The Potemkin presidency


Clinton’s has gained popularity by broadening the perception of the Democratic Party as a party for lower and middle classes in addition to the poor. His policies he promoted served to create a permanent Democratic majority.

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Having written off Bill Clinton for most of 1995, Republicans are now tempted to ascribe supernatural powers of persuasion to him. Neither attitude encourages constructive thought on how to counter his strategy. But despite the image of an Administration adrift, President Clinton has arrived, through a mixture of accident and design, at a strategy for Democrats to survive and perhaps even prosper in ideologically uncongenial times. While there may not be a Clintonian ideology, it is possible to speak of a Clintonian style of politics.

Its most important feature has been the attempted retooling of the Democratic Party as the servant of middle-class interests through the mechanism of government. Clinton pollster Stan Greenberg explained the reasoning in a much-noted essay in the Fall 1991 American Prospect: “Democrats need to rediscover broad-based social policy that sends a larger message: Democrats are for ‘everybody,’ not just the ‘have-nots.’ That means defending and enlarging social insurance initiatives that reach the lower and middle classes rather than constructing safety nets that protect only the poor.” Means-tested programs stigmatize recipients and are, Greenberg thinks, easy to cut; middle-class entitlements are forever.


National health insurance, a longstanding goal of the Left, was thus also a means of expanding the Democratic voter base and creating a permanent Democratic majority. It would do to the middle class what Social Security had done to the elderly: make a majority of them beholden to the Federal Government and its political champions, in this case for their very lives. As Grace-Marie Arnett points out (p. 42), the Clintons have pursued this objective with essentially Fabian tactics. They have tried to establish beachheads within the health-care market from which to launch new government interventions. The Clintons’ 1993 – 94 health-care “reform” effort would have been a large, and probably irreversible, step toward socialized medicine. Time is already beginning to obscure just how close they came.

Clinton’s repeated proposals to expand subsidies for higher education are a smaller-scale version of the same entitlement strategy. The government will now step forward to finance increased access to the very sectors of the economy the government has most inflated. It’s a proposal well crafted to help Clinton make inroads among traditional GOP strongholds in the middle class and even upper middle class. The Republican Congress has forced Clinton to spend more time playing defense: instead of increasing public dependence on government, he has been vigilantly blocking cuts in government programs that benefit people who work. Clinton’s massive expansion of the earned income tax credit, and subsequent determination to protect that expansion from Republican budget-cutters, is a case in point.

Even on welfare, where President Clinton has felt it necessary to appear responsive to middle-class demands for reform and retrenchment, he has assiduously avoided policies that would reduce the scope and power of government or its allied institutions in liberaldom. Indeed, as Robert Rector observes (p. 40), Clinton originally sought window-dressing reforms that would actually increase the power of the welfare establishment.

After the Republicans took Congress, he moved toward a liberal version of welfare reform, which, geared as it is toward processing people through welfare rather than keeping them off it, creates opportunities for expanding state services: child-care subsidies, job training, transportation assistance, child-support enforcement. Clinton has followed a similar pattern on education: he has a long history of supporting the least reform the public demands and the most the education establishment will tolerate. So, for instance, he’s all in favor of charter schools, as long as they don’t escape the burden of federal regulations or threaten the power of teachers’ unions.

To woo the middle class, Clinton has also had to tack center-right on “values.” Greenberg readily acknowledged the point in his 1991 essay: “Democrats cannot win over the average family,” he wrote, “unless there are some limits on the party’s moral agnosticism.” Clinton’s cultural rhetoric is now to the right of George Bush’s. We know that President Clinton read Ben Wattenberg’s Values Matter Most, and he has talked incessantly about “values” ever since. (The popularity of that word ought, incidentally, to depress conservatives. “‘Values’ beat ‘virtues’ eleven to nothing in a focus group we did,” says pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick. “It’s amazing Bill Bennett sold any books.”)

On social and cultural issues, Clinton has used the bully pulpit quite effectively to signal that he shares the public’s values. And if, when Clinton says that he supports introducing school uniforms or firing incompetent teachers, some people are misled to believe that he has some policy initiative to translate the rhetoric into reality, well, that’s no skin off his back. He has struck a particularly tough pose on crime, though, as David Kopel observes (p. 43), there is much less to his record than meets the eye. Clinton’s gauzy communitarian rhetoric is also deployed on fiscal issues. During last fall’s budget showdown, he was constantly claiming to be defending “our values” from Republicans intent on taking medicine away from the elderly and protection from the environment. This kind of values-laden talk is probably necessary for parties of the Center – Left for the foreseeable future. (Tony Blair, leader of Britain’s Labour Party, does it too.)

In addition to pulling more middle-class voters into the Democratic coalition, President Clinton also wanted to co-opt parts of American business. In some respects, ClintonCare was a failed attempt to do so: it offered major financial benefits to large manufacturers and insurers. The Administration’s support for high-tech subsidies was a play for Silicon Valley. The re-orientation of American trade policy toward bilateral deals, sometimes company-specific, enabled the Administration to dispense favors to exporters at its discretion. And the ultimate logic of the “corporate responsibility” themes many Democrats are pushing is to transform American businesses into docile servants of the welfare state.

IN HIS zeal to expand his base, Clinton has not forgotten more reliable Democratic constituencies. So federal funding of labor unions has increased (and it has been made easier for them to use compulsory dues on political activity). The Violence Against Women Act has funneled money to feminist organizations, and “AIDS education” programs to the gay Left. The 1993 “stimulus” bill was a payback to big-city mayors; when it failed, much of its substance was included in the next year’s crime bill. Restrictions on the politicization of the federal work force have been loosened considerably.


Clinton’s sheer political talent should not be underestimated as a factor in the success of this strategy. Nor, for that matter, should the frequency and facility of his lies. He is able to call high-mindedly for bipartisan statesmanship and then, in the next breath, launch a furious attack on the motives of his opponents –who, we are to believe, want children to drink dirty water, eat diseased meat, and smoke. Yet Clinton is simultaneously a soothing figure. He is able to appeal to that strain of public sentiment that wants the noise and bickering from Washington to stop. His rhetoric is also appealing because it tells the voters they can have it all: a balanced budget without cutting entitlements; environmental regulation without economic costs; welfare reform without anyone suffering. He’s the perfect practitioner of the politics of painlessness: for everything that’s good, against everything bad. (In fairness, some Republicans, particularly of the Gingrich – Kemp brand, are prone to this as well.)

Another reason for Clintonism’s success is that, as many commentators have noted, this White House focuses on its political health to an unprecedented degree. American foreign policy toward Ireland and Haiti has been driven largely by domestic political considerations. The church-burning issue was basically a whipped-up hysteria designed to persuade black voters that white racism is still the chief threat to their well-being. And the Administration skillfully orchestrates the appearance of a constant flurry of activity — no matter how microscopic the initiative or gesture, how inadequate the rapid response. The Administration provides motion without progress, a perpetual campaign. President Clinton hasn’t declared for re-election; would anyone notice if he did?

The chief vulnerability of Clintonism is that even the boldest New Democrat cannot afford to cross some constituencies that are out of sync with the public. Clinton can’t sign legal reform because of the trial lawyers. He was willing to anger organized labor over NAFTA, but he has done its bidding on striker replacement and other workplace issues; if the Democrats do well this November, they will be greatly indebted to the AFL-CIO’s vigorous campaign on their behalf. And Clinton would not have dared to sign the bill banning partial-birth abortions for fear of incurring the wrath of feminists, a calculation that highlights the vacuum where Clintonism’s moral core should be. But the issue that most devastatingly gives the lie to Clinton’s pretensions of conservatism — his support of race and gender preferences –appears to have been dropped by his opposition.

The consolation for conservatives is that Clinton doesn’t move the debate; he merely positions himself within it. In the first year of the Administration, William Kristol compared the condition of American liberalism to that of Soviet Communism in the late 1970s: both were seemingly dominant, both utterly hollow. For a time it was fashionable in conservative circles to describe health-care reform as liberalism’s Afghanistan, the fatal overreach that would precipitate the empire’s collapse. Yet in neither case has the old order been unequivocally defeated.

Now, writes Johnathan Sunley in the summer National Interest, “Communism as a dogma is dead. . . . The problem facing supposedly ‘post-Communist’ societies is not a revival of that ideology, but the survival of power structures that escaped the ‘revolutions’ of 1989 more or less unscathed.” Just so with contemporary liberalism and the “revolution” of 1994. If Bill Clinton wins re-election, his legacy could be that America enters the twenty-first century shackled by the institutional residua of an ideology almost nobody any longer believes.

>>> View more: A second look at McCain: could he be the strongest GOPer?

A second look at McCain: could he be the strongest GOPer?

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WHILE Hillary Clinton is looking like a sure bet for her party’s nomination, only the reckless would wager their own money on the likely Republican nominee. With the presence of Fred Thompson and the absence of Newt Gingrich, the GOP field is now complete–and completely without a conventional frontrunner. Its fluidity has prompted a second look by the rank and file: Republicans seeking to keep their party’s base intact, while appealing to independents in order to have a shot at defeating Hillary, are taking another look at John McCain.

A veteran GOP congressional aide who has been a critic of McCain, most recently on the issue of immigration, recently surprised himself by concluding that the Arizona senator would be the best general-election candidate. This strategist seeks a nominee who will unify and energize the base, who has the potential to win, and who makes fellow Republicans competitive. He notes that McCain is pro-life and strong on national security, and has long been in favor of fiscal restraint. In addition to unifying social, economic, and national-security conservatives, he argues, McCain has a maverick image that can appeal to the independent voters who abandoned the GOP in droves in 2006.

The Christian-conservative leaders toying with the ruinous idea of a third-party challenge represent the legitimate concern that the nomination of Rudy Giuliani would fracture the winning coalition that has prevailed in five of the last seven presidential elections. The coalition includes both evangelicals and ethnic Catholics who have backed Republican candidates based on their positions on social and cultural issues rather than on tax policy or national security.


In a year when Democrats are heavily favored to win the White House, many conservatives are unwilling to experiment with the notion that a wholly new coalition, with fewer social and cultural conservatives, will coalesce around a socially liberal Northeast Republican. No such candidate has been recently elected statewide, even in the Northeast.

Giuliani enjoys a persistent perch at the top of the national polls, while the resistance to his candidacy remains equally persistent. Pollster Scott Rasmussen notes that the former mayor’s support is less than 30 percent and doubts that it can grow by much. (Hillary Clinton’s lead is far more formidable, besting her nearest competitor by 30 points in some national polls.) Republican voters obviously know Giuliani as “America’s Mayor,” a hero of 9/11–but despite this positive image as a tested, tough leader, a large majority of Republicans resist him. Even his supporters aren’t well-informed about his positions: A September CBS/New York Times poll found that only 41 percent of those who favored Giuliani for the nomination knew that he is pro-choice on abortion. National polling by Pew Research has found that only 4 out of 10 Republicans nationwide are able to identify his abortion position. It is hard to imagine his support growing among conservative voters, given what they will come to learn about both his liberal views on social issues and his operatic personal life.

Many Republicans are also doubtful of Mitt Romney’s ability to unify and energize the Republican base. Some worry about the recent vintage of his conservative views on abortion, gay rights, and guns. Others note the regrettable but real resistance to a Mormon candidate on the part of some evangelicals. If a significant number of these people stay home because they reject the appeal that the former governor shares their values, if not their faith, other Republican candidates will also pay a price for their prejudice.

While Fred Thompson’s record and platform should be able to unify the GOP base, it is unclear whether he will prove to have the fortitude and drive John McCain displayed in 2000. McCain’s present underdog campaign is marked by that same energy and determination. The initial bounce in the polls that met Thompson’s entry into the race has been slipping away. Some have predicted a “Fred fizzle” that Scott Rasmussen is not yet willing to declare; John McCain is the candidate most likely to benefit from a second look by Fred Thompson’s supporters, should it appear his candidacy is not as viable as they had hoped.

When the false assumptions that the case for Giuliani rests on are stripped away, McCain emerges as the stronger candidate. According to Giuliani’s supporters, the fact that he has the best chance to beat Hillary is chief among the former mayor’s attributes. He is leading the pack in part because plenty of Republicans share this mistaken view. A late September NBC/Wall Street Journal poll revealed that 47 percent of GOP primary voters think Giuliani is their best bet against Hillary. Giuliani topped Thompson and McCain as the most competitive general-election candidate by 30 points.

But this impression is flatly contradicted by the candidates’ standings in head-to-head match-ups: In the average of polling results compiled by RealClearPolitics, McCain is the most competitive candidate against Hillary. In recent polling, Hillary has been beating Giuliani by a margin of 6.2 points; her winning margin against McCain is 4.7 points.

Giuliani’s backers argue that his candidacy would put Northeast states like Pennsylvania in play and boost Republican prospects in other battleground states such as Ohio. But, again, recent polling indicates that Giuliani is no more competitive than McCain in these states. An October poll by Quinnipiac University found Hillary beating both Giuliani (48-42) and McCain (48-41) in Pennsylvania, and in Ohio as well (46-40 against Giuliani and 48-38 against McCain, with the difference within the poll’s margin of error). Giuliani and McCain poll virtually the same against Hillary in Florida: She wins 46-43. Both candidates clearly benefit from being the most widely recognized Republicans.


Based on the false assumption that Giuliani is the most competitive candidate against Hillary Clinton, the false choice offered Republican voters is to back either the candidate most likely to win or the candidate they most agree with on the issues. But based on current polling, McCain is as likely to win as Giuliani–and his positions on the issues are in closer accord with those of Republican voters.

Republicans are also being told that during these perilous times they should be willing to prioritize a concern with national security over social issues. Voters need not make that tradeoff if they support McCain, who has both a pro-life record and more national-security experience than Giuliani.

McCain is a conservative whose heterodox views on campaign-finance reform and immigration are shared by the more liberal Giuliani. With the defeat of the “comprehensive” immigration bill he championed, McCain recognizes that the public demands concrete enforcement measures–and he now pledges to secure the border before pressing for the legalization of illegal aliens. (He will, of course, have to convince conservatives that he is a genuinely reformed reformer committed to an “enforcement first” agenda.)

Finally, McCain is in a long-term, stable second marriage and talks to all his children, although not as frequently as he would like. One son is a midshipman at the Naval Academy and another is an enlisted Marine serving in Iraq.

Should Republicans reject the false choices being offered–and make a considered choice based on the man and the merits–a second look could give John McCain a second chance.

Peering Into the High Court’s Future

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Whoever wins the November presidential election will have an excellent chance at reshaping the Supreme Court of the United States and the direction it takes on a broad array of social and political issues. Or not, depending on whom you talk to.

Most high-court observers believe the next administration will have the chance to make at least one or two, or possibly three, justice nominations. Many of the issues that come before the court, such as “partial-birth” abortion, affirmative action, government vouchers for religious schools, and political gerrymandering, are decided on razor- thin 5-4 majorities, so any replacement of a justice–either a liberal with a conservative, a conservative with a liberal or a swing vote with either a liberal or a conservative–could pivot the court sharply to the left or right.

Supreme Court justices are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Objectively, the Supreme Court is made up of three conservatives, four liberals, and two swing votes, one a moderate, the other a moderate conservative.

Here’s the breakdown:

— Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the court’s grand ayatollah, took his seat as an associate justice in 1972 after being nominated by President Richard Nixon. He was elevated to chief justice by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.

Rehnquist is a staunch supporter of federalism, making sure that the states aren’t deprived of their traditional roles by the federal government. He reliably votes with the conservative bloc, though he is probably the least conservative of the conservatives.

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Rehnquist’s retirement has been predicted each year for the past several years by a number of court-watchers. He will be 80 on October 1. His once robust frame has become more frail, and he seems to break a new bone with each passing term. But Rehnquist’s mind is still sharp as a tack, and many justices serve actively until they are about 85 or so.

Whether he retires in the next four years probably will be determined by whether President George W. Bush or a putative President John F. Kerry gets the chance to replace him.

— Justice Antonin Scalia is a fellow conservative and the conservative bloc’s intellectual leader. He strays off the conservative reservation, however, in cases involving free speech and the right to trial by jury.

Scalia was nominated by Reagan in 1986, and no one believes he is going anywhere. The chances of the pugnacious Scalia, 62, stepping down over the next four years are about equal to those of ice cubes surviving in hell. Many conservatives would like to see Scalia succeed Rehnquist, but he is the symbol of angry conservatism to many Democrats, and there would be blood on the Senate floor if Scalia were nominated as chief justice.

— Justice Clarence Thomas is the last of the three true conservatives. The only black justice, he and Scalia usually vote in lockstep. President George H.W. Bush nominated him to the court in 1991. At 56, he is the youngest of the justices.

Will he step down from the court? After 13 years as a justice he still seems uncomfortable in the robes. But he is unlikely to retire.

One Thomas biographer has Bush replacing Rehnquist with Thomas in a second term. I can find no one at the Supreme Court who actually believes that. Remember the odds on those ice cubes?

— Justice John Paul Stevens is the aging liberal lion of the court. Appointed by President Gerald Ford in 1975, Stevens started out as a conservative but migrated to the left. He is in excellent health and his mind is superb.

But he is the court’s oldest member at 84. Like Rehnquist, his retirement over the next four years probably depends on who is president. Traditionally, justices step down when the party of the president who nominated them again controls the White House, but Stevens might break that mold.

— Justice David Hackett Souter was the elder Bush’s “stealth” candidate for the Supreme Court in 1990. Democrats accused Bush of trying to sneak a radical conservative onto the court, since not much was known about Souter. The incoming justice proved everyone wrong, and has been a solid liberal from the get-go. A 64-year-old bachelor, he is expected to age gracefully on the court for some time to come, like a fine wine or cheese.

— Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993. But all through her career the diminutive Ginsburg has been a fighter for women’s rights. She argued the concept of sex discrimination into law in a series of brilliant arguments before the Supreme Court in the 1970s.

Ginsburg has thoroughly recovered from the colon cancer that plagued her a few years ago. At 71, she is not expected to retire soon. She can be friendly or glacially chilly. The joke at the Supreme Court is that if Rehnquist steps down and Ginsburg is nominated to replace him, there would be seven more quick resignations.

— Justice Stephen Breyer was Clinton’s second and last high-court appointment, nominated in 1994. Breyer is a lean and active 64. He is also considered the least liberal of the four liberals.

Don’t look for Breyer to retire soon. He was chief judge of the 1st U.S. Circuit in Boston before being nominated to the high court. He has excellent contacts in the Senate. If Kerry becomes president and Rehnquist steps down, expect Breyer to be on a very short list for chief justice.

— Justice Anthony Kennedy, a moderate nominated by Reagan in 1988, is one of the court’s two swing votes. In other words, if he decides to vote with the liberals, he can form a majority of at least five, but he’s more comfortable leading a 6-3 majority. At 68, he is in excellent health.

At one time, Kennedy was believed to be campaigning for Rehnquist’s job, but his two majority opinions defending the rights of homosexuals has made him less attractive to Republican conservatives. He also supports abortion rights, though he would allow the states to outlaw “partial birth” abortions.

— Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is a moderate conservative, and if she steps down it would be the judicial equivalent of an earthquake. Replacing her with either a consistent conservative or liberal would affect the majorities on a broad range of issues.

She was nominated as the first woman justice by Reagan in 1981. Like Rehnquist, the 74-year-old O’Connor has been the subject of retirement rumors for years. Simply knowing that there would be one heck of a fight to replace her may have acted as a deterrent.

So there you have it. Rehnquist, O’Connor, and Stevens, the oldest justices, are the popular choices for retirement during the next four years. Except for Todd Gaziano, the canny executive director of the Center for Judicial and Legal Studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “People who claim to know that there are going to be Supreme Court resignations are lying,” Gaziano said. He added that for two election cycles, he’s been hearing about imminent “multiple resignations,” none of which has occurred.

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“It is somewhat more likely that there might be a resignation or a death on the court within the next four years, but that’s because they’ve been serving together record time,” Gaziano said.

There have been no vacancies on the Supreme Court for a decade, the longest time without one since the middle of the nineteenth century. As for a vacancy in the next four years, “I don’t think it’s going to happen,” Gaziano said. All the justices are “quick witted. It’s a collegial court most of the time, except for the [5-4] Bush v. Gore decision” that ended the Florida presidential recount in 2000. “Working on the court actually keeps people alive and healthier longer.”

Whether Kerry or Bush wins in November won’t affect Rehnquist’s seat, he said. The chief justice “is probably less likely to retire during a Democratic administration, because he would honor the tradition” of resigning when the party that was in power at his appointment controls the White House.

And if he does retire during a second Bush administration, his conservative replacement would not change the court that much, he added.

“O’Connor’s the most powerful woman in the universe,” Gaziano said, “and why would she want it to be otherwise?”

As for Stevens, he is in excellent health and can do much of his work from his Florida home.

Gaziano also doesn’t put much stock in a changed court reversing Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision recognizing a woman’s right to an abortion.

Support for Roe remains at 6-3 on the current court, Gaziano said, and that includes Kennedy, even if he did vote to uphold state bans on “partial birth” abortions.

Besides, with the Senate so evenly split and the Democrats using what Gaziano calls “unconstitutional filibusters” to block some of Bush’s more conservative nominees, neither President Bush nor President Kerry “is likely to get what he wants”–a true conservative or liberal to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court.

On the other end of the political spectrum, Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice takes the more conventional view. The group was instrumental in blocking several of Bush’s judicial nominees. “Many predict there will most likely be several vacancies on the Supreme Court over the next several years,” Aron said. “It’s been over 10 years since we’ve had a vacancy. Most predict the next president will have an opportunity to choose several Supreme Court justices.”

Aron also thinks Rehnquist, O’Connor, and Stevens will be the most likely to step down, “given the ages of those justices.”

For her and many others, the possible vacancies make the upcoming presidential election that much more important. “I think this election will be pivotal for the future of the Supreme Court, particularly given the 5-4, 6-3 decisions on critical issues,” Aron said. “This election could well set the future of the Supreme Court for the next 40 years.”

(c) 2004 United Press International

>>> View more: Dickens at 200

Dickens at 200

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Dickens was born in 1812, and there are celebrations and commemorative activities taking place in this bicentennial year all over the English-speaking world and beyond it. Along with the works of Shakespeare, his fictions now define what English-speaking people have come to mean by “classic” literary art, and although his critical reception has been variable over the 140 years since his death–it stands supremely high now–his popularity has never waned: The dozen great novels have never been out of print.

In the lowest period of critical opinion of Dickens, G. K. Chesterton wrote a great 1906 book on him and followed it with introductions to each of the novels in the Everyman edition. Chesterton saw something radically Christian and radically democratic in Dickens, in this regard unwittingly supporting Dostoevsky’s earlier view of him. In a 1965 reprint of Chesterton’s book on Dickens, the American literary critic Steven Marcus asserted that Chesterton was right to trace Dickens’s profound “feeling for” and sympathy with “common humanity … not only to the French Revolution and the radical humanitarianism of Dickens’s time, but to Dickens’s Christianity, his literal, his primitive Christianity. Dostoevsky, who called Dickens his master, also called him ‘the great Christian’ [and he] knew whereof he spoke.”

This is evident in Dostoevsky’s well-known January 1868 letter to his niece about Dickens, whom he had first read in Russian translation in prison in Siberia in the early 1850s. But we also now know that Dostoevsky and Dickens actually met and conversed in London in 1862 and that they discussed the internal duality of the human person–that perennial inner moral conflict–the frequent, eloquent, often unforgettable depiction of which makes both of them among the very greatest moralists and imaginative writers who ever lived.


Like their great novelist-contemporaries Tolstoy and Alessandro Manzoni, Dickens and Dostoevsky were initially inspired by the liberal reform ideals identified with the American and French revolutions: all men being “created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights” and desires for “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” But all of them knew that the French Revolution went badly, as Burke had predicted as early as 1790: that it passed through anarchic, sanguinary violence and ended in the wolfish military despotism of Napoleon. Simon Schama’s celebrated bicentennial volume on the French Revolution, Citizens (1989), asserted that violence was the very essence of the French Revolution, affirming much of Carlyle’s view in his 1837 history The French Revolution, which had such a massive influence on Dickens and especially on his Tale of Two Cities (1859). The conservative French Catholic emigre and critic of the Revolution Joseph de Maistre exercised an important influence on Tolstoy and the characterizations in War and Peace.

The repeated disappointment of revolutionary and utopian hopes and outbursts in France in the 19th century led to a wild oscillation between secular messianism and brutal Realpolitik-based cynicism. That cynicism, in turn, produced a literature of sinister “realism,” absurdist irony, and aestheticism in Stendhal, Flaubert, Balzac, Maupassant, and many others, and went on to stain and disfigure much subsequent literature, not only in France.

Dickens dealt with social and political issues in a uniquely sensitive way. He depicted and critiqued the cynical selfishness in the upper classes in England, as well as the outraged reaction to it of the “anti-popery” English mobs of the Gordon Riots in London in 1780 (Barnaby Rudge) and the anger of the Parisian sans-culotte mobs of Paris a decade later (A Tale of Two Cities). Like Dostoevsky, he had a prophetic insight into these human dynamics. The tormented Rous seau’s explosive, revolutionary critique of the competitive, invidious social egotism, or “amour propre,” that he thought characterized most aristocrats, bourgeois, and intellectuals (“philosophes”) in prerevolutionary France was probably not known to Dickens, but he apprehended it imaginatively in ways that have proved to be unforgettably vivid and profound, not only in A Tale of Two Cities but also in the genteel, satanic figure of the Frenchman Blandois in Little Dorrit. It is a mark of Dickens’s supreme, almost angelic disinterestedness and fairness that he also depicts it in English characters such as Sir John Chester in Barnaby Rudge. As Lionel Trilling pointed out, in one of the greatest essays on Dickens, figures such as Chester and Blandois are exemplifications of the line in King Lear that “the prince of darkness is” often “a gentleman.” Trilling goes on to argue that the heartlessly clever cosmopolitanism of these figures is “rationalistic and subversive of the very assumption of society.” Dostoevsky and Dickens felt and depicted this invidious, egotistical social snobbery, and its terrible effects, with hallucinatory clarity and force.

Both writers imaginatively apprehended the fact that the ascendant utilitarian accounts of ethics were profoundly wrong, despite being articulated by the most influential intellectuals of their time–the philosophes and Jacobins in France, Bentham and the Mills in England, Chernyshevsky in Russia. As orthodox moralists from Bishop Butler, Burke, Tocqueville, and Newman to Reinhold Niebuhr have cogently argued, no ethical or political theory affirming the primacy of self-interest can provide a basis for ethics; and Dickens and Dostoevsky mocked and assaulted such utilitarian conceptions in their fictions. In his superb The Victorian Age in Literature (1913), Chesterton asserted that the great secular, progressive “utilitarian citadel” was “heavily bombarded by one lonely and unlettered man of genius”: Dickens, who knew that the “fundamental sense of human fraternity can only exist in the presence of positive religion.” The final triumph of Polish Catholicism over Communist utilitarianism at the end of the 20th century, the first domino in the destruction of European Communism, may be said to illustrate the point.

Fagin in Oliver Twist, Ralph Nickleby in Nicholas Nickleby, and Gradgrind in Hard Times are particularly explicit and effective satires on “looking out for number one” as a basis for society, ethics, education, or even self-respect. Lester G. Crocker showed in detail 50 years ago in Nature and Culture: Ethical Thought in the French Enlightenment that scientistic French naturalism led logically and inevitably to the “nihilist dissolution” of ethics that has intermittently tormented and distorted Western societies since the 18th century, a point also made apologetically by the reformed cynic Aldous Huxley in 1938 in Ends and Means. In 1972, Lionel Trilling noted the disfiguring “scientistic conception of the mind that prevailed among intellectuals at the time of the French Revolution.” Dickens’s moral imagination intuitively apprehended and powerfully depicted these truths in fictional forms that remain triumphs of psychological, social, and ethical insight, narrative energy, and literary excellence, astonishing feats of human perception by that “unlettered man of genius.”


To read Dickens is, in the words of C. S. Lewis, “to grow in mental health,” because he has capacities of moral imagination that characterize only the greatest of artists in any medium: to “hold up the mirror to nature”; to “instruct by delighting”; to “paint virtue,” making us love the good and hate the bad, rejuvenating our sense of justice and moral beauty; to make us, in the phrase from King Lear, “see feelingly” the value, sufferings, and pathos of the lives of others; “to assert Eternal Providence/And justify the ways of God to men”; to refresh hope and commend moral earnestness.

After Dickens’s death, this “moral earnestness,” so characteristic of him and other great Victorian writers such as Carlyle, Hawthorne, Newman, Tennyson, Melville, Longfellow, and Ruskin, came to be mocked by aesthetes, atheists, and cynics such as Oscar Wilde (“The Importance of Being Earnest,” 1895) and his Bloomsbury successors such as Lytton Strachey, who cleverly attacked such earnest Victorians as the nurse Florence Nightingale, the Christian educator Thomas Arnold, and the Catholic convert Henry Edward Cardinal Manning, quite effectively distorting and wounding the reputations of these noble individuals. Of Strachey’s portrayal of Queen Victoria (1921) and other eminent Victorians (in the 1918 book of that title), Paul Johnson wrote 20 years ago: Strachey was “far more destructive to the old British values than any legion of enemies.” But no society–no decent individual–can live long or well without moral sincerity as an ideal. It is an ideal that suffuses Dickens’s life and fiction, though with humor and without self-righteousness.

F. R. Leavis claimed that Dickens was “a great poet,” arguing that in his “command of word, phrase, rhythm, and image,” his “endless resource in felicitously varied expression,” and his “ease and range,” there is “surely no greater master in English except Shakespeare.” And T. S. Eliot said of Dickens’s characters that they had “greater intensity than human beings” and a “kind of reality which is almost supernatural, which hardly seems to belong to the character by natural right, but seems rather to descend upon him by a kind of inspiration or grace.” His “figures belong to poetry, like figures of Dante or Shakespeare, in that a single phrase, either by them or about them, may be enough to set them wholly before us.”

But we may leave a last word on Dickens, mysterious but pregnant with good tidings, to that ambiguous and acerbic figure George Santayana: Dickens is “one of the best friends mankind has ever had.”

Mr. Aeschliman is professor emeritus of education at Boston University and professor of anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland. He has just published a new edition of A Tale of Two Cities (Ignatius Critical Editions).

A Campbell sampler


Tom Campbell of the Republican Majority Coalition wants to emphasize economic conservatism and de-emphasize morality in social and political issues because of his own liberal agenda. If he wants to be a true fiscal conservative, then he would disavow programs that increase spending.

Full Text:

Tom Campbell’s ode to broad-mindedness on social issues reminds me of an observation by Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council: By “tolerance,” many modern liberals mean the armtwisting of those they consider “intolerant”: “Their goal is |diversity’: Everyone gets to be a liberal!”

Consider Tom Campbell’s agenda. Like most liberals, he is an avid booster of funding for abortion-on-demand for Medicaid recipients. In other words, he’s pro-choice – except for tax-payers, whom he would muscle into the Planned Parenthood crusade, regardless of their qualms or their “maximum individual liberty.” (Sure, he used to oppose tax subsidies for abortion – “I don’t want to get into any funding for killing” – but he has grown since then.)

A proposed homosexual-rights measure he co-sponsored also employs coercion against the culturally out-of-step. It would put the squeeze on mom-and-pop landlords, among other targets. Say a family is renting rooms in its house and refuses, out of personal conviction, to consider gay couples. Under Campbell’s law the landlords could be hauled into court. Did somebody say something about “the primacy of individual conscience”?


As for the unborn child’s rights, she has none. As a congressman, Mr. Campbell put his name on the Freedom of Choice Act, which goes well beyond Roe, apparently barring even modest protections – waiting periods, parental consent, spousal notification – and permitting abortion even after viability.

And, before he goes quoting Ronald Reagan to support abandoning the GOP’s commitment to protecting the unborn, Mr. Campbell ought to read “Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation,” Reagan!s 1983 essay that calls on Americans to “reaffirm the sanctity of human life, even the smallest and the youngest and the most defenseless.” That stance helped the GOP, in three presidential elections, cement an electoral alliance more dynamic than anything Tom Campbell’s “majority coalition” promises, perhaps in part because it honored ethics over expediency.

Fiscal Conservative?

What about Campbell’s purported conservatism on money matters? He has embraced the California school-voucher initiative (it goes before the voters this November), and he is talking up reform of the Endangered Species Act; he has always claimed to be a Milton Friedman acolyte, a prophet of free markets and lean government. But be wary. For the most part, the record doesn’t match the rhetoric. Campbell does indeed have high marks from the National Taxpayers Union, but the NTU has a blind spot when it comes to indirect taxation. During his time in the House, Campbell, with an ACU rating of just 50, was busier than any other California Republican promoting back-door burdens on the economy, from the quota-heavy Civil Rights Act of 1991 to the job-killing Americans with Disabilities Act and Clean Air Act to Pat Schroeder’s paternalistic family-leave mandate.

And although he voted against the 1990 tax hike, Mr. Campbell doesn’t mention that he repeatedly urged President Bush to abandon his “read my lips” vow, in the name of deficit reduction.

A Campbell sampler:

In April 1988, he argued that levies should be raised on alcohol, tobacco, and gasoline.” Also: “Taxing consumption. That is such an apparent solution.”

In February 1989, the San Mateo Times reported him saying, “I am prepared to deal with the deficit with taxes as well as with spending cuts.”

In June 1990, he suggested raising the income-tax rate for the highest brackets to boost Treasury receipts by $9 billion.

In July 1990, according to the Peninsula Times Tribune of Northern California, Campbell said, “I think [a tax increase] is overwhelmingly good for the economy.”

In May 1991: “Gasoline ought to be priced higher in this country.”

And the capital-gains tax? Running for the GOP Senate nomination last year, he told some Republican audiences he wanted this levy reduced on both existing and future assets. But a year earlier the San Diego Union reported him as saying he agreed with the Democrats’ criticism that cutting taxes on existing assets would be “a windfall for the rich.”


Of course, Tom Campbell is by no means the only cheerleader for the big-government Republicanism that helped make George Bush a one-termer. And he also has considerable company in his effort to unhinge the party from its ethical moorings on social issues.

But if he shouldn’t be denied a place in the Big Tent, it would be quite another thing to grant him what he really wants – a spot in the ringmaster’s circle, where he would help determine the party’s shape as it enters the twenty-first century.

Mr. Campbell is favored to win an upcoming special election for a seat in the California State Senate. In that job, will he finally start backing up his free-market homilies with free-market votes? If I’m a skeptic, it is because up to now, his “New Conservatism” has amounted to little more than Rockefeller Republicanism updated, pointing down the same path the liberals have always loved – the one lined with primroses.

Mr. Johnson, a frequent NR contributor, is an editorial writer for the Orange County Register.

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