Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Brightest Spotlight in the World

In a private conversation, Samuel Johnson said that politics is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Surprisingly, the politician Johnson had in mind when he said this was Edmund Burke. James Boswell faithfully recorded the conversation, and published parts of it later, with Burke's name omitted, in his Life of Samuel Johnson. Johnson was very careful (this part of the conversation made it into Boswell's book) to say that he wasn't certain that this particular politician was a a scoundrel. But if he were a scoundrel, politics would afford him a refuge he did not reserve.

Johnson was notoriously hotheaded, he made all sorts of rash judgements which aren't generally accepted at face value, and I don't think we have good cause here to wonder whether Burke was a scoundrel. Even Johnson himself qualifies his damnation and says that maybe Burke is a scoundrel, as if he himself knows better than to say such a thing. I suspect that whatever Burke had done or Johnson suspected that he might have done to enrage Johnson, Johnson soon got over it or realized that he had only imagined the cause of his rage as having emanated from Burke.

And in any case, the great majority of the people who for two and a half centuries have heard and repeated the bonmot "Politics is the last refuge of a scoundrel" have never associated it with Burke, and just thought of it as a general warning about what politics can sometimes do when it is misused.

And it may have been a sound warning in the middle of the 18th century. But does it still hold weight today?

No, I really don't think so. I think it's much less true now than it was even 20 years ago, let alone 250. Media coverage of politicians has become so much more meticulous, and access to that coverage has become some much closer to universal, that politics today may be the last place where a clever scoundrel would run for cover.

Donald Trump has been a crooked, lying businessman for decades, that's what he's used to. As a businessman he didn't get away with all of his lies, but he got away with more of them because 1) people only did business with him when they chose to, unlike all of us having to deal with him being POTUS whether we like it or not; and 2) as a businessman he didn't have nearly as much media scrutiny. If you thought something he said was a lie, you couldn't just punch up a video of yesterday's board meeting to compare it to.

Who was it who first referred to the Presidency of the United States as "the brightest spotlight in the world"? Whoever it was, I don't think they were speaking during the Washington or John Adams or Jefferson administrations. Perhaps as recently as the Eisenhower administration, politics might have been a good place for a crooked businessman to run to after he had burned too many bridges in the private sector by burning to many customers and contractors and business partners. Perhaps.

Perhaps Donald Trump is so old-fashioned that he thought of politics as a good dark hole he could always scurry into when he wasn't getting with things any more with business as usual. Maybe he's so dumb that he scurried away to hide in the brightest spotlight in the world.

Be all of that as it may: the spotlight obviously isn't bright enough yet, or Trump never would've come near the Republican nomination, let alone the White House. Changing from the Electoral Collage to simple majority popular vote for POTUS would brighten things up a lot. And although my regular readers may be tired of me saying it over and over, let me say it again: proportional representation!

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