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Biden the Boastful

From the Scrapbook.

Apr 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 28 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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The incomparable Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor died last June at 96 after an astonishing life, remembered both for his amazingly erudite travel writing and feats of almost super-human heroism as a leader of the resistance to the Nazi occupation of Crete. It was in the latter connection that The Scrapbook thought of Leigh Fermor last week, for reasons we will get to in a bit. 

But first, let us consult the obituary that appeared last June in the Telegraph, as it provides an admirably concise account of Leigh Fermor’s most famous contribution to the war effort. Having acquired fluency in Greek and great familiarity with the terrain in the years before the war, he was infiltrated onto the island after it fell to the Nazis in 1941, to lead the guerrilla activities of the Cretan partisans. As the Telegraph recounted:

His occasional bouts of leave were spent in Cairo, at Tara, the rowdy household presided over by a Polish countess, Sophie Tarnowska. It was on a steamy bathroom window in the house that Leigh Fermor and another of Tara’s residents, Bill Stanley Moss, conceived a remarkable operation that they subsequently executed with great dash on Crete in April 1944.

Dressed as German police corporals, the pair stopped the car belonging to General Karl Kreipe, the island’s commander, while he was returning one evening to his villa near Knossos. The chauffeur disposed of, Leigh Fermor donned the general’s hat and, with Moss driving the car, they bluffed their way through the centre of Heraklion and a further 22 [German] checkpoints. Kreipe, meanwhile, was hidden under the back seat and sat on by three hefty andartes, or Cretan partisans.

For three weeks the group evaded German search parties, finally marching the general over the top of Mount Ida, the mythical birthplace of Zeus. It was here that occurred one of the most celebrated incidents in the Leigh Fermor legend.

Gazing up at the snowy peak, Kreipe recited the first line of Horace’s ode Ad Thaliarchum—Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte” (See how Soracte stands white with snow on high). Leigh Fermor immediately continued the poem to its end. The two men realised that they had “drunk at the same fountains” before the war, as Leigh Fermor put it, and things between them were very different from then on.

Kreipe was eventually taken off Crete by motorboat to Cairo. The exploit was later filmed (in the Alps) as Ill Met by Moonlight (1956), with Dirk Bogarde implausibly cast as Leigh Fermor, who was awarded the [Distinguished Service Order] for his part in the mission.

Christopher Hitchens added an important nuance to this story in his own remembrance of Leigh Fermor. That moment between Leigh Fermor and General Kreipe, Hitchens noted, 

did not result in some sickly reconciliation. Several of Kreipe’s colleagues were executed at the end of the war for the atrocious reprisals they took against Cretan civilians. One of Leigh Fermor’s colleagues, another distinguished classicist named Montague Woodhouse, once told me that Greek villagers urged him to strike the hardest possible blows against the Nazis, so as to make the inevitable reprisals worthwhile.

The Scrapbook thought of Leigh Fermor’s exploits last week when it read of Joe Biden’s over-the-top remarks at a Democratic fundraiser in New Jersey. Congratulating his boss for the raid on Osama bin Laden, Biden said, “You can go back 500 years. You cannot find a more audacious plan. Never knowing for certain. We never had more than a 48 percent probability that he was there. .  .  . Do any one of you have a doubt that if that raid failed that this guy would be a one-term president?”

Perhaps you can see why we thought of Leigh Fermor, of his tracing a design on steamy glass, driving through 22 Nazi checkpoints disguised as a kidnapped German commander, and subsequently evading capture behind enemy lines—with a bit of Horace thrown in as lagniappe. We offer the story because it is picturesque, not because it is unique in the annals of audacity. Five hundred years is a long time. Taking away nothing from the bin Laden raid, which stands as the finest achievement of the current administration and was a famous demonstration of American military and intelligence prowess, we’re certain every reader, like us, can think of feats which outrank it on a scale measured across the centuries.

On the other hand, when it comes to exploits of vainglory and boastfulness, Joe Biden may still rank high on the list 500 years from now.

Johnny, We Know Ye All Too Well

When we left the saga of former senator, vice presidential candidate, and presidential candidate John Edwards, he was being prosecuted in U.S.A v. Johnny Reid Edwards for using campaign funds to cover up his affair and subsequent love child with bit actress and game show contestant Rielle Hunter. Edwards was aided in this effort by centenarian heiress Rachel “Bunny” Lowe Lambert Lloyd Mellon—who had given him $725,000 that was used to help take care of Hunter and hide her away. The now deceased and notoriously shady trial lawyer Fred “King of Torts” Baron also helped funnel funds to Andrew Young, the former Edwards aide who was taking care of the Hunter situation. Oh, and let’s not forget that Edwards’s wife and the mother of his children was dying of cancer while Edwards was carrying on this affair and trying to hush it up.

At the time Edwards was charged with campaign finance violations last year, The Scrapbook observed, “The moral depravity of John Edwards is seemingly boundless, so expect a few more surprises as the trial gets underway.” Well, betting on Edwards’s moral depravity isn’t exactly going out on a limb. In February we were treated to the headline “ ‘John Edwards Sex Tape’ To Be Destroyed As Part Of Court Settlement” (Huffington Post). It might seem hard to top that, but last week we learned that “John Edwards Denies Reported Link to Soccer Mom Madame’s Service” (Daily Beast). 

If the mainstream media once erected a cordon sanitaire around candidate Edwards while the National Enquirer was left to expose the truth, they sure haven’t been pulling any punches of late. (Of course, that may be only because Edwards’s brazen lies made them look like fools.)

Rielle Hunter was once involved with novelist Jay McInerney, who wrote a roman à clef about their relationship, Story of My Life. The book’s jacket copy described the lead female character as a “postmodern Holly Golightly.” Given last week’s revelations that Edwards may have been patronizing prostitutes, his relationship with Hunter now looks comparatively wholesome.

In the end this is a tragedy, if for no other reason than that Edwards’s children have to live in the shadow of their father’s legacy. But Edwards was right about one thing—there are two Americas. There are those willing to do anything in pursuit of power, and then there are those (more numerous, we hope) who believe that the moral character of leaders does matter.

Gray Eminence

The Scrapbook is always on guard at the intersection of fashion and politics, and often our vigilance pays off. Case in point: The news that ex-governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, now resident in federal prison in Colorado, dyes his hair. And because hair coloring is not an option at that prison, “His hair will turn gray,” says his longtime barber, “like Jay Leno’s.” 

Well, we may not recognize the governor when he finally emerges from stir, but at least we’ll like what we see. Truth be told, The Scrapbook was not shocked to learn that Blagojevich’s lustrous locks had been artificially enhanced: He is, after all, 55 years old. And there is a point beyond which heads of hair without a hint of gray are, shall we say, implausible. 

Nor, should we add, was The Scrapbook ever particularly offended by the luxuriant squirrel’s nest atop the governor’s skull; if Nature has been kind to you, there’s no harm in flaunting your good fortune. Blagojevich always looked to us like a quiz show host, circa 1980, which is not a bad thing. 

We do draw the line, however, somewhere in the precincts of male vanity, and so officially deplore the practice of dyeing hair. Not for actors, necessarily, or magicians, or gigolos; but certainly among public servants. The Scrapbook acknowledges that life is unfair when it comes to hair—why should Dwight D. Eisenhower have been bald while Jimmy Carter is not?—but there is no particular reason to believe that gray hair is a political liability. Some of our most respected statesmen of recent vintage—John McCain, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Robert Gates—have sported gray/white/silver locks, while all the dye in the world never quite rescued Richard M. Nixon from Tricky Dick status. 

Indeed, you could argue that gracefully accepting Nature’s verdict makes a certain political sense. Does the 88-year-old Bob Dole really think that his pitch-black locks give him a youthful flair? Does the 77-year-old Carl Levin believe that, if he parts his hair somewhere around his left earlobe, his comb-over will seem less ludicrous? Say what you will about Newt Gingrich, his unashamedly white mane could furnish a room of shag carpeting for a needy family. And anyone who questions Mitt Romney’s authenticity has not observed the tell-tale spread of gray from his temples upward. 

Ronald Reagan, upon whom fortune smiled in many respects, seems to have been one of those rare creatures who didn’t go totally gray with age. But as The Scrapbook is often reminded, there was only one Ronald Reagan. And for every eternally salt-and-peppered Gipper there are Steve Martin and Justice Holmes and Anderson Cooper and Henry Hyde and William Faulkner and Cary Grant to remind us that undyed hair is not inconsistent with retaining one’s mojo.

Especially when you’re serving your country in federal prison. 

Civility for Thee . . .

Comedian Bill Maher last week proposed in the New York Times: “Let’s have an amnesty—from the left and the right—on every made-up, fake, totally insincere, playacted hurt, insult, slight and affront. Let’s make this Sunday the National Day of No Outrage. One day a year when you will not find some tiny thing someone did or said and pretend you can barely continue functioning until they apologize.”

This proposal was more than a bit self-serving. Ever since Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” for demanding that people pay for her contraception and abortifacients, we’ve been engaged in a tortured national dialogue over slurs. Maher was dragged into this debate because in defending Limbaugh, more than a few people pointed out that the HBO host has called Sarah Palin the C-word and said a torrent of vicious things that go far beyond anything Limbaugh said about Fluke. And he ostentatiously donated $1 million to a super-PAC dedicated to reelecting the president.

Moreover, after a very public Democratic campaign banging on Limbaugh’s statement, it was pointed out that DNC head Debbie Wasserman Schultz had appeared on Maher’s frequently distasteful show. It seems that Democrats have no problem with profaning women, so long as they dislike the women being insulted.

To Maher’s credit, he’s defended Limbaugh’s right to mouth off and denounced the campaign to pressure his advertisers. However, Maher’s proposal seems unworkable without addressing the root cause. Does he really expect that public figures should be able to say nasty and personal things about other public figures without cavil?

Naturally, a guy whose brand of humor depends on saying things that are more insulting than witty would conclude that we’re apologizing too much. But the human condition being what it is, our real problem is that we’re forever seeking ways to avoid owning up to the things we’ve done wrong and correcting our behavior. At the very least, personal insults, even with the fig leaf of being said in jest, erode the public discourse. 

But don’t take our word for it. By the standards of America’s prolific founding fathers, George Washington was not an especially literary man. He’s known for one slender volume, Rules of Civility—so we take it to mean that he viewed respectful discourse to be a civic virtue of importance. We refer Maher especially to the section that starts, “Speak not injurious Words neither in Jest nor Earnest Scoff at none although they give Occasion.” 

Here’s our modest proposal for Maher: Don’t shy away from your opinions—but try and keep the personal assaults to a minimum. We suspect that if he showed a modicum of self-control, much of America would suddenly discover that although not always agreeable, he’s at least a lot funnier when his rage-filled, childish id is kept on a leash.

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