A Look Back at 2002
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JIM LEHRER: Our look back at 2002 with presidential historians Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton Smith, director of the Robert Dole Center at the University of Kansas, journalist and author Haynes Johnson, and Roger Wilkins, professor of history at George Mason University.
Richard, what are you going to remember most about the year 2002?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Oh, boy. Well, it was a year of contradictions in some ways. It was a year when a lot of institutions disappointed a lot of people, whether it was the sex scandals in the Catholic Church, corruption on Wall Street, questions raised about the competency of the FBI, the CIA; even figure skating judges proved to have feet of clay.
And yet at the same time it’s a year when a lot of the institutions designed to expose such wrongdoing, including the press, did their job. And when the political process – for example – Congress and the White House met together very quickly this summer to try to put at least a floor of confidence under the investor community. If you look at the Church scandals, the Boston Globe deserves a Pulitzer Prize and then some for almost single-handedly exposing a sickening subculture in that Church, someone the hierarchy would have liked to cover up.
So it’s a year in which I suppose, on the one hand, you could be disillusioned by some of the things we learned, but I think if you step back and try to put into broader perspective, the system and the systems worked pretty well.
JIM LEHRER: And that’s where you would put your own view, you’re more of a system worked this year, rather than it didn’t, and it failed us?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I think the system worked and I think a lot of institutions worked, but I also think the individuals that make the institutions – I mean, if you look at the presidency, I’m sure we could talk about this later, but the presidency hummed along with a remarkable ability from – you know – successful Presidents have a way of turning adversity into advantage. The war on terror is the most obvious example, but look at Trent Lott. I mean, forget Clonaid – these people who giving whole new meaning to the phrase “weird science” – before this year is out, the President of the United States cloned himself a new Senate Majority Leader.
JIM LEHRER: Michael, what hums and sounds did you hear that are important from this year?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, you know, I thought about the fact 10 years ago – a little bit more than that – the Cold War ended and there was one scholar who said we are now upon the end of history because we were at a time in which the world was likely to be peaceful and there were people domestically saying once the economy went up in the 1990s that maybe we had gotten over these old economic cycles. People were saying that even 15 months ago. Look how much has changed. We’re now in a time where our values – what we’re interested in is almost entirely the opposite of what it was a year and a half ago. Not only in politics – are we more interested in the world, a little bit more serious – one reason why I think whistleblowers are more important is that in a serious time people are more interested in ideas of character and ethics because it means more –what kind of person leads us I think means more than it did before.
But, you know, one thing that shows when a period changes is how it affects other areas of life, not just politics. You look at science and medicine. Nowadays people are worrying about things like anthrax and smallpox, wouldn’t have happened a year and a half ago. The art is more serious; the music is more serious, we all are, and that is a result largely, needless to say, of the horrible tragedy that occurred on 9/11, but also the fact that the wheel of history always changes and we’re seeing that really before our eyes.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think we’re seeing before our eyes, Roger, that matters?
ROGER WILKINS: Well, the globalization paradigm really took hold this year.
JIM LEHRER: What’s that mean?
ROGER WILKINS: Well, everything is globalized – information, culture, disease, greed, oppression, and even the nuclear seepage is beginning to be globalized. I mean, we’ve been worried about proliferation for a long, long time, and this last year India and Pakistan stared at each other over there batches of nuclear weapons, and North Korea started playing nuclear politics with us, so that terror is globalized, and I think that’s the paradigm shift that proves Michael’s point – that there is no end to history as long as human beings are around to make problems. And I’d say that the President kind of globalized the election this year. He ran against Saddam Hussein and he won.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think of Richard’s point that, yes, there’ve been a lot down – to be more domestic about it for a moment – there have been a lot of down times here, a lot of institutions failed, but basically things got corrected, or at least they were in the process of being corrected, because the system worked. Do you buy that?
ROGER WILKINS: No. I don’t think that the FBI and the CIA are really corrected. I think that the administration kind of walked up to the edge of real corporate reform, and then when the subject was changed, it backed off.
JIM LEHRER: You mean, Iraq changed the subject…
ROGER WILKINS: Yeah. Well, Iraq basically changed the subject and people were worried about security; that became the issue in the campaign. So while I think that it was perfectly appropriate for Time Magazine to name the three whistleblowers as people of the year, because that kind of courage, that kind of integrity should be rewarded, I don’t think the Catholic Church is out of the woods. I mean, a lot of these institutional breakdowns are being addressed, but whether they will be addressed successfully remains to be seen.
JIM LEHRER: All right, Haynes, you’re an old journalist. If you were to fill in this blank, the year 2002, will be remembered – no, forget the comma – the year 2002 will be remembered for _____ — how would you fill it in?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Anxiety.
JIM LEHRER: Anxiety.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Everything we talked about: corporate corruption, war in Iraq, changes in the world, globalization; they’re all bound together. Usually we sit around the table at the end of the year like this, and pick out “a” story, something happened that year that that was the dramatic event.
JIM LEHRER: Like last year.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Pearl Harbor – up to 9/11 – that would define it. Now it’s everything. It’s the possibility of war with Iraq, and then all of a sudden the genie comes up in North Korea and it’s related. How do you deal with it? The same way with – the economy is in a tailspin — $7 trillion worth of value has been lost – I wish I could agree with Richard that the system worked in correcting the corporate excesses, which were the worst since 1880. We’ve seen “perp” walks going before our screens of these guys who have looted their companies, corporations, and they’re still out there. They’re not in jail; it hasn’t happened yet.
I wish I could say the press had been done as well, but I think if you look at the coverage of the Trent Lott thing, they missed the big story, right up until it came up later, so I don’t think that – I don’t feel as positive about that. But more than that, this sense of anxiety and uncertainty, no matter where you look, it’s the little things like – in the night, the sniper attack comes on and sends this ripple of fear and terror. We worry about Iraq; we worry about North Korea. We don’t know where it’s going, and everything is -
JIM LEHRER: Pensions too, things like that, in the economic area.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Absolutely. Unemployment has been rising. I don’t mean to be a Cassandra here or anything, but the reality is that we face all kinds of colliding problems that are not unresolved yet. I think everything is up for grabs – domestically, politically, socially, internationally, and it’s very hard to see where it’s going.
JIM LEHRER: Richard, unless I missed something, I don’t think any one of your three colleagues agreed with what you just said. Defend yourself, sir.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, that’s why we call this the real America.
JIM LEHRER: I got you; I got you. I got you.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: There’s no demagoguery.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: There’s no demagoguery here. You know, it’s funny, a friend of mine said to me at the time of the whole Trent Lott affair, you know, he said to me, this is a defining moment for the administration and you couldn’t disagree with that. And I thought to myself, you know, since 9/11 in particular there have been so many defining moments that after a while you think the administration would be defined, and in fact I think – I think that’s really sort of the back story to 2002. I think it was a major — maybe “the” major factor in the off-year election, even more than specific issues about policy in Iraq, or the economy.
I think most Americans got it very quickly after 9/11 and I think 2002 was the year when it really began to sink home and to become part of the new landscape of our lives – that this is a different world in which we live; it is a more menacing world and I think -
JIM LEHRER: So you’d agree with Haynes that anxiety is part of this?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: But I also think – at the same time I also think one reason why Bush had such a successful year is because of a critical mass of Americans, including people who may agree with all of policies, are comfortable with him in dealing with the forces of their anxiety. It’s a little bit like the Reagan phenomenon in the 80′s. Remember, people would say, well, you know, I don’t agree within the economics; I don’t like his environmental record, or I don’t much care for his civil rights record, but he’s a strong leader; he’s a man of conviction; he makes me feel in some ways secure. I think 20 years later something of that is going on, and I’m not sure the press always picks up on it.
JIM LEHRER: Does that make sense to you, Michael?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It does, and maybe the best way to say it is this: 1942, the election of 1942 was a congressional election; it was only about ten or eleven months after Pearl Harbor, and you would have thought that Franklin Roosevelt’s party, the Democrats, would have done wonderfully because here we were fighting World War II in which FDR was doing pretty well as a war leader, yet the Democrats lost seats in Congress. This is not an automatic thing that a President like President Bush this year would have done so well.
I think the hazard of this is this, and it’s not a partisan thing, it’s just the way the system works, and that is that when you have one issue is, and it should be, so overwhelming as the war against terror, things like the kind of things that Haynes was talking about, corrupt corruption, and what Roger was saying, some of these other issues which normally would be addressed by all of us…in the political system they tend to get muscled because we’re so focused on the overwhelming danger, and that’s always a problem.
JIM LEHRER: Roger, what do you make of Richard’s thesis – that’s been explained also by others – about President Bush and the year 2002, whether or not he came into his own – are you comfortable with him, are people more comfortable with him than they were, even those who were opposed to him?
ROGER WILKINS: Well, I think so. I am not personally comfortable with him, but I think that the person who people were able to buffoon the first year, or a person who couldn’t command the English language or who didn’t know the president of Pakistan was, that person is gone; that person has disappeared from the stage, and instead there’s this plain-speaking, direct fellow, who does I think give a lot of people comfort.
The problem is that there are an awful lot of problems on his plate that are very, very difficult, and it’s possible that they didn’t all need to be there, but Iraq, al-Qaida, North Korea, that’s a heck of a trifecta, and then you come home, and you’ve got the states in terrible economic shape, all of them, and therefore the cities. You’ve got the baby boomers advancing rapidly toward elderhood, and you’ve got Medicare unraveling and you’ve got no fixes for Social Security and of course you’ve got the larger issue of the economy. So this President needs all of this persona that he has gathered over this year because there’s a whale of a set of problems facing him.
JIM LEHRER: Haynes, what would you add about George W. Bush?
HAYNES JOHNSON: He’s the President and he really wasn’t the President until this last year in everybody’s mind; there’s no question. He is the leader of the United States. I think he has respect of the country; people do feel comfortable with him. But what I was trying to suggest earlier, as opposed to Richard, I think that it’s not about the President.
These problems we’re facing are all related, and we don’t know where they’re going to come out. I suspect I will not be surprised if 20 years later, God help us, we sat around a table and we looked back at the end of the year, 2002, what was the most significant event, it may have been something like promulgating presidential order or the edict that we will now have regime change and with unknown consequences in American foreign policy and actions in the world – we don’t know that. But we don’t know where -
JIM LEHRER: I’m sure people like Michael Beschloss knows…
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, invite me back in 20 years. But in a way that’s it because why was there not an attack against America this year, was that because al-Qaida decided not to do it, or because our system is working? Final point is, you know, we always used to complain – we have for years on this program – that people were not enough involved in the political system because it seemed irrelevant to their lives. Well, folks, the political system is absolutely relevant to life or death, and during the next year or two what we would love to see – or at least I would – would be that people finally say now we really have to get involved because the stakes could not be higher.
JIM LEHRER: Well, we’ll see – we’ll come here and talk about it a year from now and see what happened.
Thank you all four very much and Happy New Year…