When Alberto Fujimori was elected President of Peru in 1990, an Andean peasant was asked why he had voted for him. “Because”, he said, “I know nothing about him.”This reply captures perfectly the cynicism about seekers of office in electoral democracies that alternates with—and seems to be in some kind of dialectical relationship with—the extravagant expectations entertained of them. Hope springs eternal, but so does disillusionment. Being old enough to have witnessed first hand more than one bout of electoral enthusiasm in two countries, Britain and France, followed swiftly by disillusionment and even crisis brought about by gross mismanagement, I now incline to skepticism rather than to the willing suspension of disbelief whenever a new hero is elected. President-elect Obama’s extremely fluent and easy manner of delivering inspirational platitudes interspersed with eloquent pledges to fix everything from autism to the weather inclines me to raise my guard rather than lower it, the more so as I can sometimes feel myself beginning to slither down into the comfortable, relaxing warm bath of his rhetoric. Hope, change, improvement; who can possibly be against them? My resistance to the President-elect’s charms is, if not unique, at least unusual among my friends and acquaintances. Even those with no particular political interests seem to have been gripped by a strange and almost epidemic euphoria, at least while discussion of the subject continues (it disappears immediately afterwards, of course). Perhaps the most succinct expression of this attitude of mind was the headline in the mass-circulation British tabloid newspaper, the Daily Mirror, which after the election carried a large photo of the President-elect on its front page with a single word headline: BELIEVE. Believe what, exactly? Surely not in the army of teachers that Mr. Obama promises to have trained to boost the standing of America’s children in the world league tables of educational attainment, where they come ignominiously near the bottom. But America already spends more on education than any other country; why, then, should anyone believe that further expenditure will improve the situation? Moreover, the preeminence of American universities, unchallenged for the moment and unlikely to be challenged in the near future, suggests that the problem to be solved may not be all that serious. It suggests, indeed, that anxiety about it is more an artifact of bogus, incomplete or irrelevant comparison than is justified by the intrinsic seriousness of the situation. (False comparison is the root of if not quite all, at least much, misery.) Complaint about the low educational level of the American population goes back to the days of H.L. Mencken at least, but in the meantime this supposedly low general level has not prevented American excellence, and even world-predominance, in most of the important fields of human endeavor. Having grown up in the household of a once-devout communist (my father), I distinctly remember books with graphs of the ever-rising production of pig iron, scientists and engineers in the Soviet Union, but that did not prevent the country from lagging behind in everything that mattered most to human beings, including science not directly related to military production, to say nothing of the other disasters with which the ever-rising level of education was clearly quite compatible. A rising level of education of the kind that an army of new teachers might be expected to impart, then, appears neither necessary nor sufficient for national success (if we take it as axiomatic that, grosso modo, the United States has been successful). The policy—not a cheap one if meant seriously, because armies, even of teachers, are expensive—is based upon little more than an unexamined cliché. We expect politicians to peddle clichés, of course, rather than deeply considered philosophical or empirical truths. (As the Book of Esdras would now put it, “great is the cliché, and it will prevail.”) But a person who is prepared to devote much of his life to enunciating statements many times a day in public, for years on end, that are no more interesting if true than untrue, a preparedness which is now the condition of great office in all modern democracies, is someone against whom, at least for me, there is a deep presumption. But that is just me. For most it is no mystery what arouses enthusiasm for a politician in Western mass-media democracies these days. It is his (or her, yes) manner of delivery, the way he (or she, but of course) presents himself. There is no doubt that anyone choosing between Senators Obama and McCain according to these criteria would have chosen the former. He managed perfectly to combine democratic sentiment with authoritative bearing; he looked like a man born to lead; he was fit and loose-limbed, while poor John McCain managed to combine woodenness with fidgeting. Where appearance is the only reality that counts politically, fidgeting is taken as a sign of unease, uncertainty, even of shiftiness; straight-backed muscular deportment the opposite. While Obama looked like a man in his prime, McCain looked like a man who might have a stroke at any moment, cruel though it is to say it. Indeed, when he stumbled over his words, the question came into one’s mind unbidden, however much one tried to repress it: Has he already had one, and will this man last to the end of the campaign, or for four years, let alone for eight? When one considers how quickly high office can age a man (within weeks in the case of some British Prime Ministers), this thought, reprehensibly ageist as it no doubt is, must have occurred to many people. Future historians, if they consider the question at all, will wonder how the Republicans can have put up a candidate such as John McCain, with so many natural disadvantages not of his own making, in a campaign destined to be very difficult in any case. After all, their Party was responsible for an unpopular war and had for so long pursued tax-and-spend policies, except without the taxation to go with them, that a crisis was bound to erupt sooner or later. And a crisis, real or imagined, is precisely what a candidate with a talent for messianic delivery needs; to adapt Voltaire slightly, if it does not exist, it is necessary to create it. Unfortunately for the Republicans, President-elect Obama had to create nothing of the kind, for the walls of Wall Street came tumbling down just at the right moment for him. Equally unfortunately, however, there is nothing quite like a crisis for learning the wrong lessons. I know: My first, inglorious intervention in political life was at the age of 14. There had been a crisis of political confidence in Britain because a Conservative politician called John Profumo had had a brief sexual relationship with a prostitute who had also had a liaison with an attaché from the Soviet Embassy. Under the pretext of concern about national security, a Labour Member of Parliament, against the then-convention of drawing a veil over the private lives of such Members, asked a question concerning a rumor circulating about Profumo’s liaison. Profumo denied it to the House of Commons, but when it became clear that he had lied, he resigned in disgrace—because he had lied. During the following election in 1964, I thought I was being terribly clever and funny when I shouted “What about Profumo?” at an election meeting of my local Conservative Member of Parliament. In my adolescent way, I subscribed to the then-generally drawn lesson of right-thinking people: that the Profumo affair exposed the rottenness and dishonor of the old political class. In fact, it showed precisely the opposite. Profumo was so remorseful, ashamed and guilty about having lied that he never obtruded himself upon the public again, though he lived to be over ninety. He did not, for example, write a memoir that might have brought him a fortune. Instead, he went at first as a self-inflicted and entirely private penance to clean toilets in a well-known community center for the poor in the East End of London. The political class that replaced Profumo’s, of which Tony Blair is an authentic representative, was and is so unutterably corrupt that it is now incapable of honor because it cannot even recognize its own wrongdoing. No public exposure of flagrant malfeasance can now disgrace a man; he forgives himself immediately and returns at once to public life as if nothing had happened. And so I am now wary of lessons too quickly drawn from crises: For if it was possible for almost everyone to draw the wrong lesson from so simple a crisis as that brought about by the Profumo affair, how much easier must it be for almost everyone to draw precisely the wrong lessons from a crisis as complex as the current one? After all, wrong lessons are so much easier to draw than right ones, their being so numerous. Clearly, however, politicians must do something. To do nothing in current circumstances would in any event be to do something in effect. But the wise man would do well not to invest any more trust in a politician than he would have been wise to invest money in real estate a year ago. When I looked at the faces of the people at the Democratic Convention, lit up with a kind of exaltation, their eyes shining and their cheeks flushed, I confess that a line from Shakespeare flitted through my mind: “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” Times of despair are also times of hope, or at least a type of hope, that is to say the willing attribution of magical powers to a plausible man who presents himself as having the answers to the situation. I am like it myself (and therefore include myself as among the mortal fools). When the crisis broke, I called my financial adviser—the very man who had not foreseen the crisis and had not advised me to do what might have saved the value of my investments. I asked him various questions that I knew to be unanswerable by any man, such as when the recession would end. (At the beginning of the crisis, when its size was not yet appreciated, I heard an interview on the BBC with one of President-elect Obama’s economic advisers, in which he said, with all the portentousness of which professors of the inexact sciences are capable, that he thought there might or might not be a recession; but that if there were one, and he thought there probably would be, it would either be deep or not so deep; and that it would either be long or not so long. I had worked that out for myself a priori, as it were.) Though I knew my questions to my financial adviser to be unanswerable, and his opinion scarcely better founded than my own, I hung on his words as if onto those of an infallible oracle. How pleased I was to hear him say that it would not be like the crash of 1929, after which it took a quarter of a century for values to recover. I believed him not because what he said was true, but because I no longer have a quarter of a century to wait. I put the phone down much comforted. Politicians are forced by their situation to present themselves as if they were not seeing through a glass darkly, as if they knew what the answer to a crisis was, as if the future was as known to them as the past (yet, even with regard to the past, we still don’t know for sure what brought the Great Depression to an end.) To me—though not to most of my friends and acquaintances—President-elect Obama’s proposals during the campaign, insofar as it is possible to make out what they were, smacked both of dirigisme and of protectionism that could plunge the whole world into a bitter trade war. But politicians, who do not always keep their word, often promise one thing and end up doing another—which can count as indictment or praise, depending on one’s point of view. President Fujimori was elected in part because he opposed the liberalizing proposals of his opponent, Mario Vargas Llosa, and then went much further in that direction himself than Vargas Llosa himself had probably envisaged. His record finally was distinctly mixed, and even now Peruvians do not agree about it: He was corrupt, he abused power, the economy grew, and he defeated the Shining Path, who were on the verge of becoming the Khmer Rouge of his country. Is that a good record or a bad one? When I listened to President-elect Obama’s acceptance speech, one of Hilaire Belloc’s “Cautionary Tales for Children” also ran through my mind. The third of the American adult population that voted for him seems to have heeded the advice of the father of the boy Jim, who during a visit to the zoo ran away from his Nurse and was eaten by a Lion: When Nurse informed his Parents, they
Were more Concerned than I can say:—
His Mother, as She dried her eyes,
Said, ‘Well—it gives me no surprise,
He would not do as he was told!’
His Father, who was self-controlled,
Bade all the children round attend,
To James’s miserable end,
And always keep a-hold of Nurse,
For fear of finding something worse.
The nurse in question being the Federal government, that will somehow heal the nation, if not the world.