"Nobody knows, from sea to shining sea, why we are having all this trouble with our republic."

That's the opening sentence of "Ninety-Two in the Shade," a 1973 novel by Thomas McGuane. The actual story is about a grudge between fishing guides in the Florida Keys.

It's a widely acknowledged great first sentence, even if it’s also a bit of a bridge to nowhere.  The readers are expected to make whatever sense of it they can, either in terms of the plot or the world outside the novel. McGuane would have been writing during the early stirrings of Watergate to say nothing of the publication of the Pentagon Papers and the bombing of Cambodia and other mayhem either caused or abetted by Henry Kissinger.

Kissinger died in Kent on Wednesday at 100, which doesn’t prove Billy Joel right about only the good dying young but is a data point. Also in 1973, Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize, an early sign that writers such as McGuane, who trafficked in irony and paradox, were going to be outpaced by reality.

I read that novel 50 years ago, when I was 19.  I bet not one of the intervening years has passed without my at least mouthing those words quietly to myself. "Nobody knows, from sea to shining sea …"

In 2017, McGuane acknowledged that the line seemed even more prescient. "These are terrible times," he told a journalist. "The country is imperiled. It was imperiled when I was writing 'Ninety-Two in the Shade,’ but there was such free-floating optimism in the culture. America still felt like a place to re-create yourself."

I think we can all agree that free-floating optimism in 2023 is available only via prescription and that you shouldn’t operate heavy machinery after taking what you took to induce it.

Which brings me to Chris Murphy,

Born the year McGuane’s novel came out, Murphy is, by his own account, on a mission to "diagnose and treat the metaphysical state of America" which he concedes is "a little outside the traditional sandbox that we tend to play in." By "we," he mostly means members of the U.S. Senate and perhaps the American political establishment at large.

The symptoms include disillusionment and loneliness. Murphy concedes that leading "a conversation about the spiritual health of America … might be beyond my capacities."

All of this comes from a profile in the current issue of Vanity Fair. It might be dismissive to call the profile "fawning," but it would not be inaccurate. Everybody loves Chris, from philosopher to NBA basketball coach Steve Kerr who calls him "amazing to watch." Impressive praise from a man who watches Steph Curry every day.

In Mark 6:4 we are told, "a prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house." This is often true in politics. Murphy is well enough liked in Connecticut that he keeps winning elections, but in the last few years, he has risen to heights of interstate popularity that might surprise the folks at the American Legion post in Derby.

On a recent podcast, four New York Times columnists conducted a "fantasy draft" of possible 2024 presidential scenarios that did not involve people named Trump or Biden. Never-Trumper conservative Ross Douthat, who lives in Connecticut, fantasized about a Murphy vs. J.D. Vance contest.

Douthat has to know that Murphy and Vance have been sort of speed dating, politically, of late. The Ohio Republican said he and Murphy "get along" despite their ideological differences.

This is one of two things Murphy has been trying to do: explore a political realignment that might somehow melt the hard frost of estrangement currently gripping Washington, D.C., and yonder places.

He was the architect of the 2022 Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which is the actual title of the composite law addressing gun violence by including mental health and school safety alongside stuff like background checks. It’s weird to put "Bipartisan" in the name of the act, but maybe they thought "Goldilocks" sounded too informal.

Murphy has been trying to do what politicians and pundits keep saying doesn’t happen anymore: keep the conversation going with the other side, give a little to get a little.

The other thing Murphy is trying to do is that metaphysical thing, that first principles thing, that "why we are having all this trouble with our republic" thing.

In this laudable effort, some among us will hear echoes of President Jimmy Carter’s famous "crisis of confidence" speech, better known as the "malaise address," although the m-word was not uttered by Carter.

Speaking on July 15, 1979, Carter chucked out his plan to speak, for the fifth time, about the nation’s ongoing energy crisis and instead spoke spiritually.

"It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt of the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of unity and purpose as a Nation. The erosion of confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and political fabric of the nation," he said.

In collective memory, the speech was a wounded duck and possibly the thing that roasted Carter’s peanut once and for all.

In the moment, it was kind of a hit. Carter’s approval rating "soared" from 26 to 37. More strikingly, 77 percent of those polled agreed with his thesis "that there is a moral and spiritual crisis, that is, a crisis of confidence, in the country today."

I think Murphy is right about everything: the existential emptiness of many Americans right now, the wasting effect it has on public discourse, the necessity of addressing it, the possibility it might be more than he can chew, the imperative to try anyway.

I met Murphy in 2002 at the Aqua Turf in Southington. (Why do we remember certain things?) He was a state representative readying for a leap to the state senate, and there was enough buzz about him so that someone brought me over to make an introduction.

The speaker that night was former President Bill Clinton, which is either fitting or ominous.  The Clintons, especially Hillary, also dallied, circa 1992, with theologians and philosophers in pursuit of what they called "a politics of meaning." This was meant to address, among other things, the reflexive reluctance of Democrats to talk about public policy in the context of morality and spiritual values.

I’m put in mind of a Lyle Lovett song that goes, "She wasn’t good, but she had good intentions."

I think Murphy will do better. He looks for all the world like a politician who has turned a corner. The entire species is usually assumed to be guilty of self-interest until proven innocent.

Every so often, one of them lifts his or her head up out of the muck and asks, "What is the point of this job, if I can’t say what I really think?"

If I’m honest, I wouldn’t have bet on Murphy to be that guy 12 years ago, but he looks like he is. It may not matter - given the immensity of the funk we’re in and the unlikelihood of government knowing how to mend our souls - but his pilgrim’s progress will be interesting to watch.