William F. Buckley, Jr., spent his adult winter months in Rougemont, an alpine resort next to its chicer neighbor Gstaad, now the Mecca for the nouveau riche and vulgar. Throughout the 60’s and 70’s, however, the area was known for its music festival run by Yehudi Menuhin, and for celebrity writers like Buckley, my mentor, and others such as John Kenneth Galbraith and actor-turned-author David Niven.
The Buckley household entertained nightly, Bill and Pat being experts at mixing those of us who knew little with cultural icons such as Vladimir Nabokov and his son, Dmitri, both of whom were occasional visitors. Postprandial entertainment was provided in Bill’s downstairs studio, where everyone was required to paint a picture. (Teddy Kennedy painted a bridge two years after Chappa quiddick.) Toward the end of his life, after Bill had allowed the neocon infiltration of the conservative movement by such American “patriots” as Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol, Bill no longer painted but indulged in a game where each of his guests opined whom he considered the worst American president to have served that office.
When my turn would come—Buckley always kept me for last—I always answered either Woodrow Wilson or Abraham Lincoln, although the former was a far bigger hypocrite. (And unlike Abe, he did not pay for his crime of going to war and misleading the nation.) My theory is that professors make lousy leaders, and no one had caused more harm than the ghastly Wilson. Dishonesty and hypocrisy are twinned in academia, with patched elbows on tweeds and polka-dotted bow ties.
America entered the arena of world politics in 1917 by interfering in a European war and, inadvertently, helping upset the apple cart in Russia. Seventy years later, the collapse of communism marked the intellectual vindication of American ideals, handing Uncle Sam a moral authority that is deserved but hardly adhered to by other nations. (I spent my youth traveling in countries that hate America with a passion—places like the Middle East, South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa.)
So, how can the New York Times work itself into a frenzy with that recent phony headline “Allies Worry U.S. Is Abandoning Traditional Role as Moral Authority”? In what universe does the Mexican-owned Times live? Uncle Sam, however fairly or unfairly, is among the most hated symbols on earth. Envy is obviously one reason. But the main reason for the lack of moral authority is America’s interference in other nations’ affairs.
As Henry Kissinger wrote in Diplomacy, “since the time Europe first had to concern itself with American foreign policy, its leaders have looked askance at America’s self-appointed mission of global reform.” Like petulant children, European nations were not best pleased to be lectured by Woodrow Wilson on his “Fourteen Points” at Versailles. The Vietnamese were just as displeased to be told by Americans to practice democracy and stop hiring family members for civil posts. Guatemalans, among other South Americans, saw their elected leaders overthrown by people financed by the CIA, and in 1961, the butcher that was Fidel Castro became a hero overnight by repelling a CIA-financed attack organized by anti-Castro Cubans living in the good old U.S. of A. I could go on.
The 45th president has been in power only a few months, yet the media are howling about America’s loss of moral authority. All President Trump has to do about this one is to ask who gave George W. Bush the moral authority to cause the death of more than one million Iraqis, including close to 200,000 children? Who gave LBJ the moral authority to kill more than three million Vietnamese? Who gave FDR the moral authority to strangle Japan economically, encouraging the island nation to attack the mighty uncle, who then dropped a couple of A-bombs to seal the deal?
Let’s face it. Moral authority is an amorphous ideal that can be ascribed to anyone by interested parties. Americans have always felt they were on the side of the angels, and most of the time they were. Americans are good people who mean well, but that doesn’t mean others think like them. I am always surprised when Greeks blame Americans for their self-induced disasters. When the French blame them for the cultural disasters of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. When the Mexicans use gringo as a swear word. When the Muslims call the good uncle the Great Satan for his support of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands.
Mind you, Donald Trump needs my advice as much as America needs to read the New York Times. “How can we get rid of him?” was the extremely plebeian columnist Kristof’s idea of helping the nation. An even worse one, the bald crybaby Roger Cohen, wrote that Trump knows nothing about Europe, and hence he should quit. Well, Wilson knew a lot, and look what happened. A really fearsome-looking scarecrow, Paul Krugman, complains weekly about pro-Trump coverage by the media. (Nurse, this man needs help.) Poor Uncle Sam. Nobody loves you.
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