Friday, May 16, 2008
Personal Asides: McCains Columbus, Ohio Speech Historic, Brilliant, Incisive: Question Time ala Parliament Outstanding. What More Adjectives Can I Use?...Another Great Book that Screwed Us Up.
McCain at Columbus, Ohio.
For this jaded politician-watcher who has been in the peanut galleries for more than 50 years-- as journalist, speech-writer, state official, federal official, foreign service officer, corporate executive, university lecturer, radio host and now journalist again--John McCains Columbus, Ohio speech yesterday goes down as easily the finest in recent times, equaling the greatest Republican campaign speech made in the 20th century, Ronald Reagans 1976 address to the Republican convention in Kansas City that nominated Gerald Ford.
At Kansas City Reagan, though defeated, set the parameters for his 1980 speech by articulating a matchless vision that Ford and no other Republican could have matched, sending delegates home with buyers remorse, feeling they had just nominated the wrong man. In his speech, Reagan told the story that became almost immortally tied to him. He was asked to write a note for a time capsule that would be opened in a hundred years. He pondered what to write. Then he realized that it didnt matter, because in a hundred years Americans would know whether this country had faced up to the nuclear threat or had lost the battle of nerve. The crowd was powerfully silent when he spoke (I was there).
Paradoxically, two concession speeches, Reagans in 1976 and John Kennedys in 1956 at Chicagos International Amphitheatre in losing the vice presidential nomination to Estes Kefauver (again, I was there) marked both men as sure fire players for future presidential runs. Unquestionably the far better speech was Reagans in that he set forth his vision of an America that he largely translated in his two terms.
But even Reagans speech was thin gruel next to McCains who as nominee did the stunningly unusual: he set forth a vision that comes near to ending the age issue that has dogged him and also announced a magnificent departure from presidencies of the past a departure that has surprisingly been downplayed by the largely pro-Obama mainstream media. Moreover he presented himself as a kind of secular version of John XXIII who came to the papacy as an expected caretaker but who revolutionized the Church. (I dont want to push that analogy too far as John died before Vatican II was concluded, to be followed by Paul VI who was a kind of ineffectual Hamlet with the great exception of Humanae Vitae which must have been engendered by the Holy Spirit. But take the analogy only so farthat McCain would be another Good Pope John whose wondrous frankness and humor brushed aside the cobwebs of the papacy that had shrouded it for 1,200 years).
First, McCains speech constituted a brilliant effort to downgrade the age issue, which is the most effective handling of that issue I have seen (far more so than Reagan did in his reelection where he was reduced to making a joke about 56-year-old Walter Mondales callow youth) which saved the day for RRs reelection. As the world knows, McCain would be 72 on his inauguration, the oldest of presidents. His enumerating the goals to be undertaken in his first term shows that at this point of his life anyhow, he has the intellectual acumen and moral energy to re-start the creative engines of his party which have been stalled since 2005, when Denny Hastert and others lounged around as pork-chop incumbents and characterized the GOP as a big-spending, anti-thrift party.
Using the year 2013 when his first term will have been completed (and he will be 76), McCain said (a) American servicemen and women will be welcomed home after winning the war in Iraq, preventing civil war there, the militias disbanded, the Iraqi security force competent, the Taliban in Afghanistan reduced (but not eliminated), Osama bin Laden either dead or captured and no further terrorist attack against the U.S. The size of the military will have been significantly increased, the U. S. and NATO will have convinced Sudan to accept a multinational peacekeeping force. The U.S. will have returned to robust economic growth, the AMT phased out, the child exemption doubled, new free trade agreements ratified, health care costs reduced, the U.S. on the way to independence from foreign sources of oil.
Second, he played his trump card with masterly effectivenesstying his vision to his ability to work across the aisle with Democrats since he is a master of legislative triangulation in achieving bipartisan progress, something Obama has talked about but has not thus far participated in.
Question Time Between President and Congress.
Thirdand this strikes me, the amateur historian as powerfully significanthis pledge to further democratize and make more transparent the presidency with these words: I will ask Congress to grant me the privilege of coming before both Houses to take questions and address criticism, much the same as the prime minister of Great Britain appears regularly before the House of Commons.
By all odds, this is the most important innovation since Woodrow Wilson made the decision to revive the tradition, begun by George Washington, to personally appear before a joint session of Congress for the State of the Union. It is a brilliant innovation that will change the nature of the presidency enormously and for the better. It shows an amplification of the communication powers of the presidency. William Howard Taft was the first president to initiate questions from the press which were submitted in writing and to which he responded in writing. Franklin Roosevelt met with the press privately in conferences for off-the-record briefing purposes only where his words were not directly reported. Dwight Eisenhower enlarged this to meet with the media including television on a filmed delay basis which presented the president for the first time explaining his views to the media. John Kennedy enlarged this to hold live televised news conferences for the first time.
Now in the most significant enlargement of democracy since the presidency began, McCain would meet with a joint session of Congress and answer questions in parliamentary forma magnificent and luminous sharing of his views with Americans. Frankly, it is something few previous presidents would have found the guts to try. Reagan was a master of communications but no one ever insinuated that he had an encyclopedic mind on the intricacies of government that Question Time would necessitate. Franklin Roosevelt was a Machiavellian master of timing and strategy but stayed as far away from immediate performances like debates as was possible.
As a former senator, Harry Truman might be expected to do well but he was never a warrior with the spoken word in debate, either in the Senate where he served or afterward. He would have been advised to avoid such appearances. Dwight Eisenhower would argue that Question Time would be dangerous in that the president might accidentally divulge some hitherto secret military knowledge in heated Question Time response (yet British prime ministers have all faced that same test). John Kennedys media advisers would certainly have advised him to avoid it since the Congress of his time had people far better equipped on military matters than he, e.g. Richard Russell of Georgia and on economics the wizard Eugene Milliken of Colorado. And on the details of government and its waste, John Williams of Delaware or Bill Proxmire of Wisconsin. And thats before we get to Harry Flood Byrd of Virginia.
Let us acknowledge that Lyndon Johnson, the shrewd master of the Senate, would acquit himself wellbut Richard Nixon with his sanctimoniousness and shriveled ego resulting in a strong streak of paranoia would have ruined himself long before his ultimate ruination with Watergate. Strangely, Gerald Ford, not the most articulate, would probably have done better than most since he was inured to House debate. Jimmy Carter would have been wise to turn down the opportunity for he would have been a disaster. George H. W. Bush might have made a pretty good stab at it. Bill Clinton, the master of persuasion, would have done very well. George W. Bush would not have been at his best before the Congress, lets face it.
If McCain is elected so that he can inaugurate this new tradition, the nature of presidential candidates will irredeemably change. Presidential candidates will be chosen with an eye to how they would perform under these trying circumstanceswhich would elevate the quality of men and women seeking the post.
The odds are heavily against a Republican presidential victory this year but Democrats will be hard-pressed to employ the age issue since McCain has well used his time while Obama and Hillary Clinton have been squabbling over seemingly nothing (as they agree on all the salient issues).
In summary, McCain has given the country a strong jolt of creativity which should generate the hope that he be elected to translate his vision to reality. Although I backed Mitt Romney before McCain, the circumstances have thrust McCain forward with such drama that he is indeed the best man. His powerful presentation in Columbus proves it yet again.
II: Descartes Meant Well but--.
The second so-called great book (or great idea) that screwed up the world and in reading Benjamin Wiker I recall now distinctly Fr. Ernest Kilzer OSBs views on this is by Rene Descartes [1596-1650] entitled Discourse on Method . Descartes is called the Father of Modern Philosophy and right: he is, but thats not all good. Modern philosophy today is a disgrace. Descartes is the father of it and he meant well but he granted skepticism far too much in trying to work his way out of it. Indeed, he worsened the skepticism.
Suppose you started to think that everything you are and everything you see doesnt exist but is in a dream. Think of that long enough and you may go mad.
So in order to think himself out of that dilemma, Descartes started off by doubting everything, including the great works of the past, because there are different points of view in them, hence who is to say whats right? In fact who is to say there is reason? So when other men who had better things to do went to work, building houses and doing things constructive, Descartes kept thinking: what if nothing exists and I am in a dream world? How can I prove that I am not? How can I prove I exist?
He came to the phrase: I think, therefore I ammeaning because I am thinking this, there is reality. Hurrah? Not so, said Father Ernie and now Ben Wiker. Why? Wiker: Does it sound convincing? If it does, congratulations! Youve just walked into a trap that has ensnared the Western mind for four centuries. It is a trap from which there is no escap;e because Descartes has presented it as itself an escapebut it is an escape from a trap that doesnt exist.
Skepticism is a problem in our minds. It is a deadly trap only if we retreat into our minds to escape it. That is, if we let our doubt turn into doubt about reality. The place to run to escape skepticism is not our own minds but straight into a tree to remind ourselves that, whatever our fancy to the contrary, the real world outside our minds has been factually solid all along. The proper and natural treatment for those inclined to think themselves into a corner is not to go into a corner and think but to run into the fields to grasp and be grasped by reality. Wilker goes (and Ernie used to go) on and on to screw Descartes around. We could say, Well, Rene, isnt it really the other way around? In order to think, I first have to exist and I go right on existing even when I am not thinking. Anyhow, didnt the world get along just fine before I was ever around to think about anything? So we should say, `I am, therefore I can think rather than `I think, therefore I am.
He went from there to try to proof the existence of God. Notice I say try. And he tried to do it this way: I can fathom a perfect Being. Thus because I can fathom this, He must exist. Thus there is a God. Well, I can imagine a world without God as well. Does that mean there is no God?
Comon, as Ernie used to say (this I remember): I can fathom a better world than this is on Mars. Does that mean that because I can fathom it, it exists? Of course not!. And then he would storm around the classroom snarling, the nerve of that Descartes! This for a 17-year-old to watch and listen to was revelatory. (All the while, down the hall a near-relativist was screwing up some other of my classmates with his airy, poetic but totally subjective views of God and purpose. Even then in the traditionalist abbey were the seeds of relativism beginning to sprout though no one recognized them as such then, in 1946from Fr. Godfrey Diekmann OSB but that is another story).
What goofed up ideas did Descartes leave us? Three things says Wiker. First, subjectivism. It all depends on me. As we declare that there is no wisdom in the past and that whatever seems certain to us now must be true. Second, the confusion of true wisdom about God with whatever one happens to think about God the ultimate egotism, since in defining God by our ownthoughts, we define everything else accordingly.
Third, the apprehension that since God was caused by our thinking Him, then He must only be a thought and not a reality.
Our lecture on Descartes in 1946 ended with Ernie slamming the book Discourses shut with a bang and saying, there! I have disposed of that miserable intruder on Western thought!
If you want more about Descartes get the book, 10 Books that Screwed Up the World by Benjamin Wiker. Just off the press (Regnery).