What can you do with a general?
When he stops being a general?
Oh what can you do with a general who retires?
Who's got a job for a general?
When he stops being a general?
-- As sung by Bing Crosby in the movie White Christmas
Here you have a certifiable American hero, a retired general and Secretary of State, suddenly surfacing out of the blue funk of his political twilight. His reason? To pronounce a man who has barely sat still in the United States Senate for 100-some odd days since leaving the Illinois State Senate as qualified to be president of the United States. Because he has, well, style. And oh yes, PS, he's got substance too. Oh and, by the way, the General has decided the Supreme Court doesn't need any more conservatives. Oh…oh..oh…one other thing. This Governor Sarah Palin from Alaska? The General doesn't "believe she's ready to be President of the United States."
What does Colin Powell's abrupt appearance on Meet the Press with Tom Brokaw -- who, like Powell, is nominally retired -- really mean?
The Internet Movie Data Base describes the plot of 1954's White Christmas (which starred Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera Ellen and Dean Jagger) thusly: "A successful song-and-dance team become romantically involved with a sister act and team up to save the failing Vermont inn of their former commanding general."
The film sprang to mind watching the retired General Powell as he lived out the role played to perfection by actor Dean Jagger. Jagger was the embodiment of the still crisp yet slightly befuddled retired Major General Thomas F. Waverly, known throughout the film simply as "General Waverly" or "the General." Playing the role of Bing Crosby on Sunday was Tom Brokaw. Crosby's self-assigned task was not only to save the General's investment in the failing Vermont inn Waverly now owns and runs in his retirement but restore Waverly's self-respect and sense of relevance after his bid to return to active duty is politely turned down by the Pentagon. Crosby accomplishes this by going on the national television show of buddy "Ed Harrison" (a fictionalized Ed Sullivan) and making an appeal to all of General Waverly's one-time troops to rally at the inn for Christmas. Of course, they do, surprising the General and providing a two-hanky happy ending with Bing crooning his famous Christmas song as the snow falls.
In Powell's case, he retreated to his retirement after being politely declined a second term as Secretary of State by President Bush. One of the reasons for Bush's lack of enthusiasm at a continued Powell tenure was surely Powell's well-known reputation in Washington as the consummate Inside-the-Beltway game player and leaker extraordinaire to Powell's equivalent of General Waverly's troops -- the mainstream media. His conduct, which essentially telegraphed to the President that Powell's main loyalty was not to the President but to his own image, was vividly imprinted on the national consciousness in the fall out of the so-called CIA leak case involving CIA operative Valerie Plame and her egomaniacal Bush-hating husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson. While the media scrambled to pin the origin of the leak on everyone from Vice President Cheney to Karl Rove to Cheney aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby (who was in fact, incongruously, prosecuted), Powell sat on the news that the source of this "leak" was in fact his own deputy, Richard Armitage. Instead of immediately stepping up to the plate and walking into the State Department press room to confess that it was Armitage, not Libby or anyone else, who had leaked this story to columnist Robert Novak, Powell simply stayed quiet, apparently to protect his reputation. Said nothing. Did nothing. While all around him the administration and the lives and reputations of others were being upended with wildly untrue accusations -- accusations that Powell knew were untrue -- he never said a word.
FAILING VERMONT INNS in Washington come in the form of irrelevance to the media. If one lives one's life by this kind of standard, retirement from public office means a forced and unwelcome retreat from Washington relevance. A powerhouse today, literally running the world or starring in the media's lead stories, irrelevant tomorrow. You become some version of Al Gore's standard speech opening since his involuntary political retirement in 2000: "I'm Al Gore. I used to be the future president of the United States."
In Powell 's case, the question as to whether this played any role in his sudden seat before Brokaw's Meet the Press cameras can be answered quite simply with a single question. Who, besides the media and Obama, really cares whether Colin Powell endorses Obama -- or for that matter -- John McCain? Answer? No one. Not a single state will go this way or that because of Colin Powell. The hard truth for Powell is just as tough as the fictional General Waverly's answer from one of his own Pentagon pals when he tried to un-retire and proclaimed himself "holding out for a command." Um…sorry. We love you, General. But, well, no deal. Have a good time at the Inn.
So Bing Crosby Brokaw swings into action and presto -- for the purpose of endorsing Barack Obama Colin Powell swings open the door of his personal Washington version of the Vermont inn to bathe in the lights one more time as ole Bing.,.uh, Tom…and the boys at NBC and the rest of the media come to attention. "The troops are ready for inspection," says Bing in the line Tom translates roughly as "Our guest this Sunday morning is retired general and Bush Secretary of State Colin Powell…." And suddenly, on every television and front page in America you can almost hear the refrain just as Bing and the cast of Waverly's former troops softly sang of their devotion:
We'll follow the old man wherever he wants to go
Long as he wants to go opposite to the foe
We'll stay with the old man wherever he wants to stay
Long as he stays away from the battle's fray
Because we love him, we love him
Especially when he keeps us on the ball
And we'll tell the kiddies we answered duty's call
With the grandest son of a soldier of them all
BUT GENERAL Waverly…uh…General Powell's Obama endorsement is not the only story of the last few days.
Also surfacing momentarily in all of the intensity that is the 2008 election is the notice from Mr. Christopher Buckley, son of and all that, concerning his intention to vote for Senator O..balm….a (as Rush Limbaugh lovingly pronounces the name.)
It should be said here that beyond one of those across-the-room glances at a National Review festivity to which I was invited sometime back, I have never made Mr. Buckley's acquaintance. One certainly presupposes that he is not, as he has apparently been labeled by some irritated NR friend, "cretinous." Clearly he is talented, witty, a superb writer and all of the things one would expect the son of William F. Buckley, Jr. to be.
Yet based entirely on my own observations of The Truths of Life as We Know It, like all sons (or daughters) he is that exactly. A son, not a clone, a knock-off or a facsimile. Not to wax too philosophically, the happiest part -- linked always to the saddest part -- of life is the uniqueness of the individual. William F. Buckley, Jr., like my father and yours, was sui generis. While here he was doubtless an unending source of joy for his son as his son surely was for him. At his death, as with the death of any parent, there is the understandable urge by others to cast the son as the father except younger -- and alive. It is a wish denied always and universally. Chris Buckley may have been suffering during his father's life with a particularly acute case of "son block"…but, with mixed emotions I'm sure, the younger Buckley is now in the limelight on his own. As it should be.
So the news of Christopher Buckley's endorsement of Barack Obama should be regarded with interest as opposed to betrayal, that most primal of words. In which case, Buckley's arguments as expressed in his Obama endorsement deserve a response if for no other reason than the importance of reason itself. Here's Buckley's version as he presented his decision on Tina Brown's The Daily Beast:
But that was -- sigh -- then. John McCain has changed. He said, famously, apropos the Republican debacle post-1994, "We came to Washington to change it, and Washington changed us." This campaign has changed John McCain. It has made him inauthentic. A once-first class temperament has become irascible and snarly; his positions change, and lack coherence; he makes unrealistic promises, such as balancing the federal budget "by the end of my first term." Who, really, believes that? Then there was the self-dramatizing and feckless suspension of his campaign over the financial crisis. His ninth-inning attack ads are mean-spirited and pointless. And finally, not to belabor it, there was the Palin nomination. What on earth can he have been thinking?
If I may inquire politely, what on earth is Chris Buckley thinking?
First, one has to wonder at this description of John McCain. This campaign has made him "inauthentic" with a once first-class temperament suddenly gone "irascible and snarly"?? Really? Or is this in fact the same John McCain, the exact same John McCain, that has caused conservative unease about nominating him in the first place? Buckley seems to imply that McCain's attacks on the good Reverends Falwell and Robertson towards the tail end of his 2000 campaign were authentic. That his votes against the Bush tax cuts were authentic.
National Review was a big supporter of Mitt Romney during the primaries, and it was Romney who doggedly attacked McCain with lines like this: "He voted against the Bush tax cuts -- twice. That's failing Reagan 101." Mr. McCain, listening now to Mitt Romney as well as Steve Forbes and Jack Kemp among others, has clearly worked his way back to an approximation of Reagan 101, a place he was assumed to be when he was first elected to Congress as a Reaganite. Before Jerry Falwell, a decided Reaganite, passed away McCain had come around there too, embracing what might be called Reagan 2.0, the role of social issues in the Reagan coalition.
There is no reason in the world that Chris Buckley has to be a supporter of "Reagan 101." Or Reagan 2.0. But surely to oppose the importance of tax-cutting economics at a minimum in favor of a program that focuses on "spreading the wealth around" is decidedly un-conservative in principle. If Chris Buckley seems not to know this, Joe the Plumber does.
HERE'S ANOTHER Buckley argument:
"McCain rose to power on his personality and biography. He was authentic. He spoke truth to power."
This is, of course, true. Like a lot of Americans I find the power of McCain's biography to be staggering. It speaks volumes about the man's character, tenacity and devotion to his country. It is certainly unfair to Obama to expect a similar biography. Yet it is perfectly fair to follow the thread of philosophical conviction that runs through the biographical experiences of both men and understand exactly where this would lead the country when one of them sits down behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office on January 20th.
The relevance of Obama's relationships with people like William Ayers and Jeremiah Wright and Tony Rezko is as obvious as McCain's relationships with fellow POWs and Navy buddies. It is not only not nasty to bring up the Ayers connection it is important -- critically so. It tells, as it does with anyone, something about the way they think. It is an X-ray of what the candidate finds himself philosophically comfortable with. To "pal" around with Bill Ayers on the board of the Woods Foundation, which doled out grants to the deeply-nutty, consistently fraudulent and very-left wing ACORN amounting to $45,000 (2000), $30,000 (2001), $45,000 (2001), $30,000 (2002), and $40,000 (2002) says volumes about Obama's mind-set. To sit for twenty years listening to Wright's sermons says the same. Not to mention having a serious "help me buy property" relationship with the unsavory and now convicted Rezko.
Buckley is apparently OK with the idea that this mindset of Obama's will be running say, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Education. Both places could easily find themselves with ACORN-true believers in key positions making decisions on everything from voter fraud to federal grants. Or granting a presidential pardon to Mr. Rezko, the latter the type of mindset that was a staple of the Clinton administration. This not only has nothing to do with whether one is "conservative" it zeros in on whether one has a well-established record of left-wing activism and bad judgment calls on political associates. It is about basic standards of honesty and competence in government and whether they will be upheld in the most elementary fashion required of a functioning government.
Mr. Buckley looks at all this and gives Obama a pass -- because McCain, the personification of personal integrity, is "snarly." Again with respect, Mr. Buckley seems to be casting himself as willfully un-serious.
As for Buckley's other stated reasons for supporting Obama, one can only read slack-jawed. Quoting the old Oliver Wendell Holmes bit about FDR, he says of Obama that he has a "first class temperament." Presidentially speaking, this could have been said of Warren Harding, who's temperament was just dandy even as he ran one of the most corrupt administrations in history. Ditto with Pennsylvania's James Buchanan, who, as Buckley has noted, sits at the bottom of most presidential rankings. Truman and Andrew Jackson, on the other hand, both of explosive temperaments that remind of McCain, did just fine. Even more than Buckley's "temperament" argument is his notion that Obama should be president because he is a "first-rate" writer. This gives one to assume that had he been old enough in, say, 1952, Buckley would have rejected Eisenhower for Hemingway. In which case America would have imbibed its way through the fifties in a semi-alcoholic haze only to find shortly after JFK's ascension that former President Hemingway had become the first president in history to blow his own brains out. It would have been tragic, of course, but the late President was such a first-rate writer even if his judgment was a little dicey.
IN THE END, this election, as with all elections, is about the direction of the country. Mr. Obama clearly prefers the non-violent aspects of Bill Ayers philosophy while John McCain some version of Reagan 101. Mr. Obama, if elected, will almost immediately be forced to deal with serious challenges involving ACORN in both his election -- no matter the margin -- and in the economic crisis. He will be charged with investigating the role of government -- not just Wall Street -- and the real world damage if not outright corruption done by the likes of ACORN and Fannie Mae favorites Chris Dodd, Barney Frank and the rest of this distinctly odious crew. All would instantly be tied tightly to the fortunes of an Obama presidency and protected by a Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid run House and Senate. To say this is a cause for concern is to understate.
Mr. Buckley quotes his father as once remarking, "You know, I've spent my entire life time separating the Right from the kooks."
If Barack Obama is elected as per Chris Buckley and Colin Powell, it isn't the Right that will have to be saved from "the kooks." It will be the government and the country.
To borrow a Buckley phrase, there's nothing "airy-fairy" about that.
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania.