Early in the spring, driving along Interstate 93 in New Hampshire, I passed a large billboard featuring a smiling, attractive woman, the caption “The Heart of a Soldier,” and the name “Tulsi.” She didn’t look like a soldier, and at the time I did not know who she was, so the billboard puzzled me.
Of course I know who she is now, the presidential candidate who triumphed in a catfight against the one-eyed ball of spite and spit, Hillary Clinton, when that worthy accused her of being a “tool of the Russians.” But it turns out her surname is not Tulsi but Gabbard. Her advertisement, however, is in concord with the informality of our time. Hillary Clinton, who I imagine making small talk with ordinary people about as well as Karl Marx grunting out gospel hymns at a tent revival, littered the land with signs promoting “Hillary,” with a sharp arrow crossing the H, to suggest where the nation was going to get it, good and sharp. I have seen signs for “Bernie” and “Beto” and “Amy,” too.
Political nicknames are not new: recall “I Like Ike.” But at least Ike was a well-established personage: Ike led the Allied forces to victory in the second world war. We have had Tippecanoe (William Henry Harrison, for his victory over the Indians there), Honest Abe (Lincoln), Uncle Jumbo (Grover Cleveland), Old Hickory (Andrew Jackson), and Silent Cal (Coolidge). Those were names that men give to other men, to praise by way of jesting disparagement, or to honor some outstanding virtue or accomplishment. So it was in baseball: Lou Gehrig was called the Iron Horse because he played for the Yankees in 2,130 consecutive games, and what made him hang up his spikes, at last, was the disease that took his life.
“Bernie,” “Beto,” “Hillary,” “Amy,” “Tulsi”—these are not like that. They are not the Green Mountain Sage, the Irish Tamale, Toto Too, and so forth. They suggest flightiness, juvenility, and narcissism, not just in the candidates but in the whole system whereby we choose our fearless leaders. We choose them as the winners of a vast and silly American Idol contest, and that we do so suggests that we too are silly.
I am not talking about stupidity. Most politicians are clever enough, and they are facile with words, whether they use them grammatically or not; and, in any event, solid grammar is by no means any longer necessary for one to get a job writing for the New York Times, or teaching English at Harvard. I am not talking about ignorance, which in many respects must afflict everyone: I can read a little Welsh but I cannot read Russian. I am not talking about that worse ignorance which is the aim of schooling from kindergarten to the doctorate, as you “know” what is not true and are proud of it.
I am talking about silliness: frivolity, flippancy, shallowness; not only a failure to address serious things in a serious way, but a failure even to recognize that they are serious; a world of memes, slogans, sound bites, selfies, hysteria, posing, sniping; a world swallowed up in the moment, without historical perspective; a world of people who not only do not read Newman, Arnold, Ruskin, Brownson, Macaulay, Mill, and Carlyle, to name a few great and serious men of letters from the bad old days of English classical learning, but who cannot read them—are temperamentally unsuited to read anything of the sort.
The silliness is not bound by a single party’s membrane, though those who call themselves liberals among us, prone to breathless enthusiasm, always seem to sally forth to attain the next little hummock of the silly, while those who call themselves conservatives huff and puff for a minute or two, and then shrug and go along.
It has therefore occurred to me that what we need are fat, boring, sensible old men—the least likely among us now to win an election. Fat, boring, sensible old men do have characteristic limitations. They are not likely to catch the one revolutionary idea in a century that brings life and health. They are, however, unlikely to fall for the once-a-month revolutionary idea that wrecks everything it means to protect. Many a statesman does signal work for his people merely in resisting the dangerous stupidity of the time and letting nature and common sense do their constant and healthy work.
It will be objected that fat, boring, sensible old men do not accomplish anything. That is not true. They may not be soldiers on the front line, but they are often the stolid generals in charge: Kutuzov against Napoleon, Quintus Fabius against Hannibal. Fat, boring, sensible old Romans covered Europe with roads, aqueducts, city walls, sewers, bridges, baths, and public offices. Fat, boring, sensible old Englishmen led the system of schools and universities which, for all their faults, sent British soldiers, merchants, generals, and statesmen throughout the world.
If David Livingstone was not boring and old, it surely was a boring and old man who taught him. Fat, boring, sensible old men strung America with the telephone and telegraph, not by shinnying up the poles, but by conceiving the immensely practical idea, gathering up the money for it, pocketing the politicians, and hiring the rangy youngsters to get the work done.
Can you imagine selling drag queen story hour to a smoking room full of fat, boring, sensible old men? No, you can’t. It is because fat, boring, sensible old men are grounded in reality. They do not fly; they are too fat for it. Their ideas are not wild; they are too boring for it. They do not get swept up in enthusiasms—they are not Carry Nation, they are not Timothy Leary—because they are old, know that man’s mind is one part reason and nine parts air, and they have seen movements come and go, while the good earth remains solid under their feet.
Have we seen the last of them? They will see the last of us, if there are any such people left, as I suspect there are.