Impromptus

A pair of kings, &c.

Juan Carlos, then the Spanish king, attends the opening ceremony of the new Spanish Square in Mostar, March 29, 2012. The square commemorates the 21 Spanish U.N. peacekeepers who died in Bosnia. (Srdjan Zivulovic / Reuters)
Juan Carlos, Constantine II, George W. Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and more

I have warm feelings for Juan Carlos, the king of Spain, or former king. There are two reasons for this. The first is kind of light.

In 2007, at the Ibero-American Summit in Santiago, Juan Carlos turned to Hugo Chávez and said, “Por qué no te callas?” In other words, “Why don’t you shut up?”

The Venezuelan strongman had been hectoring the prime minister of Spain.

Juan Carlos’s phrase — “Por qué no te callas?” — shot around the Spanish-speaking world. People used a clip of the king as their ringtone.

The more serious reason for my warm feelings toward Juan Carlos? He was a key figure in Spain’s transition to democracy, following Franco. And in 1981, he fought off a coup attempt, intended to restore franquista rule.

But the guy — my dear king — has a corruption problem. He abdicated in 2014, as scandals mounted. Now his son, King Felipe, has cut him off altogether. He has stripped Juan Carlos of his stipend. Also, Felipe has renounced his personal financial inheritance.

Why?

Well, it seems that Juan Carlos has socked away a little money, some of it in Switzerland. Some of it courtesy of the Saudis. (Is $100 million a little?)

Nonetheless — despite and still, as Robert Graves would say — Juan Carlos has done great good in his life, and they can’t take that away from him (h/t the Gershwins).

Speaking of music and composers: Verdi wrote Don Carlos (a.k.a. Don Carlo), among other operas. It is about King Philip II of Spain and his son, the title character. (The current king is Philip, or Felipe, VI.) Don Carlos is one of Verdi’s many operas about fathers and sons.

I think it would take a Verdi to do justice to today’s drama in Spain. It must have caused Felipe great pain to separate himself from his father as he has.

• The other day, I was thinking of King Constantine II, I swear. He was — is? sort of? — the king of Greece. For some 40 years, he lived in exile. He was a guest of Bill Buckley’s one night at an editorial dinner, along with the crown prince, Pavlos. (Handsome dude.)

(He introduced himself by saying, “Hi, I’m Prince Pavlos.” Dusty Rhodes, in particular — National Review president at the time — got a kick out of that.)

Also present at the dinner were A. M. Rosenthal, the former executive editor of the New York Times, and Osborn “Oz” Elliott, the former editor of Newsweek. Bill looked at his table, enumerating the guests, and said it was pretty impressive.

I really enjoyed talking to Oz Elliott. He recounted some stories about JFK. For some reason, the Elgin Marbles were in the news at the time, and I asked Constantine about that. He was firm that these treasures ought to be returned to Greece.

Exiled, deposed, whatever — he was a patriot.

For many years, I have believed a line: Lord Elgin and other Brits did Greece a favor, by taking — rescuing! — antiquities that were of no interest whatsoever to the Greeks themselves. If the Brits return the marbles to Greece, they should at least get a thank-you.

I’m not so sure this line is true. Last week, I read my friend Jeff Jacoby on this subject: here. (He is the veteran columnist of the Boston Globe.) Jeff lands heavy blows against the pro-Elgin, pro-British line.

Anyway, that’s why I was thinking about Constantine II.

Bill used to say, “Americans often think they’re the only people in the world with national pride.” (Maybe the same applies to Brits as well.) “You have to consider other people’s national pride, too.” Buckley was very good at that. He was very good at so many things. So many.

(One reason he supported President Carter in the Panama Canal treaties — and opposed Reagan — is that he had a sense of Panamanian national pride, and the importance of it in the whole issue.)

• Have you been following the news out of Afghanistan? It is worse than usual. Let me recommend a report from Kabul by Pamela Constable in the Washington Post. This is an eye-popping report: multi-layered, meticulous, and beautifully written. It almost rises to literature.

And yet the issues are so grave and appalling.

In Kabul, there were competing presidential inaugurations, held at the same time, a block apart.

Also, did you hear this news? For the first time, a U.S. president had direct contact with a Taliban official. Trump talked to their deputy leader, a mullah named Baradar.

Did it have to be a deputy?

Since we reached our agreement with the Taliban, they have stepped up attacks on Afghan troops. They killed 15 of them in one blow.

Moreover, there are secret annexes to our Taliban deal. Did you read about these things? They pertain to criteria for determining whether the Taliban are living up to their end of the deal.

According to the New York Times, these annexes “appear to give Mr. Trump, or his successor, enormous latitude to simply declare that the war is over and leave.” (Report here.)

Some congressmen — Republican and Democratic — are not too pleased about the annexes, starting with their secrecy. Liz Cheney said that any U.S. deal with the Taliban “should be made public in its entirety.” Tom Malinowski tweeted, “Bottom line: the administration is telling a terrorist group the conditions (such as they are) of our withdrawal from Afghanistan, but not telling the American people. This is wrong. And it serves no national security purpose.”

Back to that eye-popping report by Pamela Constable. An Afghan former national-security adviser, Zalmai Rassoul, told her, “All the cards are in the Taliban’s hands now.”

This is a bitter and alarming pass. I’m afraid that we Americans are poised to screw over our allies and our national security at the same time.

More to come . . .

• We have been using the word “isolation” recently — the virus and all — and I thought of a statement that George W. Bush once made. He made it on the opening day of his presidential center in Dallas. This was in April 2013.

All the living ex-presidents were with him on the stage, including his own father. Their wives were present too. And the incumbent president, Obama, and Mrs. Obama, were there.

Let me quote from a piece I wrote (which is in the present tense):

Naturally, Bush talks about freedom, his perpetual subject. The idea of freedom “sustains dissidents bound by chains” and “believers huddled in underground churches.” . . .

Bush also answers a criticism of the Left, I believe. In recent years, they’ve been painting conservatives as dog-eat-dog Darwinians, radical individualists, caring for nothing but the Self. Bush says, “Independence from the state does not mean isolation from each other. A free society thrives when neighbors help neighbors, and the strong protect the weak, and public policies promote private compassion.”

Yes.

(Incidentally, that criticism of the Left — about radical individualism, etc. — is just as likely to come from the Right these days.)

• Stay on the subject of W. for a minute. I was reading an article in the New York Times about The Plot Against America, a TV mini-series, based on the 2004 novel of the same title by Philip Roth. As the article says, the novel “imagines a counterfactual history in which Charles Lindbergh, campaigning on a promise of ‘America First,’ defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election . . .”

The article quotes an actor in the mini-series, who says that he read the novel when first it came out, back in GWB days. “I thought it was resonant even then,” he says. “But we didn’t know from demagogues back then.”

The Left’s view of George W. Bush was always crazy-nuts. Same with its view of Mitt Romney.

Now the Left and Right are united, pretty much, in hatred of those two. I think I like them all the more . . .

• “Chinese Tycoon Who Criticized Xi’s Response to Coronavirus Has Vanished.” (Article here.) Yup, that happens, doesn’t it?

• This was an interesting angle — interesting article: “Not exactly gloating, stockpiling ‘preppers’ have a moment.”

• I’m not a great fan of puns in headlines, thinking that people way overdo it. Some writers and editors act like there can’t be a punless headline. I once said of a journalist I knew: “If he wrote about the Holocaust, he’d call it, ‘Six Million, Deep-Sixed!’”

But I have to hand it to the author of this headline, over an article about the cancellation of the NCAA basketball tournament: “March Sadness.” (Article here.)

• In recent days, there has been talk of a TP shortage (i.e., a dearth of toilet paper). On Twitter, Dan Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, recalled a beer commercial from 20 years ago: here. Brilliant.

• Several days ago, I was on the subway, in New York. Some people were eyeing others warily, even accusatorially. I thought of something parents used to say to children about animals (and they probably still do): “They’re as afraid of you as you are of them.”

• The headline of an obit: “Tom Turnipseed, a ‘Reformed Racist’ After Backing Wallace, Dies at 83.” (Obit here.) Turnipseed worked for Governor Wallace in ’68. “What turned me off was not Wallace, but the crowds,” he said ten years later.

• Did you see this video with Arnold? (I don’t need to say more than “Arnold,” I know.) Say what you will about him — about his governorship or whatever. The guy has charisma out the wazoo. And he is an American treasure. Millions of people around the world feel they are naturally American, born in the wrong place. That was certainly true of Arnold. He took to America like a duck to water, and vice versa.

May such things always continue to happen . . .

• Dame Myra Hess, the great pianist, gave noontime recitals during the Blitz, at the National Gallery. She did this even as the bombs fell. It is not quite the same — but Igor Levit, another great pianist, is giving “house concerts” every evening, available via Twitter. (Here’s Igor.) Pretty neat, IYAM (if you ask me).

Thank you so much for joining me today, my friends. God bless you and check you soon.

If you’d like to receive Impromptus by e-mail — links to new columns — write to jnordlinger@nationalreview.com.

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