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Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

The Irony of Arnold

(Reprinted from the issue of October 16, 2003)

Capitol BldgArnold Schwarzenegger has won a sensational victory in California’s gubernatorial recall election, easily toppling incumbent Gray Davis. The media kept predicting a close vote to the end, trying to bolster Davis with last-minute charges that Schwarzenegger had molested many women during his career as a body-builder and movie star. The charges were plausible; they have appeared in the gossip magazines for years, and the subject himself admitted them in general while denying the particulars.

But the stories didn’t seem to hurt him with the voters. His wife supported him with fervent loyalty, and most Californians seem to accept sexual misconduct as normal in the show-biz milieu. When Davis said, just before the vote, that Schwarzenegger should face a criminal investigation, the natural impulse was to consider the source: Weren’t these the same liberal Democrats who were recently excusing the Bible-toting Bill Clinton — now a Davis booster — for groping women in the Oval Office?

It helped that Schwarzenegger offered himself as a liberal on social issues like abortion and sodomy. If he’d been a social conservative, his past conduct would have been used as evidence of hypocrisy, but his liberalism became, ironically, a moral shield. Unlike Clinton, he hasn’t been caught lying to the public or perjuring himself. It was his enemies who displayed hypocrisy.

But the larger irony of the case, almost unnoticed in the media, is that Schwarzenegger is a Catholic. Moreover, his loyal wife, Maria Shriver, is the niece of the first Catholic American president, John F. Kennedy.

Gone are the days — oh, how long gone! — when a Protestant America could fret that Kennedy’s election to the presidency might mean Vatican rule of the United States. Even a liberal Episcopal bishop, James Pike, wrote a book asking the question whether a Catholic could be trusted in the White House. Pike decided that Kennedy was pretty safe; there was no evidence of divided loyalty that should trouble Protestants.

Kennedy effectively laid such fears to rest. As the facts of his private life transpired after his death, those fears seemed groundless indeed. Let us say that his Catholicism never inhibited him unduly.

Kennedy not only proved that a Catholic could be elected president; he did it by trivializing religion. With his election, religion of any sort suddenly ceased being a major factor in American public life. The tolerance he spawned was that of indifference.

It’s hard to recall now, but even denominational differences among Protestants used to matter politically. Thomas Jefferson was suspected of Deism, not without reason, and he discreetly concealed his real views until after his retirement. Early in his political career Abraham Lincoln was also charged with heterodoxy; the Protestant clergy in Springfield, Ill., were united against him when he first ran for Congress, and he was forced to publish a public denial that he had ever been “an open scoffer against religion.”

(In this case Honest Abe was less than candid: As a young man he had written a book attacking Christianity and the veracity of the Bible. A friendly employer burned the manuscript in order to save his reputation and his future. Had it found a publisher, we might never have heard of him.)

We take religious indifference so much for granted now that few realize that this was John Kennedy’s real legacy, more important than any positive achievement of his short presidency. Other Catholic politicians have followed his example, none more aggressively than his youngest brother, Edward Moore Kennedy, who has been in the forefront of the causes of legal abortion and homosexual rights.

Hence Schwarzenegger, a virtual Kennedy (though a Republican), hasn’t had to face problems about his religion — or, for that matter, what a radio news report calls, even as I write, his “moderate views on social issues.” Nobody now thinks it’s odd for a Catholic candidate to espouse legal abortion and sexual license. In fact it’s already become conventional for Catholic pols to do so.

It’s even become unnecessary for such pols to make the formulaic profession of being “personally opposed” to abortion, to suggest that they at least have moral reservations about practices they think should be permitted by law. “Tolerance” has morphed into full approval.

Does anyone think Schwarzenegger is struggling to suppress his Catholic moral qualms about these things? Of course not. Nor is he a principled and consistent libertarian who believes in minimal government across the board. On the contrary, he has proposed new government programs, even while he has slammed Davis as a big spender.

Like most Republicans, he makes vaguely conservative noises, promises better administration, and accepts the status quo as a whole. California’s government is a huge mess, but he isn’t the man to correct it. He owes his image as a man of decisive and efficient action entirely to his movies.
The Perils of Change

The Republicans aren’t necessarily “the stupid party.” But they are, to any serious conservative, the perennially disappointing party. Using the mantra of undefined “change,” they keep raising hopes they can’t, or won’t earnestly try, to fulfill. Their words are bold, their actions timid.

Perhaps only four presidents have brought about real change in American life: Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. Which raises the question: Why is “change” assumed to be improvement?

Obviously change can be for the worse. And when it is, the problem becomes changing back. But the kind of great changes American history has undergone — chiefly those that have made millions of people dependent on the state — are very hard to undo. Programs like Social Security and Medicare become politically untouchable. Even smaller programs become difficult to reverse.

Bad changes of this sort are not only bad in themselves; they close off options for succeeding generations. They are called “reforms,” but these reforms are usually beyond reform. Any attempt to diminish the scope and power of the state is said to be a vain attempt to “turn back the clock,” to reverse the flow of time itself.

So no matter how wrong and wasteful the accumulated changes turn out to be, they add up to a burden that can hardly be shaken off, and politicians come to feel they have no choice but to come to terms with them. The more change we have already had, the less hope there is of future change, especially corrective change.

Thus Roosevelt could brag privately that “no damn politician” would ever be able to repeal “my Social Security system.” It looks as if he had a point. It was a boast the authors of the Constitution couldn’t make; their work looks much less permanent than his, and it has been largely repealed.

So anyone who now promises to change what has already been changed is promising the equivalent of thawing a polar cap. That is what restoring limited, constitutional government would amount to. It’s rather doubtful that the Republican Party is up to the job.

How did Andrew Jackson, a combative advocate of strict constitutional government, pave the way for the very opposite? You’ll find my answer in SOBRANS, my little monthly. Get your free copy of my pamphlet Anything Called a “Program” Is Unconstitutional: Confessions of a Reactionary Utopian. Just subscribe, or renew your subscription, to SOBRANS for a year or more. Call 800-513-5053, or go to the Subscription page.

We also have a few autographed copies of my book Hustler: The Clinton Legacy. Call the same number, or purchase it on-line.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by The Wanderer
Reprinted with permission.

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