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Jewish World Review
Nov. 5, 2007
/ 24 Mar-Cheshvan 5768
Let's hear it for laconic leadership: A history of presidential energies
The most important lesson I ever learned about the theatre came from Hal Prince, the director of Phantom of the Opera, producer of West Side Story, etc. He was talking about his mentor George Abbott, the great author and stager of Pal Joey, On The Town, The Pajama Game and many other Broadway hits. "He was the master of American farce comedy," Prince told me, "but there is never a dishonest moment on the stage. He never slammed a door for the sake of slamming a door; he slammed it for a reason. There's so much phony energy in the theatre. People think that by running around in circles like a crazed tiger, you're displaying energy. And in fact you're not. You can have energy in the stillest place in the world, and he knew that."
That applies beyond the theatre. Contemporary politics is all about phony energy, about running around slamming doors for the sake of it or, more to the point, opening them and tossing through a huge sack of taxpayer dollars. South of the border, presidential candidate and actor Fred Thompson is currently under fire for being too "laid-back." His debate performances are said to be "undercaffeinated." A barely discernible pause at the start of one answer was reported by the play-by-play pundits as a "senior moment."
Touted by his promoters as the new Reagan, Thompson has apparently inherited all the old Reagan's flaws. He, too, was famously lethargic, and said to doze off during afternoon briefings: in long cabinet meetings, he was prone to be prone within 10 minutes, etc. President Reagan never denied it: "They say hard work never killed anyone," he remarked, "but I figure, why take the chance?" He did, though, confess during a particularly fraught government crisis to "burning the midday oil." Ronald Reagan succeeded a chief executive who was the very definition of "phony energy," and whose failed presidency remains a monument to the folly of confusing perpetual activity with energy. In contrast to Jimmy Carter, Reagan came to office with the most fully formed political philosophy of any recent president. He had thought profoundly about the role of government and its relationship to individual liberty, and, crucially, had formed his views while doing other stuff. If instead of spending the fifties making movies and hosting TV shows and speechifying for General Electric, he'd been a congressman or senator, I doubt he'd have developed any kind of coherent world view. But, in a sense, his jokes about his "laziness" and inactivity were an example of what literary critics call "internalization of the landscape." They reflect his belief that "we are a nation that has a government, not the other way round." Too often, Trudeaupian Canada gives the impression that it's a government that has a nation. The European Union is a technocrat bureaucracy that has many nations.
So what I look for in a candidate is, first, an absence of phony energy and, second, signs of real energy. I can live with a Fred Thompson "senior moment" compared to most of the alternatives. In that same debate, the more damaging answer came from Mitt Romney in response to an arcane hypothetical about whether bombing Iran required congressional approval. "You sit down with your attorneys," began the former governor. "We're going to let the lawyers sort out what we needed to do and what we didn't need to do." There was no pause. Romney just rushed in to fill the dead air with all the frantic energy of an old-school disc jockey whose traffic jingle has jammed. And, as a consequence, a war-on-terror hawk came over like a Kerryesque legalistic ass-coverer. A "senior moment" to collect his thoughts might have helped.
So I'm well-disposed to the laconic. Seated next to Calvin Coolidge, a lady supposedly said to him, "Mr. President, my friend bet me you wouldn't say three words to me." Coolidge replied: "You lose." We want the story to be true because his conversational stinginess reflects his belief in parsimonious government: he was a magnificent tax-cutter, and he vetoed hugely popular farm-subsidy bills on the grounds that, "if the government gets into business on any large scale, we soon find that the beneficiaries attempt to play a large part in the control. While in theory it is to serve the public, in practice it will be very largely serving private interests. It comes to be regarded as a species of government favour, and those who are the most adroit get the larger part of it."
Exactly. The best geopolitical deployment of Coolidge's "you lose" line came from Reagan. In 1977, after listening to a lengthy disquisition on U.S.-Soviet relations, the Gipper asked Richard Allen whether he'd like to hear his own theory of the Cold War. Sure, said Allen. "We win, they lose," said Reagan. "What do you think about that?"
Thirty years ago, at the height of "detente," in a Western world led by Carter, Callaghan, Giscard, Brandt and Trudeau, it was certainly different. But we remember it now not just because he said it, nor even just because he meant it, but because he'd given serious thought to how to accomplish it. When everyone else was running around slamming doors, the lazy catnapper was the guy with the real energy.
As for phony energy, consider Bill Clinton. Back in 1998, when he was fending off the first few months of the Monica business, President Clinton used to say that much as he'd like to resign, hand over to Al Gore and sit on the beach all day, he had no choice but to accept the burdens of office and "get back to working for the American people." There wasn't a single morning, he assured the public, that he didn't wake up thinking about how he could make life better for the American people. I'm a foreigner, so it's hardly my place to tell the American people that the best response to this is: "oh, bugger off, you neo-monarchical narcissist." The founding principle of the republic is that the American people are perfectly capable of making life better for themselves, and all you wannabe-king types need to do is get out of the way. That goes for the Canadian people, and the British people, and the Spanish people, and pretty much any other reasonably competent citizenry. The height of Bill Clinton's indestructible belief in his own indispensability came in his "tribute" to the victims of 9/11. "The people who died represent, in my view, not only the best of America," he said, "but the best of the world that I worked hard for eight years to build." It seems even the dead of Lower Manhattan are a testament to Clinton's "hard work." Showbiz types like to say that the hardest work is making it look easy: Gene Kelly skipping down the street singin' in the rain doesn't work unless it's blithe and carefree, and that takes plenty of rehearsal. On the other hand, when some
Vegas lounge act does that untying-the-bow-tie unbuttoning-the-tux look-how-hard-I'm-working shtick, it's usually a good sign he isn't. President Clinton was the Lounge-Act-in-Chief.
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It's the end of the world as we know itÖ
Someday soon, you might wake up to the call to prayer from a muezzin. Europeans already are.
And liberals will still tell you that "diversity is our strength"while Talibanic enforcers cruise Greenwich Village burning books and barber shops, the Supreme Court decides sharia law doesn't violate the "separation of church and state," and the Hollywood Left decides to give up on gay rights in favor of the much safer charms of polygamy.
If you think this can't happen, you haven't been paying attention, as the hilarious, provocative, and brilliant Mark Steynthe most popular conservative columnist in the English-speaking worldshows to devastating effect in this, his first and eagerly awaited new book on American and global politics.
The future, as Steyn shows, belongs to the fecund and the confident. And the Islamists are both, while the Westwedded to a multiculturalism that undercuts its own confidence, a welfare state that nudges it toward sloth and self-indulgence, and a childlessness that consigns it to oblivionis looking ever more like the ruins of a civilization.
Europe, laments Steyn, is almost certainly a goner. The future, if the West has one, belongs to America alonewith maybe its cousins in brave Australia. But America can survive, prosper, and defend its freedom only if it continues to believe in itself, in the sturdier virtues of self-reliance (not government), in the centrality of family, and in the conviction that our country really is the world's last best hope.
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