The Breakfast Table

Consensus Breaking Out?

Dear Susan:

I fear that we may be approaching a dangerous place, if we want anyone to read this stuff: consensus. In grammar school, I was a bit puzzled when teacher told us that the sine qua non (or whatever) of all literature was conflict. At the time, I thought: Why can’t it just be nice? But teacher was mainly right. My agreement with your disdain for the silliness of the academic left and the stupidity of political correctness is so complete that I am left speechless.

But speak I must, if only to earn my keep. Since I have reached an age at which my mind tends to float free through time, space, and subject matters, rumination on the antisocial aspects of consensus brings to mind a fine op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal by Nicholas Von Hoffman, which begins, “Washington played host on Sunday to a throng of indeterminate size demanding all-out war on cancer.” Noting that the crowd was peaceful and orderly, Von Hoffman speculates: “Perhaps the special-interest groups favoring death by painful and humiliating disease were intimidated into staying home by the fame of the featured speakers: Vice President Al Gore, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Cindy Crawford, Sam Donaldson, Michael Milken, Scott Hamilton and Cokie Roberts.” (Perhaps Linda Tripp was too busy fending off prosecutors to show up.) I was especially gratified to note that Sidney Kimmel, the head of Jones Apparel Group Inc., shouted into the microphones that “the people here have come to demand of their government: No more cancer!” Yes, and while we’re at it, let’s outlaw the common cold, hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, and hot, humid summer days. Reminds me a bit of the Chinese potentate who the other day proclaimed a glorious victory over this year’s disastrous floods, once again demonstrating the all-seeing wisdom of the Communist kleptocracy.

Vice is nice, but consensus is cloying. Still, I also find myself in sympatico (is that correct English usage?) with your observation that USC educates more black kids from LA than does self-satisfied UCLA. Free-associating again, I am prompted to pose the following question, which may be of some relevance to current debates on the costs and benefits of racial preferences in elite university admissions: If you had a cherished child whose many talents did not include the kind of academic prowess that yields high grades in high school and high SAT scores; and if your child could nonetheless get into Harvard through some combination of alumni preference and personal pull (or, say, racial preference); would you rather see your child enter Harvard as one of the least academically gifted kids in her class, with some prospect of being overwhelmed by the academic competition? Or would she be better off at, say, the University of California at Riverside, where she could realistically hope to vie for a place at the top of her class? Would you really want to pull out all the stops to get her accepted at Harvard, so that she could make the choice herself? Or would she be better off, in the long run of life, with alumni-blind, pull-blind, preference-blind admissions?

As you have probably sensed by now, I am having trouble containing the urge to start some kind of an argument. I could argue with the somewhat pessimistic tone of your latest email by counting some of our blessings: While we mourn the death of Tom Bradley, former Mayor of Los Angeles, his life reminds us that all of the exaggerated complaints about what a racist society we are did not prevent him from winning election several times in a city in which blacks were a distinct minority; the reports of massacres in Kosovo and the like remind us that nothing like that has happened in this country in a very long time, and that most of us (with the unfortunate exception of the millions in the inner cities and Appalachia) live in the most free and prosperous society in the history of the world; the fact that the most interesting case on the Supreme Court’s rather boring docket for the coming term (which the Court agreed to review yesterday, perhaps to alleviate the really extreme tedium of their other cases) involves alleged sexual harassment of one fifth grader by another–very nasty harassment, I should note–suggests that we are in a pretty placid era compared to the days of Brown v. Board of Education. I must say, though, that I did cringe at an article this morning about Iraq coming closer to having a nuclear bomb. The one thing that makes me consider moving out of Washington is the fear of having the whole place–including my family–blown up by a nuclear terrorist paying market rates for the nuclear materials that are now flowing loosely through the chaos in Russia, with a Ryder Truck or a fishing boat as a delivery vehicle. The same could happen to New York, Los Angeles, and other big cities. Vermont is looking pretty good.

You mention campaign finance. Alas, more consensus, insofar as you note your decreasing confidence in the ability of any law or constitutional construction to change the way things are done. It is far easier to say, “The system’s rotten! We must reform it!” than to draft a reform that could work, let alone one that could get passed by the same people who got elected under the current rotten system. I personally think that all of the proposals for radical reform are bunk, and that modest steps like outlawing soft money have the most promise. But here’s an iconoclastic thought: The American people were far more satisfied with the basically unregulated (except for bans on use of corporate and labor money) campaign finance system that we had before the reforms of the 1970’s. That may suggest that scrapping all of those reforms and returning to the old system would be better, and even less plutocratic, than what we have now.

Now, can we argue? You mention Bill Bradley as a possible presidential candidate. I must say, the first question that comes to my mind about him is: Has he called for President Clinton to resign? Until he does, I’m not much interested. This does not stem from fascination with Clinton’s sex life; it stems from frustration at the unwillingness or inability of our leaders (including big shot Democrats and journalists) to speak truth to power–power being with the people–about the seriousness of perjury and witness tampering, which can bring you five and ten years in prison, respectively, if you’re not the president. Maureen Dowd has an entertaining column in the New York Times once again demonstrating her lack of interest (which is more the rule than the exception in the chattering classes) in seeing past the sex and into the perjury. It is not Ken Starr who is obsessed with sex, sex, sex; it is Starr critics like Maureen, who portrays Monica as “the red-blooded predator” and the president as “more like a teen-age girl trying to protect her virginity.” Perjury? It would get more attention if it were an exotic practice catalogued in the Kama Sutra.

To put this in perspective: I note a small item in today’s New York Times reporting that denial by the Republican Governor of South Carolina of two-year-old allegations by Democrats that he had an affair with his former press secretary. I will not name her since she and her husband happen to be old and close friends of mine. The governor, his wife, and my friends all deny the affair. The Times reports that–in apparent pursuit of evidence of intimacies–“the Democratic Party had requested the Governor’s official schedules, email, computer records and recorded phone messages under the Freedom of Information Act.”

I submit that those pursuing this alleged affair are lowlifes, and that any passing resemblance to President Clinton’s troubles ends with the state of the record in the Gennifer Flowers episode at the end of 1992. (Actually, even that is a poor parallel, given Flowers’ public claims that she had an affair with Clinton and that he got her a state job while coaching her to keep quiet.) I am entirely convinced by my friends’ denials of any affair. But even if I did not believe them, this would seem to me no business of either the press or the public. If some other woman had sued the governor for sexual harassment, and had alleged (as did Paula Jones) that the governor had mistreated her for refusing his overtures while rewarding other women for succumbing; and if he had been ordered by a judge to answer questions about the alleged affair, and had denied it under oath and to the world for seven months, and then been proven a perjurer; and if in the face of that proof he had lied to a federal grand jury to avoid admitting his earlier lies; and if he had coached others to lie all along, and used the powers o his office to conceal the truth, attack those who speak the truth, and lie about his antagonists; why, then I would feel differently.


Best, Stuart