Skip to comments.Mark Steyn: On Sept. 11, the world became unspun
Posted on 10/12/2001 9:36:26 AM PDT by Cian
Exactly one month ago today, just an hour after those planes slammed into the World Trade Center, Jo Moore, a senior advisor to Britain's Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, turned away from the TV and composed an e-mail for departmental circulation: "It's now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury."
Ah, politics. How often does fate provide such excellent all-purpose cover for embarrassing statistics and minor policy reversals? Ms. Moore is a spin doctor, and spin doctors are paid to be cynical, so in a sense Ms. Moore was only demonstrating a supreme mastery of her black art. No doubt across the chancelleries of the West less hardened spinners were wiping away tears and mumbling "Oh, my God, my ex-boyfriend's sister works in Lower Manhattan" and letting their spinning go to hell, but at the Department of Transport et al. in Whitehall Ms. Moore's steely resolve held firm.
It's become a commonplace to talk of war as dehumanizing -- see Senator Bob Kerrey's defence of his atrocities in Vietnam -- or of CIA covert operations as "too dirty" a job to ask civilized human beings to do. But Jo Moore's memo suggests contemporary politics may be even more dehumanizing and its routine operations so depraved that it's no wonder that increasingly our citizens recoil from "public service" and despise those that prosper therein. When the memo came to light this week, Ms. Moore apologized, sort of. But it's one of those political apologies, whereby one is obliged to distance oneself from an unintended self-revelation. September 11th was an unspun world: Within 48 hours, we'd adjusted to the new reality and were expressing ourselves accordingly, but for a few hours on Tuesday what we said and did as we saw office workers jump to their deaths offered a glimpse of who we really are and how we really think. How callous do you have to be to watch the twin towers collapse and think Ms Moore's thought, never mind put it in writing, happily append your name to it and send it to hundreds of people? No apology can ever take it back: We know her now.
Almost as revealing as the heartlessness was the careless expression of it -- "anything we want to bury," even as thousands of people (or at any rate the few hundred not entirely atomized) were literally buried before her cold eyes. This is the language of political operatives: bury it, shoot 'em down, take him out. These days, your average Chief of the Defence Staff is a meek, mild-mannered, caring general who speaks softly and explains that the purposes of the highly limited bombing is to make it safe for our planes to go in and drop TV dinners. Meanwhile, for at least a decade, the Jo Moores of this world have sounded like Patton on testosterone.
Why, even the Prime Minister of Canada has an attack dog, Warren Kinsella, whose new book is called Kicking Ass In Canadian Politics, the macho swagger of the first half of the title somewhat undermined by the territorial qualifier. Warren proclaims himself the Dominion's all-time champ at "kicking the living shit out of the other guy." If a gung-ho colonel talked like that, he'd be court-martialed. But, in the interests of promoting socialized health care or increased education funding or free bicycling helmets for seniors, this language is not only acceptable, but to be encouraged. As the memory of real war recedes, the faux warriors of the political ops rooms have eagerly appropriated the martial imagery. For the gulf between past and present look no further than one testy exchange from Bob Dole's 1996 Presidential campaign. Apropos Pat Buchanan's experience as the host of Crossfire, a CNN gabfest, Dole muttered, "I was in the real crossfire. It wasn't on television. It was over in Italy somewhere, a long time ago."
But in the world before September 11th the metaphoric crossfire of CNN was far more real than any real crossfire. The documentary of the 1992 Clinton campaign was called The War Room. In 1996, wherever he went, the local Democratic warm-up act would introduce the President by hailing his "undaunted courage" and "bravery." A candidate for the Michigan legislature in Battle Creek was even able to say with a straight face: "This President is tough. Battle-tested." Of course, this President was famously un-battle-tested. But, before September 11th, it was the very notion of "battle" that sounded creaky -- the notion of men putting it all on hold to slog it out in some patch of mud five thousand miles away.
And so, flipping on the TV a month ago, Jo Moore, who works for a Minister of the Crown, instinctively calculated not Britain's interest but her party's opportunity. She was, in that sense, an exceptionally advanced practitioner of politics pre-9/11: what counted was not governing but campaigning -- the "permanent campaign," as the Clintonites put it. That's not what matters now: we have a real war room, not a political one; real crossfire, not the talk-show kind. It's no coincidence that George W. Bush found his Presidential voice only when September 11th rendered obsolete permanent campaigning, politicking and spinning, all of which he's lousy at. Tony Blair, for his part, long ago mastered the weaponry of Clintonian warfare but quickly recognized they were no longer relevant. At the Labour Party conference, speaking before an audience much -- if not most -- of whom are viscerally anti-American, he delivered a trenchant demolition of anti-Americanism that no previous Labour leader would have dared give. A mutual friend assured me Blair wrote every word of the speech himself, and I can well believe it. In the month since September 11th, he's steered clear of many of his New Labour colleagues, perhaps fearful of being exposed to too much Jo Moorishness. Those of us who disagree with Blair on everything from Northern Ireland to Britain's role in the European Union must nevertheless applaud the way he immediately grasped the stakes and articulated them. He -- in a word -- led.
Which brings us to our own dear leader. Mr. Chrétien has been much criticized in these pages by "the mullahs of the media right," as Parker Barss Donham amusingly calls us in Halifax's The Daily News. Mr. Donham presents the usual defence of the Prime Minister: "To judge from the public opinion polls, it was, as usual, Chrétien who correctly read the mood of the Canadian public," he writes. "Approval of the Prime Minister's cautious handling of the terrorist crisis runs in the high 60s."
If the gig is to "read the mood of the public" and then voice it, that's fine -- though why any self-respecting fellow would want such a diminished job is another matter. I don't believe Churchill took a poll after Dunkirk or that, on the morning of December 8th 1941, FDR said, "Maybe we should run this past the focus groups." Nor should they have. This is not the time for a leader who follows. You can focus group every soccer mom on the continent and the result will be of strictly limited value. Mr. Chrétien gets the classified foreign intelligence, not Mrs. McGillicuddy of Etobicoke. He knows the CSIS evaluation of current security threats, not you. He knows how well our emergency services could cope with a bioterror assault, you don't. He knows how secure our borders are, you can only guess. He knows what needs to be done, you don't. And his job is to get you to follow him, not the other way round. That's why he's Prime Minister and you're an accountant, short-order cook, disc-jockey, housewife, deranged right-wing columnist, whatever.
The great game changed after the Cold War but it never went away. The only difference was that we thought it had. Books like Kicking Ass, whatever its merits might have been in early September, now seem like artifacts of a lost age -- the post-modern era of politics, when the backroom boys came out front and, as in the Pompidou Center, the plumbing was all on the outside. Operatives discussed their political masters as empty shells, creatures of polls, dependent on spinmeisters. It won't wash now: it's not about campaigning now, but about governing, in the most basic sense -- about protecting our people, securing our borders, eliminating our enemies. It's primal now. Hillary Clinton and friends have tried to argue that September 11th makes the case for "big government." Almost right: it makes the case for grown-up government. What got buried a month ago was the shrivelled pygmy cynicism of the likes of Jo Moore.
I can think of some people in our country who ought to keep this in mind, relative to the President.