Many of you no doubt remember Elizabeth Drew's tenure as the chief political correspondent ('Letter from Washington') at The New Yorker. It was a long time ago now. I remember her coverage of the contest between Bush-père and Dukakis. In those days I was very grateful for her commentary given the increasing right-wing turn of our national politics.
She was axed when Tina Brown took over as editor-in-chief. And now that I've found the 'red meat' of the left blogs, I don't generally find her style of commentary particularly satisfying. It's a bit heavy on Washington CW to my taste, but there's no doubt that I find her overall point of view sympathetic.
These days she often appears in The New York Review of Books. I just finished reading her post on the NYRoB Blog, Washington: When Decency Prevailed, that I want to recommend to your attention.
The occasion for the piece was the memorial for the recently departed former Speaker of the House, Tom Foley, held at the Capitol on October 29th. As you can guess from the title, the overall theme is a familiar one, a lament for the times when politicians from both parties could work together, but without any distasteful 'both sides do it' rhetoric.
Those present also knew that Foley stood as an emblem of a time that now seemed very long past and was perhaps unrecoverable.Among others both Bill Clinton and President Obama spoke. And she seemed to be disparaging the President when she wrote:
It’s never easy to follow Bill Clinton as a speaker; his pyrotechnics and fetching use of the English language can be mesmerizing. He shows the others how to do it. His messy presidency was largely forgotten as he became perhaps the most effective and popular political figure in the country. And so when Barack Obama got up to speak next, he looked diminished. He seemed to shrink in Clinton’s presence. Though, as he acknowledged, Obama didn’t know Foley, he did manage to avoid saying the same things about Foley that the others had. He referred to Foley’s “powerful intellect,” and indeed Foley was a serious reader, especially of history. He spoke of Foley’s “humility,” and with his own difficulties with Capitol Hill obviously very much on his mind, Obama said, “it was his personal decency that helped him bring civility and order to a Congress that demanded both—and still does.” It was clear at whom Obama’s quietly expressed remarks were aimed. But they were barely audible in the big hall, muffling any effectiveness they might have had, and there was cause to wonder uneasily what Obama even was doing there. He seemed clearly outmatched and out of his element.Ouch, I thought. Still, she was there and not thinking she had any particular axe to grind I granted there must be something to it. But the payoff came in the following paragraph:
When I rewatched the proceedings on C-SPAN later that evening, I saw something totally at odds from what so many had thought we had witnessed in the great hall. Clinton’s pyrotechnics—his long and colorful description of a funeral in Japan that he and Ambassador Foley had witnessed, the point of which was no clearer than it had been that afternoon—seemed overdone. (After leaving the House, Foley served as Ambassador to Japan from 1997–2001.) Clinton appeared to be vamping, reaching for his own relevance to Tom Foley. He had as usual put on a good show and later it seemed no less brilliant as a performance but less fitting. It was Obama who was now the far more impressive. Obama had understood that the quiet voice is more effective on television and more suitable to the occasion. His even-toned comments about civility slipped knife-like into the Republican leaders arrayed before him. He didn’t have to look at them. (The news stories later were predominantly focused on Obama’s call for “civility.”) Obama had seen the perfect opportunity to present himself as the calm, restrained, and would-be bipartisan leader by standing witness for Tom Foley. His acknowledgment that he didn’t know Foley, which seemed weak in the afternoon, now came off as plain honesty. He knew exactly what he was doing. Every once in a while Obama reminds us why he became president.Like many around here, I'm not afraid to criticize the President when (as on too many issues) I think he deserves it. But that makes me all the happier to find legitimate occasions of praise.