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Mark Steyn on the grace and work ethic of Fred Astaire, the arrogance and dithering of Barack Obama, and the fecklessness of the Congressional Republicans

Friday, November 13, 2009
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HH: We begin this Thursday as we do every Thursday when we are lucky with Columnist To the World, Mark Steyn. You can read everything Mark writes at www.steynonline.com. Hello, Mark, good Thursday to you.

MS: Good to be with you, Hugh.

HH: I’d like to start a little far afield and then bring it back. Are you familiar with Joseph Epstein? He writes a number of books, and writes for Commentary, and used to…

MS: Yeah, he’s a beautiful writer, exquisite prose.

HH: All right. I had been reading his book, Fred Astaire, which is a little, small meditation, really, a biography on Fred Astaire. What do you think of Fred Astaire?

MS: I think Fred Astaire is the epitome of a kind of lost grace. If you think back to the 1930s as the Great Depression, here’s a man who comes out and he dances around in top hat and tails. He’s not particularly good looking, he doesn’t have what we’d now call movie star good looks. He’s got a light voice, he’s got a beautiful singing voice, actually, Fred Astaire, although he doesn’t often get credit for that. And yet he became the biggest movie star of his day. In a very democratic age, this epitome of elegance became one of the biggest popular cultural icons of his day. And it says something, I think, about what we’ve lost in popular culture.

HH: Well in the Epstein book, that comes through. He’s the definition of style and grace and class. But what also comes through that I did not know is that he practiced beyond anyone’s ability to recognize. That’s all he ever did was practice, practice, practice this dancing.

MS: Yeah, when you look at those films that he did at RKO in the 30s, Top Hat and Shall We Dance and Swing Time, the routines he did with, worked out with Hermes Pan, who was his choreographer, but was more like a sort of off-stage alter ego. And he understood that that, what I was talking about, that kind of lightly worn elegance and grace you have is something you have to work really hard at. I mean, he was a kind of self-invented man. He came from Omaha. Omaha, no disrespect to anyone from Omaha, but it’s not renowned for a lightly worn grace and style. It was an identity. And the only way you can pull that off on the big screen is if you work hard at it. It takes hours and hours every day of practice to make it look that easy, and that’s what you see. I love the way, I mean, it’s beautiful. If you look at some of those big Fred and Ginger routines, the way it becomes a cinematic expression of lovemaking at its most romantic and intense, and yet of course it’s not showing anything physical. There’s not even a lot of kissing, because he didn’t like to do that a lot. It’s all through dance as a metaphor for love, and it stands up better than almost anything.

HH: Well as I put this down last night, I also had a chance to be watching President Obama in the background, and it occurred to me, he doesn’t practice at anything, Mark Steyn. He doesn’t know how to be president. He doesn’t know how to make decisions.

MS: No.

HH: And I’m afraid that we’ve got a genuine believer in his own style, grace, effortlessness who doesn’t understand it takes work to succeed at this.

MS: Yes, and actually, oddly enough, a lot of people made the comparison with Fred Astaire. They said with the slightly sticky-out ears, and there’s something about the look in the face, that he actually has a kind of physical resemblance to Fred Astaire, and suits look great on him. But as you say, what does he actually do? I mean, Fred Astaire could act and sing and dance. He could do things, he could dance better than anybody on the planet. What is it that Barack Obama does? What he’s doing at the moment is every…another few weeks go by, and people say it’s announced that he hasn’t made a decision on Afghanistan yet, that he doesn’t like any of the options, and he’d like people to bring him some more options. Well, it’s getting on now for something like three months since this dithering began. And at some point, he has to recognize that he owns this issue, and that the message we’re sending to the world is that if you’re some little, rinky-dink nothing outfit holed up in the hills like the Taliban, you can so discombobulate the major superpower on the planet, that their president will just stroll up and down the battlements like Hamlet to the nth degree, muttering to himself, “to surge or not to surge, that is the question.” No, it’s not the question. We need more options. I mean, this is pathetic.

HH: Well, that’s what we come to today, is the president has announced, and let it be known, nothing works. He’s been presented nothing that works for him. He wants more options, and he jets off to Asia, leaving the troops in the field, their families, their supporters to wonder if he really has a clue on how to be president.

MS: Yeah, I think this, what’s interesting to me is when he’s asked about war, he says well, you know, he gives, he made a statement saying this is…when you talk about victory, it’s not like Japan in the old days, some guy coming down to sign the instrument of surrender on a U.S. battleship. It’s all far more nuanced than that. What he risks giving the impression to the world, though, is that victory is not one of the options he’s considering. Victory, in fact, ought to be the only option, and the question ought to be what strategy brings you to victory. But he gives the impression that victory’s been taken off the table, and that’s a terrible message, as you say, especially for the troops who are stuck out there, which isn’t the best place to be stuck in.

HH: Well, let me switch, then, to the domestic side, where he does seem very intent on victory, although he doesn’t seem to have a particular idea of what it looks like. He’ll take whatever the Congress comes up with, Mark Steyn. And last Saturday night, the House came up with an incredibly monstrous reworking of American medicine. Do you think the Senate’s going to embrace this?

MS: Well, I worry about this. It can be defeated, it can be rolled back in the Senate. But what is happening, and this is what’s got to be stopped, is the way just enough of it sneaks through to the next stage to keep it alive. I mean, what happened last Saturday is actually disgraceful. I would not have thought it possible for the United States to vote in this fashion for a bill that governmentalizes a sixth of the economy, and then for everyone to say oh, well, don’t worry, don’t worry, it’ll be stopped in the Senate. This is what I’ve said all along, that if he can get something through, if he can get anything through, then that’s all he needs, and the rest will come in time when the big government ratchet effect kicks in. So I’m very worried about this, and I think once…the idea that pressure isn’t being brought to bear on Blanche Lincoln from Arkansas, and these other essentially red state Senate Democrats, that there aren’t inducements being made to persuade them to see the light that Obama and Nancy Pelosi have brought to American health care, I think this is a very perilous time.

HH: I am perplexed that the National Republican Congressional Committee just hasn’t done anything in response to this vote, and the NRSC, the Senate counterpart to them, also appears stuck in the water. Do the Republicans still not get how to wage politics in the new millennium, Mark Steyn?

MS: I don’t think they do. I mean in a way, we’re fighting this battle in part because we didn’t kill the idea in the 90s. We won it in the political sense, in that the Hillarycare bill was defeated, but we didn’t win the battle of ideas. And the problem, I think, here is that the NRCC actually has no idea how to do that. They don’t really know, by the way, quite what the strategy ought to be, because they’re getting conflicting messages, they keep getting told by the mainstream media oh, well, you guys are just Dr. No, you’re against everything, you’re just so negative. So they’re paralyzed between not wanting to be seen negative, and not wanting in effect to provide the patsy cover for what’s going on here. I mean really, the amount of mail I get about the NRCC, disgusted with them, people saying we’re only going to support individual candidates as they come up, but that the national Republican organization is still stuck in 2006 mode. I get an awful lot of mail like that.

HH: And a final question, Mark Steyn, or final couple of questions, have you had a chance to read Sarah Palin’s book yet?

MS: No, I haven’t, and I’m looking forward to it, because I am a big Sarah Palin fan. I don’t know whether she wrote it herself, or if she’s got a good ghost writer or whatever, but I hope she’s got a ghost writer who writes in her voice, which is the trick.

HH: Well, Lynn Vincent’s a very good ghost writer. I’m just curious, do you think it will be widely and fairly reviewed, or shuffled off and mocked?

MS: Well, I think it will be mocked, but the fact is this woman has had one of the worst years in American public life ever, and she’s still standing. And she’s the one who unlike the NRCC experts with all the highly paid consultants, she came up with the phrase that crystallized the health care issue for most people, death panels, which I think is the best way to put it, essentially you’re putting government bureaucrats in charge of your health care decisions. And so the idea that this woman is an idiot when she managed to do what in fairness to me and every other right wing pundit, and to the Republican Party, and to the big conservative magazines had not been able to do, I think that testifies to a kind of natural, political genius. And I like her for that.

HH: Thirty seconds, Mark. ACORN has sued, declaring its funding cut off unconstitutional. You think they’ll win?

MS: Well, they may, actually, have a bit of a case there in that you can’t target things specifically. But I kind of hope they don’t win.

HH: Mark Steyn, always a pleasure, www.steynonline.com, America.

End of interview.

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