Some thoughts about last week

1. The election last week was an interesting case study on a lot of levels, but one of the most interesting aspects of it to me was how clearly it illustrated the old maxim that history is written by the winners. The Obama campaign’s ground game and superior technology/data/media tactics are certainly what put him over the top, but it was the personal failings of Mitt Romney that put Obama within what was ultimately a field margin in four key swing states that, had he lost them, would have swung the election in the other direction: Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Colorado. It’s entirely possible that the narrative about the death of the Republican party at the hands of millions of new voters that we’re all getting overly excited about now would have been a story about the continued strength of the Republican base instead if the Republicans had fielded another George W. Bush/Karl Rove combo this time around instead of a candidate with virtually no emotional appeal to anyone in either party.

I really want to believe that the demographics of our country are trending in a direction that will force the Republican party to fundamentally change over the course of the next two election cycles, but as John Sides points out, “the growth of pro-Democratic constituencies is happening far too slowly to insulate the party from the natural swings that occur because of economic fundamentals.” In the same vein, the void that Obama and his history-making campaign operation leaves in 2016 is going to more than offset any demographic advantage that accrues to Democrats from increased Latino turnout after comprehensive immigration reform passes sometime next year. Who we run next cycle, and who runs against her (or him), will have more of an impact on who our next President is than how Republicans respond to the demographic cues that were contained in this year’s exit polls…although I have no doubt that they will respond to them, and that public policy will benefit as a result.

2. There’s been an amazing amount of ink spilled, both electronic and otherwise, in pursuit of exposing all the tawdry details and subplots that comprise the downfall of David Petraeus, but the most interesting moment to me will almost certainly never be brought out into the light of day. It’s the moment in time when one of the most celebrated generals of the modern era, a man who personally represents the future of modern warfare more fully than perhaps any other living human being and who was on virtually everyone’s short list for Republican Presidential candidates in 2016–a man who was the head of the CIA at the time and was on the succession list for America’s nuclear strike codes–decided that it was worth risking it all for the sake of having sex with a woman who wasn’t his wife.

Somewhere in his personal history there’s now a choice point that represents the moment in time at which his story and America’s story became forever separate, a single millisecond of intention that overrode the entirety of his long, storied, and far from over career. That’s the real story, in my book, and behind it lie whole sub-stories about his relationship to his wife and his relationship to himself that a) are being completely overpowered by the traditional knee-jerk “shame the women” media impulse and b) are far more relevant to the his life story than how many pages of printed-out emails General Allen sent to Jill Kelley.

There is, indeed, a fine line between success and failure, with strict conditions for the former (including quite a bit of luck, which as my used car manager once taught me is what results when opportunity meets preparation) and no shortage of opportunities to succumb to the latter. On that theme, there are several additional things that jump out at me from the stories above:

  • Over the course of a life and a career any reasonable person is very likely to experience both successes and failures in good measure, only the most sensational of which we’re eventually remembered for by people outside our close personal circles
  • Being a human being is fundamentally about being related in varying degrees to other human beings, and it’s the quality and nature of those personal and professional relationships that ultimately accounts for how we spend our lives and what we get out of them in return
  • If General Petraeus had been more honest with his wife before he ever met Paula Broadwell he might well have eventually become the next President of the United States

History, as Don DeLillo says in Underworld, is “what happens when you connect the dots”–it’s a story that we assemble from the parts we have at hand and the ones we choose in hindsight to keep vs. discard. The most important judgment of your own failures and successes is ultimately your own story about yourself, the personal history you create when you connect the dots that make up your life. That story is all we’re left with in the end, when each of us lies dying in a street or a hospital room or a destroyed, sinking battleship, alone or surrounded by loved ones. Luckily there’s still plenty of time for all of us, Obama and Petraeus included, to make it a story we can be proud of.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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