Janus is the Roman god of beginnings and endings; of gates, doors, and seasons; and all sorts of metaphorical passages. Associated with time and change, the two-faced god, whose gaze takes in both past and future, presides over all transitions, “whether abstract or concrete, sacred or profane.” He opens and shuts doors with his key, his staff (depicted above as a living branch heavy with fruit) symbolizing his power to determine what prospers. From this architect of the new, the month of January takes its name.
Where the past and future meet, Americans stand, wondering how “happy” or “new” 2019 can be. Given the dismal character of national politics, cries of “Happy New Year!” have a hollow ring. No need to be blithe, given that, in the manner of Janus, the new year will proceed from the year we’ve just had. An impotent Congress, two parties captive to an unproductive quest for partisan dominance, a president whose vulgarity and viciousness are infecting civil society: these conditions, in combination, are weakening and destabilizing one of the most prosperous and powerful nations in the world.
Underlying it all is a decline in social leadership and the dying off of what was formerly an effectively unifying civic culture. In 2018, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the late Senator John McCain, and the late President George H.W. Bush all pleaded for a renewal of civility, comity, and patriotic service, exhorting a new generation to assume the burdens of enlightened and disinterested leadership, in some cases pleading to us from beyond the grave. To my mind, motivating America’s “natural leaders” to resume their traditional role in promoting communal well-being and an enlightened politics is a crucial task that will determine whether this year improves upon a politically dismal 2018.
A new year begins, bumpy with the legacy of all the months and years preceding. On the brink of the presidential primary season, we see patches and hazards ahead that bear the marks of the candidates, their penchants, and those of previous presidential administrations. We advance in a world filled with drones, guns, bombs, hotheads, and uncompromising minorities, some of these made more fearsome by government missteps or inactivity.
The deeds and failures of our political leaders and America’s most powerful citizens shape the society we must make our way in. As we careen into January, it befits us to acknowledge the best and worst of 2015:
Biggest winner Barack Obama, who achieved most of his agenda for 2015. Biggest loser Every state that has refused to expand Medicaid.
Worst politician Rahm Emanuel, narrowly beating out Benjamin Netanyahu. Best politician It’s still Bill Clinton.
Most overrated Scott Walker, once touted as the ideal GOP candidate. Most underrated John Kerry, America’s best statesman since Kissinger.
Most stagnant thinker The US Congress. Most original thinker The creative team behind NASA’s Mars Rover.
Best political theater Pope Francis addressing Congress. Worst political theater Paul Ryan’s beard.
Worst lie That Carly Fiorina is qualified to be president.
Capitalist of the year Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, now owner and invigorator of the Washington Post. Turncoat of the year Ted Cruz, now excoriating a justice he once admired.
Worst political scandal Chicago’s cover-up of police misconduct.
Worst idea That the US should wage war against ISIS in the Middle East. Best idea That everyone living in the US should have a legal status.
Boldest political tactics Donald Trump’s.
Best government dollars spent Investments in NASA that brought us closer than ever to Mars and Pluto. Biggest government waste Most of our military involvement in the Middle East.
Honorable mention The swansongs of John Boehner and Joe Biden.
Enough already! Obamacare repeals.
Sorry to see you go Good-bye to the open out-cry trading pits of Chicago!
Destined for political oblivion in 2016 Marco Rubio, who has foolishly burned his bridges to the Senate. Destined for political stardom in 2016 South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. She is a prime pick for VP.
Image: Ethel Rundquist’s cover illustration
for the January 1916 issue of Vanity Fair, from this source.
New Year’s has often been a working holiday for American statesmen. More than a day of moral resolution, January 1st marks the anniversary of several bold, ambitious actions that have opened new eras and horizons for Americans as a people.
1. SCOUTING THE WEST
New Year’s Day in 1803 found Thomas Jefferson secretly laying the groundwork for the Lewis and ClarkExpedition, a scheme that had to be covert because it proposed scouting out vast tracts of land that at the time belonged to other countries. The French lands now referred to as the Louisiana Purchase would not belong to the United States until the spring, while the Oregon Territory would remain the property of England for many decades. Yet Jefferson was undeterred in his determination to familiarize himself with, and strengthen American claims to, these unknown neighboring regions.
So he began crafting a confidential message to Congress, describing the possible benefits of reconnoitering these lands and asking for an appropriation of the $2,500 necessary to supply the journey. Congress looked with favor on his request, thus inaugurating a initiative that pioneered knowledge of the West’s lands, resources, and native peoples.
The government was rewarded with a treasure-trove of maps and documents that facilitated its later dealings with, and gradual displacement of, native American tribes. Today, we tend to discount the expansionist ambitions that motivated Jefferson, instead lauding the Expedition as an early model of the many progressive scientific projects and surveys the US government would subsequently fund.
2. FREEING THE SLAVE
Sixty years later, President Lincoln spent New Year’s Day greeting callers to the White House and putting his signature on the final version of his Emancipation Proclamation, which was sent out over the telegraph wires later that day. Not unlike the Lewis and Clark expedition, Lincoln’s statement had had a long fruition, with earlier drafts of the measure being floated and discussed the previous fall. Lincoln’s determination to associate the waging of the Civil War with the moral cause of ending slavery marked a tipping point in the long struggle to secure for African-Americans personal freedom and civil equality, a struggle begun decades earlier and continuing on for more than a century, even down to today.
The executive order, which famously declared the freedom of all slaves held in rebel states, was on display at the National Archives in Washington yesterday, on the occasion of its 150th anniversary. Though limited in its scope and practical effects, the proclamation spelled liberation for a people who had suffered oppression since colonial times. Lincoln’s deliberate blow to slavery paved the way for its complete and permanent abolition, accomplished through the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
3. WELCOMING THE IMMIGRANT
Finally, on New Year’s Day in 1892, the first immigrant (of some 16 million) passed through the doors of Ellis Island. It is commonly said that “American is a nation of immigrants,” but the establishment of Ellis Island and other formal points of entry gave that rite of passage a dignity and regularity that was previously missing.
Located near the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island bestowed welcome and the necessary paperwork on immigrants who had previously been less distinguishable from American citizens. At a time when many born Americans went through life without the legal documentation of a birth certificate, Ellis Island conferred a bureaucratic identity on the newly arrived, routinizing a more paper-bound and legalistic conception of Americanness that is with us still. Today, however, Ellis Island stands as a cherished symbol of the rational means the government employed to bind its disparate population into one people.
May these complex and impressive projects inspire today’s political leaders to lift up their sights and grapple bravely with the issues confronting the nation now.