Note to Obama: Form a Council of Elders and Ignore the Dead and the Undead

Buffalo Bill’s defunct . . .
— E.E. Cummings

There can be no question now that we have come to the end of certain things that have made us what we are. As of Nov. 4, there are no longer any Republicans in office here in New England. The substance and sensibility of what was once considered a Yankee no longer exists.

But here in the North we have long been a very old house with empty rooms, as Andrew Wyeth presented our place before the war. Our most honored poet hails from San Francisco. And we clearly saw it coming a few years back when the Old Man of the Mountain’s head fell off during Little League practice. Actually, most Yanks left well over a hundred years ago.

And not just here. Even more fateful, perhaps, is the announcement that the Big Three automakers may pull out of NASCAR sponsorship. Can’t afford it. My friends in Wilkes County, N.C., saw that coming as well when the perfect master hit the wall in 2001. And then again when Toyota sponsored a car shortly thereafter.

“We don’t really race,” Dale Earnhardt once said. “We just exist together on the track.”

This might be the most sublime requiem for Ford and the other two, whom English Hindu Aldous Huxley considered the Creator Gods of American globalism.

I was delighted that Barack Obama had consulted “only with the living” when he talked to presidents, as he said in his first press conference last week. At every turn the press is referring him to the dead, particularly Kennedy, Roosevelt and Lincoln.

He is entirely screwed if he listens to them. Bear in mind that this is the same chorus of the press, apparently on life contracts, that egged on the 75 percent of Americans who supported the invasion of Iraq, waving from the back of Humvees, saying “I think the Iraqis are greeting us,” when in fact they were throwing us the finger. The same group, expecting and often receiving rapid advancement for their efforts, that told us it would be a cakewalk and be done in a week; the same group guaranteeing it would be a slam-dunk.

Roosevelt had full experience in World War I and was well prepared when World War II broke out — it was like picking up the same phone in the middle of the night, he said. Comparing the moral and organizational squalor in Iraq and Afghanistan today to Dunkirk and Normandy is in itself a travesty.

Obama has no such experience as Roosevelt had in war. And Roosevelt had the experience of four years of broken economy when he went forth to the presidency. Obama has a month.

The comparison with Lincoln is almost sacrilegious and all but guarantees Obama’s failure.

I admit to being one of the first to compare Obama with JFK, but back then I was way more concerned with who he was not than who he was. (He was not Hillary.) And then, as now, I have no idea who he is . . . nice narrative, though . . . although checking my notes, my first impression was that the prose seemed a little owing to Richard Wright, who had a less interesting story to tell but was a more compelling teller.

My first interest came primarily because Obama was not the spouse of a former president in a party so calcified and cultish and bereft of imagination that it could find no other — and she so dour that she had to be sent to a therapist to learn how to laugh. And when she finally did, it frightened the children.

Rule of thumb: In a time of change, never take advice from someone who inspired them when they were little (practically everyone) or when they were in college 30 or 40 years ago (Clintons, Gore, most everyone Obama knows in Chicago).

Don’t look back. That is how Lincoln, Roosevelt and Kennedy awakened the republic — by ignoring the voices of the past and the dead presidents.

A suggestion: New times require new structure and new substance. And a new idea: Call forth from the African tradition of village and tribe the custom of a Council of Elders.

Late in life, a Council of Elders was suggested by the great ambassador George Kennan, one of the most original thinkers since Franklin. Six men, six women. Obama picks his six, the Republicans pick their six.

Perhaps an even better idea, also suggested by Kennan, would be a similar council of a regional body of 12, one each from a different American place to temper the horde effect of mass-market, fast-food culture, government and people that has developed since television and is endemic, perhaps, to world capitalism. It has turned citizen to consumer in choosing cars, burgers, press, judges and politicians. This is a secondary legacy of Hamilton, Adams and the Yankees who used to live in New England when the rooms of the house were full, but quite likely it is an unintended consequence.

The usual groups intended to give wise counsel — the Supremes, the Congress — have become partisan and calcified. Obama’s first appointments suggest his Cabinet will be as well. The “post-partisan” quality to it suggested so far is window dressing … Chuck Hagel, Colin Powell. These people are de facto Democrats, just as Joe Lieberman is a de facto Republican. They are outlanders, dissidents disliked by their own party.

The purpose of bipartisanship is not to feel good about ourselves. It is to draw the best managerial abilities and insights and visions from the full spectrum into harmonious opposition.

An appropriate chairman or head of a study group for such a proposal might be someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California, who belongs to a party of one, as a recent book about him is called. Unlike Hagel and Powell, he is in fact liked and desired by both parties. Actually, a party of two, because his bro, Mike Bloomberg, mayor of New York, is as well. These two are actually post-partisan. They are also most immune to the spirits of the dead — and the voices of the undead in press and Congress today who constantly channel them.

This approach of Kennan’s is in opposition to what is called Best Practices in business and academic circles. Best Practices calls on successful people in different disciplines to hear their opinions and strategies, to be emulated by others not so clever. Obama cites “best practices” in his correspondence, for example, in his letter on Fannie and Freddie to consider remedies. But Best Practices, as a managerial technique, are only helpful as the arc rises to the top of continuing positive trends. At a sea change, a great crisis or a time of breakage like the one at Fannie and Freddie, the same procedures and strategies ensure failure.

Send the car guys back to Detroit; a federally inspired car industry will only bring forth an American Hugo. Send the ’60s types back to the college cafeteria — as Obama suggested in his autobiography. And send the New Dealers back to the land of the dead; federalizing a service economy in a fully developed federation like ours will destroy it.

The lesson today from New Hampshire and Wilkesboro should be that when the creator spirits leave, let them go.


Visit Mr. Quigley's website at http://quigleyblog.blogspot.com.