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GP 10 September 2008: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too?

Tales of Penknives.  The partners one year decided to give penknives, our name inscribed, to our clientele and acquaintances.  Our firm had long been in the habit of giving some modest trifle to our business friends during the Christmas season.  The thin little penknife, slight and silver, might become a letter opener or something to cut grandchildren’s tangled kite strings.  Another year we had given thimble-sized bottles of McIlhenny’s tabasco, but we suspect the thin, elegant knives went over better.


Only one recipient, then a Congressman and former head of one of America’s oldest Fortune 500 companies, knew the proper rejoinder that would preserve our friendship, which has long endured incidentally.  It’s thought, traditionally, that the transmittal of a knife could sever one’s friendship even with a close acquaintance.  In reading about knives, one learns that the recipient can steer bad demons away by returning a small coin as payment.  Our friend promptly sent us a penny taped to a bit of cardboard.  Our kinship is and was secure.


Polite Society.  In fact, polite society endures and humane customs refuse to die, but both have gone underground.  As in the secret societies of old, people of good will exchange little signals—even pennies—with one another to signal geniality and civility.  We are sorry in this regard that the hit show Mad Men, which speaks to the advertising world of the ‘60s, is so focused on unhappiness and perfidy.  For one could as well remember a New York City in the ‘50s and ‘60s that harbored an Eastern international establishment which accepted responsibility for one’s neighbors and for the world.  Greed was not its centerpiece, and good manners and decorum were not a sign of weakness.  Its spokesman was the very happy, fun Herald Tribune, owned by the Reid family and later Jock Whitney.  It set the stage for a Republican Party that put things together—a UN, a national highway program, and more—rather than ripping us apart.  Of course, that Tribune and that Republican Party are no more.


You can read about the Tribune’s joyous days as a great newspaper and shed a tear about its undoing in William Zinsser’s “The Daily Miracle,” a retelling of its workings by a journalist who saw its highs and lows.  Its problems in later years were many, but essentially the Reid children were not up to the task of running it, and tried to take the newspaper downmarket with the view of grabbing bigger circulation, deserting its upscale demographic base, and somehow thinking that the masses could save a class publication. In this they were not so different from both George Bushes, who have abetted the transformation of the Republican Party from grandfather Prescott’s cosmopolitan venture to today’s barricade mentality.  Like American business, it has been downsized, focusing only on slices of America instead of the whole.  Micro-marketing, driven by micro-thinking, has hypnotized its leaders.


Tear Down This Wall, Mr. Gorbachev.  On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan, speaking in Berlin, dared the Soviet Leadership to “Tear Down This Wall, Mr. Gorbachev.”  In this speech he summed up the drift of the Republican Party, as its center of power shifted to the West and South of the United States.  At its best—and at its worst—it had very much become a force for shattering institutions, often structures whose time had come and who were ready to go onto the junk heap of history.  Even when it became the party of government, rather than the party of opposition, it dwelled on dissolution of the old, not the creation of the new.


With the recent designation of nominees from Alaska and Arizona, the Republican Party has gone about as far West as it can go, surely forsaking any claims on the hearts of those who live east of the Mississippi.  The Northeast and West Coasts of this country could be lopped off and sent on their way to join up with the European and Asian land masses if this oddly reborn party had its way.  Many have noted that the Republican presidential ticket is running against Washington.  One reporter said that McCain, in his acceptance speech, campaigned against his own party as much as anything.  Historically, of course, the Republicans have often been out of power and needed to run in opposition.  But the strain of antagonism, the disintegrative zeitgeist, would now seem overdone and even destructive, since it has been the theme of the party for a half a century.


The Western Republican Party, as an article of faith, has long called for less government.  By this it means less federal government.  Of course, this fervor is especially pronounced in states that have received huge, huge amounts of federal largesse, and don’t want to be accountable for all the handouts they’ve gotten.  We once called this tendency biting the hand that feeds you.  Protracted adolescence and such fits of pique may cause some to rail against all our institutions, but these emotions do not forge resilient societies.


Leaving  Something Behind.   On May 15, 1989, the then chairman of BP America, Robert B. Horton, gave a very noteworthy commencement speech to the seniors at Case Western Reserve University.  He reminded his listeners that very few of us will change civilization, and only a handful of earth’s mortals will be remembered by generations to come.  That said, our worth on earth comes not from what we shatter, but from our ability to leave some beautiful shard for our descendants to enjoy.  He mused:


The glory of good work is that it has a chance of biding, if not forever, then at least awhile.  And the glory of individual men and women is the choice to work because we can, not merely because we must.  Unlike the Bible’s lilies of the field, men and women must toil and spin.  And we also can, through our work, take thought for the morrow.  Knowing as we do that time flies, we work to fling a glove in its grisly face.  “Do our worst,” we say to time, “but I will do my best, so that something, some fossil, hint or shard, remains while to show that I have lived.”


The gods define us by the little shards and burnished pieces we leave behind, not by our naked exertions of negative power where we ape reckless atoms caught up in a state of fission.


Idols Are Not Ideals.  Certain commentators, watching the Republican proceedings in Minnesota, worried that they were tuning in on a version of American Idol, rather than a re-creation of the American Ideal. As the conservative columnist David Brooks has realized, the Republicans have fallen into nothing short of  “weirdness.” Of course, others have accused Barack Obama of elitism, a repudiation of those who go for the low road with shots of bourbon or libelous rhetorical arrows.  We think that riposte fair.  There is no question that Obama and Biden are classier than their opponents, and one can wonder whether that will lose them the election.


Whatever one’s politics, this kind of hucksterism where Republicans try to run a campaign against the very Washington they rule can chill the spirit.  We can reasonably argue that our best leaders are for us, but not of us.  That we expect them to rise high, and to make us want to be better, not leading us into the mud.  Politics aside, we need all our  principal institutions to strive for and reek of excellence—academia, organized religion, and business.  Crass, we submit, is not an option for America if it wants to survive.  We require leaders in all sectors who are racing for the top, and want to take us there.  We desperately need a Republican Party that speaks to all sections of the country and to all our classes of people.


The Flight to Banality.  We have argued elsewhere that America cannot respond to global economic pressures by becoming the low-cost producer.  We are riddled with high costs, and they are not going away.  Even if we try to be the cheapest, we cannot get there because there are simply too many countries without our labor costs, our so-called ‘friction costs,” overhead costs (such as health), etc. etc.  We have to produce niche products that are not least cost, but best value.  This, you cannot do, if you are striving to be common, banal, just-get-by, low rent.  Paddle we may, but we will get nowhere swimming in the swamps.


John Gardner, as fine a public servant as this country produced in the 20th century and the founder of Common Cause, struggled with democracy’s contradiction—how can we extol average men yet strive to be creators of the best.  He touched on this in several places, particularly Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too?  This is and was the challenge of democracy—to always support the many but to produce a heap of the best. Both our pocketbooks and our spirits require a politics that will make us soar, not wallow.


The Lady from Scarsdale.  In the presidential election of 1944, the two main contenders were Franklin Roosevelt and Thomas E. Dewey.  In one district of Scarsdale, New York, the electorate went for Republican Dewey overwhelmingly, giving him 99.44% of the vote.  There was one lone vote for the perennial Socialist Candidate Norman Thomas.  A householder just home from his office in New York City, after a ride on New York Central’s Harlem Division, mused to his wife, “I wonder what cuckoo voted for Thomas.”  His wife said, “I did, Dear.”  “Why the devil did you do that,” he angrily retorted.  “Well, he is a nice man.”


Maybe that’s the challenge in 2008.  To find someone nice, who will scale the heights.  Thomas once said:


To us Americans much has been given; of us much is required.  With all our faults and mistakes, it is our strength in support of freedom our forefathers loved which has saved mankind from subjection to totalitarian power.


Just about now, we’re looking to find out what someone is for, not what they are against.


P.S.  Hitler started out to be an architect but wound up laying waste to Europe


P.P.S.   The fine regional architect Bernard Maybeck built houses that last, and last they have.  During the years when he was most active, many told him his houses were too costly.  A disciple who became a fine San Francisco architect remarked to us, “Sure they might look expensive.  Until you realize that they outlasted those of his competitors by 30 to 60 years.” It’s pure joy to wander about in a Maybeck home.


P.P.P.S.  The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpter, who eventually wound up at Harvard, argued that “creative destruction” made capitalism work.  Indeed, we have been destroying at a mad pace since 1990 and most likely it will go on to 2010.  Thoughtful people must embrace the idea that products and companies and other entities within a nation must be wiped out, before the new can happen.  But it is another thing again if that “creative destruction” threatens to wipe out a whole society.  Then men of good will must put on the brakes. Today, in many developed societies, we see the meat being ground into sausage, but, often, no food ever reaches the dinner table.

P.P.P.P.S.  Today the collective American debt is said to be $53 trillion.  A fair person would have to conclude that our government(s) our bankrupt.  Much of that debt has been run up since the early 1990s.  We’re in hock and cannot afford foolish wars, bridges to nowhere, healthcare where 1/3 of the expenditures are just plain wasted, and wanton expenditures by those in several walks of life who have seized more than their share of the Gross National Product.

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