The Carnival at Dallas


The spectacle of five presidents — Carter, Bush, Clinton, the other Bush, Obama — meeting to compliment one another at the opening of the second Bush’s presidential library reminded me irresistibly of chapter 26 of Candide, the Symposium of Monarchs. In that episode, Voltaire satirizes authority by arranging for six kings to discover that they are staying at the same inn at Venice. Their conversation reveals their inanity and (as Voltaire would have it) the inanity of human life. Whatever you think of Voltaire’s ideas, it’s a very funny chapter.

So here we have our own Symposium of Monarchs, a meeting of men who have wielded infinitely more power than any king of the Old Regime. Who are these people?

None of them had any qualification whatever for the office once assumed by Washington. In fact, it’s hard to think of anyone, among all the varied occupants of the presidential chair, who was less qualified than they were. Maybe John Tyler. In fact, none of them was impelled to the position by anything other than ambition for office.

Two of them — the Bushes — are agreeable human beings, and the elder Bush was a war hero, a real war hero. Unfortunately, neither father nor son had any intellectual qualifications. The younger Bush reads history but is incapable of profiting from his studies. The elder Bush showed himself incapable of understanding even his own emphatic promise not to raise taxes. He folded as soon as the opposing party offered to sell him a bridge in Brooklyn. He bought the bridge, and lost the presidency. The younger Bush was unable to understand even the rudimentary principles of limited government. But you could say that about all of them. None of them showed even the faintest understanding of his oath of office.

Carter is a mean, twisted, little man, a disgusting specimen of self-righteousness and vindictiveness. My goal in life is to stay as far away as possible from things like that.

Intellectual qualifications . . . unlike virtually all former presidents, none of the five, with the possible exception of Carter, is able to speak in his own voice for even one minute without committing a gross grammatical error. None of them, including the current president, himself reputedly the author of a book, is capable of an accurate allusion to anybody else’s book. Most of them don’t even try. Listen to Obama’s speeches; notice what or whom he mentions. It’s always “a teacher in Montana” or “a little girl in New Jersey.” Acton? Madison? Webster? Whitman? Churchill? Cather? Twain? And here they are at the dedication of a library.

Experience? Carter and Clinton were goofball governors of Southern states. The Bushes were rich people. Obama was a black student who was elected, for unknown but surmisable reasons, editor of a college law review, then a hack politician employed by the Chicago political machine.

Personal qualifications? Great personalities? Commanding leadership? Eccentric and interesting insights? Inspiring examples of morality? All these people, except the elder Bush, who was a professional promiser and non-fulfiller, can properly be called professional liars. Some lied with an exuberance appropriate to men who really enjoy the sport. On Carter, see Robert Novak’s autobiography; you’ll be entertained. On Clinton, consult your memories. On Obama, just listen to the man. On the younger Bush . . . I’m not referring to his theories about Iraq, on which he appears to have been sincerely deluded. On such issues as censorship (freedom of speech is sacred, but take all this sex off the internet), big government (I’m against it, but raise high the roofbeams, carpenters!), and immigration (open the gates, but pretend to be building walls), he lied with abandon.

Which one of these people would you like to serve with on a condo board? A department committee? A working group of any kind? Chorus of “None!” Carter would automatically attack as “racist” anyone who disagreed with him. Obama, a good casting choice for Creon in Antigone, would insist on lecturing everyone like a high school principal. The Bushes would never finish a sentence. Clinton would be looking for a deal that would enrich himself and promote the career of his banshee wife. And which one of them would you like to have a beer with? Which one — to return to the Candide analogy — would you like to encounter at the Carnival of Venice?

My answer used to be, “All of them but Carter.” Carter is a mean, twisted, little man, a disgusting specimen of self-righteousness and vindictiveness. My goal in life is to stay as far away as possible from things like that. But I used to say that if I lived next door to Obama or one of the other recent presidents, I would enjoy talking to him. I used to say that I imagined he would be a good neighbor. A couple of years ago, I got in trouble at a libertarian conference by saying these things.

If these men had remained private citizens, if they had never, accidentally, been elevated to the presidency, would I have wanted to schmooze with them?

But now I’m not so sure. I guess it’s still true about the good neighbor part. None of the non-Carter presidents fits the profile of a bad neighbor, if only because none of them cares very much about who waters the lawn. (Some underling will do it.) On Centre Street in San Diego, this noble disengagement would be a relief. It’s a long way, however, from qualifying someone for political power. I don’t think that Obama, Clinton, or the Bushes would start baying at the moon, or building houses for po’ folk in my back yard. But do I want to have a beer with one of these presidents? Maybe not.

True, I’d like to hear them discuss their political experiences. I wouldn’t object; I’d just listen. I’d buy a whole saloonful of beers, just to be able to do that . . . except . . . except for this vagrant thought: if these men had remained private citizens, if they had never, accidentally, been elevated to the presidency, would I have wanted to schmooze with them? Would I have thought they merited a change in my schedule?

The obvious answer is: Hell no! Are you kidding?

If Obama were a high school principal, or even a congressman, who would want to talk with him? There is nothing, nothing whatever, that is interesting about the man, except the weird political processes that elected him — on which he himself is unlikely to be an authority. Ditto Clinton — of no interest unless you’re one of those old-timey guys who liked to hang with the whores and the cops and collect their observations. The Bushes? Sorry. Life is short. As Gertrude Stein opined, “There’s no there, there.”

When, in Voltaire’s novel, Candide meets his useless monarchs, and so many of them at once, he is at first convinced that he is “witnessing a masquerade.” Then he says, “Gentlemen, this is an odd joke. Why are you all kings?”

He never gets an answer.

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Jon Harrison

The failure of political leadership at the national level (and indeed, at all levels) over the past 50 years is quite remarkable. One aspect of this is the elevation of mediocre men to the presidency. But we must not think that a handful of men represent all that is wrong with America. To believe this amounts to reductionism in the extreme. (Let me just mention that I'm off on my own riff here; I'm not saying that Cox blames five ex-presidents for all that ails America.)

The root problem is the vast expansion of government in response to the emergencies of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. After 1940, the American elite made a conscious decision to take over Britain's place as the world's dominant power. Given that by 1945 our economic and military power was almost unlimited, we were bound to go astray. Unlimited power will succumb to the temptation to interfere anywhere and everywhere. The result is wars such as Vietnam and Iraq, and domestic policies implemented without serious thought given to fiscal and social costs.

A succession of philosopher kings would have been necessary to manage such power capably and with moderation. Such were not to be found. And neither the people nor the representatives they elected to Congress possessed the power or the wisdom required to restrain the executive's imperial drive. After 1960 a succession of mediocre men ascended to the presidency. This opened the floodgates that had held (barely) under Truman and Eisenhower. Each of the post-Eisenhower presidents harmed our country. Occasional benign actions (the tax reforms of 1964 and 1986, the Civil Rights Act) were more than outweighed by the mistakes and crimes of the last ten presidents. The two Texans, LBJ and GWB, were by far the most harmful. The flaw, however, lies within us. A few individuals could not wreck America by themselves. The men Cox excoriates were raised up by the society at large. The American sickness is not, at bottom, the result of a few bad men infecting the body politic. All of us share the blame for the country's sad decline. Certain power centers -- the media, finance, and the intelligence services, as well as the political world -- bear more responsibility than does the average Dick or Jane. But it's a societal problem nevertheless.

We might probe this question even further, but no one likes to look too deeply within. We might adopt a philosophical-moral perspective and question whether any nation founded on a genocide can long prosper. Perhaps some nations have, but I can't think of one at the moment. In any case, the contrast between the American Myth and American reality is really quite stunning. But no one (except a few on the very fringes of opinion) will tolerate this subject even being raised.

Jim Williams

I am always baffled whenever I hear that an ex-president (or wannabe like Hillary Clinton) can command $100,000 or even $200,000 to give a speech.

I cannot imagine that they write their own speeches; they never did before. So I couldn't even say that they're giving a speech. They're just reading a speech.

What can they possibly say, er, read, that would be worth such a princely sum?

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