What’s wrong with them? That’s what I’m thinking more and more as I watch the news from Washington.
A few weeks ago it was the senators who announced the judicial compromise. There is nothing wrong with compromise and nothing wrong with announcements, but the senators who spoke referred to themselves with such flights of vanity and conceit—we’re so brave, so farsighted, so high-minded—that it was embarrassing. They patted themselves on the back so hard they looked like a bevy of big breasted pigeons in a mass wing-flap. Little grey feathers and bits of corn came through my TV screen, and I had to sweep up when they were done.
This week comes the previously careful Sen. Barack Obama, flapping his wings in Time magazine and explaining that he’s a lot like Abraham Lincoln, only sort of better. “In Lincoln’s rise from poverty, his ultimate mastery of language and law, his capacity to overcome personal loss and remain determined in the face of repeated defeat—in all this he reminded me not just of my own struggles.”
Oh. So that’s what Lincoln’s for. Actually Lincoln’s life is a lot like Mr. Obama’s. Lincoln came from a lean-to in the backwoods. His mother died when he was 9. The Lincolns had no money, no standing. Lincoln educated himself, reading law on his own, working as a field hand, a store clerk and a raft hand on the Mississippi. He also split some rails. He entered politics, knew more defeat than victory, and went on to lead the nation through its greatest trauma, the Civil War, and past its greatest sin, slavery.
Barack Obama, the son of two University of Hawaii students, went to Columbia and Harvard Law after attending a private academy that taught the children of the Hawaiian royal family. He made his name in politics as an aggressive Chicago vote hustler in Bill Clinton’s first campaign for the presidency.
You see the similarities.
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There is nothing wrong with Barack Obama’s résumé, but it is a log-cabin-free zone. So far it also is a greatness-free zone. If he keeps talking about himself like this it always will be.
Mr. Obama said he keeps a photographic portrait of Lincoln on the wall of his office, and that “it asks me questions.”
I’m sure it does. I’m sure it says, “Barack, why are you such an egomaniac?” Or perhaps, “Is it no longer possible in American politics to speak of another’s greatness without suggesting your own?”
Even so sober an actor as Bill Frist has gotten into the act. This is the beginning of his Heritage Foundation speech yesterday:
- You might have been wondering these last few months: Why would a doctor take on an issue like the judicial confirmation process? About 10 years ago, I set aside my medical career to run for the Senate. But I didn’t set aside my compassion. I didn’t set aside my character. And I sure as heck didn’t set aside my principles. I got into politics for the same reason I got into medicine. I wanted to help people. And I wanted to heal. I just felt that, in politics, I could help and heal more than one patient at a time.
I admire Bill Frist, but can you imagine George Washington referring in public, or in private for that matter, to his many virtues? In normal America if you have a high character you don’t wrestle people to the ground until they acknowledge it. You certainly don’t announce it. If you are compassionate, you are compassionate; if others see it, fine. If you hold to principle it will become clear. You don’t proclaim these things. You can’t, for the same reason that to brag about your modesty is to undercut the truth of the claim.
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And there are the Clintons. There are always the Clintons. The man for whom Barack Obama worked so hard in 1992 showed up with his wife this week to take center stage at Billy Graham’s last crusade in New York. Billy Graham is a great man. He bears within him deep reservoirs of sweetness, and the reservoirs often overflow. It was embarrassing to see America’s two most famous political grifters plop themselves in the first row dressed in telegenic silk and allow themselves to become the focus of sweet words they knew would come.
Why did they feel it right to inject a partisan political component into a spiritual event? Why take advantage of the good nature and generosity of an old hero? Why, after spending their entire adulthoods in public life, have they not developed or at least learned to imitate simple class?
How exactly does it work? How does legitimate self-confidence become wildly inflated self-regard? How does self respect become unblinking conceit? How exactly does one’s character become destabilized in Washington?
The Supreme Court this week and last issued many rulings, and though they were on different issues the decisions themselves had at least one thing in common: They seemed to reflect a lack of basic human modesty on the part of many of the justices. Many are famously very old, and they have been together as a court for a very long time. One wonders if they have lost all understanding of how privileged they are to have lifetime sinecures of power and authority. Do they have any sense anymore of common human wisdom, of the normal human arrangements by which Americans live?
Maybe a lot of them aren’t bothering to think. Maybe Ruth Bader Ginsburg is no longer in the habit of listening to arguments but only of watching William Rehnquist, and if he nods up and down she knows to vote “no,” and if he shakes his head she knows to vote “yes.” That might explain some of the lack of seriousness in the decisions. Local government can bulldoze Grandma’s house because it’s in the way of a future strip mall that will add more to the tax base? The Ten Commandments can appear on public land but not in a courthouse, but Moses, who received the Ten Commandments can appear in the frieze of the House but he’ll be sandblasted off the Supreme Court? Or do I have that the other way around?
What are they doing? All this hair splitting, this dithering, this cutting and pasting—all this lack of serious and defining principle. All this vanity.
Perhaps Justice Ginsburg or Justice Stevens will retire soon and write a memoir: Like Jefferson I held to principle, and like Lincoln I often lacked air conditioning. But in my intellectual gifts I’ve always found myself to be more like Oliver Wendell Holmes . . .
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What is in the air there in Washington, what is in the water?
What is wrong with them? This is not a rhetorical question. I think it is unspoken question No. 1 as Americans look at so many of the individuals in our government. What is wrong with them?