The Ghost of Q. Offers W. a Lesson in Politics

As George W. Bush prepares to take office, the statesmen and

observers who will shape and comment on the events of his administration ready

themselves with preliminary grappling.

The first to die in action, even before taking office, was

Linda Chavez, nominated for Secretary of Labor. She claimed that the

illegal-alien woman who lived in her house, did odd jobs and got walking-around

money was being battered by her boyfriend, and had been taken in as an act of charity. I am sorry to miss her

cross-examination in the Senate by such noted friends of the distressed

as Senator Clinton, who itemized her husband’s old underwear (washed, one

hopes) as charitable donations. But Ms. Chavez committed a graver sin-not

telling those who nominated her absolutely everything in advance. So the

Bushies got cold feet, and she withdrew. The time will come when the only

person who can be nominated to public service is Madonna, about whom everything

is known, and photographed. Interestingly, the Portuguese couple employed by

Christine Todd Whitman, who was tapped to be head of the Environmental

Protection Agency, dropped from the news soon after they were first mentioned.

We expect what Michael Lind calls our overclass to have dusky help around the

house; only conservatives who are themselves dusky seem to get into trouble for

it. If Mrs. Whitman can get through the first cabinet meeting without frisking

Colin Powell, she should be home free.

Attention now turns to former Senator John Ashcroft,

nominated to be Attorney General. A speech he gave at Bob Jones University came

to light in which he said how lucky Americans were to live in a country where

there was “no king but Jesus.” Bells went off at the cattle wire that separates

church and state. Literally, the phrase commits no one to any religious belief.

It is like the joke about Unitarians, that they believe in at most one God. If

you don’t believe in Jesus, then you have no king at all; and since Jesus said

that His kingdom was not of this world, then, according to Mr. Ashcroft’s

phrase, no one has an earthly king.

But the phrase is more interesting than that, for it has a

history. In the 1670’s, radical Presbyterians in England and Scotland said, “No

king but Jesus!” This was at a time when the country was ruled by a king with

absolutist pretensions, and people who said such things risked their necks.

(These days, all anyone in my line of work risks for an inflammatory statement

is a dinner invitation.) The anti-monarchists did not win their case in the

1670’s, but people like them came here, and ultimately had better luck. One

reason the United States has no king today is because Protestant radicals three

centuries ago said, “No king but Jesus.”

Mr. Ashcroft has said that he is not trying to legislate

“spirituality,” only “morality.” This is simply axiomatic. All laws, except

those that prevent you from driving north on Lexington Avenue, legislate

someone’s notion of morality. Because we think it is wrong to kill people

(except fetuses and, increasingly, old people), if you do it-or even try-you are

subject to arrest. The laws of contracts reflect, albeit dimly, the Eighth

Commandment. We think it is wrong to waste the gifts of nature, so we ask

Christie Whitman to look after them for us. We legitimately debate the notions

of morality that laws and proposed laws invoke, and how efficaciously the means

serve the ends. As a Senator, Mr. Ashcroft opposed needle-exchange programs on

the grounds that they “accomodat[e] the culture at its lowest denominator.” But

suppose we want to keep addicts alive and AIDS-free while we raise their

denominator?

The left has waged war on Mr. Ashcroft not because of any

philosopher’s quest to find laws untinged by systems of morality, but because

he is politically conservative; because he is so culturally “red country”; and,

most importantly, because they want to forestall any nomination of him-or

anyone like him-to the Supreme Court. He will be cut and bruised, but unless he

has a Guatemalan washing his underwear, he will probably make it, and do a

better job than Janet Reno, his predecessor, whose morality licensed

witch-hunts against alleged pedophiles and siege warfare against Branch

Davidians.

With or without his cabinet, Mr. Bush will be inaugurated on

Jan. 20, and demonstrations have been promised. This will be a foretaste of

four years of bad humor from the non-partisan left, energized by the Seattle

riots and the Nader campaign, and the Democratic Party, eager to keep the pot

boiling for 2002 and 2004. In facing these uproars, Mr. Bush should study the

example of John Quincy Adams, and do otherwise.

Mr. Bush and Adams are the only two sons of Presidents to

become President themselves. They also won office in famously turbulent

elections. John Quincy Adams won the four-man race of 1824 when it was thrown

to the House of Representatives. The fourth-place finisher, Henry Clay, threw

Adams his support, and Adams rewarded him by making him Secretary of State.

Andrew Jackson, who had finished first, resigned his Senate seat and spent the

next four years howling about the corrupt bargain that elected his enemy. When

he faced Adams one-on-one, he crushed him.

Adams had a miserable term, ending in failure, in part

because of how he won office. But Mr. Bush must realize that Adams failed

because he himself believed that his bargain with Clay was unseemly. John

Quincy Adams’ father was a Founding Father; as a boy, he had heard the gunfire

at the Battle of Bunker Hill. He believed that he, and his family, were above

politics-and when it turned out that he wasn’t, he punished himself. He froze;

he could not campaign for himself or fight his enemies; Andrew Jackson picked

him off because he made himself a sitting duck.

What beliefs of his enemies does George W. Bush risk

internalizing? Mr. Bush risks believing that he is unlovable-a fatal notion for

him, because he is a “compassionate conservative.” He was going to put the

human face on the wax-museum dummies of Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey and Tom

DeLay. He was going to show how Republicans could help the poor and minorities.

Linda Chavez took them into her house; he was going to take them into America’s

house.

When the new President drives down Pennsylvania Avenue, he

is going to hear a lot of people who don’t like his face. He doesn’t have to

surrender anything, in his program or his attitude. He just has to know, ahead

of time, that his enemies don’t like him, and won’t thank him.