Grace Under Pressure

We’re going to need grace. We are going to need a great outbreak of grace to navigate the next difficult months.

America is turning against a war it supported, for the essential reason that no one is able to promise a believable path to a successful outcome, and Americans are a practical people. It is not true that Americans are historical romantics. They are patriots who, once committed, commit on all levels, including emotionally. But they don’t wake up in the morning looking for new flags to follow over old cliffs. They want to pay the mortgage, protect their children, and try to be better parents in a jittery time. They are not isolationist. They want to help where they can, and feel called to support the poor and the sick wherever they are. They are also, still, American exceptionalists, meaning they believe the creation of America—the long journey across the sea, the genius cluster that invented the republic, the historic codifying of freedom—was providential, and good news not only for us but the world. “And the glow from that fire can truly light the world.”

Much has been strained. We were all concussed by 9/11—we reeled—and came down where we came down. For the administration, extreme events prompted radical thinking. American exceptionalism was yesterday. They would be universalists, their operating style at once dreamy and aggressive: All men want the same thing, and we’re giving it to them whether they want it or not. Now the dreamers hope to be saved by men—James Baker, Vernon Jordan—they once dismissed as cynics. And the two truest statements on Iraq are, still, Colin Powell’s “You break it, you own it” and Pat Buchanan’s “A constitution doesn’t make a country, a country makes a constitution.” Iraq has a constitution but not a country.

When history runs hot, bitterness bubbles. Democrats who should be feeling happy are, from what I’ve observed in New York and Washington, not. The closest they come to joy is a more energetic smugness. Republicans are fighting among themselves—or, rather, grumbling. They haven’t, amazingly, broken out in war, and if they did, no one would be debating if it were a civil war. It would be like Iraq, like a dropped pane of glass that is jagged, shattered, dangerous.

We will need grace to get through this time: through the discussion of the Baker-Hamilton report, through debate on the war, through a harmonious transfer of legislative power in January, through the beginning of the post-Bush era.

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People often speak of an absence of civility in Washington, but that’s not quite the problem. Faking civility is a primary operating style: “My esteemed colleague.”

What is needed is grace—sensitivity, mercy, generosity of spirit, a courtesy so deep it amounts to beauty. We will have to summon it. And the dreadful thing is you can’t really fake it.

A very small theory, but my latest, is that many politicians and journalists lack a certain public grace because they spent their formative years in the American institution most likely to encourage base assumptions and coldness toward the foe. Yes, boarding school, and tony private schools in general. The last people with grace in America are poor Christians and religiously educated people of the middle class. The rich gave it up as an affectation long ago. Too bad, since they stayed in power.

The latest example of a lack of grace in Washington is the exchange between Jim Webb and President Bush at a White House Christmas party. Mr. Webb did not want to pose with the president and so didn’t join the picture line. Fair enough, everyone feels silly on a picture line. Mr. Bush approached him later and asked after his son, a Marine. Mr. Webb said he’d like his son back from Iraq. Mr. Bush then, according to the Washington Post, said: “That’s not what I asked you. How’s your son?” Mr. Webb replied that’s between him and his son.

Politicians Under FireFor this Mr. Webb has been roundly criticized. And on reading the exchange I thought it had the sound of the rattling little aggressions of our day, but not on Mr. Webb’s side. Imagine Lincoln saying, in such circumstances, “That’s not what I asked you.” Or JFK. Or Gerald Ford!

“That’s not what I asked you” is a sentence straight from cable TV, from which many Americans are acquiring an attitude toward public and even private presentation.

Our interviewers and anchors have been taught, or learned, that they must show who’s in charge, who’s demanding answers, who’s uncompromising in his search for truth. But of course they’re not in search of truth; they’re on a search for dominance.

Interviewers now always, as you have noticed, interrupt the person they’re interviewing. Yes, they are trying to show who’s in control of this conversation, and yes, they’re trying to catch the interviewee off guard in hope of making news. They are attempting to keep trained and practiced politicians from launching unfruitful filibusters and boring everyone.

But interviewers also interrupt their subjects because they don’t want the camera on the subject. They want the camera on themselves. They interrupt to keep the camera where it belongs. If they don’t, the camera will stay on the interviewee and not the journalist, which will not help the journalist rise. They know their bosses, after all. They do not want the boss to say, “What an enlightening interview, who did it?” They want him to say, “You looked great, you were all over that guy, you grilled him!”

The Dominance of the Face leads to the inevitability of the interruption:

“Why did you vote ‘no’?”

“I felt—”

“But why’d you do it?”

“Well, the implications of the question, and the merits of the arguments seemed—”

“That’s not what I asked you!”

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Because of this style, no one in America has been allowed to finish a sentence in the past 10 years. And it is not confined to cable but has spread to the networks, to government, and is starting to affect regular people, encouraging in them a conversational style that is not friendly or graceful, but depositional.

This has not contributed to the presence of grace in our public life. And too bad, because right now and for the next few months we’ll need grace more than ever.