Giving it a rest for Christmas


The bride and I put on our glad rags this week and infiltrated a few Christmas gatherings. You may very well have been there.

And if you were, did you have the sense that your fellow revelers looked familiar, though it was tough to bring up their names? I think that was because they all looked so good and behaved so well. The neighbors, I am happy to report, clean up very well. But when they put on a little greasepaint and some clean clothes, it can throw you.

Of course, all dressed up and courted with all manner of princely victuals, folks are pretty congenial. Most of them are restrained by the invisible lashings of civility and seasonal benevolence. One does not expect to encounter that vulgar concoction of boorishness and politics.

(I confess I did once, not this year, encounter a boor of world class proportions at a small party. It was one of those “Ah ha, Cabral, is it you, you villain? Draw your weapon, else I cut you down forthwith” moments. He was inflated with some sense that he and the whole wide world had been kicked in the knickers by something we had published. It might have made me cross, but I learned that he got nothing but coal in his Christmas stocking a few days later. Quite right, too.)

Anyway, in this season of good will folks were well dressed and well behaved. Nevertheless, one could see that turbulent currents roiled below.

For instance, I said “Happy Holidays” to one up-Islander. He said, “I’m going to say Merry Christmas to you, if you don’t mind. I’m an old Yankee and I can’t get out of the habit.”

As you like, I thought.

And although it was cold and drizzly on the evening of the most recent event, to some we might as well have been in Congress, where hot contention is always on the menu.

Unsolicited, one fellow with whom I found myself competing at the raw bar proposed that the Supreme Court’s decision on Obamacare was a threat to the Union. He was about to offer some further criticisms of the justices and their political inclinations and the consequent ignominy they would all bring upon the nation’s highest court, when a lubricated Democrat came by who thought that same decision was just right.

Just then, I caught the scent of a passing tray of oysters, which a gimlet-eyed proctologist had in his sights, and I set off in pursuit.

It did get me thinking about how much damage all this criticism of the Supreme Court might do in the long run. But my thinking was short lived. Not a very Christmasy topic, I decided.

I would have worried about it anyway, if I had not remembered what H.L. Mencken had to say about judges in 1941, when the war might have inspired him to throttle back.

“My recollection of judges,” Mencken wrote, “and my veneration for them go back a long way before my newspaper days, for I was a boy not more than eight or nine years old when my father began taking me on his tours of the more high-toned Washington saloons, and pointing out for my edification the eminent men who infested them. Not a few of those dignitaries were ornaments of the federal judiciary, and among them were some whose names were almost household words in the Republic.

“But it was not their public fame that most impressed me; it was the lordly and elegant way in which they did their boozing. Before I really knew what a Congressman was I was aware that Congressmen were bad actors in barrooms, and often had to be thrown out, and years before I had heard that the United States Senate sat in trials of impeachment and formerly had a say in international treaties, I had seen a Senator stricken by the first acrobatic symptoms of delirium tremens. But though I search my memory diligently, and it is especially tenacious in sociological matters, I can’t recall a single judge who ever showed any sign of yielding to the influence. They all drank freely, and with a majestic spaciousness of style, but they carried their liquor like gentlemen.”

Nothing I’ve read about the High Court recently comes close to Mencken for savagery. Yet the court and its Obamacare ruling have weathered the storm.

Another partygoer, this one deeply engaged in fish chowder, had a thing or two to say about golf and taxes. It was obviously the opening to treacherous subject matter. I had not mapped out an exit strategy, as the politicians like to say we need, apparently unmindful of the poorly thought through entrance strategy that they endorsed, which is why we’re in this fix, whatever it is. Besides, these were Christmas gatherings after all, and I am certain that politics, national or local, doesn’t go well with egg nog.

No one enjoys the rough and tumble of debate more than I. Judge Stewart Dalzell had it right in 1996 when he said, “Just as the strength of the Internet is chaos, so the strength of our liberty depends upon the chaos and cacophony of the unfettered speech the First Amendment protects.”

But, in light of this week’s stunning events, even we Christmas revelers are bruised, and politics never seems to have much of Christmas about it anyhow. We should give it a rest.