The Breakfast Table



Your last letter was so focused, I’m a little embarrassed about the buffet table of randomness I’m about to commit to cyberspace. But since I’m heading off to Napa with the next vice president of the United States (over my dead body!) for dinner, and we’d like to set out before rush hour, I don’t dare even aspire to coherence this go-round.

First, The West Wing. Although I wrote an assessment of the pilot for TV Guide, I’ve seen the show only two or three times since, so I don’t have a very detailed critique to offer. I like the setting, like the cast, find its general verisimilitude reasonably convincing. But … jeez, this probably gets back to my first e-mail yesterday, but I just find it hard to care anymore. All that passion generated by political ephemera outsiders take more seriously than professionals, all that moral intensity brought to bear on soap opera, all that soft-focus glimmer around the president. … Maybe the show just came along too late for me, in the same way that the Batman movies came along too late. There were times in my life when I would have cherished both (different times, I hasten to add). It seems like a very well-produced and intelligent entertainment, and I wish the creators nothing but good fortune, but the practice of politics no longer strikes me as heroic or dramatic. My new paradigm for political activity, even at the highest level, is your local zoning board. Their work is useful, even crucial, but it doesn’t set your heart racing.

I hope you’re correct that the religious right is deceiving itself about Bush. This is where your Texas vantage point comes in handy. What you say is awfully reassuring. Nevertheless, I still fear that Bush is climbing on a tiger he can’t control and from which he’ll be unable to dismount. But perhaps the things you witnessed over the last six years really are predictive. He’ll need to be strong, though, because the people advising him won’t be nearly as moderate as the fellow you’ve described. And you haven’t suggested that strength is among his more prominent attributes.

On a related topic–right-wing self-deception, I mean–have you noticed the sheer quantity of derogatory references to Newt Gingrich peppering the interviews coming out of Philadelphia? (Most of these statements are preceded by phrases like, “Newt’s a close friend of mine, but …” or “I respect Newt enormously, but …”) He’s moved from being the Democrats’ favorite boogeyman to the Republicans’. I was living in Washington when he first became speaker of the House, and I promise you, the people who are dissing him now were gleefully proclaiming his genius then. Including lots of centrist Republicans who used to approach Laura and me at White House functions to sing his praises. But now he’s become the Leon Trotsky of the Republican Revolution, an unperson, an exile, the prime living example of what Bush and Cheney are not. The situation’s reminiscent of Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” which describes the wreck of a massive statue, the pedestal of which declares, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

What is impressive about the Republicans in Philadelphia this year, though, is their manifest confidence. It doesn’t seem to be the standard-issue, cranked up, mainly-for-public-consumption optimism; it seems to be the real thing, a genuine certainty that the election’s in the bag. I find it puzzling. It’s not that I necessarily think they’re wrong–indeed, if I were forced to place a bet this very minute, I suppose I’d probably put my money on Bush–but it’s still awfully early in the game yet, and even at this stage the polling numbers are hardly decisive. Do they know something I don’t? Or do they just hate Clinton so much, they can’t believe they won’t get the White House back this time?

I see that we’re both–at least, I think it’s both of us; maybe the writer just means me, and I’m desperately trying to share the misery by including you in the attack–we’re both taken to task in “The Fray” for making too much of Dick Cheney’s vote against freeing Nelson Mandela. The occasion for the vote, Mr. Will Allen reminds us, was merely a non-binding congressional resolution. Hence, he suggests, it was a fairly trivial affair, not remotely worth the importance we accord to it. Well, I think he’s wrong. Dead wrong. Even a non-binding congressional resolution, when it concerns one of the key moral issues of the last two or three decades, is not a negligible matter. One’s vote in such a situation is telling. And the defense of that vote offered by Mr. Cheney is not persuasive.

That’s probably enough for now. I’m going to eat a nice dinner tonight. The not next vice president of the United States is going to have to drive me home, too, because I plan to sample Napa’s chief crop without let or hindrance. See you tomorrow.