The Missing Order in American Politics
I grow wistful as I watch the congressional chaos while reading Kissinger’s forthcoming oral history.
I am watching Washington and thinking this: We have reached a new crisis point in Donald Trump vs. the Democrats. They are speaking of contempt citations, subpoenas, executive privilege, hearings. It’s a daily barrage. The Democrats are inching closer to impeachment, at least rhetorically, perhaps actually. We’ll see how well Speaker Nancy Pelosi can dance right up to the edge to appease some in her caucus, and not over it.
But there is such a thing as context, and the Democrats seem to be ignoring it. This is a country divided.
Almost half the country is for Mr. Trump — truly, madly, deeply. Half is against him — unequivocally, unchangeably. There is no resolving this. Or rather to the extent it can be resolved, it will be resolved at the ballot box. The presidential election is 18 months from now, on Nov. 3, 2020.
Until then, people are where they are and hold the views they hold, and don’t push them too hard.
Democrats unveil charges and accusations — the president is a liar, he’s a tax dodger, an obstructor of justice. But in a way Mr. Trump’s supporters accounted for all this before they elected him. They are not shocked. They didn’t hire him to be a good man. Their politics are post-heroic. They sometimes tell reporters he’s a man of high character but mostly to drive the reporters crazy. I have never talked to a Trump supporter, and my world is thick with them, who thought he had a high personal character. On the other hand they sincerely believe he has a high political character, in that he pursues the issues he campaigned on. They hired him as an insult to the political class, as a Hail Mary pass — we’ve tried everything else, maybe this will work — and because he agreed with them on the issues.
Supporters give him high marks for not looking down on them as they believe most members of the media, who are always trying to “understand” them, do. Their attitude is: “Don’t try to understand me, like you’re the anthropologist and we’re the savages. I’m an American, what are you?” They factor the cultural animosity in. When they jeer the press during rallies at the president’s direction, they don’t really mean it. They’re having fun and talking back. They’d be happy if their kids became reporters — an affluent profession, and half of them are famous. The president doesn’t really hate the press either, he wants their love and admiration. You don’t need the admiration of people you truly disdain.
Trump supporters now are looking around and thinking: Things are looking up. The economy is gangbusters, everyone can get a job, good people are on the courts. Something good is happening with China — it’s unclear what, but at least he’s pushing back. As for illegal immigration, he at least cares about it and means to make it better, though no, it doesn’t seem improved.
To take all Congress’s time right now and devote it to attacking the president, or impeaching him, will be experienced as a vast, disheartening insult by half the country, and disheartening. It will simply damage the country and be seen as extreme and destructive. It will keep good things, such as an infrastructure bill, from happening.
As a purely political calculation it will do the Democrats no good. Nonstop scandal theater starring the theatrically indignant will only make people who hate Mr. Trump hate him a little more, and people who support Mr. Trump hate his foes a little more. It will not move any needle.
Robert Mueller, often praised in this space, didn’t resolve anything, did he? People wanted clarity, not subtlety and indirection. So yes, as a last hurrah let him speak. What did he think his report was saying and implying? What in his view would be a just outcome to the story of Mr. Trump and the Russians and 2016?
Beyond that, enough already. We have to have a greater appreciation for how split we are as a nation, and how delicate this all is. And we have to remember we’re not only split, we’re conjoined. We share this country.
We are like Chang and Eng, the 19th century Siamese Twin brothers who worked for P.T. Barnum. They could not be separated and went through their long lives together, married to different women, living in different houses — a few days a week in this one, a few in another.
It wasn’t easy for them to walk through life together, but they did. We have to, too.
Now I wish to switch subjects. Don’t you?
“How to do it” is the hardest question in life after “what to do.” It’s hard enough to make the decision. Then you have to execute. A right decision poorly executed might as well be a wrong one. This is in a way the subject of a small book called “Kissinger on Kissinger” by Winston Lord. It is composed of transcripts of Henry Kissinger’s first and only oral history, based on six interviews conducted by Mr. Lord, President Reagan’s ambassador to China, and K.T. McFarland, who served as Mr. Trump’s deputy national security adviser.
“Like all oral histories, this is a brief for my case,” Mr. Kissinger writes in the introduction. “I did not go out of my way to be self-critical.” He doesn’t. But there is a lot of how-to for diplomats — how the opening with China occurred and was made to occur, how the Soviets were handled as that breakthrough became real, what drove Nixon-era Mideast shuttle diplomacy.
I should note here that Mr. Kissinger is always called “deeply controversial” because he is, that his diplomatic efforts with and under President Nixon were often bold and creative, certainly deeply consequential, and that one of the most remarkable things about him is that he is 95 and has, for 50 years, remained a major public figure and retained his status as a major thinker. Foreign leaders treat him with the gravest respect. Mr. Lord calls this “a remarkable performance of savvy, stamina and sway.”
At his 90th-birthday party, which I attended as a friend, former secretaries of state of both parties lined up to thank him for his advice, wisdom and encouragement. I admit I cannot see his public self without thinking of the 16-year-old immigrant who worked in a shaving-brush factory in New York. The tough Italian-American men he worked with teased the German refugee and took him to Yankee Stadium to learn to be an American. There he first saw the man who years later on meeting him struck him dumb: Joe DiMaggio.
But I’ve gotten away from the book.
It has many good things. In the formation of foreign policy successful international negotiations, “everything depends … on some conception of the future.” The bias of bureaucracy is toward dailiness: there are communiqués to answer, immediate decisions that require response. In this atmosphere a leader must develop an overall sense of where he wants to go and how to get there.
Every diplomatic effort must begin with an articulated intention. He and Nixon “spent hours together asking ‘What are we trying to do, what are we trying to achieve, what are we trying to prevent?’” The “end state” is the goal, not the process.
In a way it is a tribute to order. Oh, I miss that.
Reprinted by permission from peggynoonan.com.