What's wrong with Obama's candidacy?
It's that the very idea of his candidacy isn't shocking. It should be shocking to any proponent of rational governance given his meager experince. But we are so far from expecting rationality in American politics that we accept as a given that it is irrational.
Let me cast my net wider than I have been in this discussion by quoting (hold your fire liberals) Paul Weyrich, founder of the Heritage Foundation.
After the Iran-contra calamity he made a trenchant observation:
... our current system institutionalizes amateurism. Unlike European parliamentary democracies, we have no 'shadow cabinet,' no group of experts who are groomed by their party for decades before they take office. Our presidents can be peanut farmers or Hollywood actors.....
... If we are going to be a serious nation, we need a serious system for selecting our leaders and advisors.
Weyrich believed we needed to establish a shadow government. I am not sure about the wisdom of that suggestion. But I am sure that we all ought to be thinking hard about what's wrong with our system if serious people can suggest Obama should be taken seriously as a candidate for the presidency of the United States.
Again, it's not Obama who's the problem. It's us. It's us for being so desperate for idealism that we are willing to consider his candidacy seriously. And it's us for not realizing instantly that any system that produces an Obama candidacy is seriously (insert dirty word here) ______.
I conclude that the Obama boomlet tells us more about us as a nation than it does about him as a candidate.
We are desperate for somebody in whom to believe.
We have been here before.
In 1976 Americans were depressed by Watergate and Vietnam and desperate for fresh leadership. Answering their call was Jimmy Carter, another bright and articulate candidate from the hinterlands with little experience.
I ask you. Do you still feel good about voting for Jimmy Carter as president?
(I should hasten to add that I'd vote for him for ex-president in a jiffy. He's been one of the best ex-presidents we've had.)
Obama might make a better president than Carter did. But before I buy the car he's selling I'd like to take it out for a spin first.
Over at the interesting and stimulating blog, Progressive Historians, I have been taken to task by Nonpartisan for ridiculously implying that the bosses of old may have made sounder choices in the selection of presidents than The People do today.
Well, then the fight is on.
Say what you will about the bosses they only considered pols for the highest office who had experience. (Yes, yes, I know what you may be inclined to say: The experience consisted of taking bribes, paying off the special interests, etc. etc.) Look through the list of American presicdents selected by bosses and you'll see they almost all seemed"presidential," meaning they had experience in handling high stress positions in important organizations IN ADDITION TO OTHER IMPORTANT VIRTUES.
I have said before and I will say again that the bosses at least did not base their selections on the color of the hair of the candidates (though always on the color of their skin) or on their ability to tell a joke with the timing of a Johnny Carson.
I don't want the bosses back. Good riddance, we've done with boss politics. (Sort of. The new bosses are the rich guys who can bankroll campaigns in the primaries and the media anchors who decide which candidates are worth covering and which aren't.) But the bosses took the selection of presidents seriously. (Ok, ok, not with Harding's selection but he's the worst of the worst presidents.) I am nostalgic for the kind of seriousness with which they approached presidential politics. People today generally do not take politics seriously enough to inform themselves about the candidates' real strengths and weaknesses. Instead they go with their gut. Their gut reaction is shaped by 30 second commercials that are shallow and misleading.
Brigham contends that Secretary of State Rice has hopes of arranging an old-fashioned 19th century deal (think: Congress of Vienna) to settle the Iraq mess.
She's playing Kissinger in other words. Instead of getting China and Russia to help out with Vietnam, she gets Syria and Iran to help out with Iraq.
If she pulls this off she will have outdone Kissinger, who never had to contend with non-state actors as key players. All of the groups fighting the Americans in Vietnam were controlled by Hanoi.
What I want to see is how she'd sell this deal to the American public. She and Bush have employed such idealistic rhetoric in defense of their policies that it is hard to see how they could turn around now and settle on an openly Machiavellian approach. Maybe they won't admit what they are doing. But then what will they say in public about their approach? They have to say something.
It will be fascinating to watch.
If the Democrats come to power in November Bush will have the excuse he needs for failure in Iraq: The Democrats are to blame.
It won't matter what the Democrats say or do, Bush will blame them for the fiasco there. And as long as he can blame somebody else for his failures he'll stay in Iraq.
If the Republicans win they will have to accept responsibility for Iraq. Ergo: They will have to get out by 2008. There is no way they will be able to go to the country in 2008 if the war is still going on.
Conclusion: The anti-war vote this election is to vote Republican.
Heaven help us all.
Here's what Beinart says about Bush's spending reputation:
"To listen to Bush's critics, you would think that discretionary, nonsecurity-related spending has exploded on his watch. But it hasn't. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has shown, when you take account of inflation and population growth, it grew a mere 2 percent between 2001 and 2006. And, as a percentage of GDP, it actually fell. What has exploded--rising 32 percent after inflation and population growth--is spending on defense, homeland security, and international affairs. And the people most responsible for those increases are conservatives themselves, who demanded an expansive war on terrorism. "
Click here to read the full piece.
Of course, he didn't troll for teenage boys because he is an alcoholic. He became alcoholic because he wanted to go after teenage boys and knew he shouldn't.
(Note: I am told by a CNN producer that friends are saying they never saw him drink, period, so it may be that he actually doesn't have a problem with alcohol.)
Pols who have been caught in scandal always look for ways to redeem themselves. But it's only in the modern period that they have taken refuge in the bosom of the alcohol treatment center.
We can pinpoint the arrival of this development with porecision. It was in 1973 when Gerald Ford was nominated to replace the disgraced Spiro Agnew as vice president.
According to the terms of the 25th Amendment Ford had to be approved by the Congress. The process involved undergoing a gruelling FBI background check involving 359 agents. They quickly came upon evidence that Betty Ford had abused prescription drugs and alcohol.
In the old days none of this would have become public. But the counterculture had opened up the boudoir of American society tyo public scrutiny. The governing rule now was to let it all hang out. As the feminists said, the personal is political. And after Watergate it would be refreshing and almost mandatory for pols to be honest about their human flaws.
Thus did we arrive at modern times. Betty confessed all in interviews with the media and Gerald went on to become vice president and then president. In 1975 she gave a famous interview to Sixty Minutes in which she revealed her liberal opinions about abortion, premarital sex and pot. Ford's poll numbers dropped precipitously from 55 % to 38 %. America wasn't yet ready for a pill-popping first lady who winked at her children's foibles. A year later Ford nearly lost the nomination of his party to Ronald Reagan because of the bad taste the interview left in the mouths of the conservatives in the party. But America could never go back. After Betty Ford pols learned that they had to confess their sins. Most caught in the act signed up for rehab on their way to redemption.
Funny though it was usually the Republicans who made rehab an essential part of their come-backs. When Bob Boman and Jon Hinson were caught having sex with young men they headed straight for rehab. Their bahvior was so at odds witgh the conservative preachments of their party they had no choice. Democrats have had a choice. Thius Barney Frank and Gerry Studds simply admitted errors of judgment and went on with their lives. Neither fled to rehab. Both were frepeatedly re-elected.
(For background on the Betty Ford story see Gil Troy's excellent MR. & MRS. PRESIDENT.)
He dates the transformation of America's media-driven culture to the debut of Roots, which began, he says, the blurring of the line between fact and fiction. Since then, he argues, Hollywood values have driven out journalistic values, placing a premium on pandering, ratings, storylines and the like rather than the investigation of facts. Now even ours wars come with packaged music and special graphics.
I haven't read his book yet but if he insists in the book on overlooking the real roots of our media driven culture he's seriously misconstruing the events that have led us to where we are now and is misleading his many readers.
The story of our media-driven culture begins with television. That puts the story back at least to the 1950s not the 1970s when Roots was broadcast. In 1952 television commercials were used to pitch Ike, the hero of World War II, like soap. Ike himself felt demeaned by the ads and famously complained: "to think that an old soldier should come to this." By 1956 both major party candidates were selling themselves like soap, Adlai Stevenson swallowing his criticism of Ike four years earlier when he complained:
“I don’t think the American people want politics and the presidency to become the plaything of the high-pressure men, of the ghostwriters, of the public relations men. I think they will be shocked by such contempt for the intelligence of the American people. This isn’t soap opera, this isn’t Ivory Soap versus Palmolive.”
Then came JFK, Nixon and Reagan--and that about ended the reality-based community's grip on American culture.
I don't know why Rich oddly decided to use Roots as a starting point. I can't see that it helps him make his case. But maybe he thinks that if the media culture began in the 1970s instead of in the 1950s there's more reason to be hopeful. Any change that only dates to the 1970s can perhaps be reversed.
He ended his talk on a promising note, saying that the people can change our dreadful media culture by turning off schlock TV shows, refusing to buy celebrity magazines, and electing politicians who still trade in old-fashioned facts not stories.
Who's he kidding?
I hate to sound deterministic. But once television got a toehold in American culture its values reshaped the culture. And there's no turning back. Not even 9-11, as Rich acknowledges, stopped the tele-fication of America. Five years later we are as addicted to infotainement as ever.
The Bush administration, some of whose members draw inspiration from Wilson, has refused to engage in direct talks with North Korea, a nation that is apparently interested in normalizing relations with us. At the least, Pyongyang has insisted on direct talks and a non-aggression pledge as the first steps in moving away from confrontation over its nuclear program.
What’s the big deal about meeting them one-on-one, except, I guess, that Bush drew a line in the sand and does not want to lose face or have to admit that he has mishandled North Korean policy? That policy, in contrast to the allegedly wimpy but successful containment policy of Bill Clinton, has led to this weekend’s nuclear test and little else, save the comforting knowledge that everyone in the region agrees with us that Kim is a rogue. And this gang is still asking us to elect them because they can be trusted better than Democrats to defend national security?
"It's vile. It's more sad than anything else, to see someone with
such potential throw it all down the drain because of a sexual
--Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL), commenting on President Clinton, following release of the Starr Report, September 12, 1998.
Hat Tip: Josh Marshall, Talking Points Memo
So much of the NYT coverage has been written badly it was hard to figure out just how much the administration was giving up. Thankfully, the Times editorial board has sorted out the issues in this timely and concise piece.
Here's the case she makes:
"Thirty-two years ago, President Gerald Ford created a political firestorm by pardoning former president Richard Nixon of all crimes he may have committed in Watergate - and lost his election as a result. Now, President Bush, to avoid a similar public outcry, is quietly trying to pardon himself of any crimes connected with the torture and mistreatment of US detainees."
She's got a point.
Over the last month, as gas prices have plummeted, consumer confidence has risen along with the stock market, while potential voters have told pollsters that the state of the economy is becoming less of a problem for them. Did the administration warn its pals in Riyadh that a Democratic Congress could bring renewed investigations into 9/11, a serious program for alternate energy, and a cut and run in Iraq that would leave the Iranians triumphant? Or did the Saudis figure all that out by themselves?
In 1960, Nikita Khrushchev boasted that he elected Kennedy by withholding the release of captured American fliers until Nixon had been deposited in the dustbin of history. Eight years later, the Soviets offered cash-strapped Hubert Humphrey money under the table (which he refused) to help his campaign in the same election where Saigon was “voting” for Nixon. Is our latest October surprise the astounding fall in the price of gasoline?
Here's another reason why.
In the (new) Amazon bestseller, Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, which the NYT excerpts today, Chomsky says:
Those who want to face their responsibilities with a genuine commitment to democracy and freedom — even to decent survival — should recognize the barriers that stand in the way. In violent states these are not concealed. In more democratic societies barriers are more subtle. While methods differ sharply from more brutal to more free societies, the goals are in many ways similar: to ensure that the “great beast,” as Alexander Hamilton called the people, does not stray from its proper confines.
Hamilton did not hold The People in high regard. But did he refer to them as a"great beast"?
I well remember my Vassar College history professor, Jerry Frost, promising us a prize if we could find where Hamilton made this remark. He could safely offer an award. No one has ever found any evidence that Hamilton made the statement.
His problem is that his material is getting stale. How many times must we be told that the war on drugs has been lost and that it is turning honest farmers into outlaws? How many times must we hear the tired analogies with Prohibition? I suggest that Tierney try a new approach. He can begin by talking about Andrew Jackson's use of cocaine. (How's that for a tease. Click on the READ MORE button if you want to know more about this.)
In his old age, after he had left the White House, Jackson began using cocaine to ease his many ailments, many of which could be traced to the bullets he took in several duels. (Odd, though he fought in several wars he never seems to have been injured in any of them, unless you count the slash to the forehead he received as a teenager when a British soldier struck him during the Revolution.)
Jackson was so taken with the munificence of the drug that he began telling friends about it and advised them to follow his example. Cocaine, he noted, eases one's pains and puts one in an exhilerating mood. Sounding like Timothy O'Leary, he praised the higher consciousness he seemed to reach when under its influence.
I don't happen to have a position on the legalization of drugs, and I am wary of legalizing hard drugs like cocaine. (Is cocaine a hard drug?) But I'm happy to contribute to the debate. It's time the advocates use fresh arguments.
Footnote: If you are reading this Mr. Tierney and want more information, I would direct your attention to H.W. Brands's fine biography of Jackson, which quotes some choice lines from Jackson.
And week after week Mr. Bush insists he will not replace them.
I do not know if anybody can achieve "victory" in Iraq but I am struck by Mr. Bush's passivity in the face of tragedy and defeat. Almost any other president by now would have held his generals accountable for failure and replaced them. Lincoln famously replaced general after general until he finally found a general who would fight (Grant, of course).
But not Mr. Bush.
This is curious.
Several explanations are possible.
1. Mr. Bush is so convinced that he has God on his side that he feels he need not worry about the outcome; victory is assured.
2. Mr. Bush is simply passive by nature.
This second explanation seems wholly at odds with his bellicose rhetoric. But passivity was a part of his father's makeup and may be part of his, too. Remember that his father had to be pushed into war against Saddam by Maggie Thatcher, had to be pushed to fire John Sununu, had to be pushed to abandon Gorbachev.
It is not inconceivable--indeed it is likely--that both 1 and 2 are true.
If that's the case, it is hard to imagine Mr. Bush shifting course any time soon.
Note: It may be that Mr. Bush's passivity is related to his stubborness. Rigidity is a characteristic of the dry drunk, as explained by Katherine van Wormer in this 2003 HNN piece,"Is George W. a 'Dry Drunk' ?"
Money quote:"I am sick of Karl Rove's bullshit." -- Bill Clinton
An answer to these questions can apparently be found in Thomas Edsall's new book, Building Red America.
Here's the money quote from the NYT review:
Securing the base, Mr. Edsall argues, became a central Republican strategy, especially after Mr. Bush’s chief pollster, Matt Dowd, sent a memo to Karl Rove, the Republican mastermind, in the wake of the highly contested 2000 presidential vote. The memo — which declared that the center of the electorate had collapsed, that true swing voters made up a mere 6 percent of the electorate — destroyed, in Mr. Edsall’s words, “the rationale for Bush to govern as ‘a uniter, not a divider,’ ” as he had promised. Instead, it “freed Bush to discard centrist strategies” and promote “polarizing policies designed explicitly to appeal to the conservative Republican core.”
The presidency, he contends, was weakened in Watergate. Thanks to President Bush, it's now once again strong and resiliant.
President Bush has weakened the presidency in ways that will haunt his successors.
Long after he vacates 1600 Pa Ave. they will be dealing with Iraq. That will limit their ability to initiate foreign policies of their own. For years and years we will be dealing with his foreign policy mistakes in the same way that presidents for years and years had to deal with LBJ's.
The military is also weaker as a result of Mr. Bush's misguided policy in Iraq. And that will limit his successors' ability to deploy our forces.
Because Mr. Bush has overreached Congress and th courts are in a mood to clip the wings of the presidency. If Mr. Cheney took the time to study the institution he seems to spend so much time "protecting" he would know that.
I did this summer. It was a devastating experience. One evil treatment for homosexuals involved hanging a man by his heals and then using a two-handed 6 foot saw to litrerally cut him in half, beginning in the crotch.
I was repulsed by the exhibit.
How, I wondered, could anyone justify the treatment? There was no shortage of justifications: God hates sodomites. Sodomites are evil. Children must be protected from sodomites.
At the bottom of all of the explanations was the belief that the torturers were good people and the tortured were bad people. Once that sharp line had been drawn between them anything was justifiable. Anything good people do is perforce legitimate.
President Bush insists the US does not torture. This is a lie. Were another government to do to an American what we are doing Mr. Bush would be the first to conclude that the name for the treatment is torture.
But Mr. Bush cannot and will not go there. And he will not because he is sincerely convinced that we are the good guys and the terrorists are the bad guys. Once the issue is framed in this manner, all moral qualms are swept away because by definition good people cannot be guilty of bad crimes.
One of the insidious cultural traps into which we have fallen as Americans is to frame all issues in the sharply delineated moral terms associated with frontier justice. This is true of both liberals and conservatives.
Liberals should be wary of this trap. It gives conservatives like Mr. Bush an advantage in public debate.