I have to admit that I really admire the sheer gall of William Kristol. Most people couldn’t indulge in the hypocrisy, self-parody and irony that he does without cracking up — in both meanings of the term — but he just goes right on, elevating the levels to breathtaking heights.
Today he does not disappoint. He takes on Barack Obama’s commencement speech at Wesleyan University, where he stood in for the ailing Sen. Ted Kennedy.
The speech was skillfully crafted and well delivered, the grace notes were graceful, and the exhortations to public service seemed heartfelt but not cloying.
The speech was a success. It’s also revealing — about Obama’s view of himself and of public service.
More striking is Obama’s sin of omission. In the rest of the speech, he goes on to detail — at some length — the “so many ways to serve” that are available “at this defining moment in our history.” There’s the Peace Corps, there’s renewable energy, there’s education, there’s poverty — there are all kinds of causes you can take up “should you take the path of service.”
But there’s one obvious path of service Obama doesn’t recommend — or even mention: military service. He does mention war twice: “At a time of war, we need you to work for peace.” And, we face “big challenges like war and recession.” But there’s nothing about serving your country in uniform.
It can’t be that the possibility of military service as an admirable form of public service didn’t occur to Obama. Only the day before, Obama had been squabbling with John McCain about veterans’ benefits. He said then, “Obviously I revere our soldiers and want to make sure they are being treated with honor and respect.”
And the day after the Wesleyan commencement, Obama was in New Mexico, where he read an eloquent and appropriate Memorial Day tribute to our fallen soldiers.
But at an elite Northeastern college campus, Obama obviously felt no need to disturb the placid atmosphere of easy self-congratulation. He felt no need to remind students of a different kind of public service — one that entails more risks than community organizing. He felt no need to tell the graduating seniors in the lovely groves of Middletown that they should be grateful to their peers who were far away facing dangers on behalf of their country.
Nor did Obama choose to mention all those college graduates who are now entering the military, either for a tour of duty or as a career, in order to serve their country. He certainly felt no impulse to wonder whether the nation wouldn’t be better off if R.O.T.C. were more widely and easily available on elite college campuses.
Obama failed to challenge — even gently — what he must have assumed would be the prejudices of much of his audience and indulged in a soft patriotism of low expectations.
Was this a public service?
At the risk of being completely, glaringly, and possibly even droolingly obvious, for William Kristol, the leading voice of the chickenhawks who whooped us into the Iraq war and who gets positively horny at the prospect of sending American soldiers off to foreign lands to fight and die for his political agenda, to criticize Barack Obama for not being his recruiting officer for his neocon dreams is beyond the pale. In fact, it verges on the amazing.
Mr. Kristol may be right in noting that Sen. Obama did not mention military service as an option for graduates, but for him to take Mr. Obama to task for not including it is way over the top when Mr. Kristol did not avail himself of that option when he had the chance to do public service himself. In fact, since he was born in 1952, Mr. Kristol would have been of draft age at the height of the Vietnam war. Instead, he went to Harvard; to paraphrase his own words, he felt no need to join the seniors who were drafted from Cambridge. Instead, he’s made his career by finding more places and more reasons for them to go to die. If that is not the textbook definition of a right-wing chickenhawk, along with Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrinch, Trent Lott, and all the rest who managed to stay out of uniform, then what is? (It also makes you wonder if he doesn’t have some kind of fetish for the military look, but that’s a little creepy to contemplate.)
There’s been a lot of calls for the publishers of the New York Times to cancel Mr. Kristol’s contract as an op-ed columnist owing to his propensity for errors and just plain right-wing silliness, but in a way I think he’s providing a valuable public service. He gives us an insight into the mindset of the True Believers; those who are still clinging, however desperately, to the wild-eyed visions of reshaping the world into a Christian wonderland of McMansions, SUV’s, and Dunkin’ Donuts — without the Yasir Arafat accessories. If nothing else, Mr. Kristol reminds us that when it comes to rank hypocrisy, not to mention being a blood-sucking leech, he has no peer.