All but hidden in the fulsome eulogies for Ted Kennedy lurk a few serious ideas worthy of more than romancing history or waxing sentimental over a death in a famous family. These ideas are about the very nature of liberalism and conservatism, the connections between personal virtue and public morality, and how emotion shapes ideology.
The passing of "the last liberal lion" comes amidst a national debate over health care "reform" that grows fiercer by the day. President Obama, who has tried to stand above the messy details of whatever emerges from Congress -- tacking first left, then right, then left again -- is about to tack this time into the fray. But there's scant room left above the fray. Two books, one a reissue of a minor classic, illustrate how and why. The president, like the rest of us, could usefully make room on his bedside table for both of them.
Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review, set out six months ago to pronounce a requiem for conservatives, and given the events of the summer he probably wishes he had waited awhile to publish "The Death of Conservatism." This grew from an essay in The New Republic, and his rush to a soliloquy recalls Mark Twain's famous remark that reports of his death were "an exaggeration." He serves up a few raw vegetables (mostly turnips), if not red meat.
"The Liberal Imagination" by Lionel Trilling is reissued a half century after original publication and asks again for a re-examination of private motives behind public power, an exercise that Washington takes only reluctantly. Trilling's book raises ethical considerations to mull when political idealism camouflages private sins. Trilling as literary critic asks the ever-relevant question: "What might lie behind our good impulses?" Like Tanenhaus, he looks to Edmund Burke, who understood how "light and reason" and the noblest ideas behind the French Revolution ran into a dead end of barbarism. Public morality couldn't accommodate the complexity of human differences.
Events of the summer demonstrate that Tanenhaus is no clairvoyant. He describes conservatives as "the exhumed figures of Pompeii, trapped in postures of frozen flight, clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology." The absurdity of the image is undercut by his point of view. He regards Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as "model contemporary presidents," comparing them to Edmund Burke in their talent for adjusting their ambitions to the realities of the moment.