Thursday, February 28, 2008

"In telegraphic idiom"

I don't have too many stories of the role that the late great William F. Buckley, Jr. played in my life, but I figure I'll add what I can.

Buckley was actually one of the first thinkers I knew -- far before I had any interest in what, exactly, made this thing called "conservatism" so great. I was seven, and my dad, impressed but not overwhelmed with my progress in reading, explained that I'd only know I was really getting smart when I could understand a George Will or Bill Buckley column without a dictionary.

Sad to say, The Hartford Courant didn't syndicate Buckley.

Fast forward. Much has been said in recent days about Buckley's penchant for long, elaborate words -- a penchant that the man who taught me to write, the esteemed Prof. Jack Pitney, most certainly didn't share.

Anyway, the Monday before the 2004 elections, Pitney strides into my "American Presidency" class and writes his prediction on the board:

Kerry wins. 50-49%; 291-247.

That didn't happen, though it seemed entirely possible at the time. (Pitney, incidentally, is also the author of the 1994 tome, "Congress' Permanent Minority? Republicans in the US House." Go figure.)

The day after the election, I'm perusing Buckley's column, which is fittingly enough about mistaken election predictions. He tells of two communiques he received in the leadup to election night:

"The first originated with a professor of government in California who, it was bruited, had always succeeded in predicting the outcome of presidential-year elections. The news was given in telegraphic idiom, no curlicues, embellishments, appoggiaturas: 'President: Kerry wins the popular vote 50-49. Kerry wins electoral vote 291-247. Senate: GOP has net gain of two, for a 53-47 majority. House: GOP has net gain of one, for a 230-205 majority.' That bulletin I disclosed to a few of my closest associates."

In telegraphic idiom, no curlicues, embellishments, appoggiaturas...

Buckley would say that about Pitney. And I smiled, as if the great man had made a joke just for me.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Stuff White People Like

Barack Obama is promising to move our country "beyond black and white."

This blog shows why that will never happen.

(Hat tip: The Herald)

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Barack's Papal Brigade

Douglas Kmiec, dean of the Catholic University law school and a former Romney adviser, thinks that Barack Obama is a closet Catholic. Or at least that Catholics are closet Obama voters. It's a confused piece on several levels (I'll get to those), but I can't say I haven't been noticing much the same thing.

First, my colleague Robert George notices something particularly "Catholic" in Obama's recent (and worth watching) speech at the Virginia Democrats' Jefferson-Jackson dinner. (My response: Catholics can't preach that well.) Then my friend Paul Snatchko says nice things about the way Obama talks about faith in public discourse. Now Kmiec. That's three times in a week. And that's a pattern.

There are other datapoints as well: Several friends of mine just joined the "we really really wish Barack Obama was pro-life" facebook group. (Sorry, guys.) The wonderful JPII memoirist Peggy Noonan, as I've noted before, seems quite taken with the guy. And is it really a coincidence that the perpetual Obama buzzword "hope" just happens to be the subject of Pope Benedict's latest encyclical? (Move over, Deval Patrick!)

Okay, so what gives?

Kmiec's policy oddities (really: if Mitt Romney had any other anti-war, open-borders, global-warming-worried advisers, he didn't tell us about them) only serve to emphasize his broader point: It's all about the rhetoric.

There's no question that Obama's a brilliant speaker, and Kmiec hints at the interesting point that his community-organizing roots have steeped him in a kind of social-justice rhetoric that's friendly toward religion generally and resonates with Catholics specifically.

Plus, he says, Obama has a kind of Reaganesque optimism too him, the kind that "makes America feel good about itself" -- and the kind that attracted the largely Catholic "Reagan Democrats" in the first place.

And that's where I get off. Kmiec may be right about the short-term politics of it all, and Obama's speeches certainly have an inspiring aura to them -- but it's not Reagan. I don't want to speak beyond my competence on this one, but it strikes me that Reagan's and Obama's optimisms come from two very different places.

Just take a look at what Obama's optimistic about: "Yes, we can"; "We are the change that we seek"; "We can build the Kingdom of Heaven on earth"; (yes, he said that). This is a contingent optimism, a hope in the future success of (Obama-led) collective political action.

That hope may -- may -- be well-founded, and it can still be inspiring; one of the appealing things about Obama's rhetoric is its constant invocation of American history (albeit, mostly the parts where collective political movements for "change" have succeeded).

But as Michelle Obama is quickly proving, that kind of "hope" can have an ugly flipside. "This is the first time in my adult life I've been proud of my country," quoth she.


I don't want to take this too far, but I think Mrs. Obama just distilled to its essence exactly what unsettles me about all this "change" stuff in the first place. My question is not so much, "change to what?" -- it's change from what? In other words, what does this cult of "change" ultimately say about the people who cluelessly let things get so bad in the first place?

Again, I'm dealing mostly in tendencies and temptations here, but it strikes me that Obama's brand of "hope" is a very different sort than Reagan's simple trust in the good sense of the American people -- which only needed to be unlocked by the kind of policies he was advocating, not beaten into them by an endless supply of lofty rhetoric.

Think of it another way: For all of Obama's rhetorical brilliance, could you really see him giving Reagan's "Boys of Pointe du Hoc" speech? Could he speak so naturally of an America that already was and is, of ageless values that have little to do with changing our way of doing politics, as important as that sometimes is?

I haven't seen it.

UPDATE: Okay, looks like Peggy Noonan (author of the above speech, incidentally) isn't quite so enamored with Obama after all. And as one would expect, she makes my point far better than I ever could.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Victorian imperialist anti-utopian love poetry

Is my favorite kind. Share this one with your sweetheart this Valentine's Day:

An Imperial Rescript
By Rudyard Kipling

Now this is the tale of the Council the German Kaiser decreed,
To ease the strong of their burden, to help the weak in their need,
He sent a word to the peoples, who struggle, and pant, and sweat,
That the straw might be counted fairly and the tally of bricks be set.

The Lords of Their Hands assembled; from the East and the West they drew —
Baltimore, Lille, and Essen, Brummagem, Clyde, and Crewe.
And some were black from the furnace, and some were brown from the soil,
And some were blue from the dye-vat; but all were wearied of toil.

And the young King said: — "I have found it, the road to the rest ye seek:
The strong shall wait for the weary, the hale shall halt for the weak;
With the even tramp of an army where no man breaks from the line,
Ye shall march to peace and plenty in the bond of brotherhood — sign!"

The paper lay on the table, the strong heads bowed thereby,
And a wail went up from the peoples: — "Ay, sign — give rest, for we die!"
A hand was stretched to the goose-quill, a fist was cramped to scrawl,
When — the laugh of a blue-eyed maiden ran clear through the council-hall.

And each one heard Her laughing as each one saw Her plain —
Saidie, Mimi, or Olga, Gretchen, or Mary Jane.
And the Spirit of Man that is in Him to the light of the vision woke;
And the men drew back from the paper, as a Yankee delegate spoke: —

"There's a girl in Jersey City who works on the telephone;
We're going to hitch our horses and dig for a house of our own,
With gas and water connections, and steam-heat through to the top;
And, W. Hohenzollern, I guess I shall work till I drop."

And an English delegate thundered: — "The weak an' the lame be blowed!
I've a berth in the Sou'-West workshops, a home in the Wandsworth Road;
And till the 'sociation has footed my buryin' bill,
I work for the kids an' the missus. Pull up? I be damned if I will!"

And over the German benches the bearded whisper ran: —
"Lager, der girls und der dollars, dey makes or dey breaks a man.
If Schmitt haf collared der dollars, he collars der girl deremit;
But if Schmitt bust in der pizness, we collars der girl from Schmitt."

They passed one resolution: — "Your sub-committee believe
You can lighten the curse of Adam when you've lightened the curse of Eve.
But till we are built like angels, with hammer and chisel and pen,
We will work for ourself and a woman, for ever and ever, amen."

Now this is the tale of the Council the German Kaiser held —
The day that they razored the Grindstone, the day that the Cat was belled,
The day of the Figs from Thistles, the day of the Twisted Sands,
The day that the laugh of a maiden made light of the Lords of Their Hands.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Speaking of Lincoln...

I've officially lost whatever lingering affection I may have held for Ron Paul. Richard Brookhiser digs up a particularly odious quote from the good doctor in today's Post. Apparently on Meet the Press last year, Paul went off about the "senseless" Civil War that Lincoln raged "just to ... get rid of the original intent of the Republic."

Yeah, like that's all it was good for.

It's not especially surprising he'd say something like that, given the racist newsletters written under his name that came to light last month. To be clear, I still don't think Paul is an actual racist; say what you want about hardcore libertarians, they take ideas like liberty and equality deadly serious -- at least in the abstract.

Paul's problem is instead that he's an ideologue. His singleminded libertarianism gives him such a narrow political and historical radar that he's got no sense of taboo -- no sense that it's not okay to say, "well David Duke and I may disagree on this, this, and this, but here's where we can find common ground." All that matters is finding some way to sell your libertarian ideas.

And so we come to Lincoln, scourge of neo-Confederates for trampling on "states' rights" and "limited government" and all those things that libertarians are supposed to love. And to an ideologue who can't see beyond the contours of today's political debates, that's really all that matters. Halting the spread of slavery? Ancient history -- if not simply a pretext for aggression.

Just to be clear, I have all the respect in the world for my thoughtful libertarian friends, including those who've decided to vote for Paul. But to my way of thinking, one's respect for what Lincoln accomplished is the litmus test seperating those with a genuine and mature love for liberty from the mere small-government fetishists.

Ron Paul fails.

The Tardy Controversialist

Would make a good title for some high-brow suspense flick, I imagine -- along the lines of "The Constant Gardener" or somesuch thing. But for now, it refers to yours truly, who just got around to seeing two films that were making all sorts of waves several years ago.

Some passing thoughts:

I remember all the buzz and controversy over "V for Vendetta" and its "War on Terror = fascism" message when the movie first came out, but it still surprised me just how beat-you-over-the-head it is. It'd be a much more convincing and thought-provoking piece of art if it didn't feature every single leftist boogeyman at the same time. Enjoyable nonetheless; I find it hard to get worked up over a movie like this on political grounds. When Hollywood stops making movies warning us of creeping right-wing fascism, then I'll start to worry.

Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto," by contrast, was supposed to be -- in its critics' telling -- all about how brutal and benighted those ancient American civilizations were before the Europeans showed up. To which my response was always, "no doubt." In any case, I recommend it highly. It's very gory, but surprisingly tolerable in that regard (at least to me). It's also very long -- the final chase scene could have used a few fewer bad guys -- but it's so much fun by then that you hardly care.

It's also deeply moving to a level I wouldn't have expected. The basic plot is about this happy mesoamerican tribe that gets captured into slavery -- and human sacrifice -- by the Mayans in the last days of their empire. It's the kind of project that naturally invites charges of "cultural imperialism" (non-European civilizations can't be evil!), but that criticism falls flat. It's the more advanced civilization, after all, that's the brutal one in the story. The captivity scenes are powerful on a simply human level, prompting reflections not so much on the badness of Mayans but on the horrors of which humanity in general is capable. Given Gibson's previous controversial offerings, this was surely his intent.

It's not like we have to be reminded at every juncture that the white man did this stuff too -- I found it hard not to think about the particular sins of which this country has been guilty. Especially as today just happens to be Lincoln's birthday. So if you don't have a handy copy of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," "Apocalypto" makes a fine stand-in for anyone who really wants to put some meat on the bones of Lincoln's second inaugural.

Especially this part: "Fondly do we hope -- fervently do we pray -- that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"

Friday, February 8, 2008

McCain & honor

Good news for my long-suffering readers: I'm officially giving up following the Republican presidential primary for Lent! ... Starting tomorrow.

But before then, please do check out Yuval Levin's take on John McCain's peculiar brand of "honor politics." It may just be the most insightful thing I've read this season. A sample:

McCain has made the most of his unusual approach to politics throughout his
career, developing his own special brand of honor politics, which in practice is
often a form of anger politics. It makes him terribly prickly and
self-righteous, but also determined and often successful. The substance of his
crusades has turned off a lot of conservatives, and rightly so, but the tone can
be quite effective. And when it is directed to a cause conservatives share —
most notably the war — the Right can take real pleasure in his

More important, it’s all McCain has got, and he needs to make the most of
it, and not try to pretend he’s something he’s not. To both his credit and his
detriment, McCain just can’t pretend. Rather than attempt a feeble imitation of
Ronald Reagan (the ubiquitous mistake of this campaign) and try to paint the
grand conservative vision of things, McCain needs to train himself at least to
oppose the things conservatives oppose — paternalism that corrupts the roots of
personal initiative and self-reliance, a callous disregard for the lives of the
innocent unborn, hostility to our cultural traditions, cosmopolitanism that sees
nothing special in America — and so to channel his anger in politically (not to
mention substantively) healthy directions. That can be his way of building
bridges, and it can also be an effective way of organizing his campaign’s themes
going forward.

By the by, here's McCain's speech at CPAC yesterday, which I thought was very good.

Saints preserve us!

No, not literally -- please. An interesting article in the Times today about the patron saint of drug dealers. Good to see that Rome's not biting, at least. Though the Gambinos probably could have used the help.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

It's Mac for me

My friend Robert George explains why he voted -- begrudgingly -- for John McCain this morning. I did, too, though for somewhat different reasons.

In the end, my growing doubts about McCain's unsettling tendency to treat every single political dispute as a matter of deep personal honor -- or about the smallness of his "patriotism v. profit" attack on Romney during the last debate -- didn't quite sway me. Winston Churchill did.

If there's one dominant theme running throughout Churchill's vast historical corpus, it's that prosperous democracies, for all their advantages, are notoriously fickle when it comes to dealing with foreign threats. They can rise to meet them better than anyone once the threat becomes obviously existential, but as soon as it fades, they take their collective eye off the ball -- to the cost of a lot more blood and treasure a few years later.

This is something McCain, with his instinctual value for national honor, understands -- making him a needed candidate for a time when troop deaths in Iraq are down and a dubious National Intelligence Estimate has nudged Iran off the radar screen.

Romney, meanwhile, may be saying all the right things, but his manager's belief in "fixing" "problems" doesn't inspire confidence that he has the judgmental categories to fight a war, with its uncertain constantly changing jumble of human passions.

And while I've got my reasons to trust at least McCain's sincerity on judges and tax cuts, I've seen nothing to indicate that Romney would make the war a priority when push comes to shove. It's not where he's comfortable.

By the by, if there is such a thing as McCain Derangement Syndrome, this piece comes perilously close. McCarthy labels McCain a "multilateralist" for thinking that a president needs to be open to persuading our allies of the rightness of our actions.

Except that McCain's right. One of the great tragedies of 2003 was, in fact, Bush's indulgence of cheap -- though understandable -- anti-Europeanism. Old Europe, ultimately, was never going to come along on Iraq. But how much ill will could Bush have averted by simply going to Europe and reminding Europeans of our common struggles against tyranny? If McCain believes the best for the old Atlantic alliance, good for him; we may need it one day.

It shouldn't even need to be said that he would never bow to their sniping where he sees national security at stake. But a President McCain whose perceived "independence" could actually pull supporters back to our general FP viewpoint remains one of my big hopes -- especially if he picks a running mate who can talk a good game. Though I'm open to being disappointed.

Monday, February 4, 2008


(from The Post)

And that's all I have to say about that.

UPDATE: Our page weighs in on the game.