WASHINGTON -- I have news to report: Rush Limbaugh has finally had it with me. He has decided that I'm rooting for America's decline and that I'm a part of President Barack Obama's "crop of Democrats."
None of that is true, but it's worth recounting how Rush and I got to this point. It is a small but instructive tale about today's ferociously accusatory political culture.
Once upon a time, we debated.
Now we tweet and rant in a world of sound bites and the sound-bitten.
As I watched the Olympics opening ceremony from London on July 27, I tweeted a thought about the arc of British imperial history. I knew something about it, having studied history in London as a college student years ago and as a frequent visitor ever since.
"Brits long ago lost their empire, powerful currency," I wrote. "They've got social strife, but overall show us how to lose global power gracefully."
That was enough for Rush. "A tantamount admission that that's exactly what Obama is doing!" he declared. "Obama is overseeing the decline! Obama is the author of the decline! And now we find that that's good. We can learn from the Brits how to lose power gracefully! Yes, there is a graceful way to lose global power. There is a wonderful way to go out there and become a doormat."
"So you have it," he concluded. "That's the future. Howard Fineman and Barack Obama."
I had joined the pantheon of the despised.
Back in the day, Rush used to tolerate me, if for no other reason than because I'm from Pittsburgh and listened to him there when he was a rock DJ known as "Jeff Christie."
I'm a Steelers fan, and so is he. So there is that, too.
Back when I was at Newsweek in the 1990s, I spent a day in Rush's New York studio and wrote a cover story about radio loudmouths, including him. I treated him as a powerful figure then, and I still do.
Like him or loathe him, Limbaugh has clout, especially in the grassroots of the Tea Party, whose many adherents are conducting a hostile takeover of what used to be a mainstream Republican Party.
"Now he's obviously a lib and a Democrat," Rush said of me on his show. "I never thought he was nuts. I never thought he was part of this crop of Democrats."
Well first of all, Rush, I may be nuts, but I am not part of any crop of Democrats or political types of any kind. I'm pretty well known for keeping an even keel ideologically and for steering clear of partisanship. I'm old-fashioned, even out of date, in this deconstructionist era, in which everyone is assumed to have an ulterior -- political -- motive. I don't. I really don't.
Second, when I said "us," I wasn't talking about the United States, at least not in the here and now. I was talking about humanity and world history and empires of every kind and every age.
I do not think that America is in decline. All you have to do is look at the faces of the U.S. kids in the Olympics and the tech crew at NASA to know that we are not. You think that we are in decline -- and that the answer is less government and lower taxes.
I don't necessarily disagree with your prescriptions, as long as the taxes are fairly distributed and adequate to the task of accomplishing what we as a democratic society decide are valid, indispensable purposes.
Those so far include Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, disability payments, national defense, roads and bridges, scientific research and food safety regulation, to name a few. In other words, most of what the federal government now does.
I am not a declinist. Just because every empire of the past has moved into a post-imperial phase doesn't mean I want that to happen -- or think it necessarily will happen -- to the U.S.
I hope it doesn't happen. I believe that we are indeed the indispensable nation. Our Constitution is one of the greatest gifts of the human mind to the destiny of mankind. Our mix of individualist grit and dedication to family, faith and community makes us unique. We were the first nation ever built from the ground up. In fact, I wrote a book praising our special freedoms and responsibilities.
I am every bit as much of a patriot as you are. I pray that we can defy history.
But if we can't, London (and Team GB, which has won a boatload of Olympic medals this year) is not a bad model for what should come next.
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