I so distrust the use of the word zeitgeist, with all its vague implications of Teutonic meta-theory. But on Veterans Day I had to work full time on myself in order to combat the feeling of an epochal shift, in which my own poor molecules were being realigned in some bizarre Hegelian synthesis. I should perhaps confess that on September 11 last, once I had experienced all the usual mammalian gamut of emotions, from rage to nausea, I also discovered that another sensation was contending for mastery. On examination, and to my own surprise and pleasure, it turned out be exhilaration. Here was the most frightful enemy–theocratic barbarism–in plain view. All my other foes, from the Christian Coalition to the Milosevic Left, were busy getting it wrong or giving it cover. Other and better people were gloomy at the prospect of confrontation. But I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.
In this spirit, with scenes of jubilation breaking out all over Afghanistan as the Taliban slavemasters made a run for it, I went to a wake for the late Barbara Olson. It took the form of a posthumous book party for her excellent study of the Clinton looting and pardoning, which is serendipitously titled The Final Days. Barbara's own final day had come on the eleventh of September, when a faith-based death squad seized her plane and flew it with its captive passengers into the Pentagon. She managed to make two very composed calls to her husband, Solicitor General Theodore Olson. She was asking for advice on what to tell the pilot to do. We cannot know, but I prefer to think that there was at least a small struggle, and I am certain that if there was, she would have been part of it.
Her husband was there, as was David Boies, so we had the two chief lawyerly protagonists of the Florida recount. That morning's newspapers had published an exhaustive "virtual recount," which split the tie very slightly more in Bush's favor. I could just about bear to think about it one more time before it disappeared into the rearview mirror. (Remind me, though; why should I wish that Al Gore and Joseph Lieberman were at the helm these days?) At the end of the evening Messrs. Boies and Olson disappeared together, practically arm in arm, to attend the same charity fundraiser. Bipartisanship.
Barbara's book is brilliant and remorseless about the details of Clintonian criminality, but very wobbly ideologically. The evidence plainly shows the Clintons to have been abject tools of the less adorable wing of the plutocracy; the book persists in implying that Mrs. Clinton is a hardened Marxist, recruited to Stalinism when she interned for Bob Treuhaft, husband of Jessica Mitford, in 1972. I could never unconvince Barbara of this: I knew and loved Bob and Decca (and also knew what they thought about Stalinism, as well as about the Clintons). Just before the party began, I read of the death of Bob Treuhaft in New York. A superb eighty-nine innings in the battle for justice, and brave and lucid to the end. Such a guy.
In other words, fortitude and stoicism count for something in themselves, aside from any consideration of party or allegiance. I was mildly if briefly dispirited to read John le Carré's limp recent screed, published in various outlets as well as in this one. As soon as I saw the byline and headline I knew what I was in for: a long moan about how nothing–except the wrong thing–can ever be done. He even favored us with the most witless and fatalistic of the recent naysayings, to the effect that if we kill Osama bin Laden then others will rise to take his place. I actually think this proposition is an unsafe one: Bin Laden looks like one of a rare kind to me (and increasingly flaky in recent guest appearances). His deputies are obvious goons and would probably start knifing one another if the holy one stepped on a mine. But leave that to one side–does it never occur to anyone that tens of thousands of people would also rise up to rid the world of bin Laden all over again? One could not count on le Carré in such a pinch or indeed in any other: How well I remember him in the last confrontation with clerical bloodlust in 1989, piously informing everybody that Salman Rushdie had brought it all on himself and that a great religion had been traduced. Some people never learn, but then some people never intend to.
To return to my soiree: Near the bar I ran into Grover Norquist, one of the chief whips of the Reagan revolution. He's also the man who arranged to take the President to the Washington mosque, and he has been very active in opposing Attorney General Ashcroft's megalomaniacal plan to turn the United States into a national-security garrison. Norquist's question to me was, in effect, What happened to the liberals? In meetings in the House, the supposed "USA PATRIOT Act" had been somewhat declawed by conservatives like Bob Barr of Georgia, Darrell Issa (an Arab-American Republican from California) and Chris Cannon of Utah, ably assisted by Bobby Scott, a black Democrat from Virginia. Some of the most extreme proposals of the bill were either diluted or struck out or subjected to a four-year time limit related to the course of the war. But then the White House tried to resell the original bill to the Senate. "That's the Democrats, right?" said Norquist. "But we were assured there would be a fight up there. Instead all the liberals just rolled over." In my pocket was an article by one liberal hack journalist named Jonathan Alter, and another article by the rich thug's liberal loophole artist, Alan Dershowitz. Both men proposed that we should give torture a chance.
It gave me a vertiginous feeling, to be talking with a toughened conservative who had helped organize a struggle, in wartime, for the defense of civil and political liberties and the rights of unpopular minorities. A struggle in which the liberals had lost their nerve as well as (in the cases of Alter and Dershowitz) their decency. But it's been a good season for vertiginous sensations, and the rearview mirror has never looked better to me, as it offers the unfolding prospect of garbage cans, full of wasted history, moldering on the side of the road.