Wednesday, June 18, 2008
G-R-R-REAT. Something important has gotten lost in the American experiment. Something we used to know deep down but seem committed to forgetting. What triggered my own memory was Mark Steyn's last post before he went on hiatus to mount a new offensive against the forces which no longer believe in freedom of speech. He wrote this about Obama and McCain:
Sen. Obama has learned an old trick of Bill Clinton's: If you behave like a star, you'll get treated as one. So, even as his numbers weakened, his rhetoric soared. By the time he wrapped up his "victory" speech last week, the great gaseous uplift had his final paragraphs floating in delirious hallucination along the Milky Way:
"I face this challenge with profound humility and knowledge of my own limitations. But I also face it with limitless faith in the capacity of the American people … . I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal … . This was the moment – this was the time – when we came together to remake this great nation."
It's a good thing he's facing it with "profound humility," isn't it? Because otherwise who knows what he'd be saying. But mark it in your calendars: June 3, 2008 – the long-awaited day, after 232 years, that America began to provide care for the sick. Just a small test program: 47 attendees of the Obama speech were taken to hospital and treated for nausea. Everyone else came away thrilled that the Obamessiah was going to heal the planet and reverse the rise of the oceans: When Barack wants to walk on the water, he doesn't want to have to use a stepladder to get up on it.
There are generally two reactions to this kind of policy proposal. The first was exemplified by the Atlantic Monthly's Marc Ambinder:
"What a different emotional register from John McCain's; Obama seems on the verge of tears; the enormous crowd in the Xcel Center seems ready to lift Obama on its shoulders; the much smaller audience for McCain's speech interrupted his remarks with stilted cheers."
The second reaction boils down to: "'Heal the planet'? Is this guy nuts?" To be honest I prefer a republic whose citizenry can muster no greater enthusiasm for their candidate than "stilted cheers" to one in which the crowd wants to hoist the nominee onto their shoulders for promising to lower ocean levels within his first term. As for coming together "to remake this great nation," if it's so great, why do we have to remake it?
Uh, yeah. Obama's a great talker. McCain's a great self-promoter. But is either of them great in the sense of the word that we all know underlies its constant overuse? No. They're not great. They're politicians. Both of them. Which is mutually exclusive with the real meaning of the word 'great.'
That's what Steyn is reminding us about. He explains in a later paragraph:
Speaking personally, I don't want to remake America. I'm an immigrant, and one reason I came here is because most of the rest of the Western world remade itself along the lines Sen. Obama has in mind. This is pretty much the end of the line for me. If he remakes America, there's nowhere for me to go – although presumably once he's lowered sea levels around the planet there should be a few new atolls popping up here and there.
What is American exceptionalism? The notion, the conviction, that we're different from every other nation in history. On what was this conviction founded? In terms of politics, it was founded on the brand new idea that a nation's political leaders were not to be blindly followed but continuously suspected. Indeed, our best presidents have been those who were self-consciously plain, keenly aware that their power was largely an accident of timing and circumstance, that they themselves were merely reflections of a national mood that could have been exemplified by many others. They did not see themselves as messiahs. And if they suspected other people did, they worked to disabuse the majority of that impression. Washington set the precedent of retiring after two terms in office, after having turned down a proffered crown. Jefferson was too shy to play a charismatic executive. Jackson was too human, too flawed to play at being a savior. Lincoln probably came the closest to being truly great, but his press -- the world over -- was every bit as bad as Bush's, and he never knew he was being groomed for sainthood. And the record of the "phantom amendment" proves that the Great Emancipator was also a sly and potentially unscrupulous politician.
It's only since the advent of mass media that we have begun to see presidents as mythological figures -- Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and now Obama -- as larger than life figures, larger even than ourselves. It's all hogwash. The partisan critics of these icons have all been right to some degree. TR was a cartoonish personality, a blustering braggart making up for a sickly youth with oceans of overbearing bravado. FDR was an arrogant, ignorant snob, dumb as a brick about economics and blind to the sedition and treason in his own inner circle. He never did directly what he could do by stealth and sneaky tactics. Truman was a lifetime politician who lucked into the biggest political deal ever. JFK was a sex- and drug-addicted Irish mobster, heir of a ruthless clan that accumulated power with no thought about the values of democracy. Reagan was an actor who found a different way to be the star his talent couldn't achieve in Hollywood.
I've been thinking about such not just because I'm concerned about the cult of Obama. I've been watching the new attacks on Winston Churchill by Pat Buchanan and others, for example, which was at first surprising because I grew up in the generation which deemed Churchill the "Man of the Century," and then not so surprising as I remembered that Churchill was a politician, meaning that at least part of him was low, mean, unscrupulous, and self-obsessed.
It is an American act to challenge the putative greatness of the so-called great, especially when they're politicians. That's how we've avoided monarchy and aristocracy for close to a quarter of a millennium. It got me thinking. About greatness. Nobody who aspires to so much power and control can ever be truly great as a person. How do I know that? Because I've had the privilege of knowing -- in my entire lifetime -- two truly great human beings. I've known many more good human beings, but greatness is its own category. It's the kind of human quality you find yourself measuring yourself against, even when it doesn't seem relevant, and the measurement always makes you feel inferior. You know what I'm talking about. None of the excuses work when you're talking about real greatness.
So I've known two. My paternal grandfather. And my wife. Which makes me blessed among men. I've had the honor of knowing two people who were always who they were, without doubt or apology, and whose singular goodness survived every temptation and became, instead, an example of how one should respond to life's trials. Interestingly, the quest for power and authority never figured into their life plans. Instead, they managed somehow to do things for others, serve as un-self-conscious examples of virtue in its purest form, and enjoy the simple pleasures of a life that could not be summarized in a bumper sticker. I've known good men who were good executives, but greatness is always an impossibility. They make choices the great ones would never make. Because when it comes down to it, the career matters more than, well, other things. I'm not accusing. I've been there. But I don't like to think I could go there again. When life gives you a second opportunity to learn, you're worse than a fool if you don't try to take in the lesson.
If you want Obama or McCain, cast your votes accordingly. But please do it the American Way. Knowing that they're both damned dirty politicians who can't be trusted any farther than we can throw them.
I'd say the same thing if Abraham Lincoln were running again. So help me.