Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Rather the Sort of Person One Pours Sugar On

Ross Douthat's weekend column about the person who, through intelligence and relentless hard work, is perhaps the one legitimate alternative left to Trump for the Republican nomination, Senator Ted Cruz, would be good even if it were just that.
Basically, he spent years trying to make it in Washington on the insider’s track, and hit a wall because too many of the insiders didn’t like him — because his ambition was too naked, his climber’s zeal too palpable. So he deliberately switched factions, turning the establishment’s personal disdain into a political asset, and taking his Ivy League talents to the Tea Party instead.

Then once installed as a leader of the counterestablishment, he walked a line that looks, again, far more calculated than most conviction politicians. While his fellow Tea Party senators, from Paul to Rubio to Utah’s Mike Lee, built detailed policy portfolios that fit their interests and inclinations, Cruz never seemed to take a step on any contentious issue without gaming it out 17 moves ahead.
But what turns it into brilliant and reminds me why Douthat is one of my favorite columnists is when he pivots and makes an extended analogy to one of my favorite novels, the long, obscure, delightful Dance to the Music of Time cycle by Anthony Powell.
Throughout this rise, Cruz has often seemed less like Goldwater than like American conservatism’s own Kenneth Widmerpool, the most memorable character in the English novelist Anthony Powell’s series, “A Dance to the Music of Time.”

A dogged, charmless, unembarrassed striver, Widmerpool begins Powell’s novels as a figure of mockery for his upper-class schoolmates. But over the course of the books he ascends past them — to power, influence, a peerage — through a mix of ruthless effort, ideological flexibility, and calculated kissing-up.

Enduring all manner of humiliations, bouncing back from every setback, tacking right and left with the times, he embodies the triumph of raw ambition over aristocratic rules of order. “Widmerpool,” the narrator realizes at last, sounding like a baffled, Cruz-hating Republican senator today, “once so derided by all of us, had in some mysterious manner become a person of authority.”
I'm not sure that the analogy is fully rounded. Widmerpool is a hero worshipper at the same time as being full of self regard. When we first see him, the cricket champion in the school throws a banana across the dining hall, meaning it for someone else, and Widmerpool accidentally steps in its path and is hit in the face. Rather than being angry or offended, however, he is honored to be hit by the school champion and insists repeatedly that it is no bother. Later the vivacious young Barbara, in a joke gone wrong, upends a sugar bowl onto Widmerpool's head at a party. Widmerpool calmly takes of his glasses and wipes the sugar from them before turning a look of slavish devotion back to Barbara. (After the Barbara incident, someone asks Nick who Widmerpool is, to which Nick responds, "Rather the sort of person one pours sugar on.")

It is this willingness to accept humiliation, as well as his nerdy inability, which makes Nick Jenkins and his set look down on Widmerpool so thoroughly. And it is, in turn, why they find it incomprehensible when Widmerpool's dogged work ethic and willingness to suck up to those in charge allows him to begin climbing into the circles of power, first in business, then through the bureaucracies of the military in World War II.

Reading Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson, the same willingness to work hard and suck up to those in authority seems to have been a key element in LBJ's climb to power. Cruz, however, seems to be a slightly different figure. Part of the reason for his unpopularity among other Republican leaders is his self serving regard, shown to those above as well as below. He lacks the self abnegation towards those above which characterized Widmerpool or LBJ, and ironically it may be the lack of that additional source of ridiculousness (more than merely being a "nerd") which may stand between his and achieving his ambitions.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Yes, pride has a way of distorting the truth about oneself. Maybe that's why even Cruz's smile is upside down.