HISTORIANS OF THE 21st CENTURY will have a dandy time with these volumes, even as contemporary readers may find them heavy sledding. The historians will be blessed because they might otherwise have believed that at this busy time in the Republic, philistines were in full sway over public discourse. They will be astonished to find two genuinely intellectual men in leading roles in the U.S. Senate.
Readers today will be dismayed to see these two intellects squeezed and distorted into the misshapen form of the Bombast Cluster. These are books designed for an election-year audience, aimed at highlighting (or low-lighting) the political figure's lowest-common-denominator appeal in prose. Academic overtones creep into the prose and dominate the titles, which originate with a colon and work outward, much in the manner of a visiting professor who wants a profound-sounding seminar title in the course catalogure and won't be disappointed if the students stay away in droves.
Thus Moynihan, who extended senatorial courtesy of writing the introduction to Baker's book, could easily have written the title as well. Baker and Moynihan could even switch colons with no harm done, e.g., No Margin for Error: Reflections on the Future of America. The distortion in this Bombast Cluster approach disguises the genuine differences between men like Baker and Moynihan, or at least makes them difficult to discern. But a certain tone pervades both books, a tone that suggests not just personal and philosophical differences, but differing perspectives.
Baker is a man of the middle in his party, a leader by definition. Moynihan is a lonely end, almost despairing that the Democrats lack ideological cohesion. Moynihan is on the left wing of his party's right wing on programs, just as he is on the right wing of the party's philosophical left. No matter, what he worries about is the Democrats' very lack of debate and intellectual argument. His introduction to Baker's volume is a lament: "The Republican Party may not of late have been a party of ideas in America, but it began as one and has never wholly lost that attachment." Moynihan cites the learned journals produced under Republican auspices and by inference suggests that the Democrats must depend on the commercial magazines -- such as The Atlantic, Harper's, The New Yorker -- in which some of his own essays first appeared.
Baker's tone is best when conversational rather than hortatory, telling how and why he turned down a Supreme Court seat or of a visit to the office of his father-in-law, Everett McKinley Dirksen, by "this huge figure, this long leather leash, these straining beagle pups, and these breathless Secret Service types trying to be protective of a man who looked as though he could take care of himself, "Lyndon Baines Jonson.
Baker's ideas include a by-now-familiar partisan Republican tirade against OSHA and all its works and an occasional nonpartisan idea to make government work better. He would like the next president to "conclude the inaugural ceremony by opening a Presidential office in the Capitol itself, where he can deal daily and personally with the men and women who enact the laws of the land." This seems like a folksy and dubious idea, but at least it's worth talking about.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan is seldom folksy, and even the worst of his ideas are worth talking about. His constituency of 18 million nonfolksy New Yorkers demands much of a senator, and Moynihan provides a wide sample of opinions. The 14 essays in this collection cover death and taxes, Hispanics and Woodrow Wilson, SALT and "the ruin of private education" by the Supreme Court, all written with the stylish flair of a person who has been there, buddy, and don't you forget it.
My favorite section is that whhich concerns Moynihan's role as a New York politican, that period when "in a transport, possibily, of Bicentennial exess, I ran in five elections in the course of 1976." After that, he was busily protecting his turf against the idea of Washington becoming the cultural and financial, as well as political, capital, "the behemothic amalgam of government, finance, business, industry and culture which the Founders most feared." Hence, the senator's interest in one of the major concerns of the 1980s, "the politics of regional growth."
When these books were written early this year, the major parties had not yet chosen their presidential nominees. If things had turned out differently for these longshot candidates, these volumes would have been pawed over by research departments of the major networks, newspapers and magazines and presented as background pieces for the Great Debates to come. What debates they could have been: provocative without being insulting, understandable without being simplistic, erudite without being patronizing. If any network wanted to boost its ratings, it could make debates out of these volumes anyway. Television could break through the Bombast Cluster book approach and present these two interesting personalities as they are, not as literary devices. I'd rather listen to than read Howard Baker and Pat Moynihan any day, but these books aren't bad surrogates.