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Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

From Burke to Bush

(Reprinted from the issue of February 3, 2005 )

Capitol BldgPresident Bush’s inaugural address, calling for the abolition of tyranny everywhere, reminded everyone of Ronald Reagan, John Kennedy, and Woodrow Wilson — except that the ambition of his vision surpassed theirs. Reagan and Kennedy were thinking in Cold War terms, and the only tyrannies they had in mind were Communist. Wilson was concerned only with European nations.

Bush, at least in his rhetoric, is positively utopian. This is an odd stance for a supposed conservative. It’s especially odd considering the difficulty he’s had establishing freedom and democracy, as he conceives them, in Iraq alone. Neither history nor personal experience chastens him. He doesn’t sound much like Edmund Burke; he sounds like the French revolutionaries Burke was warning against, who would sacrifice real people to “these abstract rights of man.”

Indeed, some “conservative” pundits praised the speech for being “revolutionary”! It was liberal pundits who sounded like conservatives; they found Bush’s words overreaching, imprudent, even irresponsible.

It’s not as if tyranny can be abolished. It takes many forms, and the overthrow of one often — usually, in fact — brings on another. You can make a strong case that the U.S. government, measured against the principles of its founders and its Constitution, has become tyrannical; and Bush himself has dramatically increased its scope and power, notably in the executive branch. (Burke, by the way, also opposed King George III for abusing executive power in the American colonies.)

Bush may be sincere, but he naively assumes that “freedom” and “tyranny” are simple terms whose meaning is self-evident. For him the difference seems to be that when you have elections you have freedom, and when you don’t you have tyranny.

He seems unaware that the American founders, not to mention a number of philosophers, dreaded the tyrannical potential of democracy itself.

We can only hope that Bush doesn’t really mean what he says. I’m thinking especially of his declaration that the survival of our own liberty “increasingly depends” on the success of liberty in other countries. That’s the sort of snappy aphorism you expect of speechwriters, I suppose, but doesn’t anyone in the White House have a blue pencil?
Rice and Race

Condoleezza Rice has become secretary of state after some mildly stormy confirmation hearings that should have been stormier. She it was who coined another snappy aphorism: Unless the United States disarmed Saddam Hussein, “the smoking gun could be a mushroom cloud.” If there were a Bartlett’s of Loopy Quotations, that one would deserve a niche.

A few Democrats did object mildly to her pro-war hype, and that was enough for Rush Limbaugh: He called the hearings a “show trial,” and, playing the race card, likened the Democrats to last-ditch segregationists blocking schoolhouse doors (West Virginia’s Robert Byrd is a former Klansman, he pointed out). His ravings did nothing to dispel the feeling that conservatism has come a long way from Burke.

The suggestion that Dr. Rice’s race motivated the Democratic resistance to her is absurd and contemptible, worthy of Al Sharpton. Limbaugh himself has been the target of enough phony charges of bigotry to know that. Dr. Rice’s predecessor, Colin Powell, is also black, but he had no problem getting confirmed for the simple reason that he’d earned everyone’s respect, as she hasn’t. She has earned, to put it mildly, skepticism.

The real issue should have been Rice’s competence. Her new job should require some independent judgment, but she seems less like a statesman than a good receptionist who knows exactly what the boss wants her to say.
Slick Hillary

Hillary is running for president in 2008. No, she hasn’t made a formal announcement, but she has done the next thing to shouting her intentions: She has expressed “respect” for “those who believe with all their hearts and minds” that abortion is always wrong. Calling abortion “a sad, even tragic choice to many,” she pleaded for “people of good faith to find common ground in this debate.”

Even this mush was enough to startle Democrats and make the front pages. It was a gesture of outreach to the enemy, an attempt to move herself a nuanced millimeter to the right of her party’s core without making a substantive concession. True, she didn’t join this year’s March for Life, but she said more than John Kerry and Ted Kennedy have.

But Nancy Keenan of NARAL Pro-Choice America wasn’t alarmed: “Sen. Clinton’s remarks yesterday were a perfect statement of the pro-choice position.... She reiterated time and again her support for Roe, she outlined ways to reduce unintended pregnancies.”

So admitting that women aren’t always happy about getting abortions and that opponents of abortion may act in “good faith” falls within the limits of permissible cynicism. Hillary is smart enough to see that even 32 years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s most infamous decision, America’s conscience still isn’t reconciled to it.

Still, she has said this sort of thing before, in a Newsweek interview some years back. And of course her husband sought “common ground” by repeatedly voicing his deep conviction that abortion should be “safe, legal, ... and rare.”
Gibson’s Courage

The Academy Award nominations have been announced, and as expected, Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ wasn’t as popular in Hollywood as in the rest of the country: Despite its huge success at the box office, it reaped but three minor nominations. Who says Hollywood cares only about the bottom line?

Granted, it’s hard to be dispassionate about this movie, but it’s not hard to see what Gibson achieved. He did more than risk his money and even his career; he might as well have announced his retirement as an actor, since no studio would ever offer him another role after this film. He made a lot of money on this film, but only after spending a fortune to make it and ensuring that he’ll be on his own from now on. If they gave awards for guts, Gibson would be a shoo-in.

Religious films are rare, and excellent ones even rarer, but one of the best is Monsieur Vincent, a 1947 French movie about St. Vincent de Paul. An acknowledged classic, it’s absolutely devoid of the saccharine piety of most religious movies; it perfectly combines reverence with realism as it shows St. Vincent’s struggle to serve Jesus by serving the poor, knowing they can be as ungrateful as the rich. I wonder if any other movie has ever shown sanctity so powerfully.

Gibson aimed high, but maybe too high. He showed us, by choice, more of Christ’s suffering than of His daily presence. Monsieur Vincent has the more modest aim of showing an “ordinary” saint — the saint each of us might be if we chose to. (But good luck finding a copy on video!)

SOBRANS looks at religious movies and the problems they face. If you have not seen my monthly newsletter yet, give my office a call at 800-513-5053 and request a free sample, or better yet, subscribe for two years for just $85. New subscribers get two gifts with their subscription. More details can be found at the Subscription page of my website.

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Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2005 by The Wanderer
Reprinted with permission.

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