When you watch politics carefully and you have attained a certain age, you often misunderstand it—because you forget how many, many people are far younger than you and do not share the same memories. Some of us who live in New York City spent much of the last mayoral election warning about the consequences of turning back the clock on policing to the days before Rudy Giuliani’s 1993 election—but of course that meant nothing to the 50 percent of the electorate who had no idea what it was like in the city in those years. Now consider the fact that 18 year-olds who will vote for the first time in 2016 were three years old on 9/11 and 10 when Barack Obama was elected, and you have a sense of how the traditional conversation about foreign policy, for example, may make little or no sense of them.
I’ve been struck this morning by two signs of the colossal changes in the world and in the United States since I was in my mid-20s—one significant and one not so significant but telling nonetheless.
The first is that Barack Obama left the United States today to pay an official visit to Estonia. Estonia! It was one of the “captive nations” of Central Europe swallowed up by the Soviet Union—first as part of Stalin’s evil 1939 deal with Hitler, then taken by Germany when Stalin and Hitler turned on each other, then reoccupied by the Soviets in 1944. The United States never recognized the Soviet dominion over Estonia (or Latvia and Lithuania, its fellow “Baltics”), and throughout the Cold War Estonians living in the West maintained its independence through a government in exile. They had currency, they had consulates, they had representatives. I knew a few. They seemed both brave and silly, resolute in their pointless insistence that their country still existed as an independent entity. And then came the fall of the Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union and—just like that—there they were. Free and independent. And, eventually, members of NATO.
If you had told me, in 1986, that a president of the United States would pay a state visit to a free Estonia as a fellow member of NATO, I would have wondered at your sanity. It’s worth remembering, in these dark and depressing days, that some extraordinary things happened in the world a couple of decades ago.
The less significant but still dumbfounding development this morning is the news that Fred Ryan has become the new publisher of the Washington Post. I also knew Fred Ryan. When I was a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, he was the White House scheduler—the man responsible for setting the president’s daily and weekly calendar. He was not known as a “Reaganite”—he was more Nancy Reagan’s man than Ronald’s, and Nancy was considered an ideologically heterodox person by us conservatives—but he did occupy a senior position and then went to serve as Reagan’s chief of staff at the conclusion of the presidency. Anyway, if you had told me, in 1988, that a senior official of the Reagan White House would one day be running the Washington Post, even you would have laughed at the absurdity of the idea.
A quarter century is a long time.