Book Tour

I see you have a book out this week and intend to crassly devote your column to it.

All too true. The book is called “John Paul the Great: Remembering a Spiritual Father.” I had hoped to promote it by embroiling myself in controversy and wish therefore to note at the outset that Maureen Dowd has mined new depths of shallowness, and Bob Woodward is, like those he judges for a living, interested primarily in spin. Mickey Kaus on the other hand is honest and actually becoming, overused word, indispensable. How am I doing?

Eh. Has this become the age of insult?

No, it’s the age of chatter. I think insults in general are more prevalent due to technology and the broadening and leveling of creative competition, but less piercing and less elegant than they once were. “That would depend on whether I embraced your principles or your mistress.” “The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable.” “The only man who can strut while sitting down.” “I’ve forgotten more than you know.” We have become less literate as a society at the exact moment that opportunities to speak have become more available, and the quality of our putdowns and dismissals has suffered. With endless media there will be endless verbal roughness, but that fact, the sheer volume of it, almost dulls the edge of insult. It becomes a large negative blur. The name of my book is “John Paul the Great: Remembering a Spiritual Father.”

What does that mean?

It means we all want a spiritual father. We’re all lonely for a father, for one who can lead as a father would. Even when you have a father you feel this, so big is the father’s role in human life. In terms of my spiritual development I found leadership that I needed in John Paul.

Let’s go back to rudeness and the censorious impulse. What they’ve said of Jack Murtha, that he’s a coward, isn’t that rude? And indicative of a sort of lowering of politics?

I think so. To call Jack Murtha a coward is exactly what we don’t need. It’s just wrong. We are a great nation at war. Everyone has the right to put forward his views, everyone has the right to argue. We’re America. That’s what we do. Donald Rumsfeld has a right to answer, as does the entire administration. It’s not wrong to have this debate. It shows the world who we are.

Isn’t Murtha just capitalizing on anti-Bush feeling? What’s behind that feeling, anyway?

Several things. One is that the usual to-and-fro between the administration and the Democratic opposition has been heightened and sharpened by the fact that for the first time Bush seems takeable. Another is that we’re in a high-stakes game in Iraq and no one knows what’s right and what will turn out to be wise and farsighted. Another is that the administration is staffed with exhausted people and they’re making the mistakes exhausted people make. (Bush doesn’t seem exhausted; he seems hale and hearty, but if he isn’t feeling a certain psychic exhaustion he’s missing the big picture.) And there is, also, the unique power of this administration to turn critics into enemies. They were lucky too long. They’ve been playing hardball on the Hill and in journalism for a long time. It’s catching up. You can talk about breaking eggs to make an omelet all you want, but in time the eggs add up, come together and call a protest march.

By the way, I think John Paul II lived, arguably, the greatest life of the 20th century, and I think his life was marked by more than the usual number of occurrences that seem fateful, even prophetic. He said of the coming century that it will either be one of great faith or one of little faith, but not something in between. There is also the interesting fact of those who seemed to know, along the way as he lived his life, that he was a man of great destiny. His predecessor, John Paul I, said he would be pope. The day he was made cardinal of Krakow, a little girl told him he would be pope. One of his best friends had an epiphany and told him he would someday lead the church. And there were of course the prophecies of saints that a light out of Poland would come at a crucial moment to head the church. It’s all uncanny. But I have noticed that the great are not uncommonly surrounded by those who have a presentiment of their destiny. Lincoln was like this.

What should Bush do now?

I have a view on what Washington itself should do. It should get serious. We have men and women in the field, on the ground, putting themselves in harm’s way for us, for our country, for our system, for the way we do things and what we are in history. They deserve—they require and have earned—our gravest sincerity and seriousness.

Democrats who are thoughtful and not just in it for the game should come forward and explain why they backed the Iraq invasion, and what has changed, what they feel is at stake, and what they feel will be the repercussions of unsteadiness or ambivalence or withdrawal, or what will potentially be gained by a declaration of mistake. Republicans should stop with the “How dare you question us at such a dramatic moment, what’s wrong with you?”

This is not a mere domestic political battle. We need a serious presentation, one not weighed down with slogans—I cannot tell you how tired people are of “They hate us because we’re free”—about what victory will look like, and mean, and be achieved, and what price we will pay for not achieving it. We need to hear, in statements that are not at all emotional or full of passive aggressive push-pull, how the world and the United States are better for our being there. And this is not too much to ask.

Why did you write your book?

Because the great deserve our loyalty. Because those who have added to life, who have inspired us and pointed to a better way, should be lauded and learned from. I think the inspiration to be gotten from a life well lived—spectacularly lived—is more important than ever these days. It’s important that we dwell on the good and, just as important, maybe more so, try to understand it. This makes us stronger rather than sapping us, as so much of the ebb and flow of news and argument tends to do. We need to be looking to good things.

We’re out of time. Thank you.

Thank you.