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Art and antiques.

So long as we read about revolutions in books, they all look very nice - like those landscapes which, as artistic engravings on white vellum, look so pure and friendly: dung heaps engraved on copper do not smell, and the eye can easily wade through an engraved morass.

Before attending a State Department dinner on the evening of October 6, I had thought that the notions of an exemplary American empire (seat of virtue, light unto the nations, hope of mankind, et cetera) had dropped below the horizon with the lost city of Mycenae. By the time the waiters replaced the grilled rockfish with the roast pheasant, I understood that instead of being abandoned or mislaid, the geopolitical romance had been transposed into the realm of pure form, and during the interval between the champagne and the cassis sorbet I knew that if sometimes I had misjudged American diplomacy over the last thirty years, it was because I had failed to appreciate its character as an art exhibition.

The recognition took me by surprise. Earlier in the evening I had arrived at the building on C Street inclined to feet charitable toward anybody obliged to make foreign policy in a world where the old portfolio of theory so seldom speaks to the new sets of facts. Together with the reports from Haiti, the newspapers that morning mentioned the mutilated bodies of twenty Bosnian Serbs on Mount Igman southwest of Sarajevo, a civil war in Liberia, a political assassination in Mexico, and a rumor of Iraqi troops massing on the border of Kuwait. Given so many emergent and simultaneous occasions, in what sort of perspective was it possible to fix the coordinates of a national interest? The traditional practice of diplomacy assumed the existence of frontiers meant to hold in check the movement of peoples and the passage of time, but the velocity of modern communications joined with the weight of mass immigration yields a new equation of human energy. It is an equation that presents the rulers of large and supposedly sovereign states with a hard problem in political mechanics. If nothing is foreign and nobody is an alien, then with what set of blueprints does the state construct such a thing as a foreign policy?

The questions accompanied me as far as the elevator hall on the eighth floor, the first of the sixteen reception rooms, each of them splendidly furnished in the architectural styles of the late eighteenth century, that occupy the whole of the building's uppermost floor and contain the State Department's permanent exhibition of early American virtue. Admiring the Roman architraves framing the elevator doors and being careful not to walk too heavily on the King of Prussia marble (the largest expanse of such marble known to mortal man), I proceeded through a gallery and another entrance hall (both passages distinguished by the presence of rare and priceless furniture), and so into the John Quincy Adams State Drawing Room, where a string quartet was playing the music of Haydn. Under the arched fanlight in the south wall, George F. Kennan, the evening's guest of honor, stood in a receiving line with Strobe Talbott, the deputy secretary of state, and as I waited my turn to shake hands with the two men, I had a good deal of time in which to reflect upon the provenience of both the paintings and the other guests.

The two sets of forms didn't agree with each other, either in character or in historical period. The objects in the room were representative of the early American republic - Gilbert Stuart's portrait of John Jay, paintings by Benjamin West and Charles Willson Peale, Thomas Jefferson's writing desk, a silver bowl made by Paul Revere. The people in the room were servants of the American nation-state - individuals on the order of Robert S. McNamara and Richard Helms and Katharine Graham - who had inherited the presumptions of quasi-imperial grandeur that the United States had found among the other spoils of victory in the Second World War. Almost without exception they belonged to the American oligarchy, the kind of people who own banks and racehorses and newspapers, antidemocratic in spirit and apt to define liberty as the power of money rather than the freedom of mind. Roughly one hundred in number, the guests graciously accepted glasses of wine and mineral water handed around on silver trays and exchanged the small tokens of the day's gossip - about the sad figure of Warren Christopher, the secretary of state (humiliated by former President Jimmy Carter in the Haitian negotiations), about President Clinton (vanishing like the Cheshire cat), about Bosnia (a tragic story), about gunboats very expensive to maintain).

Over the shoulders of a woman in a black taffeta dress, I noticed McNamara standing under Charles Leslie's portrait of John Quincy Adams, and I remembered that during the Vietnam War he had thought that by teaching the natives the arithmetic of kill ratios and body counts the United States could transform them into loyal subjects of the American Express card. Adams, in his Fourth of July speech in 1821, had made a quite different point - the republican as opposed to the imperial argument - saying that America didn't go abroad "in search of monsters to destroy," that if we were to enlist under banners other than our own, "were they even the banners of foreign independence, we would involve ourself beyond the power of extrications, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy and ambition."

The difference between the two statements of the American purpose was the difference between people who think they can buy the future and those who have the courage to imagine it. The founders of the Republic expected America to rise as a power in the world not because of its fleets or its armies but because of its experiments, and they defined liberty not as the freedom to conquer but as the freedom to make and think and build. Their heirs and assigns tend to think of liberty as a dangerous and probably criminal substance, something best placed under surveillance or preserved behind glass.

Thinking that Adams's remark might well have been addressed to Jean-Bertrand Aristide or the Emir of Kuwait, I further remembered that I most recently had come across it in a speech that Kennan delivered in March to the Council on Foreign Relations, and on reaching the head of the receiving line it occurred to me that of all the people in the room he probably was the closest in temperament to the Doric entablatures and the Chippendale chairs. The most eminent as well as the most senior of the country's statesmen, Kennan had entered the foreign service in 1927, in the last years of the Coolidge Administration, and throughout the whole of his career he had argued against the grand simplifications so beloved by the managers of the national security state. At the age of ninety he stood with the strength and bearing of a much younger man, still persuaded that the United States needed sound principles rather than global strategies, that it was better advised to learn the contingent lessons of history than to proclaim the slogans of a world-encircling dogma. During the Second World War he was posted to the American embassy in Moscow, and in 1947, under the pseudonym "Mr. X," he published an article in Foreign Affairs setting forth the theory of containing the Soviet presence in Europe ("by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographic points") from which eight American presidents subsequently derived the premise of the Cold War. Kennan intended the policy of containment as an expedient and temporary measure, a diplomatic task preliminary to useful discussion. Never had he expected it to become the justification for a permanent state of military readiness. Appalled and embarrassed by so gross a misreading of his text, Kennan resigned from the State Department in 1953, and, except for a brief term as ambassador to Yugoslavia in 1961-63, he has devoted the last forty years to the teaching of diplomatic history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

For at least thirty of those years, the State Department has been constructing its masterpiece of stage design, and despite the distractions of three undeclared wars, and in the midst of God knows how many lesser alarms, interruptions, rebellions, and armed interventions, the great labor apparently has never ceased, not since that awful day in January 1961 when Mary Caroline Herter, the wife of the secretary of state during the Eisenhower Administration, burst into tears at the prospect of receiving the queen of Greece in rooms that reminded her of an airport lounge. The unhappy woman had a point. The State Department building never has been admired as a work of architecture, and even the New York Times, a paper ordinarily willing to forgive the government's failures of policy or taste, once pronounced it "utterly banal, institutional, and graceless ... at best a credible period piece from the late 1950's." The original reception rooms expressed the commercial aesthetic of the early Holiday Inns - wall-to-wall carpeting on concrete floors, the exterior walls of glass and steel - and Mrs. Herter, who had been brought up as a Standard Oil heiress, was unaccustomed to turquoise drapes. To an attending aide de camp she said, "I've never been so mortified in my life as an American woman."

The secretary's wife was concerned with the questions of etiquette, but as the work of decoration progressed, room by room and carved ceiling by carved ceiling, it acquired a didactic purpose. What had been begun as a show of manners became an uplifting text expressed in the language of architectural ornament, a gallery of sermons intended to improve and edify the sometimes brutal or loutish heads of state arriving in Washington from the less fortunate places of the earth.

The work swelled and expanded over the same period of time in which the State Department was steadily being diminished as an instrument of moral, intellectual, or political force. A succession of American presidents got into the habit of making their own foreign policy in the basement of the White House, preferably in secret and often without reference either to the Constitution or a reliable map; the larger banks and transnational corporations, like the fiefs and principalities of medieval Europe, arranged their alliances and detentes through the embassies of their own overseas subsidiaries, and only after the treaties had been signed did they look to the clerks at the State Department to draft the press releases. But even as the office of the secretary of state was being reduced in both power and rank, the workmen on the eighth floor - carpenters, stonemasons, plasterers, furniture restorers, painters - were busily concealing the futility of time present with the glorious facade of time past.

On the way to dinner through the Thomas Jefferson State Reception Room, most of the guests paused to admire the carving of a gilded eagle, the magnificence of the Turkish rug, the plaster bust of John Paul Jones. Standing with the others in the dress circle of American privilege and leading opinion, I wondered whether we were part of the exhibit - like Governor De Witt Clinton's china plates or Copely's portrait of Mrs. John Montresor (in red riding habit and velvet hat) - or whether we were meant to take from the display the same kind of instruction directed at personages as various as Manuel Noriega, the king of Saudi Arabia, and the late Ferdinand Marcos. Had Noriega returned to Panama with the thought of submitting his political enemies to less strenuous regimens of torture? Would Richard Holbrooke or Strobe Talbott disavow their knowledge of caviar or send their children to public schools? Did everybody present know that the entire art collection was worth $75 million? That the pedimented glass doors had been copied from designs made for Jefferson's house at Monticello? These latter advisories were probably a good deal more urgent than anything being done or said in Baghdad or Port-au-Prince, but what was the lesson to be learned, and how did it affect the prices of gravitas at Sotheby's?

The string quartet followed the guests into the Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room, and as the dinner ran its course the music proceeded from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, arriving with the coffee at the terminus of Brahms. The windows in the south wall overlooked the Lincoln Memorial and the Potomac River, and in the distances of the autumn night I knew that the radio frequencies and television broadcast bands were loud with incoherent signals - not only the coded transmissions arriving on the State Department's lower tiers from Kigali and Zagreb but also Rush Limbaugh preaching the gospel of an imbecile realpolitik and Oliver North campaigning for election in Virginia on a platform of grinning and bald-faced lies. The voices were as many and as disparate as their points of origin and degrees of amplification, but heard together in chorus they were questioning the democratic premises of the American idea as well as the doctrines of American exceptionalism and the symbols of American supremacy, and who among all the important people in that important room knew what to say by way of an answer? In place of words, they had a collection of antiques. The parliament of images handsomely illustrated the book of American virtue, but in all that brilliant assembly of marble console tables, Chinese export porcelain, Queen Anne chairs, and block-and-shell carved writing desks, which of them could speak?

Warren Christopher, the secretary of state, attempted the feat after the coffee had been served, but the speech had been written by somebody else, and it sounded like an advertisement meant to sell American democracy as if it were a brand-name detergent justly famous for its credibility and resolve. Christopher began by saying that both Nelson Mandela and Boris Yeltsin had passed safely through Washington during the previous six days, and because they had come and gone without incident and because as yet no American soldier had been killed in Haiti, "pessimism has had a bad week." He was glad to report that in the final decade of the century denominated as America's own, the national ship of state had weathered the really difficult storms - the ones that George Kennan's generation had confronted in Korea and Eastern Europe - and had come at last into smooth water and easy sailing. New markets for democracy were opening up in Asia and Latin America, and the success of the Haitian expedition had shown what could be done with some first-rate sentiment, enough helicopter gunships, and 20,000 combat troops.

The guests rewarded Christopher with a gust of imperial applause, and Kennan, speaking in the dry and piping voice of an emeritus professor, followed with a brief parable about a buzzing fly that imagined itself a great king. Borrowed from an old Chinese text, the story served as a subtle correction of the evening's grander moments, but most of the guests were seated so softly on the cushions of self-congratulation that they missed the point about the vanity of princes and applauded Kennan as admiringly as they had viewed the colonial silver and the remnants of the American Revolution. Weighed in the scale of value held up by the style section of the Washington Post (i.e., the standard measure of judgment accepted by most of the people in the room), Kennan was a priceless antique, as rare in his own way as any of the other objects in the State Department's collection.
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Title Annotation:Notebook; State Department dinner
Author:Lapham, Lewis H.
Publication:Harper's Magazine
Article Type:Column
Date:Dec 1, 1994
Words:2602
Previous Article:Nothing ventured: a bold leap into the ontological void.
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