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Toynbee, the Court, and the sweep of History

October 2, 2008

“In London in the southern section of the Buckingham Palace Road, walking southward along the pavement skirting the west wall of Victoria Station, the writer, once, one afternoon not long after the end of the First World War – he had failed to record the exact date – had found himself in communion, not just with this or that episode in History, but with all that had been, and was, and was to come. In that instant he was directly aware of the passage of History gently flowing through him in a mighty current, and of his own life welling like a wave in the flow of this vast tide.”

So did Arnold J. Toynbee describe his almost spiritual union with History. And so it was with me and the rich tapestry of two centuries of Supreme Court decisions. The mere mention of the Supreme Court by Katie Couric triggered a flood of thoughts and associations within me, like the madeleine in À la recherche du temps perdu (incidentally, do not waste your time with the various English translations; nothing can compare to Proust’s original prose). In an instant my mind was saturated by the vicissitudes of our highest court’s past: key precedents, long-dead Justices, blistering dissents, the watershed 5-4 decisions, the rise of judicial review, the debate over “original intent.” I paused for a moment of reflection, mesmerized by this astonishing legacy of jurisprudence.

I kept my thoughts to myself, as instructed. But even so… Cite a single decision? It would be akin to citing a single publication I read.


That interview: What I was really thinking

October 1, 2008

Couric: And when it comes to establishing your worldview, I was curious: what newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this to stay informed and to understand the world?

Me: [In any given week, Katie, I read more journals than you did all last year. And I annotate the margins.]

Couric: But, like, what ones specifically? I’m curious.

Me: [Journal of Comparative Demographic Trends, Parameters of Conflict Resolution Quarterly, Pacific Rim Public Policy Review. Familiar with any of those? I didn’t think so.

[Ask me instead whom I have ghostwritten for: the Economist Intelligence Unit, Current History, Jane’s Defence Weekly…]

…Oh yes, and Foreign Affairs. Its standards certainly have been slipping lately. Sometimes, when I fall under the sway of what William Styron memorably termed “darkness visible,” I ask Piper to pull out the October/November 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs and read me the Rudy Giuliani essay. What preposterous tripe. Giuliani actually writes that maintaining international security is like policing a city. And he thinks the North Vietnamese insurgency was crushed by 1972!

Piper knows which passages I find especially ludicrous, and she makes googly eyes while she reads them. And we laugh and laugh.

Does Biden suspect?

September 30, 2008

I have long considered Biden to be hopelessly out of his depth. He is the perfect exemplar of someone who has never quite overcome his Mid-Atlantic Weltanschauung. But I must grudgingly concede that he may be more clever than I thought.

He called last night to wish me well for the debate. Just before he hung up the phone, he mentioned being halfway through Amartya Sen’s collected works and wondering if he had fully absorbed the practical implications. “You know what I mean,” he said.

I ended the phone call hastily and pondered his words for a minute. Had he, or one of his aides, seen me toting my copy of “Collective Choice and Social Welfare”? It has already been a few weeks since I put down my Sen and picked up Friedrich Hayek. Still – was Biden trying to rattle me before the debate? Merde!


September 30, 2008

So they got to Condi too. She is in on the charade. How else to explain her disingenuously coy response when they asked her whether I was ready to serve.

I wonder if Condi retains any respect for me after all this. Surely she knows that, deep down, I am the same Sarah who mentored her in her Soviet research, and the one she still turns to for insight on the latest legislation passed by the Duma.

One evening, after I traced for her the trajectory of Russian democratic opposition – from Sakharov to Yavlinsky to today – she remarked, “Sarah, your background in Russian studies is nothing short of encyclopedic… I’m amazed by how clearly you see Russia from Alaska.”

I demurred, but I have to admit that the turn of phrase struck a chord.


September 30, 2008

This week, whenever I have been giving my stump speech or speaking with Katie Couric and there is not much to think about, I have been playing a little mental game. I select a continent at random and then try to recall three heads of state there who exemplify Arendt’s concept of “the banality of evil.”

Today it was Africa. Omar Bongo of Gabon came to mind first, though he is probably too charismatic a figure to qualify. Perhaps Sudan’s Al-bashir is more appropriate. Meles Zenawi? Definitely a possibility.

Another broadcast appearance

September 30, 2008

Another hourlong appearance on Canadian TV. At John’s insistence, it’s on Yukon Public Access Cable Channel 37. God forbid anyone in the American electorate should tune in and see me.

I must say, I rather enjoy the challenge of these bilingual programs, answering the same questions in the second half-hour, but in French. It does allow one to develop one’s responses more fully.

I had certainly hoped to provoke when I asserted that there was far more common ground than one would imagine between the Objectivism of Ayn Rand and the communitarian philosophy espoused by Amitai Etzioni. I explained the possible implications for public policy, but I am not sure my message was grasped. I also hope I did not respond too didactically when the interviewer used the word “geostrategic” in a rather generic way, divesting it of its specific academic context. He is young, though, and has time to learn.

Restraining Zardari

September 30, 2008

I really had hoped for a more dignified encounter with Zardari. I’d hoped to ask him which of the various biographies of Jinnah he’d found best captured the man and his times. I also thought I would ask Zardari whether he was familiar with Ernest Gellner’s theory of nationalism. I wanted to see if the president would recognize its relevance to the Pakistani state without me explicitly making the link.

Instead, the man got fresh with me. Surely there must be a male politician out there who is more cerebral than carnal. We live in hope.

Meeting Kissinger

September 30, 2008

It was a sublime experience to become acquainted with a figure of Henry Kissinger’s stature. If only our time had not been so limited. I had just started asking Kissinger about fascinating parallels between the lives of Talleyrand and Metternich when the press was ushered in. I cannot abide having to exchange those empty pleasantries when the cameras are on.

After the press left, I asked Kissinger two more questions. First, whether he agreed with me that Albania constituted a significant exception to Samuel Huntington’s clash-of-civilizations theory. Second, whether, in reacting to Syrian secret service involvement in past unrest in Lebanon, crafting a Syria-focused US policy vis-a-vis Lebanon might nevertheless be reductionist. “I’ll get back to ya,” he chuckled. From that first-rate political mind I certainly had not anticipated such sophomoric humor.

Surely Kissinger has been briefed on why I had to give the media such seemingly ill-informed blather. The idea was John’s. Not only has he orchestrated my virtual sequestration from the American media, but he has insisted that my public persona remain linguistically and intellectually inferior to his. His advisors insist this is the only way to hold onto the “base.” So be it. As Bismarck said, politics is the art of the possible – but still, there are times when I find my running mate to be impossible.