Monday, 31 March 2003

Those who talk crude, think crude

A good politican has grace. Bush and Rumsfeld have none at all

by Roy Hattersley


An occasional light has gone out of my life. I first met Daniel Patrick Moynihan - senator, ambassador, special counsel to one president and assistant secretary of labour to another - back in 1971. And between then and his death last week I doubt if we saw each other more than twice a year. But in his company my spirits always soared. Towards the end of his life - when he had become obsessed with the failings of the "liberal establishment" - I thought of him as the rainmaker. He came to town with obviously bogus theories, but left after making everyone who had met him feel better for his acquaintance. The drift across the political spectrum from left to right was the one thing in his whole life that he did slowly. For most of his uniquely successful political career he behaved with a reckless gaiety which I found irresistible.

Early in my time at the Foreign Office, I sat in the appropriately named waiting room in the State Department impatient to pay court to Henry Kissinger. Every 10 minutes a young man in a mohair suit apologised for the delay. Then Pat Moynihan bounded in and admitted that he had caused my inconvenience. "I am," he said dancing with delight, "the first ambassador ever to receive an official reprimand before the nomination has been approved by the Senate." Moynihan did not share the administration's view on Palestine. The idea of not saying so never entered his head.

Pat Moynihan talked too much, worked too hard and, for part of his life, drank too heavily. He had a theory about everything. The last time we met, he would only talk about the restoration of Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue and the relationship between architecture and politics. The subject fascinated him. I went with him to the Plaza Hotel in New York when he unveiled the plaque which designated the building a historic monument. His speech compared its heavy elegance with the "new brutalism of monopoly capitalism" by which it was surrounded.

The Plaza speech caused remarkably little offence. The attribute by which Moynihan won forgiveness for conduct which would have ruined another politician was the quality which Americans call grace. It is a characteristic which is wholly absent from the administration of President George Bush. I suspect that Moynihan was in favour of the war in Iraq. Like so many of John F Kennedy's New Frontiersmen, he was a foreign policy hawk. But, had he been called upon to defend American policy, the world would have been spared the crude brutality of the Donald Rumsfeld approach.

Whatever the subject in which the secretary of defence "majored" when he was a college wrestling champion, it was certainly not subtlety and intellectual sophistication. His lack of grace should not only be a matter of concern to intellectual snobs. Politicians who talk like Rumsfeld think in the same way. And politicians who think like that are dangerous. The result is policy based on the mindless certainty that might is right and that the one remaining superpower is entitled to rule the world.

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