One of the many forms of self-promotion, at my old mater ferox, was a regular bulletin called “Princeton in the Nation’s Service,” detailing the many ways in which Princetonians past and present were making the world a better, that is a more Princetonian, place to live. I suspect that, after the ordinary fashion of human desires, some of it was noble, some of it merely the crafting of careers in politics, and some of it plain old selfishness. Given that more than half of my fellow Princetonians came from families of some wealth and prestige, and therefore insulation from the lives of farmers, carpenters, janitors, and housewives, they probably did their share of harm, though more from ignorance than from outright malice.
They were smart, proud, ambitious, rich, narrowly educated, dissipated but in a suave and self-controlled way, and relatively unchurched—not an auspicious combination. They are our Ruling Class, and even though most of them were liberals, I feel confident in saying that both political parties are stuffed full of them. For their most salient feature is that they take for granted that they ought to rule.
One evening, a civic-minded Princetonian showed up at my room, asking me to sign a petition to establish at Princeton what was called a Public Interest Research Group. From what I could gather, the PIRG was a vehicle for leftist political action; the cordial promoter of the PIRG admitted that they would probably not help to organize a home for unwed mothers, run by pro-life advocates.
Yet it was the advocate’s “best” argument for the PIRG that I found most persuasive against it. He said I should support it, because it would give more opportunities for Princetonians to be active in the social and political order. I replied that having Princetonians more active in the social and political order was the last thing I’d want. He was astonished. How could I not believe in the wisdom and moral superiority of Princetonians?
Oh, I don’t know; maybe four years of living among them and being one of them, maybe that’s what did it. I could talk about the booze, the pot, the sex; the antiquated and sad-sack wistfulness of preppies when they learned that Deerfield was only a high school after all; but that would be to let the real trouble elude me. There’s a lot of that at Land Grant State, too. Nor should I give the impression that most Princetonians were obnoxious. They weren’t. The campus was safe. Painfully shy though I was, I made friends there whose affection I still treasure, though some of us have grown apart over the years. I can never repay the debt I owe them for befriending me, nor have I done well at repaying it.
What’s the trouble, then? One that I think they share with that never-doubtful president they jauntily call Woody Woo: our Ruling Class is filled with people who do not habitually examine their consciences. They do not enter the confessional.
The confessional is a brush with death, as well it should be. In the confessional, we face our nothingness, and our worse than nothingness; our stubborn folly, our petty self-concern, our cowardice, our persistence in opinions because they happen to be ours; our hardness of heart towards what other people suffer, especially when we are the cause of it; our touchiness when we ourselves suffer, especially when we think we can point to the person who caused it; all that foul black dead lump of sin that lies upon the heart, subduing, stifling, smothering.
Nobody is really used to the confessional. How does one grow used to death and resurrection? But it occurs to me that our Ruling Class seem quite unaware that such a thing exists, or that if in their private moments they remember it, they forget it as soon as they enter the halls of power.
I wonder what would happen if our President were to say, “My fellow Americans, I’ve made many mistakes in my political life, and I beg your forgiveness. It was foolish for me to try to nationalize the medical profession, and it prolonged the recession just when we were about to climb out of it. I thank you for your confidence in me, but it is misplaced. This job is beyond me; it is probably beyond the capacity of any man, which is yet another argument against expanding the reach and the influence of the central government. As for my natural gifts, I can speak to crowds and read a speech fairly well, but I am not Cicero, or our own Daniel Webster. I hope, with the grace of God, to do some good in the three years remaining to me as your president, and to atone for some of the harm I have done. You have supposed that I was a genius. What can you have been thinking? Now let us set aside our partisanship, admit our folly, and attempt to make some sense out of the morass into which I and my fellows—and I trust that my fellows in the opposition party will not demur—have led the nation.”
That would be remarkable. It would be equally remarkable if the previous president were to say, “My fellow Americans, when I came to office I hoped that I could, from the sheer force of my convictions and my affability, craft something that seems now a contradiction in terms, a centralized conservatism to meet the needs of the poor, the illegal aliens, and children bound to bad schools. I had no inclination to take the country into war. We all know what happened then. I took the country into war first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. I believed that Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction. I confess that I wanted to believe it. As I look back upon it now, I see that I underestimated the confusions of war, and I never did understand the force of ideas, rather than of schemes, whether they are social or military. I never spoke ill of my adversaries, but now I fear that that was not meekness, but a proud refusal to take them seriously. In the long slide of our nation into moral decay and insolvency, my eight years played their sorry part. I beg your forgiveness.”
That would be astonishing. So too if the president before him were to admit, “My fellow Americans, we both know that I was probably the worst rogue and cad ever to sit in the Oval Office. I am a liar, and I always have been. I lied to you about my disgraceful affairs with women, a few of which, if anybody but a governor had engaged in them, would have landed me behind bars. I lied to you about how I raised money for my campaigns. I lied to you about my personal finances in Arkansas. What pains me the most is that my vile and pathetic sexual escapades did signal work in coarsening the culture. America would have been a far better place if, when I lay weeping on the floor of the car after I’d lost my first re-election campaign as governor, I had turned to the church and not to my political advisors. I have hurt my wife unspeakably all these years, and ask you to attribute to me much of her sadness and bitterness. I beg you to forgive me; and you would do well to forget me, too.”
The world of the Ruling Class is not real. The graduate from the Poison Ivy League will always have that pedigree, will always command attention, will fall from politician to lobbyist, or from lobbyist to politician, from partner in a law firm to well-remunerated head of a foundation, or from foundation to law firm. They are too “big” to fail. John Dewey could destroy the public schools of a nation, and not lose a dime over it or a minute of sleep.
Were the old rural aristocrats all so bad, by comparison? If they failed, the evidence was there to see and to condemn, in poor harvests and indebted lands. Every day of their lives they depended upon ordinary men and women who could do things they could not, and who might well ride a horse or shoot a rifle better than they. That gave them a decent chance to acquire real humility. Would I pay to help ensconce Princetonians or Yalies in political life? I’d rather pay to send them to confession. I’d go, too.