Politics & Policy

Impromptus

Celia, you're breakin' our hearts. The Democrats: Talk back to them. Medals of Freedom, well awarded — and more

Out and about yesterday, I ran into Celia Cruz’s funeral, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. A great throng was there, of Cubans and Cuban-Americans paying their last respects to “the Queen of Salsa.”

My, how they loved her. She was a marvelous singer, a great entertainer, full of joy and love. It was hard to be around her — or hear her voice — and not be happy. She was a kind of ambassadress of Cuban music, taking it all around the world.

Of course, there was a political side to her, too. The Left always had trouble with her. You see, she was, indeed, Cuban, and she was also an “Afro-Cuban,” which is to say, a black Cuban. That was inconvenient for the Left: One of their lines has always been that, whatever his abuses, Castro has been a friend to black Cubans, and the only people who complain about him are rich, white exiles in South Florida. This is a vile lie: The dissident movement is, in fact, practically dominated by Afro-Cubans. But it is a lie that somehow sticks.

Celia Cruz hated Castro, naturally — any decent person does. She left the island in 1960, shortly after he seized power. In 1962, she tried to return, in order to bury her mother — but Castro refused her. He banned all her records, and tried to get her despised by the Cuban people as a traitor. But he failed: Her records circulated in underground fashion, and the people adored her.

I was touched by an article in the Miami Herald by Lydia Martin. She said that Celia was “the very embodiment of a fabled, nostalgia-hued Cuba,” and that her passing “represents the shattered hopes of every [exiled grandfather or grandmother] who prayed [he] would live long enough to see the end of Fidel Castro.” Celia’s “biggest dream,” according to this article, was “to go back home, even if just for a last glimpse. But she refused to do so with Castro in power.”

Celia did travel to the Guantanamo Naval Base once, in 1990. Miami congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who accompanied her, remembered: “She walked over to the fence that separates the base from the rest of Cuba and reached through to take soil from the Cuban side. Then something eerie happened. She was performing on this very hot, still day. But all of a sudden, the Cuban flag starts to ripple. There was no wind, and the base’s flag that was a few feet away didn’t move. But the Cuban flag was waving. We were all astounded.”

It’s obvious that the Queen’s death has touched a chord among Cuban-Americans. My mailbox has been full. Some people were rather miffed that, in her column, Liz Smith suggested that Gloria Estefan play Celia in some biopic. One person wrote, “Would they get Julia Roberts to play Rosa Parks?” Others noted that, according to the New York Post, Charles Rangel was looking for hands to shake outside the funeral home that held Celia’s wake. That was rich: Celia was an arch-foe of this bloody dictator, and Rangel is one of his best friends, in any country — one of his prime legitimators.

The end of Celia Cruz has left widespread grief. Many people feel a loss of hope — Cubans haven’t had much good news in the last year or so. Hell, in the last half-century! But, oh, what a beautiful life — what a beautiful life lived the Queen of Salsa, Queen Celia.

Democratic rhetoric is escalating, and it is alarming even people like me, who wouldn’t mind seeing the marginalization of the Democratic party. Loopiness in one of the two parties in a two-party system is perhaps not great for the country. John Kerry said, the other day, “Never should young Americans have to put on a uniform and go to the Middle East to defend America’s interest in oil.” That’s the sort of talk you would expect from a bad leftist professor, not a U.S. senator — and one running for president, at that.

And this oil talk is in addition to all the “Bush lied” stuff — which, of course, amounts to a charge of treason. One candidate, as you know — Sen. Bob Graham, who was a sober moderate before he entered the Democratic primaries — has talked seriously of Bush’s impeachment.

The Democratic rhetoric may be nutso, but that doesn’t mean it will not have an effect on the American public. The media, of course, are only too happy to magnify this rhetoric. Bear in mind that those who opposed the war from the beginning have to justify their position: by saying a) that the Iraq campaign was unnecessary, brought about by official prevarication, and/or b) that the aftermath (i.e., the Allied occupation and organization) is a disaster.

Again, this is crazy talk: but the Bush administration, and its supporters, are going to have to defend the Iraq campaign, and the general War on Terror, time and time again. They have to do so more or less unceasingly. Because the Democrats and their allies in the media agitate against the administration unceasingly. Bush and Company can’t afford to rest. Tony Blair can’t come to these shores to give a stirring, irrefutable address every week. We Americans are going to have to do some talking and reminding and arguing ourselves. The Iraq campaign was part of a Bush doctrine that says, “We will make no distinction between terrorists and the regimes that abet them.” Sept. 11 was not very long ago, in strict scientific time, but it is ancient history in the minds of some.

If the Bushies don’t get moving, the crazy talk may begin to stick. The Tet offensive was a disaster for America’s enemies in Vietnam, but the more Walter Cronkite played it the other way, the more reality was turned on its head. As a friend of mine put it — a little too crudely, but with some validity — “Only CNN [and all it stands for, and all associated with that point of view] can defeat us now.”

I know I’m on a rah-rah Bush tear — when am I not (except when discussing a great deal of domestic policy)? — but I have to tip my hat to the recent selection of Medal of Freedom winners. In an earlier column, I noted the difference between George W. Bush’s pardons and Bill Clinton’s. (Bush pardoned people who operated illegal stills back in the old days — that kind of thing; Clinton pardoned people like his brother’s drug cronies and Susan Rosenberg — the Weather Underground terrorist who participated in the Brink’s murders.)

Anyway, these Medal of Freedom winners: what a proud lineup. They are Jacques Barzun (the scholar), Julia Child (who is Julia Child), Roberto Clemente (the baseball hero who died young), Van Cliburn (the pianist), Vaclav Havel (one of the great men of the Cold War and post-Cold War), Charlton Heston (NR’s own Chuck), Edward Teller (father of the hydrogen bomb — “But why doesn’t it ever send me a Father’s Day card?” he likes to say), Dave Thomas (the late Wendy’s founder and adoption advocate), Byron White (the late Supreme Court justice), James Q. Wilson (the social scientist), and John Wooden (the basketball coach).

A couple of random comments: I was about twelve, maybe, when I realized that “Van Cliburn” didn’t refer to a “van Cliburn” (as in “van Beethoven”) but to a man whose first name was Van. Dave Thomas was not only a man who did well but a man who did good (to borrow a marvelously useful and, indeed, inspiring Quaker saying). James Q. Wilson is the most powerful sociological observer alive, someone who has illuminated issue after issue for me, and for countless others. And John Wooden? Ah, they don’t make ‘em that way anymore, I’m afraid.

Okay, I’m done with my gushing, for now.

Oh, just one more thing: “Whizzer” White did a number of laudable things on the bench, including a right dissent in Roe v. Wade. But I was surprised to hear his explanation of why he retired shortly after Bill Clinton took office: He said that he had waited until a Democrat was elected, because a Democrat — Kennedy — had appointed him, and he thought it was only fitting that a Democrat should appoint his successor.

That’s a weird principle, or theory, or notion. Of course, David Souter, when he at last retires, will be sure to do so on a Republican watch, won’t he?

Ha, ha, ha (or, as Nancy Reagan would say, “Not very funny, sonny”).

Gray Davis, the embattled California governor, says that he and his wife have been reading Hillary Clinton’s memoirs for inspiration. “It reminds you that other people have endured difficult situations,” quoth the governor.

I have so many things to say about this that I’m feeling rather dizzy, and should just let it pass — allowing others to form their own impromptus, mentally.

My friends in the China-freedom community are quite happy because the word laogai has now entered the Oxford English Dictionary. If the word gulag is known, so should laogai be: “(in China) a system of labour camps, many of whose inmates are political dissidents.” Laogai is the Chinese expression for “reform through labor.” (Reminiscent of Arbeit Macht Frei, no?)

We at NR once published a piece by the grand dissident Harry Wu on Laogai, and why the word should be as familiar and notorious as gulag. It was Wu’s conviction that the growing awareness of Gulag — both as a thing and as a word — helped shift or harden world opinion against the Soviet Union. It is to Solzhenitsyn that we owe thanks for the understanding of Gulag — again, as both a thing and a word — and it is, of course, to Solzhenitsyn that we owe thanks for so much.

We owe Harry Wu, too. Indeed, because of him, a lot of us don’t need the OED to define laogai.

A little mail?

“Dear Jay: Obviously, the problem in Iraq with the attacks on our soldiers is not the diehard Saddamite guerrilla army. The problem is illegal guns. Let the new governing council pass some tough gun-control legislation and watch these attacks subside.”

The New York Times couldn’t have said it better.

“Dear Jay: I was just greeted by a co-worker with the question, ‘What do you say?’ I stammered and replied, ‘Not much.’ This does not seem to be much of a reply.

“I think the problem is the question rather than the reply. In the event that I encounter this greeting again, do you have any suggested responses? It crossed my mind to recite the Nicene Creed or the Pledge of Allegiance.”

Well, I think “Not much” is exactly the right reply. In fact, it’s natural to me to answer, “Not much — how are you?” Back in my golf-course days, we used to say, “How’s it hangin’?” Now, that’s sometimes a difficult one to answer!

Friend of mine used to say, “Oh, I’m kicking — not high, but I’m kicking.” (This was not in response to the “hanging” question — it was just a general reply to “How are you?”)

In my previous Impromptus, I mentioned the proposed motto for the EU — “Unity in Diversity” — and proclaimed it the perfect nonsense slogan for a ridiculous age. It is meaningless. It is just a string of syllables designed to kiss the PC ear. It has no substance, such as our E pluribus unum, which Al Gore once translated — perversely but revealingly — “Out of one, many,” though he never paid a penalty for it, as Dan Quayle would have, many times over.

Anyway, no matter what I write — it could be my name, or the day’s weather — some readers (in fact, many readers) have a Simpsons moment that perfectly applies.

Try out this: “About that motto, Jay, I was reminded of the Simpsons episode when Bart and Lisa go to military school. While it is never spoken, the school has a motto. I laughed heartily about it for some time, and still cannot suppress a smile when I think of it. ‘Tradition Is Our Heritage.’ (It could be the other way around — ‘Heritage Is Our Tradition’ — but the humor is the same.)”

About the “off [Highway] 16″/”off of 16″ debate: “Dear Jay (I’ve been reading you for quite a spell now, so I feel we’re at least familiars): Where I grew up — lower Illinois River Valley, but it might as well be hillbilly country — we would use the phrase ‘on 16′ to mean alongside the road, ‘off 16′ to mean you turned on another road (possibly a gravel lane) but it was pretty much in sight of 16, and ‘off of 16′ to mean you took another road at least past the distance you could see from 16.

“These things always fascinate me, and I try diligently (when the mood strikes) to find what the distinctions are. It just so happens that I researched this one many years ago. Of course, this is entirely apart from the distance itself, be it a ‘fur piece’ or a ‘purty fur piece,’ which is, of course, farther.”

Ah, a “fur piece” reminds me of Faulkner — particularly of Light in August.

A joke, making the Internet rounds (I edit a little): Three Americans and an Israeli soldier are caught by cannibals and are about to be cooked. The chief says, “I am familiar with your Western custom of granting a last wish. Before we kill and eat you, do you have any last requests?”

Dan Rather says, “Well, I’m a Texan, so I’d like one last bowlful of hot, spicy chili.” The chief nods to an underling, who leaves and returns with the chili. Rather eats it all and says, “Now I can die content.”

Al Sharpton says, “I’d like to have my picture taken, as nothing has given me greater joy in life.” Done.

Judith Woodruff says, “I’m a journalist to the end. I want to take out my tape recorder and describe the scene here, and what’s about to happen. Maybe someday someone will hear it and know that I was on the job to the last.” The chief directs an aide to hand over the tape recorder, and Woodruff dictates some comments. “There,” she says. “I can now die fulfilled.”

The chief says, “And you, Mr. Israeli Soldier? What is your final wish?”

The solider says, “Kick me in the behind.”

“What?” says the chief. “Will you mock us in your last hour?”

“No, I’m not kidding. I want you to kick me in the behind.”

So the chief unties the soldier, shoves him into the open, and kicks him in the behind. The Israeli goes sprawling, but rolls to his knees, pulls a 9mm pistol from his waistband, and shoots the chief dead. In the resulting confusion, he leaps to his knapsack, pulls out his Uzi, and sprays the cannibals with gunfire. In a flash, the cannibals are all dead or fleeing for their lives.

As the Israeli unties the others, they ask him, “Why didn’t you just shoot them? Why did you ask the chief to kick you in the behind?”

“What?” answers the soldier. “And have you SOBs call me the aggressor?”

Finally, a reader responds to the closing item in my last column. (It would take too long to recap. You’ll have to read it here, if you’re interested.)

“Dear Jay: I was walking in Tilden Park up in the Berkeley Hills. I stopped suddenly when a skunk crossed the path. Some guy walking behind me admonished, ‘Your dog is supposed to be on a leash.’ Maybe it’s the same guy?”

Or at least a kindred spirit!

Later, y’all.

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