Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe
David Brooks began his column in last Friday’s New York Times with a quote from Clinton Rossiter comparing government to fire: "Under control, it is the most useful of servants; out of control, it is a ravaging tyrant." Brooks didn’t come right out and say that tyrant is now trampling our liberties, but he sees alarming signs. "Most government workers are amazingly dedicated and talented," he allowed, but there are too many others who "far from checking their own desire for control, have taken it out for a romp." His eye on recent IRS and Justice Department scandals, Brooks diagnosed a "culture of unrestraint" in Washington and worried that federal regulators writing new health-care and financial rules will "expand their reach beyond anything now imagined."
The job of a headline writer is to get to the point the careful columnist might have only hinted at. The headline over Brooks’s column said bluntly: "When Governments Go Bad."
So there, exposed, is a moderate writer’s immoderate message: Barack Obama is running a rogue government. But what can we expect? Obama’s from Chicago.
In the frequently stated view of John Kass, that explains everything about the president that needs explaining. Kass wrote a column in the Sunday Tribune that vividly dissected our local dystopia. He began by reminiscing about the rambunctious Greek family he grew up in: "We’d all sit around the dinner table, many uncles and aunts and cousins, young and old. There were conservatives and socialists, Roosevelt Democrats and Reagan Republicans and a few bewildered, equivocal moderates in between, everyone squabbling, laughing, telling stories." But one Sunday when he was 12 or 13, he stopped the hallowed after-dinner debate dead in its tracks with an innocent question: "We talk politics every Sunday, we fight about this and that, so why aren't you politically active outside?"
After all, this is America, said young John. "Are you in your good senses?" answered his father. "We have lives here. We have businesses. If we get involved in politics, they will ruin us."
And Kass tells us, "I didn’t understand it all back then, but I understand it now. Once there were old bosses. Now there are new bosses. And shopkeepers still keep their mouths shut. Tavern owners still keep their mouths shut. Even billionaires keep their mouths shut. One hard-working billionaire whose children own the Chicago Cubs dared to open his mouth. Joe Ricketts considered funding a political group critical of Obama before last year's campaign. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama's former chief of staff, made it clear that if the Cubs wanted City Hall's approval to refurbish decrepit Wrigley Field, Ricketts better back off.
"It happened. He backed off. It was sickening. But it was and is Chicago."
And now that the IRS has "used its political muscle" to cow the president’s political opponents, says Kass, "America understands it too."
When Kass was a boy the basic principles of Chicago-style tyranny were revealed to him. What was revealed to me at a similar age was that the noisiest uncles are often the biggest blowhards, and that the moderates who can barely get a word in edgewise may be neither bewildered nor equivocal. It’s the moderate in me that concedes Kass is probably more right than wrong yet can’t resist pointing out that my wife became a shopkeeper almost 45 years ago and her business thrived although she didn’t keep her mouth shut. It’s the moderate in me that asks if Kass misremembers when he tells us the Ricketts family was seeking simple approval from City Hall to refurbish Wrigley Field a year ago, when patriarch Joe Ricketts was linked to a 54-page strategy called "The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama: The Ricketts Plan to End His Spending for Good." Weren’t the Ricketts also asking for about $150 million in public funds? Didn’t Rahm Emanuel, President Barack Hussein Obama’s former chief of staff, find himself with the no-brainer choice of either shoveling public money at the Rickettses while they spent their own trying to destroy his old boss, or telling them to go to hell?
And what’s happened since? Kass was apparently sickened to see it, but the Ricketts family turned to Plan B, which involved spending their own money, City Hall came back to the table, and the Cubs’ refurbishing plans were approved. Meanwhile, poor old Joe Ricketts has made a name for himself in Chicago by underwriting DNAinfo.com Chicago, the most promising experiment in digital journalism going on in this city. It’s the moderate in me that makes me hope Kass took a dose of Metamucil and got whatever sickened him out of his system, as nobody else seems to be suffering any ill effects at all.
Moderation is the enemy of punditry. Weigh every word and you’ll never finish tomorrow’s column. I’m looking now at the op-ed piece George Packer, a New Yorker writer, contributed to Monday’s New York Times. Its subject is celebrity. I don’t believe Packer has a single original or interesting thing to say about celebrity, but he's given us a rant, and there are always readers eager to read a rant and shake their fists and cry, "By God, yes!" Says Packer, "The celebrity monuments of our age have grown so huge that they dwarf the aspirations of ordinary people, who are asked to yield their dreams to the gods." The moderate in me recoils from this as highfalutin gibberish.
"Instead of a vibrant literary culture," says Packer, giving us some idea of how bad things are, "we have Oprah’s book club." Binary thinking is a reliable sign of the immoderate mind in action. Our choices are always between an either and an or. I don’t know what a vibrant literary culture is supposed to look like, but I do know that among a lot of my friends the question isn’t whether they belong to a book group but how many? I belong to just one, and it’s never occurred to any of us that we are either aping Oprah or defying her. But if I understand Packer correctly, it’s got to be one or the other.
The world is either going to hell or it’s not. Pundits who don’t think it is have a lot more trouble finding subjects.