The pileup of World War II ceremonies is causing an outbreak of Greatest Generation envy among the media baby boomers who are covering them. In her Sunday column in the New York Times, Maureen Dowd spoke wistfully of the "moral clarity" of World War II. In the Hamptons on Memorial Day weekend, most of the pundit class spent evenings arguing about exit strategies in Iraq and then beating a nostalgic retreat to watch "The Longest Day," "Patton" and "Saving Private Ryan."
Of course, the blinding moral clarity about entering World War II is a lot more blinding in retrospect than it was at the time of entry. If it had been an easy call to plunge into a second global war when the first one had been nothing but pointless slaughter, Roosevelt wouldn't have needed 27 months to move the nation. Even then Hitler forced his hand by declaring war on the United States after Pearl Harbor. When Jon Meacham, author of "Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship," compared notes with the dean of historians, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., on whether the ferocity of the debates over intervention in World War II was like that of the arguments over Vietnam, Schlesinger replied, "The World War II debate was much worse."
The trouble this time around is that the president allowed no time for a validating debate. It wasn't much fun to see the New York Times mumbling mea culpas last week about its prewar coverage of weapons of mass destruction. All it means is that when we turn on the TV and see the smiling photo ops of the new Iraqi government looking as tidy and well-organized as the Swiss, it's hard to buy into it.
In New York, what's souring the psyches of baby boomers is the sullen sense that they did have a whiff of their own Greatest Generation moment, after 9/11 -- and then, too soon, were cheated out of it. Nine-eleven handed Bush something FDR did not have even after the Nazis marched into Paris: an across-the-board national consensus to go after a manifestly evil enemy with all the power -- military, diplomatic, economic, everything -- the nation and its allies could muster. Instead, our president chose to go after Iraq for reasons that become murkier every week.
Democrats mourn the squandering of that galvanizing post-9/11 international unity, but New Yorkers feel something more personal. Washingtonians do, too. Certainly in the weeks after the attacks, New York was an inspiring place to be. The capital of Making It was suddenly liberated from greed and self-promotion. Firefighters and cops were cheered louder than rock icons and movie stars at the Concert for New York City. Moguls manned the food lines at Ground Zero along with schoolteachers and students. Sex-and-the-city girls wore flats instead of Manolo Blahniks and inhaled the Times's foreign pages before the gossip in the New York Post. Quiet, modest men and women whom the Roaring Nineties had drowned out made the papers every day for some fierce act of selflessness that had saved the life of a stranger.
"People acclaim Rudy Giuliani as the leader that day," said Daily News columnist Michael Daly, who is writing a biography of Michael Judge, the gay priest and hero who died on 9/11. "But the remarkable thing was that people led themselves." Every moment seemed touched by some new detail of local goodness, like the shaky approach of an elderly lady at the checkpoint downtown with the only thing she could offer a rescue worker, a bag of ice. Looking out for No. 1 became looking out for all 8 million.
Greatest Generation moments? We glimpsed them right there in front of us. You didn't have to be inconceivably brave like our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq or go to some barbaric foreign outpost on assignment to see acts of courage and dedication every day.
You can't expect a gift of collective nobility like this to stay on the table untended forever. And it didn't. Bush told the nation to go shopping and all the moral uplift went away in a New York minute. Now it's upsetting to hear evocations of the Good War and the Greatest Generation in aid of a questionable war that went bad. The guilt is unsettling. While we flip between Time magazine's Obesity issue and Newsweek's cover on Way Cool Phones, someone else's kids from the heartland are back on the blood-soaked sands.
An indication that all this ambivalence has turned us into basket cases is the pre-publication buzz about "Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President," a book by an academic and shrink named Justin Frank. It caters to two New York obsessions, therapy and Bush-bashing -- and is thus a candidate for the local bestseller list. Frank, who is a clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the George Washington University Medical Center and looks like the jocular psychoanalytic twin of Gene Shalit, argues that the public case history shows a president suffering from deep innate anxiety originating in a variety of familial stresses and manifest in his bizarrely fragmented use of language. "In protecting himself from his fears," Frank writes, "Bush may believe he is protecting us but the result is quite the opposite. The president who shows no signs of consciously experiencing anxiety or fear instead passes it on to the rest of us."
Frank's conclusion is that Bush's "rigid and simplistic thought patterns, paranoia and megalomania have driven him to invent adversaries so he can destroy them."
Yeah, that fits. Except that unfortunately the adversaries are not invented by Bush. They are all too real.
(c) 2004, Tina Brown