The recent death of Christo — the exuberant artistic visionary who devoted his life to draping public spaces — brought back memories of one of the most glorious afternoons of my life. On a crisp February day in 2005, I flowed like a river through Central Park marveling at Christo’s saffron-colored installation called “The Gates” that briefly made Manhattan feel at one with Tibet.
This was not an homage to high art, but rather a communal event without an admission charge. Walking under more than 7,000 decorated wooden gates were a democratic assembly of New Yorkers and tourists alike, reveling in the torrent of color against winter’s bare trees.
Now, in the midst of the saddest spring in memory, I wonder how long it will be before Americans of different backgrounds again come together like that with no agenda beyond the joy of the moment.
It’s not just COVID-19, since America has recovered from other pandemics and other economic collapses. It’s not just the terrible events of the last week again reminding us how close overt racism and deranged violence are to the surface of contemporary American life.
Rather, it’s the sudden sense of how fragile everything we used to take for granted seems at the moment. Every word, every gesture, every overt action seems designed to tear us apart.
How did wearing a mask — a standard health practice for over a century to prevent spreading disease — become an anger-making political statement?
In 1918, when the influenza death toll was even higher than today, no one snarled that only Woodrow Wilson-loving Democrats left home with their mouths and noses covered. While cities were tragically too slow to shut down in the face of the epidemic, no one marched on state capitols with guns to demand their rights to get a barber shave or to play pool.
When Joe Biden began his presidential race, he spoke honestly and nostalgically about the lessons that he absorbed in the Senate of the 1970s. Before these tales were deleted from the soundtrack of the Biden campaign because they often involved segregationist senators, they provided a window into how the former vice president views the task of governing and persuasion.
In Nashua, New Hampshire, in mid-May 2019, Biden recalled a long-ago dust-up with Jesse Helms, the reactionary North Carolina Republican. This dispute prompted a summons by Senate Democratic leader Mike Mansfield.
Biden set the scene with “Iron Mike” as if it were yesterday, down to Mansfield sucking on an empty corncob pipe. But what stayed with Biden for nearly five decades was Mansfield’s legislative advice: “It’s always appropriate to question another man’s or woman’s judgment. But never question their motives. If you question their motives, you can never get to agreement.”
Embedded in those words was the message of the Biden campaign — that it is possible for Washington to return to an era when disagreements were based on policy and not on unalterable judgments of moral character. As Biden put it in his announcement video, “I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time.”
How I wanted to believe, like Biden, that Donald Trump was only “an aberrant moment in time.” How I wanted to believe that it was possible, as George H.W. Bush put it in 1988, to create a “kinder, gentler nation.”
But these days, I worry that I was naive.
Most Republicans were eerily quiet as Trump peddled quack cures for the coronavirus from his White House podium and bragged about nonexistent testing facilities as the death rate approached and then surpassed 100,000.
What does it say about a Republican Party that proudly embraces a president unable to offer more than perfunctory consolation to a nation in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century?
It is disheartening what we now accept as normal presidential behavior.
Trump’s response to the worst urban uprisings in decades — riots partly sparked by police brutality — was to tell the nation’s governors Monday, “If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you, you’re going to look like a bunch of jerks.”
But it is more than just Trump. He is the political product of a television culture that feeds on conflict — the more vicious and personal, the better.
More than a half-century ago, in the midst of another era punctuated by domestic violence, Theodore White wrote presciently, “One irrevocable cowardice binds all men in television — television dare not be dull. The logic is simple: If a television show is dull, it loses its audience.”
Those words from “The Making of the President 1968” help explain why every night the dominant image on cable TV is burning police cars. This is not to diminish the bravery of reporters in the streets — or to wash away the despicable attacks by police on law-abiding journalists trying to document a story.
But the inadvertent result of this “if it bleeds, it leads” style of coverage has been to downplay the nationwide peaceful protests by tens of thousands mourning the killing of George Floyd. It also helps explain why too many Americans will accept Trump’s overheated bluster about “dominance” and the need for heavily armed police to emulate Gen. George Patton.
I still cling to the hope that we will muddle through. Maybe the healing will not come immediately after Trump leaves office. But after four decades writing about politics and government, I can’t bring myself to believe that the American experiment in democracy is doomed. Though, sadly, this week that faith is being tested.
Walter Shapiro has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.