Friday, September 5, 2008
Whitman on Palin
Back on July 4th, I posted this passage from the introduction to Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, 1855 edition. It expresses, perhaps as much as anything I've ever read, the essence of America:
Other states indicate themselves in their deputies . . . . but the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors . . . but always most in the common people. Their manners speech dress friendships -- the freshness and candor of their physiognomy -- the picturesque looseness of their carriage . . . their deathless attachment to freedom -- their aversion to anything indecorous or soft or mean -- the practical acknowledgment of the citizens of one state by the citizens of all other states -- the fierceness of their roused resentment -- their curiosity and welcome of novelty -- their self-esteem and wonderful sympathy -- their susceptibility to a slight -- the air they have of persons who never knew how it felt to stand in the presence of superiors -- the fluency of their speech -- their delight in music, the sure symptom of manly tenderness and native elegance of soul . . . their good temper and openhandedness -- the terrible significance of their elections -- the President's taking off his hat to them not they to him -- these too are unrhymed poetry. It awaits the gigantic and generous treatment worthy of it.
I thought about this passage today, and wondered whether there isn't something unseemly about questioning someone's qualifications for the office of president in a country where the people are supposed to be sovereign:
"...the air they have of persons who never knew how it felt to stand in the presence of superiors..."
What a terrible nobility in that simple sentence fragment that Whitman used to describe all of us! Because what else binds Americans together more than the idea, certainly more abstract at times than real, that we are all common people?
And yet, it's a tricky question:
"...the terrible significance of their elections -- the President's taking off his hat to them not they to him..."
Even more so when it comes to the office of vice-president, which has the peculiar feature (not always historically the case) of being voted on only obliquely.
But the beauty of the American system of government, its genius, is not just that it taps its greatest strengths -- as well as its greatest weaknesses -- directly from the strengths and weaknesses of the American people, but that it hedges them with the institutional checks and balances that prevent passion from overtaking reason, and reason from losing its bearings.
All of which is to say, there's no point trying to disqualify someone from running for office, when the Founders devised a very simple method for doing so called the ballot. In a democracy, a people gets the government it deserves. And as Abe Lincoln put it, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time." Either you believe that or you don't. But the beauty of America is that just as no one is entitled to office, neither is anyone excluded from seeking it.