The News That Didn't Happen

Paul Greenberg
|
Posted: May 22, 2009 12:01 AM
The News That Didn't Happen

Sometimes what says most about a country, a society, and an age isn't what happens in the news but what doesn't. For example:

When the president of the United States spoke at Notre Dame the other Sunday, he didn't so much speak about abortion as around it. He finessed the whole troubling issue by saying he hoped we could all agree to find common ground between ... what, exactly? Pro-choice and pro-life? Abortion and opposition to it? Good and evil?

Barack Obama settled for suggesting that we all do the best we can, like supporting adoption and new mothers. Who would take issue with that? There's no way to disagree with a stand not taken. And yet what he said seemed to strike a chord. Never underestimate the power of the platitudinous.

People really don't want to be troubled by all that business anyway. When a president declines to take a stand on some great issue, it may come as a kind of relief. Especially if he can make moral neutrality sound elevated, statesmanlike, above-the-fray. Let's all just calm down and put this issue in perspective. It's only a matter of life and death.

Many a politician has had a highly successful career avoiding the basic issues in the most appealing, articulate way. Some manage to get by with it their whole lives, and are even acclaimed for it. Why not just put off the really tough questions forever? Maybe they'll go away.

Consider how long Stephen A. Douglas, the Little Giant of American politics in his time, managed to evade the moral ramifications of the slavery issue, which threatened to tear the Union apart (and eventually did). Sen. Douglas dodged the issue with verve and style year after year -- till events and an ungainly Whig lawyer out of Springfield, Ill., caught up with him. Some questions just will not be evaded forever.

But some politicians are very good at soft-pedaling the great questions of their time. Only after the applause had died away at Notre Dame and the president was on the way to his next photo-op might it have occurred to anyone to wonder why, if his speech there had been so effective, it left behind a vague sense of dissatisfaction. As if he hadn't really addressed the question. Indeed, that's the rhetorician's term for this technique: begging the question. And it can be done in style.

The president did the politic thing at Notre Dame. Sidestepping the issue, he took refuge in Bill Clinton's smooth old formula about just wanting to make abortion safe, legal and rare. Even though that kind of passive acquiescence in abortion has resulted in its becoming anything but rare in this country. At least among poor black and Hispanic women. They tend to have abortions out of all proportion to their numbers. But that is not the kind of fact likely to excite the interest of the country's political elites; indeed, they may be all in favor of population control, at least for certain minorities.

Meanwhile, despite his outward neutrality on the issue, the president's actual policies encourage abortion by financing it under cover of popular euphemisms like Family Planning or Women's Health or, on the Chinese mainland, the One-Child Policy. Abortion's supporters have learned not to be too specific about what is actually going on. Why go into the graphic details?

The president was anything but specific at Notre Dame, and -- at least politically -- his approach worked out well. There may have been a few protesters here and there, but most were politely tolerated rather than directly engaged. The casual observer might even have wondered what they were protesting. It wasn't as if the president were actually saying anything. If Lincoln was the Great Emancipator of his time, Barack Obama is proving the Great Equivocator of his.

The net result of the president's appearance at Notre Dame was to make him appear quite sensible -- and abortion quite acceptable, or at least no reason for alarm, or maybe even for concern. Can't we all just get along, or at least agree to avoid the hard questions? After all, if one of the country's leading Catholic universities can honor a president whose policies promote abortion, what could be so bad about taking innocent life?

Abortion now becomes just one more debatable question among so many in politics, like how much the government should spend or whether labor unions should be allowed to organize plants without a secret ballot. Why all the fuss?

If the American presidency really is what Teddy Roosevelt called it -- a bully pulpit -- it might as well have been empty last weekend. The church stilled its voice and the president said nothing at length with all due ceremony. And everybody could be at ease in Zion.

The surest way to win acceptance for any morally or ethically dubious practice is to accustom people to think of it as no big deal, just politics. Which is why the most significant aspect of the president's appearance at Notre Dame is that it had no moral significance at all. Beyond all the handshakes and nice gestures, nothing was happening. The moral numbness of American society remained undisturbed. And that may have been the only real news.