David Reynolds: Obsession

Column by David Reynolds
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“Call me Ishmael.” I, too, will try to explain obsession. I will try to explain one president’s drive to enact one piece of legislation – ObamaCare.

However, if you are familiar with Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” there is no need. You already know about Captain Ahab and the ill-fated whaling ship Pequod and the role good and evil, predestination, envy, greed, social stigma and revenge play in obsession. By standing on Melville’s 19th Century crow nest we have a cat bird seat on 21st Century Washington.

Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the Great White Whale meant that the lamps of New England would not be lit until Moby Dick was killed. Filling the cargo holds with sperm oil was no longer the ship’s mission.

There is now another captain so focused on his personal agenda that he is unable to deal with a nation’s agenda. Exiting from the Great Recession has been put on a back burner. Reducing government spending is being put off for another day – if that day ever comes. What really matters to our contemporary captain is expanding control – government control over the private sector.

Is it possible that both captains march to the same drummer? Their own.

The author of “Moby Dick” understood the need for men to declare victory before battles are won. Consider last week’s giddy signing ceremony at the White House. Or consider President Bush speaking before a “Mission Accomplished” banner hung topside on the USS Lincoln. Maybe all politics is simply human nature.

The characters in “Moby Dick” still live! Unfortunately, except for Ishmael, the book’s narrator, they live inside the Capital Beltway. You and I are Ishmael’s. We don’t understand what is going on in Washington. And when we do, we like it less. We don’t care for a single version of the truth to be forced upon our representatives in Congress. We don’t think that this is what James Madison had in mind when he drafted our Constitution.

Then there is Elijah, another character with a biblical name. Elijah believed that it is best not to have a moral compass before setting sail. Washington is full of Elijah’s. Just sell the legislation. Sell it on cost. Forget the compass. After all, “we won the election.”

Starbuck is the first mate. (The coffee chain was named after him.) He is a young and intelligent Quaker from a prominent Nantucket family. He takes orders well. Yet he knows of Ahab’s maddening quest for revenge. He knows that the rest of the crew may be sacrificed for the captain’s preoccupation. How badly will the Democratic Party be hurt come November? Does the captain care? Is the prize worth it?

The captain of the Pequod is, of course, Captain Ahab. History is filled with tragic characters such as Ahab. I can think of two modern presidents. Richard Nixon was paranoid, had an enemies list, and was forced to resign. Lyndon Johnson set bombing targets for a war he called “nailing the coonskin to the wall.” Do we have a third presidential candidate?

Tremendous overconfidence (or arrogance, as you wish) leads those in charge to defy compromise. They believe that they can enact their will without the normal give and take from others. Predestination forms their thinking. With it, they believe it is their fate to destroy evil, whether they be large white whales or independent insurance companies.

The Ahab’s of the world are blessed by superior schooling. It is also their curse. It creates elitism. Elitism drives away the humility necessary to ask questions and accept other views. Without humility, Ahab and friends believe that they can apply their higher intelligence (particularly in finance and law) from auto factories to hospitals. This makes them perfectly suited to run governments.

Back to the whale. Moby Dick is an impersonal, Godlike, force. To most of us such forces are beyond our comprehension. Yet for the chosen, it is just another challenge, a force to be conquered. Its size (not quite as large as 17 percent of a nation’s economy) and its independence create suspicions. Therefore they must be brought down to our level of dependency. Government, and its party, does that quire well. So Captain Ahab sails the seas to find and kill Moby Dick. Harpoons are used. So is heavy political horse trading and fine legal print. All means justify all ends.

For this nation the central question always comes down to what kind of country do we wish America to be. That is why we have two major political parties. One sees a long and so far successful experiment built on individual responsibilities and incentives. It expands the American pie. The other sees the experiment over. It is time to slice the pie. In other words, continue the American dream or turn the ship back to Europe.

The Pequod was a whaling ship with a clear mission. It got into trouble when its captain became obsessed and changed its mission. Our ship of state is off course. We have steered too far to the port side.


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