How does a snarling misanthrope like Dick Cheney or William Bennett manage to convince himself and others that he’s a man of virtue? It’s easier to understand with Cheney than it is with Bennett. After all, this was a man with genuine power over others. He could have had you drowned 83 times a month, or had death rained on you from the skies with nothing more than a word or two in the right ear. It’s one of the sadder truths of the human condition that power, which by definition can avoid any effective scrutiny of its own motives, has often been able to masquerade successfully as virtue. Cheney, in short, has had a lot of help.
Bennett is a different kettle of fish altogether. His persuasiveness seems to be rooted not so much in power as in an uncanny, and possibly unique ability to enlist gravitas into the service of hypocrisy. I’ve heard critics attribute this to the fact that his intellectual training began in a Jesuit high school, but I doubt that where he went to high school has that much to do with who he is at 65. Jesuits may have a certain reputation for confusing sophistry and pedagogy, but I can’t honestly see why Gonzaga should have to accept the blame every time one of its graduates falls victim to the sin of pride. Bennett, in my opinion, is nothing if not sui generis. The sublime contempt for human weakness which grants him license to indulge his own appetites at the same time he decries them so eloquently in others is almost certainly the expression of a natural talent, no matter what other influences have nurtured it along the way.
Be all of that as it may, if Cheney’s claim to virtue lies in power, and Bennett’s in eloquence, why have I lumped them together here? My answer is that doing so isn’t as arbitrary as it may seem. It’s not so much that they share an ideology, or an uneasy relationship with much of the rest of the human race. It’s that in America, the traditional homeland of irreverence, somehow they’ve both managed to make successful public careers out of imitating the Voice of God.
Here, for example, is Cheney, speaking at the American Enterprise Institute on May 21st:
In top secret meetings about enhanced interrogations, I made my own beliefs clear. I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program. The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts failed. They were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do. The intelligence officers who questioned the terrorists can be proud of their work and proud of the results, because they prevented the violent death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people.
If you didn’t know any better, would you ever have guessed that he was talking about Torquemada’s water board, or having people beaten to death, or suffocating them by hanging them upside down by the ankles, or hanging them right side up by the wrists until their feet swelled to three times their normal size? No? Well, you weren’t meant to.
To paraphrase Mary McCarthy, every word out of Cheney’s mouth here is a lie, including and and the. To start with, it’s clear from recently released documents that enhanced interrogation is, by definitions in use for at least three hundred years in every major language, torture plain and simple — no ifs, ands or buts.
Ordering someone to be tortured or carrying out that order is illegal under American law, and has been for decades. It’s been moral anathema for a lot longer than that. Thus Cheney simply calls it something else. He performs the same feat of linguistic legerdemain with the phrase hardened terrorist. As we now know, his minions tortured everyone who fell into their grasp, male, female, old, young, even children…. One is tempted to observe that it isn’t patriotism, but euphemism which is the last refuge of scoundrels.
Except, of course, that when euphemism won’t do the trick, an outright lie is pressed into service. Cheney says of these enhanced interrogation methods that: they were legal, (clearly they were not) essential, (not according to FBI interrogators, retired CIA operatives, armed forces generals, and others with experience in human intelligence operations) justified, (only in the eyes of the torturers themselves) successful, (no credible evidence of such success has ever been publicly presented) and the right thing to do. (Who says so, apart from Cheney himself?)
A man who speaks, as Cheney does here, in calm, reasoned tones, grammatically correct and rhetorically rounded, in defense of deeds which are fundamentally indefensible, is a man unused to being contradicted. Fortunately for America, citizen Cheney may now have to accustom himself to being contradicted far more frequently than Vice-President Cheney ever was.
In William Bennett’s case, it isn’t so much that he defends the indefensible, it’s that he decides what to defend — and what to decry — according to a moral compass which is far less impartial, not to mention eternal, than the claims he makes for it. Here he is, writing in The Death of Outrage, published in 1998:
In the end this book rests on the venerable idea that moral good and moral harm are very real things, and moral good or moral harm can come to a society by what it esteems and by what it disdains. Many people have been persuaded to take a benign view of the Clinton presidency on the basis of arguments that have attained an almost talismanic stature but that in my judgment are deeply wrong and deeply pernicious. We need to say no to those arguments as loudly as we can — and yes to the American ideals they endanger.
This passage, in case its pieties obscure its meaning, is Bennett’s venerable idea of something which is a deeply pernicious threat to American ideals, namely President Clinton’s blowjob, and his subsequent lies about it.
By contrast, here is what Bennett said in an interview with Anderson Cooper on April 24th about President Obama’s release of the infamous torture memos from the Bush Administration’s Office of Legal Council, and the possibility that the President might allow Attorney General Holder to proceed with investigations of alleged misconduct by government officials:
Well, I think so, but let put me down a marker here. I think Barack Obama’s going to regret that he did this.
He’s going to regret that he changed his mind, too, because it looks less, frankly, right now like the rule of law, or a — you know, saluting the rule of law, and more like bloodlust. The president said let bygones be bygones, we’re moving forward, let’s put this behind us, and then flipped.
And it looks, from all evidence, that he was pressured into this for political reasons.
Now, can there still be an inquiry that’s not politically based? Yes. But just bear this in mind. When you build the gallows, be sure you know who it is you plan to hang, because, when all of this comes out, some of the people who are, you know, yelling the loudest for Dick Cheney’s head or for these lawyers’ heads — and this is not going to happen — may find themselves in trouble as well.
So a society’s moral destiny is decided by what it esteems and what it disdains — is that the lesson we should take away from the wisdom of William Bennett here? God forbid that his own moral destiny should be determined by the same standard of judgment. I’m not a Roman Catholic, but I know of no moral universe, Judeo-Christian or otherwise, which finds adulterous sex, and blushing lies about it, more of a threat to the community of the virtuous than torture, and the refusal not only to prosecute those responsible for it, but even to discuss what it is that they’ve done in our name. Ah, but Mr. Bennett, author of The Book of Virtues, thinks otherwise. We must move forward, let bygones be bygones — if we don’t, we’ll have allowed bloodlust to take the place of the rule of law.
What utter nonsense. To call a piece of sophistry like this disingenuous is to be kinder to Bennett than his own implacable God will be when the day comes, if it comes, that he’s called to eternal judgment. In the meantime, if I go looking for a Book of Virtues to read to my own grandchildren, it won’t be William Bennett’s.