Friday, December 19, 2008

"It's the age of the empty suit."

So said a friend at a party in response to the Bernard Madoff scandal, writes Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal.
That's the big thing at the heart of the great collapse, a strong sense of absence. Who was in charge? Who was in authority? The biggest swindle in all financial history if the figure of $50 billion is to be believed, and nobody knew about it, supposedly, but the swindler himself. The government didn't notice, just as it didn't notice the prevalence of bad debts that would bring down America's great investment banks.
Noonan goes on to say that nobody she knows was "truly shocked" by the Blagojevich scandal. She must travel in different circles than you or I. As I wrote just last week, his scheming "left observers short of breath--and of adjectives." The usually chatty talking heads on the television struggled to find words to match Blagojevich's bravura display of greed.
It's not that we're incapable of being shocked, but that one institutional failure has been quickly crowded out by the next. The financial system is failing? Here comes the auto industry. A callow governor puts a Senate seat up for sale? Here comes a Wall Street big shot whose avarice makes Blagojevich look small time.
But here's the clue that Peggy Noonan, who worked for and worships Ronald Reagan, is questioning her once solid world view:
The reigning ethos seems to be every man for himself.
Economic Darwinism once seemed a virtue under Reagan: the engine that brought us our prosperity. But morning in America was a long time ago, and Reagan's rugged individualism, which had degraded into the sullen entitlement of Bush, Cheney and their chums, has now collapsed so thoroughly that Noonan's party crowd is left shell shocked. The denizens of Noonan's cocktail party circuit are so demoralized that they have nothing left than to get behind the president-elect:
People are angry but don't have a plan, and they'll give the incoming president unprecedented latitude and sympathy, cheering him on. I told a friend it feels like a necessary patriotic act to be supportive of him, and she said, "Oh hell, it's a necessary selfish act—I want him to do well so I survive. We all do!"
So it is that the rugged individualists are rediscovering the notion of the common good. Noonan writes that Barack Obama is taking on a task like the one that FDR faced 76 years ago:
In January, in his inaugural, he may find himself addressing something bigger, and that is: Belief we can believe in. The return of confidence. The end of absence. The return of the suit inhabited by a person. The return of the person who will take responsibility, and lead.
The last election was not so much a loss for the Republicans, but an abdication. When the crisis hit, voters turned to the candidate who didn't seem to be floundering about for what to do next.

The turning point came when voters could see that John McCain had nothing to offer in response to the financial meltdown but dramatic gestures signifying nothing. Good riddance to the empty suits.


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