I once worked as a speechwriter for a politican who wrote his own speeches. My job was to write the draft. He would edit my version to the point of unrecognisability, then scrap the entire produce and rewrite it himself, preserving the odd fragment of what I’d written. And for the big speeches, he would almost always bring in the words “America is at a crossroads.” Well, I’m a writer, and I didn’t like being known by friends as someone who thought it was profound and original to think of America as at a crossroads.
So I brought it up with him. If America is at a crossroads, I argued, then America is always at a crossroads — national elections are always highly significant, policy decisions always affect future generations — and so the phrase is meaningless. His response was that if Congress and the President didn’t reform entitlement spending, the country wouldn’t exist in 50 years’ time; so yeah, he said, America’s at a crossroads.”
He had a point. Still, I couldn’t help thinking that America’s position at a crossroads had a lot to do with a contemplated presidential run on his part. Any man running for high office has convinced himself that his country faces the most important choice in a generation; and that is reified, he’s convinced, in the choice between him and the other guy. “This year marks the centennial anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth,” wrote Jon Huntsman in the Wall Street Journal — Huntsman happens to be running for president — “and America finds itself at a crossroads.”
That’s the thing about crossroads. We’re always finding ourselves at one. It’s the readiest of ready-made refrains, the truest of truisms. When Andrew Cuomo published a book in preparation for his campaign for governor of New York in 2002, he must have found it impossible not to entitle it Crossroads: The Future of American Politics — a book, which, incidentally, averages something like 1.5 cliches per sentence: “We must have the courage of our convictions. We must be ready to refuse the course of least resistance, to confront the seemingly popular, and to offer a vision that looks beyond the next poll to the next decade and the next generation.”
The country-at-a-crossraods idea is now part of American politics. Hence Representative Eric Cantor after the 2010 change of power in Congress: “Years from now, people will look back on this election and say, ‘America was at a crossroads. America had a choice to make. And we chose a better way.'” Well, maybe; but it seems to me we came to a crossroads in 2008 and chose a profoundly stupid way. (And why, by the way, do political crossroads involve only two choices? Literal crossroads involve three: left, right, straight ahead.)
Every four years the pundits and candidates agree that this is “the most important election in a generation” or some variant of the same idea. Every four years they tell us we’re at a crossroads. And every four years, they’re right.