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
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
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
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.