A few days after Obama’s elevation, . . . er, I mean “election,” I had occasion to mention Duff Cooper’s observation, from his memoir Old Men Forget, that “Nothing can enlighten a theorist so quickly as the task of dealing with a practical problem; nothing can sober an agitator so completely as the weight of responsibility.” Cooper was not only a canny observer of the political scene, he was also a good judge of men, so I suppose there are grounds for hoping Obama’s redistributionist, statist rhetoric–not to mention his sops to the Green lobby–will be tempered by the pressure of reality. There are some who maintain that his populating his inner circle with so many figures (“retreads” is the unkind epithet) from the Clinton administration argues for just such a pragmatic approach. Perhaps. I hope, at any rate, that someone in authority will read, and heed, what Andrew McCarthy has to say about the folly of attempting to employ the US criminal justice system to deal with Islamic terrorism.
For myself, still recuperating from the spectacle of the election, two other passages from Old Men Forget struck me as pertinent. One concerns the drama of the election season. Cooper was for many years a member of Parliament; in the 1930s, he was also Secretary of State for War and then First Lord of the Admiralty, a position he resigned when a smiling Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich bringing “peace in our time.” Today, we scoff at Chamberlain. “Appeaser,” we say. But in 1938, Chamberlain was regarded as a hero. “This is the greatest thing that has ever been done,” said one of Cooper’s friends, summing up the prevailing view. Dissenters like Cooper and Churchill were branded “war mongers” and shunned by polite society. Cooper accurately summarizes the mood:
“Those who had survived the first war felt that it was all to be borne again, with the lives of their children , instead of their own, at stake. Suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye, the clouds dispersed, the sky was blue, the sun shone. There was to be no war, neither now, nor at any future date.”
Nice work if you can get it. But of course, the Brits couldn’t get it, not without a fight, which they postponed until it was too late.
But back to elections. “There are,” Cooper notes,
“people who enjoy elections. I am not one of them. The combination of anxiety and tedium is very trying. The solitary subject of conversation, to which, however hard one may try to avoid it, one always returns, the good ideas which suddenly strike one’s supporters, their hopes and fears and petty quarrels, the rumors of one’s opponents’ success, the one thing that should have been done and has been forgotten, the great mistake that has been made and that it is too late to rectify, the vast accumulation of daily annoyances culminating in the evening’s speeches, which followed by sleepless nights of pondering over possibly unwise utterances, all these build up an atmosphere of nightmare through which the distant polling day shines with promise of deliverance.”
Well, all of that is behind us now. Yes, unpleasant folks will cavil. They will point out that, in fact, the election is not behind us at all: it is rather ahead of us: dress rehearsal in 2010, main event in 2012.
Let us ignore such gloomy carpers for the time being and take solace in another passage from Old Men Forget. Cooper recalls one night, toward the end of the First World War, when, feeling despondent, he had dinner by himself in a London club. He plucked from the library a copy of Alice in Wonderland and, fortifying himself with an imperial pint (3/4 of a bottle) of Veuve Clicquot champagne, he managed to dissipate his despondency before the coffee had been cleared away. Reflecting on that alchemy, Cooper has some additional reflections some of my readers may appreciate. “I have already made mention of the happiness I have derived throughout my life from literature,” Cooper wrote,
“and I should here, perhaps, acknowledge the consolation I have never failed to find in the fermented juice of the grape. Writing in my sixty-fourth year, I can truthfully say that since I reached the age of discretion I have consistently drunk more than most people would say was good for me. Nor do I regret it. Wine has been to me a firm friend and a wise counsellor. Often, as on the occasion just related, wine has shown me matters in their true perspective, and has, as though by the touch of a magic wand, reduced great disasters to small inconveniences. Wine has lit up for me the pages of literature, and revealed in life romance lurking in the commonplace. Wine has made me bold but not foolish; has induced me to say silly things but not do them. Under its influence words have often come too easily which ought not to have been spoken, and letters have been written which had better not have been sent. But if such small indiscretions standing in the debit column of wine’s account were added up, they would amount to nothing in comparison with the vast accumulation on the credit side.”
I mentioned this passage to a friend who is also a fan of Cooper’s memoir. He joined me in admiration of this articulation of pragmatism rightly understood but alerted me to another passage, which occurred later in the book, which he liked even more. It concerns Cooper’s work on a committee of the League of Nations that was charged with looking into the problem of alcoholism on an international basis.
“Our first meeting was in the evening and before proceedings started we were served with port and other apéritifs. After the danger of alcohol had been roundly denounced by all, our chairman, a Frenchman, explained that wine of course was not alcohol nor, for that matter, were the products of the Cognac district, which were all derived from the grape. His views were warmly supported by the representatives of Italy, Portugal and Spain. I then felt bound to remind the meeting that, while I entirely shared the views of the previous speakers, my country did not enjoy the same quantity of sunshine as blessed their happier lands, and that its inhabitants had even greater need than had their fellow creatures of that internal warmth and stimulus which the fermented juice of the grape bestows. Unfortunately the vine did not flourish in Great Britain, but we had made an effort, especially in the northern and coldest part of the kingdom, to produce a substitute, which had been found so satisfactory that we were now able to export it in considerable quantities to foreign countries, and I felt confident that this agreeable and beneficent beverage, which many doctors recommended in preference to wine, would not come within the purview of our enquiries.”
The Brits had chaps like Duff Cooper, Anthony Eden, and Winston Churchill. We’re stuck with people like Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank, and Harry Reid. Will we really have Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State? (Would that be worse than John Kerry–remember him?) What are we doing wrong?