Entries from January 2001

The Ghost Of Administrations Past

David Frum January 29th, 2001 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Those long feature columns on the left and right side of the Wall Street Journal’s front page are known inside the paper as “leaders.” For many years, reporters at the Journal joked that if you had a fact, you had a leader, and if you had two facts, you had two leaders. Washington journalists seem to be evaluating the Bush administration in the same light-hearted spirit. Two members of the administration held senior posts in the Ford administration: Dick Cheney was chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld was secretary of defense. A third, treasury secretary Paul O’Neill, was deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. On this slight base has been erected a towering structure of punditry to the effect that the Bush administration represents the second coming of Gerald Ford. Got three facts? You’ve revived an old leader.

Ford was not a success in office, and the people who draw comparisons between him and Bush mean the latter no compliment. Ford had better instincts than he is usually given credit for: He wanted to free energy prices, control government spending, and aid the anti-Communists in Angola. But he was never the man for the job. He was gullible about the radical social movements of the 1970s, picked bad judges, and compromised with Democrats in Congress when he could have achieved more both in political and in policy terms by taking his differences with them to the country. He himself quipped that he was a Ford, not a Lincoln.

Columnist Nicholas von Hoffman observed more brutally that it would be Ford’s ultimate destiny to vex generations of schoolchildren yet unborn with the question whether it was he or Martin Van Buren who fought the French and Indian War. But the hard truth is that the thing that Ford will probably be remembered longest for is his refusal to invite Alexander Solzhenitsyn to the White House after the great dissident’s expulsion from the Soviet Union.

However, the casting of Bush II as Ford II overlooks the overwhelming number of cabinet and cabinet-level nominees with no connection to Gerald Ford at all. It ignores the startling difference between the circumstances of the mid-1970s (rampaging Soviets, inflation, unemployment, energy shocks, and huge Democratic majorities in Congress) and those prevailing now. It fails to take into account, too, the difference in experiencand acuity between a twice-elected governor of the country’s second-biggest state and a politician who had never previously won an election outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If the idea of Bush as Ford II is so misplaced, why is it getting so much traction? Perhaps because it is a roundabout way to phrase a stronger allegation: that Bush’s appointments have broken faith with the Republican party’s Reaganite inheritance.

Only one of Bush’s appointees, Colin Powell, held a senior job in the Reagan administration. A handful of others held posts much lower down the organizational chart: Economic adviser Larry Lindsey was a White House staff economist; U.S. trade representative Bob Zoellick was a deputy assistant secretary of the treasury; interior secretary Gale Norton worked as a lawyer in the interior department. What’s missing is the broad band of people in the middle. Where are the assistant secretaries of the Reagan years, the deputy commissioners, the division heads? The incoming secretary of agriculture held the number two position in the department during the presidency of Bush’s father; ditto for the incoming secretary of veterans’ affairs. Reagan-vintage number forty-threes are drawing top jobs. Why not Reagan-vintage number twos?

The short answer is that those old number twos have either wandered off to the private sector for keeps or else left government on terms that make it impossible for them to return. The Reagan administration was an unusually fractious one. Much of its history can be told in terms of its legendary feuds: Baker vs. Meese, Kirkpatrick vs. Haig, Perle vs. Burt, Stockman vs. Weinberger, Darman vs. everybody. More than in any previous administration, the people who served in Reagan’s were wounded and scarred by the use of ethics accusations as a weapon: Think of Richard Allen resigning because he forgot a gift watch in his office safe; Michael Deaver and Lyn Nofziger prosecuted for their lobbying; Anne Burford and Ed Meese — the list goes on. By January 1989, the Reagan administration looked like a British regiment returning from the Somme: limping, bloodied, missing half its officers.

That’s one answer to the question, Where are the Reaganites? But there’s another, and it is one that conservatives ought to keep in mind before getting unduly optimistic or unduly pessimistic about the staffing of the incoming administration: The Reagan service medal is not necessarily a badge of merit. That administration contained its fair share of duds: anti-free-enterprise businessmen like the protectionist transportation secretary Drew Lewis; concessions to the liberal wing of the Republican party like health and human services secretary Richard Schweiker; people of self-destructive temperaments like Ed Meese and Al Haig. And sometimes it was the establishment Republicans whom conservatives most distrusted who served Reagan and conservatism best: George Shultz, for instance, and, yes, James Baker.

That may also prove true this time around. It’s the Ford legacies, Cheney and Rumsfeld, who are likely to be the most robust members of the Bush foreign policy team; it’s the Reaganite Powell who has in the past been most cautious. On spending, Paul O’Neill may yet turn out to have a stiffer spine than some of the supply-siders who mistrust him.

There’s a Washington saying that personnel is policy. But that cynical wisdom can also be an excuse: Personnel will adapt to policy, if there is a policy to adapt to. It was the unclear intentions and weak will of the first President Bush, as much as the squishy political backgrounds of his aides, that undid that administration. It’s the philosophy of the president, the themes of his campaign, the mandate he won, as much as the backgrounds of his staff and officials, that determine the character of his administration. In those respects, Bush offers a complex and unique mix of reasons for hope and for worry.

Reagan’s legacy isn’t found in the resumes of the people who served him. It is, as Christopher Wren said of his own legacy, all around us. As for Ford, if everyone in his administration had served the nation as redoubtably as Rumsfeld and Cheney, that administration would have bequeathed a record of which conservatives and Americans could be more proud.


David Frum January 19th, 2001 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Had the Founders of the American Republic left the capital in New York, it is hard to see how they could ever have had inaugural parades. Sealing off much of the downtown core, two subway stations and one of the city’s busiest bridges for three days before a new president takes his oath would spark revolution in crowded Manhattan.

But in Washington, a city laid out by a native of Versailles and still imbued with a courtier spirit, the residents accept the quadrennial inconvenience with the same good cheer with which Las Vegans tolerate the all-night neon. It is how they make their living.

This year, though, the inconveniences go way beyond usual. The assortment of police forces that protect Washington – the Secret Service, the Park Service, the FBI, the congressional police and the District of Columbia’s metropolitan force – are laying down the thickest cordon of security at any inauguration since Richard Nixon’s first.

The inauguration began last night, with public concerts, jamborees and hoedowns. Tonight is the night for the $2,500-a-plate fundraising dinners and (the surprisingly scanty) parties in people’s homes. Tomorrow morning, George W Bush and his wife arrive at the White House from Blair House to meet the Clintons. All four then drive to the Capitol for the swearing-in at noon.

Then the Clintons drive off – not to return home, for they have no home – but to a north-west Washington mansion bought with Hillary’s book money. After the oath, the new president and his wife are driven in a motorcade up Pennsylvania Avenue back to the White House. There are more public events that afternoon and evening. Tomorrow night, the state parties throw what are grandly called “balls”: 2,000-person crushes where the incoming administration can mingle with the country’s most successful Buick dealers.

The seven previous inaugural weekends all proceeded without any trouble more serious than the occasional downtown music-lover complaining about the over-amplified sound of Tony Orlando’s voice drifting into his condo.

This time, though, the police are expecting real trouble. Parade spectators will have their bags searched. Protesters have been warned that the big papier-mache puppets that showed up at the World Bank protests last spring are prohibited: they could be used to conceal weapons. Thousands of officers, uniformed and plain-clothed, will pounce on any group that attempts to mount a demonstration anywhere other than the assigned demonstration sites.

Police took few such precautions in 1981 for the inauguration of Ronald Reagan, a much more polarising figure. But Mr Reagan’s election had surprised and demoralised the American Left: up until the last week of the 1980 campaign, he was neck-and-neck with Jimmy Carter. To everybody’s surprise, Mr Reagan blasted Mr Carter out of office in the
most crushing defeat of an incumbent president since Roosevelt ejected Hoover. The sign-painters and cat-callers stayed home, dejected and terrified.

By rights, they should be dejected this year, too. For the first time since 1948, they had on the ballot a serious, nationally recognised candidate who articulated their views: Ralph Nader. He won less than three per cent of the vote. It is hard to imagine a more resounding endorsement of the bourgeois centrism that allegedly governs the two big parties.

But it won’t be the ex-Naderites who will be leading the protests. Al Gore has, improbably enough, been the beneficiary of a post-election eruption of black militancy. Black Democrats organised the most effective get-out-the-vote drive in memory for him. In Florida, where only 13 per cent of the population is black, blacks cast 16 per cent of
the ballots. Black Democrats counted on having a president who would owe them and could therefore be counted on to appoint judges to reverse the 1990s trend to declare pro-black racial preferences unconstitutional.

Instead, America elected a president committed to appointing judges who believe in race-blindness, in large part because many of the votes cast by black Floridians were spoilt by the voters’ failure to mark their ballots properly. Black Democrats have hurled the foulest accusations against the incoming administration and are threatening to shut down
the proceedings. It is they who will be responsible for whatever trouble erupts tomorrow.

Whether or not riots erupt on the Mall, the senatorial equivalent of a riot has already commenced inside the Capitol, where the quiet, decent man designated by Mr Bush as his choice for attorney-general, former Missouri senator John Ashcroft, is being treated by his Democratic questioners as if he had left his Klan robes in the senatorial cloakroom.

Jerry Hunter, the St Louis lawyer who assisted then-governor Ashcroft with minority recruitment in the 1980s, wrote in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal: “It is sad, in fact pathetic, that I must take the time to respond to charges that John Ashcroft is a racist . . . [He] is not only not a racist, he appointed more blacks to positions in Missouri state government than any of his Democratic predecessors.”

But, in this context, “racist” is a term of art with a meaning rather different from what it has in common speech. Here “racist” is used to mean “an individual whom until yesterday the vast majority of black Americans had never heard of but whose words and actions, when selectively reported and cunningly misrepresented, can be used to whip already agitated black Americans into a frenzy of paranoia”.

Few observers think there is any real chance of the Ashcroft nomination being halted. There is zero possibility that the protesters on the Mall will impede Mr Bush’s inauguration. But the organisers of these disruptions have longer-range objectives than that: they want to wreck and sully a government whose legitimacy they don’t accept. Never mind that this government is the lawfully elected one: as the events of the past eight years have abundantly proved, when the post-Clinton Democratic party must decide between law and power, it chooses power every time.

What Clinton Did To The Left

David Frum January 15th, 2001 at 12:00 am Comments Off

BILL CLINTON did something that neither Richard Nixon nor Ronald Reagan ever managed: He convinced the American left that the United States is a conservative country.

For eight years, Clinton steered his party in a rightward direction. Maybe he didn’t begin intending to steer that way. Certainly he didn’t steer that way all the time. Still and all, you’d have to search pretty hard to find an important national Democrat who today believes that the federal government should regulate oil prices or allocate capital to startup industries, or that domestic industry should be protected from foreign competition, or that welfare is a fundamental constitutional right — all things that Democrats did believe in the 35 years up to 1992.

In years gone by, Democratic presidents who defied liberal orthodoxy in this way provoked insurrection on their left: Harry Truman had his Henry Wallace, Lyndon Johnson had his Eugene McCarthy, and Jimmy Carter had his Ted Kennedy. Yet even as Clinton inked free-trade pacts with Mexico, surrendered to welfare reform, increased the number of federal death-penalty offenses, signed the Defense of Marriage Act, acceded to the Republican capital-gains tax cut — despite a slew of policies almost calculated to give liberals heartburn — the political and intellectual left side of the spectrum stood by its man with the devotion of so many Chicago aldermen. Clinton plucked his renomination without opposition, almost without criticism, and held the Democratic party and its sympathizers in the press virtually unanimously behind him through the deadliest political storm since Watergate.

Now obviously liberals gained things from the Clinton presidency: an unyielding defense of abortion and racial preferences, an expansion of some social welfare provisions, and a grand new health care undertaking — the Children’s Health Insurance Program (or CHIP), which encourages states to offer Medicaid to all under-18s — that may someday mature into the large domestic program that otherwise eluded Clinton. On the whole, though, Clinton was to liberalism what Nixon was to conservatism: a leader who demanded much from his supporters and delivered little.

Like Nixon, Clinton was able to hold his supporters in part because he so enraged their enemies. It’s hard to avoid feeling that a leader is on your side when he makes the folks on the other side go purple in the face. Like Nixon, too, Clinton benefited from his political weakness. Democrats feared to pressure Clinton to move leftwards lest they erode his shaky political position.

Likewise, Gore’s core supporters didn’t like it when he criticized the entertainment industry or elevated debt-elimination to first place among his economic priorities or campaigned in Florida’s white neighborhoods rather than its minority districts. But what could they do about it? George W. Bush and his terrifying henchmen — Ken Starr, Jesse Helms, Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay — were pounding on the doors. If they broke in, children all over the United States would have to chew tobacco and go to school barefoot, as they do in Texas. It was more urgent to keep that crew out than to get all fussy about whom one was letting in.

This feeling of weakness on the left explains something otherwise odd about the politics of the 1990s: the simultaneous ebbing of ideological passion and intensification of party feeling. Liberals aren’t as liberal as they used to be — but they are far more reliably Democratic. Can anyone imagine a Harvard professor taking to the airwaves on behalf of Lyndon Johnson during the Bobby Baker scandal as avidly as Alan Dershowitz championed Bill Clinton during the year of Monica? Or a leftie as zealous as Sidney Blumenthal signing up to swap conspiracy theories with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter? For that matter, does anyone remember John Anderson suffering anything like the hail of abuse from liberals that Ralph Nader took? (The same New Republic that sneered at the ludicrous pretension of the Nader campaign actually endorsed John Anderson in 1980.)

But how long will this pragmatic mood last? Has the liberal wing of the Democratic party after all these years at last been converted to lesser-evilism for keeps? Did Clinton euthanize his party’s left — or merely anesthetize it? It would be foolish to give any assured answer. But there are some reasons for thinking that the discipline maintained against the Nader temptation will not last:

(1) The fact that the combined Gore-Nader vote amounted to 52 percent of the ballots cast dispels much of the feeling of weakness that sustained Clinton. You can already hear bolder voices speculating that a new Democratic majority coalition may be aborning — and that spirit of confidence may embolden liberals to new political adventures.

(2) The willingness of Democratic liberals to tolerate the hands-off economic policies of the post-1994 Clinton administration will not necessarily translate into a willingness to tolerate similar policies from a Republican administration. Benjamin Disraeli quipped that it is the duty of an opposition to oppose. It’s also a psychological necessity. And to explain and justify that opposition, Democrats in Congress will be tempted to resurrect the interventionist ideas that they put aside during the Clinton administration.

(3) The politics of the Clinton years were cushioned by the great puffy heaps of money strewn about by the prosperity of the 1990s. It was hard to muster much ire against welfare reform when $ 7 an hour jobs were going begging. It sounded silly to call for protection against foreign competition when American factories were working at capacity. And with colossal budget surpluses lubricating the work of Congress, the clash of interests tapered off to a gentle scraping. But that prosperity seems, if not to be ending altogether, then certainly diminishing.

(4) One of the reasons that the pre-Clinton Democratic party had such difficulty adopting moderate policies was that it had such immoderate beliefs. The 36-day recount battle exposed how strongly wild and paranoid beliefs still pulse inside the party. Party supporters are willing to describe a seatbelt checkpoint as the functional equivalent of a poll tax and the malfunctioning of a voting machine as the moral equivalent of Bull Connor’s dogs — and the party’s leaders let such talk go unrebuked because they half-believe it themselves. When people’s vision of the world is this distorted, it is as difficult for them to stick to the policies of a Robert Rubin as it is for a man who hears voices in his head to carry on a normal conversation. The madness on the inside must sooner or later affect the behavior on the outside.

(5) Finally, there’s the malign presence of Bill Clinton himself. Clinton is the first ex-president since Theodore Roosevelt to be simultaneously popular, vigorous, and ambitious. Clinton probably possesses even more power than Roosevelt did, because TR’s ability to meddle in politics was constrained by his party’s weariness of him despite the public’s affection for him. It was in President Clinton’s interest to prod his party toward the center on economic issues at least. But ex-president Clinton? He will be governed by very different imperatives, not least the very Clintonian desire to see his replacements stumble and fail.

What would a revived Democratic left look like? The country has changed a lot since 1988. Foreign affairs has receded to the point of vanishing from politics. Private-sector unions count for little if anything. Gays are replacing Jews as liberalism’s most important source of money. More significantly, American society has evolved in ways that give people on the left less cause to feel culturally alienated: They may still hate the American past, but it is probably less and less accurate to describe them as “anti-American” in the present tense. They have largely remade America, and they are naturally pleased with their handiwork.

But the eternal issues remain: freedom vs. statism, old moral codes vs. new ones, self-government vs. the rule of experts. Those issues divided the country — though often in very unfamiliar and surprising forms — through the Clinton years. They will continue to divide it in the future. Of course, the Democrats will be on the wrong side of all those issues. How wrong? That’s the question that the fate of the party’s left will answer.

The Appointee, The Immigrant, And The Ruthlessness Of Bush

David Frum January 12th, 2001 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Perhaps when one remembers how long it took to convince people that the Sun does not circle the Earth, or that the heart really does pump the blood, one can find it easier to forgive the persistent delusion that George W Bush is some kind of village idiot. He managed his campaign for the Republican nomination better than any non-incumbent since Eisenhower and he trounced Al Gore in three face-to-face encounters – and yet his opponents continue to speak of his election as if it were some kind of lucky accident.

Now again, with only seven weeks in which to assemble his team, Mr Bush has pulled together not only one of the most distinguished cabinets in recent times, but also one of the canniest.

Where the incoming president’s policies will be most controversial – at Education, for instance, where he intends to introduce greater competition, or at the Treasury, where he is pushing for a big tax cut and a partial privatisation of social security pensions – he has deflected controversy by naming cabinet secretaries whom Democrats will be reluctant to criticise.

His Education choice, Rod Paige, the former superintendent of the Houston schools, has presided over rapidly rising test scores and is black to boot. To the Treasury, Mr Bush has sent Paul O’Neill, a bland-mannered corporate executive who endorsed President Clinton’s increase in the petrol tax.

He made room for both social liberals and social conservatives in the cabinet – while tipping the balance to the latter by putting the social liberals in places where their support for abortion rights won’t be effective (Christine Todd Whitman at the Environmental Protection Agency, Colin Powell at the State Department), while placing the social conservatives where their influence will be felt (John Ashcroft at the Department of Justice). The one Democratic appointee, Norm Mineta, the former Commerce Secretary, has been put in a slot, Transportation, where the issues to be decided are almost purely technical.

Walter Lippmann famously observed that the test of a foreign policy is its “solvency”: the balance between a nation’s international obligations and the military and other assets necessary to meet those obligations. Under Bill Clinton, America was moving steadily toward insolvency: multiplying its commitments while failing to replenish its assets. Mr Bush’s appointments recognise the problem, by putting a foreign policy minimalist, Colin Powell, at the State Department, where the cheques are written, and by putting a maximalist, Donald Rumsfeld, at Defence, where the cheques are honoured.

Even Mr Bush’s one rebuff to date reveals a surprisingly sure hand. His choice of Linda Chavez as Secretary of Labour was a bold and much-appreciated gift to Republican conservatives. Miss Chavez’s stands on racial preferences (she is unswervingly opposed to them) and the assimilation of immigrants (she believes that immigrant schoolchildren
must be taught in English only) are actually more conservative than Mr Bush’s own. Nevertheless, Mr Bush braved the wrath of minority organisations and trade unions, and picked her.

Mrs Chavez neglected to volunteer to the Bush campaign that, in 1991, she had provided refuge to Marta Mercado, a Guatemalan illegal immigrant. Her motives were charitable: before Mrs Mercado came into Miss Chavez’s home, she had been living in a battered women’s shelter. Miss Chavez taught her to use the Washington bus system, arranged
English lessons and gave her small sums of money from time to time. The woman, who describes their relationship as one of friendship, showed her thanks by peforming odd jobs in Miss Chavez’s home.

John J Miller, now a correspondent for National Review but then a member of the staff of Mrs Chavez’s think tank, the Centre for Equal Opportunity, witnessed Mrs Mercado’s behaviour in Miss Chavez’s home. “Marta was a houseguest. She certainly was not an employee. If she had been, I would have seen her working – cleaning out Miss Chavez’s office, mopping the kitchen floor, vacuuming the carpets. I never saw her do any of these things. I did see her perform an occasional chore, such as washing the dishes. When she did this, it was clear she was pitching in as a family member or houseguest would.”

This was obviously a very different arrangement from that of Zoe Baird, Mr Clinton’s first choice for attorney general, who employed an illegal immigrant couple as chauffeur and maid and failed to pay any of the required taxes. The Baird story provoked an explosion of public anger: unemployment was high in January 1993, and Miss Baird seemed an all-too-obnoxious symbol of a liberal elite that talked compassion but
in the end cared more about its servant problem.

Later, Democrats would cite her as a victim of Republican obstructionism, but in fact Republicans did not oppose Miss Baird’s nomination and were terrified by the outpouring against her: there were plenty of Republicans with illegal nannies, too.

But the president-elect clearly did not want to spend the first month of his administration explaining how Miss Chavez’s situation was different from that of Miss Baird – especially since Miss Chavez had not given him advance warning. Quickly and brutally, he cut her loose. Miss Baird’s nomination was allowed by Mr Clinton to dangle for nine days. Miss Chavez, by contrast, was compelled to withdraw hers within 54 hours of the first report of her problem.

Unquestionably, Mr Bush’s action was very unfair to Miss Chavez. Potentially, too, it sends a signal of weakness to the administration’s many foes. But getting bogged down in an unexpected battle over what counts as “employing” an illegal alien would not merely have signalled weakness: it would actually have created weakness. The Baird battle hurt Mr Clinton. Mr Bush walks away from the Chavez story unscathed. If that’s dumb, then Mr Bush will have Macchiavelli’s company on the slow learner’s bench.

Chichen Itza

David Frum January 6th, 2001 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Everybody has to be somewhere on New Year’s Eve, and I was in the Hotel Mayaland, in Mexico’s Yucatan, glumly staring into a dish of soup that looked like wallpaper paste and tasted like that same paste mixed with 11 teaspoons of sugar. The soup had been preceded by a sad little shrimp cocktail and would be followed by a piece of meat that had been microwaved for 20 or 30 minutes and then dipped in A-1 sauce. All around the table were strewn festive noisemakers, streamers and party hats — everything in fact that a Mexican hotel manager who had watched one too many Guy Lombardo evenings on his satellite dish would consider essential to a Norteamericano New Year’s.

It was all in all a pretty macabre evening, but it brightened up toward the end: The hotel had for some mysterious reason built a wooden replica of a pirate ship in the swimming pool and decorated it with fireworks. Only they weren’t fireworks — they were signal flares, like those the police use to mark off accidents on the highway. At midnight, the bandleader lit the flares and they spewed fire all over the boat, igniting the billowing sails on which the words “Happy New Year” had been painted in English and Spanish. As the boat burned, the pall was lifted from the party and we all began to feel that 2001 might turn out to be a pretty good year after all.

“We,” in this case, were wife and self, my in-laws Peter and Yvonne Worthington, and two National Post colleagues, Hugo and Meghan Gurdon, and happily we were at the Mayaland not for the food or the party hats, but to tour the Mayan ruins of ChichŽn Itz‡.

About the ruins, there’s not a lot to be said that hasn’t been said more astutely by people who know a lot more about Mayan art and architecture than I ever will. But when our party regrouped at the hotel at the end of the day, we discovered that we had all observed the same thing: Throughout the ancient city — at the top of the big pyramids, at the base of the obscurest temples — one saw American tourists at prayer. Don’t misunderstand: These weren’t Baptists come to bring the Good News to the benighted heathen. They weren’t praying to Jesus. They were praying to Chac and Kukulkan, the gods for whom the Mayans used to strip their children naked, paint them blue, tie their hands, and throw them into the deep limestone well just outside the town walls.

One hot afternoon, my wife and I had climbed to the top of the city’s biggest pyramid, turned inside to tour the ancient stone temple atop it … and stumbled into a group of about a dozen middle-aged women, holding hands in a circle inside the temple, quietly humming to themselves. They stood there for a long time and then one by one broke away from the group stepped into the sunshine and hugged each other — at approximately the spot, I reckoned, from which the ancient priests who used the pyramid would have hurled to the ground the corpses of the victims from whom they’d just ripped out the beating hearts. These women were the largest group of pilgrims we saw, but there were plenty of others who had come to pay their respects to the spirits of the place in ones and twos.

Now there’s no doubt that the aboriginal civilizations of Mexico were impressive in many ways: in art, in architecture, in astronomy and other sciences. But their religion was pretty lamentable, to put it mildly. The Maya may not have been quite so bloodthirsty as the Toltecs who took over ChichŽn Itz‡ or the Aztecs further north. But they were bloodthirsty enough, one would have thought, to discourage modern people from wanting to pay homage to their gods. But one would have thought wrong.

At the end of the day at which our group had its run-ins with the New Age Chac-worshippers, we gathered on a balcony overlooking the ruins to compare notes. We began speculating: What on earth did those dozen women in the temple think they were doing? Did they hate their own culture so much that they forgave the Maya their human sacrifice, in much the same way that political leftists used to excuse Soviet labour camps because, after all, we in the West had unemployment? Did they, like some Indian activists, reject the evidence about the bloodthirstiness of Maya religion as some kind of European slur? Or were they possibly titillated and excited by that bloodthirstiness?

“You know,” I said to the group, “I bet there’s a really good article to be written about …” My voice trailed off as five pairs of journalistic ears perked up: “… about Stockwell Day and the Canadian Alliance.” It was too late. I had dangled a roast beef sandwich in front of a roomful of hungry puppies. I arrived home very late the following night and woke up late the following morning. I got to the office around noon, hit the button for my e-mail — and Worthington had already beaten me to the punch in his column for the next day’s Toronto Sun. In his characteristically terse style, he’d even answered my question about what it all had meant: “One muscular nitwit genuflected and meditated before walled carvings of jaguars and eagles eating human hearts, near the sacrificial site marked by stone wall carvings of human skulls. Silly ass.” Pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it?