Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Do-Nothings: Two Contrasting Figures

On the one hand, we have this old observation:

One of the lessons of history is that nothing is often a good thing to do and always a clever thing to say. -- Will Durant

...and on the other, we have the archetypal figure of Nero playing his lyre while Rome burned. Clearly, the "common wisdom" on the subject of doing nothing is a bit mixed. Inasmuch as our current president is a Do-Nothing of the first water, and inasmuch as the world is currently sprinting to Hell in a Lamborghini, just now Do-Nothingism is probably having a bad patch. Yet it behooves us to look back a few years at another famous Do-Nothing president, one of the most popular of the century behind us: Calvin Coolidge.

Of "Silent Cal" many pithy things have been said. Perhaps the funniest is Dorothy Parker's observation that only Coolidge was able to pronounce the word cow in such a fashion as to give it four syllables. Perhaps the most substantive was H. L. Mencken's verdict that "There were no thrills while he reigned, but neither were there any headaches. He had no ideas, and he was not a nuisance." But the one I like best comes from an unnamed citizen-veteran of the Coolidge years:

"The public wanted nothing done, and he done it."

Clearly, Coolidge happened along at a time when Do-Nothingism was the right philosophy of governance for these United States.

Coolidge's tenure followed the Wilson and Harding presidencies, each of which was marked by tumult. The American people had experienced global war, albeit not on our own soil, and (through Congress) had firmly and resolutely declined further intimate participation in any troubles beyond our shores. They had also endured Teapot Dome and some less well known scandals, and were eager for an Administration that would spare them (and itself) any similar embarrassments. The nation, in short, wanted peace and quiet.

There were blots on the landscape, of course. Some came in the form of the gangland wars in the large cities, the most visible consequence of Prohibition. Others arose over Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover's unprecedented interventionism, particularly his regulation of radio broadcasting, which elicited considerable combat over this exploding channel for news and entertainment. And of course, the Federal Reserve system was busily creating the conditions that would eventuate in the Great Depression. However, the period was generally considered the zenith of laissez-faire governance in the Twentieth Century.

Coolidge was instrumental in creating and maintaining this condition. He became known as a no-nonsense executive. What did not need to be done, he would not do, nor would he permit it to be done by others; what needed to be done, he would see to at once. As he regarded the former category as infinitely larger than the latter, Washington tended to be a quiet place, hardly obtruding upon the national consciousness, from 1923, when he succeeded Warren Harding, to 1929 when he yielded the office to the far differently inclined Herbert Hoover.

Superficially, Barack Hussein Obama came into the Oval Office under conditions broadly similar to those Coolidge inherited. Certainly, the nation was weary from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The financial crisis of late 2008 and early 2009 had unsettled the national economy and cast a dubious light upon various elements of recent federal policy. Rumblings from abroad suggested that America's international relations could use some soothing oil poured on the troubled international waters. Americans wanted peace and quiet as much as our forebears of the Twenties.

The difference was that we didn't get it.

Obama proved to be the worst sort of Do-Nothing: the mouthy sort. He pontificated endlessly about the direction federal policy "must" take -- always and relentlessly interventionist -- but left all details of planning and implementation to subordinates. Worse yet, he disdained to ponder historical experience, refused to listen to adverse observations and advice, and treated all criticism as a personal attack. Even the massive electoral reversals of November 2010 could not get him to admit to error; he maintained that his Administration's sole failing was in "not explaining its policies clearly enough." In short, for Obama, the presidency is nothing but a pulpit from which he can orate to the electorate.

Obama's most visible behaviors have been recreational: his basketball fetish, his many extravagant vacations, and his endless rounds of golf.

The past six years have been grim ones for these United States. We're being mocked internationally for having thrown away the gains of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Our putative allies no longer trust us, and our adversaries have grown confident that they can discount us. Our economy, nominally in a slow, painful recovery, is actually deteriorating due to massive currency inflation: a misguided, FDR-like attempt to revive us by creating money. The Justice Department has become an Injustice Department. The Department of Homeland Security, in collaboration with progressively militarizing local and state police departments, is turning the nation into a police state. Americans' civil liberties, undermined by NSA snooping and the use of the IRS to intimidate the Administration's political opponents, are the worst endangered they've been since the draft riots of the Wilson years. Throw in the de facto open borders and the relentless assault on the right to keep and bear arms, and the picture is essentially complete.

And Obama plays his lyre golf while America burns.

It is possible, as Mark Steyn has written, that Obama considers himself above the presidency -- that "the job is too small for him," and therefore unworthy of his personal attention and effort. It's equally possible that he's merely adrift amid these mushrooming disasters, and as he's emotionally incapable of listening to adverse advice or admitting to a mistake, can't imagine what he could do about any of it. And it's equally possible that he really hates this country and that his vision of a "fundamentally transformed" America is one that lies in ruins, its military emasculated and its people reduced to penury. Or perhaps some combination of the above possibilities is more correct than any of them in isolation.

However, all we have for evaluation is what we can see. And what we can see is that Barack Hussein Obama, in his personal attention to federal governance, makes Calvin Coolidge look like a whirling dervish of activity.

There's a moral in there, somewhere.


Anonymous said...

I either don't understand or don't agree with this entry. It seems to contradict itself. First we're reminded of how Calvin Coolidge was a do-nothing president, and that Obama is relentlessly [domestically] interventionist. Both of these points seem to be accurate. But then we're told that Coolidge is made to look like a "whirling dervish of activity" compared to Obama. This must be a mistake. Obama is the whirling dervish. It's hard to imagine a President who could inflict more well-placed, effective damage to the country. Now if you're talking about the EFFECTIVENESS, or the ostensible concern for American good, then yes, Calvin Coolidge was essentially of no effect, a "whirling dervish" of no-damage-via-no-action, and Obama is essentially like a small-scale take-over of the government by a hostile foreign power. At any rate, we would agree, I think, that Obama sucks, and is very clearly the worst President ever, insofar as a President is meant to "preside" over the republic and not hack and chop at its very foundation.

Francis W. Porretto said...

Anon: Obama is only willing to decree vague, often ambiguous policy directions, Anon. He takes absolutely no interest, and exerts absolutely no effort, in what follows. Everything else is to be taken care of by his lieutenants, his caucuses in Congress, and his pet regulatory agencies. He's much too busy plyaing golf, basketball, cycling, and flying off on expensive vacations and fundraising trips.

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with you entirely. Obama has tried to transform America and has accomplished most of what he wanted. He has made us a police state that Hitler could only dream of. He has reshaped the map and created the caliphate. By allowing Iraq to collapse, indeed by causing its collapse while sending 400 Hellfire missiles, 250 Abrahms, Stingers, and how many aircraft that the Iraqis couldn't use effectively but would transform the balance of power in the Middle East. He knew these weapons would go to the jihaddies and with them Syria is toast. Once Iran controls Syria and Iraq what do you think happens to the Gulf and Saudi?

If North Korea is a threat what would North Korea be if it controlled 30% of the world's oil?

He has destroyed the economy and allowed foreigners to invade the US in massive numbers. Worse he has caused the American people to regard the government as their worst nightmare and danger? What future can such a nation have?

A do nothing who has accomplished nothing? I think not.