Politics & Policy

Where’s the fire? &c.

Every four years, I make the same complaint. Which one, you ask? This one: The nominating process is ridiculously “frontloaded.” Everything is hurried up, rushed. They campaign the year before the presidential year. And then, when the presidential year hits, we have to have the nomination decided by January 10 or something.

Hangovers from New Year’s Eve have barely begun to lift. The bowl games are still in progress, I think.

I recall the Republican primaries last time around. John McCain won modest pluralities in a handful of states, and there was Mitt Romney, conceding. It seemed so odd.

Here is how it used to be (at least in my quasi-romantic memory): It all started in the snows of New Hampshire. You could see the breath of the candidates. Then you had a stately, scrappy march across the country. Candidates got in, candidates got out. You had “favorite sons” and all that. Voters in a lot of states expressed their opinions. The pageant would culminate in California in early June.

And, oh, it was fun! Fun for those who enjoy politics, I mean.

Now we hear that Florida is going to move up its primary to January. Great, great. Listen, why don’t we just settle the nomination the year before the presidential year, and be done with it? Should we have our nominee by Thanksgiving — i.e., practically a year before Election Day?

This is getting ridiculous. I could rant on . . .

‐You know what else was great fun, the best political fun? Conventions — conventions at which there would be a lot of maneuvering, with the nomination in the balance.

‐The usual complaint is that the presidential season is too long. That is true. It’s both too long and too short. The campaigning goes on for too long. And the nomination is wrapped up too quickly, I think. Too few people, in too few states, get a chance to weigh in. The process does not have a chance to develop: to be a process.

I sense that not many share this opinion . . .

‐I’ve been using the word “process,” which leads me to this: We righties often accuse liberals of having no respect for process. They want the outcome, by hook or crook. I will relate a memory.

It was a dinner party on the Upper East Side. The topic of conversation was a Supreme Court case concerning a Texas sodomy law. Everyone was thrilled, of course, that the Court struck down the law — because they, the guests, thought that the law was horrible.

I said I liked the dissenting opinion of Justice Thomas. He thought the law was absurd. He said that, if he were a Texas legislator, he would vote against it. But he could not find anything in the Constitution that forbade Texans to make the law.

The other guests looked at me, not with contempt, but with something like wonderment, or confusion: They simply could not imagine refraining from striking down a law, if you were against the law, and had the power to get rid of it. What else was power for?

Well, I thought of all this when the governor of North Carolina suggested that we “suspend” congressional elections until our economy recovers. That way, you see, legislators would not have to worry about facing the voters.

Process, process — so pesky, such an obstruction, to so many hopes and dreams.

‐Was Lincoln right to suspend the writ of habeas corpus? An eternal debate, it seems to me.

‐An MSNBC personality accused someone of racism. Dog bites man, right? Not really — because the MSNBC-er accused a reporter of the Associated Press. The AP is usually exempt from such condemnation.

The reporter in question wrote the following:

. . . Obama said blacks know all too well from the civil rights struggle that the fight for what is right is never easy.

“Take off your bedroom slippers. Put on your marching shoes,” he said, his voice rising as applause and cheers mounted. “Shake it off. Stop complainin’. Stop grumblin’. Stop cryin’. We are going to press on. We have work to do.”

The MSNBC lady called racism because the reporter had faithfully conveyed what Obama had said — dropped g’s and all. You know what I say is racist, or more arguably racist? Shame at the way Americans talk.

Moreover, the AP reporter did what he should have done: He let me, the reader, know what happened. What it was like to be there. If he had quoted the president as saying, “Stop complaining. Stop grumbling,” etc., the flavor would have been completely lost.

Some years ago, I quoted what George W. Bush had said, repeatedly, during the 2000 campaign: “I’m runnin’ for a reason.” He would say that when he talked about Social Security reform. He didn’t want to be president just to mark time and get along. “I’m runnin’ for a reason.”

An editor changed that to “running.” I said, “No, no! That’s not what Bush said! You will ruin it entirely, if you render it that way.” The editor backed down.

I have another memory: In either the 1984 or the 1988 presidential campaign, when Jesse Jackson was running for president, George Will was accused of racism. Why? Well, first, he’s a conservative, so that comes with the territory.

But second, Will quoted Jackson accurately. His accusers said he should have put what Jackson said in conventional English. In other words, he should have misquoted him.

Nuts to that: I like the way Americans talk. And we all choose to talk in different ways at different times. Any normal person knows that.

By the way, the name of the AP reporter, tarred as a racist on MSNBC, is Mark Smith. I hope he will stand his ground — and not walk on eggshells for the rest of his career. But America can be a bullying, mean country.

Do I sound like Michelle Obama?

‐In a recent column, I mentioned the piece by Walt Harrington in the current American Scholar (here). A stunning piece on George W. Bush, with reporting on his father as well. In that column, I noted something Harrington said about 41. I said I wanted to make some further notes later — and here they are.

Harrington writes,

Bush [43] remained calm and confident during his tumultuous presidency. Critics saw him as delusional; defenders saw him as self-assured. Bush believes that one of the most important stage requirements of the presidency is indeed never to signal weakness or self-doubt or confusion: “One of the things you learn about great leaders is that they never project the burdens of responsibility on others.”

I remember something Bush told a group of us NR-niks, when we met him in the Oval Office: “The American people can read body language.” A president must not communicate that he is down or heavy-laden. He must not complain about the office and its demands.

Does President Obama follow this? Or does he gripe about the hard work that he, after all, signed up for? Campaigned for?

Bush, as you may know, did a huge amount of reading while he was president — I’m talking about the reading of books. We learn from Harrington that, during his two terms, he read 14 biographies of Lincoln.

Good gracious. That’s wonderful and all, but I think it’s borderline irresponsible. Can you do your job as president and get in that much reading?

I have a much less important and demanding job than the presidency — and, in comparison with Bush, I read squat.

Harrington writes,

When Bush read, in Presidential Courage, by Michael Beschloss, that historians were still debating whether George Washington had been a good president, he told Laura that if they were still debating Washington’s presidency more than 200 years later, he would not worry what public opinion was saying about him now. “And the other thing for me was that I saw a great man be criticized, as you might recall,” he says, referring again to the vitriol aimed at GHWB during the losing reelection campaign of 1992. 

That reminded me of the 2000 campaign — during which George W. was sometimes asked, “What if you lose?” The candidate had a habitual answer: “I saw a good man lose in ’92.” In other words, no big deal.

For some years now, Harrington has taught journalism at the University of Illinois. He writes,

. . . I was surrounded by students and faculty angry about Bush’s impending invasion of Iraq. In my academic cocoon, Bush was called a stupid warmonger trying to avenge his father’s failure to oust Saddam Hussein, a stupid warmonger trying to make the world safe for Big Oil, a stupid warmonger trying to prop up his sagging popularity. I told colleagues that I believed Bush — right or wrong — sincerely considered Iraq a deadly threat to the United States, period. My view got me labeled a Bush conservative. Then one morning I got into my academic office building’s elevator and saw this scratched into the paint: “Kill Bush.”

I had to catch my breath: Was this America?

Yes, it is America, very much America. And the hatred directed at President Bush was something like animalistic, I think. There was the smell of violent lunacy about it.

Harrington saw how impressive and commanding Bush was in private conversation. “As he talked, I even thought about an old Saturday Night Live skit in which an amiable, bumbling President Ronald Reagan, played by Phil Hartman, goes behind closed doors to suddenly become a masterful operator in total charge at the White House.”

You know, I thought the exact same thing. I remember leaving the White House after a session with Bush — a session that some of us had had. Bush had given a tour d’horizon, and, believe me, it was pretty much dazzling.

I thought, “I wish the whole world could have heard what I just heard. I wish it had been filmed, to be broadcast far and wide. People would be shocked. Why does Bush freeze up in public?”

Anyway, again, that Harrington article is here. A valuable contribution to GWB studies.

‐Saw a headline that made me smile, and marvel a little: “2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls go online.” (Story here.) Do you know what I mean? Isn’t that remarkable, something to ponder?

‐Give you a little music. For my latest piece in City Arts, go here. I touch on 1) West Side Story, 2) a new piece by Stanley Silverman (in which Sting was a performer), and 3) Walton’s score for Henry V (complete with narration and acting by Christopher Plummer).

‐A speck of language, sort of? Language and music combined? A reader wrote me to say that “lionize” was the Word of the Day at Dictionary.com. An example was

But the urge to lionize him is an indication that we live in a terrible age for pianists. There is today almost no pianist worth crossing the street for.

Jay Nordlinger, “Curtain Calls”, National Review, May 31, 1999

You know, I’m almost afraid to look up the piece to see whom I was talking about. Maybe I have since lionized him.

‐Finally, a reader sent me a fragment of the Wikipedia entry for Richard Harris, the late actor, thinking I would enjoy it. He was so right:

For years, whenever he was in London, Harris resided at the Savoy Hotel. According to the hotel archivist Susan Scott, as Harris was being taken from the hotel on a stretcher, shortly before his death, he warned the diners, “It was the food!”

Have a great weekend, y’all, and thank you.




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