We’re More Than Political Animals

The conservative activist Andrew Breitbart, who died Thursday, was a piece of work—bombastic, sensitive, angry, deeply generous, full of laughter. Spirited, too, like some kind of crazy knight. He was a battler and a warrior and he was brave and he made mistakes. He was a warm-blooded animal, not a cold one, and I suppose the thing that wounded him most was the thing that wounds everybody: He wanted to be understood. That’s a lot to ask of the other humans, who are mostly trying to understand themselves.

So many conservatives are mourning his passing, at 43, because he was irreplaceable, a unique human soul. The other day in a seminar at a university, a student of political science asked a sort of complicated question that seemed to be about the predictability of human response to a given set of political stimuli. I answered that if you view people as souls, believe that we have souls within us, that they are us, then nothing political is fully predictable, because you never know what a soul will do, how a soul will respond, what truth it will apprehend and react to. I was thinking as I spoke of the headline when the Titanic went down: “1,400 Souls Lost.” We used to see people in that larger dimension, which is not a romantic but a realistic one. The puniest person is big, and rich.

I had criticized Andrew last year in a column. A few weeks ago we bumped into each other at an airport, arranged to sit together on the plane, spoke our peace, hashed it through, and wound up laughing. He was endearing because he was exposed: If he felt it, he told you.
Afterward I thought again of something that has been on my mind the past five years or so. Longer, actually, but more so with time. In a way the argument between conservatives and progressives is that for the left, everything is about politics. Because they seek to harness government and the law in pursuit of what they see as just and desirable ends, everything becomes a political fight. Conservatives fought that narrow, constricted, soulless view of life: “We are not only political, we have other spheres, we are human beings.” But in their fight against liberalism and its demands, too many conservatives have unconsciously come to ape the left. They too became all politics all the time. Friendships were based on it, friendships were lost over it. “You agree with me? You’re in. You don’t? You’re out.” They became as good at ousting, excluding and anathematizing as Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, as Jacobins. As self-righteous, too, and as adept at dehumanizing the enemy.

It is not progress when you become what you hate, when you take on its sickest aspect.

Andrew and I talked about this that day on the plane. I agreed with his passion: We’re in a big struggle, we have to fight. His argument was in a way like Flannery O’Connor’s: You have to push back hard against the age that is pushing you. But he agreed too that politics can leave you twisted and deformed inside, that fighting those who would impose their will can leave you as consumed as they are. You have to be careful and not let political struggles take over your life, your affections—your soul.

We were not built to be all about politics. Empires rise and fall, nations come and go, but the man who poured your coffee this morning is eternal, because his soul is eternal. That’s C.S. Lewis. I don’t know if Andrew was a religious person or a believer, but I know he respected faith, understood it, felt protective of it. For which good on you, Andrew, and thanks. Rest in peace.


So: this week in the run for the GOP nomination for the presidency.

They’re making me nervous. Are they you? I don’t mean nervous they’ll lose, I mean nervous.

There’s a sense now, encouraged by the press but also played into by almost all the candidates, that the subject matter out there on the stump has little relation to the actual and daily concerns of the American people.

They don’t seem to be speaking enough of the essentials, the central things that can actually be improved by governmental action. I’m not talking about Satan, contraception, class snobbery and whether JFK’s Houston speech made you want to throw up. Well, actually, I am, but also more. When the candidates do talk about pertinent issues—spending, taxes, energy—they tend to raise them through thought-killing clichés, to save time.

What is striking, too, is a growing air of goofiness. Its latest incarnation started with Mitt Romney’s Michigan aria. “You know, the trees are the right height. The streets are just right.” But it got a little too free associative the night of the Michigan primary.

Rick Santorum, in his concession speech: “This oil, yeah, this is oil. Oil. Out of rock, shale. It leaches oil. In fact, the highest quality oil in the world, light sweet crude.” And: “The British were the most powerful army in the world and the navy in the world. They were ruled by highly educated, noble people. The uniforms were crisp and stiff. They looked good.”

Newt Gingrich’s speech was mostly about trees: “He had a really big tree. . . . How hard can it be to cut down the tree? . . . None of us had studied physics. . . . Now the tree was dead.”

As I watched them, I thought what you probably thought: It’s not good to take an Ambien before giving a concession speech.

It is getting to them. Everyone gets goofy on the trail because the trail is exhausting, it’s a daily sandpapering that rubs you raw. Constant pressure, high stakes, long days, cameras and mics, the attempt at irony that becomes the gaffe that dominates the day.

But they should buck up. Running for president is tough, but it also means aides, gofers, strangers whispering praise in your ear, and people holding signs saying you’re great. Someone else gets the dry cleaning, someone lays out the crisp shirt. The worst that can happen if you lose is seats on boards, cable contracts, honoraria, book advances and a free office in a think tank. How terrible. No wonder they’re under stress.

To comfort myself on Thursday, I looked for great candidate gaffes in history. There was the candidate who in 2008 said: “I’ve now been in 57 states, I think one left to go.” That wasn’t Michele Bachmann, it was Barack Obama. Here’s one talking about hard times: “Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?” That wasn’t Mitt Romney, it was Sen. Obama. And how’s this for grandiose, when one candidate defined the meaning of his future victory: “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” That wasn’t Newt, of course, but Mr. Obama.

All this makes me feel better, sort of.

Couldn’t the candidates make a pact? That from here on out nothing outré, strange, off point or nonessential will be discussed? That way they won’t embarrass themselves and have to put up a defense. And neither will their party.

Their central problem is that they’re all trying come across as normal. They shouldn’t. They’re running for president, they’re not normal. And anyway normal is overrated.