Sunday, June 10, 2012

Ages of Anxiety

George H. W. Bush turns 88 this week with a family clambake in Kennebunkport, an HBO special and, despite Parkinson ravages, plans to skydive again at 90.

His biographer calls him “a lion...he embodies the story of postwar American power.” A contemporary can only wish him well while marveling at what has happened to America and its people during our lifetimes since World War II.   

Back then, the poet W. H. Auden won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for a long, largely unread poem titled “The Age of Anxiety,” whose title became shorthand for the universal angst of living with dread of atomic annihilation. Children ducking under school desks were a 1950s metaphor for the condition. The sale of tranquilizers became a market marker.

Whether personal or social, the fear of instant mass obliteration—-by Cold War bombing or terrorist attack—-has been a new condition of human life on the planet, its acceptance or denial shaping generations from Baby Boomers on.

Bush 41 is now seen as someone who “suppressed his ego for that long march through all those jobs to get the chance to be president. From the oil business to the White House...(t)here was always a tension in him between the impetus for public service and the impulse to do what it took to win.”

In the light of today’s politics, the man who always had trouble with “the vision thing,” can nonetheless be seen, particularly in the light of what his son gave Americans a decade later, as a traditional American pragmatist in a nostalgic glow.

Yet, in the light of today’s petty bickering about an uncertain future, it seems fair to ask how much 41 contributed to American anxiety now by naming to the Supreme Court the self-described victim of “a high-tech lynching” whose vote gave 43 the Oval Office in 2000 and who will surely vote to overturn 44’s health care law this month.

As the prospect of a possible 45 looms, there is no shortage of anxiety, new and old.

Update: The son who won't succeed him (yet) gives 41 an early birthday present by speaking out against the party that has deserted his father's life work as Jeb denounces today's GOP:

"Ronald Reagan would have, based on his record of finding accommodation, finding some degree of common ground, as would my dad — they would have a hard time if you define the Republican party — and I don’t — as having an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for disagreement, doesn’t allow for finding some common ground...

"Back to my dad’s time and Ronald Reagan’s time – they got a lot of stuff done with a lot of bipartisan support."

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