JULY 28, 2001
The Political Uses of Moving On
By TODD GITLINncreasingly, Americans are being told to "move on" — to leave uncomfortable feelings and unpleasant events behind us — especially when it would be convenient for certain public figures if we forgot them. This month, for example, The New York Times found there had been unequal handling of some military absentee ballots and counting of illegal military ballots in Florida last fall. Ari Fleischer, President Bush's press secretary, in response, offered this airy comment: "This election was decided by the voters of Florida a long time ago, and the nation, the president and all but the most partisan Americans have moved on."
A president, of course, has important work to do and can't dwell on Election Day. But sometimes the moving on of certain politicians and their supporters is a compound of amnesia, contempt, bravado and optimism, and their exhortations to the public to join in have a self-serving ring.
Moving on is also selective. Consider the varying national memories of the Vietnam War or of the deaths of American servicemen during a botched mission in Somalia: the appeal to move on often depends on whose party gets a political advantage from reviving unpleasant memories.
Selectivity is particularly strong in matters of scandal. During the many months of political battle about Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate, Paula Jones and, not least, Monica Lewinsky, Democrats called upon the Republican-dominated Congress to move on. The Web site moveon.org sprang up, collecting hundreds of thousands of on-line signatures, to lobby Congress to censure President Bill Clinton and then get back to the nation's business. Today, when the subject is the questionable Bush win in Florida, some Democrats disdain the Republicans' determination to move on.
There are differences, however, between the moving-on arguments made in these two controversies.
Moveon.org called on Congress to censure Mr. Clinton before moving on, acknowledging the president's moral culpability while distinguishing it from legal culpability. By contrast, the current White House call to move on beyond the Bush campaign's tactics in Florida blames no one for the apparent failures of the Florida election system, preferring amnesia. Tone is different, too. During most of Mr. Clinton's years in the White House, major Republican figures hammered away at him as if on a crusade, and news media and commentators joined in, keeping the denunciations going even after Mr. Clinton had left the White House. In comparison, today's Congressional Democrats look remarkably relaxed. They are not traveling the country deploring Republican immorality, and Senate committees now headed by Democrats have not leaped to investigate the Florida voting or to try to rectify deficiencies in the nation's electoral system. Nor are many denunciations found in the press, which is otherwise occupied.
Casting a blind eye on the past is not new, least of all in America, where optimism wins elections. "For 200 years we've lived in the future," Ronald Reagan said in 1980. In the land of the smiley face, "Happy Days Are Here Again" could be an anthem for any party. But when the country risks forgetting deficiencies in the democratic process, there should be no statute of limitations on remembering.
Todd Gitlin is professor of culture, journalism and sociology at New York University and author of the forthcoming ``Media Unlimited.''
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company