“’Morning, ma’am,” I greeted her, wishing I had a cap to doff but making up for it with a broad smile.
“Why, good ’mornin’, son! How ya’ feelin’?” answered the sprightly little black church lady, well past retirement age and wearing a beautiful white hat with little lavender-colored flowers.
So began a simply beautiful Sunday, the first real day of spring in Washington, as I skipped down Capitol Hill’s red-brick sidewalks to commune with my own fellow guilt-ridden Catholic worshipers. From morning through dusk, I felt like singing “Zippity Do Dah,” the happiest song from the only film to suffer Disney’s self-censorship. (Looking for a video or DVD re-release of “The Song of the South”? Thank the greedy Shylocks who neutered Walt’s magical kingdom.) And I did sing it, especially after a bottle of Riesling in the early evening as I read the latest number from The Spectator.
I live on Capitol Hill. And on Sunday mornings I walk to Mass, either to St. Joseph’s on the Hill for convenience or, if I’m not too hung over, the earlier nine o’clock Tridentine Rite at Old St. Mary’s in Chinatown where the congregants include Pat Buchanan (Does he own but one suit, dark and pin striped?) and the abdicated king of Rwanda. This diversity shows the true universality of the Catholic Church, when united under the Latin tongue. But even we RCs can’t match the Baptists for suitability. It’s such a pleasant sight to walk past Baptist churches and watch the black churchgoers who look like their forebears of three generations ago. The men in suits and fedoras, their women wearing pretty dresses and flower-festooned hats: It almost makes up for the cavalcade of grossly-bossomed tarts and guttersnipes strutting about American Idol. Today the Pop 40 features tatooed skanks like Mary Blige. Yesterday we embraced the elegance and elocution of Ella Fitzgerald. Sliding downhill, are we?
No sane conservative actually lives in the past. Those who do are eccentric nowhere men living in a nowhere land, though their company can be entertaining for an evening at most. Their port and cigars are the truest manifestations of the bygone era they seek to replicate.
The Bertie Wooster wannabes are both the most egregious and amusing offenders of the living-in-the-past set. Though they wear the best-cut suits and sport accoutrements everyone else abandoned fifty or more years ago, it’s evident that they never read Evelyn Waugh’s comment that the world of Wooster and the Drones Club never existed but in the comically fruitful imagination of P. G. Wodehouse. (And of course gold cigarette cases are superb, but even FDR smoked his Camels from the pack And so does Taki, unless he forgot his cigarette case at home when we met last week at the National Press Club for a seminar honoring Sam Francis.)
Rather, we true-blue conservatives live in the present, albeit with a sense of loss that we seek to redeem by manifesting the best manners and mores of old. This has little to do with style, though the best men’s wear is inspired by that of the Thirties with minor variations. To paraphrase Jefferson, however, styles come and go but principles of conduct and demeanor stay the same.
If the unthinking Philistines who mock the conservative disposition toward nostalgia were worth reasoning with, one could cite the leading cultural indicators of decline. The family being the cornerstone of civilization, the major indicator is the historically high rate of fouled-up families (oops, “family units”) riven by divorce, illegitimacy, and abortion, and assaulted by the family-by-turkey-baster model of the VP’s daughter, called “loving” by his putative boss. But statistics are forgettable, reminding one of Stalin’s quip that “one death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.” Not that any good soul would have regarded Stalin’s untimely demise a tragedy: next to Jimmy Carter, the most evil Georgian of them all.
But forget the leading cultural indicators. Subjective analysis always is more effective than statistics. Spend ten minutes in any American town, big or small, and observe people of all economic classes dressed like slobs and, the most blatant of all offenders, “listening” to the “music” of a satanic jungle beat audible from a car stereo two blocks away. Yet even worse, however, are the young and nice looking people hooked to their Ipods, grooving in their own universes rather than engaging a beautiful spring day and greeting passerby. At least the ghetto-blasters don’t mind sharing their depravity. And have you noticed the relatively new fashion in young girls’ trousers: logos spread about the lower bottom? What more evidence does one need of the insidious perversion of fashion designers who unwittingly cause people (me, for example) to read logos on passing pants, only to rebound in revulsion that the placement of that damned logo caused one to watch the fanny of some pre-pubescent girl?
Now compare this to life just forty years ago, when even the poor still had a sense of sartorial propriety they imitated from their social superiors, who are the real culprits of the present demise. Ignore it at your peril, but hierarchies are a natural thing in life, and ours dropped the ball when they began slumming it in the late Sixties. No respect shall be given to middle-aged Yuppies riding in convertible BMWs and wearing pansy-ass, adjustable-sized baseball caps. Where’s an IED when you need one?
One segment of society has not abandoned the proper sense of decorum, however, and that is the military.
Last month I helped host a birthday party at the Foreign Service Club in Washington for a grand old woman of Old World charm, the German-born journalist Viola Drath. Lots of high-ranking brass was in attendance—Viola’s late husband was a big shot in the Air Force—from American major generals to Johnny Torrens-Spence, British military attaché to the United States, wearing boot spurs and scarlet coat. (His father, the late Captain Michael Torrens-Spence, was the hero of the Battle of Cape Matapan, hailed by Winston Churchill as the most important naval victory since Trafalgar.)
Perhaps the most honored guest, because the most deserving of honor, was Lt. Gen. Edward Rowny: 1941 graduate of West Point; three-time recipient of the Silver Star; the officer on MacArthur’s staff in Korea who devised the Inchon invasion plan; a Vietnam advisor in the early Sixties who developed the concept of “Airmobile,” in which helicopters were integrated into infantry tactics; confidant of several presidents but the especial friend of Ronald Reagan (Rowny taught him to play the harmonica!), who appointed him his chief nuclear arms negotiator, etc. In comparison, I feel like a bum.
Anway, next week I’m lunching with General Rowny, who, though 89 and blind, is a hale and hearty man with a sharper mind than most. Though he won’t see it, I’ll be recording notes and discreetly ordering an extra martini. Cheers!
Matthew Rarey writes from Washington.
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