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Neoliberals in the wilderness.

Walter Shapiro, an editor of The Washington Monthly from 1977 to 1976, is now a senior writer for Time.

About the same time Charlie Peters was boldly launching this magazine in early 1969, an obscure 29-year-old conservative political analyst was putting the final touches on a book that would chart with eerie precision the rough political waters that lay ahead. The author was Kevin Phillips and the prophetic book was, of course, the Emerging Republican Majority. Its cover depicted Richard Nixon's 1968 triumph with the kind of color-coded map that has since become all too familiar to election night TV viewers: an uninterrupted blotch of Republican red stretching from Virginia to California. For as Phillips foretold in his opening sentence, Nixon's ascendancy "bespoke the end of the New Deal Democratic hegemony and the beginning of a new era in American politics."

How obvious it all seems now, but how obtuse we were then. Unveiling a liberal political magazine in 1969, inspired by the failures of Lyndon Johnson, turned out to be akin to starting a Republican journal in 1933 designed to be a corrective to Herbert Hoover. Laudable in theory, but a tad irrelevant during the next fiveterms of FDR and Harry Truman. Of course, when I joined the Monthly after the debacle of the 1972 election, at a time when every Volvo still defiantly brandished a McGovern sticker, there still was an unmistakable sense that the Nixon era was merely a painful period of penance before liberal Democrats would regain their rightful place in the White House. The Democrats were America's natural governing party; the Republicans were just the cynical beneficiaries of the nation's anguish over Vietnam, civil rights, and the countercultural revolt.

All through the Nixon years, the Monthly maintained a certain disdainful distance, as if the Republicans' handiwork was too ephemeral to be taken seriously. The magazine was never designed as a nonpartisan journal of public administration; we regarded ourselves as a kind of teaching tool for right-thinking Democrats. The cautionary lessons about the culture of bureaucracy and the need for independent program analysis presupposed an administration that shared the Monthly's liberal goals. Each article was a potential object lesson for the next Democratic president. Each restatement of the magazine's Gospel was a sermon to remind the faithful of the follies that had destroyed LBJ and the Great Society. Even the sharp ad hominem attacks on liberal hypocrisy were largely a heuristic device; the unstated goal was always to instruct the Democrats to shape up so they could govern better.

After 20 years of struggle and sacrifice, after 20 years of near-miraculous survival, all the magazine has to show for its political ambitions is the false spring of Jimmy Carter. I served in the Carter administration both as press secretary to Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall and as a White House speechwriter. About the time I left the Monthly's scruffy quarters for a wood-paneled office with a wall of windows overlooking the Capitol and the East Wing of The National Gallery, I remember friends saying, "I'd like to serve in government someday, but I think I'll wait for a more congenial Democrat." They are, I assume, still patiently waiting,

Even now I regard those years, and the policy failures that accompanied them, with a set of conflicting emotions. How long ago it all seems-and how young we were then. Just writing these words rekindles the heady self-importance of being close to the Levers of power, working just two offices away from the place where other people made epic decisions. Many of the Monthly's lectures on the evils of bureaucracy proved all too true; if anything, the magazine had badly understated the case. But in those days there was the beguiling sense that our time in office was virtually limitless and opportunities, even if squandered, would inevitably come round again. For me, maturity has brought with it the acknowledgement of my minor complicity in the folly that often surrounded me. But in the early days of Ronald Reagan, no one seemed much interested in my belated recognition that government is far too important to again be entrusted to a Carter-era children's crusade.

Doomed to irrelevance?

It has now been a decade since I abandoned any form of partisan involvement and embarked on a career in mainstream journalism. My ties to the Monthly are now those of affection, gratitude, and nostalgia, but they are enough to compel me to try to temper some of the mood of self-congratulation that inevitably accompanies an anniversary issue such as this. Through an accident of timing, the magazine has been doomed to spend most of its adolescence and all of its adult years on the wrong side of history, By 1992, when George Bush is running for reelection after four years of protecting the Pledge of Allegiance from all enemies domestic and foreign, the Democrats will have spent 20 of the preceding 24 years fantasizing about being invited to an Inaugural Ball. For the Monthly that will have meant two decades of publishing a political magazine while the White House was in the hands of men for whom neoliberalism is as alien an ideology as Free Masonry.

Each political cycle invariably raises the hope that this time around the Democrats will nominate a candidate animated by the magazine's causes and crusades. Bruce Babbitt was the repository of these laudable dreams in 1988 and perhaps he or someone else more telegenic will bravely venture forth under the same banners in 1992. But my own pessimistic sense is that in political terms the neoliberalism that the Monthly holds dear may already be a lost cause. Certainly, it should be gratifying to the magazine when the august New York Times entitles a lead editorial, "Target Social Security on the Needy." Alas, in a Republican era, politically unorthodox but worthy ideas no longer follow the traditional transmission belt from a small magazine to The New York Times to a bright White House aide to the president. Michael Dukakis was never a Washington Monthly pinup hero, but the magazine's policy agenda may be permanently tarred by the abject failure of his end-to-ideology blandness. After the third landslide defeat in this decade, the Democrats may be permanently wary of nominating another candidate who purports to redefine liberalism into a more persuasive package.

With all the humility that should accompany any three-years-in-advance political forecast, my own guess is that in 1992 the Democrats are apt to lurch either sharply to the left (Jesse Jackson) or the right (Lloyd Bentsen or a younger Southern Tory). Either way, I fear that the Monthly's hard-wrought Gospel will be left on the cutting-room floor While Jackson is the kind of transforming political leader who may someday succeed by the sheer audacity of his dreams, he is also the least likely figure in either party to lie awake nights wrestling with the knotty dilemmas of bureaucratic accountability. Were a Bentsen to be nominated, he would take the Monthly's policy advice very seriously. That is, so long as it was ratified by a blue-ribbon panel of experts chaired by Robert Strauss.

None of this dour prophesy should suggest that the Monthly is doomed to irrelevance. Rather, the magazine should take the lead in grappling with a problem that we all in our individual ways should have confronted long ago: how to live fulfilling, public-spirited lives in uncongenial times. Looking back over the past 20 years, the magazine's enduring worth does not stem from its determined, grab-them-by-the-collar insistence on telling its readers how Washington really works-or, more precisely, how it should work. Far more important than the governmental agenda that the Monthly has loudly championed has been its often iconoclastic obsession with values and attitudes ranging from the loss of any national ethos of shared sacrifice to the destructive effects of class snobbery. For the sad truth of this dispiriting age, dominated by a mass culture that glorifies glitz and greed, lies in the ease with which almost all of us can become enveloped by the smug trappings of conventional success.

Speaking for myself, I know that after five years in Manhattan, I have become gradually inured to the world that surrounds me. Not the homeless on the street; they still possess that rare ability to horrify and shock. But all too often the contours of my life seem reduced to a typical cover headline in New York magazine: "Where to Go/What to Buy/What to Wear/Where to Eat/What to Read." Left to my own devices, I sometimes fear that someday I could end up like a character in that 1940s New York advertising novel, Die Hucksters, sitting in a fancy bar and musing into my glass of Scotch, "Was an apartment on Park Avenue and a country home in Connecticut worth it? How far can a man go just to have the price of a mink coat in his pocket?"

Of course, the price of a mink coat aside, it isn't going to happen. And one reason is because each month there lands in my mailbox a small, funnyshaped magazine with a quirky fixation on such unfashionable virtues as integrity, responsibility and altruism. Sure, it's preachy and a bit naive. But even so, it's still a magazine that speaks to how I live. I guess you could say I'm just that Washington Monthly kind of guy.
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Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Shapiro, Walter
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 1989
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