Defenders of Bill Bennett and George W. Bush had only one real counter-argument: Big government and deficit spending may be bad, but sometimes they can be put to good uses, so long as good people, i.e., "one of our guys" is making the decisions. Though conservatives of this type are fond of pretending that they believe in principles or "ideas," their most basic principle can be reduced to the cult of personality. If Ronald Reagan or George W. picked a cabinet member or pursued a policy, he must have had solid justification.
To be consistent and coherent we have to go back to our basic understanding of the human male. What do most men want, once they have satisfied basic necessities? Most of us would have no trouble in listing the main desires of the males of our species: wealth, power, celebrity (admiration from one's peers and from the public), and sex.
When a good man enters a profession or takes on a vocation, he wants primarily to earn a living, for himself, his wife and his children, through work that he gives him satisfaction and earns respect. (We do not respect the wage slave who does what he does only for the sake of making enough money to make him secure and comfortable.) Sometimes his vocation his inherited—all the men in his family had been carpenters for several generations; sometimes he finds he has a particular talent (playing music) or the necessary attributes to be a soldier or a priest.
When, however, there is a profession where the manifest objective is wealth and power, one that requires no particular talent and whose necessary attributes are the libido dominandi and the power to dissimulate intentions and deceive other men. In some societies, of course, there have been statesmen like Themistocles or Cicero, but we should recall that Themistocles was notorious as a bribe-taker and that Cicero did not consider it immoral for a judge to be partial to his friends. Men are men, even the saints, and it is the rare politician who gives off even the slightest whiff of sanctity.
What, then, do we conclude if not that even the most upright politicians make some of their decisions on the basis of personal interest or, which comes down to the same thing, the interest of their backers. In the modern world, at least over the past 150 years, there are few politicians who are at all upright or honorable. As one friend of mine has suggested, "they" (the unscrupulous power-seekers who control both parties) won't let anyone run for a higher office unless they have the evidence to end his career or send him to jail. This is only a slight exaggeration.
This understanding is our "A" premise, and the "B" that follows is the universal question that must be put to every decision made by presidents, senators, congressmen, governors, and mayors: cui bono: "to whom for what good?" We could call this the double dative principle, since that is the Latin grammatical construction. We might also call it the Moe Howard principle after the scene in one of the Stooges' shorts where the boys are offered a large sum to do a job. Moe's response is simply, "Who do we have to kill?" Occasionally, a politician may disappoint us by doing the right thing for a disinterested motive. Treasure that moment, if it happens, but do not expect a second occasion.
If I had to guess, I would say that Congressman Walter Jones is an honest man, and not simply because he reads Chronicles. After proposing to rename French Fries as Freedom Fries in the House Cafeteria, Walter discovered to his horror that his President, the leader of his party, had lied to Congress. He then became an outspoken critic of the Iraq War, targeted for elimination by the Rove-Bush White House. I also think Russ Feingold, the leftist Democrat from Wisconsin, acted largely on principles, misguided as they were. There were others, like Gene McCarthy. I was once giving a communist writer (winner of a National Book Award) a ride into Charleston, and he asked me if I admired any liberals. When I mentioned McCarthy, he told me he did not think much of the Minnesota senator. "We (the far left) funded his campaign for the presidency but he later betrayed us. I like a man who when he is bought, stays bought, like John Anderson." Ironically, John Anderson owned the house next door to the house we have lived in since 1985. The president of the World Federalist League was, predictably, a poor neighbor, but I do not know if the communist's evaluation of his political sincerity was correct. I do know that Anderson was an insufferable prig, the worst sort of person to allow into Congress. I infinitely prefer out-and-out rogues like Tip O'Neil or Strom Thurmand.
This passage comes in the middle of the discussion of Coherence, after the allusion to the appointment of Bill Bennet.
Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.