HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

November 24, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


The Part and the Whole
November 18, 2008

Jeffrey Hart, whose writings I haven't seen much of lately but whom I used to consider the closest thing to an intelligent conservative which could be found, has an essay in The Daily Beast arguing that if Republicans try to turn away from the wacky views of the religious right the latter will form a third party. But, says Hart, maybe that would be okay. Parties in the past have strengthened themselves by shaving off their fringes.

With respect to Republicanism, Hart may be confused about what's central and what's extraneous. It's natural to want to see oneself as the real thing with respect to any group one is in. So Hart may be caught up in wishful thinking. Are there enough people remaining in the nation whom one might call Eisenhower Republicans to form a national party? Somehow I doubt it.

It may be the case that when Republicans decided to go to bed with fundamental ignorance they thought they could use it for their own ends. It's pretty clear that's what Nixon had in mind. But what you use can seep in and take over your soul. I suspect that's what happened to the soul of Republicanism. It makes it tough for people like Hart and I guess I have a tinge of sympathy for them.  Yet it was they who decided to ally with the James Dobsons and Jerry Falwells of the nation. Now, there are consequences for the shabby deals that brought them seeming victory for a while.

Perhaps it should be Jeffrey Hart and those of like mind who should form a third party. If they discover that it's the admirers of Sarah Palin who think they own the Republican name, the old-style GOP would have little reason to be surprised.


Swarms of Something
November 18, 2008

John Nagl, a former army officer and now a think-tank guy, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, says we should double the number of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan from thirty thousand to sixty thousand. But he admits we may not have that number. His answer is that we need to increase the number of American military personnel overall and put the nation on a war footing, whatever that means.

I'm less interested in Nagl's recommendations than I am in his organization. What is the Center for a New American Security, and where does it get its money? It has lots of impressive sounding people on its board, but exactly what they do it's hard to know. The Center has been in existence for only a little more than a year. Whether it will still be in existence a year from now is impossible to predict. If it's not, I guess John Nagl will have to find somewhere else to hang his hat. Truth is, though: he could probably live on his military pension alone. He is advertised by the Center as being an expert on terrorism and irregular warfare. So as long as those two keep cranking along Nagl will probably find someplace to give him a desk.

When I think about it, I don't suppose I have strong objections to the plethora of organizations that manage to find office space in Washington and presume to tell us how we should run our political affairs. People, after all, need to have some place to hang out between real jobs. But I wish, when think-tank figures manage to get time on TV or radio, there would be a bit more probing about why we should listen to them any more carefully than we do to the guy seated next to us at the local diner. John Nagl used to be an army officer but, then, so did I. His term in uniform was more recent than mine, so I guess you could say he's more topical than I am. Still, the long view is worth something.

Maybe I'll get on TV someday. But if I do I don't expect anybody to pay much attention to me.


Too Bad
November 19, 2008

What's wrong with me? Already I'm beginning to feel a little sorry for them. And who's the them? I'm speaking of the so-called Republican base in their current situation.

Maybe it's the photographs of Ted Stevens lately that get me down.

They were riding so high just a few years ago. They were sure the world was going their way. They were going to take over the United States and use it to take over the world. God was on their side. And they were the real Americans.

Now we have one of their former fellow travelers -- Kathleen Parker -- saying, "Either the Republican Party needs a new base -- or the nation may need a new party."

I suppose there have been times in history when ignorance, hatred and bigotry formed -- at least for a while -- a winning combination. They are, after all, attributes which appeal to an element of human nature. But they don't confer stability because after a while people get sick of them. My guess is that the people of the United States have got so sick of them that they will have a hard time resuscitating themselves in the next several decades. They won't die out, but they won't dominate either.

The interesting thing over the next few years will be to see how the true believers try to sustain themselves. You might get a clue by tuning in to The O'Reilly Factor now and then. O'Reilly has been getting even more absurd than he used to be. He must have concluded that he can't break through to the general population. A majority of them see him for who he is. So his only option is to go after people so sunk in indignation logic has lost all meaning for them.

Perhaps you could say I feel their pain. But I don't feel it so intensely I want to see them make a comeback any time soon.


Political Appearance
November 21, 2008

La Rochefoucauld says that gravity is a mysterious carriage of the body to conceal the defects of the mind. This is the talent politicians cultivate above all else, some successfully, some less so.

Think how often you have seen major political figures appear on TV to talk utter nonsense, and yet do it with a bearing that proclaims serious and profound attention to the well-being of all the people. Among current practitioners, Colin Powell may be the very best at this. We need to remember that he nursed the ability for years while wearing a suit loaded down with colorful little badges. Such garb contributes to the best training in the mysterious art. To play the public game one must be attentive to these matters, unless, of course, one wishes to adopt the radical measure of speaking truth. Very few, though, can get away with the latter. The truth is offensive to many people.

In Vermont, we have a politician, Bernie Sanders, who has used the truth fairly successfully. That's not to say he tells the whole truth. No one can do that, and no politician dares try. But most of what Bernie does say is true. And Vermonters have come to respect him for it.

When Bernie first went to Congress, as a member of the House, he maintained pretty well the rumpled appearance he had displayed as mayor of Burlington. But advancement to the Senate has affected even Bernie's sartorial management. He's still disheveled enough that no one would confuse him as a Republican, but by Vermont standards he has got pretty spiffed up.

I don't hold that against him. It could be just a matter of evolving taste and not conscious manipulation. He remains leagues away from Saxby Chambliss.

We can wonder whether our political health can ever progress to the point where politicians can be content with cleanliness and moderate neatness. It can't happen until mind in the nation grows far more powerful than it is now. I can hope but I don't dare predict. There seem to be small signs. It's the same sort of question as whether human nature is fixed forever.


Nightmare Memories
November 22, 2008

Gail Collins's column this morning, suggesting that George Bush should immediately resign from the presidency, while primarily a joke, still had a note of earnestness in it. Less than three weeks after the election, the truth that George Bush was actually the president of the United States for eight years seems like a cheap fantasy, a bad TV show. Yet, it really did happen. And now thousands of people are either dead or suffering because of it.

My memory is too vivid to allow me easily to adopt the reigning political mantra and simply "move on." I can't erase from my mind the fawning over Bush in 2002 and 2003 by men who were, supposedly knowledgeable, sober, and responsible. What, possibly, could they have had in mind? Or, did they have minds at all? I still can't grasp it.

The era we've just passed through should cause the people of the United States to ask themselves, seriously, what is the human race? And how can its proclivities towards pure folly be mitigated?

There was no question about Bush from the time he appeared on the national scene. He was a clown with no ability to imagine the consequences of his own actions. And there he was, occupying -- as we are so incessantly reminded -- the most powerful office on earth. What else, other than what we got, could anyone have expected?

It's true, we have no right to anticipate pure wisdom from political leaders. They live in an atmosphere which promotes bad thought. We need to keep that in mind as the Obama administration gets under way. But, surely, we ought to be able to attain for ourselves a modest sanity. Politicians aren't going to bring forth paradise. But might they not sheer off from undiluted idiocy?

I've heard it said that ordinary people don't have time to think about the qualities a president ought to have. We can't expect them to keep up with the intricacies of government. Yet, we urge them to cast ballots. If they have no time to consider the skills of political leadership, what's the sense of asking them to select the people who will exercise it?

My hope is that George Bush will come to stand in national memory as a symbol of the people's failure and as a reminder that the excuse of our being too busy to think about the results of political power is nothing more than a spew of intellectual vomit.


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