There was a recognition that we no longer live in a time for an "anything goes" ethos. Too much is at stake. We can no longer afford politics as post-modern entertainment; "What? Me worry" is an attitude we can no longer indulge. We may soon be at war on two fronts, fighting terrorists at home and trying to shield ourselves, our children and our country from a madman abroad with weapons of mass destruction. This president won the trust of Americans with an appeal to resolve in the face of deadly danger. He never said it would be easy, and he warned that the resolution would not be swift. He asked us to be prepared for the long haul. All that has created a change in the national character. War requires self-sacrifice to protect our children and their future. Self-indulgence must give way to self-reliance. (Even for celebrities: Winona Ryder had to face up to her guilt.) There's a dawning recognition of what our parents and grandparents knew well, that self-esteem is empty without discipline and hard work. Reserve Officer Training Programs are coming back to campuses where they have been anathema for 40 years. In the last two years, the Army ROTC, the largest of the service programs, has increased enrollment by 5 percent; Air Force enrollment is up 26 percent. "Rot-C" is becoming popular even at Berkeley, and Columbia University, which years ago banished military recruiters on campus, relented when administrators had to choose between keeping the campus "pure" or losing federal money. The less-than-courageous reason for change is less important than the fact that the times, they are a-changing. There are other signs that the national culture is reforming itself. Grade inflation has been discovered even in the Ivy League, and on several campuses they're trying to figure out what to do about it. About half the grades at Harvard, for example, were A's and A-minuses last year; 91 percent of seniors graduated with honors. Such an honor roll was nice for parents paying the bills, but the institutions have recognized that there's not much honor in it when synthetic honor undercuts standards for academic excellence. To stem the rising numbers of cheaters in higher education, many colleges and universities are reviving the honor system. While the effects of honor codes are sometimes hard to measure, studies since the 1960s indicate that such codes can create a "culture of honor" and students become morally offended by plagiarism, lab fraud, and copying from another's exam or paper. Statistics can't measure the changes in the national character since Sept. 11, but only an ostrich could ignore the signs that there has been a renewal of faith in God, country, community, family, friends, and consequently Americans are finding new faith in themselves. Change never comes overnight nor does it arrive in a straight line, but we can at last look forward to a generation that takes moral issues seriously as the root, leaf and flower of the political system. Or so we can hope, and hope is the child of faith.
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