A number of my betters and Michael Kinsley’s elders in the commentary dodge have visited their severities upon him for an essay in The Washington Post that bubbled with delight at President Ronald Reagan’s present discomfitures. “A laughing matter…[a] delightful collapse….Ha, ha, ha,” Kinsley wrote. “A calamity for the nation,” David Broder reproved. “Spare us these juveniles who won’t learn or can’t understand that the presidency is just too damned important for their mock-war games.”
There comes a point in every quarrel between the generations when sober sense recognizes that neither’s side is one’s own. Graham Greene once journeyed to Duvalier’s Haiti, a polity whose dilapidation is not without some small echoes in ours, and assessed it as “Tragedy With a Banana Peel.” There are indeed elements of the farcical in the President’s progress to the purgatory that has seemed in recent years to go with the office.
But tragedy with a banana peel is tragedy just the same, and for me to laugh at this president would violate the bond of our brotherhood near the edges of the Alzheimer’s abyss. Kinsley has no such obligation to the solidarity of the gaffer class. There are then no reasonable grounds for outrage at his glee, except for those who recoil from its light-mindedness toward a “national calamity” and its want of proper respect for the “institution of the presidency.”
The patience endures no small trial at hearing Kinsley or anyone else arraigned for lapses from duty to the institution of the presidency. The most a nation can demand of its citizens is to serve it in war and pay its taxes. We are not responsible for the institution of the presidency. The president is.
To have an inadequate president inevitably means to have a weakened presidency. Such a condition is all else but a national calamity at the present juncture of our circumstances.
Let us suppose that we are condemend to live for two years with a president who has so damaged himself that the United States cannot function as a superpower. Are we to take it that the United States has in recent times possessed any attributes of a superpower more substantial than its pretensions?
More than a generation has gone by since the Soviet Union lost control of the revolution and we of the counterrevolution. A superpower exercises some control over the history around it and, by that definition, Israel and North Vietnam have a better claim than ours to qualifying for that status. Some measure of moral authority has survived our earnest efforts to forfeit it, but most of the credit for that residual advantage is owed to the Soviet Union’s persistence in acting worse than we do.
Let us say that we stifle our laughter, rally to the institution of the presidency, and with united veneration restore our president to the sovereignty that deluded him into assuming that he could do whatever he thought best. What he appears to have thought best was to resolve disputes between his departments of State and Defense by yielding command to national security advisers who dithered in their incoherence between wooing Qaddhafi behind the stairs and bombing him in the public square.
Many years ago, the late and immensely lamented Doris Fleeson defined Vice-President Richard Nixon as a man incapable of leaving bad enough alone. As President Richard Nixon, he overcame that weakness now and then when it came to large affairs, while indulging it disablingly in small ones. But, in the large as well as the small, this president’s house servants have been uniformly unfitted for leaving bad enough alone.
It does not seem to have occurred to them that great nations are to be measured to some extent by the degrees of their serenity and their sense of proportion. For these president’s servants the calm contemplation of the insoluble meant abdicating their office as problem solvers. You had but to display a case where both sides were bad for them to hasten to find the good one, and they had to find it even if it took someone else to point it out. They sent the weapons that Iran would use against Iraq because Israel told them it was the soundest choice. They have the awe for Israel that a government that does not know what it is doing reserves for a government that it thinks knows. The Israeli cabinet is unarguably shrewder than the run of governments, but that is a modest compliment.
If the Israelis are infallible, then how, pray, did they get so far into Lebanon, and why can’t they find a way to get out? In any case, whatever the superiority of their acumen to ours, they have the judgment to exercise it in their own self-interest. If they find it necessary to prefer weapons over the admirable ideals of their founders as an article of export, that is their business. But as they are too canny ever to make our agenda theirs, we have been distinctly foolish in making their agenda ours.
Their morality aside, the ventures that have landed this president in his current troubles can be counted together among those things that do not work. It may be indelicate to laugh at his fall from the high place where he could still attempt them, but a quiet feeling of relief is hardly out of order.
January 29, 1987