Chapter One: Socrates agrees

It all started--the greatest adventure of my career--on the occasion of an elegant cocktail soiree, attended by members of the liberal left after publication of Bob Woodward’s The Choice.

In part, Woodward’s book was a treatment of the budget deliberations that had raged through the latter part of the Clinton first term, and it detailed the two parties’ various ploys as they battled their way to a government shutdown. But, admittedly, promotional snippets are hard to pull from elaborate discussions of budget bill dealings; so Woodward led his promotion with the now-famous episode in which Hillary Clinton had “channeled” Eleanor Roosevelt.

Devotedly, Woodward traveled about to various TV shows, informing rapt hosts of this crucial event, and, sure enough, the inevitable collection of spinners and flunkies began crow-calling that Mrs. Clinton had engaged in “seances;” and no matter how many times the now-chagrined Woodward tried to explain that that hadn’t been at all what he’d meant, why, it seems these devoted corrupters of the public understanding only became that much more deeply emboldened, and their ridicule of the First Lady and her associates only grew. Dr. Jean Houston, the First Lady’s spiritual adviser, was now personally involved in deconstructing these matters; but no matter how many times Dr. Houston explained that no “channeling” had ever been involved in her work, well, the forces who lived to stir up scandal just became more determined to misstate basic fact, in the ancient tradition again flourishing openly in the period about which I will speak.

It will hardly be news if I tell you that we Clinton-supporters rolled our eyes in dismay at the work of these jackals; but, as before, when we turned our gaze to the mainstream press, seeking clarification of meaning and jealous guarding of fact, we found that our journalists themselves were unprepared to disentangle the spin-doctors’ lies, and had themselves been bitten by the bug of scandal, and were living their lives now for petty dispute, leaving our city in the hands of the vandals, with no one empowered to challenge their reign; and we longed for the arrival of he or she who would one day be able to bring order from chaos...

Where would we find our deliverance, we cried, from the petty tyrants of spin and dispute?

It was in this sad context that we gathered for cocktails one evening at a chic Georgetown power-address; and, after directing the usual mordant jibes at those of whom we despaired in the press, someone suggested an apt game of thought: who would be the perfect historical figure to “channel back” to critique our sad press corps itself? What leading figure of the hoary past would be best choice to conduct such a hearing? The laughter grew as all in attendance pictured celebrity journalists with their feet to the fire, forced to defend their laziest work against the withering gaze of the greatest world figures.

Finally, someone suggested the obvious choice--Socrates of Athens, The Greatest of Greeks--the man who had, at the dawn of the west, first attempted to establish simple rules for clear thinking. All in attendance quickly agreed: The Great Greek was the greatest of choices.

  1. He only asked questions, and never expressed viewpoints--a refreshing departure from current press practice.
  2. He’d once famously challenged the Oracle at Delphi. So he’d not likely shrink from critiquing George Will.
  3. Through his life, he never wrote anything down. So he could step in if needed as the next White House counsel.
  4. He had known and watched the greatest Greek orators. So he could fact-check the speeches of Senator Robert C. Byrd.

But, though some in attendance laughed till they cried, and seemed to relish our game as a form of amusement, I now found myself lost in thought at the mere contemplation of such an endeavor. I often had thought how instructive it would be to apply even the simplest rules of thought to the work of the press corps; and, if The Greatest of Greeks were alive in D.C., and if hewere conducting a critique of the corps, well then surely his celebrity would force even thisgang to pay some attention to his ultimate findings. All-star commissions were hardly unknown in D.C. Imagine one led by The Greatest of Greeks!

Dr. Houston herself had been present this evening, and she must, with her insight, have divined my strange mood; for she came to me now and whispered the words that would set the astounding adventure in motion. She did no channeling herself, she again patiently told me, but she “knew a guy,” a Bolivian shaman, who occasionally did; and though her colleague himself was now hopelessly snared in a tenure dispute at the University of La Paz, she did feel quite certain that, if he were asked, he would produce The Great Greek for the purpose described. Incredibly, a hurried phone call was all it took to explain the proposal to my man in La Paz, and instructions were faxed with the time and the place at which I should expect to receive The Great Greek!

You can surely imagine the rush of feeling as I realized the project would soon be unfolding--and the sense of foreboding I suddenly knew as the prospect of Socrates’ visit drew near. Long ago, Socrates had warned that democracy would be a real struggle, because sophists would have us mixed up all the time, and few people would be able to make the truth clear, given the limits of human reason. Would he not find his dread vision still being enacted, 2500 years later, in our Washington discourse? And what would The Greatest of Greeks think of us, when the sad state of our discourse became clear?

That night, as I lounged in darkened quarters, the project’s enormity both thrilled and distressed me. A jumble of phrases from old Maureen Dowd columns seemed to trouble my sleep as I tossed and turned until dawn. With an air of boredom, of airy dismissal, a detached, ghostly voice mocked my hopes for the project. “Socrates lived his life seeking reason,” it seemed to be saying. Then: “He’ll find little enough of it herehereherehere...”

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

You may have known, though I did not, that channeling is largely a matter of aura--that luring a spirit from the past to the present requires finding the right place for the sprite to appear. And so I found myself standing, the very next evening, just outside Kramerbooks and Afterwords Café, a bookstore/eatery two doors off Dupont Circle, the location my man in La Paz had selected to sing out to The Greatest of Greeks.

Socrates’ dialogues lined the shelves of the store’s Classics section, and George Stephanopolous lived in property that he’d purchased next door; and, more telling by far for our current pursuit, an intellectual ferment seemed to fill the night air, reminiscent of Socrates’ Athens. As denizens of Washington filled the café, and debated their wine and dessert tray selections, the brisk badinage from every cramped nook recreated the tenor of Socrates’ first life--the one that he’d lived in the crisp, bracing breezes that blew off the Aegean, to the Athenian public square.

The setting could scarcely have been more apt for the startling reappearance of the west’s greatest soul. And soon, unmistakably, standing nobly before me, was Socrates of Athens--The Greatest of Greeks.

He was clearly recognizable from his Penguin book covers, and he appeared in the drab, classic dress of his life; and his dark grey eyes still burned with the flame that had once touched a torch to the soul of all Athens. Yet I was surprised to note, as he began to move toward me, that no one but I seemed to see who this was; others hurried past on the way to their stations, enflamed, if not numbed, by their coffee concoctions; and for all the bright wit of their wry repartee, and for all their asides about insider dealings, none of them seemed in the least bit prepared just to see who now stood in their midst.

Yet a surprisingly approachable Socrates moved toward me, and spoke in remarkably unaffected, clear English; and, with no apparent sense of the magisterial rank that a life of distinction had conferred on his person, he told me a tale of how he’d agreed to my plan that brought me short with its humor and pathos...

The sage’s tale

Socrates had lived his adult years at a time of confusion and upheaval throughout Athens. By the time The Great Greek neared his seventieth year, The Thirty Tyrants were ruling the city. The democracy, soon restored, found itself with no place for the one who had questioned its very foundation. Clever tyrants now grew from the people’s troubled soul--with an ironist their target of choice.

They crafted canards against The Greatest of Greeks which the public swallowed whole like a dank Trojan retsin. Socrates, slandered, reputation in tatters, drank the hemlock, dodging death from the mob.

Straight to Olympus the gods had called him, and it was there that he’d lived his noble life to this day, always believing he’d be called back to earth when his great rules of reason came to rule human life. But centuries had somehow turned into millenia, and he’d lately rubbed shoulders with far lesser moderns. Even Descartes had been there for several hundred long years! (“Every time that he’d utter that silly bromide,” the sage told me, “I’d just say to him, ‘René--you call that thinking?’ ”)

Socrates couldn’t even begin to imagine how his exile could possibly have dragged on so long. He pictured himself at the head of parades as cheering mortals roared thanks for his clear rules of reason. Instead, he sat and fumed on crowded slopes, and listened to palaver from witless pretenders. And so, when the call from Bolivia had come through at last, he’d assumed the great day of recognition was on him. And it fell to me to begin to explain the actual reason he’d been called back to earth--and to sketch out my hope that he’d nobly agree to read the work of the Washington press corps!

A morbid silence fell over our table when descriptions were offered of the Washington press corps. His noble visage quite visibly froze when he was given accounts of Michael Kelly’s strange work. He could hardly believe that his great first life’s efforts had not fatally undermined discourse like this. Yet Chicken Soup for the Soulwas the bookstore’s best-seller, and he could see his own works gather dust on the shelves. How could a sage not sense something amiss in a world where such work reigned ascendant?

Even as I watched the great brilliant sage ponder, it began now to dawn on The Greatest of Greeks: his famous first life, lived when life was still new, had somehow, by miracle, not been enough. And, tremblingly eager to see for himself what had happened, over time, to his child, public discourse, he nobly assented to take on the task of assessing the press corps himself.

On all the wires of the cosmos should have run one great message. DATELINE Washington (D.C.): Socrates agrees!

There is one key point I should make crystal clear before beginning my account of The Greek’s detailed findings. At the time The Great Greek was channeled back to D.C., he had never even heardof a professional press corps. In his own day, of course, there were sophists and poets; and winded harriers would occasionally pound their way from the coast; but there was no institution expressly devoted to discussing the day’s crucial happenings. It intrigued him to think that a group of trained specialists might be devoted to crafting a great public discourse. Instantly it leaped to his mind, he’d later tell me: Perhaps this “press corps” could serve as a “guardian” class--could serve as a brilliantly-trained, skillful cohort that could rein in the murderous work of the sophists. For the very first time in his greatest of lives, he began to imagine that democracy might work--dared to dream the public discourse could be wrestled away from those who lived to distort and mislead us!

I shuddered to think what The Great Greek would find when he began to read actual work of the press corps. But as we stepped from the café into humid night air, I did not doubt that a great, great adventure was looming. As couples strolled aimlessly through the warm night, The Great Greek was aflame with a brilliant ambition. And to me would--incredibly!--go the sheer joy of watching as--mirabile!--Socrates reads!!

A note on lodging: The author never learned where The Greek spent his nights, throughout the two years of his Washington visit. He puckishly claimed, at various times, to be lodged at different spots around Washington. He held rooms at the embassy of Thrygia, he once told me; other times, he said that his host was the ambassador of Thrace. And The Great, Great Greek’s great grey searching eyes would twinkle with mirth as he said it.

I sometimes imagined that a rechanneled soul might perhaps have no need of soothing sleep’s sweet refreshment. But The Greek slumbered freely, on a regular basis, over endlessly repetitious Washington Times op-ed columns; apparently, I reasoned, if sleep did not serve a real need of his body, it could still show the path of escape to his soul...

But each morning, at exactly twelve minutes past dawn, The Great Greek would arrive at Dupont Circle Starbucks, and would work with his host on his brilliant new project. Sipping drolly each day on a mocha frappuccino, a rapidly acclimating Greatest of Greeks would map out his astonishing research.

A note on cosmology: One of the matters that astounded the author was The Great Greek’s report of his life on Olympus. Amazingly, he confirmed that the cloud-gathering Zeus didexist, and was actually surrounded by the gods, nymphs, and goddesses whom glorious Homer had described in such brilliant detail.

Predictably, this news was every bit as embarrassing to The Greatest of Greeks as it was surprising to me and my circle. As every schoolchild must surely know, Socrates had complained, in reviewing Homer’s work, about its scandalous portraits of the deathless immortals. “Imagine my total chagrin,” blushed The Greek, “when I learned, upon death, it was all as described!” A deep crimson flush would enflame his great face as he described the white arms of the beautiful Hera. Imagine--The Greatest of Greeks gnashed his teeth to this day over flaws in his great, timeless work.

I now know, of course, what The Greek could not know, at the time he first found himself channeled to Washington--that these miscues were only the first of the blunders he’d eventually find in his great first life’s work. Indeed, his eager perusal of modern logicians would eventually persuade him that he’d made many errors. (“That crazy shadow on the wall of the cave!” he’d lament. “Where in the world did I ever get that?”) It wasn’t only the press corps, he’d one day come to see, who had made room for our eternal guest, human failing...

But that is to get far ahead of our story. Let’s look on now as--Socrates reads!

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