Names in the News

Paul Greenberg

5/27/2011 1:18:00 PM - Paul Greenberg

Well, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, or DSK as he's known to those who follow politics in France or the doings of Big Money anywhere, did promise to give the International Monetary Fund a "totally different" face.

Henry Kissinger, the former everything in American foreign policy, has a new book out, this one on China. If he's as right about far Cathay as he was about the prospects for an enduring detente with an enduring Soviet Union (remember it?), then his latest tour of the cloudy horizon should be a hoot. And as equally far-seeing.

The man who would be Metternich, the prince who restored the old order of Europe after Napoleon, has turned out to be ... only Henry Kissinger. Talk about a letdown. Once again the great and powerful Wizard of Oz is revealed as just the little man behind the curtain.

But the good doktor has never let his mistakes, especially those on a grand scale, get him down. He's all-American in that way. We all may have our failed dreams, but most of us eventually make our peace with reality. Dr. Kissinger's response is different. He writes a memoir. And in it he explains, if not very convincingly, how he was right all along. Much to his own satisfaction, if not to those burdened by human memory.

Henry Kissinger is not alone in that regard. Every former immortal from Bill Clinton to Britain's Gordon Brown seems to do it. And each such book is as boring as the other. And as predictable in its self-regard.

The biggest gap in Dr. Kissinger's political (semi)philosophy, though there are many nominees for that dubious honor, is obvious. Our own Dr. Strangelove fails to take into account one minor detail in human affairs: the influence of moral principle. Which may be only natural. We all tend to project our own values -- or lack of them -- onto others.

It's not just himself that Dr. Kissinger impresses. He's still a big hit on the Chicken (Kiev)-and-Peas circuit, where dilettantes in good suits can be counted on to nod sagely at his witticisms. But whatever Weltanschauung he's peddling this year, it's hard to believe that he himself swallows it all. He's much too intelligent.

Ending his presidential bid and publicity stunt, Donald Trump, known to followers of showbiz and Big Money less formally as The Donald, did make one more campaign promise, though it sounded more like a threat:

"I make you this promise: that I will continue to voice my opinions loudly and help shape our politicians' thoughts."

I believe him -- in part. If past is prologue, he will indeed continue to voice his opinions loudly. Also frequently, rudely and inconsequentially. Isn't that what all bores and boors do?

As for Part B, the one about his helping shape politicians' thoughts, well, that's less than likely. Mr. Trump is scarcely what the PR people call, in their unfortunate way with words, a Thought Leader.

Besides, the idea of "politicians' thoughts" verges on the oxymoronic. Politicians may have instincts, which is why they're called political animals, and they certainly have rationalizations aplenty, but as for any cognitive pattern that might justifiably be called thoughts, aside from plans to win election or re-election, surely it is the rare politician who actually thinks. They may have speeches, they may have projects, they may have foundations, but thoughts? Not likely.

Even rarer is the brave soul in politics who dares offer an unpopular opinion. Which is why that kind of politician should be prized, encouraged and applauded. Agree or disagree with his thoughts. At least he has some, as distinguished from automatic echoes of public opinion polls.

In general a politician may be defined as someone who'll tell you what he thinks as soon as he knows what you want to hear. This isn't so much thought as a political reflex.

Surely there are some thinkers in American politics even this long after Robert A. Taft, Scoop Jackson and Pat Moynihan have left the scene. Joe Lieberman, maybe? Any other nominations? I'd love to hear them. Just to give me hope.

Standing in Westminster Hall, Barack Obama reverted to the Sen. Obama who opposed the use of force to change dictatorial regimes in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. That was before, as president, he ordered a surge in American forces in Afghanistan -- and backed up NATO's (not very effective) campaign in Libya, too.

Now, on the eve of his visit to continental Europe, he was back with this warning: "Ultimately, freedom must be won by the people themselves, not imposed from without."

I try to keep up, but instead I keep getting dizzy. Our ambiguous president keeps doubling back on himself. The setting for his latest pronouncement only added to its irony. How does he think Europe was ultimately liberated from Nazi tyranny if not by the use of force imposed from without, largely by the United States of America?

Democracy was even imposed on the Germans themselves, for which most are surely grateful by now.

Maybe he's "leading from behind" again. Far behind. Or maybe, in the way of politicians, he was speaking rather than thinking.

Who knows?

Whatever the explanation, Mr. Obama seems blithely unaware of the contradictions inherent in his opposite-but-equal statements. When it comes to foreign policy, our president keeps debating himself. Here's hoping that one day he'll achieve consensus.