gershon hepner

(5 3 38 / leipzig)

smooth and amiable, opaque


Smooth and amiable, opaque,
with facades like scrims, genteel,
my friends are ones you ought to take
unseriously, and for a meal
just when you think you’ve nothing better
to do, like watching television,
or sending the White House a letter,
or working out with great precision
your taxes for another audit.
Should it be that you don’t wish
to do these things and can afford it,
invite your friends to where the fish
is tastier than what you eat
at home, and then, when you come back,
resolve that you will not repeat
such invitations till you crack,
or there is nothing on TV,
and you’re not writing letters to
the President––since you can see,
unusually, his point of view––
and you’ve heard from the IRS
that you don’t owe them––this time! ––taxes.
At times like these your friends, I guess,
won’t cause you anticlimaxes.

Inspired by an article in the NYT Book Review, by Ross Dothat, January 18,2009 (“When Buckley Met Reagan”) :
On the night that William F. Buckley met Ronald Reagan, the future president of the United States put his elbow through a plate-glass window. The year was 1961, and the two men were in Beverly Hills, where Buckley, perhaps the most famous conservative in America at the tender age of 35, was giving an address at a school auditorium. Reagan, a former Hollywood leading man dabbling in political activism — the Tim Robbins or Alec Baldwin of his day — had been asked to do the introductions. But the microphone was dead, the technician was nowhere to be found and the control room was locked. As the crowd began to grumble, Reagan coolly opened one of the auditorium windows, stepped onto a ledge two stories above the street and inched his way around to the control room. He smashed his elbow through the glass and clambered in through the broken window. “In a minute there was light in the upstairs room, ” Buckley later wrote, “and then we could hear the crackling of the newly animated microphone.” This anecdote kicks off The Reagan I Knew (Basic Books, $25) , a slight and padded reminiscence published posthumously this past autumn, nine months after Buckley’s death. As a personal portrait of the 40th president, the narrative is sketchy at best: the Reagan whom Buckley knew turns out to be the Reagan most of his friends and allies knew — amiable, smooth and ultimately opaque.
What the book does offer, though, is an expansion on the theme lurking in that opening vignette, in which the man of ideas came face to face with the man of action, and the intellectual famous for describing the world met the future president eager to change it. At its most interesting, “The Reagan I Knew” provides a case study on the relationship between intellectuals and power, and specifically on the marriage between right-wing thinkers and populist politicians that has defined the modern right from the Goldwater era to our own. This union occasioned a great deal of comment during 2008, which turned out to be an annus horribilis for conservatism, and little of it was positive. Populism’s corrosive influence on the conservative mind — or the conservative mind’s cynical manipulation of populism — was cited in briefs against Sarah Palin, against the record of George W. Bush and against the entire run of conservative governance going back to Richard Nixon. Sometimes it was liberals arguing that an earlier generation of high-minded conservatives (Buckley being the prime example) would be horrified by the anti-intellectual spirit that had overtaken their movement in the age of Bush and Palin. Sometimes it was conservatives, your David Frums and Peggy Noonans, hinting at the same. And sometimes it was left-wingers — like Rick Perlstein, in his teeming history “Nixonland” — arguing that conservatives had always been cynical manipulators of populist sentiment: the mask might have slipped a bit more in the Bush era, but beneath the genteel facade provided by wordsmiths like Buckley (or William Safire or George Will or whomever) , the modern right has been Palins all the way down.

1/18/09

Submitted: Monday, January 19, 2009
Edited: Monday, January 19, 2009

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