Something I wrote in this magazine last week has shattered Andrew Sullivan’s calm. This was the disturbing passage: “… Ronald Reagan, when he proclaimed categorically, without exception or complication, that ‘government is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem,’ was a fool.” The quotation comes from Reagan’s first inaugural address in 1981. Sullivan is right to point out that Reagan’s full sentence begins with a clause that seems to denote an exception and a complication. “In this present crisis,” the president said, “government is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem.” I am happy to be corrected.
But this is not the end of the matter. Sullivan has in fact proven very little. Does he really believe that this linguistic emendation falsifies my characterization of Reagan’s attitude toward government? The implication of his correction is that Reagan’s opening reference to the mess that he inherited from his predecessor substantially mitigated the scope of his idea. In circumstances other than “this present crisis,” did Reagan believe that government was not the problem but the solution? Of course not. It is ludicrous to suggest otherwise. Reagan’s career was riddled, from beginning to end, with principled expressions of hostility to the federal government and to big government. “Government is like a baby. An alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no responsibility at the other.” Government is “the chief source of despotism.” “The ten most dangerous words in the English language are, ‘Hi, I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” And so on. Just a few months ago there appeared a posthumous memoir of Reagan by Bill Buckley, in which he begins a chapter on this subject with the question, “Is it anywhere plausibly denied that Ronald Reagan ran for political office pleading excessive government?” Buckley attempts to explain how it was that the size of the federal government and its deficit grew during Reagan’s presidency in gross defiance of Reagan’s philosophy; but about the content of the philosophy Buckley, like Reagan himself, leaves no doubt.
Nor is this the end of the matter. Sullivan’s outrage at my failure of transcription disguises a problem. It is that he is a hero-worshipper, but all his heroes do not go together. He reveres Reagan and he reveres Obama. That is to say, he admires conceptions of government that contradict each other. I do not see how Reagan’s views of the national government can be pressed into the service of Obama’s plans for the national government. Perhaps Sullivan, who lazily prefers paradoxes to contradictions, can find a way. I leave it to him to sort out the consequences of his serial idolatries. But I recommend that he study more closely a piece by another one of his heroes, the very piece from which his blog draws its epigraph. Since he has helpfully amplified my citation from Reagan, I will helpfully amplify his citation from Orwell. “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,” Orwell wrote in 1946. “One thing that helps towards it is to keep a diary, or, at any rate, to keep some kind of record of one’s opinions about important events. Otherwise, when some particularly absurd belief is exploded by events, one may simply forget that one ever held it. … In private life most people are fairly realistic. When one is making out one’s weekly budget, two and two invariably make four. Politics, on the other hand, is a sort of sub-atomic or non-Euclidean world where it is quite easy for the part to be greater than the whole or for two objects to be in the same place simultaneously.”
Sullivan also has another complaint. It is that I have taken too long to address his indignant animadversion about Reagan’s sentence: My error, he impatiently scolds, “still sits there uncorrected online--evidence that the magazine has lower online standards of fact than any number of bloggers whom Wieseltier has spent much of the last ten years dissing.” Has it really been only ten years? It feels like an eternity. But I have no apology to offer for the time it has taken me to address Sullivan’s post. I had more important things to do. Anyway, my piece has been out online for only ten days and out in paper for only eight days, and I have known about Sullivan’s objection for only three days--a lifetime in the blogosphere, I know, but I do not live by its clock, since I cannot think by its clock. I deny that, strictly speaking, anybody really can. I cling romantically to a more archaic pace for gathering my thoughts, not least to avoid the cursoriness of so much blogging, which is often just a frantic recital of pre-gathered thoughts. I understand that for this reason I have failed miserably to live up to the conventions of Internet journalism (what is the difference, incidentally, between standards of fact and “online standards of fact”?), but I have no desire to acquire its motor reflexes or to mistake its hot haste for a serious exercise of mind. I hope to explain my views more fully in the future. If Sullivan meanwhile chooses to interpret this brief delay in straightening out my quotation and exploring its meanings as a dark prevarication of some kind, a professional felony, a blow against truth, well, he is just speeding like a blogger. He should look up from his screen sometime. Not everything one needs to see is in front of one’s nose.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.
By Leon Wieseltier