The Missing Element

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Feb 23, 2011 12:01 AM
I tried to stay interested in Bill O'Reilly's interview with Barack Obama some weeks ago. Honest I did. Duty called but, when I answered, it turned into what seemed a life sentence. On and on these two went, pausing at every familiar stop, but not for very long. Like the local to Glencoe.

Interviewer and interviewee quibbled the whole way, like an unhappy couple you really didn't want to overhear, and the more they spoke, the less they said. A familiar pattern was established from the first and maintained to the end: feint, jab and move on. To sum up the sequence: Gotcha, No You Don't, Next Question....

Not a thought in a carload, or at least not a new one. Just the same old routine delivered by a couple of jaded troupers who know each other's lines so well they must have been happy for the show to end. Which gave them something in common with much of the audience watching.

If there was anything striking about this interview, it was how sealed-off the mind of each participant seemed. Like political ads passing in the night. They had to have been as bored as the viewers. Then again, what I don't know about how political egos work is a lot. They may have found each other's talking points absolutely fascinating, though surely not as fascinating as their own.

It's a common enough problem when politicians or just those who comment on politics from the sidelines appear before the television camera's unblinking eye. They don't seem to have thoughts so much as an agenda, and they stick to it.

Bill Clinton, the ultimate political animal, was like that. He could talk anybody under the table, out the door and into the blind staggers. He's probably still talking somewhere at this very moment -- to a banquet hall full of glazed-over eyes, or a caucus of the last Blue Dog Democrats still standing, or just to anybody in earshot.

This much the Bill-and-Barack Show captured perfectly: the poverty of American discourse. Indeed, is there any discourse left, or has it been completely replaced by dueling sound bites that never really engage with each other?

It was like watching a tennis match in which the much-hyped stars don't actually play each other. They just occupy the same court and take turns smashing the ball into the net; there are no real volleys. That's not sport, it's self-absorption, however good both may be at it.

The overwhelming impression left by the interview was that any real discourse, any real engagement over ideas, was taking place somewhere else at the moment. Probably in Egypt. It wouldn't be the first time the real choice before all of us -- hazardous freedom or secure slavery -- was laid out in the land of the Pharaohs. It's a tale as old as the Book of Exodus.

In this country, the Lincoln-Douglas debates did a pretty good job of elucidating the same age-old choice. Imagine that: two presidential hopefuls actually discussing the great issues facing the country with some acuity, intellect and respect for one another. And for the electorate. Amazing. How out of place they would be on cable news.

You never forget your first time. The first presidential campaign I can remember in any detail was the match between Adlai Stevenson and Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. Young Republican that I devoutly was, I was surprised, shocked and almost convinced by Adlai Stevenson's understated eloquence and grace in general. "Thou almost persuadest me," as the pagan told Paul. If the Democratic presidential candidate that year didn't convert me, he left me newly respectful of the other side of the partisan divide -- and skeptical of some of those on the wilder fringes of my own.

It was a different era, and how. Those of us in Mr. Evans' debate class at Byrd High were taught to refer to rival debaters as "my honorable opponent," and, never, ever smirk. It's not becoming, or gentlemanly.

Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Keith Olbermann, the whole lot of them, could have learned a lot from Mr. Evans.

These days, to judge by the ideologically straitjacketed stars of cable news, left or right, the lunatic fringe has become the warp and woof of the whole fabric. (Thank you, Florence King, for that concise summary of the whole problem.)

It's all enough to make you wonder what ever happened to those most useful of political species, the skeptical conservative and the skeptical liberal. The kind of conservative who, like Whittaker Chambers, could still recognize the danger of a Joe McCarthy. And the kind of liberal who, like Murray Kempton, sensed that Alger Hiss was not only a traitor but an almost pathological liar, at least when under oath.

The late great Scoop Jackson, U.S. senator and Cold Warrior, used to say he was a liberal "but I try not to be a damfool." Where would we find a Scoop Jackson in the Democratic Party today? His line may be ending with the retirement of Joe Lieberman.

And where on today's right is there anyone like Walker Percy? Deeply conservative in every way -- religious and literary, socially and culturally -- he nevertheless despised racial discrimination and all its works.

Where today is our Irving Kristol? Talk about a skeptical conservative: After a lifetime spent thinking his way, left to right, from Trotskyism through neo-conservatism, Mr. Kristol even then would be able to give only two cheers for capitalism.

Nor do we seem to have a Daniel Patrick Moynihan in conservative, or liberal, ranks. Since he was a delighted combination of both, or maybe he was neither but unique -- sui generis, one of a kind. Alas, unlike a Pat Moynihan, the Pat Buchanans seem to have proliferated all over the talk shows. Which is not an encouraging sign for the future of conservative thought. Or just thought.

They've still got to be out there, the writers and thinkers and politicians who actually engage the ideas of the other side, but you're not likely to find them on MSNBC or Fox News -- or on NPR after Juan Williams' forced departure. Which is all the more reason to keep looking for voices of reason.