The Wise Men
God save us from them.
They have arrived. Not from the Orient, but from the Palm. Drawn not by a star, but by a Starr. Bearing not holy gifts, but unsolicited advice.
The Wise Men are everywhere, again. Former White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler, “counselor to presidents,” is trying to broker a censure compromise to prevent impeachment. He, in turn, is aided by two eminences-in-training: former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta. Former Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and former White House Counsel Abner Mikva have joined them in opposition to impeachment. Former President Gerald Ford proposed his remedy–a congressional rebuke–in Sunday’s New York Times. Former presidential candidate Bob Dole and former Sen. Howard Baker have suggested they would serve as intermediaries to the GOP if the country demanded it. (Ford and Dole! Maybe they could join forces with Ross Perot, who is flacking a resignation petition. The three could tour together: “America’s Worst Presidential Candidates Advise the President.”) Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher has also been invoked as a possible mediator.
Washington is supposed to be honored that all these Formers would take time off from their day jobs (influence-peddling and long lunches) to weigh in on Flytrap. The Wise Men, after all, are our political elders. They have gravitas and worthy principles such as “nonpartisanship” and “preserving the dignity of the presidency.”
But Washington, I am saddened to report, does not care. The Republican impeachment steamroller has flattened the Wise Men. Cutler’s effort to gather congressional support for censure is “dead on arrival,” says one Democratic House Judiciary Committee staffer. So is Ford’s proposed rebuke. Dole has retreated, saying that there can be no agreement before the election. Democrats cling to the Wise Men, but congressional Republicans aren’t bothering with the pleas of a few old-timers. (What, after all, do Republicans owe Dole, who drowned them in 1996?)
Some of the Wise Men’s acolytes believe their time may still come. After the election, when Republicans realize the folly of impeachment, they may well turn to the Wise Men to forge a sufficiently punitive compromise.
The indifference that has greeted the Wise Men so far has prompted a great outpouring of nostalgic hoo-ha. Former Something-or-Other Robert Strauss (“Mr. Democrat”) commented mournfully in the Wall Street Journal about the degradation of the polis. In the good old days, Strauss averred, the public never would have heard about Flytrap. It would have been hushed up by Strauss and his cronies, and a good thing too! The New York Times, too, mourned the decline of Sage Culture in a recent “Week in Review” piece. The underlying sentiment of the hoo-ha seems to be: Wouldn’t everything be better if Cutler, Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott, and Erskine Bowles sat down at the Metropolitan Club, shared a few drinks, settled everything like gentlemen, and got back to work?
Well, not necessarily. I’m all for a Flytrap compromise–even one brokered by Washington elders–and I suppose Cutler was a (slightly) better presidential adviser than Harry Thomason. But the decline of the Wise Men was both inevitable and desirable. Thanks to the rise of cable news television and aggressive investigative journalism, there is no behind-the-scenes anymore: The backroom deals the Wise Men depended on are nearly impossible today. Journalists don’t cooperate in suppressing unsightly news. The decay of party discipline crippled the Wise Men: They needed strong political parties to enforce the deals they struck with congressional leaders. Today’s Congress is too chaotic.
And the Wise Men don’t fully deserve their romantic reputation. As Evan Thomas, co-author of The Wise Men, notes, the Wise Men of the ‘50s and ‘60s didn’t compile a perfect record. They let McCarthyism flourish, tolerated J. Edgar Hoover, and pushed a disastrous Vietnam policy. They kept the press quiescent and cooperative, allowing corruption and insider-dealing that would never be tolerated today. Wise Man politics is elitism of the worst sort: It distrusts democracy, so it circumvents it.
Slate’s Complete Flytrap Coverage