Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ministry all of Talents

This was the sobriquet attached to the British government formed William Wyndam Grenville, 1st Baron Grenville in 1806, after the death of Pitt the Younger. A wartime government, it drew on Whigs and Tories alike, though fervid Pittites eschewed the chance to join. It was short-lived, lasting only through 1807, and was a fairly progressive government, with its greatest achievement the momentous decision to end the African slave trade, which went into effect in 1808. And there is much evidence that Obama is planning on constructing a ministry of all talents to accompany him to Washington, with much talk about giving Hillary the State Department. (Was this part of Obama’s plan back in the summer when he refused to seriously consider Hillary for the veep slot?)

People are comparing this to Lincoln’s cabinent, with Seward and Stanton, and that is an important precedent, but I would rather look to Britain. In a responsible country, where we recognized that we elect not just individuals but parties, this should happen all the time. Hillary is the second most important and best known Democrat in the country, why shouldn’t she get the equivalent of the chancellor of the exchequer? Of course there are vast differences between the two systems. In this country, everyone, including Hillary will serve at the pleasure of Obama, and there is a long history of secretaries of state being undermined by national security advisors (Dean Rusk, William P. Rodgers, Cyrus Vance, Colin Powell.) Presumably this won’t happen if Hillary gets the nod. All of this speaks to Obama’s maturity, and his recognition, I think, that his victory is a victory for the Democratic Party and its values.

At the same time, the decision by the Senate Democrats, evidently with the covert support of Obama, to allow Joe Lieberman to retain his chairmanship of the Homeland Security committee seems to be comprised of two parts magnanimity and three parts pusillianimity. There is a way in which calls for bi-partisanship—we see this in David Paterson—all too easily become excuses for keeping the status quo in tact. If there is anything worse than the two parties going at each other like cats and dogs while dispensing calumnies by the box full, it is when they are trying to get along, and carrying on like the love feast of the apostles. At best you can say that the Democrats wanted him, in the immortal words of Lyndon Johnson, inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in, and presumably Lieberman will be his best behavior ,and I can only hope that if he tries in any way to retard or challenge the Democratic agenda, , they will waste no time in calling for head on a silver platter. Or so one might hope.

Speaking of British prime ministers and Jews, I was reading the latest issue of New York Review of Books (which can IMHO, go jump in a effing lake—the editor of the NYRB promised to publish a letter I wrote about Obama and Howard Thurman in early July, and Thanksgiving in upon us, and still no letter) which had an interesting article on the endlessly fascinating Benjamin Disraeli. Now it seems to me that if there one person in the past two hundred years of democratic politics that can be compared to Obama, it is Disraeli. Since Disraeli in the 1870s climbed, in his famous words, to the top of the greasy pole, what other member of a despised outsider group, still suffering from the effect of civic and social disabilities, has overcome remarkable odds to become the elected leader of the most powerful country on earth? To answer my rhetorical question, I can’t think of anyone.

Having said this, there doesn’t seem to a hell of lot in common between Obama and Disraeli, except that both men were superb writers—Disraeli the best writer of any prime minister, the platitudinous Churchill included, and Obama the best writer of any American president, with only Theodore Roosevelt really in the conversation as an author of literature—and both men used their status as somewhat exotic outsiders to their political advantage. Disraeli would have written a fine novel about the dark skinned man with an African name who conquered Washington poltics, to the astonishment of all.

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