Live From Martha’s Vineyard

August 28, 2009

Anybody watching the television news this past week most likely saw, other than Mad Men, President Barack Obama address the nation twice from the island of Martha’s Vineyard, where he’s been vacationing with his family.

Certainly, we can’t fault his choice of getaway: though economic times are desperate for many and President Obama was elected as the “people’s” candidate, a leader from the Midwest who would give ear to the common man, his choice of the WASP-y retreat of New England money is understandable: it’s a really, really nice place. 

In all honesty, the President’s job is arguably the hardest and most demanding in the world and where he chooses to vacation is his own business and, for the most part, beyond reproach.

What is more appropriate to critique is his conduct while there. The President is, even at rest, still the President; the office requires a level of decorum and taste at all times, no matter the occasion or location, and in both televised appearances this week President Obama fell short of the mark: first, in re-appointing Ben Bernanke as Chairman of the Federal Reserve and second, when delivering a statement about the death of Senator Ted Kennedy. In the first instance, the President appeared in a suit but no tie, while Mr. Bernanke looked like a Carnival cruise lines captain in white pants and a blazer, also sans tie. In the second, the President appeared in tan slacks and a white Oxford shirt, without tie or even a jacket.

Casual Friday (?).

Casual Friday (?).

While any man, President or not, is entitled to dress comfortably while on vacation, when the President addresses the country and the world on national television and speaks as the President he is not on vacation; he is on the job. The situation requires Presidential bearing and solemnity. The world is watching, and judging. A tie is hardly too much to ask, even of a man at leisure. Mr. Obama gave the impression of being more concerned with Vineyard fashion than with the responsibilities of his office.  

A modicum of respect for his position is required of the President when acting in an official way, as when speaking on television, and in both instances this week Mr. Obama fell short.


“A Favorite English Sentence”

August 26, 2009

Menswear expert G. Bruce Boyer, author and a former editor of GQ, wrote this vignette and collected it, with more, in his 1980 book Elegance. In addition to the propriety of Saville Row fittings it opens a window into, it’s wonderful writing and a pleasure to read.

“If you will kindly step through, sir?”

The first time I heard those words was on my second trip to London. I’d been there once before, when I was a student and had no money to speak of. None to even whisper about. There was a chain of shops called Burton’s selling good English-quality ready-made clothes, and I’d bought a wonderful checked Harris Tweed sports jacket off-the-rack. It was almost bullet-proof, and served me well for years.

Author G. Bruce Boyer.

Author G. Bruce Boyer.

But this time I was determined to have a real Savile Row suit, handmade with all the trimmings: working buttonholes on the sleeve, step-lapelled waistcoat, silk-lined trousers, boutonnière loop behind the lapel, the works!

So, on a wonderfully crisp Spring morning, a resolute young man briskly walked across Piccadilly and through the Burlington Arcade, marched down the Row and, bringing his courage to the sticking point, pushed through the heavy Victorian oak and beveled glass front door of one of the most reputable bespoke tailoring firms in the world — all the while thinking of the kings and presidents, film stars and international diplomats, Greek shipping magnates, English dukes, Texas oil millionaires, and Continental boulevardiers who had preceded him.

I was also wondering what I should do once the door silently but firmly closed behind me and left me standing inside the entrance of this august, intimidating establishment.

Not to worry, as the English say. Standing outwardly calm, but inwardly shaking like a wet dog, I was quietly approached by an elderly gentleman in impeccably-cut pin-stripes, who very properly and politely asked me if he might be of assistance. “Oh, I want a suit,” I brightly said. Trust me to say the right thing.

“Of course, sir,” he calmly replied, taking me gently by the elbow and ushering me down the worn and faded Persian carpet, between the long oak refectory tables groaning under rolled bolts of worsted and tweed. And did I prefer town or country suiting, he inquired.

I spent the next forty-five minutes or so going through the cloth swatch books, dozens and dozens of them – there must have been a hundred different patterns of district checks in tweed alone – some containing squares of cloth I thought I’d seen twenty minutes before in another book. My elderly guide stood demurely at my side, offering a word or two of encouragement or advice if I turned to him with a swatch between my fingers.

“Very serviceable piece of worsted, that is, sir. Perhaps a bit too heavy, though, for your climate at home, would you think, sir?

In one book I spied a handsome plaid of rusty brown with a lavender and Kelly green over pane. Did he think it was a bit loud?

“Well, I wouldn’t necessarily say loud, sir. But perhaps it does tend to mutter a bit.” Scratch that one.

Finally, I settled on a mid-weight, grey cheviot cloth in a miniature herringbone pattern.

“An excellent choice, sir, if I may say so,” my well-upholstered counselor intoned. “You may be interested to know that this particularly cloth has been woven for us for almost a hundred years now. Had a suit of it myself when I was younger.” And then the magic request.

“And now, sir, if you will kindly step through?”. His outstretched arm directed me toward the muted elegance of that burnished wood cubicle with the beveled triplex full-length mirror and malt-colored flannel curtain: THE FITTING ROOM.

I’ll save the operations of the fitting room for another time. Suffice it to say here that it is a place of both magic and mystery, as well as considerable consolation and gratification denied even to prayer. And so the words, “And now, sir, if you will kindly step through,” have always had a spiritually transforming effect on me, as well as the slightly more prosaic literal one.

Dartblog Deux

August 23, 2009

Dartmouth College alumnus Joe Malchow, whose Dartblog web log won the America’s Future Foundation College Blogger award (and the attendant $10,000 prize), has signed up Joe Asch, another College alum, as a contributing writer.

A graduate of Dartmouth College and Yale Law School, Mr. Asch retired to Hanover, New Hampshire after a career at Bain & C0. and and as president of the medical supply business he founded. Known for his thoroughly-researched and fact-based opposition to Dartmouth’s administration under former College president James Wright, Mr. Asch is expected to re-invigorate Dartblog, formerly a stalwart of collegiate conservatism which has recently gone dark.  

His first two contributions are posted on that web log now. Dartblog is known for its probing criticism of “progressive” academia’s status quo and is often cited by educational watchdog groups for its helpful reportage.

Crashing Waves

August 17, 2009

The following article first appeared in The Dartmouth, America’s oldest collegiate daily and the official student newspaper of Dartmouth College. It was published Friday, August 14, 2009 and was written by staff columnist Sam Buntz. It is very good writing and is re-printed here, verbatim.

Aug. 15 marks the 40-year anniversary of the Woodstock Music and Art Festival. Many college students look back on the days of Jimi Hendrix and Keith Moon with nostalgia — nostalgia for a time when we didn’t even exist. Admittedly, the music of the late 1960s was great and still forms the core of what I listen to. But I feel I need to question the haze of good vibes surrounding Woodstock and the Baby Boomers’ claim that it totally meant something, man — like we had real values, and then, in the words of Easy Rider: “We blew it.”

But blew what? We’ve inherited Woodstock’s liberated sexual and chemical attitudes but none of its “values.” This is because those values never existed — Woodstock was filled with insincerity. Only individuals can have values or integrity — movements are nothing but individuals surrendering themselves to the common flow.

Hunter S. Thompson provided an example of the wistful nonsense surrounding Woodstock in his famous “Wave Speech” from “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” He writes, “We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…[L]ess than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

Wistful nonsense.

Wistful nonsense.

It is fortunate that waves crash — particularly this wave. A life of free concerts and drugs is demonstrably unsustainable. Consider that Woodstock did not return a profit for decades and it destroyed Max Yasgur’s farm. If the hippies had their way, progress would be impossible. We would be living in a primitive nightmare. When everyone is enjoying the vibes, no one is curing cancer or elevating people out of poverty — or even cultivating themselves spiritually (despite pretensions to the contrary). All that exists is a brute world of self-destructive selfishness.

You might argue that the counter-culture contributed importantly to civil rights and the anti-war movement. I would argue that only individuals who worked hard did. Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn’t exactly wearing tie-dye, and neither was Robert F. Kennedy. They wore suits. MLK was a Baptist minister. Followers of the counter-culture possibly did more to perpetuate the Vietnam War than to stop it, considering that their strategy for ending the conflict was to get high in a tent and assume that their “energy” would overwhelm the forces of darkness. Practical people destroyed the hippies, and clowns like Jerry Rubin and the “Yippies” did nothing but make them appear more fatuous.

No doubt, the era produced some sincere people — George Harrison always struck me as a cool guy. But the movement as a whole was no less life-perverting than the order it was attempting to displace. “Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss,” sang Roger Daltrey. It is only you who can do anything: this is the lesson to be learned from the failure of Woodstock and our misguided nostalgia for it. It is only you, with no reliance on popular fads or causes. This is no New Age pep-talk, but the harsh reality of existence, the agony of being an individual self — total responsibility for maintaining your own personal heaven or your own private hell with no one else to turn to.

Every American believes that he or she is utterly original. Harold Bloom has gone so far to say, “No American pragmatically feels free if she is not alone, and no American ultimately concedes that she is part of nature.” The hippies represented a twisting of this truth about our country. They promised personal liberation and self-knowledge, but they really offered mass anesthetization. Volkswagen buses filled with conformists paraded under the guise of non-conformity. Timothy Leary and company said they wanted to turn you on and wake you up — but why did you slumber, a sleep within a sleep?

In the Woodstock philosophy there was no work to be done. To wake up, to become truly human, you didn’t have to do anything. You just had to be. But this is a misunderstanding. By affirming that you can know yourself without having to seek that knowledge, or that you can improve society by “dropping out,” you do nothing. It is a form of nihilism. A better formula was provided by Voltaire, when he wrote, “But we must cultivate our garden.” Otherwise, the weeds choke everything.

Correspondents Afield, and A-library

August 15, 2009

With the impending advent of another semester of law school, posts here have been regrettably scant of late; apologies. New material forthcoming.

Correspondent(s) a-library, regrettably.

Correspondent(s) a-library, regrettably.

Words to Live By

August 11, 2009

The Dartmouth Review, Dartmouth College’s conservative student off-shoot of William Buckley’s National Review and the paper at which Dinesh D’Souza and Laura Ingraham cut their teeth, publishes a “Last Word” section each issue, compiled by a rotating pool of staffers and editors. The “Last Word” is a collection of pithy wit, sarcasm, mockery, wisdom, and non-sequiters scrubbed down to individual quotations, most of which point (sometimes obscurely) to some moral. If the moral isn’t pointed to in a sufficiently obscure way, the quote is cut.

In that spirit, and because brevity is the soul of wit, some important points are made below by the well-polished words of others.

“A general dissolution of… manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy.”

-Samuel Adams

“I’d rather be governed by the first 400 people in the Boston telephone book than the whole faculty of Harvard University.”

-William F. Buckley, Jr.

“Our country: in her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong.”

-Steven Decatur

“Out of every hundred new ideas, ninety-nine or more will probably be inferior to the traditional responses which they propose to replace.”

-Will & Ariel Durant

“It is not strange to mistake change for progress.”

-Millard Fillmore

“I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it.”

-Benjamin Franklin

“People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”

-George Orwell

“Firearms stand next in importance to the Constitution itself. They are the American people’s liberty teeth and keystone under independence.”

-George Washington

"Words to live by."

"Words to live by."

The Value of Tradition

August 4, 2009

The rapid way we live makes immediacy essential: we need e-mail right away, we subscribe to “on-demand” cable services so we won’t have to wait for television shows, we eat frozen meals to eliminate cooking time and drink “instant” coffee, and we’re very concerned with the speed of our internet browsers. And lest we miss a beat while on the move, our mobile phones are portable secretaries which keep us informed of every call, message, tweet, e-mail, and appointment. If we’re bored waiting the quarter-second it takes our phones to display e-mail, they also play music for us.

While materially productive, our speedy days are harmful in their insistence on “now.” A pre-occupation with squeezing the most out of every minute of the present may detract from reflection on the past and, our grandparents say, we can’t know where we’re headed without knowing where we started. Where we started is our past, and we keep it relevant by participating in the ceremonies which connect us to it: that is, our traditions.


Traditions provide us with identity, continuity, and familiarity… qualities too often sacrificed for efficiency, modernity, and utilitarianism. Things like our National Anthem and common holiday celebrations – fireworks on the Fourth of July, turkey on Thanksgiving, etc. – provide us with an identity as Americans. We all share in a tradition of celebrating these things in particular ways and that sharing makes us similar; through our traditions we develop an identity as Americans and we know our neighbors, observing the same traditions, are also Americans. We now share an identity with them. Our traditions have given us a sense of commonality and fraternity and in sharing these things we become more connected to each other.

Our traditions are also guideposts in unfamiliar waters. We can act in new situations as tradition would dictate: though we may not have experienced death in our own families, tradition informs us that the appropriate thing when others do is to wear a dark suit, attend a wake or funeral, send flowers, and bring food. Our traditions provide a type of Standard Operating Procedure and at times of distress this can be comforting. For example: the loss of a leader is easier with the public catharsis of a traditional state funeral. Seeing the tradition observed for a modern President just as it was for the Founders comforts observers by insisting that “this too shall pass” and “the nation goes on.” Conversely, a Presidential swearing-in ceremony demonstrates continuity through tradition: the Presidency is as solid and strong as it was when the same ceremony was performed a century ago, and it will be equally so 100 years from now, when it is performed again. The tradition of the ceremony establishes continuity and faith in the institution behind it.

Our own identities and values are wrapped up in our traditions more than our modern, feverish world would like to allow. For instance, families identify themselves by doing things in particular, repetitious ways: “We always watch that movie on Christmas Eve, it’s a family tradition!” In this case, watching whatever movie it may be is a central way of participating in the family life and identifying with other family members. So too is it with neighborhoods, friendships, and countries, and while keeping to tradition may seem inefficient, outdated, and unnecessary in our mile-a-minute days, our past is a more sure guide to our future than any mobile phone, no matter how well it handles our e-mail.