The Tone of Washington

Watching the wave of euphoria sweep over Washington, and the country, I'm reminded of the last time an emotion this deep and wide settled over all of us: it was war fever, and it happened as the Bush administration whipped up support for the invasion of Iraq. So maybe hope has trumped fear after all, or maybe mass emotions, like everything else, run in cycles.

But it was grandly amusing to see President-Reject Bush, on one of his many legacy-tour interviews, express sadness that he was unable to change the partisan tone in Washington. That was tantamount to Steven Seagal expressing regret that he was unable to raise the aesthetic level of Hollywood movies.

Yet, despite the best efforts of Karl Rove to channel Lee Atwaterism, I think there's a deeper explanation for the poisonous rancor that has gripped American politics for the past couple of decades, and it has a grand old name: illegitimacy. Republicans never thought Bill Clinton was a legitimate President, since he'd won only through the presence on the ballot of Ross Perot. Then Democrats clung to the belief that, thanks to the Supreme Court, the Bush Presidency was born in sin.

There is no belief more corrosive to democratic comity than the conviction that the occupant of the Oval Office arrived there illegitimately.

All through the angst of the LBJ and Nixon years, despite the loathing anti-war folks (like me) harbored for both Presidents, no one questioned the legitimacy of their election, although plenty of people questioned the legitimacy of the entire system. Yet the questions of legitimacy surrounding Clinton and Bush were profoundly personal, and the resulting politics was acidic in the extreme.

So, whatever you can say about the euphoria surrounding Barack Obama -- and, given the President's apparent commitment to an Afghanistan policy of more troops and more money, as if we can do over the truncated invasion of 2001 and avoid the fate of the British and Soviet empires in that land -- the magnitude of his popular and electoral-vote victory means that we have seen the end, for now, of the politics of illegitimacy. And that, more than any efforts George Bush may think he made, will change the tone in Washington.