Jewish World Review August 24, 2005 / 19 Av, 5765

Paul Greenberg

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A sense of style | There's no telling what Victorian standards old archives will reveal.

It turns out that, long before he became a distinguished, ABA-certified, officially well-qualified nominee for the Supreme Court of the United States, a young aide in the Reagan White House named John G. Roberts had opposed a presidential award for a popular singer named Michael Jackson.

The proposed award was going to cite the singer as an "outstanding example" for American youth. Counselor (and spoilsport) Roberts objected on the quaint, pre-Clinton grounds that such an action would detract from the dignity of the American presidency. Or as he put it in a both-gloves-off memo dated April 30, 1984:

"If one wants the youth of America and the world sashaying around in garish sequined costumes, hair dripping with pomade, body shot full of female hormones to prevent voice change, mono-gloved, well, then, I suppose 'Michael,' as he is affectionately known in the trade, is in fact a good example. Quite apart from the problem of appearing to endorse Jackson's androgynous life style, a Presidential award would be perceived as a shallow effort by the President to share in the constant publicity surrounding Jackson . . . . The whole episode would, in my view, be demeaning to the President."

Young Roberts seems to have been an equal-opportunity defender of the Oval Office's remaining dignity. For he also opposed presidential awards for just about all the Hollywood icons of the moment.

Earlier he had objected to a presidential award referring to John Wayne as the epitome of American values, saying he was "somewhat troubled by the absence of a consistent policy governing our willingness to permit the President to participate in these private, commercial tributes . . . ."

The only questionable thing about that memo is the "somewhat."

Young Roberts understood where all this was heading: "I think we are seeing evidence of what we often say will happen when we deny requests for Presidential endorsements of charitable efforts: once you do one it becomes impossible to turn down countless others. I know there's only one John Wayne — but there's only one Bob Hope, James Bond, Bing Crosby, etc. etc. etc."

OK, John Roberts may have been wrong about there being only one James Bond. (How many have there been by now? One loses count.) But he was certainly right about how all these glitzy awards would only cheapen the presidency.

And this, mind you, was long after Richard Nixon had done his bit for presidential dignity by posing for that awful — but revealing — picture of himself with Elvis Presley. I saw that photo again at a preview of the Clinton Presidential Library and found it hard to tear my eyes away. It could have been taken by Diane Arbus. Or illustrated a short story by Flannery O'Connor, that artist of the grotesque who saw the freak in all of us.

In this picture, of course, it wasn't the showbiz star who was detracting from the dignity of the president, but Tricky Dick who was attempting to use Elvis. It was fascinating, if in a horrible way. Some pictures are just so bad they're good. And not just good but classics. Now if the Clinton Library could get a post-pardon picture of Bill Clinton and Mark Rich toasting each other . . . . Who do you suppose was using whom? Or was it mutual?

Judge Roberts' ideas about the law wait to be fully explored in his confirmation hearings, but his taste, even as a young man, would seem faultless.

At a time when justices of the United States Supreme Court think it's neat to go out on the lecture circuit debating each other for the edification and entertainment of the public, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court with a sense of decorum would come as a relief.

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Good taste has become so rare, especially in politics, that simple dignity would be something to see. Anybody can do the outrageous, and often does. Just turn on your television set and tune in any of the shout shows, which vary from rude to insufferable. It is restraint that has become exceptional.

This torrent of words 24/7 is supposed to be important, to matter, to tell us what we really need to know. Isn't that the message of the portentous music in the background of the always Breaking News? After all, these people with perfect hair are insiders, experts, sophisticates — they really know. But the only thing they really know is how to talk, forever. Or rather shout. This isn't style. It is the complete, perfect, much hyped very absence of it.

"Style," Alfred North Whitehead asserted "is the last acquirement of the educated mind; it is also the most useful. It pervades the whole being. The administrator with a sense for style hates waste; the engineer with a sense for style economises his material; the artisan with a sense for style prefers good work." And the White House aide with a sense of style can sum up the case for restraint in concise yet forceful words.

To find that sense of style among the first acquirements of John Roberts in his career has to impress. Indeed, to find it in a political aide of any age would be impressive in a styleless age. Clearly, John Roberts would never have made it in show biz. More impressive, he seems to have understood the difference between show biz and high office long ago.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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