Bonfire of the Inanities

Enough with the Leno gaffes and trumped-up AIG outrage. I supported Obama because I thought he was a serious man. So let's hope he can manage the economy better than the Special Olympians of Wall Street and Congress.

I’m back from a week in the Alaska bush following the Iditarod sled-dog race. Faithful followers of this space may be thrilled to hear that I managed to land our Cessna all by myself at the Nome airport—or for that matter, may not give a hoot, but I assure you it was thrilling to me.

I did not see a paper, or hear so much as a susurrus of news during that whole time. And now I am back, with the flu (minus-60 wind chill will do that), to a Sunday cornucopia of media, 90 percent of which seems to be about French Revolution-level outrage about the AIG bonuses. The remaining 10 percent is about our commander-in-chief’s cracking wise about his inept bowling on The Tonight Show.

It is fine to burn a witch every now and then, and I would gladly supply some good, dry kindling myself at the base of these stakes, but let’s get it over with and move on.

This may be a feckless or even ill-advised comment coming from one who makes much of his living poking fun at life’s moving (and stationary) targets, but taking my metaphor from Jay Leno’s signature facial feature, let me lead with my own chin and ask: Are we a serious nation anymore? Are we becoming, finally, silly?

I voted for Barack Obama largely on the basis of his temperament, which I thought superior. He is only 47 years old, but to me seemed older than that: a man of precocious aspect and judgment. In the French wording, un homme sérieux.

Shows like Leno’s have been de rigueur venues for politicians for almost two decades now, so there is no point any longer in wringing one’s hands about that. I remember in the ’90s watching Vice President Al Gore go on the Letterman show with a top 10 list of why it’s fun to be vice president. Reason No. 1—drum roll, please—was: “Secret Service code name: Buttafuoco.” (I’ll let you Google Buttafuoco; it’s too depressing to explain.) I laughed at the time, but I remember thinking, “OK, but let’s not hear any more from you about ‘Respect for the office.’” Indeed, by the end of the Clinton administration, that phrase was pretty much dead on arrival.

But Obama’s appearance is the first time a sitting president has made the late-night show rounds. His comment about being a Special Olympian bowler was just one of those things, and he duly, and ritually, apologized. If any deeper good comes of the gaffe, it would be a cessation of such appearances. It seems as good a time as any to ask: Ought a sitting president be cozying up to late-night comedy show hosts?

I know, I know—I feel like a fusty old crank merely posing the question. (Maybe it’s this darned flu.) But it’s hardly as though the president of the United States lacks for venues, and such appearances have a way of trivializing any issue. Try, if you will, to imagine Dwight Eisenhower or JFK or Lyndon Johnson or, for that matter, Ronald Reagan chin-wagging with Jack Paar or Johnny Carson. Richard Nixon did, famously, go on Laugh In in 1968, but as a candidate; and to his credit, he rued the day and hated every second of it.

Which brings me—achoo—to the other matter: the AIG bonus business. Yes, it’s appalling that “retention payments” (why we can’t call things what they are?) should have been paid out. But it is also appalling that the US Congress, in a fine foam of pique, should attempt to solve the problem by passing, willy-nilly, a confiscatory tax bill that aims to reduce such payments to a net of 10 percent. I am no homme sérieux when it comes to financial policy, but I know the maxim that “bad cases make bad law.”

One of the backers of this idiotic measure is the distinguished senator from Connecticut, Christopher Dodd, who inconveniently has received $300,000 in campaign pelf from…AIG. Congressional reasoning at times resembles a Mobius strip of hypocrisy. Meanwhile, give that man the Captain Renault “I’m shocked, shocked!” award.

The larger point is that we are in danger of becoming distracted by our own outrage. It is fine to burn a witch every now and then, and I would gladly supply some good, dry kindling myself at the base of these stakes, but let’s get it over with and move on. There are larger conflagrations burning, and they will consume us all unless we begin to calm down and focus. And that focus should come from on high.

In the midst of this bonfire of inanities, President Obama is pressing ahead with a $3.6 trillion budget, predicated on utterly unrealistic economic growth, even as the Congressional Budget Office is now projecting that this year’s deficit will soar past $1.8 trillion, 13 percent of the US economy. This would amount, as the Washington Post reports, to “the deepest well of red ink since the end of World War II.” According to the Post, the CBO is warning, ominously, that the result of this kind of borrowing and spending could lead to an exponentially expanding national debt that would “exceed 82 percent of the overall economy by 2019.”

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President Obama came to office proclaiming that he aims to solve problems, not hand them on to our children. Most presidents say that sort of thing. But now we are in very dire straits, and that being the case, he will be held to account. It’s your legacy, sir, and let’s not hear any more about “inheriting the crisis.” You asked for the job. Meanwhile, let us hope that his talent for mastering a sérieux financial crisis are not on a level with the Special Olympians of Wall Street, and Congress.


Christopher Buckley’s books include Supreme Courtship, The White House Mess, Thank You for Smoking, Little Green Men, and Florence of Arabia. He was chief speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush, and is editor-at-large of ForbesLife magazine.