One night during the past campaign I made a speech at an annual county GOP meeting in Pennsylvania. I can’t remember the name of the county or where it was exactly; I was there at that moment of early darkness when Pennsylvania is New Jersey and New Jersey is Ohio: it all looks the same. There are trees and highways.
I walked into the hotel ballroom and what I saw startled me. There were a thousand people milling about, making quite a din. They were all standing and talking and eating chicken fingers from hors d’oeuvres tables dotted around the room. There were no chairs. Normally when I speak it’s to people in chairs in a hall.
I was introduced at a little podium and began to speak and the people in the back continued their racket. I made some jokes to get them laughing and draw them in to my remarks, but the roar continued. People up front started telling them to be quiet back there. They got louder. I looked out at them and said if they didn’t simmer down I’d start to sing, which would be terrible for them. The roar continued. All I could think to do at that point was talk through it and over it and do my best and say what I had to say and introduce the next speaker, a U.S. senator.
He—it was Arlen Specter—understood the room.
He took the podium, readjusted the mike, smiled and said, “Ssssshhhhhhhh.”
He said it very softly, drawing it out, then letting the sound gently disappear. Then he said it again, even softer.
And the crowd began to quiet.
The senator’s wife leaned toward me and explained, consolingly, “You didn’t know, but when the crowd won’t stop you have to go ‘Ssssshhhhhhhh.’ It’s the only thing that works.”
“Why does it work?” I asked.
She said she thought it might be something in the human brain that responds, even in adulthood, to the first sound your mother made to you when you were an infant and fussing.
And good advice for our country, isn’t it? After all the Sturm und Drang of the past few weeks our country would benefit from an absence of sound. Next week we mark Thanksgiving. Today, in anticipation, and after our fractious election, we could declare National Settle Down Week. National Be Still Week. Or National Give It a Rest Week.
The Great American Ssssshhhhhhhh-Out.
I told a friend this. He said, “Like Larry Hagman.” This of course confused me. He explained that once a week Mr. Hagman, the actor, used to say nothing. He’d wear a sign on his lapel that said, “Please forgive me, I’m not talking today.” This irritated his family. It makes me want to find him and adopt him.
We have all been talking a great deal, and for a long time. We have been choosing a posture and verbalizing its legitimacy, its excellence. I Hear America Saying.
Ssssshhhhhhhh, I want to respond. “I almost went to Canada but went into therapy instead.” No—go to Canada. Add to the great silence there. Or help build one here. “You had better bring your agenda to the front burner and to a full boil,” Bob Jones III of the eponymous Bob Jones Everything Down South, warns the re-elected president. Jeez, as Bob Jones doesn’t say, could we relax a little?
I want to say to Bob Jones III, “Bob, meet Buddha.” Life is a good thing. Breathe in. Breathe out. We’re here. It’s good.
I want to say Bob, remember Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God.” Or just, “Be still.” Or “Be.”
Instead I say to Bob Jones III, and to myself: Ssssshhhhhhhh.
* * *
You want to discuss the appointment of Condi Rice to State. Ssssshhhhhhhh.
She is a good person; she has experience and accomplishments; she is stable, hardworking and sophisticated. She is also—this is breathtaking, still—a young black woman raised to the position first held by Thomas Jefferson. It is considered corny to point this out. But corny’s not all bad. Look at it this way. In every U.S. embassy and consulate in the world very soon, non-Americans will walk in to see two things: a picture of the American president and next to it a picture of the young black woman who is this nation’s secretary of state. They will notice this, and consciously or not they will think: This truly must be some kind of country.
Is there a drawback to her appointment? There must be. There is a drawback to everything. The Bush cabinet is getting very Bushian. That sends a clear message. But you don’t always want to send a clear message. Sometimes you want to confuse things. Sometimes you want to give an unclear message to the world so that it will sit down and scratch its head, in silence. When Colin Powell was secretary of state, foreign leaders didn’t know exactly where he stood, either in terms of policy or internally, in his place in the Bush hierarchy. It confused them. This was so wonderful. They confided all sorts of things to him because they didn’t know what he’d respond to or how or what he’d bring home and wouldn’t. It’s good when foreign leaders confide. It can be good when they don’t know. More head scratching, I say. More “ssssshhhhhhhh.”
The criticism of Ms. Rice has been fascinating. Her critics need to sit down and have a Coke, as Bob Dole said. A friend said to me yesterday, “She is boring.” I thought, really? You can’t be boring enough; we’ve had quite enough excitement.
Another person said, “She’s not very feminine.” My first thought was: Neither was Colin.
My second thought was: How startling is this conversation? I should probably explain it was held in Manhattan.
“I think she is extremely ladylike in her bearing and manner,” I said. “Soft voice, pastel suits, heels, not a hair out of place.”
“Yes,” my friend said, “but she doesn’t give off any sparks of sexuality.”
“That’s another thing I like about her”, I said. We don’t want a secretary of state running around giving off sparks of sexuality, do we. We don’t want a secretary of state giving off sparks at all. We want a nice, quiet, calming, competent, sophisticated, even-keeled person to do a good, solid, nonshowy job.
Why do I think President Bush picked her? Because he knows her, trusts her, and knows she’ll take care of State while he takes care of the CIA, which will be another great Bushian battle. She managed the National Security Council; she’ll manage State. It’s fine. Don’t fuss. Ssssshhhhhhhh.
That is good advice for the CIA, too. What has been happening there is remarkable. That we would have our central foreign intelligence agency OKing attack books that knock White House foreign policy, and during a close presidential campaign is remarkable, unprecedented, not good. The strangeness and immaturity of the resigning CIA officials’ complaint—that Porter Goss’s Hill staffers, new to the agency, had been rude to them—was best captured by Cliff May in National Review Online. May said: Would James Bond whine that Moneypenny had been rude to him? Would he run to Q and say, She got in my face, she was brusque, boo-hoo?
I don’t think so. I think he’d suck it up and have a moody drink. I think James Bond would look at the members of the American intelligence and say, “Ssssshhhhhhhh.”
* * *
There is so much news and bombast going on. Fallujah, the Supreme Court, postelection insults, cabinet resignations, cabinet announcements, “He’s dead now,” Kashmir, new nukes for Russia, Rice to State, the Specter controversy. There are so many battles going on. The stakes are so high. And each battle has appointed generals fighting them verbally on television. Yesterday on “Crossfire,” Paul Begala called Condi Rice a liar and an incompetent. Jon Stewart was right: Stop it.
I’ll finish with Sen. Specter, whose sonorous “Ssssshhhhhhhh” was so satisfying. Arlen Specter was just re-elected by the people of Pennsylvania, a major industrial state; the Judiciary Committee chairmanship is his by tradition and seniority. Conservatives have been angry with him for a long time and for good reason. They have expressed their unhappiness. They have made their point. Mr. Specter has been chastened and warned; the leadership of his party told him to fight for himself. He knows the Republican Party will expect him to support the nomination of judges free of a Roe v. Wade litmus test, or any litmus test, including a religious test. Many believe, and with reason, that a practicing Catholic isn’t allowed to be a federal judge in America anymore. Mr. Specter will have to be more open-minded, more supportive, than he’s been in the past. But he looks like a man who got the message, doesn’t he?
The on-the-ground conservatives who won this election for the Republican Party want to show their force. Understandable. They won. But there’s a lot of force being shown lately, and sometimes it’s conservative to step back, to hold your fire, to wait.
Give him the slot. If it doesn’t work, revisit it later. There are enough battles going on.
And that goes for me too. “Happy Thanksgiving,” she said softly, sonorously, meaning no ill and wishing good digestion, peace and a fine turkey for all.