Monday, February 22, 2010

CPAC: Top to Bottom

Red Meat Comic Relief: I especially like this CNN video
because of the ad it begins with. Punchlines are up to you.

THE BENEFITS OF SELF-EDUCATED MEN. Like most of you, no doubt, I didn't follow CPAC as if it were some conservative Olympics, though in some sense it probably is. I caught up with it mostly after the fact, except for the accident of seeing the Glenn Beck keynote live on Fox News. They announced it was imminent, I stayed tuned out of curiosity, and watched it all. More about that later.

Mostly I saw the usual clips and snippets. Cheney's "one term president" remark. Gingrich's chief soundbite, whatever that was (Sorry, I can't recall it just now.) Pawlenty's weird "nine-iron" analogy, which reminded me of a carpetbagging slalom skier who couldn't make the U.S. team missing an early gate and plowing gracelessly to DNF just desserts. (To be fair, I've long been prejudiced against the Minnesota governor who stood by lamely for months while Al Franken hijacked a 60th Democrat senate seat under his nose.) The various pundit reactions, smug to disgruntled, regarding Sarah Palin's nonparticipation. The odd hyping at Fox News of Ron Paul's victory in the straw poll -- surprised, exhilarated, condescending? The earnest coverage by Hotair of the event, as if it were some kind of offyear pre-convention, which it wasn't. It was at worst political theater for those who are presently out of power and at best a basis for political soul-searching and debate for those who are presently out of power. In the middle is my offhand conservative Olympics notion, which like many of my free associations is probably right.

That said, there were some speeches of interest, which I have dug up for you belatedly because they might give a sharper focus to some of our own thinking as we approach the 2010 elections. I'm highlighting just three speeches, none of them delivered by politicians, which should tell you something important right away. If you'd like, think of this as an Instapunk medal ceremony. Well, forget what you'd like. I'm the one dispensing the medals. You can protest to the Organizing Committee if you disagree. That's what the Comments section is for, after all.

The Bronze goes to Ann Coulter. Hers was an uneven performance you can see here in full (in two clips), but like a figure skater lacking in certain kinds of finesse who can still pull off the incredibly difficult quadruple jump, she squeaked onto the podium for the most succinct diagnosis of MSNBC's Countdown host ever offered from a dais: "Keith Olbermann is a girl." Five words that provide an encyclopedia's worth of information.

The Silver? A tough call. I'm wavering back and forth even as I write this. I'm giving it to a man I've criticized often in the past, and the reason for my doubt is not that I've criticized him. The doubt is for all the things he did so well in his speech that only a man with the attributes I've criticized could do. George Will's speech was a marvelous demonstration of the superior mind -- and education -- that has a tendency to look down on the less gifted. He was deft in his examples and analogies, witty, funny, learned, educational, as beautifully focused on the essentials of his arguments as he was illuminating about its nuances, and overall as compelling as a bookish non-orator can be in an address of real gravity. He's the reason for the title of this post. He was the top of the line speaker at CPAC. I sincerely urge you to watch all three clips of his remarks contained in this entry at Hotair. I promise you'll want to join in the standing ovation he received at the end.

So what could "top" that? Nothing. But something unexpected and useful could "bottom" it. That's why the Gold goes to Glenn Beck. His keynote address was sentimental, as self-obsessed as an Obama speech on, well, anything, larded with props and mugging and audience asides, unfair in significant respects, and absolutely necessary and perfect as the mongrel bookend to George Will's pedigreed epistle to the faithful. This morning, hardly anyone is quibbling about George Will's brilliant but absolutely traditional reassertion of conservative philosophy. But arguments are already breaking out about Glenn Beck's emotional call to action. (Scroll on down at the Corner for debates about Teddy Roosevelt, etc)

Here is the video of the Beck keynote. Watch it all the way through. Pay close attention to the ways it is different from George Will's speech -- and the ways it is the same. Both are delivering a stern message about the lessons of history, the dangers of repeating proven, catastrophic mistakes made generations ago. We believe George Will because he has spent a lifetime studying our history and the consequences and lessons of that history. We feel the passion of Glenn Beck because he has arrived at a remarkably similar understanding by a late-in-life process of self-education inspired by the personal disasters of an early life lived in accordance with all the wrong assumptions the uneducated are heir to.

Beck is the proof that Will is not just an ivory tower intellectual. The proof that ideas and philosophies of government reach deep into the guts of ordinary lives, as makers and breakers of every value that matters. With his quintessentially American combination of humility and chutzpah, Beck demonstrates exactly how American political history over the past century pertains to individual human experience. Interestingly, for example, it wasn't Will who cited the twentieth century facts that are likely to be most surprising to a conservative audience. It was Beck. His chalkboard summary of the Depression of 1920 -- its depths and the speed with which Calvin Coolidge reforms no one would consider possible today pulled us out of it -- does more to prove the destructive failure of FDR's New Deal than anything George Will said. His quotations of John McCain hero Teddy Roosevelt are earthquake traumatic. One senses, of course, that George Will knows all the same facts. But Glenn Beck knows better than Will the incredible breakthrough importance of reminding Americans that the past is not what we have been taught or blithely assume it is. Which means that the potentials of the future are also not what the most learned -- and cynical -- among us think we're prepared to entertain and pursue.

Beck is darker and more apocalyptic than Will. He is also, ultimately, more hopeful. It wouldn't occur to Will to go deep-down sentimental and histrionic about the real text and tone of the inscriptions on the Statue of Liberty. At some level, Will either assumes we know that history, or we remember the diplomatic complexities of the European political context that inspired it, or understand that there's no going back to the simpler times when the words on a statue conveyed something of real import. He's too caught up in his awareness of the philosophical demons that transform allegory into procedural battles among dynastic political families, Borgia popes, and their vassals. His education and experience have diminished his sense of the possible. A mongrel like Beck has hybrid vigor. He wants to move the stakes of the game outward, beyond the traditional bounds. It's not quoits, in Beck's view. It's Quydditch, and you're allowed to fly.

Of course, I'm sure George Will didn't approve of Beck's speech either. I'm not aware of any response thus far, but I think we can use Bill Bennett's reaction as an indicator. Which is why I'll severely fisk what Bennett said at NRO this morning:

Saturday Night Beck [Bill Bennett]

There’s a lot to say about CPAC. This morning the major papers are highlighting Glenn Beck’s speech. I like Glenn a lot and I think he has something to teach us. But not what he offered last night.

Analogizing his own struggles with alcohol to the problems of our polity and in our politics, he said, “Hello, my name is the Republican party, and I have a problem!” “I’m addicted to spending and big government.” ”It is still morning in America.” ”It just happens to be kind of a head-pounding, hung-over, vomiting-for-four-hours kind of morning in America. And it’s shaping up to be kind of a nasty day. But it is still morning in America.” And, again, “I believe in redemption, but the first step to getting redemption is you’ve got to admit that you’ve got a problem. I have not heard people in the Republican party yet admit that they have a problem.”

Glenn is among the best talkers in the business of broadcast. I am not sure he’s a very good listener. Actually, I'm pretty sure he is a good listener. As the third most popular radio talk show host in the land, without the authority of Harvard degrees and cabinet credentials, he either taps into what people care about or he's a graveyard shift deejay in Iowa City.

First, there is a good and strong tradition in alcohol and drug treatment that personal failings should not be extrapolated into the public sphere; that too often when this is done, conclusions are reached based on the wrong motives and, often, the wrong analysis. This sounds suspiciously like rote 12-step orthodoxy to me. They probably say that to all the neophytes who have just quit drinking, drugs, gambling, and sexual promiscuity to prevent them from becoming too self-righteous and preachy about the faults of others, not to prevent them from understanding the world from the standpoint of personal experience. Glenn has made that mistake here and taken to our politics a cosmologizing of his own deficiencies. This is not a baseless criticism; they are his own deficiencies that he keeps publicly redounding to and analogizing to. It is wrong and he is wrong. Oh? Personal failings of human beings have nothing to do with public failings of institutions conceived and administered by human beings? What a relief to know that the founders's fears of government because governments are run by human beings were, well, unfounded. When did you become a statist, Bill? Or am I too harsh? When did you become a partyist? Governments are vulnerable to human sin and parties are not. Interesting theory. I'm waiting for the 600-page book. Or is the simple fiat "wrong" your last word on the subject.

Second, for him to continue to say that he does not hear the Republican party admit its failings or problems is to ignore some of the loudest and brightest lights in the party. From Jim DeMint to Tom Coburn to Mike Pence to Paul Ryan, any number of Republicans have admitted the excesses of the party and done constructive and serious work to correct them and find and promote solutions. A few bright lights does not a party make. And bright lights have been known to go out when some whip cracks loudly enough. (Mixed metaphor pun intended.) Does the term 'Gang of 14' ring a loud bright bell? Is voting against the president's elephantine budget the same as calling for actual, honest-to-God spending CUTS? Even John McCain has said again and again that “the Republican party lost its way.” Please stop it with the McCain crap. He's much angrier about earmarks than he is about trillion-dollar deficits. He's got the mind of a bookkeeper. He doesn't mind monstrous spending. He just doesn't like venial entries in his great big ledger. These leaders, and many others, have been offering real proposals, not ill-informed muttering diatribes that can’t distinguish between conservative and liberal, free enterprise and controlled markets, or night and day. Muttering diatribes? I gather that's a slap at Beck. The man doesn't mutter. He has a chalkboard. He writes on it more legibly than my sixth grade teacher ever did, and he uses facts and figures I never heard from you. Did you predict this recession halfway through Bush's second term? No? Who's muttering now? Does Glenn truly believe there is no difference between a Tom Coburn, for example, and a Harry Reid or a Charles Schumer or a Barbara Boxer? Between a Paul Ryan or Michele Bachmann and a Nancy Pelosi or Barney Frank? If you -- a trained scholar -- look at the actual transcript, I think you'll find he made a distinction, just not one you like. He said, "It's not enough to suck less." He's right. Once again, the party is not measured by its leading lights; it's measured by what the party does as a group. The Democrats have slavishly followed Pelosi, Reid, and Frank, which makes them suitable stand-ins for their party. Republicans by and large have not voted as Coburn, Ryan, and Bachmann recommend. Which makes them exceptions, not exculpatory exemplars.

Third, to admit it is still “morning in America” but [sic] a “vomiting for four hours” kind of morning is to diminish, discourage, and disparage all the work of the conservative, Republican, and independent resistance of the past year. The Tea Partiers know better than this. I don’t think they would describe their rallies and resistance as a bilious purging but, rather, as a very positive democratic reaction aimed at correcting the wrongs of the current political leadership. The mainstream media may describe their reactions as an unhealthy expurgation. I do not. There's nothing unhealthy about expurgation after excess. It is frequently ugly. But not as ugly as the sleight of hand you're performing here. When people who would otherwise go to work and bear the burdens of the republic as they have done for generation after generation without taking to the streets in protest find it necessary to adopt the tactics of sixties radicals for the purpose of making it known that their government is entirely out of control, it does represent a "bilious purging." And to claim that they are not also reacting against a Republican Party which claimed it would abide by a 'Contract with America' and immediately surrendered to every temptation of power, influence, and pleasure offered by their positions is ludicrous and insulting.

A year ago, we were told the Republican party and the conservative movement were moribund. Today they are ascendant, and it is the left and the Democratic party that are on defense — even while they are in control. That’s quite an amazing achievement. But anyone who knows the history of this country and its political movements should not be surprised. America has a long tradition of antibodies that kick in. From Carter we got Reagan. And from Ted Kennedy and Barack Obama we took back a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, with midterm elections on the horizon that Republicans and conservatives are actually excited about, not afraid of. uh, "we took back a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate"? No. We deprived them, by one (or three or four) wavering vote(s) of a guaranteed filibuster-proof majority. That's a very different thing. The Republican Party is still in intensive care. Conservatives, independents, and renegade Democrats are still trying to figure out who can they can trust, why they should, and what possibly empty promises are worth another life-or-death bet on the fate of our country. Beck is expressing their doubt and distrust in terms you should be listening to. Not lecturing about.

To say the GOP and the Democrats are no different, to say the GOP needs to hit a recovery-program-type bottom and hang its head in remorse, is to delay our own country’s recovery from the problems the Democratic left is inflicting. The stakes are too important to go through that kind of exercise, which will ultimately go nowhere anyway — because it’s already happened. Gorblimey if you aren't sounding like every Democrat at election time who tells black people, "Now isn't the time to question whether we've kept all our decades of promises to you. If you don't vote with us now, they'll be burning churches in Mississippi and dragging your people behind pickup trucks in Texas. There is no history. There is only NOW, and the bus will be waiting outside your project housing at 9 am. There will be malt liquor for every registered voter.

The first task of a serious political analyst is to see things as they are. There is a difference between morning and night. There is a difference between drunk and sober. And there is a difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. To ignore these differences, or propagate the myth that they don’t exist, is not only discouraging, it is dangerous. Hmmmph. Read your own last paragraph. Then get back to me, Mr. Bennett.

Why Beck gets the Gold. George Will wouldn't have upset Bill Bennett. But Bill Bennett needs to be upset. He needs to be chastened. Until he is, we need Beck every bit as much as we need George Will. But we do need them both. Every one of us lives in the space between George's top and Glenn's bottom. I don't even care how that sounds. Because Bill Bennett sounds so much worse.

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