Our Charmless Politics

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published August 18, 2010, issue of August 27, 2010.
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What to make of the political realm? We have a president of dazzling intellect, endowed with spectacular oratorical gifts, who improbably cannot find a voice to talk with the American people. Once, while Bill Clinton was still president, I heard him ruminate before an audience for 20 minutes or so, working out a connection between the war in Kosovo and the massacre at Columbine, a juxtaposition most improbable but, in Clinton’s worldview, connected by the shared refusal of regard for the Other. In a room of some 500 people, of whom at least 200 were rabbis, someone at my table turned to me and said, “He’s the rabbi in the room tonight.”

Nor, as I think back, is it only Democrats who can weave compelling stories: Ronald Reagan clearly had the gift, a gift few are given. Think the Bushes, or Carter, or Nixon, or Gore, or Ford — whatever their merits, their rhetorical skills were utterly pedestrian. Can it be that Obama’s are no better? Yet I cannot think of a single talk, nor for that matter more than one or two formal speeches, that comes close to capturing the seductions of his prose during his campaign for the presidency.

And we have a Senate that, for all it has passed some landmark legislation, has allowed itself to abandon majority rule, effectively to decree that it takes 60 and not “merely” 50 (with the vice president on call to break a tie) to legislate. George Packer, in a stunning and utterly depressing essay in The New Yorker of August 9, describes Senate Rule XXVI, Paragraph 5, a relic that requires unanimous consent for committees and subcommittees of the Senate to hold hearings after two o’clock in the afternoon while the Senate is in session.

Such consent has long been assumed, which is why both Senators Claire McCaskill and Carl Levin had scheduled 2:30 hearings of their committees (McCaskill of the Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight of the Homeland Security Committee, Levin of the Armed Services Committee) this last March 24. But no, there was objection, for no reason in particular, or for the one reason that seems central to the Senate’s operations these days: obstructionism. This, the institution often described as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.”

In terms of getting things done, the House, with a comfortable majority in a chamber where “majority” continues to mean 50% plus one, does better than the Senate. So it is that, according to Packer, the House has passed 345 bills that have been blocked from even coming up for debate in the Senate.

Plato described democracy as “a charming form of government.” Well, perhaps in ancient Greece there wasn’t much else to charm away the days. But here, now, as the economy crumples, as a growing number of Americans wonder what has happened to their dreams for themselves and for their children, wonder whether the sustaining American dream is at all intact, here, now, as well over a hundred million Americans discover up close the meaning of quicksand, “charming” is hardly the word that comes first to mind in assessing democracy’s attractions.

And oh yes, the Supreme Court, the Roberts court. Chief Justice John Roberts plainly lied during his confirmation hearings when he described the job as quite like an umpire in baseball: “Judges are like umpires,” he declared in his opening remarks. “Umpires don’t make the rules; they apply them. The role of an umpire and a judge is critical. They make sure everybody plays by the rules. But it is a limited role.” Yet the court, under his leadership, is as activist a court as we have witnessed in decades.

Which brings me to the Tea Parties and to Yeats: “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned; the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Or, more sinister still, Kafka: “Only our concept of time makes is possible for us to speak of the Day of Judgment by that name; in reality it is a summary court in perpetual session.”

The passionate intensity of the day, we’re told, is that of the Tea Parties and their kindred spirits. Based on the weird statements that emanate from those quarters, and on the vitriolic quality of their anti-Obama rhetoric, I can see no reason to disagree. My problem is with “the ceremony of innocence.” Excuse me? Innocence in Washington, D.C.? To such assertions, my mother, z”l, had a Yiddish put down: A nechtiker tog. It doesn’t quite work in translation, since its literal meaning is “a yesterdayish day.” But she was born in Moldava, and “poppycock” would have sounded mighty strange coming from her.

At the same time, I dispute that “the best have no conviction.” There are a few, albeit too few, of the best in the House and Senate, as also in the various departments of the executive branch, as also on our federal courts (even the Supreme Court). And there is a swarm of the best all over the country, valiantly fighting the good fight and now and then winning victories, most small, some very large. (And even the “small” ones are quite large in the lives of people directly affected by them.)

That said, and meant wholeheartedly, it has become exceedingly difficult to keep the moneyed interests in a reasonably proper place. The lobbies, spending billions, yes billions, of dollars to bend both legislation and regulation in their preferred direction, the office-holders required by current arrangements to raise vast sums for their campaigns, the incessant invitations to corruption and the easy fruits of greed and perhaps above all, the intricate dependence of the economy on the security state, on the wars we fight and on our trade in arms and all the rest, by now an old cliché but no less true for that, and if the fruits of greed that enable all this are in fact rotten, their rot is according to an ancient abacus quite different from the calculators of the malefactors, who, we may surmise, sleep untroubled well at night.

And what, pray tell, has all this to do with the Jews? As well ask whether it is of importance to the Jews that America come home.


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