Recently I was on a lecture tour in sunbelt America — Alabama and Texas — and mentioned to various people that I commute from the suburb where I live in Westchester County to Manhattan by train.
Recently I was on a lecture tour in sunbelt America — Alabama and Texas — and mentioned to various people that I commute from the suburb where I live in Westchester County to Manhattan by train. Some of my new acquaintances were surprised, even pitying. ‘Can’t you drive?’ they asked. Well, yes, I can. My wife and I own two cars, and hate being in either. In America, I admit this with embarrassment. Americans, as everyone knows, adore driving, above all on highways, those linear hells of buckled macadam, disfigured landscapes and Darwinian lane struggles. It’s futile to explain that I like my train ride — 40 minutes of comfort and quiet while I read or daydream or gaze out at the Hudson River, the American Rhine, with its bluffs (the Palisades) on the opposite bank. Last Tuesday I had yet another pleasant train experience, aboard the Amtrak Acela Express, which shuttles from New York to Washington, DC. For the tiny band of American train enthusiasts, this particular transit offers acute joys, none greater than the ‘quiet car’, a zone of silence enforced with Stakhanovite zeal by ticket collectors. I savoured every moment — except when the conductor, enamoured of his own voice, broke the stillness to remind us at each stop that we mustn’t say a word.
Tuesday 2 November was a monumental day: the mid-term Congressional elections were held, and they resulted, as expected, in a huge victory for the Republicans and its insurgent Tea Party wing. This event was the reason for my Acela ride. The Americans for Tax Reform, a free-market advocacy organisation that has been trying to repeal Obama’s ‘European-style socialist agenda’ since his first days in office, invited me to watch the televised vote returns in their downtown offices. ATR is influential in Washington because of its ‘Wednesday mornings’, off-the-record gatherings at which ATR’s president, Grover Norquist, a ringmaster of rare talents, invites a dozen or more guests to report about the progress being made on various fronts — anti-tax, anti-gun law, anti-federal spending and the rest. But Tuesday night was rock — or rather soft-shoe — the vote time, Republican style. Four hundred people were expected ‘to cycle through’, Grover told me. The scene was lavish: two bars, maybe three, where elegantly uniformed African-Americans poured drinks for white men in dark suits and red ties and (many fewer) women in slinky black cocktail dresses. Most of the guests stationed themselves near a long table, draped with cloth, massed with food, and topped with three giant chocolate replicas (white, black, brown) of the Capitol building, which now of course belonged to the Republicans — at least until the next election. But there was scarcely a shout when the numbers flooded in on Fox News. The fever-level was remarkably low. Republicans, unlike Democrats, are body-wired for victory. No one even bothered to tease me for having written a book called The Death of Conservatism a year ago.
This past week I twice inhabited a most unquiet zone, the theatre. Live performance makes me uncomfortable — the atavistic communalism, the compulsory involvement with others. And when the show is bad, as so many are, one’s theatre seat becomes a cell. This happened when my wife and I attended the new ‘emo-rock’ musical, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the Broadway sensation of the moment. Remember the famous Charles Addams cartoon of a theatre audience, row upon row of stricken faces, with one misanthrope amid them smiling ghoulishly? We presented that image in reverse: two stony islands of incomprehension in a sea of howling delight. But we stayed for the duration, not thinking to flee during the intermission.
As long ago as 1954, Richard Hofstadter, one of America’s most original historians, lamented that politics had degenerated into spectacle. After Tuesday that struck me as reassuring. Better to be a spectator than an audience member. Some postmortems said the big winner — in spectatorial terms — was Fox News analyst Sarah Palin, the first female politician many American men openly lust for. She doesn’t do it for me. But as I watched her that night, her combination of hawkish angularity and lushness worked. Maybe it was her mane, combed less anarchically than usual. Maybe it was her bright red outfit. Or maybe it was because the sound was turned off, and I was spared her grating voice. She plays better as spectacle than as theatre. If she’s looking ahead to 2012 and plans to go on the road, she might consider campaigning on the Acela.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 13, 2010Tags: Diary