Mark Helprin's advice to Bush, if he wins... : LUSENET : TB2K spinoff uncensored : One Thread

This one's from Mark Helprin, IMHO, one of the greatest living writers in the English language.

If Bush Wins -- probity must win as well.


Tuesday, November 7, 2000 12:01 a.m. EST

If George W. Bush wins today's election, everyone in the United States will begin telling him what to do. Having attained the highest office, he will find it incongruous that he is being told what to do, until he realizes how painfully much there is to do, and then he will resolve the conflict by seeking out people who will tell him what to do in a way that makes him feel that he is telling them what to do. That is, if he is normal, which, thank God, he is.

Were he not normal, he might be like Winston Churchill, who, being a genius and having been in charge of half a dozen ministries under many prime ministers whom he at any moment might have replaced for the better, knew exactly what to do when he reached the highest office. That would be acceptable, no doubt. But were he not normal he could as well be like Bill Clinton or Caligula, who loved power and went on to enjoy it with obscene recklessness, and who knew exactly what to do, because they were absolutely sure that they were possessed of rare talents and inimitable brilliance.

The advice that will pour into Austin like one of Washington's driving summer rains will be all about policy. If today Mr. Bush discovers that he is the president-elect, he will be told in the weeks that follow that he must keep his campaign promises, and that he must not; that he must rebuild the military, and that he must not; that he must cut taxes, but that he must not; that he must appoint conservative justices, and that he must not. This from his supporters, many of whom, by his electoral design, are weak in the knees. The least intelligent of his detractors, upon deciding not to move to France after all (yet another reprieve for Marianne), will insist that he implement the policies he ran against. Whatever its source, the advice directed toward him will be overwhelmingly (some would even say numbingly) about policy.

This would be fine were he merely following George Washington or Calvin Coolidge--were probity, modesty, reflection, and restraint not the characteristic emblems of our time but at least detectable in it. It would be fine because then one would expect of a new president a certain reluctance, seriousness, and humility, in which case policy would be the only thing necessary to consider. But America has strayed rather far. How the next president does what he does is nearly important as what he does, not because we have not had enough of presidential style but because we have had too much. President Clinton's semideranged self-inflation worsened as his mindless sycophants lapped it up like cats in a dairy. (God willing, the new cats will be as dignified and self-possessed as George Shultz.)

Eight years ago, a giddy White House flack suggested without contradiction from on high that the nation would enjoy a television channel, called "BC-TV," chronicling Mr. Clinton's doings 24 hours a day. Such a thing would undoubtedly appeal to the kind of president who elevated his wife by demeaning the entire country, saying of her and it, "If the rest of the people in this country--if everybody in this country had a character as strong as hers, we wouldn't have half the problems we've got today." Of the American people, he managed to say not two weeks ago, "I'll stay here to Election Day, if I have to, to do right by the American people, because my first job is to take care of them." This line, as if straight from "Evita," was nonetheless not quite as certifiably Peronista as the first lady's "I'm grateful for the love of the people."

That such things--of which these are but a few examples--should pass largely without outrage is a sign of critical disequilibrium in the relation of the people to their elected leaders. One of the most urgent matters for the president-elect is to correct this imbalance. Al Gore, if he wins, would not offer the best chance for exiting the spiral of ego-driven paternalism. Such opportunities do not generally come from someone who wants to reorganize and save the world. In his own words, "We have tilted so far toward individual rights and so far away from any sense of obligation that it is now difficult to muster an adequate defense of any rights vested in the community." A community, one might add, led by Al Gore. It is not merely that the vice president does not understand the Constitution, he does not understand that in the American system of government the greatest accomplishment of a leading official is to understand what not to do.

A President-elect Bush must understand what not to do. Unlike Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton, he must not talk like a threshing machine or explain his plans in terms of transcendence or fulfillment. Mr. Gingrich confused an electoral shift for a revolution, which it decidedly was not. How could he not have betrayed expectations? Mr. Clinton confused 43% of the vote for elevation to a divine state (Newsweek pictured him as a saint, the New York Times as an angel) and then proceeded to Caligulize modern American politics. What would a newly elected George W. Bush not do?

He would not think he had come through. He would not think he was at the end of the road. He would not allow his stature as a head of state to corrupt his view of himself as a head of government. He would not assume that his job was to give meaning to the lives of Americans, to save them, or to take care of them. He would not confuse their skills and productivity for his own. He would not abuse the force of his august position to gloss over the things he did not know, but would instead study them. He would not fail to be polite and courteous to all, and to speak quietly. He would not dwell on himself or boast of his accomplishments. And he would attend to the little things that, justly or not, set the tone of a presidency.

For example, he would not allow his aids to call him "Mr. President" until he was inaugurated. The cavalier 42nd president dispensed with precision and allowed this title for himself when he was in fact president of nothing, certainly not of the United States, which does not have two presidents at once (even a "co-presidency" with a wife who is grateful for the love of the people), and which had at the time a perfectly serviceable president who was living modestly and gracefully in the White House.

That then-Gov. Clinton allowed his thoughtless and fulsome flatterers to jump the gun as they did was a telling sign, and not merely in retrospect, of his disregard for the formalities of practice and procedure that govern those who govern. Every departure from such things is a violation of the idea of democracy and an insult to the Constitution. If elected, Gov. Bush should make absolutely sure that he corrects the record, Calvin Coolidge-like, and swings the pendulum even excessively in the direction of probity. It comes naturally to his father, and in this he should make sure that he honors his father especially.

Unlike his predecessor, today's newly elected president will not have a foundation of good stewardship to build on, but eight years in which the seed corn has been eaten. He may have to guide the nation into and through real war, before the military is properly prepared. He may have to endure a recession and the anger of a public that now believes that prosperity grows without pause. This, of course, will not be easy, as the fact that all the parties are at the beginning would suggest.

Winning the presidency is not the end of a long road, it is the beginning. It is not the end of work, a relief, but the beginning of work, a burden. It is not a triumph, as new presidents sometimes believe, but a challenge. The triumph, if it comes at all, comes only with the judgement of history, and it is to the judgement of history that, if he is elected, George W. Bush should devote himself, for his sake and ours.

Mr. Helprin is a novelist, a contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal and a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute. This will be his final weekly column.

-- eve (, November 08, 2000


"President Clinton's semideranged self-inflation worsened as his mindless sycophants lapped it up like cats in a dairy."

You know, as soon as I got this far, I knew I had to post this. I laughed out loud, "punched it in" almost on reflex, then finished reading it.

-- eve (, November 08, 2000.

The following line forced me to really work at evaluating 1st, what the author referred to (what does he mean by "seed corn"), and then Clinton's effect on the office itself. Wish I had something of interest to share. Nada.

Unlike his predecessor, today's newly elected president will not have a foundation of good stewardship to build on, but eight years in which the seed corn has been eaten.


-- Bingo1 (, November 08, 2000.


The "seed corn" phrase is a reference to the old days of agriculture, where some of the current year's harvest had to be reserved for planting the next spring. This reserve was the seed that was planted to provide the following year's harvest. From THAT harvest, some more "seed corn" was kept, and so on.

To eat one's seed corn was extremely foolish, as one would certainly be in dire straits the following year.

-- J (Y2J@home.comm), November 08, 2000.

Thank you, Y.

My problem was I immediately thought "economics", in which case the author is way off the mark. Carter passed on a small deficit, which Reagan promptly blew up into a monstrous deficit, passing it on to Bush Sr. Clinton and the Republican Congress, with help from a robust economy have performed the "abra cadabra alakazam" and poof we have surplus.

I then realized he was pounding the our current president on his lack of "presidential" behavior. So, I struggled to tie "seed corn" to rebuilding the office of the president from the standpoint of correcting the damage Clinton did to it, not policy but image and ethics.

I think. If so, has Clinton damaged the office itself, or merely shown himself to be a part-time out of control adolescent?


-- Bingo1 (, November 08, 2000.

J, thanks for your explanation.

Bingo, I'm sorry I missed your question about the seed corn, but in the second paragraph of your last post, I think you nailed it.

Regarding your final question -- I'd offer up the latter option as my take. But I really believe that whatever damage Clinton's done to the office (if any, and I've not given this angle much thought) could potentially be restored by Bush. Gore I'd find more problematic, as he really strikes me as someone who couldn't be trusted -- a pragmatist who'd have no problem being dishonest, depending on the issue and what he wants. He doesn't strike me as one who'd have much of a conscience about any of it, either. At the risk of my psychologizing -- IMHO -- a sociopathic personality.

And about the author -- I love Helprin's use of metaphor and simile, and wry sense of humor. Whether I agree with him or not, I almost always find his essays a breath of fresh air.

-- eve (, November 08, 2000.

Rich & eve,

You're welcome for the info.

You guys aren't from the grain belt, are you? : )

-- J (Y2J@home.comm), November 08, 2000.

Imitation leather, actually.

I hail from NJ, aptly nicknamed the Stench State. Check it out. This phrase is stamped on vehicle license plates. Or should be.


-- Bingo1 (, November 09, 2000.

Now that the (first round) of voting is finished, I have to say I have had a very bad feeling about Gore since 1992. Looking into his eyes is a truly scary act for me, given his place in our society. It is as if the man has no soul. That's my reaction deep within. It's as if he has no place of inner grounding, no defining principles. He's empty.

I've read the man was raised to attain the office of the presidency. I get the feeling he has no clue who he really is. How sad. Even sadder that he's in the position of possibly running this country.


-- Bingo1 (, November 09, 2000.


Well, if you mean a first-tier grain belt, like the "Eve's Y2K Bags of Rice, Wheat and Oats Strewn All Over Her Basement That Will Last, Oh, I don't Know, Until Probably Y3K Grain Belt" -- then, yes.

Or were you perhaps indirectly referring to one of the secondary grain belts...e.g., the Midwest Grain Belt?

-- eve (, November 09, 2000.

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