Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

18 November 2007

Is Hillary Dangerous?

NOTE: For more serious reasons why Hillary may be dangerous, see this post on wars and terrorism and this post on the importance of judgment.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd is always a good read. Sometimes her work is zany and hilarious. Sometimes it touches on something profound.

Sunday’s column was one of those. Dowd reported Hillary’s “icing” of her chief political rivals Barack and John. According to Dowd, Hillary refuses to engage them in pre-debate banter, to make eye contact, or even to shake hands. She stiffs them and mixes only with her less prominent challengers.

Dowd seemed to approve this practice. She described Hillary the debater as a “dominatrix” who reduced her feckless male opponents to “wimps.” Although she later questioned whether Hillary could best Rudy so easily, she seemed to admire Hillary’s use of emotional ju-jitsu to gain every last shred of advantage in debate.

My reaction was different. The piece troubled me more than anything I’ve ever read by Dowd. I sat down to ponder why.

Politicians and lawyers are not like you and me. While most of us strive to avoid conflict in our personal and professional lives, conflict is their turf. Resolving it is what they do. To be good at it, they must be able to rise above conflict and see it as something separate from themselves. That’s what we call professionalism.

Nearly all of our leaders (including Hillary) are lawyers. Once they knew the drill. The allegedly heinous killer would go to the chair, or would walk free, depending on the jury’s decision. Then the prosecution and defense would go out together for drinks and a good laugh.

Both sides knew the outcome depended on so many things—such as the facts of the case and the jury’s mood—beyond their control. They understood there would always be another day, another issue, another trial. They saw themselves as parts of a delicate system that ultimately depends not on words on paper but on civilization and civility. So they didn’t take things personally.

Politicians were much the same. Both FDR and Reagan were famous for being able to charm the pants off rivals and detractors. So was JFK. Dubya’s own father was known for remembering the birthdays and anniversaries of everyone in Washington with hand-written greeting cards.

Those days are gone. Except in small towns, prosecution and defense no longer mingle. They attend separate conferences, where they plot and hatch strategic schemes against each other.

There is no longer “the” bar, consisting of all lawyers, whomever they represent. There is only the “defense bar” and the “prosecution” or the “plaintiffs’ bar.” They study each other’s trial tricks separately, just as the Soviet and American military used to study each other’s nuclear submarine designs. If you want to see a clash of civilizations, you needn’t look to Islam and Christianity; just observe plaintiffs’ and defense lawyers in all but the smallest towns.

Recently the clash has become personal. The change has everything to do with personal ambition and greed. Plaintiffs’ lawyers, working on contingency, get paid only if they win. Prosecutors often have politics in their sights; they can win office only if they win in court. And defense counsel advance in prestige and pay only if they get their corporate clients off the hook.

Recently we have seen an epidemic of retirement announcements by members of Congress. Most of them are Republicans, so it’s easy to write off their leaving as sour grapes. But every one of them, including the few Democrats, has mourned the loss of civility and collegiality among their peers. Inexorably, the bar’s divisiveness has spread to the halls of Congress.

If you think this is just a minor cultural failing, think again. Culture is everything in human affairs. The Soviet Union’s voluminous constitution had nearly all the guarantees of personal liberty that our shorter one does. But who would have wanted to live there? Russia’s modern constitution does have all our guarantees of liberty and some provisions (like the supremacy of treaties over domestic law) that we ought to have but don’t. Yet who in his right mind would exchange American citizenship for Russian, or rely easily on Russia’s national commitment? The difference isn’t words on paper; it’s culture.

When differences on issues get personal, egos and emotions get involved. That’s when professionalism goes out the window and mistakes (or worse) get made. The purges of Stalinist Russia are not too far removed from what happened to our United States Attorneys under Alberto Gonzales. The difference was a matter of degree, not kind.

For us in the West, the long, hard slog toward modern civilization began in 1215, in the fields of Runnymede. There King John, outnumbered and outgunned, acceded to the Barons’ wishes without a fight. What could have been a bloody battle ended with words on sheepskin, the Magna Carta.

The words on that sheepskin are quaint and long forgotten. But its symbolism is not. It stands for the principle that conflict can be resolved, and governmental power can pass, without the prelude of large-scale death and dismemberment. Isn’t that the same principle we are now purportedly fighting for in Iraq?

A party leader’s refusal to speak or shake hands with her principal rivals before a debate is not just a social peccadillo. It is a firm cultural step backward on that long path from sword and spear.

That, in the end, is why Barack Obama has to win this race. Our veneer of civilization is wearing thin. In a nuclear age, that wearing could destroy our society or even our species. We need a leader of wisdom and grace, not one ruled by personal ambition, to restore our civility and preserve our civilization.

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  • At Mon Nov 19, 11:20:00 PM EST, Blogger Amalia said…

    Jay, thank you.

    I read Dowd's column on Sunday and was, quite simply, a bit angry. I'm not an angry person by nature, so that bothered me. A lot.

    I hadn't been able to put my finger on why I was so troubled by the column. I believe that you have put a name on it for me. It's the ugliness, the divisiveness, the dehumanization that she seems to be celebrating.

    Well, that and she's enthusiastic about what amounts to just plain bad manners.

    Here's to hoping that nice guys CAN finish first.

  • At Wed Dec 05, 04:18:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I'm shocked at Dowd's characterization of Clinton, and you're right we need Obama to win the nomination. The country needs Obama because its time to end the petulance of this administration and finally talk to our enemies.

    Can you imagine someone with Clinton's temperament engaging with Chavez, or Ahmadinejad?

    Obama went to an African American church which was strongly against civil unions and spoke to them about why he supports civil unions for gay couples. Imagine Hillary giving that speech!

    Very well written sir. We need someone to unite the country.

  • At Tue Dec 11, 08:46:00 PM EST, Blogger Gloria said…

    What about Ron Paul? He is the most civil politician I've seen in action. I prefer both him and Obama over any other candidates in the race-- they're the only honest ones in there, with Kucinich as well.

    Ron Paul has a much more consistent and lengthy record than Barack Obama, though.


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