Like many magazines and newspapers, National Review has a fairly steady stream of visitors — officials, thinkers, personages. I thought I would tell you a little about three recent visitors — different people with interesting things to say. I’m not going to encapsulate our conversations. But I thought some tidbits or observations might be nice. And the three visitors, three personages, are T. Boone Pickens (the legendary Texas oilman), Thomas Sowell (your favorite “public intellectual,” maybe), and Sharron Angle (the new Republican Senate nominee in Nevada — the one who’ll challenge majority leader Harry Reid).
Pickens? (Actually, it feels more natural to say, “Boone?”) It won’t surprise longtime readers of this column to know that I like the way he talks: a lot. There is something about Texans and speech. They use the language in a most entertaining and effective way. Pickens — Boone — has come to NR to talk about his energy plan, his energy “mission” for the nation: He wants to get us off foreign oil — particularly Middle Eastern oil — and get us on natural gas, of which we have plenty, and which is cheaper, cleaner, and so on. (I am echoing Boone — I know little about this subject.) He makes a brief statement of his mission, and then says, “That’s the blood, guts, and feathers of what I’m doing.”
He also refers to environmentalists as “greenies”: “the greenies.” He calls garbage trucks “trash trucks,” which is something I have never heard: I like the alliteration. And he says this about a particular project of which he disapproves, but which is an American project nonetheless: “It’s an ugly baby, but it’s our baby.”
At a certain juncture, a colleague of mine challenges Pickens by making a point about the retail world: Wal-Mart, in particular. The oilman, impatient, shaking his head, says, “I don’t know anything about Wal-Mart, but I surer ’n hell know about energy” — which is hard to dispute.
He says that when he was a sophomore in college — Oklahoma State — he was kind of floundering. His parents said, “A fool with a plan can beat a genius without a plan.” Which is a nice aphorism. They went on to say, “You’re a fool with no plan.” T. Boone Pickens, as you know, soon got a plan, and many plans.
He is now 82, and a damn good 82. At the end of our session, he says something poignant, or at least I find it so. He’s talking about this “mission” he’s on — the natural-gas thing. “I was too young for World War II. I was too old for Vietnam. Korea was my war, really. But I had a wife and a child, and I got a deferment. This is my mission” — what he wants to give to America.
Thomas Sowell has come back to New York from California, where he has lived for a long time. Sowell is making a swing of the East Coast, as I understand it. He grew up in Harlem — and he still talks in a honking New York accent. The kind you don’t hear much anymore. (At least I don’t.) (Frankly, he talks like Charlie Rangel. And that is the only thing he has in common with Rangel.) When he says “park,” a colleague of mine asks him to repeat it: The word comes out . . . very New York-y. When Sowell informs us he’s about to be 80, it’s a bit of a shock. Sowell is not only youthful, he is timeless.
He likes the Tea Party quite a bit — and why not, since they are standing up for Sowellian principles? These are freedom-minded, occasionally cussed Americans, pushing back against the Swedenizing of the country (to use a shorthand). What about Sarah Palin? Let’s put it this way: Sowell’s view is not that of the New York Times. (True, few of his views are those of the New York Times.)
Somehow, the term “African-American” comes up. And Sowell is one to say “black.” I ask him what he thinks of “African-American.” He notes that the average black family has probably been here longer than the average white family. Of all Americans to be hyphenated, so late in the game! And who would say “European-American,” such a clunky phrase? Sowell further notes that black Americans typically have less connection to their ancestry than white Americans.
I think of a conversation I had with Condoleezza Rice, many years ago — this was when she was national security adviser. She objected to “African-American,” and preferred “black,” for the same reasons: Blacks had been in this country for 400 years; they were part and parcel of the American experience; there was no need to get into this “African-American” stuff. Plus, she said, “black” is parallel to “white.”
In a thousand ways, it can be burdensome and agonizing to be black in America. For example, did you get something because you were black? Were you denied something because you were black? How can you know for sure?
Sowell remembers when he was just starting out as an economist, and sending his papers to various journals around the world. They did not know his skin color. So when they accepted or rejected a paper, it had nothing to do with skin color — which was good to know. You know?
I mention that, if Obama runs for reelection and loses, it could be a bad, bitter thing for race relations. People could take it very, very hard. Sowell says that there could actually be street violence. Anyway, we will cross that bridge when we come to it, if we come to it.
“The graveyard is full of indispensable men,” goes the saying. So, sure, no one is strictly “indispensable,” I suppose. But I think it’s true that some people are irreplaceable. Well, in one sense, we’re all irreplaceable, aren’t we? We’re all unique. But is it okay to suggest, just in an earthly sense, that some people are uniquer than others? Bill Buckley is irreplaceable — but there are so many books. Tom Sowell is irreplaceable — but there are so many books. Thank goodness.
One of us asks Sharron Angle, “Are we on the record?” She says, “I’m always on the record” — a fine thing for a politician to be. She tells us how she achieved her victory in Nevada — a victory many view as improbable. She recounts her campaign, step by step. And then she mentions God, the hand of Providence.
This is not what a typical politician does, and it will fuel the liberal revulsion toward her. I say, “Tough noogs.”
How’d she get that double-r in her first name? “My mother and dad gave it to me,” she says. Her mom knew a little girl named Sharron Casey (if I have heard correctly) — she just liked the name.
The Senate nominee was conceived, she says, in Lovelock, Nev. — what a place-name. (Especially for conception!) But she was born in Oregon. The family moved back to Nevada when she was three (I think).
How’d she get involved in politics? She calls herself an “accidental politician.” A little boy of hers failed kindergarten — was “a dropout at age six.” She wanted to homeschool him and ran into all sorts of roadblocks: which got her involved in “the process.” She got elected (I assume elected) to the school board, etc. And now she is a major-party nominee for the U.S. Senate — running against the majority leader.
She has taken some grief for favoring the abolition of the Department of Education — as sound a position as I know — but her opponents should know this: She talks wisely and even movingly about education policy — saying that policy works best when it’s closest to the child. You’re familiar with this line: Better the state level than the federal level, better the county than the state, better the town than the county — Subsidiarity City, baby.
On immigration, she says there are two issues: illegal immigration and legal immigration. There should not be much discussion of illegal immigration: Illegal is illegal. Secure the border, enforce the law. Then we can have a nice discussion about what our policy of legal immigration should be. She notes that she has a Mexican-American daughter-in-law, and Mexican-American grandkids, whom she loves.
Remember when Bush 41 pointed out to Reagan, on the tarmac in Louisiana, I believe, his “little brown ones”? He took grief for that. But he told the grief-givers to go to hell, which was marvelous.
I ask Angle about Las Vegas: Every statewide politician in Nevada has to be a booster of Vegas, I’m sure — a champion of Vegas. They have to represent the “gaming industry,” as it started to call itself some years ago. (That is one of the stupidest euphemisms in America, in my view.) Angle is a Christian conservative, openly so. How does she square her Christian conservatism with Vegasness: with the hookers, the slots, and all that jazz? Is she at peace with Vegasness?
Oh, yes, she says. Vegas is “the place to go to play.” She talks about Christmas in her family, when she was growing up. They’d get individual gifts and group gifts. And one of the group gifts was a box of poker chips. “We learned that the house always wins. We Nevadans generally don’t gamble.” A colleague of mine follows up: “Do you gamble?” “No,” she says, “but I would encourage you to!”
(I think that, if Angle were from another state, she would consider Vegas a cesspool worthy of contempt, but I’m not here to argue with her, or anybody else — not at the moment.)
She is warm, gentle, sincere — a little fragile-seeming. She’s not so polished, anything but slick. Indeed, there is something amateur about her — and I don’t necessarily mean that negatively. Reid and the Democrats will eat her alive, you may think. And you may be right. But there could be some steel beneath that grandmotherly warmth and gentleness: You don’t run for the Senate if you’re a total wallflower. She does not strike me as terribly bookish. She says “phenomena” when she means “phenomenon,” but so do most people, I find. And Harry Reid is not exactly Ciceronian. The Democrats will paint her as a kook, an extremist, a flake — their allies in the media have already started to do so. But she says she’s “a mainstream American,” and, you know? She is. She’s just not the kind of American the big media types often encounter.
I ask the fundamental question of why she wants to be in the Senate. She says it’s her patriotic duty: to defend the Constitution against those disrespecting it, specifically Obama, Reid, and that gang. She wants a better future for her children and grandchildren. She wants them to enjoy the liberties that Americans have enjoyed for generations — but that are under threat now.
Every politician says this, or many of them do. But Angle says it with an unusual sincerity, directness, simplicity — believability.
Reid will have a fortune to spend, and he will smother her in attack ads. They will hit her with the Full Shrum. But, you know? Nevada is a small state — small in its population. Two and a half million people. You could kill Angle in California or New York — defame her to death. But can you do it in Nevada? She can reach a lot of people — she can literally shake the hands of a good portion of the electorate. Reid & Co. will paint her as a dangerous nut. But Nevadans may say, “Really? That nice, sensible lady I met in the mall last week? I don’t think so.”
I have a memory, from many years ago. There was a congressman from New York: very liberal, very snide. (Big surprise, I know.) He was at some local meeting — a hearing or something. And a very earnest woman was making a Fourth of July-ish statement about how great a country America was, and how we could overcome our problems, just as we always had. And this congressman, a soi-disant sophisticate, was laughing his butt off to the colleague sitting beside him. A rolling camera caught it.
Angle is the type that such people laugh at. I grew up with these people — the laughers, I mean. They ran the world around me. And I rebelled against them. Oh, I hope Angle wins. Oh, how sweet that would be.