Bone-tired of certainty

Posted: Dec 26, 2000 12:00 AM
The votes counted and certified, the chads, and better yet, the lawyers out of sight, there hasn't been enough to talk about lately. But talk we must, because the world rapturously awaits the commentating fraternity's comments. You say it doesn't, really? Sh, don't let that get out. The talk turns to George W. Bush and his cabinet, and how he's either meeting expectations or dashing them. At the New Republic, John Judis has Bush dissing the right with his allegedly centrist appointments (Colin Powell and so on). But at the Wall Street Journal, the estimable Peggy Noonan finds the insider reports on Bush to be uniformly encouraging. Hard on the heels of the Paul O'Neill appointment at Treasury -- received with some conservative groans due to O'Neill's onetime advocacy of gasoline tax increases -- comes the appointment of strongly conservative Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft to Janet Reno's chair at justice. This leaves those disposed to wrangle, wrangling over the question of who takes defense -- brainy Professor Paul Wolfowitz or (because of his socially conservative stands) ex-Sen. Dan Coats. New Jersey Gov. Christie Todd Whitman, a pro-choice Republican named to head the Environmental Protection Agency, sets conservative teeth on edge, rightly or wrongly. Then agendas are being laid out: things the new president should do on his first day -- people he should fire, programs he should announce. To pardon or not to pardon Bill Clinton: That is one question. Someone wants the inauguration ceremony moved from the Capitol steps to the Lincoln Memorial. I look, before much longer, to see columnists vetting inaugural addresses in the same way they wrote memoranda to the presidential candidates on the order of, "To Al Gore: What can you be thinking about?" I have some advice of my own to dispense. But it is not advice to the president-elect; it is advice to us all. To wit, cool it with the advice, insofar as possible. Give the man we elected a little space to decide what he, and those who advise him officially, believe is the right thing to do. The matter is of even wider application than that, it seems to me. If the late campaign and its awful aftermath should have convinced us of anything, that thing is the need for greater modesty on the part of us all -- in politics and in life. Presently, there is not much modesty on display. We all know it all. Our behavior implies as much. But we err. (So I believe.) We all know a little. It is in putting our own "little'' together with other people's that we may start to get somewhere. The matter has been eating at me for some time. I am bone-tired of certainty, the kind that hired-gun political consultants dispense when they step before television cameras: my client: 1000 percent in the right; the other guy's client: evil, awful, depraved. I am tired of dogmatism: We do it this way, or the heavens fall and children beg for their bread in the streets -- and only morons and racists could disagree. Am I thinking of -- say -- Jesse Jackson, with his repeated calls to fellow blacks to despise Republicans? How did you ever guess? Not the least intention have I of becoming at this late date in life a pragmatist. Pragmatism says that whatever works is right. Phooey! This overthrows the notion of truth. If there is God (as most believe), there is truth. But there are different angles from which to gaze on this single, unvarnished truth, and to appropriate it rightly and usefully. To doubt one's own, unassisted ability to see and appreciate the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but -- such doubt strikes me as nothing but common sense. A world resembling Florida for over a month this year; marred by upraised fists and clangorous claims to righteousness -- such a world I cannot imagine many of us wanting to live in again. We might, Democrat and Republican alike, consider giving a relaxed and genial president-elect the space and leisure to work at moving us further from, not nearer to, that kind of world. The longer I watch George W. Bush, the more inclined I am to think his inner stuff may get him further than his predecessor's outer stuff has up to this point got him, or us. This does not mean George W. Bush is my, or your, dream president. It means he is the president half of us chose. I'm for letting him show us what he can do: in his own way, his own time.