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We Seldom Know What We Think We Know: Conventional Wisdom Shouldn’t Lead to The Convention…

It happens every once in a while: You learn something that completely changes your viewpoint, or your ingrained notions about what you think you know. It happened to me recently, while I was perusing the (otherwise obscure) diary writings of Walter “Bedell” Smith.

Smith is remembered (-if he is remembered at all) mostly as Dwight Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff at SHAEF (that is, the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force) during World War Two. In later years, Bedell worked in President Truman’s State Department, and was one of the very first Directors of Central Intelligence. Like so many Number Two’s, Smith is seldom remembered outside the sphere of his immediate influence– but, he had a ringside seat to many of the vast movements of the Twentieth Century.

It was innocuous, the little toss-off diary entry of Smith’s, which flicked on the Light of Understanding in my pea-brain:

“Mr. Churchill never thought a cross-channel invasion would be successful. The trenches of the First War and the debacle leading up to the miracle at Dunkirk were too fresh in his mind. And, if we ever did march into France, we could never make it through the Siegfried Line, let alone get over the Rhine. Mr. Churchill thought that only the Russians, coming from the east, could make it to Berlin. That is why our advance stalled in late 1944: We never thought we’d make it as far as we did, and we had no plans beyond France.”

This explains so much: The debacle of Operation Market Garden (Montgomery’s disastrous attempt to invade the Fatherland of Germany through occupied Holland), the Italian Campaign, and the surprise of the Battle of the Bulge. It also explains Churchill’s (at times grotesque) obsequiousness toward Papa Joe Stalin. Churchill hated communism in general and the Bolsheviks in particular, but he seemed smitten at times with Stalin. But, it was simple geopolitical calculation: Prime Minister Churchill lacked confidence in Overlord, and he was hedging steep bets all around Europe.

I’ve even read Mr. Churchill’s (abridged) memoirs– and, if I ever knew about his trepidation about a cross-channel invasion, I’ve long since forgotten it. Here in these after-years, it is remarkable to ponder the vast movements in the tsunami of World War Two that were propelled by the simple misgivings of a single, great man. And that these misgivings remain largely forgotten or unknown to the teeming bulk of humanity.

Even when we think we know so much, there is still so much we don’t know.

For example, we thought we knew so much, there in the snows of early February of 1968. Clearly, even while the Vietnam War was dragging on a bit much, Lyndon Johnson was going to be the Democrat Nominee once again for President, and Richard Nixon was in a battle for the Republicans along with George Romney. This was simply known. It was the perceived wisdom.

Not one political observer in a thousand would have predicted that Hubert Humphrey (Johnson’s unctuous vice president) would go on to be the Democrat nominee, and that one of his competitors for that nomination would have been Robert Kennedy. And that Robert Kennedy would be dead before the end of June.

We think we know so much, those of us who peer at the moon through a garden-hose, and think we see the whole sky.

Do we remember the Great Issues of the Election of 2000? We were all a-dither at the time, trying to make sure that George W. Bush (the putative conservative in the race) bested John McCain for the nomination to take on the bloated Al Gore. But, why did it matter, beyond denying another four years of slimy Clintonism? What were the burning narratives, what was the substance of the race?

Whatever the issues of the race of 2000, the real story was a small group of Egyptian and Saudi Arabian men masquerading as westerners in Florida flight-training schools. When George W. Bush was accepting his party’s nomination for President, Mohammad Atta was finalizing his sleepers to steal aboard several jumbo jets, and fly them into iconic American buildings and institutions.

The political landscape was changing beneath our feet, and only a dozen Arab men knew it.

The pollsters, the professional consultants, the focus-groups all make us secure in our knowledge that our politics can be analyzed, sliced, diced, manipulated and wrapped up with a nice, neat bow on the convention floor in Tampa next August. Candidate X has Y number of delegates, can expect victories is the state of Z next Tuesday; he has the resources, the “path to victory”, etcetera. But this security is illusory.

Politics is not Science. Like most man-scented endeavors, it is mostly Art– in the broadest sense of the word. Throw “political science” on the pile o’er there with “Jumbo Shrimp” and “Lebanese Government”.

First of all, we don’t know what the issues will be in August. This is another appalling feature of our four-year presidential contests: They become by necessity contests of personalities and innuendoes, versus one of ideas and substance to match the current cultural and political storms and eddies, because of how damned long they go on.

To test this theory: If the electorate in June, 2008 would have known that by September, the American financial system would be in free-fall, would we really have nominated John McCain? No, it clearly would have been the race to give the sober nomination to Mitt Romney.

But, in May of 2008, McCain was the most “electable”. By October, though, he was a damp squib.

I understand the need to cling to the realpolitik of “rallying” around a candidate. But, it’s rather like rallying around a fresh cinnamon roll: It’s all very tasty at the moment, but by the time breakfast rolls around, you might really be in the mood for bacon and eggs.

And this is why the ongoing debate is crucial. It is also why the present system the GOP deploys to choose it’s nominee must be scrapped in whole: Just when we need televised debates –where substance is discussed when actual voting is taking place– we have none. Only now are the issues jelling into starker relief. Only now do we know what the contours of the election will be. Yes, we know Obamacare is a ribald disaster, but would we have guessed back when Michele Bachmann was prattling on about Gardasil just how near and dear governmental mandates about “womens reporductive health” would be before the season had changed from winter?

No, let the debate rage. Let Romney, Gingrich and Santorum duke it out on the substance. The candidates don’t need vetting, necessarily, but the issues DO.

Let’s say Israel decides it’s time to validate Iran’s parking ticket, and busts Achmadidawhackjob’s bunkers. Suddenly, oil is $250 a barrel, Iraq is up for grabs, and the sabres are rattling with a certain nuclear-tinged ring. Does Romney’s experience as “a businessman” seem as germane in such circumstances, or do you want a “Washington Insider” that can stride into the Capitol, march in the Well of the House, and not have to ask directions to the john?

I don’t know. But truncating the process because it is annoying –and a little blush-educing– won’t answer the question.  Further debate will help.

We think we know so much. As Marshall MacLuhan said with clarity, we mustn’t look longingly at the future through the rear-view mirror. And Winston Churchill can attest to that.

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