By MARSHA MERCER
At a stylish Spanish restaurant in the Washington suburbs, the sangria flowed and luscious plates of food landed with the usual flourish before appreciative patrons. But Jim wore a glum expression as he looked around the bustling dining room.
“I’ve been downgraded,” he said.
Not exactly. Jim and his wife Sandy live in Chicago, where they both have good jobs and are far from hurting financially. But Jim, like many Americans, took personally Standard & Poor’s recent decision to drop the United States’ credit rating from AAA to AA-plus.
The downgrade was a public humiliation, a psychic slap, another sign – as if anyone needed it -- that this country isn’t what it used to be. The nagging doubt we try to keep at arm’s length crept a little closer. Is this the beginning of the end of the American age?
Maybe Joseph Heller had it right in “Catch-22”: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”
Whoa. Let’s step in off the ledge. Two other agencies – Moody’s and Fitch -- have left our sterling credit rating in place. Maybe S&P did use faulty math, as the administration says. In any event, S&P didn’t blame the American people for the mess we’re in; it blamed reckless politicians and policies.
“The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America's governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed,” S&P’s analysts said in their report. They don’t trust the politicians to make the hard revenue and spending choices needed to get the country on solid ground. This isn’t ideal, but it’s not the end of America.
Trying to show he was unconcerned, President Obama waited a weekend before offering tepid reassurance that “No matter what some agency may say, we have always been and always will be a triple-A country.” As he spoke, though, the stock markets were engaged in ritual blood-letting on their way to losing 450 points that day.
Amid the chaos of a broken government, teetering economy and stomach-churning financial markets, questions naturally arise. Among them: Who are we Americans and where are we headed?
As it happens, such soul-searching about the national identity is not new. America began as a Great Experiment for promoting human happiness, and after Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers died, 19th century Americans worried constantly if they would be able to keep the experiment going, says Claire Perry, guest curator of a new exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
“They began to call themselves ‘an inventive people’ as they pondered the question: What, exactly, should their democratic nation be?” Perry writes in “The Great American Hall of Wonders,” the exhibit’s fascinating catalogue.
The “Hall of Wonders” exhibit, which runs through Jan. 8, showcases American imagination and ingenuity from the 1820s to 1870s. The 161 items include paintings, sculptures, prints, photographs, drawings, illustrations and patent sketches and models.
The American Art Museum is housed in the first Patent Office building, which was constructed by President Andrew Jackson in 1836. By the 1850s, more than a hundred thousand people a year flocked to see models and drawings of the newest gizmos in what became known as the “temple of invention.”
Imagination so bubbled in the 19th century that even politicians were creative.
Years before he occupied the White House, Abraham Lincoln saw the difficulty boat captains had maneuvering the untamed rivers of the Midwest. He was 40 and had just ended his term in Congress when he received a patent for his “Device for Buoying Vessels over Shoals” in May 1849. The drawing submitted with his patent application is displayed. The device involving bellows was never manufactured. Lincoln is the only president with a patent.
The 19th century was a time of many wonders but it was not wonderful. The Civil War was catastrophic, and the exhibit reminds us of the decimation of the buffalo by gun and train, the tyranny of the clock on human sleep and work schedules, and the widespread destruction of nature.
Being downgraded from AAA status is no fun, but we Americans have weathered far worse.
© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.