Gwen’s Take: All the King’s Horses and All the King’s Men

BY Gwen Ifill  August 5, 2011 at 2:06 PM EDT

In the fine tradition of the well-executed post-mortem, we now find ourselves in the season of the “tick-tock” — the well-reported explanations of how a big story unfolded.

We have been treated to the finest of the genre in the days since the president was finally able to put ink to paper and sign the much-wrangled-over legislation to raise the nation’s debt limit.

Now, as some of the steam cools, Washington is left to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. It is not clear anyone knows how.

“It was a terrible process, but a good result,” Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said, writing about the debt deal in The Washington Post on Wednesday.

It was “legislative carjacking’” columnist Ruth Marcus opined on the same page.

My favorite: Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., who declared the finished product a “sugar-coated Satan sandwich.” At least his was a rare original formulation (see last week’s Take). Plus, it neatly summed up the essence of the messy compromise at hand. Absolutely no one loved it.

But after all the sturm und drang that surrounded the debate, I was still left with the same questions I suspect many Americans have. How did we get to the point where our noble democratic experiment — the one we attempt to export throughout the world — devolved into name-calling and playground intransigence?

Those who played starring roles in the standoff have rushed to develop their own spin for the history books. This is because lawmakers and presidential spokesmen know all about the tick-tock. In the days following the culmination of any major event — whether it be the killing of Osama bin Laden or a fraught legislative compromise — someone is going to get to tell the story that sticks.

So reporters go behind the scenes and suss out what was really happening. If the daily newspaper is the first draft of history, the painstaking reconstruction of the tick-tock is the second one.

So I read various behind-the-scenes retellings with great interest. Why learn what really happened in history books 10 (OK, five) years from now, when one can get just add water and get it now?

No reason at all. But today’s readers should be prepared to assess instant history with an understanding that the details and the tone can shift, depending on who is doing the telling.

According to Politico and The New York Times, much of the drama unfolded at the White House. Each carried similar accounts of the president’s end of a taut, final phone conversation with the speaker of the House. Each described an ultimatum delivered; a long, tense pause and finally a murmured congratulations from Obama to Boehner.

Other versions of the final negotiations had the president’s budget director yelling, “No! No!” as he stood his ground, or lawmakers in closed-door meetings leaping to their feet to offer to drive the getaway car after the next tax-cut standoff.

One House Republican version of the tick-tock appeared in the newspaper The Hill. In this version, Speaker John Boehner persevered until the end. His decision to call for a vote he was sure to lose was portrayed as a bold gamble.

But in the end, no heroic recounting of the dealing that led to the ultimate resolution was able to trump the real-life drama that played out on the House floor, when a wounded and smiling Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., appeared on the House floor to cast a surpassing and dramatic vote for the compromise bill. If you didn’t tear up watching that, you are made of stone.

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But no single feel-good moment seems capable of mending the fissure these latest fights opened up. That’s unless the economy can somehow begin to right itself.

“The American people’s top priority is the creation of jobs,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said.

“Obviously, the biggest concern the American people have is jobs and the economy,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said.

It all sounded good enough. But the people who put their money where their mouths are on Wall Street were clearly not buying it. By the time the stock market staged a shocking 500 point plunge on Thursday, lawmakers of both parties had come to realize that the big deal did not solve the big problem.

So a standoff over the Federal Aviation Administration’s budget that threatened to open up a new front in the debate over who cares more about the economy was bottled up, at least temporarily, by Senate Democrats anxious to avoid yet another fight where everyone loses.

But the vitriol still simmers, apparently waiting for the fall campaigns to begin anew. Did the vice president compare the Tea Party to terrorists? His office says no. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., said yes.

Did Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney display sufficient leadership in waiting until the debate was virtually over to declare that he opposed to it? Sarah Palin and Tim Pawlenty don’t think so.

If the president had one thing right during this entire debate, it was that election years are seldom the best time to come to agreement. So buckle your seat belts, and pity poor Humpty Dumpty.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.