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On government: A Jon Meacham essay

I was 11 years old on the day Reagan was sworn in as our 40th president, and I — a politically fascinated youngster — was taken to the inauguration by a long-suffering grandmother. Nearly three decades later, I can still remember Reagan saying these words: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

Ronald Reagan was not wholly wrong. That line was, however, more memorable than accurate.  Article adjectives — check your “Strunk and White” — were the key. Government was not the solution, in fact, and government was a problem. Edited that way, the line would have been factually correct. We wouldn’t remember it, though.

Not that it’s being memorable settled anything. As Washington again debates the efficacy of regulation and the role of the state, we’re reminded that this is an argument that is, in St. Augustine’s phrase, ever ancient, ever new. For example, for Lyndon Johnson, the years of the Great Society offered, he once remarked, more hope than the world had seen since the birth of Christ. The backlash came quickly.

Listen to Jimmy Carter: “But after listening to the American people I have been reminded again that all the legislation in the world can’t fix what’s wrong with America. It is a crisis of confidence.”

Bill Clinton, governing in the world Reagan built, appeared to end the debate for all time: “The era of big government is over.”

But this American story is never over. And now President Obama has to decide where he stands. For him, ideological categories are of little use; once the Bush administration essentially nationalized the banks in the fall of 2008, it made it difficult to see exactly what public and private sector really mean anymore.

Cynically but accurately put, Americans oppose public intervention or regulation if it helps others, but favor it if it helps them — take social security, disaster relief, public works projects, for example.

It would be wonderful if the public sector were always great, or always terrible; or if the private sector were always great, or always terrible. Alas, reality is more complicated than comforting caricatures. Governments fail, and corporations fail. Look no farther than the Gulf of Mexico or Wall Street for evidence of the culpability and responsibility of both entities for an unfolding and spreading disaster.

History tells us that America does best when the private sector is energetic and entrepreneurial and the government is attentive and engaged. Who among us, really, would, looking back, wish to edit out either sphere at the entire expense of the other?