‘Crossroads’ Essays Follow the Beaten Path

Posted November 17, 2003 at 2:49pm

American politics stands at a decisive moment in time, or so posits unsuccessful New York gubernatorial candidate and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo, editor of and contributor to “Crossroads: The Future of American Politics” — a book whose recent publication has earned the prominent Democratic scion a flurry of press coverage for his assessment that the Party of Jackson’s recent losses could be chocked up in part to its “timidity” and general incoherence.

In one of the book’s more quotable lines, Cuomo says of the Democratic response to the terrorist attacks: “[W]e handled 9/11 like it was a debate over a highway bill instead of a matter of people’s lives.”

Beyond Cuomo’s incisive attacks on his own party, the book promises the reader a veritable trove of political insight from a diverse mix of individuals running the gamut from former President Bill Clinton and ex-Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) to Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and Linda Chavez.

But instead of Lockean insight, the most stunning thing about “41 of the nation’s most thoughtful citizens,” as Cuomo has generously dubbed this pantheon of contributors, is how uniformly uninspiring their vision of the American political horizon appears.

Ironically, it is the essays of the Democratic presidential candidates (seven of the current contenders are included, as well as a former candidate, Florida Sen. Bob Graham) that prove most disappointing — all of which read more like a recycled stump speech, teeming with sweeping generalities and political pablum, than as a serious blueprint for the nation’s political future.

Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (Ill.) kicks off the “Magnificent Seven” by waxing rhapsodic on the Maori relationship to time before moving on to the importance of diversity, women’s empowerment and the nonlinear nature of progress. Howard Dean’s short and peppy prognosis is chockablock with party-boosting snippets such as “I am optimistic that … the voters will side with us,” and “Republicans favor the few” — both debatable points, but hardly up there with the “Second Treatise of Government,” to put it gently.

Then there is Sen. John Edwards’ (N.C.) thin meditation on the importance of “responsibility, to build a nation as strong as our spirit” and Rep. Richard Gephardt’s (Mo.) boast that he “stood with this administration’s efforts to disarm Saddam Hussein.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) kindly reminds us that security and equal opportunity are paramount virtues; while the Rev. Al Sharpton pontificates on the need to return “the real Democrats” to the party — conveniently omitting to explain what he’d do with all the apparent impersonators currently roaming its ranks. And, in the longest contribution from a presidential aspirant — clocking in at 10, rigorous pages — Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) dispenses the following gem to his fellow Democrats: “[W]e must present a bold agenda that offers truth and vision to all Americans.” No kidding.

For whatever reasons, President Bush is not included in the book, but fellow Republicans such as Rep. Mike Castle (Del.) and former Reps. Watts and Joe Scarborough (Fla.) are, with equally infelicitous results — ranging from Castle’s bold revelation that “[t]he center is where most Americans are” to Watts’ trite assertion that what the country needs is a “New Conservative Strategy for a Better America,” which he proceeds to delineate in all of a single paragraph.

Even the otherwise thoughtful historian Joseph Ellis can’t resist the pull of pithy declaratives, noting that “true American statesmanship will come to depend on the simple talent for straight talk.” Coming from a man who devotes his life to historical examination, the insertion of the “will” is cause for at least a minor pause.

Ultimately, “Crossroads” suffers from a distinctly post-modern affliction of superficies and spin, more appropriate to the campaign war room or focus group than a thinking debate. Cuomo’s idea for such a compendium is not without merit — there are a great many trends, issues and paradoxes currently percolating on the American political landscape that deserve serious reflection. But when many of the very individuals holding or aspiring to the reins of political power produce such maudlin tripe, it’s hard to foresee America’s political future as anything more than a continuation of the highly calculated tug of war that has come to characterize today’s political arena.