At a reception recently, an Army general who was about to retire was asked by a friend of mine what he intended to do in his new life, without all the challenges of being a leader in war and peace.
He thought for barely a minute before the answer came back. “I’m going to write a book,” he said serenely, apparently without giving the whole business a moment of further thought.
Being in a smart-aleck mood - and having gone through the inhuman struggle of writing columns and books for a questionable “living” for many years - I dropped my usual courtesy and came right back at him. “Yes,” I said with a sardonic smile, “and when I retire, I’m going to be a general.”
He kept on chatting without giving my immensely clever retort even an angry nod. Soon he moved away - probably to get right to the typewriter to write that best-selling book!
I mention this chance encounter now, in the middle of the presidential campaigns, because it seems to me to be instructive of the sickness in these contests: the idea that our leaders have to be “just like us,” that they have to have the same kitchen tables and sit around them wringing their hands over the same problems, that none of them can be superior in the slightest way or we will kill them dead (as we used to say on the South Side of Chicago) with the moniker of “elitist.” This is the infantile sense of the most important political campaign in the history of the greatest nation on Earth.
It’s not that we’re striving for higher and more respected levels, it’s that we need to bring everybody down to lower ones. Genuine abilities and accomplishments have to be ignored and diminished, lest anyone look superior, even in a specialized knowledge or craft. How the genuinely talented Barack Obama made it to this level is just amazing. His problem is not his race, fellow citizens, it’s that he’s so elegant and smart.
When John McCain named Sarah Palin as his vice presidential candidate (someone, frankly, I had never heard of before), she was introduced at the party meeting with, “She’s a mom like you.” In effect, she is a woman, and that, in our species, is interchangeable. Hillary Clinton, Geraldine Ferraro, Sarah Palin, all are moms. Exactly what being a mother has to do with running a country, sending the military on missions around the world and regulating the economy is left for us to imagine.
Was nothing valuable given to our nation by leaders like Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Douglas MacArthur, Dean Acheson and the first President Bush, elitists all, who brought character and dignity to public service?
The problem is not democracy, but that we have come to have “egalitarian democracy,” a term I first became familiar with from Fritz Kraemer, the Pentagon thinker who was Henry Kissinger’s mentor. As he is quoted in Hubertus Hoffmann’s excellent book about him: “We don’t want people to be exceptional, to tower above others. We want mediocre - and with time, increasingly mediocre - people that don’t differ from each other. In other words, we want a deeper and deeper average.”
Kraemer was born in Prussia and throughout his life advanced, most often without giving an inch to any other conceptions, the cry for an elite, because, he said, “the ideal of an egalitarian society has quite simply led to a loss of quality.”
” ‘Excellence’ in Latin means to stand out, but we do not really look for genuinely outstanding people who are ‘taller’ than the average. There is, on the contrary, a desire for sameness, for comfortable mediocrity, for conformity, which is inherently intolerant of any kind of superiority. This alone is a great obstacle to the selection of the non-mediocre.”
The call for a false sameness, and for the destruction of anyone who dares to be truly superior, has been dominant throughout this campaign. Television hungers for “red meat,” which is truly a cry for the destruction of the different. The media in general set up every campaign event as not a chance to understand an issue or clear one’s thinking, but as a Roman gladiator’s fight, in which the weak only inherit the wind. Remember how, at the Democratic Convention, leaders recalled over and over their miserable childhood experiences instead of their ability in overcoming them? To appear to know something that the mob does not marks the thumbs-down of the conflict.
But would it not be better to acknowledge that we are all different - we are not “all moms” or any other single thing - and that we should seek out the superior to rule our nation instead of the less talented?
The problem is this: Once you start with the egalitarian nonsense, which of course is what communist Marxism was all about, it’s not only about politics; it’s about our whole culture. Everything gets dumbed down for this one Mr. Average Man and Mrs. Mom, whether it’s radio or television or public life. That’s the price of not recognizing elites.
And that’s why generals think they can write books when they retire. We won’t recognize that different people have different talents, abilities, strengths and weaknesses, and that we gain by identifying with their strengths, as they gain by immersing themselves in ours. That’s not elitism; that’s common sense.
President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney did not appear in person at the Republican Convention in deference to the recent threat to New Orleans. They couldn’t care a twinkle the first time around. If that’s phony populism, and it is, give me elitists any time.
Georgie Anne Geyer is a nationally syndicated columnist.