The late Rabbi Ezekiel Abramsky (1886-1976) was head of London’s Rabbinical Court from 1934 to 1951 (after the Soviets released him from Siberia in 1931 in a prisoner exchange with Germany for six Communists; now there’s a story). Once, a case was being heard in the British High Court where a point of Jewish law was a factor, and he was called as an expert witness. To introduce him the barrister asked: “Is it true that you are Britain’s greatest authority on Jewish law?”
The judge was a bit startled; he leaned forward and interposed a question of his own.
“Rabbi, doesn’t your religion count humility as a virtue?”
“Yes, Your Lordship,” he replied. “But I am under oath.”
Barring that rare circumstance, the mark of class in a leader is a blithe indifference to his status as a man of intellect and power. The dean of Yale does not need to remind you of his brilliance; if he does, he comes across as small. The chief of police projects power by his rank and quiet air of authority; if he has to remind you he has it, he lost it. If there is one thing no sitting President should ever do, it is to overtly refer to his legacy. That is a subject for his lackeys — and his detractors.
Which brings us to the nettlesome matter of our mettlesome President conversing overmuch with meddlesome reporters about the nature of his job. A long, hyperventilating feature in Newsweek quotes him as “seeing himself like Truman.” A recent television interview finds him saying the historians will be studying him for centuries, even as they study George Washington today, and may modify their negative conclusions with the passage of time. Americans like a President who can stare unblinkingly into the belly of the beast, not one immersed in gazing at his own navel.
Usually Presidents only enroll in the navel academy when they are at sea. When the good old buoy network fails, they begin to play distress calls on their umbilical chords. And our fearless leader certainly looks to be in deep water. Not only deep water but hot water. Not only deep water and hot water but muddy water. At least I’m assuming from my respectful distance that this stuff is muddy water. No wonder he is flailing about without a compass. But still…
True, the Seven Year Retch is upon him in full force. He is stuck in a war that is intractable, incorrigible and intransigent — and that’s just the one with Congress; Iraq is worse. The North ascends in Korea while his career descends south. The Palestinians practice bloodthirstiness born in bloody-mindedness while Israel demonstrates cluelessness born in over-thinking. Ahmadinejad and Assad make an anti-summit, proclaiming: “We should run the world, since we are the only two world leaders who precede Blair and Bush in alphabetical order.” Hillary Clinton is already dispensing patronage in her forthcoming administration — or is it matronage? To top matters off, the Globe cites unimpeachable sources that Laura is suing for divorce.
The correct way to respond to this bloodbath — if I may imitate Moses and transform the water metaphor — has been modeled by many preceding receders. First you go to Asia and Africa for a month. In Africa you apologize for apartheid, AIDS and Madonna’s rapacious adoption practices. In China you sign a historic agreement to reveal what the man-made materials are in our sneakers. In Tibet you pet the llamas.
Then you come home and announce you are reapplying yourself with renewed vigor to the “issues facing the American People” such as overemployment, second-home empty-nest syndrome and the shortage of yacht parking spaces. You let Congress dump in your lap a bloated omnibus spending bill including such inspired items as the Lewis Carroll Memorial Slithy Tove Definition Research Grant. This, in return for their backing some teeny-weeny legislative initiative, say free laundry for school uniforms. Just keep your nose clean, otherwise known as the Bathe-Faced Initiative. Afterwards Congress passes a “comprehensive”-but-incomprehensible immigration reform package granting citizenship to all illegal aliens and deporting all the legal ones. (As long as this law requires Howard K. Stern to stay in the Bahamas, it can’t be all bad.) The President and the Congress will wrangle over credit; before you know it the term is over, you hand off to the termagant and you go home to your familiar haunts while you ghost-write the ten-million dollar tome.
But to sit around trying to channel Truman is pathetic. Even without the Freudian interpretation of searching for the “true man” within, the spectacle of Presidents sociologizing instead of socializing is repulsive. Keep your head above the fray and concentrate on acting presidential. After all, you are under oath.