Today, New Year’s Eve, some of us make resolutions designed to improve our character, our health, or our waistline, and even though some pledges will improve all three at the same time, we are fated, as sinners, to-sin again. The mood brings us to reflect on the nature of President Bush’s tergiversation, which ranks as the most prominent political-moral event of 1990. Two reminiscences:
The first presidential campaign to which I paid any notice was the race between Wendell Willkie and President Roosevelt. Candidate Willkie made several sharp criticisms of the conduct of foreign policy by FDR, but the following summer, the defeated candidate was adopting the FDR line. He testified before a congressional committee and was asked by a legislator to account for the conflicting position he had taken the preceding summer, to which Mr. Willkie replied, “Oh, that was just campaign oratory.” This 15-year-old was shocked, which meant that I was still very very young.
Four years later, in the army, I was asked by a subordinate for advice. The sergeant had agreed to give his wife a divorce, and the lawyer had asked him to sign a statement in which he conceded that he had been cruel to her, neglectful, causing her a great deal of mental damage. Should he sign such a form? Under no circumstances, counseled 2nd Lt. Buckley, the conscience of the 8th Army. That night, dining with my uncle, a retired lawyer, I told him how I had saved my sergeant from a terrible scar that would have defaced his character for all time. You were wrong,” my uncle said, kindly. Mat you say you did in a divorce statement is absolutely meaningless, and all the world knows this.” Once again I was astonished, but I was learning. After all, we were fighting in a war which our President had pledged to avoid-pledged, to use FDR’s exact language, ‘agayn and agayn and agayn” never to involve “our boys” in. That we are all glad that the United States did participate in that military action doesn’t affect the moral question.
When George Bush in 1988 was seeking a dramatic means of reinforcing his seriousness on the question of higher taxes, he came up with a truly arresting formulation. “Read my lips.” Time and again he reiterated that pledge.
The question is whether Mr. Bush’s renunciation of his pledge is understandable in the sense that a dissolved marriage can be understandable. There are 5.7 million American men whose lips framed the promise to love and to protect, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health, until death did them part, their bride; and who were then divorced. Although many of those marriages dissolved for indefensible reasons, many dissolved because the alternative was an unhealthy prolongation of mutually imposed misery. Did that happen in this case? Did the economic situation develop in such a way as to make it plainly irresponsible for the President to continue to stand by his promise not to sanction any rise in taxes?
When a petitioner appeals to the Vatican to annul a marriage, the procedure is to appoint one priest who serves as “the defender of the marriage bond.” His job is to act as attorney for the pledge to give all the reasons why the petition ought not to be granted. There are economists and public-policy spokesmen (one thinks of the likes of Felix Rohatyn and Pete Peterson) who have stood up and argued with great eloquence the absolute necessity of severing the bond made by George Bush with the voters, arguing that economic devastation is the alternative. But there were also eloquent defenders of the marriage bond, such as Professor Milton Friedman, the entire professional staff of the Wall Street Journal, and of course the dozens of Republican congressmen who were stranded by Mr, Bush’s severance of that bond.
On one point, those who felt betrayed are not easily coped with, and that is their complaint about the failure of Mr. Bush to communicate exactly why he felt that he had to jettison his solemnly made promise. All he came up with was the obstinately inscrutable reference to the need now to “read” his “hips.” If he were speaking from Delphi, one might be tempted to explore that statement for its hidden meaning. . . . But George Bush isn’t given to speaking in parables, and one comes reluctantly to the conclusion that when he asked us to read his lips, he was simply engaging in campaign oratory.