When Malcolm Stewart told our eighth grade class that “the joy is in the striving,” which he did almost weekly, he did so both as our English teacher and as our cross-country coach. A tall, lanky, mop-headed recent college graduate who wore his shirtsleeves rolled up to mid-bicep and perpetually had small deposits of drying spittle in the corners of his mouth, Malcolm was one of the smartest and most intense men who ever taught me anything about either reading or running. He was also about the most tirelessly honest man I’ve ever known. It was no surprise to me that he left school the year our class graduated to attend Yale’s law program, or that he then rose through the ranks to become the second-highest defense attorney in the country, as our Deputy Solicitor General.
Malcolm (he was also the first teacher who allowed us to call him by his first name) wanted us to pay attention. Whether running or reading, he wanted us to be aware of, and to celebrate, the act itself. The striving. He was, interestingly, not noticeably happier when we won a cross-country meet than when we lost one. He was interested in the turns of phrase more than the morals of the story; more interested in the coordination of breath, arm swing, and leg pump than mile splits.
So it didn’t seem out of character—although it did amuse the hell out of me—when he argued, last year, in front of the Supreme Court of the United States, that the federal government, under the rules of campaign finance imposed by the McCain-Feingold Act, could legally prohibit corporations from funding political speech in book form.
The argument caused at least one SCOTUS commentator (Dahlia Lithwich at Slate) to moan, “Oh, Malcolm Stewart. Malcolm Stewart. With your Macbeth-y first name and your Macbeth-ier last name. You did not just say the government might engage in a teensy little bit of judicious, narrowly tailored book-banning, did you?”
Searching for a way to allow Malcolm off the hook, I developed a theory that the Obama administration didn’t like McCain-Feingold, and that having Malcolm argue the case at hand (the banning of the hateful anti-Hillary Clinton “documentary” Hillary: The Movie in the run-up to the 2008 Democratic primary) to its logical extreme of book-banning was a way to get the act reversed.
But there’s another theory twisting around my brain, the theory that the joy, for Malcolm, is truly in the striving, and that the act of exploring an argument logically was far more interesting than the explosive, four-column-headline outcome ten months later. He is, of course, right—if you want to ban hateful corporate electioneering you have to ban all corporate electioneering—but anyone more interested in the ribbon at the finish line (Exxon can now fully fund any political race they want to) than the race itself is missing his point.