The Public Interest

Lessons of Limits

R. Shep Melnick

Fall 1984

TO A GREAT EXTENT, contemporary American politics revolves around competing evaluations of the politics of the 1960s and 1970s. Both Ronald Reagan and Gary Hart have denounced the "failed policies of the past,'" leaving Walter Mondale alone to defend the Democratic legacy of the past 20 years. The coincidence of elections and decades is, after all, far too neat for political pundits to ignore. The Eisenhower and Reagan presidencies sit as bookends to two decades of Democratic supremacy. Add to this the analogy of Vietnam to El Salvador, and the temptation to devise definitive lessons from recent history becomes irresistible. Thus the effort of political candidates to emphasize ties to key figures of the past (Mondale with Humphrey, President Reagan with Governor Reagan) or to manufacture such ties (Gary Hart with JFK) is more than a crass attempt to cash in on nostalgia. Underlying it is a desire to use personification to make sense of an era of nearly unprecedented political change.

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