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Bernstein: We're in a cold civil war

Carl Bernstein says the Russia probe and the Kavanaugh nomination are "almost the Gettysburg and Antietam, the absolutely essential battles of this cold civil war, and both the Democrats and the Republicans, unfortunately, understand that and are exploiting that."

Posted: Sep 26, 2018 11:12 AM
Updated: Sep 26, 2018 11:26 AM

Perhaps it's my age and the state of today's politics that has me thinking about the final scene of the movie "Camelot," with Richard Harris as Arthur standing with young Tom, pleading with the boy to remember and tell everyone of the glory that was Camelot so that the world would never forget. The attempt by Democrats to run a professional smear campaign against Brett Kavanaugh is another sign of the irreparable fissure that has cracked open between the political left and right. Increasingly, I find myself lamenting, "We used to be America."

We are here, at this sad, confusing moment in our cultural history because we no longer share the common belief that we are truly blessed to be Americans. We focus on our historic faults -- slavery, racism, segregation -- to the exclusion of what is truly exceptional about America. Today, too many citizens believe that because of those original sins, the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the government established under the Constitution are open to question. Overlooked is the fact that we have achieved more in the name of individual liberty for ourselves and our posterity than any other nation in the history of the world.

I believe that the core of our public discontent is that government and therefore politics has assumed a place in our lives that was never envisioned by the founders who saw limited government as a necessity to ensure the blessings of liberty. So much of our money and time is on the line that we are consumed by the political power struggle -- the street fight for pieces of the government pie.

Politics based on race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation touches every facet of American life. We no longer see our unique traits as ingredients to the "unum" at the end of the "e pluribus." Instead, we wield them as weapons to divide the spoils in what has become a zero-sum game. Even the NFL is not immune.

I came of age in the late 1970s and into manhood in the late 1980s. The 1970s were not the best of times for this republic of ours. We went from the social turbulence of the late '60s and Vietnam right into Watergate, the Church Committee, gas crunches and the economic and social "malaise" of the dreadful Carter years. The constant specter of the Cold War and the very real potential for a nuclear holocaust loomed large.

Yet growing up in a working-class neighborhood in New York, I was reminded daily of what made Americans different from the rest of the world. I was surrounded by adults, some of whom had fought in World War I, and almost all of whom had lived through the Great Depression. Many had fought and survived World War II and Korea -- and a few were survivors of the Holocaust -- and they were now dealing with yet another recession.

We were optimists. We were cheerful. We were exuberant. We were Catholics and Jews hailing from Italy, Ireland, Russia, Greece, Germany, Portugal and Poland. Our grandparents or parents came over on the boat. It was noisy. For all of our cultural differences, we shared two things in common: None of us had two nickels to rub together, and we were all fiercely, passionately in love with this country. We were Americans first. In fact, my off-the-boat grandfather forbade his sons, and my father and mother in turn forbade their sons, to call ourselves Italian-Americans. (Today so many Americans feel obligated to hyphenate, not for cultural reasons alone, but to make sure they are getting their perceived piece of the government policy pie.)

We shared an unshakeable certainty bordering on religious faith that no matter how bad today was, tomorrow would be better. How couldn't it be? We were Americans, and this country, despite its flaws, was still the greatest, freest, most God-blessed country in history. We held that in common. It was our bedrock national value.

Everyone had an opinion -- on religion, baseball and politics, usually shared while watching the kids play wiffle ball or stickball in the street as the dads came home from work at day's end. We debated, argued, yelled and got red-in-the-face mad at each other, and then we took a deep breath and got over it. Life's too short to lose lifelong friends and neighbors over who was voting Republican or Democrat.

Donald Trump has certainly contributed his share to the ever intensifying vitriolic atmosphere. He can be a boor and a bully. But the roots of this disease predate 2016, and there's plenty of blame to spread around. How about Joe Biden in 2012 telling a group of African-Americans that Mitt Romney would put them "back in chains"? Or lest you forget, it was Barack Obama who exhorted Latino voters to "punish your enemies." We never saw our fellow Americans as enemies.

The President had an opportunity to change the trajectory of our national discourse and perhaps the course of his presidency and our future when US Rep. Steve Scalise was shot last summer simply for the sin of being Republican. Instead, he chose to wallow in the muck of division along with those on the left who routinely employ words such as "racist" and "Nazi" to describe Republicans over immigration policy. Trump had a chance to raise us up again when the haters marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. Instead he waffled and mitigated. There are no "fine people" marching under the swastika or wearing the hoods and robes of the Ku Klux Klan.

For those of us who try to be consistent in our political philosophy -- agreeing with the President when his actions are in line with our policy preferences and disagreeing with him when his actions are not aligned with ours -- we are called "traitors" by whichever group of our fellow citizens disagrees with us at that moment. If I extol the integrity and patriotism of Robert Mueller, I'm castigated by what has become the political right. If I express my disgust at the behavior of FBI and Justice Department officials such as Peter Strzok, author of the anti-Trump text messages, and Bruce Ohr, who had ties to Trump dossier creator Christopher Steele, then the left wants me flogged.

I often say that those in politics should never underestimate the collective wisdom of the American people. But wisdom requires a healthy dose of kindness, tolerance, equanimity, humility, gratitude and love. Those virtues seem to be in short supply these days. Absent those virtues, the bonds of our common culture are bursting asunder. If you believe that we are, in the words of former US Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, "a country, a people, not just an economy," then like me, you are lamenting that things seem so bleak when the economy is doing so well.

So as I talk to my four children and try to make sense of it all with them, I am starting to feel more and more like Arthur at the end pleading with young Tom, kneeling on a dark, smoldering battlefield as the armies -- once allies questing for right and honor and justice, now enemies vying for raw power -- clash nearby:

"Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot."

We used to be America. Now run boy. Run boy!

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