`American Century' And the '92 Election

ONE might have expected that President Bush would go into the (re)nominating convention in Houston as if to his coronation. But the campaign staff of the once spectacularly popular incumbent have been allowing that they will regard the convention a success if it yields a "bounce" that cuts his challenger's lead in half.

One certainly wouldn't want to count on a Clinton White House at this point, but with a tight race there is a genuine hope that the election can be a test of competing visions of American nationhood, of what the American polity should be.

John Judis's new book, "Grand Illusion: Critics and Champions of the American Century" is a study of the visions of a number of important 20th-century thinkers in the United States. Although the book is not without its partisan biases, and its title suggests a skeptical, if not cynical, view at times, it makes for absorbing campaign reading, especially for those interested in the historical background of today's foreign-policy issues.

A main theme set forth by Judis, a biographer of William F. Buckley and a contributing editor to The New Republic, is the tension between the realistic and idealistic (or "evangelistic") strains in foreign policy. Not that a single policy cannot embody both strains: The Marshall Plan was at once an expression of the idealism of a generous America, magnanimous in victory, and a shrewd strategy for restoring Western Europe as a lucrative market for American goods.

The American-led efforts in the Gulf war, one might add, have similarly combined the idealism of concern for international law with realistic concerns about keeping Middle Eastern oil flowing.

Foreign-policy idealists are dangerously likely to confuse moral virtue with power, as Judis points out; but the realists, the classical balance-of-power analysts who often strike the idealists as amoral manipulators, have risked underestimating the real importance of such idealistic concerns as supporting the spread of democracy around the world.

A second important theme implicit in "Grand Illusion" is that of transformations in people's thinking.

The book, which generally focuses on powers behind the throne rather than prime actors, details Whittaker Chambers's transformation from committed communist to committed anticommunist, for instance.

He also recounts the experience of some advisers whose counsel was followed with more zeal than wisdom: George Kennan found that his warnings about the Soviet Union led to a greater military buildup than he felt was justified.

And we read also of those who didn't, or couldn't, change their views in time to remain relevant: Ronald Reagan comes off in this book much better than Richard Nixon or Henry Kissinger because he understood that Mikhail Gorbachev really meant it when he declared the cold war over. Nixon and Kissinger remained captive of their earlier views.

George Bush also comes off rather badly in "Grand Illusion," for, among other things, being all too willing to change his views, whether on civil rights or abortion or whatever. He is also faulted for a lack of capacity for reflection or conceptualization.

The "vision thing" has dogged Bush, but to be fair, it has dogged the Democrats too in recent years: What vision of American society were they sharing to galvanize the electorate?

"New era" is one of those phrases a careful journalist uses very sparingly. But this is certainly a time when some creative thinking is called for to deal with new realities of unfrozen power blocs and an ever more globalized economy.

What is the moral role for the US as keeper of the peace and a source of aid to troubled lands? The debate over aid to the former Soviet Union vs. aid to the troubled American cities will only intensify in the next few years. What is the role of "family values," as some kind of code word or otherwise, in the public discourse? Are we really satisfied with the less-is-more approach to government?

If the campaign can call forth the visions that will address these issues, we will have the kind of race in which everyone wins.

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