Washington When he took the seals of office in 1940, Winston S. Churchill warned that if his countrymen got stuck in a "quarrel between the present and the past, we should be in danger of losing the future." It was so smart an observation that Sen. John F. Kennedy quoted it when he accepted the Democratic presidential nomination in July 1960, thereby transforming an observation into an aphorism.
This week's ceremony presenting the Profile in Courage Award to Gerald R. Ford for his pardon of Richard M. Nixon perhaps the single most controversial unilateral presidential decision of the postwar era is a reminder of just how neatly and completely the tensions of Watergate have been packed away, as if they were simply scarves and snow boots placed harmlessly in the attic of our memory.
Today hardly anyone refights the wars of Watergate, though they were bloody enough when they occurred. We have, as Ford hoped we might, put all of that behind us. U.S. District Court Judge John J. Sirica, House Judiciary Committee chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr., Atty. Gen. Elliot M. Richardson, presidential lawyer Charles A. Wright none of their names are fighting words anymore. Charles W. Colson is known as much for his church ministry and his spiritual counsel as for his miscreant behavior as special counsel to the president. The phrase "modified limited hangout," in the Nixon era a form of obstructing an investigation, now is more likely to mean a renovated suburban mall with a popular clothing outlet.
But we haven't been quite as successful putting other parts of our history behind us. Indeed, the striking thing about George W. Bush's Washington is how much of the debate in the capital is rooted in disputes from the past. Here are some of them:
l Refighting Vietnam. The Vietnam War itself was a reprise of two important episodes in Western history, the debate over the Munich agreement of 1938 (where the failure of appeasement became plain) and the question of "Who lost China?" in 1949 (where the ease with which Asian nations might fall to communism became clear).
But Vietnam was a tragedy in its own right, and the tensions spawned by the war still are with us. This spring former Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska acknowledged that he and his men killed civilians in a nocturnal operation a third of a century ago. The Kerrey controversy underlined the large, painful divisions in American life caused by the Vietnam War. One of the most anguishing divisions of that war is between those who fought in it and those who didn't and the persistent inability of one group to understand the other.
l Refighting the Reagan wars. Ronald Reagan left office more than a dozen years ago, and yet any consensus about the meaning of the Reagan years remains elusive. For Republicans, Reagan remains a shining symbol of the rebirth of conservatism as a mainstream American ideology after nearly a half-century of liberal ascendancy. For Democrats, Reagan remains a tarnished symbol of intolerance of others and indifference to the poor. Republicans credit Reagan for the triumph of liberty that came with the end of the Cold War and the fall of Soviet Russia. Democrats blame Reagan for the ethos of selfishness that came with the celebration of wealth and the obsession with personal portfolios.
The two sides still cannot agree about the signature proposal of the Reagan years, the 1981 tax cut. Much of the debate of the past several weeks on the Bush tax-cut proposal has been between those who believe the Reagan tax cuts were the salvation of the nation and those who believe they were its ruination.
l Refighting the Clinton impeachment. No recent major American political incident was as partisan as the impeachment and trial of Bill Clinton not the Vietnam War (where there were hawks and doves in both parties), not the impeachment of Nixon (where six Republicans in the House Judiciary Committee voted in 1974 to impeach the president).
The Clinton impeachment had little effect in the country; only one lawmaker, Rep. James E. Rogan, a Southern California Republican who was one of the House impeachment managers, paid an electoral price for his actions in the effort to drive Clinton from the White House. But the Clinton impeachment had enormous effect on the Congress; memories of those difficult months still are vivid on Capitol Hill.
Now President Bush's selection of Theodore B. Olson to be solicitor general is being caught in the choppy backwash of impeachment politics. Olson represented Bush in the Supreme Court case that led to the Texas governor's triumph in the disputed 2000 election, but his original political sin was his involvement in anti-Clinton activities. Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted on his nomination. The vote was 9-9. That is precisely the partisan division in the committee.