after all the forward-looking fanfare of campaign ’96 you may recall hearing a little bit about a certain “bridge to the 21st century” political rhetoric since the election has taken a sharp turn backward. Suddenly, a quaint catchphrase from the earliest days of the Cold War has become the hottest buzzword in town. That term is “the Vital Center,” and it has so far served the purposes of politicians and pundits admirably. Clinton, heading into a second term, hopes to sound grown-up and responsible, and the term has that desperately longed-for ring of maturity. Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich has expressed a newfound love of “common ground,” and even Al D’Amato plans to call off the Whitewater dogs.
Perhaps the nadir in this lubricious embrace of the Vital Center came when freshman Republican Rep. JoAnn Emerson of Missouri announced to Elizabeth Farnsworth of the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer that what had fatally damaged the 104th Congress was an excess of “polarism.” Farnsworth didn’t pause to query whether there had been some dramatic new influx of congresspeople from the far North, perhaps causing the earth itself to lurch off its axis.
But then the press in general has been less than vigilant in its own reckoning with the Vital Center. Pundits, after all, want to sound as sober and responsible as the politicians they cover. Thus the pundit power couple of Cokie Roberts and Steve Roberts the king and queen of speaker-fee journalism happily chirp that the “search for the ‘Vital Center’ is exactly where the fulcrum of American politics rests today,” as they put it in a piece for the New York Daily News. New York Times reporter Gail Collins, writing about D’Amato’s renunciation of the Whitewater inquisition, concluded that the good senator had “plunked smack in the middle of the trendy new vital center.”
Not surprisingly, pundits of the right, still smarting from Clinton’s wholesale appropriation of their agenda, have been quickest to back off the brackish rhetoric: William Safire harumphed that the notion represents little more than “conservatism with a bit lip.”
The press’s dilatory treatment of the term represents more than just sloppiness: it reflects full-blown historical amnesia. The Vital Center, unlike most of the other overworked metaphors of the campaign season, is a phrase with a specific meaning. To be precise, it is the name of a 1949 tract by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. a sort of founding document of the damn-the-torpedoes school of self-regarding pragmatism otherwise known as Cold War liberalism. (It’s fitting testimony to the overall tenor of punditry today that moonbeam millionairess Ariana Huffington is the only columnist I’ve seen who’s actually bothered to quote from the book.) What Schlesinger hailed as the Vital Center was, unlike its watery ’90s update, an emphatically ideological vision of politics based on a rough, though troubled, consensus on the need for domestic social reform and international interventionism.
But, more than this, the Vital Center represented a psychological sensibility. It was the “fighting faith of freedom,” vigorously prosecuted by a new generation of liberal “doers,” who boldly grabbed history by both lapels and disowned the feeble progressive “wailers” of the left a motley assortment of Communists, fellow travelers, and “sentimentalists.”
The stout-hearted partisans of the Vital Center had gazed long into the abyss of Communist and Fascist totalitarianism and had emerged from the ordeal with a new faith in can-do pragmatism. They knew the enemy, and it was not them. Americans needed to lay aside their childish things and assert a mature authority over the rest of the world even if this meant loyalty oaths at home and chin-jutting interventionism abroad.
In light of our current chief executive’s predilections of the flesh, certain passages make for unintentionally comic reading today. Schlesinger celebrated the “new virility” the Vital Centrists brought into public life particularly in the State Department, where young bucks were pushing aside a pusillanimous collection of “effete and conventional men who adored countesses, pushed cookies and wore handkerchiefs in their sleeves.” Meanwhile, poor leftists suffered from a “somewhat feminine fascination with the rude and muscular power of the proletariat,” seeking relief from psychic pain through the “emotional orgasm of passing resolutions against Franco, monopoly and sin.” Within the dark heart of the Soviet bloc, he found even worse psychosexual horrors. Totalitarianism, Schlesinger wrote, “perverts politics into something secret, sweaty and furtive, like nothing so much, in the phrase of one wise observer of modern Russia, as homosexuality in a boy’s school: many practicing it, but all those caught to be caned by the headmaster.”
Democracy, by contrast, called for a “large resolute breed of men capable of the climactic effort,” and these fulsome characters, of course, required nothing less than the whole world as their theater of desire. The rough-and-ready Cold War liberal had to take Europe, Asia and Africa manfully by the hand and instruct their masses in the hard lessons of self-government.
History, of course, has not been terribly kind to Vital Center liberalism. The hubris of this worldview led directly to the tangled and delusional policies of American intervention in Vietnam all hatched, of course, by strapping, virile Kennedy liberals like Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy, under the approving gaze of Kennedy adviser and court historian … Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. The system of governmental loyalty oaths Schlesinger defended were but a stepping-stone to the less carefully calibrated witch-hunts of Joe McCarthy. And what reforms took place in those years came less at the behest of sober Cold War liberals than through the efforts of those “sentimentalists” and fellow-travelers Schlesinger so despised.
All this, you might think, could supply ripe materials for commentators today. Clinton’s own brand of post-liberal vitalism, after all, has had more than its share of ironic outcomes, like lavish subsidies to corporate leviathans, the malignant neglect of America’s cities and, of course, the dismantling of the welfare state. Instead, the press heralds the rhetoric of the Vital Center as “new” and “trendy,” a strategic “fulcrum” of American politics.
Still, the sudden, uncritical vogue of the Vital Center does demonstrate one useful truth: The press’s grasp of history is about as sure as Henry Ford’s. And our president hasn’t done much better. Indeed, shortly after the election he delivered up a characteristically hubristic Schlesingerian prophecy of his own: “I’m very mindful of history’s difficulties, and I’m going to try to beat them. I think we’ll be able to avoid those pitfalls.” That, as “The Vital Center” should teach us, is what they always say.