Something To Live For

Posted: May 04, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON--When Harry Wright, star of the Cincinnati Red Stockings and then the Boston Red Stockings, pioneers of professional baseball, died in 1895, a floral arrangement at his funeral spelled out ``Safe at Home.'' That delightful story would be more so, but for Wright's age. He was 60. Looking on the bright side, as conservatives are, for sound philosophic reasons, disinclined to do, I take comfort, of sorts, from the fact that by turning 60 I am freed from the fear of dying young. Unless 60 no longer counts as old. If so, that is, like blessings generally, a mixed one, because it extends one's eligibility for premature death. Life is like that, always supplying thorns with the roses. Mrs. Alexander Hamilton, final survivor of the Founders' circle, died in Washington in 1854 in her 97th year. She had lived the entire life of the Republic. So had the slave interviewed in Virginia during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, who recalled hearing cannonading at the Battle of Yorktown 81 years earlier. Someone who today is 60 has lived 26.6 percent of the nation's life. Being born May 4, 1941, I arrived in a year that ended badly, but I arrived 11 days before the beginning of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. Life supplies roses amid the thorns. Perhaps it is just the result of immersion in journalism, which is the opposite of literature, which is writing that deserves to be read twice. Perhaps it is a consequence of living in an obsessively political city, where last week's world-shaking events are forgotten, and epochal figures are forever rising without a trace. For whatever reason, being 60 in Washington sometimes feels like having had one year's experience 60 times. However, age can confer a certain calm about the passing circus, a preference for understatement, and for people with low emotional metabolisms. When a maid serving Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) drowned herself because of her unrequited love for a gardener, Wellesley expressed the hope that the remainder of the maids ``will put up with the misfortunes of this world, & not destroy themselves.'' That's the spirit. So is this. Mussolini, trying to impress a visitor, pointed to a buzzer on his desk and boasted, ``All I have to do is press it and my army, navy and air force go on instant alert.'' The visitor, Anthony Eden, supposedly murmured, ``Awfully inconvenient if you just want a sandwich.'' Three determinative events in this 60-year-old's life were clustered in a few years about a third of the way here, between 1960 and 1964. Although the son of a professor of philosophy, until the summer before my junior year in college most of my reading was of the backs of baseball bubble gum cards. Then I read Albert Camus' novel ``The Stranger.'' Since then, I have agreed with Logan Pearsall Smith: ``People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.'' Camus was catalytic because, back then, any undergraduate worth his weight in espresso and Gauloises cigarettes thought French intellectuals had hung the moon. The creed du jour was existentialism, the belief that life is absurd, so philosophy should be, too. A practicing existentialist marinated himself in foreign movies--make that (BEG ITAL)films --ostensibly because they had the finest flavors of anomie, alienation and despair, but actually to savor, again and again, the sight of Jean Seberg in bed in ``Breathless.'' In 1962 I saw the Berlin Wall, sufficient instruction in the stakes of politics. In 1964, having cast my first presidential vote, for Barry Goldwater, I heard election-night commentators happily declare the future irrelevance of conservatism, and I and many kindred spirits said, we'll just see about that. On May 31, 1967, this letter came to me at Princeton's graduate college: ``Dear Mr. Will: Just a line of thanks for your letter of May 18. Please note that I very much appreciate your good offer of help. My goal, however, is to solve the problems of California, and at the moment, this looks like a lifetime job. Sincerely, Ronald Reagan, Governor.'' What turns out to be a lifetime job--(BEG ITAL)very steady work--is conservatism's task of keeping government where it belongs, which is on a short constitutional leash, and politics in its place, which is at the margins of life. It has taken me 60 years to identify the three keys to a happy life--a flourishing family, hearty friends and a strong bullpen. Actually, in my case, there is a fourth: the hope for Cubs baseball in late October. I shall be 67 on the centennial of the Cubs' last World Series victory. Something to live for.