Institutionalizing Compassion

Writing in the mid-1980’s, Forrest McDonald observed that America’s founders would have recognized their handiwork as late as the early 1960’s, but not after.  Despite technological changes, the Civil War, the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and two world wars, the governments most Americans dealt with were state and local.  Except for the draft board and the efficient Post Office, Americans had little contact with the federal government.  Federal income and Social Security taxes still were fairly low for the middle class.  That’s one reason why the early 1960’s remain the last pleasant time in the imaginations of conservatives and many liberals.  For conservatives, it was the time I wrote of above; and of the promise of the Goldwater movement.  For liberals, it was the days of the civil-rights marches, President John F. Kennedy’s Camelot, and, after Kennedy was shot, the hope of racial equality and the end of poverty.  Even our popular culture celebrates these years as an irenic time, as American Graffiti and Mad Men suggest.  This is the era in which the drama of The Passage of Power, the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s detailed biography of America’s 36th president, unfolds.  The book begins in 1958, as Johnson still reigns over the Senate while planning for a presidential run in 1960.  The projected fifth volume, which...

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