Milton Berle was at a party in D.C. once and, making conversation over cocktails, he asked a fellow: "Have you heard the latest gag about the White House?"
"I beg your pardon," the man sniffed. "I happen to work at the White House."
"That's all right," Milty reassured him. "I'll tell it slow."
Today's occupants of the alabaster demesne seem hardly swifter. Early in the health-care campaign they staged an event on the lawn with a 150 tame doctors (the CL of approval?) touting Obama's health-care nostrums… and they handed out the white hospital coats themselves. This was not what we thought they meant by transparency.
All in all, the faux pas was less disquieting than the faux pose. A debate is putatively being conducted over fraught matters concerning 300 million lives and untold trillions of dollars. The most substantive contribution the administration could offer was this claque of hacks. Forget the coats: the real props here were the medicos themselves!
Than which, I fear, nothing more sharply illuminates the essence of this crew we have steering the ship of state. They seem capable only of navigating the shallowest waters. This extends down to the lowliest serf and up to President Obama. Every communication on every subject is presented in the form of predigested pap that won't strain the third digit on anyone's IQ. It seems laughable to reflect that the left used to cast aspersions on the Reagan intellect when every Reagan speech was loaded with profound arguments, a poetic rhythm and a superior vocabulary. (Go to You Tube and choose any one at random to confirm this claim.)
Suddenly the White House announces -- after poll poleaxes, Corzine corpses, Deeds deadness, Coakley conkouts -- they want a debate. Yes, a real substantive, profound, searching exchange of ideas. With Republicans. On TV. They want to hear new ideas. But only, apparently, while the camera rolls. For an hour or two on February 25.
This is a serious ratiocinative process? Huge decisions are being made, gargantuan proposals are being advanced, with no trappings of deliberative thought. Say what you will about Hillary Clinton's health-care task force in terms of propriety, secrecy and predisposition, but at least we saw a whole bunch of very bright people holding a lot of meetings and writing a massive mess of notes. Now we are being presented with bills to overhaul an entire medical system, without a discussion, a meeting, a proposal -- other than the usual Senate committees and the platitudinous town halls. And now this new in-depth investigation -- between lunch and a meeting with lobbyists.
A good example of this pattern came early in Obama's term when he announced he was overruling President Bush's policy limiting Federal stem-cell research to existing embryos. Bush had convened a special forum of writers, ethicists and religious thinkers to discuss the implications and offer recommendations. This committee, led by Leon Kass -- yes, Mister Obama, a professor at the University of Chicago -- was a very serious entity. It released thousands of pages of notes, each participant given an opportunity to publish insights. After all this, President Bush arrived at a conclusion, which he presented in a complex, sensitive address.
Along comes Obama and announces a press conference. With no deliberation, no input, no consultation, he gets up and says he rejects this false conflict between religion and science blah blah blah, all adding up to this: there is no conflict because science wins, religion loses, because I say so.
Now that verdict could be respected if it could wear an air of gravitas. Instead it preens like the work of whimsy. The old Jewish scholars had a word for behavior like this, a word uttered with scorn. They called it "kaal," Hebrew for lightweight. It derided the person who is deciding on heavy things with a light heart. This was seen as contemptible behavior. If you give a thing its proper weight, you can live with your mistakes.
This may explain why Obama wants a lot of things to happen quickly on a lot of fronts, lauded by some as a brand of dynamism. From here it looks like a lack of respect for the significance of each frontier. All that quick forward progress can defeat the law of gravity, but it may also defeat the gravity of law. Flitting about like a little birdie, now landing gingerly on a branch and trilling a short riff, may be showmanship, brinkmanship, even seamanship, but it ain't statesmanship.
Which brings us back to Milton Berle and his delightful story about the two birds on the White House Gate. One says to the other: "Are you for this President?"
"Why not?" replies Bird #2. "He's for us."
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