SAM SMITH, 2006 – Phil Hart said the Senate was a place that did things 20 years after it should have. The same could be said of much of the rest of Washington. In fact the yet-to-be accomplished U.S.-Iranian negotiations are now at 27 years and still counting.
The common presumption is that such tardiness is a function of politics. In fact, it is more a product of culture, a culture founded on infantile presumptions about the proper image one should present. Thus you find grown men walking around the Pentagon with rows of ribbons on their uniformed chests to remind everyone of their purported accomplishments. You have ex-preppies plotting invasions against small countries to prove their machismo. You have graduates of Yale and Princeton, whose daddies – as LBJ said – wouldn’t let them into the stock brokerage firm – figuring out the best way to torture people for the CIA. You have drones from business and law schools trained to think that certainty is an adequate substitute for competence. You have journalists getting big bucks for the privilege of sitting through endless, newsless White House briefings and flying off with the president to his ranch. And you have experts at think tanks trading arcane knowledge apparently unaware that their resulting decisions might affect real people.
Although there are far more women engaged in this charade than was formerly the case, the culture is primarily based on childish male notions of strength and prowess. The women who get to the top in such a culture often do so because they emulate its values rather than offering an alternative, witness the cruel capitalism of Margaret Thatcher, the indifference of Madeleine Albright to the deaths caused by Iraqi sanctions, or the heartless aggression of Condoleezza Rice.
We don’t read about this or hear about it because the mass media is a fulltime participant in this never consummated ritual of manhood that our politics have become. In tribal times, the ritual would have been followed by manhood. In Washington, the ritual never ends.
The costs can be enormous. The Vietnam War, for example, was driven in part by Harvard faculty members trying to prove their virility. Over the last fifty years, a narcissistic establishment absorbed in its self-image and indifferent to its consequences, has destroyed constitutional government, made the United States hated around the world and done so much damage to the environment that two major scientists recently suggested that we better plan to find ourselves another planet.
The immediate problem is Iraq, now so much a mess that they had to call in a commission, which is to say some adults. As Representative Frank Wolfe put it, “there’s almost a biblical thing about wise elderly people. . . I mean, Sandra Day O’Connor is not looking for another job. So they can speak truth.”
In other words, to do in Washington what you’re supposed to do, you have to be retired.
What’s missing here is rational adulthood. What’s lacking is a town that attracts those still full of energy but mature enough to put away childish things and moral enough to serve their land ahead of themselves. Instead we have a city overflowing with those whose egos and ambitions are trapped in almost teenage garb.
And so we have to wait 27 years for anyone to dare to suggest that it might be wise to talk with Iran. That’s not a thoughtful issue for discussion on NPR or the News Hour. That’s a matter for a therapist.
If George Bush has done one service he has brought the capital’s destructive childishness out of the closet. What has still to be recognized, however, is that he is not an exception but merely a sadly extreme example how the place really works.