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Delenda Est Carthago
It just doesn't matter.


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Jonah Goldberg

The stress is getting to all of us. I wish I could come up with some clever bon mots from Chesterton or Oscar Wilde about close political contests. But all I can think of these days is the film Meatballs.

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Now, for those of you who don’t know about the 1979 classic, this isn’t the time or place to bring you up to speed on the most under-praised effort in the Bill Murray oeuvre. Nonetheless, there is a scene that keeps coming to mind. On the night before the final competition between Camp North Star and Camp Mohawk, Bill Murray realizes he must boost the morale of his under-equipped, under-fed, terrified campers. So he gives them what passes for a St. Crispin’s Day speech:

And even if we win, if we win, HAH! Even if we play so far above our heads that our noses bleed for a week to ten days; even if God in Heaven above points his hand at our side of the field; even if every man, woman, and child joined hands together and prayed for us to win, it just wouldn’t matter because all the really good-looking girls would still go out with the guys from Mohawk because they’ve got all the money! It just doesn’t matter if we win or if we lose. IT JUST DOESN’T MATTER!

And everyone begins chanting: IT JUST DOESN’T MATTER! IT JUST DOESN’T MATTER…”

That’s sort of how it is over here at my office. The couch and I are chanting “It Just Doesn’t Matter!” to the point where the neighbors are seeking a third court order (the first two were for complaints about odor and something I’d rather not discuss).

And in one sense it really doesn’t matter who wins this election. The same bleating bandersnatches of the Left will continue to annoy, frustrate, and demagogue no matter who is in the Oval Office. The popular culture will still be liberal. The New York Times will still “agonize” over the issues, only to arrive at the same predictable conclusions every time. We will not be put in reeducation camps if Gore wins and puppies will not stop pooping on new carpets if Bush takes the day.

For you see, America is not the tail on the dog of the federal government. The American people do not do whatever the CEO in the Oval Office tells them to do. At best, America is a huge sprawling party and the president is just one of the hosts, trying to provide a bit of direction and trying to make sure no one hurts themselves too badly while dancing on the tables.

And that’s why this election matters. Al Gore just doesn’t see it that way. For Al Gore, America is no party, it’s a seminar or academic task force and he wants to be in charge.

THE MAN FROM CARTHAGE
Al Gore was bred to be president of the United States. His parents used their Carthage, Tennessee, farm as a training facility straight out of The Boys from Brazil. Throughout his life, Gore has cited Carthage as the author of his being. Indeed, all of his biographers tell the same stories about how his parents assigned him grueling, impossible tasks, because they felt that a future president of the United States should be able to clear a field of trees with a pair of nail clippers or solve pi to the thousandth digit.

His Carthaginian upbringing yielded at least two disqualifying attributes in Gore. The first is that he believes the presidency is more than what it is. Because he has spent his whole life daydreaming about being president, Gore has an unconstrained vision about the power of politics and the politician in chief.

This expansive view of politics partly explains why Gore exaggerates so much. If you believe that the government is the location of the national steering wheel, then you automatically believe that anything that happens while you’re in office is the result of your efforts.

Thus, if you can put your fingerprints on a major trend, you can take credit for it. For example, while in the Senate, Gore declared that the rise in American babies being fed with formula was “the most significant adjustment in the diet of human beings since the introduction of cooking.” It just so happened that Al Gore worked on tweaking the regulatory status of baby formula, which of course meant that he was one of the most influential people on the human diet since the discovery of fire.

This is how Bill Clinton takes credit for most of his “accomplishments,” (See G-File 1/28/00) including the economic boom that officially began a full year before he entered office. But the boy from Carthage is a lot worse. Despite the recent media backlash against the idea that Gore is a serial exaggerator, it remains a fact. He took credit for the Earned Income Tax Credit, when it was passed before he entered office. He tried to claim coauthorship of the McCain Feingold bill even though he wasn’t in the Senate with Feingold.

But most people have missed the real significance of Gore’s exaggerations. Sure they reflect his character, but they also reflect his ambition (which is why comparing Bush’s malapropisms to Gore’s surgical exaggerations is unfair). Gore has promised that more things will be his “number one priority” than George Bush has made promises (See Promises, Promises). He seems to think there is no limit to what he can do as president.

This summer, on Late Night with David Letterman, Gore joked that he “gave” us the Internet and he can take it away too. Well, that’s sort of how Gore sees the presidency, as a place of immense power to shape the lives of Americans; to tinker with the fine, unseen — and unseeable — gears of civil society and the market. He boasts that his plans have more “details” than Bush’s, as if the details are the really important thing. It matters not a whit if a bridge built in the wrong place has all the details right. It’s as if Gore thinks the whole country runs like a computer program and if he — and only he — gets even a single line of code wrong, the whole thing will crash. I don’t want a president who thinks life works that way.

“RATS IN THE BARN”
Which brings me to the second and more distressing problem with Gore. It would be one thing if he just thought he had all the answers. We’ve had plenty of egocentric politicians. It’s that he has a terrible tendency to consider those who disagree with him to be not just stupid or ill-informed but evil in some way (The West Wing must be his favorite TV show).

Just this weekend he suggested that this was a contest between “good and evil.” He screamed that “powerful forces” oppose him because “I know where the rats in the barn are and the special interests know that I know and that’s why they’re pouring everything in against me.” Maybe its an overblown bit of historical sensitivity on my part, but I don’t recall a country ever having been well-served when a political leader referred to his opponents as “rats” — or any other vermin.

This is not merely end-of-the-campaign excess. It is the real Gore coming through under stress. Gore’s political career has been one of near constant us-versus-them formulations in which the “us” are invariably good and honest people fighting “them”; racists, profit-mongers, and environmental despoilers. His book is full of comparisons of those who oppose his remedies for global warming to those who knowingly ignored the Holocaust. For years, his favorite argument against conservatives who support a colorblind society has been that they want to use it as a “duck blind” to pop up and pick off blacks in some way. In 1998, he wondered whether Republicans even feel bad about an “African American man who was doused with gasoline, burned alive, and decapitated by two white men.”

The entire Gore campaign has been an adventure in this sort of race-baiting and fear-mongering. “When my opponent, Governor Bush, says that he will appoint strict constructionists to the Supreme Court,” Gore said this weekend, “I often think of the strictly constructionist meaning that was applied when the Constitution was written, how some people were considered three-fifths of a human being.” The obvious suggestion here is…what? That if we could just get a few more justices like Clarence Thomas we could render Clarence Thomas three-fifths of a human being? These are not new tactics for Gore. See, for example, Steve Hayes excellent piece on NRO today or Andrew Sullivan’s latest TRB column, Nasty Boy.

Al Gore was raised to be a president, even though he does not have the gifts a president needs. Like a basset hound raised to be a retriever, Gore must work extra hard to do the things that come naturally to a different breed. He can neither show real empathy nor can he fake it. Instead, like a character from Grimm’s fairy tales or some medieval king, he must scare people into believing they are safer with him than with his truly horrible opponents.

All of this — and so much more — reveals his own Punic faith in liberalism and the American tradition. “Punic faith,” or Punica fides, means a willingness to betray your own principles when expedience or self-interest require it. And that is most assuredly the defining attribute of Al Gore, the man who — according to Senators Alan Simpson and Bob Dole — sold his Gulf War vote to whichever party offered the most telegenic floor time. It takes Punic faith in the goodness of America to argue that those who honestly disagree with you are on the side of evil, want to shackle blacks, destroy the planet, reap unholy profits off of the old and sick, or that your opponent is too dumb to be president because you don’t like his plan.

DELENDA EST CARTHAGO
Punic, of course, is just another adjective for someone from Carthage, which is so fitting for the man who was raised to be president in Carthage. It was Cato the Elder in 157 B.C. who was so disgusted with the Carthaginian menace that he ended every speech with Delenda est Carthago, which means “Carthage must be destroyed.” Tomorrow, you cannot destroy the ways of Carthage but you can defeat its greatest champion today. Go forth, then, Delenda est Carthago! Delenda est Carthago! That makes a much better chant than “IT JUST DOESN’T MATTER!”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Some readers are convinced that the phrase is “Carthago delenda est.” Others violently contend it is “Delenda Carthago est.” My understanding is that in Latin it doesn’t matter which grammatical doohickies go where in the sentence. Besides, at this crucial juncture, don’t you think we can put aside such partisan rancor?”

And if you’re curious, the way to say “The man from Carthage must be stopped is, “Carthaginiensis Delendus Est.” Now go vote.



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