The Magazine


Dec 28, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 15 • By DAVID FRUM
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So when people say, as they do, that Ronald Reagan's most important achievement was restoring Americans' faith in themselves, they are not mouthing platitudes. Between 1979 and 1989, opinion polls showed a rise in public confidence in the trustworthiness of government. Reagan's strong leadership, his rock-solid personal integrity, and his consistent record of success won back much of the faith -- and some of the latitude to conduct a muscular foreign policy -- that Johnson and Nixon had forfeited. It was Reagan's record, crowned by the collapse of communism and the ultimate vindication of his hardline anti-Soviet policies, that made the Gulf War of 1991 politically feasible.

But Reagan's achievement was an incomplete one. Trust in government as measured by polls has never recovered the levels of the 1950s and early 1960s. Even at the peak of his popularity in 1984 and 1985, Reagan never commanded the deference that an Eisenhower or even a Kennedy once took for granted, particularly in the realm of foreign policy. Nor did Reagan's achievement sink deep roots. The shock of the 1990 recession and George Bush's breach of his no-new-taxes pledge rolled poll-measured levels of public trust right back to their late-1970s nadir. And then Bill Clinton was elected.

So here we are: The economy is strong, still; crime, unwed pregnancy, abortion, and divorce are all trending down; the 1990s have been the first decade since the 1920s in which the United States has faced no powerful enemy. And yet, trust in government has not recovered as it did in the 1980s. Indeed, as Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute notes, while 73 percent of Americans in 1958 trusted the government in Washington to do the right thing "most" or "all" of the time; in 1998, 73 percent expect the government to do the right thing "only some of the time" or "never" -- a precise mirror image. Against this backdrop of low expectations and ill-humor, President Clinton ordered up a repeatedly postponed air war against Iraq 24 hours before he was sure to lose a House impeachment vote.

We should fervently hope that suspicions Bill Clinton timed a military operation for political protection remain just that -- suspicions. Because already, 80 percent of the public believes the president is a perjurer, and a majority believes that he organized an obstruction of justice. Yet Clinton's faithlessness, curiously enough, seems to be inflicting more damage upon the institution of the presidency than upon his own personal standing. He remains popular even as ever-increasing numbers of Americans describe the government he heads as corrupt and immoral. It's an impressive act of blame-shifting. So one has to wonder to what record heights public mistrust of government would ascend were it ever shown that Clinton had deployed the military -- even in a just and necessary cause -- for personal gain.

And one must fear that at the very same moment that the president's job ratings are reaching an all-time high, the troubling timing of this sudden and startling reversal of Clinton's foreign policy seems likely to perpetuate for another generation the poisonous suspicions that have crippled American foreign policy, and American government more generally, since the 1960s.

David Frum, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is completing a book on the 1970s.