As an exquisitely trained political scientist, I can say, with great authority, that our politics have got me feeling blue. That’s probably what led me this summer to go re-read some of my favorite books about the politics of the ’80s and ’90s. In a funny way, it was reassuring to recall so many divides that look far less dire in the rearview mirror. One book I revisited was Primary Colors, Joe Klein’s riveting, mid-’90s, lightly fictionalized character study of Bill and Hillary Clinton.
There’s a poignant moment in the novel I’ve found myself dwelling on lately, especially as we approached the anniversary of 9/11—a horrific day which nonetheless managed to (ever-so-briefly) illuminate America’s best self. The moment involves a speech by Klein’s fictional Florida ex-governor Freddy Picker to an adoring crowd, just as his Ross Perot-like, out-of-nowhere campaign is taking off. Picker’s remarks—penned a long time ago, in a less crazed time—speak to our turbulent times as well as anything I’ve seen. As an old high school social studies teacher who’s always wished I had the chance to discuss this passage in a tenth-grade classroom, I thought I’d share. Anyway, here it is:
“Look,” Picker said. “Could you do me a favor and not cheer so loud?” There was laughter. “No,” he said, “I really mean it. I really want everyone to calm down. And I guess I mean everyone. I guess I mean the press and the TV folks, and my colleagues, and the folks who make a living advising my colleagues—I think we all need to calm down.”
And the crowd calmed down. “This is really a terrific country, but we get a little crazy sometimes,” he continued. “I guess the craziness is part of what makes us great, it’s part of our freedom. But we have to watch out. We have to be careful about it. There’s no guarantee we’ll be able to continue this—this highwire act, this democracy. If we don’t calm down, it all may just spin out of control. I mean, the world keeps getting more complicated and we keep having to explain it to you in simpler terms, so we can get our little oversimplified explanations on the evening news. Eventually, instead of even trying to explain it, we just give up and sling mud at each other—and it’s a show, it keeps you watching . . . But there are some serious things we have to talk about now. There are some decisions we have to make, as a people, together. And it’s gonna be hard to make them if we don’t slow this down a little, calm it down, have a conversation amongst ourselves.”
The horror of September 11 brought with it a period of quietude and reflection. Seventeen years later, I find myself wondering sometimes how it is that the forces of craziness, mudslinging, and oversimplification, on the right and the left, seem to have run roughshod over our better angels. And I can’t help but think that those of us in and around the nation’s schools shoulder a solemn responsibility in assisting to light a better path. We should recall that every day, but especially amidst the craziness enveloping this somber anniversary.
— Frederick Hess
Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.
This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.