The Breakfast Table

La Rochefoucauld Has the Last Laugh

Good morning, Brent,

Well, it’s almost as good as an old-fashioned morality tale, isn’t it—something from the Grimm brothers or La Rochefoucauld? The fox tries to have it both ways: breakfast of chickens, maybe, and lunch on their eggs. But somehow the farmer foils the little predator’s scheme, and he ends up with nothing—neither chicken, nor eggs. So, now, with Hillary. The FALN terrorists have accepted Bill’s clemency offer, and she ends up with nothing but egg on her face. Downstate liberals and ethnic activists will never forgive her for opposing the commutation deal, but she has nothing to show to more conservative upstate New York voters, either. The Puerto Rican terrorists go free, and not only is she proven utterly powerless to stop them, but most people suspect that she was responsible for the clemency offer in the first place.

It’s a happy ending for people like us—and you and I do seem really in agreement on this—who think that one of the worst things about politics these days is all these gutless candidates trying to have it both ways. The moral of the story, à la La Rochefoucauld: Trying to have it both ways usually gets you neither. But all this brings me back to where I started yesterday: I know I could be gloating, but somehow in the end, the whole thing is just depressing. Surely, America deserves politicians who can do better than this?

But the truth is, when I think about it, I wonder if that’s so. Maybe we get precisely the politicians we deserve—because, after all, we usually reward the ones who pander to us or try to have it both ways. And those who take on thorny issues or take strong stands or—worst of all—try to find a truly honorable and principled middle ground are usually only punished for their trouble.

Think about the presidential 2000 beauty contest. Gore and Bradley have got themselves into a shameless arms race, each one trying to outdo the other in flattering and cajoling minority voters. They’ve trooped around to the civil-rights groups’ annual meetings. They’ve sworn emotionally how much the race issue means to them—how searing it was to witness bigotry against fellow Knicks (that’s Bradley, of course) or, in Gore’s case, to watch his father battling Jim Crow. Both have promised to do just about anything Jesse Jackson asks them and Bradley even paid an homage visit to the Rev. Al Sharpton. It’s pandering of the worst kind—and neither man has taken on a single tough issue. But both will be rewarded for their unctuousness by minority voters—while they would get absolutely nothing for staking out more thoughtful positions.

Surely, to take the most obvious example, there are better ways to open up opportunity than with preferences. Even Clinton claimed he wanted to “mend” affirmative action. But neither Gore nor Bradley would go near that now: It just wouldn’t pay off with black or white voters. There’s more to be said about this—I’m sure you and I could have long discussion of preferences. But in the end, I think, we get the politicians we deserve. It’s easy to criticize them, but really we ought to be looking inward.

All best,