President Barack Obama is spending his vacation golfing on Martha’s Vineyard. Hillary Rodham Clinton is spending her vacation in the habitual Clintonian mode, making a vulgar spectacle of herself in the Hamptons. Joe Biden, not that anybody cares, is off to Grand Teton.
Senator Rand Paul, on the other hand, is spending his vacation in Guatemala, performing eye surgeries on poor children who need care. (Eliana Johnson wrote about the trip here.) As the Washington Post points out, this is not a new thing for the senator-surgeon; on this trip, he saw two patients he’d first treated 15 years ago.
For once, the Washingtonian term “optics” is entirely apt.
Senator Paul will come out of his vacation looking pretty good. Given the political class’s endless appetite for self-serving theater, I found myself wondering why President Obama, Mrs. Clinton, or Vice President Biden did not choose to spend their vacations in a similar way, offering to put their skills and abilities to use on behalf of others. And then I realized that this was a deeply stupid question on my part.
What the hell would they do?
Unlike Senator Paul, neither the president nor the vice president nor the former secretary of state has anything that one might describe as a useful skill. That’s not quite right: They have skills that are useful . . . to themselves. As for skills that are useful to other people — you’d be hard pressed to think of one. If you were a poor family in Guatemala, which would you rather have: the services of a pretty good ophthalmologist, or those of an excellent orator? (Never mind that, unlike Senator Paul, President Obama does not speak Spanish — or, indeed, any foreign language.) Imagine dispatching Hillary Rodham Clinton to Calcutta or Joe Biden to Conakry and then expecting them to do something useful. The idea is preposterous.
Contrast that with professor of orthopedic surgery Tom Price (R., Ga.), obstetrician Mike Burgess (R., Texas), or cardiovascular surgeon Charles W. Boustany (R., La.). Mrs. Clinton may, in making the Hamptons rounds, even pass the childhood home of former physician Howard Dean, whose family split its time between East Hampton and Park Avenue. Even Howlin’ Howard has a useful skill, though his medical license lapsed a decade ago.
Like my friend Jay Nordlinger, I enjoyed Chris Rock’s simple yet subtle twisting of the knife in Jesse Jackson, innocently asking: “So, what exactly do you do?” That really is the relevant question.
What do any of them do?
At a DNC fundraising dinner in 2010, President Obama boasted: “We provided health care to 4 million children.” Of course he did nothing of the sort, but there is an entire cracked political philosophy in the president’s error: Who provided health care?
Politicians do not provide health care. Doctors, nurses, technicians, orderlies, pharmaceutical researchers, medical-device manufacturers, and junior senators from Kentucky volunteering in Guatemala provide health care. Politicians do not feed the hungry — farmers, grocers, long-haul truckers, and Monsanto feed the hungry. They neither sow nor reap. Barack Obama gives the impression of being a man who probably couldn’t change a tire, but we have persuaded ourselves — allowed ourselves to be persuaded — that such men must be central to our lives. The wheat farmer in Kansas or the contractor in Pittsburgh? All they do is keep the world fed and housed.
Politicians can redistribute wealth, but they do not create any. They can attempt to command the energies of those with the ability and inclination to produce valuable goods and services, but as politicians they do not produce. The entire idea of politicians as society’s leadership is an inversion of the real order of things: Government is not here to lead anybody anywhere — it is here to serve us in the important but limited role of coordinating collective action toward such ends as physical security and the enforcement of contracts.
If you think that President Obama can provide you with health care, let him take a scalpel to your eye. I dare you.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.