Mr. Bruni is off today. Bobo, in “The Vigorous Virtues,” says Margaret Thatcher was a pioneering figure for the qualities of public leadership we most admire today. What’s this “we” shit, sparky? There were those of us who were never really fans of Attila the Hen… Mr. Nocera has a question in “The Military Prep School Scam:” The military academies wouldn’t lower their standards to enroll top athletes. Would they? Here’s Bobo:
The 1990 Tory coup against Margaret Thatcher was the most intense political event I’ve covered. The Conservative politicians who were trying to remove her from party leadership and the prime minister’s office knew they were toppling a person who was their political and moral superior. They knew she had earned the right to face the country in an election one last time, rather than be deposed by the supposed lieutenants in her own party. They sensed there would be some Shakespearean retribution for the act of disloyalty they were engaged in. They went around rubbing their hands like Lady Macbeth trying to expunge the sin even as they were committing it.
But Thatcher had exhausted the country. She had run through all the potential ministers on her side, and blocked the ambitions of many others. Her colleagues thought she was too anti-Europe. Her poll numbers were sinking. And so they felt compelled to act. After a series of fervid meetings and maneuvers while she was away, the members of her own party brought her down.
She came back from Paris betrayed and red around the eyes. But she still had to lead a Question Time in the House of Commons, speaking for a government she no longer headed.
It was a triumph. She dominated the hall, crushed the hecklers and rose magnificently above her own misery. “I’m enjoying this,” she exulted at one point. “I’m enjoying this!” The men who destroyed her leapt to their feet and roared. “You can wipe the floor with those people!” one of her remaining supporters shouted.
Thatcher went down in full cry: “When good has to be upheld, when evil has to be overcome, Britain will take up arms!”
A little while later I literally bumped into her at a conference. I asked her what was running through her mind as she entered the House of Commons for that triumphant session. I’ve rarely received an answer so disappointing. She told me she was thinking of the thank-you notes she would have to write that evening, and other mundane details of the day.
The people who make history are usually not the same people who are able to reflect and be introspective about it. As her former aide Matthew Parris once wrote, “I don’t actually believe she had hidden depths.”
Margaret Thatcher was a world historical figure for the obvious reasons. Before Thatcher, history seemed to be moving in the direction of Swedish social democracy. After Thatcher, it wasn’t. But her most pervasive influence was on the level of values.
She was formed by her disgust with 1970s Britain. She witnessed a moral shift in those years, away from people who were competitive and toward people who were cooperative, away from the ambitious and toward those who were self-nurturing and self-exploring, away from the culture of rectitude and toward the culture of narcissism. Especially in the prestigious reaches of society, people were often uninterested in technology and disdainful of commerce.
In the political sphere this translated into an aversion to conflict, a desperate desire for consensus, which often translated into policy drift and a gradual surrender to entrenched interests. Thatcher saw this as a loss of national potency. She saw it as a loss of will, a settling for mediocrity, a betrayal of Britain’s great history and an acceptance of decline.
The daughter of a small grocer, she led a fervent bourgeois Risorgimento. She was the voice of the ambitious middle class. She lionized the self-made striver. Loving tidiness, she checked to see if the space above the picture frames was properly dusted.
She championed a certain sort of individual, one who possessed what the writer Shirley Robin Letwin called the Vigorous Virtues: “upright, self-sufficient, energetic, adventurous, independent-minded, loyal to friends and robust against foes.”
If her predecessors stood for consensus and the endless negotiation of interests over beer and sandwiches, Thatcher stood for steadfast conviction on behalf of the national good. An admirer of the free market, her companion goal was to restore the authority of the state, and she was willing to centralize power to do it.
At a time when others were sliding toward moral relativism, Thatcher stood for individual responsibility, moral self-confidence and often, it has to be admitted, self-righteous certitude.
Put aside her personal failings, she was a militant optimist for a country slipping unconsciously toward defeatism. Beyond her policy decisions, she was part of a values shift.
Today, bourgeois virtues like industry, competitiveness, ambition and personal responsibility are once again widely admired, by people of all political stripes. Today, technology is central to our world and tech moguls are celebrated.
Tony Blair and Bill Clinton embraced and ratified her policy shifts. Millions more have been influenced by her idea of what makes an admirable individual.
Now here’s Mr. Nocera:
Is there any institution of higher learning that isn’t gaming the system to gain athletic advantage? I’ve come to believe the answer is no.
Harvard? Last year, before announcing that the university had uncovered widespread cheating, a Harvard administrator sent an e-mail to the university’s resident deans, saying that potentially culpable athletes might withdraw from school temporarily. That way, the cheating scandal wouldn’t cost them eligibility.
On the other side of the country, the University of California, Davis, had long kept athletics in perspective — until 2007, when it inexplicably joined the big boys in Division I. Vowing not to cut any “minor” sports, it did just that as athletic expenses soared. Promising not to lower standards, it abandoned that vow, too. After the U.C. Davis faculty athletic representative refused to support the application of “a talented basketball player with a questionable academic background,” she was removed from that position, according to a report by the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley. The basketball player was admitted.
Which brings us to today’s subject: the military academies. Incredibly, even the Naval Academy, the Air Force Academy and West Point, charged with training the next generation of military leaders, systematically abandon their standards and admissions processes when a good athlete is within reach. Their highly questionable enrollment practices make one wonder whether the academies care as much about their mission these days as they do about winning football games.
There are two ways the military academies sneak in athletes who fail to meet their admissions standards. First, they all operate prep schools whose original purpose — preparing promising enlisted personnel for the rigors of an academy education — is long outdated.
Instead, the prep schools, which cost taxpayers around $25 million or so per year, are used for other purposes, including “redshirting” athletes — that is, stockpiling them for a year — when their high school records would prevent them from being admitted directly from high school. For instance, of the 300 students in the 2011 class of the Naval Academy Prep School, 110 are recruited athletes — typical for the other service academies. Oh, and they get paid a monthly stipend — which would seem to be a rather blatant violation of N.C.A.A. rules.
When I talked to academy officials, they pooh-poohed the idea that the prep school was a place to sneak athletes in through the back door. Because athletics are so important, said a public affairs officer, “we consider every midshipman to be an athlete.”
But the statistics tell a different story. Nearly 80 percent of the 52-member Navy lacrosse team came through the Naval Academy Prep School; for returning football lettermen, the percentage is around two-thirds.
Meanwhile, West Point recently built a new $107 million campus for its prep school. An aerial shot of the new campus on the Military Academy Prep School Web site highlights its dominant feature: acres of lush athletic fields.
The second scam involves the nonprofit foundations that exist to give financial support to the service academies. Among other things, the foundations offer scholarships to athletes to go to certain prep schools that stress certain sports — with the proviso, of course, that they then attend whichever service academy the boosters are supporting. (In 2010, when a Naval Academy athlete who had gotten in via the foundation route tried to withdraw, saying “this isn’t the place for me,” the foundation demanded the return of his prep school “scholarship” money.)
Although Ed Wallace, a retired Navy captain who runs the Naval Academy foundation’s “athletic and scholarship programs,” denied that it directed athletes to certain schools — or that it singled out recruited athletes for financial support — a document outlining this contractual obligation is on the Naval Academy Foundation’s Web site. Or rather, it was. It was removed in 2012, when the N.C.A.A. began an investigation into the practices of the prep schools and the foundations. (Despite some pretty obvious violations of its rules, the N.C.A.A. dropped the investigation last year.)
Of course, these practices are troubling for reasons that go far beyond the N.C.A.A. Is it really appropriate for our military academies to favor recruited athletes over more qualified candidates? Surely there’s a lot more at stake when the academies lower their admissions standards than when, say, Auburn does.
There is also the sequester. The Navy right now is in the process of canceling deployments, grounding airplanes and deferring ship maintenance. The civilian faculty members at the Naval Academy have been told that they will have to take a 14-day furlough sometime before the end of the semester. But I don’t see anyone suggesting cutting back on the prep school or the athletic teams.
Of course not. After all, Navy is joining the Big East in 2015.
Bread and circuses, Joe, bread and circuses. Except, of course, this time around we’re not even getting the bread, just the circuses…