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The Age of Mediocrity
Revisiting Exceptionalism
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The pictures of President Obama and President Hollande of France, the country which is our oldest friend, touring Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello screamed at us, “The Age of Mediocrity.” The contrast, between today’s two living presidents and that earlier epoch of French-US relations, when our first president and the Marquis de Lafayette were close friends, when Jefferson was the US minister in Paris, is such that the White House staffer who suggested the Monticello excursion must have a sick sense of humor — or anyway no sense of history. And the comparison between those heroic days, for both our countries, and the current age of mediocrity is somehow only heightened by the constant reference to President Hollande’s missing ”partner” — is it tennis or bridge he is currently de-partnered of?

The basic problem is not that Obama and Hollande are any more mediocre than their predecessors, George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon or Nicolas Sarkozy, Francois Mitterand, Georges Pompidou. Nor even that the older generation in both countries remember General Eisenhower and General de Gaulle; it’s simply the looming sense that, despite the internet and Twitter (and soon we’ll have driverless cars), the golden days of the west are behind us.

For France, certainly: they never really recovered from World War I, whose centenary we ”celebrate” this year, and who, along with the British, bequeathed the modern Middle East to the world, a gift that I’m afraid will keep on giving long into the current century.

Is it, though, just another of man’s follies, that as one ages, the past shines brighter than the present: “Bliss was it that dawn to be alive,” wrote an older William Wordsworth, looking back at the the time of the French Revolution and the ideas it spread across Europe, “but to be young was very heaven.”

Such thoughts go back to our earliest days: “Giants strode the earth in those days,” we are told in Genesis; “mighty men of old, men of renown.”

On the other hand, our parents or grandparents, who lived in their younger days through World War I and the Great Depression, or fought in World War II, would not, as they aged, have seen their world so pessimistically. What recently brought forward that sense of melancholy was not only the sight of two of today’s mediocre leaders touristing through the self-designed house of an early American genius, but rather the arrival of my 50th college reunion book, in which old men I knew half a century ago — and many I didn’t — reflected on the last 50 years. Amid many happy memories, it was their pessimism about where we are and where we are heading that stood out.

A few random quotes:

“…powerful corporate interests whose over-riding objective is to grow by generating profit, including profit from avoiding the environmental costs they create…government that is subservient to corporate interests…an ever-growing world economy that is undermining the ability of the planet to sustain life.”

“The global infatuation with America is much diminished. Many recent examples demonstrate that our long-standing assumption that, if we lead, others will follow is obsolete…Europeans are aghast at our unilateralism and deviation from the values of the Enlightenment we once exemplified.”

“…it is impossible to oversee a roughly \$75 billion per year NSA program established under classified tasking authority, supported by secret interpretations of the law, with occasional briefings of Congresspersons who are thinking mainly about other things.”

“Money has polluted our politics, and our Supreme Court seems determined to make that problem worse…When the pollsters ask that question now about trusting our government to do the right thing, just 20 percent respond affirmatively.”

“I have never felt anxiety about my own life…it’s the dreadful state of the world that fills me with fear and trembling.”

“Unquestionably, I have had a good life. But, I wonder, will my children and theirs?…the prognosis is marginal.”

–“It is difficult to know what lies ahead, but getting our house in order in the US would be a nice place to start. Wouldn’t it be nice to have elected officials who are willing to lead with their conscience and are not beholden to anyone?”

“I grew up not really knowing what entitlement was. It was one’s accountability that measured the man. These two concepts now seem reversed. Too few are willing to be accountable for their actions, and too many feel entitled to whatever they can.”

“Like many my age, I am increasingly appalled at the current path of materialism, greed and deliberate misunderstanding that our country is taking.”

And then you turn away from reading their reflections to see, live, the world they’ve reflected on: the bread and circuses of the Sochi Winter Olympics. Oh it’s nice to see our youth, or someone’s youth, skate 500 meters in 35 seconds, or watch them hurl off ski-jumps at speeds that would be illegal if they were in cars. But somehow, with or without Russian President Putin, and he, with or without his shirt, presiding over the \$50 billion extravaganza (who says he’s not getting his money’s worth — it’s what we have spent annually on our decade-plus war in Afghanistan), the ancient Greek sense of the finest of their youth putting aside their plowshares or their swords, and showing off their amateur skills, seems to have been lost.

But it sure beats watching the rest of the news: Hillary Clinton a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination in 2016, despite Rand Paul’s unkind jabs at husband Bill for his Monica moment, or two. And, on the Republican side: which non-entity will float, Romney-style, to the top? Our political system is in disarray: we, or at least our news-deciders, are discussing presidential elections that are nearly three years down the road, President Obama a has-been, or a barely-was. He seems to have gone from focusing on his reelection, about six months after he was sworn in, to lame-duck status, about six months after he was sworn in again. Which leaves about one year of eight to accomplish the people’s business.

Arguably, when we look back at his predecessor’s pro-active record — the legacy of Bush’s two wars will still be haunting us when Obama’s successor is finally elected — maybe a dysfunctional Washington is better than one in lock-step with a mediocre mind.

Remedies for curing the current debacle of a president moving quickly from begging for bucks to lame-duck status include an interesting pair of contrasting ideas: a one-term, six-year presidency, thus theoretically creating a post-political president, never worried about reelection, able to give his energy exclusively to what’s good for the country. Perhaps, or perhaps just creating an endless series of six-year lame-ducks.

Or, a recent hand-raiser, that we repeal presidential term limits, and thus avoid the lame-duck disease that permeates the second term. Perhaps, or perhaps just encouraging the gentleman, or lady, to spend an interminable number of years focusing on fund-raising and kowtowing to special interests.

We have every right to pat ourselves on the back — Michael Sam take a bow — for the tolerant society we have become over the last 50 years in terms of civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights. It wasn’t so long ago that marriage between a man and a woman — what more could you have asked for? — was illegal in many states, if one was black and the other white. Now they can be of the same sex, or an indeterminate sex, in many states.

But in the years that lie ahead, we’ve got to spend a little bit more time accomplishing things and a little less time patting ourselves on the back for our renowned exceptionalism.


Graduating from Yale in 1964, Mac Deford joined the Foreign Service the following year, spending three years in Vietnam. He studied Arabic in Beirut, after which he was assigned to the embassy in Jidda, Saudi Arabia. He was posted to Washington, New York, and Amman, Jordan before joining Merrill Lynch International in 1978. He spent much of a nearly two-decade career with Merrill in the Far East, retiring in 1997 to Maine. He has written a weekly foreign policy column for the local newspaper since 2001. He has served on a number of non-profit boards, including International College in Beirut, the newly-established graduate School for Policy and International Affairs at the the University of Maine and the Neiman Fellows for Journalism at Harvard.

• Category: Foreign Policy, History • Tags: Barack Obama 
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