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Good, Evil, and My Friend Irwin

A literary luncheon with President Bush.

12:00 AM, Mar 14, 2007 • By MICHAEL NOVAK
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Recently THE WEEKLY STANDARD published Irwin Stelzer's truly brilliant account of a literary luncheon arranged by President Bush to honor Andrew Roberts's History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, a thick, heavy book that picks up the skein begun by Winston Churchill with his long four-volume treatment of the subject. The President was not at all intimidated by his fifteen or so guests, including the formidable Norman Podhoretz and Gertrude Himmelfarb, Paul Gigot, Allen Guelzo, Seth Lipsky, Mona Charen, Kate O'Beirne, Irwin Stelzer himself, and of course Mr. Roberts and his wife, the writer Susan Gilchrist. The President was not pretentious; and he was not at all showing off.

Stelzer gives such a vivid account of the event that there is little to be gained by adding new details. (How does he memorize so well what others say? I don't remember him taking any notes.) But there is one thing I must clear up to save my theological reputation and one interesting detail that I had caught wind of before the meeting, and took the occasion to confirm.

Prior to the event, I had fixed two points in mind to insert into the conversation if an opportunity came up. (From past experiences, I had learned that merely going with the flow and not adding something--or if adding, doing so only on the spur of the moment--is afterwards a bitter memory). Before sitting down, therefore, I was already determined to press the president on two of his favorite themes. The first is the peace and calm that he says comes to him from the Almighty, which allows him not to be perturbed by the high-decibel (and often mean) shrieks of critics. The second is a phrase he often uses, "the war between good and evil."

Stelzer actually quotes me a tad inaccurately on the second discussion, in a way that brought me a sharp warning from a theologian friend. Stelzer had written: "The discussion centered on Novak's contention that although there is indeed evil, there is no such thing as absolute good." My theologian friend noted that this formulation not only abandons the orthodox Christian tradition (Catholic and Protestant) since St. Augustine, but is a total inversion of it. Augustine reasoned that there is an absolute good, namely God, in all His radiance and power; whereas evil has no ontological existence on its own at all, being no more than a defective good or a perversion of the good.

In actual fact, of course, a White House lunch or even a lunch with friends anywhere is no place for a formal disquisition. Nor did I wish to prompt the president in any pre-determined direction. When he himself introduced his usual phrase about the Almighty, I leapt in to say that some folks criticized him for claiming to have a telephone line to God, Who told him which policies to follow and what to do. The president scoffed. "Hey, no telephone line. I know I'm a sinner. I know that." He added that every day he wants to make sure that he is not being diverted from what is right. "I want to have my conscience clear with Him. Then it doesn't matter so much what others think."

On the question of good and evil, I had heard the president telling a group of clergymen a few days before that "We are engaged in a war of good and evil." The clergymen had said he should repeat that phrase publicly over and over: "good versus evil." That advice had made me very uncomfortable. So at this lunch I seized the chance to introduce that very phrase, and to say I didn't like it. "I have no problem with evil," I said, I have seen plenty of real evils in my lifetime. But I have a problem with saying that anyone is good. Purely good.

To my mind, the context here was solely about human beings, not God. And I was, without saying so, alluding to a point made by Reinhold Niebuhr, about the irony of American history: America serves a noble, good principle, but yet often does so through flawed men and flawed policies (such as slavery). "In my good, there is always some evil," I was thinking.

However, I was trying to instruct neither my fellow guests nor the president. Many (including my wife, she told me later) did not like my formulation. Some, pre-occupied with the threat from relativism, made fun of the left-wing fetish for limiting speech to various shades of gray. But my own worry concerned the tendency of the pious to be too moralistic and careless in speaking of good and evil. After batting this around, pretty soon the president and then the whole table came up with a rather neat formulation, very much as Stelzer records: In this world there are good causes and evil causes. When we commit ourselves to advancing a good cause, we need to recognize that we are not so good ourselves, but quite imperfect agents.

There is today an intense battle between good and evil principles. It is correct to focus on good v. evil in this sense. But it would be incorrect to imagine that we ourselves are purely good, without flaw and fault in ourselves. We must not let our imperfection, however, detract from the nobility of the good we serve, and the horrible damage the triumph of an evil principle always wreaks.

All in all, the discussion ended up just exactly where I had hoped it would, without knowing it for sure, and without my trying to guide it there. My aim was to throw down the provocative propositions.

Pardon me for writing all this, just to clear up my theological conscience. I do think of God as, to quote from George Washington, "the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be." But no human being stands in God's sight perfectly good--exceptions made (in the Catholic view) for Jesus and his blessed Mother.

The one tid-bit I picked up prior to the lunch, and confirmed at the meeting, is that the president and Karl Rove are competing to see who can read the most books during 2007. For the first six weeks, the President was ahead. But by the beginning of March, Rove had surged ahead to twenty books, to the President's sixteen. Just to make sure that no one cheats, Rove also keeps track of the number of pages and the number of lines per page.

I would not have guessed that the President had read more books than most of us from January 1 to February 28. When I asked him about it in informal conversation, he said that the ones he was enjoying best "to relax his mind" were some of Travis McGee's novels. Those John D. MacDonald stories depict a knight errant who runs his own house-boat in Miami "engaged in the salvage business," and comes to the aid of needy persons (especially needy damsels) in distress. Travis McGee used to be one of my favorites, too, until when I was laid up for a week, I read six of them in a row, and over-dosed on them. For many years, though, they had given me considerable pleasure when I was tired and needed a book, on an airplane for instance.

Travis McGee: not such a bad choice for a President, especially one who thinks about good and evil, and often enough in a hard-boiled way.

Michael Novak is George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.