Friday, February 5, 2016


February 5, 2016: HILLARY OR BERNIE?

          What does a President do first thing every morning when he, or possibly she, wakes up in the White House? Let's call him a he, for the time being. He has breakfast, or maybe just coffee, walks into the Oval Office, and gets his daily intelligence briefing.  He wakes up to the daily crisis. He gets his daily instruction in the real world.

          I've often wondered what that must be like, what it does to a person to be reminded, day after day, how complex most situations are, how difficult, even impossible the choices are one faces in dealing with them, and how far away solutions are. Consider the situation in Syria, and our unfortunate involvement in it. Everything in Syria is a horror--the dictator, Assad, willing to do anything to maintain his control; the rebels, wielding different ideologies of their own, united only in hating Assad; ISIS, filling the vacuum created by these separate horrors with their own extraordinary levels of violence, their own spectacular horror, and all of this affecting the entire surrounding Middle East. So what do WE do in this situation. What do WE do about the refugees, streaming toward Europe to escape the madness, to add another dimension to the five or six already at work. I have no answer. We're already bombing and strafing ISIS, throwing out own violence into the picture, but is that an answer? A lot of collateral damage enters the scene. We are responsible for it. And now some idiot on the right proposes we carpet bomb the entire country, maybe bomb the entire Middle
East, and an equally idiotic right wing thinks that's a grand idea. It cannot be fun to be President of the United States. It's hard enough, complicated enough, to be the chairman of Sag Harbor's Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review, which I currently am.

          I am also currently an historian, writing American and military history and working on a second edition of my version of the Journals of Lewis and Clark. History is an education in reality, and what it taught me early on is that most Americans do not live in the real world, but in a fantasy world, a dream world in which, in one version, everybody is self-reliant, or can be if they stop being lazy, government is a con job, and freedom is the only value. That's the right's version of the dream. On the left, the dream is that we can ultimately conquer corruption, self-interest, and Wall Street, and regulate our way to a utopian society in which everyone has a guaranteed income, college is free for all, and all of us will finally be men and women of good will--what one of my nephews calls the nanny state. Both dreams are very old, the current ones being modern incarnations of ideas that date to the beginnings of Western civilization. They have cropped up repeatedly in American history. Thomas Jefferson distrusted government even while he ran it, while at the same time dreaming of a happy agricultural republic where farmers read Homer in the original Greek. His dear friend James Madison was far more realistic. "If men were angels," he wrote in Federalist #51, "government would not be necessary." But men are not angels. Government is necessary. Left to themselves, people would descend into a Hobbesian universe of all against all. Into the dystopian anarchy of the apocalypse, where we all die.

          Hillary or Bernie? I remember telling a teacher many years ago that I wanted to live in the real world, and have tried to do so. In truth, I am not enthusiastic about either candidate. Hillary has been with us for a long time, she makes mistakes in judgment, she has ties to Wall Street. On the other hand she also has close ties to minorities, she has been a fierce advocate for women, for human rights generally, and she has the kind of international experience and relationships that are crucial for America's role in the world. Bernie is clearly a decent man, progressive to his fingertips, and righteous. He talks the talk progressives and young people rally around. And it's appealing. But his on the other hands are that he's never gotten anything important through Congress, he obviously cannot and will not be able to finance his proposals, and he's too far on the utopian side for my taste.

          But there are miles to go. And people are unpredictable. I thought Barak Obama a poor choice in 2008 for his lack of experience and the fact that he seemed too large a target for some fanatic's rifle, but he has proved to be an excellent President caught in awful circumstances. The fact that he's black brought back out of the twilight a recrudescence of the racism that Americans have harbored for 400 years, and that was unfortunate. However, it opened our eyes to the depth of the racism that afflicts us, to the depth of our own particular horror. Politics remains what it has always been, the art of the possible, an impossible job of maneuvering among the dream worlds of this interest and the other, trying to keep one's own balance, and the nation's, while dealing with what's real. I think Hillary will be better at this than Bernie, who's an ideologue, and that she will accomplish more. But we'll see. When we reach November, I'm not sure now who I will vote for then, except that it will be the Democratic candidate. As usual, everything depends. Time will tell.