Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Era of the Wise Men, now dead, began today

On May 8, 1945, General Wilhelm Keitel signed the German surrender in Berlin, ending World War II in Europe.

This signature not only ended the war, but ushered in a period of American leadership globally, and an era of bi-partisan consensus politics on these shores, particularly in foreign affairs.

When historians get enough distance and perspective on this time, they will see that it was a relatively short period in the longer sweep of American politics, and in the grand scope of things, it was an aberration.

Nevertheless, the three decades following the end of World War II should be called the Era of the Wise Men, when decisions of grave import on matters of war and peace and matters of health and welfare were deputized to a series of unelected men coming from both parties. The era was exemplified by people like John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, James Forrestal, William Donovan, George Kennan, Dean Acheson. It culminated in the Kennedy administration with its Best and the Brightest, Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara.

After Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 and with the onset of Vietnam, the Era of the Wise Men crumbled under its own weight, and perhaps because of its own hubris. Nixon, cynic that he was, exploited the innate American distrust of elites. Jimmy Carter with his folksy Georgia wisdom and Christian conservatism also downplayed traditional power centers and the people they produced. Reagan too managed to plot a road to the White House independent of them.

Nevertheless, the shadow of this time lingers long. Most people of leadership age today grew up during the waning years of the Wise Men, and of course they apply its lessons incorrectly to current challenges. Today’s political discussion fails to acknowledge that this brief period of post-war consensus is finally fully dead and gone. At the same time, there could be no better example of its death and the arrival of a next era in our politics than presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump. 

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