Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Author and the Indispensable Man

The Author and the Indispensible Man

A number of years ago I ran into a famous author, and we walked together for a few blocks up Madison Avenue.  We didn’t know each other (I try to be as obscure as possible) but that didn’t matter to him, because he was completely and totally smashed.  He had obviously stopped someplace for a pick-me-up, and, perhaps needed more picking-up than I might have, and having apparently accomplished his mission of achieving the requisite blood-level of picked-up-ness, was in a wonderfully expansive mood.

He just talked, and I listened, to his gleeful, distinctly patrician voice, so ripe and pleased and redolent of all the warmth he had consumed, and I just kept grinning because I was having such a blast. 

I still smile when I think of those few minutes. Everything I’ve ever been able to read about him or by him gets across this same joyousness—an extraordinary enthusiasm for participating in life, and doing so honestly and with sensitivity.  You got the sense he liked people and wanted to do right by the world.  Might have made a fine politician, if he had been so inclined.

I hadn’t thought about that chance meeting until I read David Brooks’ evisceration of Hillary Clinton in this Tuesday’s New York Times.  Brooks, while not of the manor born, comes from the rarefied atmosphere of being a William F. Buckley acolyte at National Review, and having been fortunate enough to have been drawn into a lush environment of fierce but civil debate, and the excellent bottle (or two) that emerged from his limitless cellars.  Read Brooks and you find someone less vivacious as Famous Author or Buckley, but still someone who appreciates community and the ability to work towards shared aspirations.   Brooks, too, might have been a decent politician, if in a more minor key. His methods would be different, but I think that he, too, would want to do right by people.

Yet, this piece, “Goodness and Power” seems to come from a different place altogether.  He starts by mentioning a Pew poll that shows independents think Clinton is a strong leader, but not trustworthy. He then spends the rest of the column talking about why this deficiency is fatal in a leader, or at least a good leader.

Brooks isn’t a polemicist, and the overt ferocity of the column took me aback. But, it was very much in keeping with a conversation I had earlier that day with an accomplished and highly educated friend, who also ripped into Hillary, then spent a few additional moments trashing Democrats in general. When he was finished, I asked him what I couldn’t ask David Brooks: “OK, I get it, Hillary and the Democrats are horrible.  Tell me something positive about the Republicans.  What good things are they going to do for the country?”

He didn’t have a satisfactory answer.  In fact, besides mentioning that the GOP had better economic ideas (something I might agree with him on in limited areas) he didn’t have much of an answer at all.  In fairness, I can (and I have, and will again in the future) go off on my own rant about Marco Rubio’s craven collapse on immigration reform, or Jeb Bush’s dynastic presumption in the absence of actual accomplishment, or Rand Paul’s oddities, or Scott Walker’s jack-o-lantern grin of malevolence, or just about anything at all about Ted Cruz.  

So, David Brooks and my friend can’t stand Hillary and I can’t stand some of the GOP front-runners.  Collectively we are about to vote “none of the above” on what we perceive as a pervasive lack of trustworthiness and an excess of raw ambition.

But what all this anger-laced none-of-the-above really does is remind you of how delicate an instrument our government is. We accept the results of elections, for two or four or six years, because we trust the checks and balances system the Founders devised.  Less ethereally, we also accept the results because we expect that our electeds, even if we didn't vote for them, will not deliberately act to our detriment.  

Yet, by nature we are partisan people. To reconcile the two halves, to gain voluntary compliance until the next time, we must have a collective element of what Brooks ascribed to individual leaders like Churchill, TR, and Washington.  Brooks speaks of a dual consciousness--an inner moral voice that provides a pathway to correct choices,  coupled with a “canny outer voice” to deal with the realities of politics. 

I was intrigued that Brooks mentioned Washington, because it recognizes a more complicated reality that defies the conventional image of him as a virtuous, even pious, figure carved from marble.  The real man wasn’t a statue draped in robes—rather he was the one seen in the terrific standing portrait by Charles Wilson Peale of Washington at the Battle of Princeton.  That Washington is a powerfully built, vigorously physical man, one hand on his hip, holding his three-corned hat, the other on a cannon, totally calm, totally dominant.

But Washington was more than a General.  He was a leader of an emerging nation that stood on very shaky ground, and he sought a stronger foundation.  He knew that the original Articles of Confederation, which left the central government as simply a debating society, with no taxing power and no central army, was inadequate for supporting a nation still at risk. He knew that it would have to be replaced with a system that took powers from the States and vested them in a central government with a powerful Executive.  He knew that centralizing government was going to run counter to the interests of hundreds of politicians and local powers who were very comfortable making their own rules and running their own fiefdoms.

Washington knew something else as well—he knew that if it appeared that he was doing this to achieve personal power, he would sow suspicion and resentment, and the whole project would fail of misguided communal ambition.  He feared that could cost the states their hard-won independence.  So, he did everything with a purpose.  The images of Washington in those days were the ones he wanted seen.  Washington quelling the uprising in Newburgh by disaffected soldiers merely by his presence and a few artful words and gestures.  Washington saying farewell to his officers, with many tears exchanged.  Washington sending a final letter to the Continental Congress as he retires to Mount Vernon.  And, more quietly, an above-the-fray Washington writing private letters to influential people advocating for a constitutional Convention, and lending it legitimacy by being the (silent) Speaker of that Convention, all the while gently persuading people behind the scenes. 

What he accomplished was a second Revolution.  If you want to look at why we are a nation today, a united States, you can see Washington’s inner moral voice, and his canny outer one.  At that special moment in time, where so many people could say no, there was only one individual who earned enough of the confidence of his countrymen, to lead the nation to a constitutional government—in the historian James Flexner’s perfect phrase, “The Indispensable Man.”

Indispensability is in very short supply these days, and we don't need a third Revolution.  Personally, I would settle for a little bit of Famous Author’s joyousness, and a lot of Washington’s dual consciousness. 

If it works out, we can talk about monuments later.

April 30, 2014

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Churchill Election

On May 7th, 1945, the Germans formally surrendered to the Allied forces, ending World War II in Europe.  On August 6th and 9th, 1945, we dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  On August 15th, 1945, Emperor Hirohito took to the airwaves for the first time, to announce to his people that the Japanese had accepted the terms of the Potsdam Declaration, and surrendered.  The formal articles were signed on the Battleship USS Missouri on September 2, 1945, with General Douglas MacArthur presiding. 

Most of the world exploded in unrestrained celebration and relief. But, in between V-E Day and V-J Day, something rather unusual occurred.  Back in Britain, the wartime coalition that had held together for 10 years broke up, with the Labour Party Ministers unwilling to continue without another election.  The Cabinet resigned, a caretaker government was formed, and on July 5, 1945, the first election in ten years was held.  The results were shocking.  The Conservatives lost their majority in Parliament.  Winston Churchill, the physical embodiment of the stubborn British Bulldog that had survived merciless tests from ruthless adversaries, was reelected to Parliament by his constituency, but as the leader of the now-minority party, was shown the door of 10 Downing Street. 

There are a number of theories for this, including the rather interesting one that it had been so long since there had been an election that many forgot that loss of control of Parliament would mean Churchill would simply be an MP.  But the consensus was that it was time for a change—that an era had ended, and a new one had to begin.

Churchill himself was a bridge to an astonishing change in reality.  Born to an aristocratic family in 1874 (supposedly, he never bathed or dressed himself without an attendant) he was old enough to have seen action in the Second Boer War (1899-1902), served as First Lord of the Admiralty in WWI (advocating for the disastrous action at Gallipoli), and Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1926, where he reportedly suggested the machine-gunning of striking miners, before ascending to Prime Minister in 1940.   He was a fierce advocate of colonialism, did not faint at the sight of either blood or just garden variety human suffering, and detested Gandhi.  He thought in terms of imperial power, the primacy of the British Navy, and Empire.

But, for the electorate that turned him out in 1945, the differences between the glorious past that Churchill represented and uncertain future they faced couldn’t have been starker. If you think of the voting electorate in deciles, from 21 to Churchill’s age, there wasn’t a single group of adults who hadn’t experienced, first-hand, the loss from war or economic depression.  World War II was the final, cataclysmic event, but the cracks in the old order had been growing for decades. 

The British were different.  Unlike the craven French, they had fought the enemy nobly.  This bravery went beyond the men in the field—civilians spent nights in crowded bomb shelters, rationed, volunteered, dug ditches, filled sandbags, and were such a stoic picture of endurance that Edward R. Morrow’s descriptions of their sacrifice during the Blitz helped turn the tide of public opinion in the United States.

That difference had earned them admiration, but, in sports parlance, they left it all on the field, and now they were bled dry, exhausted, their Empire teetering.  Churchill’s ringing rhetoric, his adamantine refusal to give in when the enemy was at the gate and the rest of the world stood cowed or paralyzed was suddenly no longer the point.  As much as they respected him, the country ached for a different direction.   

I wonder if, looking towards the 2016, we aren’t in the same place, feeling the same anxiety and displacement, wondering whether our politicians, and even our system, are up to the job.  When Barack Obama leaves the White House in January 2017, we will have been at war for nearly 15 years—and those wars will have accomplished little more than immense wreckage and uncontrolled chaos. Put your politics aside for a minute and ask yourself whether Iran would have been this much of a threat if we hadn’t blown up Iraq.  Domestically, we have been in a sustained period of enhanced economic disparity, where the majority is, at best, treading water.  The gap between rich and poor, the gap between executive pay and worker pay has grown to a chasm.  You can argue that pointing it out is class warfare—and maybe it is—but you cannot deny it exists, nor can you deny that our electeds have turned into rent-seekers who do everything possible to serve the economic elites.  As to politics, the environment has been intensely toxic for two decades, ever since Bill Clinton’s bungled first two years unleashed Newt and an endless cycle of petty, nasty tit for tat.

Democracy is a difficult thing, because it demands of us that we be better than our worst instincts.  Winners have to strike a balance between advancing policy initiatives and majority tyranny.  And losers must strike one between constructive opposition and nihilism.  The temptation is always there—to overreach, to enjoy power at the expense of the greater good. The Founders understood this, they warned against it, and they tried to devise a system that would foster competitive cooperation.

The problem is that the system only functions well when people abide by the rules, or break them only in exceptional cases.  When they routinely bend them, when they either impose or obstruct without end, when they (or their supporters in the media) apply the rhetoric of nullification and revolution, they erode confidence in our ability to govern ourselves.   That has been the takeaway of the Clinton/Bush/Obama/Gingrich/Hastert/Boehner/Pelosi/Reid/McConnell era. 

Yet, I am optimistic—I think the quiet middle of the electorate is fed up, and wants better.  Millennials, who aren’t encumbered by party identification and seek people who share their values and aspirations, want better.  There will be a Churchill election, or perhaps, several Churchill elections, where we start to replace the people and ideas and approaches of the last twenty years with something more responsive to future challenges.  

If that happens, we can all have a cigar.  Winnie would have approved.

April 23, 2015

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Lincoln's Imperfect Perfection

Lincoln’s Imperfect Perfection

In the Bushido code, the samurai were said to have identified with the cherry blossom particularly because it fell at the moment of its greatest beauty, an ideal death.

It is one of the remarkable coincidences of history that the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination often comes at the very peak of the cherry blossom season.  In many respects, he, too, died at the moment of greatest beauty—right after he had delivered his “with malice towards none” Second Inaugural Address, right after he had seen Richmond and was mobbed by grateful freedmen, right after Lee had surrendered to Grant, right after there were no more battles he could win. 

The historian Richard Hofstadter once wrote, in his essay Abraham Lincoln And The Self-Made Myth that “The Lincoln legend has come to have a hold on the American imagination that defies comparison with anything else in political mythology.” 

That legend, which Hofstadter likens to a Christ-like assumption of the sins of mortals, followed by their redemption through his martyrdom, is one half of the consensus historian’s construct about how we think about the Civil War.  The other half is best embodied in Robert E. Lee, graying, aristocratic scion of a famous family, kind as a master, brave and brilliant as a reluctant warrior. 

This iconography creates a fascinating, yet discordant picture.  Jefferson Davis is nowhere to be found—he’s a cold and crabbed man who lacks the élan and nobility to exemplify what the South “really” was.  And Grant is invariably portrayed as stolid, relentless, a winner because of overwhelming force, not greater virtue.  Even the scene at Appomattox plays into this.  Lee, unwilling to expose his men to further losses, agrees to surrender.  He approaches, at the agreed-upon time, in his best dress uniform, mounted on his magnificent horse, Traveller.  Grant, stoop shouldered, wearing a private’s tunic, dusty from the field, boots muddy, arrives a half an hour later.  They talk briefly of old times, and Grant offers generous terms and honors, which Lee graciously accepts.  Lee, with great dignity, rides off to his men. 

It’s a wonderful image that allows both sides (and, as I have been reminded a number of times by people a little more Southern than my Bronx birthplace, there are still two sides) their respective heroes, and their respective fantasies of what might have been—a peaceful, respectful reconciliation.  But, the war doesn't end this way without a final sacrifice, and Lincoln is it.  Just a few days later, John Wilkes Booth makes his way to Lincoln’s seat at Ford’s Theatre, fires the shot that ends Lincoln’s life, and elevates his legend. That the assassination took place on Good Friday, and during Passover (Rabbis of the time likening it to Moses being permitted to see, but not enter, the Promised Land) gives it an even more powerful emotional tug.

Not everyone mourns.  Lincoln is not an immensely popular figure among the powerful.  He is opposed by both Northern Democrats (he’s just won reelection against his former General of the Army of the Potomac, John McClellan) and by many of the more committed abolitionists in his own Republican Party. Lincoln is too hot for some, too cool for others.  Both the steadfastness of his purpose, and the gradualism of his approach have made him many enemies. Northern Copperheads have never stopped hating him, and the Radical Republicans want a far more punitive response than Lincoln’s call for “binding up the nation’s wounds.”

In the South, reaction was often careful.  A few think it’s a miraculous turning point, some of the Southern newspapers exulted, and Jefferson Davis reportedly said “If it be done, it would be better that it be well done.”  But many others (Lee amongst them) worried about not just the anger of the North, but also the loss of Lincoln as a buffer—they know he stands between them and a vengeful Congress.  And they hate Lincoln’s Vice-President, Andrew Johnson, a border-state Democrat, despised and feared as a traitor to his own people. 

But the common people have a different reaction than the more calculating political class. Perhaps they felt Lincoln was one of their own; literally millions gather to see his train, look at him as he lay in state, and mourn. They seem to understand something that eludes the merely ambitious—and they stand with him as he stood with them.  One of the most remarkable tributes comes from the residents of Lahaina, in the Hawaiian Islands; the people “weep together with the republic of America for the murder, the assassination of the great, the good, the liberator Abraham Lincoln, the victim of hell-born treason—himself martyred, yet live his mighty deeds, victory, peace, and the emancipation of those despised, like all of us of the colored races.”

What about Hofstadter’s “Lincoln Myth”? Does the reality match the image of fallen saint?  Last week, I asked what kind of man was Lincoln—what did he really believe?  What is it about him that allowed him to transcend his own of-the-period but anachronistic attitudes?  How could a man who, in 1858, in the Charleston debate, state “I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality” yet nevertheless inspire the gratitude “of those despised, like all of us of the colored races.”

I think he had two unusual qualities, hard to find in any person, much less in any politician.  The first was his essential tolerance. In contemporary discourse, we have bastardized the term.  Some use it in a pejorative way, with “tolerance” a synonym for “indulgence”—the habit of ascribing all bad behavior to moral weakness enabled by liberal guilt.  Others describe it as a universal virtue that must be applied to everyone—they command us to understand “root causes” regardless of actual conduct.  Lincoln, I think, embodied a different type of tolerance, one so subtle that it is almost impossible to accurately describe.  His was the tolerance of common courtesy, of accepting differences without embracing them.  He did not demand that you look like him, think like him, worship like him, or vote like him as a predicate to earning his respect for your basic human rights.  

The second quality was even more rare.  He truly knew himself.  In Hofstadter’s words “Lincoln was shaken by the Presidency.”  He was humbled by his duties, oppressed by his responsibilities, taxed to the extreme by the enormity of the job. This immensely gifted man, of extraordinary intelligence and remarkable character, was “shaken by the Presidency.”

The Lincoln reality is more than myth—an extraordinary man of remarkable tolerance, and an acute and humbling sense of his own limitations. And one, having given every last ounce of devotion to doing an impossible task as best as he could, falls like the cherry blossom, at the peak of (imperfect) perfection. 

April 14, 2015

Michael Liss

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Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Searching for the Real Lincoln

As April 15th marks the 150th Anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, it is perhaps appropriate to consider and reevaluate this most unique, and perhaps most opaque of American lives.

Joseph Ellis, in his biography of Jefferson, “American Sphinx” says of Lincoln “Like Jefferson, he was accessible and had also spoken magic words…. But Lincoln's magic was more somber and burdened; he was a martyr and his magic had a tragic dimension. Jefferson was light, inspiring, optimistic. Although Lincoln was more respected, Jefferson was more loved.”

Ellis chose to write about Jefferson because he thought of him as the President who inspired the most contemporary interest—an opinion I might disagree with.  But he is also making a perceptive point.  It is easier to revere Lincoln for the immensity of his efforts and his personal sacrifice—but reverence is not necessarily love.  You can see Jefferson having a grand old time in Paris, and at Monticello—fine wine, music, beautiful women.  But for Lincoln, there is a dignified, almost silent mournfulness, perhaps best captured in Millard Lampell’s poem about the funeral train that returned Lincoln’s body to Springfield.  “A lonesome train, on a lonesome track.  Seven coaches painted black. A slow train, a quiet train.  Carrying Lincoln home again. ”

The darkness to which Ellis alludes surrounds Lincoln even in our visual memory, as a quirk of a new, but limited technology.  While Jefferson is seen in vigorous color portraiture, rosy-cheeked and alive, Lincoln was the first President to be extensively photographed, and his image is defined in Matthew Brady black and white—the stress etched into his face as the years passed.  Because of the time it took to make the exposure, the sitter had to remain as motionless as possible.  The images created an extraordinary contradiction—an immensely physical man who grew up on a farm, splitting rails, wrestling, riding flatboats down the Mississippi, appears to us still and solid, like the impassive, seated statue in the Lincoln Memorial.  You can approach Lincoln, but you cannot fathom his depths.  Lincoln is the embodiment of introspection.

He was different, not just by our contemporary measures, but by those of his own time.  He stood apart, mocked for his appearance and ungainliness and resented by many in his own cabinet, who thought him lacking in refinement and inferior in intelligence.  Yet he took upon himself enormous burdens, and, unlike our modern-day politicians, he saw first-hand the sacrifices he called upon others to make.  No scripted visits in POTUS jackets with press in tow.  The wounded, the maimed, and the dying were right there, and Lincoln visited with them, and suffered with them.

David Brooks has a piece in today’s New York Times about his wish to find another Lincoln for President.  He concludes, of course, that another Lincoln would be impossible in the modern media age—too ugly, too raw.  Yet, “Lincoln’s temperament surpasses all explanation. His early experience of depression and suffering gave him a radical self-honesty. He had the double-minded personality that we need in all our leaders. He was involved in a bloody civil war, but he was an exceptionally poor hater.”

There is something about that last line that resonates with me—“he was an exceptionally poor hater” because it describes something that begins to explain a profound contradiction in the Lincoln narrative—the Lincoln we don't know.

How is this possible, a man about which literally tens of thousands of books and papers have been written?  We know his deeds, we know what he said and wrote publically, but, in spite of all of this, his inner self, beyond his torments, are walled-off from us.  Lincoln wasn’t a diarist, and the circumstances of his death made accurate reporting impossible. We perceive what we want to perceive—Lincoln as a just man, as a kind and compassionate man.  And, someone who was willing to go to nearly any length to achieve two singular goals—preserving the Union and ending Slavery.  Since we see those ends as good we focus less on the process and more on the result.

Perhaps that’s all we need to know.  And yet, inevitably, talking about Lincoln means talking about slavery, and talking about slavery means talking about race.  And there lies the paradox of Lincoln—he hated slavery as an institution and he had great sympathy for the slaves’ suffering but he had no particular human connection to black men and women.   There is really nothing at all in the record about any relationships that Lincoln might have had with African-Americans, and no one (beyond Frederick Douglass, who had a couple of respectful personal meetings) to offer any personal testimony. 

What did Lincoln think about the black man?  In the 4th Lincoln-Douglas Debate, at Charleston, Illinois, on September 18, 1858, he said something rather remarkable.  

While I was at the hotel to-day, an elderly gentleman called upon me to know whether I was really in favor of producing a perfect equality between the negroes and white people. [Great Laughter.]….I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]-that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied every thing. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. [Cheers and laughter.] My understanding is that I can just let her alone.”

Those are Abraham Lincoln’s words, the type of language that would get virtually any politician disqualified today.  He is the same man who in the 7th Debate, at Alson, referring to the Declaration of Independence; "I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not mean to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all men were equal in color, size, intellect, moral development or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness in what they did consider all men created equal-equal in certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This they said, and this they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, or yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.

Is that the real Lincoln? We will never really know, but I think the answer is almost certainly yes. Brooks is right—Lincoln is not a good hater.  Nor, does he have it in him to be cruel, at least not intentionally cruel, but he’s no biblically motivated abolitionist and leveler like Garrison.  The differences he notes are the differences he belives exists.  Yet, he built his whole political and moral life around the Founders vision, as he saw it: "They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all: constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, every where."

Lincoln is always relevant.  He will always be a man exceptionally poor at hate, and remarkably grand in his ambition—for humanity.  

April 7, 2015

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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