Dave Denison

Recent Articles

Throwing Coolant on the Economy

For George Bush the elder, the recession of the early 1990s was a difficult subject, something best not discussed in public. As he put it on November 20, 1991, "I think more than anyone else in this country, obviously, that if the president misspeaks or sounds euphorically optimistic, or overly pessimistic, you send the wrong signals to a skittish market and to the people. So I'm trying to say, 'Look, we're in tough times; they're going to get better.'" But the new Bush-Cheney administration is using reverse psychology. In December, even before taking office, Vice President-elect Dick Cheney warned that the United States "may well be on the front edge of a recession here." Three days later, George W. Bush told CBS News, "There are some warning signs on the horizon about the economy; both Secretary Cheney and I have spoken about that publicly." Bush and Cheney were trying, of course, to date a recession to the late stages of the Clinton administration. But eyebrows were raised in some...

That Vision Thing

I n one of last year's cheekiest works of social criticism, Russell Jacoby argued that what ails modern politics is a lack of utopian thinking ( The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy , Norton). Politics has become dull, according to Jacoby. We live in a time of "political exhaustion and retreat," of "collapsing intellectual visions and ambitions." With the death of socialist hopes, politics has lost its left wing. A direct result, says Jacoby, is that liberalism has become "spongy and vague," "earnest and woozy," and suffers from "waning determination and imagination." Jacoby never gets around to describing his own utopian vision; in fact, he doesn't claim to have one. He means his book to be a defense of the "visionary impulse" in politics and culture. It's not the big thinkers who should be disparaged, he is saying, but the small thinkers who delude themselves into thinking they are somehow advancing progress. Utopians and radicals are the ones who lead the way...

Reading the American Mind

Works discussed in this essay: Reading Mixed Signals: Ambivalence in American Public Opinion about Government, by Albert H. Cantril and Susan Davis Cantril. Woodrow Wilson Center Press (distributed by the Johns Hopkins University Press), 253 pages. "Retro-Politics: The Political Typology, Version 3.0," report by the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press, 163 pages. How many times in the coming political year will an aspiring politician stand up and declare, "The American people believe . . . "? And how many times will newspapers tell us that "polls show the public supports" such and such? It's a cherished national political fantasy: you, me, and the American people-all of one mind. But who are these American people? What do "we" really know? What do we believe? An industry of poll-takers is at work around the clock, churning out answers. Most of them are only too happy to spoon-feed their results to an addicted news media, knowing full well the story will be grossly...

Republic of Denial: Press, Politics, and Public Life

Works discussed in this essay: Republic Of Denial: Press, Politics, and Public Life, by Michael Janeway. Yale University Press; 216 pages. And now a word of discouragement. Abandon hopes, all ye who look to the nation's journalists to lead the way through the valley of darkness. For the republic is in deep doo-doo, as former President Bush once said, and it's going to take more than a collection of civic-minded scribes nattering about democratic renewal to save us. Or, as Michael Janeway puts it in Republic of Denial , a book of unrelenting lamentation, "the forest is vast and dark," and "we are in it with no clear path out." This dark forest, as Janeway describes it, is an America that has been utterly transformed since the years after World War II. We have passed from an era of good fortune and "heroic national enterprise" to a time of "alienation, pessimism, loss, and disintegration." Our...

The Art of Legislating

Experiencing Politics: A Legislator's Stories of Government and Health Care , by John E. McDonough. University of California Press, 342 pages, $19.95. Toward the end of this useful handbook on the politics of lawmaking, the author laments the dearth of novels and films about what really goes on inside legislatures. After all, it is through popular art that the broad public is exposed to unfamiliar worlds. And, says John E. McDonough, "The breadth of what legislators do is simply astounding, far beyond what most citizens understand." It's an interesting thought, but it's hard to imagine Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as members of the Ways and Means Committee struggling over tax policy and then making time at the end of the day to answer constituent mail. McDonough's book, though it has its dramatic moments, does not quite make the case that hammering out fine points of public policy is the stuff of which great art--or even popular cinema--is made. Still, he is persuasive when it comes to the...

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