Media Matters

Chips From the Workbench

On the lookout for signs of intelligent life.

By 6.11.04

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Two other thoughts inspired by this week's remarkable burst of Reaganolatry in the media are (1) how fickle the media are, like the mob in Shakespeare -- as someone once said of the Arabs, they are either at your throat or at your feet -- and (2) how little intelligence counts, at least as our highly prestigious psychometricians measure intelligence, when it comes to leadership. As Oliver Wendell Holmes is supposed to have said of FDR, Reagan didn't have a first class mind but he did have a first class temperament. I thought of this too as I read the obituary in the Daily Telegraph yesterday of the Earl of Romney, who died on the same day and at the same age as Ronald Reagan and who sat in the House of Lords for a quarter of a century without ever speaking a word. When asked about this, he replied: "Yes, that's right. The bright ones are supposed to speak, and the others are supposed to support them. That's how it works here."

That's how it works everywhere, more or less, though not everyone knows it. To many even of the most intelligent it is not given to see the profound truth that there is a real art to followership as well as to leadership, that those arts are akin and that they are by no means commonplace, either the one or the other. Indeed, I would guess that we have not only many fewer leaders but many fewer decent followers than we have university professors. It's a rare élite to belong to, which suggests that the Earl was also like Reagan in being too self-effacing. Moreover, it is precisely because the highly intelligent members of the media -- that "herd of independent minds" as Harold Rosenberg said of the New York intelligentsia -- are slender reeds, waving with each intellectual wind that blows and have no understanding of the kind of mental and emotional discipline required for real politics that they go on as they do about the bogey of "intelligence."

*****

The news last week, later denied, that the Church of England was prepared to offer its sanction to a marriage between the Prince of Wales and his mistress, the divorcée Lady Camilla Parker-Bowles, was reported in the Times of London along with the following quotation from the Venerable Michael Lawson, who sits on the Church's Evangelical Council: "From a Christian point of view, everyone should be allowed a new start in life." This sudden discovery after 2,000 years of a missing commandment -- Thou shalt allow everyone a new start in life -- is the more remarkable for having come from an Englishman. In America, of course, we are all quite certain that the law allowing us a do-over, a new beginning, and a fresh start when we screw up is somewhere in the Constitution, or perhaps the Declaration of Independence, right next to the bit about The American Dream. But I had not thought that this hopeful certainty had also found its way into the 39 Articles and (probably) the European Declaration of Human Rights.

"Most Anglican leaders," the Times went on to say, "would accept a marriage more readily if there were repentance." Ah yes, the Bill Clinton technique of phony contrition. Even the regicide and fratricide Claudius in Hamlet knew better than that when he said that he couldn't repent because "I am still possessed/Of those effects for which I did the murder." It all just goes to show you the extent to which the official religion of Europe is now no longer Christianity but the secular Americanism of the late 20th century. No wonder they all hate us so!

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Last week's resignation of George Tenet as Director of Central Intelligence reminded me of an extended profile of him recently by NPR's "All Things Considered" which concluded with the reporter's saying that Tenet was "that rarest of things in Washington, a survivor." What a laugh! Washington is a town full to bursting with such "survivors" -- men and women who hang around on the fringes of power long after they have risen to their level of incompetence. Nobody is ever ruined or disgraced in Washington anymore, at least not so badly that he can't get a job somewhere as a lobbyist. My old boss Ferdinand Mount said not long ago that the British Labour Party was exactly the opposite of the public school system, according to Grimes in Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall. "They may throw you out, but they never let you down," said Grimes. By contrast, if like Tony Blair you lead a Labour government, you may expect never to be thrown out but always to be let down by those who have put you in power.

It's yet another consequence of the disappearance of honor from politics, which may have taken its final departure with the resignation of Lord Carrington as foreign secretary in Mrs. Thatcher's government in 1982 after the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands. "There has been a British humiliation," he said. "I ought to take responsibility for it." If anyone can think of a more recent example than that, I would be eager to hear of it.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.