When you’re a kid, one of the earliest things you learn is to trust the adults in your world (parents, teachers, uncles, neighbors) and to respect authority. You are taught about who you can ask for help from and who is in charge of what. And for most kids growing up in loving families and decent communities, there is an order to things and this world makes sense. You may not always like it - eat your vegetables, learn your multiplication tables – but the truth is, it’s nice to know that if you just do what you’re told, the grownups will make sure everything is okay.
Then you get a little bit older and you come to despise certain types of authority. This is natural, primal even. Adolescent animals in the wild must challenge their elders in order to mate, in order to learn to fight, and in order that they should learn the harsh lessons of picking the wrong fight. It is this challenge of authority in the final formative years that equips the animal (or person) for its role as an adult in the real world.
When we become adults, we repeat the childhood process of learning about whom to trust and which are the people we have to listen to. The boss must be obeyed and respected, our spouses know better than us sometimes, the community religious leader can be someone we can talk to, the industry regulator is someone we must heed in our daily work, the doctor knows what will make us feel better.
And atop the whole hierarchy of all the authority figures in our lives, real and imagined, there is the Man Behind the Curtain.
He is not quite the president (who is very much in front of the curtain), nor is he necessarily the head of the Federal Reserve or the Secretary of the Treasury. Nor is he the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Director of the CIA or the Secretary of Defense. He is not quite a person, really “he” is just an amalgam of leadership types whose names and faces are totally unrecognizable to the average American. But most of the time, we live our lives subconsciously believing – knowing – that this ephemeral Man Behind the Curtain is pulling the levers and hitting the buttons and watching the screens and making sure the things that need to be done get done.
We are learning our multiplication tables and doing our homework and paying our taxes and teaching our children to share and making minor improvements around the house because that’s what the Man Behind the Curtain wants us to do.
And then every once in awhile, something jolts us awake from this imagined existence under the benevolent guardianship of the Man Behind the Curtain. The curtain is torn away and we are disabused of the notion that there is a worthy presence behind it. What we see instead are Nixon’s henchmen breaking into hotel rooms and blow jobs being given in the Oval Office and Treasury officials rescuing their alma mater investment banks regardless of the cost because they can’t imagine a world existing without them.
Most of the time, The Man Behind the Curtain can successfully keep himself hidden, which is a good thing as it allows us to go on living the lives we want to live while the Really Big Decisions are happening elsewhere, in bunkers and situation rooms and Senate chambers. But for every generation, there is that moment when The Man loses all of his mystique. It is a point-of-no-return moment, a loss of innocence.
When we find out Santa Claus isn’t real, we are immediately consoled by the fact that we’re still going to get presents anyway - I don’t care if this XBox came on a sleigh or in the trunk of my mom’s Acura, as long as I get to kill bad guys and dunk on Kobe. But when we find out that there is no Man Behind the Curtain, there are no gifts of consolation. We are compensated for being on the other end of this shocking discovery with the gifts of cynicism, disillusionment, fear for our families and the weight of adulthood pressing down on our shoulders forevermore.
Ben Bernanke was once a child, picked on and taunted as he stared out the school bus window. Tim Geithner’s teenage hands trembled as he dialed the phone to call that girl from homeroom and when her dad picked up he slammed the receiver down and put his head in a pillow out of embarrassment. Austan Goolsbee remembers the day he realized he wasn’t very good at baseball, that afternoon when he was picked last for the last time and finally threw his glove deep into the back of his closet. Barack stared at his giant ears in the mirror, turning his head side to side to find an angle at which they didn’t make him look goofy. And he wondered about where his dad was. John Boehner had to explain to his mom what all those Playboy magazines were doing under his bed and Harry Reid was ordered to march right back into that five-and-dime to give the candy bar back to the clerk and apologize for taking it.
There is no Man Behind the Curtain. Only former children who, once upon a time, believed that another Man Behind the Curtain was taking care of the Really Big Decisions somewhere far, far away.
Our Man Behind the Curtain is no longer functioning properly. He has gone mad and the curtain lies in tattered shreds around his ankles. He is sweating profusely and debilitated by irreconcilable inner conflict.
Here’s one opinion on him, issued last night and about as widely-followed an opinion as there is in certain circles:
More broadly, the downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges to a degree more than we envisioned…
There will be those who say this opinion means nothing and those who say that it means everything. Some former children will rant and rave “How dare they downgrade us!” Other former children will tease us with “Ya see, I told you this would happen.” Still others will be sulking in the corner, clutching their blankets in fear.
Our Man Behind the Curtain has been both revealed for what he is and now judged in front of all of us. We’ve not been spared any of the humiliation or contradiction that the grownups normally shield us from, we’ve witnessed it all.
The older kids already understood the truth, the younger kids are first finding out for themselves. The Man Behind the Curtain has been exposed once again.
It’s unsettling, even if you already knew.
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