13 January 2016

A Time For Truth: Reviewing the genius of Ted Cruz


It was James Madison, the father of the American Constitution, who said that “All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree”. It’s a phrase worth bearing in mind if you try to understand Ted Cruz through his autobiography A Time for Truth: Reigniting the Promise of America.

The book’s voice is clearly that of Cruz himself. Eschewing a ghost writer, he writes prose with the same measured phrasing, sometimes clumsy choice of words, and tendency towards a clip-clop verbosity. It makes this more than a standard autobiography. It reveals far more about the man who wants to become leader of the free world than that man might want us to know.

I don’t for one moment recommend that you read all 400 pages but I do recommend that you download a sample. Alternatively, read the opening pages to the thesis he wrote at Princeton. The first two lines of the dedication tells you all you need to know about the boy who became the man.

I would like to thank all of the people who have helped me and cared so much as I have been labouring with my ‘child.’ Truly, I feel I have given birth.

Even the 18-year-old Cruz wrote vastly elevated prose that flatlines on an emotional level. Notice the very telling “people” instead of the more typical “friends and family”. It dehumanises them, making them instruments directed towards an end. The “cared so much” is effusive but, to my ear at least, immodestly so. The conceit of the “child” is at once precious and precocious. He writes in the style of his heroes who wrote the American Constitution; prose made moribund by an almost evangelical zeal to write Godly words. “Truly” is biblical, as in: truly, it was said, he was taught to write at West Briar Elementary…

It was a terrific school, and I was fortunate to have a fantastic teacher, Miss Jennings, [who] taught more grammar in elementary school than you’ll find in most high school English classes (it seemed we would diagram sentences endlessly).

Notice how he boasts and how the boasting reveals too much? Diagramming sentences “endlessly” might explain his style which is perfect but lifeless. He writes in the manner of the highly-trained lawyer he is: careful with his choice of words but devoid of the fundamentals of readable prose. He describes without being descriptive and appears his imagination as though it’s dressed in an orange jump suit and chained to the other side of a table.

None of this denies that Cruz is an exceedingly bright guy. Some bright people write very poorly, some less bright write extremely well. You cannot fathom the man’s abilities by his words alone but you can often measure the man. To measure Cruz by this biography you might describe him as an immodest genius trying hard to sound modest but there is something more shrewd and calculated about him than that simple subterfuge would allow.

Cruz’s origins were fairly ordinary, though all the heavy lifting was done by his parents who gave young Ted his work ethic. Yet he made the most of his gifts and attended Princeton and then Harvard. I suspect Ted was more driven than he cares to admit but he himself admits that he was very driven. This is a biography, however, where every corner of his life has been repainted in political colours. Ted as just an ordinary American kid who pursued big dreams and became just an ordinary guy pursuing even bigger dreams. Yet look beyond the ordinary claims and you find episodes that border on preternatural. How many high school students join clubs “based on ‘the ten pillars of economic wisdom'” and “a curriculum of economic fundamentals including the works of Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Adam Smith, Frédéric Bastiat, and Ludwig von Mises”?

It is boastful, precise, unashamed, yet slightly otherworldly. It is a pattern often repeated:

For example, we memorized ‘TCC NCC PCC PAWN MaMa WReN.’ Those letters stood for eighteen enumerated powers of Congress in Article I, section 8 of the Constitution: ‘taxes, credit, commerce, naturalization, coinage, counterfeiting, post office, copyright, courts, piracy, Army, war, Navy, militia, money for militia, Washington, D.C., rules, and necessary and proper.’

American culture normalises hot housing in increasingly familiar stories of child prodigies. Cruz, however, won’t admit that he was more than ordinary, despite his mind filled with “TCC NCC PCC PAWN MaMa WReN”. Academic life is always balanced by less convincing tales of his rebel youth. Every misdemeanour is given solemn importance and he even manages to confess to having once smoked pot “before wising up”.

The first chapter of the book shows the results twenty odd years later. Cruz has altered little. The Senate is the “august body” and its “principals are fungible”. Cruz seems very aware of his own genius but perhaps too aware. The prose is blatant propaganda and only a naive simpleton would fail to notice that the opening chapter is lifted from Frank Capra but lacks Capra’s finesse. A better writer would have padded the politics more carefully. Instead, we have the dire situation in Washington:

The events of that week provided yet another example of just how bad things in our nation’s capital had become.

But then there’s the honest good-hearted member from the South, whose language is still of an age of better manners:

In the backwards parlance of Washington, the definition of ‘clean’ was adding trillions more in debt without including any reforms to arrest Washington’s out-of-control spending. That didn’t seem very clean to me.

Does anybody still say or write “backwards parlance”? In the entire corpus of Google’s data, “backwards parlance” only occurs ten times in the history of the internet and three of those examples are taken from this book. Nevertheless, our outmoded Senator is determined to speak for the people:

Regardless of which party is in power, government keeps growing, the lives of hardworking Americans keep getting harder, and the disconnect between the government and the American citizenry keeps getting greater.

The best moment comes as Cruz objects to the Republican leadership’s plan to support the Democrats.

It was too much. I raised my hand and said, ‘There’s no universe in which I can consent to that.’

Even if the facts are verified by the record, this is surly a fictionalised account. “I was stunned by the chicanery”, he writes of Republican politics but we’d have to have a few more chips knocked off us in the old wood shed before we’d fall for a trick so crassly conceived and cheaply delivered. This is the man who spends the rest of the book describing how he manoeuvred his way through the toughest universities, into the most cherished opening in American law, though George W Bush’s first presidential campaign, into the Texas legislature where he repeatedly argued in front of the Supreme Court, and then his fight to get into the Senate. He was in no sense “naive” about politics, only naive to believe we might believe that he was.

This goes to the heart of his problem. As we saw with that word “people” in his undergraduate thesis, Cruz appears to struggle with tone. It reveals a deeper incapacity to emote. A more sensitive writer would not have produced the following, which falls apart at the end. Here he is describing the tragic loss of a sister to crack cocaine and how his nephew, Joey, managed to overcome the loss.

In 2011, my sister died of a drug overdose, which the medical examiner determined was accidental. It was heartbreaking. I loved my sister, and she spent much of her life trapped by the demons of addiction and anger. During her struggles, my other sister Roxana really stepped up as well, becoming a tremendous source of love and support for Joey. Today, Roxana is a successful doctor in Texas, and she has a real heart for helping and caring for those in need. But I take great solace in the fact that Joey has grown into a strong and responsible young man, working a good job in a Pennsylvania chocolate factory.

The word “chocolate” is extraneous and it arrives at precisely the wrong point. It produces a moment of bathos that it utterly revealing about the man running for the White House.

Does this lack of sensitivity mean that he would make for a bad president? I suspect we’ll never know. American presidents in living memory have rarely shared a single vice but they have all shared the same virtue: they were all capable of touching voters on an emotional level. Trump has it, Hillary has recently discovered it, and it’s what the Senator from Texas seems to lack. Ted Cruz is about to take a brain to a fight for people’s hearts.

David Waywell writes and cartoons at The Spine.