Regrets only


IT'S OFTEN used as a sour quip, the sentence "Hindsight is always 20-20," a dismissive remark, a coda. But then you see hindsight with tears in its eyes, and realize that perhaps this is one of our greatest tragedies, that our mistakes become clear to us only when we see them over our shoulders, trailing us like an ugly dog.

Hindsight is 20-20 for Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense who raised the Vietnam War from its childhood through its horrid years as an uncontrollable early adolescent.

Hindsight is 20-20 for Lee Atwater, the twangy campaign whiz who never met a clever, nasty remark he didn't like and who helped make George Bush palatable, and president.

Both men are troubled by their pasts, which would be only terribly sad if it were not that their pasts are our history. Because of that, their torment is a national tragedy, and their regrets prefigure our future.

Atwater writes in the current issue of Life magazine about the days since he discovered that he had a malignant brain tumor. The pictures are heartbreaking.

Somewhere inside the bloated, limp body in bed and wheelchair is the sassy guitar player who celebrated the 1988 Republican victory by throwing a blues concert.

He talks about the triumphs, but what it all comes down to is this: that he has found God and discovered the sheer meanness of his professional style.

"In 1988," he says, "fighting Dukakis, I said that I 'would strip the bark off the little bastard' and 'make Willie Horton his running mate.' I am sorry for both statements: the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound racist, which I am not."

McNamara appears in Time, talking to Carl Bernstein, and his words make you want to weep, for him and for our bungled opportunities.

Of Vietnam he says, "because of misinformation and misperceptions, there are misjudgments as to where a nation's interests lie and what can be accomplished."

It is a statement with great resonance these days. Of the exaggeration of the communist threat he concludes, "We could have maintained deterrence with a fraction of the number of warheads we built."

The regrets of two men, one aging, the other dying. Atwater helped poison the level of electoral discourse, so that those two words may never seem seemly in tandem again.

McNamara was a primary architect of the war that cost this country thousands of young lives and its illusions about itself. In different ways, at different times, they contributed to the notion that we are a nation of bullies.

Can George Bush's second thoughts on the war in the Persian Gulf be many decades behind?

It reminds me of fathers who come to their children, now grown, and say: "These are the mistakes I made. Please forgive me." And we do forgive, but we are saddled with our characters, shaped by those mistakes.

It reminds me of what that graceful writer Paul Fussell, at work on an anthology of writings about war, once said: "If we do not redefine manhood, war is inevitable."

And Atwater's words about one of his daughters, pretending to interview him: "She had seen me interviewed so many times on TV, perhaps she thought that was the only way she could find out the truth.

"Watching her, I felt guilty about the degree to which my career -- and my illness -- have robbed me of crucial time with my children."

And McNamara, who says that his wife's death may have been hastened by the national trauma of Vietnam -- "she was with me on occasions when people said I had blood on my hands" -- and who is asked by Bernstein about the people who really know him, the real McNamara, the inner man. Here is the answer:

"People don't know, and probably not my kids. And let me tell you that's a weakness. If you're not known emotionally to people, it means you haven't really communicated fully to people. I know it's a weakness of mine. But I'm not about to change now."

We're not about to change now. Manhood stands with its old definitions: aggression, winning at all costs, work over family, control over vulnerability. And, finally, regrets as corrosive as Atwater's disease, as sad as McNamara's eyes -- about what we did in the world, about who we are at home, two things that are inseparable.

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