Impromptus

Our old friend personal responsibility, &c.

President Trump in the Rose Garden of the White House on March 13, 2020 (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)
On Trump, China, Russia, red states, blue states, and more

I was interested in something Newt Gingrich said (as I have been since the early 1980s). He said it in a tweet, on March 16:

A reporter asked me today why conservatives were initially so skeptical of the threat of the coronavirus. I tried to explain that one of the dangerous consequences of having a totally dishonest left wing news media was that most Americans discounted their hysteria as phony.

Were the news media hysterical? Not on balance, I think. Also, think of the power of the “left wing news media.” They are responsible for their own errors, of course. But also for conservatives’ errors.

You see how it works?

Furthermore, is right-wing America really looking at left-wing news? Or looking elsewhere?

In the past weeks and months, I have been thinking about personal responsibility. It used to be a conservative cause, and considered a conservative trait. (Maybe we were simply flattering ourselves, that it was a trait of ours.)

A few days ago, Trump defenders started saying that the president botched the coronavirus in the early going because he was distracted by impeachment. First, an admission of botching is an interesting admission, but second: Have you seen those lists of how many rallies Trump held during the relevant period, and how many rounds of golf he played?

They’re pretty impressive, those lists.

I think of a phrase from the Lewinsky era: “compartmentalization.” Clinton people said that the president could “compartmentalize,” placing impeachment in one compartment — one corner of his brain, I suppose — and carrying out his job in the other compartments. It was a point of pride, really.

Maybe Trump defenders don’t expect as much from the incumbent?

I was interested that Trump himself did not jump onboard with his defenders: those saying he was distracted by impeachment. He said, “I don’t think I would have done any better had I not been impeached.”

Good for him.

Truman had a sign on his desk: “The buck stops here!” About 25 years later, Carter had the same sign on his desk, having borrowed it from the Truman Library.

Running for president in 2000, George W. Bush said he wanted to be “the responsibility president.” That was one of the themes he tried out.

It is a good theme. I hope we will all rediscover this quality — if we have lost sight of it — by and by.

• There are many Americans who insist on calling the coronavirus “the China virus” or “the Chinese virus.” I have written about this subject before, saying, “. . . it doesn’t matter. You can call this plague a ham sandwich — just stamp it out.”

I have quoted from an Impromptus column on March 23. But I would like to add a refinement now.

Wise presidents — Reagan and the Bushes prominent among them — have always been careful to distinguish between human beings and the dictatorships that rule them. This has been true with respect to the Soviet Union, China, Iran, and many other places.

Chinese people, for better or worse — and I say worse — are highly nationalistic. American officials, starting with the president, ought to be sensitive to this.

And those who are nationalist ought to be most sensitive of all. You know? They should be even more understanding than others.

Bill Buckley used to say, “Americans are prone to thinking they’re the only people who are patriotic. It does not occur to them that there is patriotism in other lands.” (He usually said this in the context of Latin America, which he knew well.) You have to consider other people’s patriotism — and nationalism and what have you. That is one lesson I absorbed from WFB.

• President Trump was talking to Fox & Friends — you can listen here. He was talking about Russia, and the need to communicate with the Kremlin.

“They also fought World War II,” he said. “They lost 50 million people. They were our partner, in World War II. Germany was the enemy. And Germany’s like this wonderful thing.”

Trump went on to say that Germany “takes advantage of us on trade,” etc.

By the way, most sources say that the Soviet Union lost about 25 million people (not to engage in a ghoulish accounting debate).

On Fox that morning, Trump said over and over that Russia lost 50 million and that Russia was our ally, while Germany was our enemy. “Now we don’t talk to Russia, we talk to Germany. I mean, look, it’s fine. I want to talk to Germany.”

But, but . . .

Yes, we allied with the Soviets in the war. This was after their original and true allies, the Nazis, double-crossed them. This was after Hitler and Stalin had carved up Eastern Europe together.

And why are we closer now to Germany than to Russia? Well, Germany is a democratic nation. So is Japan. So is Italy. Russia is authoritarian, with Putin jailing or killing his critics, rigging elections, stifling the press, invading other countries . . .

Friends, can we reason together? If a Democratic president talked as Trump does, we conservatives would say it was nuts, right? Why don’t we say so now?

• Two days ago, Dan McLaughlin had a post headed “Can We Stop Talking about Pandemic Deaths in Red/Blue Terms?” He began,

Our hyper-partisan age demands that just about everything be seen through the lens of Red America and Blue America. Sometimes, that goes too far.

One of the uglier sides of this tendency is the ongoing race to argue over whether more people are getting sick and dying in red or blue states.

A minute ago, I used the phrase “ghoulish accounting.”

I think of 9/11 and Michael Moore — who wrote on his website that day,

Many families have been devastated tonight. This just is not right. They did not deserve to die. If someone did this to get back at Bush, then they did so by killing thousands of people who DID NOT VOTE for him!

Boston, New York, DC, and the planes’ destination of California — these were places that voted AGAINST Bush!

Why kill them? Why kill anyone?

I appreciated that last sentence, I guess. (And Moore removed the post from his site, following widespread condemnation.)

Have you noticed President Trump’s tendency to divide the country into good states and bad states? Let me give you an example — small, but telling.

On January 11, the Tennessee Titans won a playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens. The next day, Trump tweeted, “Congratulations to the Great State of Tennessee. You’ve got yourselves a fantastic football team. Big WIN last night!”

That same day, the San Francisco 49ers had beaten the Minnesota Vikings. But no presidential tweet.

California bad, you see — and San Francisco especially bad. But Tennessee, very good.

Last week, Trump tweeted, “Looks like a third rate Grandstander named @RepThomasMassie, a Congressman from, unfortunately, a truly GREAT State, Kentucky, wants to vote against the new . . .”

Kentucky’s a good one, Illinois is a bad one. (I’ve picked Illinois at random.) Alabama good, Maryland bad. Etc., etc.

I guess I think that an American president should be like a parent — and not have favorites (even when he does). If I were president, I would try to be the president of all the people and all the states, I really would. I might screw it up — being crotchety and peevish — but I would try, honestly.

(Ain’t finna happen. Rest easy.)

• I was reading a book review by my colleague Madeleine Kearns, here. The book is Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. I remember reading a book by Kristof and WuDunn in the mid-1990s: China Wakes. Superb, and eye-opening.

(Kristof and WuDunn were, and are, a married couple, and they were working as New York Times correspondents.)

In her review, Maddy writes,

. . . they say, most educated liberals — like them — tend to live fairly socially conservative lives. Many “talk left” but they “walk right,” which may more accurately be described as virtue signaling while being indifferent to the effects of one’s talk on others.

I’ll tell you what I told Maddy: When I was working in Washington in the 1990s, young conservatives had a slogan, which they grinned at: “Vote right, live left.” And they really did.

That was kind of disillusioning. (People are people, aren’t they?)

• How are you getting along? Fine, I hope. On Wednesday, I walked into a store and spotted toilet paper. My eyes widened like an East German’s — or like a Muscovite’s at GUM.

• I have never heard a more delightful voice — or a more delightful way of speaking — than from the lady in this video. The aforementioned Madeleine Kearns, who is from Glasgow, tells me that she guesses the lady is from the west coast of Scotland.

• While we’re on the subject of language: My dad sent me some witty lines that are making the rounds. One of the best: “I know a guy who’s addicted to drinking brake fluid, but he says he can stop any time.” Another: “A thief who stole a calendar got twelve months.”

• Feel like a little music? For my “New York Chronicle,” published in the current New Criterion, go here. An assortment of composers, performers, and issues.

• The latest episode of my music podcast, Music for a While, is headed “Music as Balm — and Delight.” I put it together for these times — these strange, fearful, and frustrating times — especially. I hope you like it, and find it a kind of service: here.

• End on an obit? “Hellmut Stern, 91, Dies; Violinist Returned to Germany After Fleeing.” And the subheading: “He joined the Berlin Philharmonic after years in exile, setting what a colleague called ‘a unique example of reconciliation and forgiveness.’”

I tell you frankly, I don’t think I could have done what Hellmut Stern did. But I admire him and doff my cap to him.

See you soon, my friends, and God bless you.

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

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