The last president whose “legacy” was destroyed by presiding over a disastrous war, Lyndon Johnson, was gone less than ten months after he turned himself into a lame duck. But George Bush is going to be the uncowed, unbowed leader of the Free World for nearly two years, a period not much shorter than the entire presidencies of John Kennedy and Gerald Ford. A lot of bad can happen in that time. It was almost two years ago—almost 1,500 American military deaths ago—that Dick Cheney assured us the Iraqi insurgency was “in the last throes.”
This prospect of such an extended, super-slow-motion endgame for the Bush administration feels weirdly familiar, of a piece with the way almost everything in the culture is playing out these days. We think we live in a time where everything changes at warp speed, but we’re simultaneously in a Lame Duck Age, in which the discredited and obsolete and totally over shuffle around in the limelight for years after their sell-by dates.
During the nineties, the millennial churn felt bracing and real. The Soviet Union, the twentieth century’s lame-duck empire, suddenly collapsed in 1991, and Francis Fukuyama declared the End of History. Out with the lingering old, in with the new; reboot! Then came the digital revolution, promising an immediate transmutation of daily life. Reboot! Crime in New York plummeted. Reboot! The September 11 attacks provoked their own instant makeover, ending in one stroke our default Fortress America complacency. And even the speed-clearing of rubble from ground zero, a job finished months ahead of schedule, seemed part of the new presto-change-o way of life.
But five and a half years later, that yawning, sixteen-acre hole in the ground is still there, and the man responsible for creating it, Osama bin Laden, is a lame duck who lives on. The president’s poor buddy Tony Blair has been a lame duck since 2004, when he announced he wouldn’t run for a fourth term. But unlike Bush, Blair has lost his stomach for the fight in Iraq: He’s reportedly planning to withdraw a third of his troops this spring, even though now that he’s immune from political consequences, he could stay the course.
Lame-duck presidents are hobbled domestically. But not militarily. And our commander-in-chief is a gung ho daffy duck—which makes him not so much a duck, come to think of it, as a harassed and wounded grizzly bear or Cape buffalo, more ferocious than ever, possibly dangerous. Consider Richard Nixon’s lame-duck denouement of his war 34 years ago: Six weeks after reelection, he ordered the Christmas Bombings, dropping 20,000 tons of ordnance on North Vietnam in twelve days. (And Nixon and Henry Kissinger, at least, had a precise strategic goal—getting North Vietnam to sign a peace treaty.)
So: How about a U.S. military attack on Iran? Bush is unable to remake the Middle East according to plan, but he apparently still believes with all his heart in what he’s done and what he wanted, and if he can now inflict grave damage on a dangerous enemy regime, why not just … go for it? What does he have to lose? He’s feeling powerless, disrespected, angry, and desperate, unable to achieve his vision but still full of hubris and a divinely inspired willingness to wreak spectacular violence—in other words, I fear, headed toward the psychological neighborhood of a suicide bomber.
The undead lame ducks are everywhere. Although Bill Gates is now a figurehead at Microsoft, he was all over the media last week promoting his company’s new operating system. Jay Leno announced two and a half years ago that he was leaving The Tonight Show, but he will be on for at least two more years.
Nor is our lame-duck world simply a matter of over-the-hill individuals taking a long time to leave the stage. So many of the grand, seemingly permanent institutions and paradigms of the twentieth century now have a fatally diminished and diminishing importance. nato was groping for a new raison d’être as soon as the Soviet Union dissolved, but since 9/11 it has seemed entirely a lame duck, almost as irrelevant as the U.N.
Then there’s the generation of Bush, Blair, Gates, and Leno, born and raised at the same time as nato and the U.N. Their parents, the Greatest Generation, dominated the culture for just a decade or two, from the end of the Second World War until the sixties, and moved on. The baby boomers, on the other hand, have presided for 40 or 50 years, which is tantamount to forever, and will continue to do so for another decade, even as they begin turning 70, lame ducks in total denial. Time, for instance, has been run by a boomer for the last twenty years, and its new editor is the fifth in a row born between 1947 and 1954.
It is extremely odd that among the big concert tours this season are those by the Allman Brothers Band, the Beach Boys, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Crosby & Nash, James Taylor, Sting, Jimmy Buffet, and the Who. Imagine if Benny Goodman and Bing Crosby had endured as glamorous, successful pop stars through the late sixties and seventies and into the eighties. Madonna is 48, Rosemary Clooney’s age in 1976.
Does anyone under 40 not resent this generation’s interminable hegemony? That’s why Barack Obama is trying to have it both ways: a 45-year-old trying to pretend he’s not really a baby-boomer.
And of course, America itself may well be slipping into its long lame-duck period, the way Britain did in the late-nineteenth century. In fact, the slo-mo decline of the British empire looks like a pretty apt model. (Would that we can manage it as gracefully.) For the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the game wasn’t clearly up until after the First World War, and even then they could claim the greatest writers in the world (Joyce, Woolf, the expat Eliot), not unlike the way we’re reassured today by our continuing dominance of global pop culture. After the Great War, another 30 years passed before Britain officially became an also-ran. The U.S. has probably not yet reached our equivalent of 1916—the year the British began their five-year-long nation-building occupation of Mesopotamia—but even a best-case outcome in Iraq (our Boer War?) will not make anybody feel as if the American Century has a new lease on life.
Lame duck emerged as a business term in the eighteenth century (for defaulting London stockbrokers), and American business today consists of a great flock of enormous lame ducks. The U.S. auto industry, stuck with expensive labor costs (extracted by lame-duck labor unions), loses money on every vehicle it sells—which meant a loss last year for Ford of more than $1 billion a month. Yet Ford and GM will continue to muddle along for years more, our gimpy, dying great American behemoths.
And consider big media. “CDs seem so antique,” my 17-year-old daughter remarked the other day. Again and again these days, the record-setting CD sales number isn’t about gold or platinum but for the all-time lowest number of sales by a No. 1 album. Just as our lame-duck-in-chief refused during 2004 and 2005 to face the hard facts in Iraq and shift strategy when he might’ve still had a good shot at succeeding, the big record companies did not in 2000 and 2001 begin seriously reinventing themselves for the digital age. And yet in this lame-duck age, where the outmoded doesn’t disappear, 90 percent of music is still sold in the form of aluminum-coated plastic discs.
MTV remains the biggest brand in music, but it missed the digital boat in the years before YouTube and MySpace, back when it had the leverage to keep artists on the reservation. MTV is no longer the cool destination for its demo and never will be again. In the radio business, the paleo-monopolists at Clear Channel hoovered up (and homogenized) broadcast-music stations in the nineties at the very moment broadcast was becoming a lame-duck technology, serving in the bargain as a great appetite suppressant for young record buyers. It amounts to a kind of death-spiraling symbiosis among the largest lame ducks, like Detroit with the UAW, each making life more untenable for the other long-term.
People started talking about the broadcast-TV networks as lame ducks in the late eighties, but they remain the entities, HBO aside, for which producers and writers most yearn to produce shows. In lame-duckish Hollywood, the Zeitgeist is encoded in the movies themselves. Four of the five Best Picture nominees concern old-school hegemons desperately dealing with their endgames: The Departed, about the Irish Mafia in Boston; The Queen, about the British monarchy; Letters From Iwo Jima, about imperial Japan; and Babel, about imperial America. Another of the best films of last year, Children of Men, depicts humans as a lame-duck species who will require a whole grim century to die off.
On the other hand, even as the various twilights linger on and on, I take heart in the prospect of the new dawns. And I don’t (just) mean three cheers for digital media and globalization and a decent 44th president. I badly want to believe, for instance, in the theses of two recent books by African-Americans that portray the old-fashioned binary salience of race as a defunct, lame-duck mode of thought. In American Skin, Leon Wynter says that the unprecedented cultural prominence of black performers has made “American” an inherently transracial category. And conversely, in The End of Blackness, Debra Dickerson argues that blacks’ continuing default to racially based self-identity and accusations of racism is a self-defeating anachronism. “The shackles are off, the ball and chain are gone,” Dickerson says. “To hear it from the traditional black—and white—left, you would think it’s still 1950 … We’ve outgrown ‘the Negro problem,’ but it’s blacks who still want to see themselves as the Negro problem.”
T.S. Eliot, who left the up-and-coming U.S. for lame-duck Britain back at the other end of the American Century, had it right: “Life is very long / Between the desire / And the spasm / Between the potency / And the existence … This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.” But enough already with all these extended, whimpering ends. Next! Let the worlds be reborn anew.