One of the unhealthiest features of our current way of life, I'm persuaded, is the removal of "professionals" from the company and neighborhood of truck drivers, carpenters, concrete layers, miners, dressmakers, maids, and plumbers. When John McCain was growing up, no doubt, there was a certain stratification of American society according to income, as there is now. But in most places, the doctor lived near the bricklayer and went to the same church; not in the wealthy neighborhoods of the large cities, but in small cities, and small towns like the one where I grew up. More than that, men had that great experience of learning just what a snotty nose and a degree from Harvard will get you when you're digging a trench in boot camp, or sweating in the barracks on a summer night. A sergeant major with an unsteady grasp of grammar might put many a baby-chinned lieutenant from West Point in his place.
What's happened since is apparent in this presidential race, and in the interview with Joe the Plumber. Take Joe first. Here is a man who was going to leave the interview to go to a local gas station, because a water main had burst beneath it. He was being interviewed by a lady who looked as if she had never had to worry, all her life long, about breaking a fingernail at work. He was going to do a job that required hard, practical knowledge, and if he messed things up, it would mean at least a great mess, and at worst a disaster. Her job requires no such; the only risk she runs is that she might say something so silly that even a television audience might notice, and put her ratings in danger. He was about to handle hard, sometimes apparently intractable, materials, things that don't oblige our utopian dreams. The iron pipe does not condescend to political correctness. It won't say, "I see that I should move into place no matter who or what is lugging me, because that would be the democratic thing to do." There's a bracing reality in such things as iron, or earth, or even PVC, not to mention water, that wondrous bringer of life that can bring ruin, too, if it's not under control. You have to learn to submit to those realities, and yet master them anyway, to the extent that anyone can. And that's a lesson that should keep you from believing that men are infinitely malleable, can become just what really smart people can make them if only we trust those geniuses with tyrannical power -- when nothing else you see around you is so.
The anchor lady seems never to have had to learn such a lesson; she spoke to Joe the Plumber with all the bright eyed naivete of someone who believes that the Peaceable Kingdom is just around the corner. But, more worrisome than that, it is a lesson that Barack Obama has never had to learn. Not that he couldn't have learned it, had he spent a few years as a dockworker, or had he gone to haul building materials for construction in Kenya. Instead, he's the sort of person around whom I've spent most of my working life: he's an academic, gone into lawyering and then into politics. When he says to Joe the Plumber, "I don't want to punish your success; I just want to make sure that the guy behind you has the same opportunity," he says it with the superiority of an old-fashioned snob -- with this important qualitification: many an old-fashioned snob, like Franklin Roosevelt, spent time in the armed services, did a lot of work with his hands on the estate, and lived a vigorous life outdoors, among ostlers and farmers and such. He says it with not the slightest awareness that Joe is where he is not simply because of some abstract "opportunity," but because of that opportunity seized. He does not consider what it cost Joe to seize it: the hard work in often lousy conditions; the all-day, all-week jobs; the banged up toes and bruised knees and bad back; the chancy contracts; even the hardscrabble men you have to employ to get the work done. Obama wants to take Joe's money into his baby-smooth hands. Had he some half-inch thick calluses around the thumbs, he'd not be so quick to take it.
He'd understand -- and he does not in fact understand -- that he can sooner bring Ed, who lags behind Joe, up to Joe's standard, not by giving Ed some of Joe's money, but by making Ed adopt Joe's habits, or by giving Ed some of Joe's strengths. Let Ed be as smart as Joe. Let him have as strong a back. Let him not mind rain and mud. Let him not take so many breaks for food and drink and a cigarette. Let him have a better eye for the workers who cost you more than they are worth. Let him treat his customers with the same courtesy and honesty. Let him build up those same calluses. Or let him not do it -- perhaps Ed has determined he has better things to do with his time and his strength! That is fine, too.
One last thing that neither Obama nor the anchorlady understands. That is the leadership of men, in rough circumstances, to get a difficult job done. John McCain didn't grow up in a poor family, but during his teenage years and then in the academy he lived like a spartan, because that's the way things were at his Episcopal boarding school for boys, and then at Annapolis. Then came the war. Joe the Plumber is, apparently, a contractor, hiring men to work for him at things like digging up the blacktop at a gas station to fix the water main. That is far more real than reading a canned text handed to you by a team of platitudinarians. It is more real than using your lawyer's leverage to funnel money to the local slumlord. Now if Obama had spent a year or two pounding in joists to shore up a bad roof in a tenement building, I'd revise my remarks. The point is that he has done nothing of the sort, ever. And he may be the first major candidate about whom one can say that: the first pure product of the land of Pointless Work; an academic who was handsomely paid for teaching nonsense; then a lawyer handsomely paid for cleaning up no neighborhoods; now a candidate whose deep anthropological appeal -- regardless of what the politically correct anchor lady would say -- is that he is a tall man with a deep voice. Would that he possessed the habits of life that have been known to go along with those.