Beethoven For President
Political junkies like us can't take a break from the presidential race, even on vacation. So while broiling on the beaches of Destin, Florida and reading Maynard Solomon's biography of Beethoven, my mind kept wandering back to Barack, Hillary and John McCain.
The first thing that strikes you about Beethoven is how hard he worked, even as a kid. Dazzled by the example of Mozart, little Ludwig's father imagined his boy might be a wunderkind, too, showered by royalty with honors and jewels. It didn't work out that way - even geniuses develop at their own pace - but young Beethoven played for local nobles, at church and in his town's orchestra, and as a teenager wound up supporting his whole family.
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama worked hard as kids. That's how they wound up at Ivy League schools. Yet how often have we heard them extol the virtues of self discipline? All their talk seems to be about what government - increasingly big government - can do to improve the lives of voters and their children. You may say we need government to give us, for example, better schools. But generations of immigrants did fine -- often brilliantly -- at schools that lacked resources routinely available today. What those immigrants did have were committed parents who instilled a work ethic in their kids. Even John McCain - an undisciplined youngster who learned more than most of us will ever know about self sacrifice - even McCain does not talk much about the personal qualities that most improve people's lives.
Beethoven became a titan. Having mastered the 18th century classical style of Haydn and Mozart, he found his own heroic voice during the Napoleonic upheavals. In a way, Beethoven was a member of his own time's "greatest generation." He rallied rebellious spirits and stood for freedom over tyranny.
But when Napoleon was vanquished, Europe slid back into complacency - something akin to the "vacation from history" we saw in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. Just as in Beethoven's time, we have ignored festering problems - in our case, such issues as the coming implosion of government entitlements like Social Security and health care, and the need to achieve energy independence - while letting politicians exploit special interest groups and identity politics.
There are cultural parallels too. Beethoven's heroic period was followed by other musicians and writers indulging in mock heroics, fantasy and self-absorbed romantic anguish. Today we see adults entertained by the kind of comic book heroics that used to be the domain of children - except that yesterday's parents would not expose their children to the vulgarity, violence and sheer idiocy of much of what today passes for entertainment.
Beethoven responded to the decadence of his time by drawing into himself. He looked back beyond Haydn and Mozart to even older models of excellence and inspiration like Bach and Handel and by doing so Beethoven climbed to even greater personal heights.
We need to look inward as well. John F. Kennedy -- a member of that latter day "greatest generation" -- said, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." As Barack Obama says, we may indeed be the change we seek. But first we need to ask ourselves what it is we are seeking, and what achieving it will require - not from politicians - but from ourselves.