Gotham Diary:
25 August 2014

Hobbling along into the final week of this year’s Fire Island sojourn, I am alarmed by new signs of decrepitude. The most worrisome is a tendency to get lost on my way back from the bathroom to the bed in the middle of the night. On two occasions, I walked in on guests before realizing where I was; happily no harm was done in either case. Last night, I came to on the sofa in the little television room. I knew where I was, and I scurried back to bed where I belonged, chilled to the bone by the damp seaside air. I dimly remembered the dreamed dismay of not being able to find a bed to lie down in. Oddly, this has never happened when I was alone in the house.

Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil came out for the weekend, but they left first thing yesterday morning. Early tomorrow morning, they’ll board a flight for a two-week junket in London and environs (including Paris for lunch). They’ll be attending several Proms concerts, and doing a lot of sightseeing: an English friend will drive them about the countryside to points from Bath to Rye, with Oxford, Blenheim, and Winchester between. Ray and Kathleen may even have lunch at some point. Kathleen will fly to London (for business) on Saturday, coming home Wednesday. She asked me if I’d like to come along, and even offered to upgrade to comfy seats, but I couldn’t possibly. The trip is too short, for one thing. More to the point, I’ve got the new season to begin.

There was a time when “the new season” meant concerts, plays, and parties. Now it means something more intimate and prosaic: establishing an order for everyday life that prioritizes and schedules various projects. There is the ever-loving problem of what to do with books: books in piles in the apartment, books at the back of shelves, books in the downtown storage unit, and so on. I am more keenly than ever aware that this book problem of mine is so peculiar to my time and socioeconomic niche that it will always be somewhat inexplicable; indeed, it is inexplicable to most people today. Ultimately, it is inexplicable even to me, for I really don’t know why I bought all those books — I don’t really know.

What was I thinking, for example, when I bought David Cannidine’s weighty tome, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy? Is it really an answer to say that I was thinking that I would read it — eventually? What reason did I have to think such a thing? It’s a scholarly survey, bristling with examples and percentages, that tells roughly the same story over and over again from slightly different perspectives. (Patrician participation in the House of Commons, the House of Lords, and the Government are all treated separately, as are the erosions of landowning and local authority.) It’s not really my kind of book at all. Eventually, I read it because of my book problem: unless I read it, more or less right now, I am going to have to get rid of it.

When the book was new, twenty-odd years ago, I regarded it aspirationally: it would be a good thing for me to have read such a book. As a rule for distinguishing books to buy from those to leave in the shop, this is self-evidently pathetic. Nonetheless, I am glad to be reading it at last: I’m ready for it. What could be a gloomy dirge sparkles with donnish wit.

[I]f Curzon was in some ways disqualified [as a potential prime minister] by being a peer, he was even more disqualified by being Curzon. … For all his gifts, he was a slightly ridiculous anachronism; he was out of touch with post-war Britain; his oratory was stately but inaccessible; he was overbearing, rude, and inconsiderate; and he was totally unsuited to dealing with such figures as trade-union leaders. …

But as with Curzon, Halifax’s peerage was largely an excuse, a rationalization that concealed deeper explanations: for just as a titled landowner of Curzon’s temperament had been unsuitable for the job in the circumstances of 1923, so a titled landowner of Halifax’s characteristics was no more appropriate in the very different circumstances of 1940. He had spent most of his life as a decorative but essentially marginal figure in politics and in government, and the thought of real power, of great responsibility, of the grievous ordeal that lay before him and the nation, made him feel physically sick. He did not want the job, under these — or any? — circumstances. Like Curzon, it was not so much his peerage, as his temperament, that was the decisive and deciding factor. In this case, it seems clear, Halifax could have had the job for the asking, but he did not want it; he did not push his claims; and he gave his peerage as his excuse.

There might still be some notables in politics, but they conspicuously lacked the will, the temperament, the qualifications, the appetite, for the very highest office. Indeed, it was only the extraordinary events of 1940 and the peculiar qualities of leadership then deemed desirable, that could bring to the Premiership the first patrician since Balfour: a man virtually as anachronistic as Curzon, an isolated outsider almost as marginal to the politics of the thirties as the Cecils — Winston Churchill himself.

It may be yet another indication of decrepitude, but this passage makes me think of Barack Obama, who also seems to lack an appetite for leadership in crisis. While from some perspectives the president’s background might appear to be radically different from those of the gentlemen mentioned in the passage above, I believe that, in the ways that matter, it was essentially the same. As a bright young man endowed with a great cultural and not inconsiderable financial affluence, Barack Obama was taught to regard the world as his oyster. But like so many of his elite cohort (in which I certainly number myself as an undistinguished elderly member), he appears to have learned far more about optimizing his own opportunities than about the urgency of protecting the fragile world in which they arise.

Leadership in our time has come to seem to be a matter of telling people in other countries what to do. In fact, the United States has never more desperately needed a president capable of persuading his countrymen that their own bad behavior is more dangerous than any foreign tyrant’s. Americans have sunk into a lotus-land habit of expecting others to bear the burdens of maintaining a democracy. To claim that poverty is the fault of the poor, that market adversities are the result of inept regulation, that environmental degradation is a hoax perpetrated by anti-business interests, and to outsource all the unpleasant jobs to disenfranchised menials and corporate hacks — these are signs of civic depravity to rival anything in Suetonius or Gibbon. The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page and its readers have contracted an updated equivalent of the lead poisoning that drove wealthy ancient Romans mad.

And it must be acknowledged that to play golf on a day of mourning for the victim of a sadistic act of terrorism — it is arguably impious to do such a thing. It is unquestionably incompetent to be seen doing it.