Making Power

Much of the discussion of politics and policy — on the left mostly, because the the right is just nasty — much of the talk just seems so naive…. foolish.   The arguments that Pelosi should do this or Obama is a fake or a failure seem informed by some fantasy of what managing power is like.

So here’s a story.  During the Carter Administration I ran into a friend at the White House.  Things like walking the hall at the White House were easier then and I was visiting to report a magazine piece,  she was on the National Security Council.  Said, ‘hey.  How’s it goin.’ And this person, one of smartest and most capable I’ve known, she gave me a half focused look, and she said, ‘It is unbelievably hard.  You would not believe how hard it is.’  Since I probably indeed can’t believe how hard it all is, I’ve never fully digested her statement, but I think about it often.  And BTW, if it was hard then, it’s surely harder now.


Another story, same presidency.  Acquaintance ran the State Department desk that signs off on proposed US sales of weapons to other countries.  Pentagon proposes, State disposes, something like that.  Anyway, to his desk came a paper proposing to sell significant cache of military hardware to the apartheid regime in South Africa and guy says he won’t sign off.  In his telling, he called the Pentagon and explains that the president has ordered our government not to conduct business with the racist government of South Africa.  Oh, he says the Pentagon guy responded, the president didn’t mean it.

Another one.  Obama in a Presidential interview with Rolling Stone discusses the reality of the Oval Office.   “[T]ypically, the issues that come to my desk — there are no simple answers to them. Usually what I’m doing is operating on the basis of a bunch of probabilities: I’m looking at the best options available based on the fact that there are no easy choices. If there were easy choices, somebody else would have solved it, and it wouldn’t have come to my desk.”  

A specific.  A lot of folks on my side of politics, want the Wall Street Masters of the Universe to go to prison for what they’ve done.  Actually, me too.  I just didn’t expect it to happen.  To believe it possible, one has to think that after thirty years of deregulation and non-enforcement there is a switch that puts everything back like it was and that the President has the switch.  It also assumes that Wall Street and Friends have no power and that a frontal attack would be without consequence.  And finally, the demand to punish must be untempered by any thought that revenge is not the absolute and proper first order of business. (Let me say in defense of the Establishment that I have known Barney Frank for decades and even if I didn’t know and love him, far as I can tell, he deserves a place of trust on any liberal democrat list.   And here’s Frank, a major power in guiding the course of financial reform.)

A supposition.  Somebody important, someplace in the US government, with full authority is talking to the Taliban and has been for months if not years.  Disgusting but necessary.  Like the president says, ‘no easy choice.’  The actual exercise of power is an ugly thing.  We do a serious disservice to ignore that.

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