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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