The NYT reports that the fear of class warfare extends abroad as well. According to the morning paper Mexico's new rising star, Mexico City Mayor Lopez Obrador, is identified with the class warfare approach of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez.
Everybody should relax. Class warefare is so 19th century.
What is everybody worried about? Marx was wrong. It is not class warfare that motivates people, it is national;ism. You want to get people riled up? Tell them something that gets their patriotic blood boiling. It's nationalism that is changing the world--in China, America, Iraq and elsewhere--not class warfare.
It is not that socieites have become classless. It is just that classes have becme less hostile to each other.
This is one of the themes in John Lukacs's new book, POPULISM AND DEMOCRACY. I recommend it highly even though I deplore his attitudes toward gays.
This is a plus--sort of. I always found it grating that he referred to himself that way. It reminded me of stuffed shirts who refer to themselves in the third person.
But more is at stake here than mere style. Bush seems finally to have come to terms with the fact that he is actually president of the United States. Gone is the deliberate distance he created between himself and the office.
But there is a downside. He could now be so comfortable as president that he becomes reckless. Unfortunately, there are signs of recklessness almost daily. His Socil Security/tax/judges agenda seems reckless. It presupposes that people will follow him wherever he wants to take them--even over a financial cliff.
A little less hubris might be in order. Those polls he keeps dismissing maybe are worth a second look. He might discover that they are telling him something important.
The myth that Franklin D. Roosevelt's partial paralysis from polio was kept secret from the public that elected him president four times will apparently never die. It has been given a new lease on life by the History Channel's documentary about FDR as well as by media coverage of the film in The Post and elsewhere.I am afraid this letter writer is misinformed.
In reality, the basic facts about his condition were known to anyone who read the press closely. For example, in the course of a long, sympathetic 1932 profile of the prospective presidential candidate, Time magazine detailed his being stricken with polio, his partial recovery and his subsequent creation of the Warm Springs Foundation."Swimming at Warm Springs several months each year and special exercises at Albany have made it possible for the Governor to walk 100 feet or so with braces and canes," Time explained."When standing at crowded public functions, he still clings precariously to a friend's arm." In November of the same year, Time reported,"At Worcester, Mass., Governor Roosevelt picked Catherine Murphy, 9, also a cripple from infantile paralysis, to send at his own expense to Warm Springs, Ga., for treatment." While the White House understandably did not emphasize his disability, pictures of the president showing his leg braces frequently appeared in the press.
What purpose does it serve to repeat the easily disproved claim that Americans of the 1930s and '40s were deceived? Could it be that we have a powerful need to feel more tolerant than our grandparents, not only in matters of race and sex but also disability? Accepting the fact that voters 70 years ago knowingly chose a president who couldn't walk, something today's health-obsessed electorate would never do, might simply be too humiliating.
People knew FDR had polio. But they did not realize how incapacitated he was.
He could not walk at all by himself. He always needed to lean on someone else.
There's no myth here.
If FDR were known to have been a cripple his enemies would have used this against him. ("He's crippling the country's economy" they might have said, in a none-too-subtle reference to his physical impairment." That they did not suggests that the public remained largely in the dark about his condition and wouldn't have made the connection.
If people knew about his condition and the extent of his physical limitations, why on earth would FDR have gone to such lengths to conceal it? He forbid pictures of himself getting in and out of cars. He allowed just 2 or 3 pictures to be taken of him in his wheelchair. He delivered speeches from his car so as to avoid having to get out in and climb a public platform.
I love American myths. They speak to our humanity and fears and are revealing. But there's no myth here. Debunker, take two aspirin and go to bed. When you awake forget that you ever wrote that letter to the Post.
THANKS to Jonathan Dresner for drawing my attention to the letter.
Tom Friedman in his new book on the flat world--it's flat, you see, because of the Internet and other technical marvels--says trust is essential to good governance.
So what happens when trust in government evaporates? It evaporated in America as a result of Vietnam, Watergate, and Iran-contra. In the early 1960s upwards of 70% of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing most of the time. After LBJ, Nixon and Reagan, only 35 percent or so retained the old trust.
Reagan exploited the decline in trust to gain power over this government.
Walt Crowley, one of the dinner guests, pointed out that after people stopped trusting in government they started trusting a lot more in their churches. They had to trust somebody in authority to give shape and form to their lives. So they turned to the churches, which increasingly replaced government as the provider of basic services frm daycare to relief.
I had always held both developments to be important but had not, unlike Crowley, linked them. It's an interesting hypothesis. I am sure that even Crowley would agree there are multiple causes for thwe rise of the present revival of religion. But he has put his finger on an interesting and overlooked aspect.
I noted in the course of the conversation that it's also interesting that the one government institution that religious people DO seem to hold in high esteem is the military.
How strange is that?
Before we can account for the current wave of religious revival;ism we will have to explain the faith in the military in faith communities and the decline in those communities of faith in government.
But he's wrong today.
In his column in the NYT (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/21/opinion/21brooks.html?oref=login) he says that Roe v. Wade poisoned American politics by removing the abortion decision from state legislatures and giving the power over abortion to the courts.
He blames Justice Blackmun for this disaster, opening his piece with one of the most incendiary lines ever published in the NYT: "Justice Harry Blackmun did more inadvertent damage to our democracy than any other 20th-century American."
This not only unfair to Blackmum, it is bad history.
When did politics become poisoned? Not with Roe and not because of abortion, as Brooks claims. Politics changed when Blacks got their Civil Rights. You can see the poison as early as 1948 when Strom Thurmond marched out of the Democratic Convention to form the Dixiecrat Party. After the Brown decision Southerners started demonizing the Supreme Court and calling for the impeachment of Earl Warren.
It wasn't abortion that divided the country. It was race.
Brooks says that the fight over Supreme Court nominations has become explosive because of Roe. Wrong again.
As I demonstrated in a piece published at findlaw.com (and now reprinted on HNN http://hnn.us/articles/11472.html) in 2001, the nomination process became the modern equivalent of a cock fight in the summer of 1968, Lyndon Johnson's last year in office, when he nominated Abe Fortas as chief justice:
"It’s not Bork the pundits should point to as a turning point. It’s Fortas. Russell Long referred to Fortas as one of the 'dirty five' on the Warren Court who voted for criminals. [Crime was the code word for race.] Fellow Southerner James Eastland observed during the battle that he had 'never seen so much feeling against a man as against Fortas.' After Strom Thurmond mounted a successful filibuster against Fortas, Democrats vowed they would not soon forget what had happened. And they did not. They turned down Haynsworth, Senator Gale McGhee (D-WY) conceded, because of Fortas. 'Had there been no Fortas affair … a man of Justice [sic] Haynsworth’s attainments … undoubtedly would have been confirmed.' "
Why does Brooks get his history wrong? Because he is eager to find ammunition in history for his view that Roe should be overturned.
If he wants to argue that courts shouldn't have gotten involved with abortion--ok. It's not my view but it's defensible.
If he wants to argue that Roe left a bad taste in many peoples' mouths. Ok. So did Brown. And many scholars today like Mike Klarman argue that Brown was a mistake for the same reason Brooks says that Roe was: It removed an issue that should have been settled democratically from debate, leading inevitably to backlash politics.
But he can't argue that before Roe we lived in a kind of golden age. It's simply not true.
A RADICAL IN THE WHITE HOUSE
Naturally, I figured Herbert was bashing Bush today. But it turned out he was writing in praise of FDR, whom he describes as a radical.
I am not sure that radical is the right word for FDR. Most often he was quite modest in his approach. He never gave up his fear of deficit spending and every time the economy got going he would cut back on spending. Before Pearl Harbor, still worried about the attraction of isolationism to millions of Americans, he was said to be the last person in the administration to decide that we would have to resist the Nazis.
Yes, as Herbert observes, FDR sounded idealistic notes and proposed an economic bill of rights that to our ears sounds downright radical. But given the context of the times his economic bill of rights was not perceived as radical.
President Bush on the other hand often is radical. His tax plan was radical in 2001. His Social Security plan in 2005 is radical.
Do Americans want radicalism in a president? Bush got his tax cuts. He appears unable to win his Social Security "reform."
I think that fundamentally the American people are not radical. Indeed, they are downright conservative most of the time and under most circumstances. The tax cuts got through not because they were radical and Americans found a radical program appealing, but because they did not seem radical. Through clever marketing and precisely timed sunset provisions designed to minimize the impact of the cuts on the federal budget they seemed, in comparison to the large numbers thrown around by Greenspan and others regarding the expected surpluses, almost prudent.
Bush's Social Security plans, however, have seemed radical. Bush has made no attempt to make them seem conservative. He seems to have made the calculation that the only way he can get his measure passed is by creating a crisis-atmosphere that makes people think that we MUST ACT NOW OR FACE DOOM. (This strategy may sound familiar. It is the strategy he has employed to great effect in the war on terrorism. But in this case he doesn't have the pictures of burning 9-11 buildings to play off of.)
His approach is therefore a serious miscalculation and will, I suspect, lead to defeat.
Interestingly, it is usually the Democrats who frighten the American people with utopian plans. But this time it's the Republicans. It's 1964 all over again. Bush may be more palatable than Goldwater personally. But he is inviting a harsh response with his radical talk.
The strategy of the Democrats then should be to emphasize that they want to conserve the program while the Republicans want to try a radical experiment.
Simple strategy. Now let's see if the Democrats have the wit to adopt it.
Maybe he's right. Maybe not. It's as plausible a theory as any I've heard. But of course we don't really know what the terrorists are thinking, do we?
Trying to guess what they are thinking is the job of the CIA.
We would do well to focus on something else, I'd suggest. And that is trying to figure out how to drive a wedge between terrorists and the broader Muslim community of the Middle East.
That should be the top priority of the American government in foreign policy.
And the one thing I worry about is this. Is it likely we can achieve this goal as long as we have a largely Christian army in the middle of the largely Muslim Middle East?
Not bloody likely.
Americans don't have much of a sense of history. We like to think that we are not hobbled by history. We believe after all that The End of History came in 1776 when we broke away from Old Europe.
But in the 19th century presidents regularly subscribed in public to the view that events in the past actually have an effect on the present and the future. Lincoln in his Second Inaugural famously explained that it may be that the Civil War may not end "until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword." Grant in his memoirs, echoing Lincoln, and like him, borrowing heavily from the Christian theology of penance, argued that the Civil War in part was the price America paid for the unlawful Mexican-American War, in which the stronger power took advantage of the weaker one to obtain territory.
If we cannot own up to our history anymore I'd settle for just a little Christian penance. In a country now dominated by leaders who either profess to believe in Christianity or who lead a flock who do, a brief bow to history might not seem out of line. Or is Christianity today just about megachurches, building the base, running off gays, and ending abortions?
If that's it, then Lincoln would hardly recognize the religion.
If penance is important, then perhaps we could begin to come to terms with the legacy of American foreign policy. Iran, I see, is back on the front burner. Might we not want to accept that many of the events that have taken place in Iran over the last 30 years had their roots in what happened 50 years ago?
I say this not in the expectation or the hope that Americans will begin flagellating themselves like the Shiites of Iran. But remembering is important. For even if we don't remember other people do.
David Brooks is right. In a column in the NYT the other day he observed that liberals generally are indifferent to debates about public philosophy. He recalled that a year ago he had phoned "the head of a prominent liberal think tank to ask him who his favorite philosopher was. If I'd asked about health care, he could have given me four hours of brilliant conversation, but on this subject he stumbled and said he'd call me back. He never did."
How would I have answered if Brooks had asked me? I have found myself wondering about this since reading his column. The first and only name that keeps coming to mind is Walter Lippmann. In high school and college I read all his books, devouring The Public Philosophy, Drift and Mastery, and Shield of the Republic, among others.
But I realized after thinking about this for awhile that it was a conservative who introduced me to Lippmann. In high school I had three history teachers: Mr. Ahearn, Mr. Asher and Mr. Okkema.
Mr. Ahearn was the department liberal, a good Irish-American New Dealer who celebrated decency and treated his students with decency. He had a distinct liberal approach to life but never talked about philosophy.
Mr. Asher was rumored to be a communist. A conservative member of the school board had even tried to get him fired. He taught Afro-American history and sociology. He too had a distinct approach to life but didn't talk about philosophy, perhaps because he didn't want to admit his affinity for Marxism.
Then there was Milo Okkema. Mr. Okkema was a somewhat intimidating person. He was formal. He was a hard grader. He demanded a lot from his students. And he never kidded around. In his classroom nothing less than the fate of civilization always seemed to be at stake. Many students behind his back badmouthed him. He wasn't a pal like so many other teachers. And he didn't want to be your pal.
He was very conservative. He defended the Vietnam War (this was in the late 60s early 70s). He ran a Great Books club because he believed in a traditional 19th century education rooted in the study of the ancients. And he was very religious.
He had a great impact on students who liked him and let him into their world. For several years I considered myself a conservative because of him. I even attended a summer school run by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. In my spare time I read Russell Kirk and other conservatives.
While I long ago abandoned the conservative positions I took in high school under the influence of Milo Okkema, I never stopped thinking about the world in the terms he laid out. Fundamentally, they were conservative terms. Liberals, he argued take a mechanistic approach to life, conservatives an organic approach. Conservatives believe that society changes little, human nature tends toward evil, realism is vital. When George W. Bush began talking about remaking Iraqi society I cringed. His was a hopelessly liberal scheme that would probably come to no good as it was based on a mechanistic assumption that if you gave people the vote they instantly would become good citizens.
A great deal of Mr. Okkema's philosophy came from Lippmann, whose quotes he hung on the walls of the classroom. They spoke of history, tradition, memory. Like Lippmann, I have gone through my own evolution. He started out as a liberal backer of Woodrow Wilson with faith in the people and ended up a conservative who had little faith in the people. I started out as a conservative who didn't doubt the wisdom of the people (probably because as a high school student I simply imbibed the American rah-rah myth that the people are the fountain of wisdom) and ended up as a liberal who now shares his doubts about the people.
Liberals I encountered in college and afterward seldom seemed interested in philosophy, as Brooks astutely observed. But the conservatives always were. I am not sure why this is so. But unlike Brooks, I don't think this is a reason for liberalism's failures today. Liberals lacked a philosophical approach to life even when they were in the saddle. Philosophical questions just don't preoccupy liberals anymore than they do Americans generally.
I for one am grateful however that I was exposed to a conservative like Milo Okkema when I was in school. If David Brooks calls me up and asks who my favorite philosopher is I won't have to put him on hold. I'll answer, thanks to Milo Okkema: Walter Lippmann.
The Messages and Papers of the Presidents, a series published by the United States government, covers all the official papers of presidents from Washington to Wilson.
The 18 volume set includes nearly 10,000 pages of closely printed text. The pope is mentioned just once, in a footnote.
In the early 19th century!
It's not very democratic, but at least it results in the selection of a leader on the basis of his resume, the interests of the institution he serves, and his overall philosophy and agenda.
We used to elect presidents this way. Party bosses convening at a conclave (aka: a political convention) and selected a leader from among the people they knew.
One didn't always get a leader who was able or visionary. But at least the process was rational--unlike the process we currently employ which can put a senator with just 5 years experience as a leader in serious contention for a nomination (Edwards). Or which can emphasize to the exclusion of most else soundbites and hair.
Ah, but the Catholic Church isn't a democracy and America is.
All hail democracy!
I'm kidding in my sarcasm. All should hail democracy. But we should also recognize its limits.
Brands makes an interesting observation with some relevance to Bush. Brands describes Wilson as being almost wholly ignorant about foreign affairs when he became president. He had rarely traveled abroad. He was unconcerned with foreign affairs. He expected and wanted to be a domestic president. He famously said that it would be the height of irony if he found himself preoccupied wit foreign policy.
Sound familiar? But it gets better.
Brands says that in the absence of real knowledge about the world Wilson fell back on a kind of primitive moralizing as a guide to action.
This is downright scary in the parallel to Bush, isn't it?
The book came out in June 2003. So it is possible that Brands was deliberately intending his book as a warning about Bush. And the book is part of the series edited by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., so it wouldn't be surprising to discover that it included a subtle attack on Bush, whom Schlesinger openly disdains.
But all the same--hasn't Brands got a point worth pondering?
The line came to mind this morning when the NYT reported that President Bush, speaking about the necessity of signing the law designed to save Terri Schiavo's life, said: "It Is Wisest to Always Err on the Side of Life."
This from the same politician who:
*approved the sentencing to death of over 100 people in Texas when he was governor.
*approved said executions after reportedly spending an average of 15 minutes reviewing each case
*smirked (according to Tucker Carlson) when he remembered the final cries for help from a Christian woman who was executed while he was governor
*sent soldiers to fight a war of choice on dubious and shifting grounds
*cut off aid to world groups that fight AIDS because they educated clients about abortion (they didn't perform abortions; they just told clients about them)
I could go on.
But you can readily supply your own list.
Just one question.
Did he interrupt his Crawford vacation when he got that PDB warning that bin Laden was trying to attack he United States?
But at home he is weakening the country.
Remember in the 1990s when Bob Rubin would say the "fundamentals" are strong? The fundamentals today are weak. And it's because of policies the administration has deliberately put in place.
I don't need to enumerate the ways in which the economy is weak; all know it. If a crash comes none will be able to say they are shocked. We understand the weaknesses even as we hope that somehow things will all work out.
The Fed is responsible for some of the weaknesses, namely, the housing bubble, which depends on the low interest rate policy Greenspan mainly pursued over the last 4 years. But Bush is responsible for the burgeoning trade and government deficits. And these spell weakness. His tax cuts, geared to the rich, weakened the economy and undermined government finances.
But this is just the beginning of the story. The end won't be written for some time. And the end could be economically catastrophic.
Suppose for a moment that we take seriously the government's claim that we will be hit at some point with another devastating terrorist attack (something I and most Americans take seriously). If a dirty bomb goes off in NYC we may be talking about an economic hit of a trillion dollars.
Given the state of the government’s finances could we handle it?
If President Bush took seriously his own warnings of an impending terrorist attack he would be doing everything possible to strengthen government finances so we are in a position down the road to weather it. That he is not doing this suggests either unseriousness of purpose, profound superficiality, brazen political cravenness in the face of the demands of his base, or some combination.
Shouldn't somebody be pointing this out?
IF YOU'RE GOING TO FIGHT THIS READ UP ON RICHARD NIXON.
While at Duke law school, where he was near the top of his class, Nixon famously broke into the dean's office to find out how he had scored that semester.
Duke hasn't yet decided if it is going to follow the lead of Harvard, MIT and Carnegie Mellon and reject outright the students who broke into the school records.
Duke applicants can say they were simply following the example of Duke's most famous alum.
Then again: Nixon was also Duke's most notorious alum.
Tough call. Might be helpful. Might not.
But is there a crisis? There's no doubt Social Security is facing a shortfall. All are agreed it amounts in half a century to about 25%. To bridge the gap all you'd have to do is move up retirement age by a few years and the gap disappears.
So is there a crisis? No.
But come another decade the government is going to have to stop relying on Social Security surpluses to finance the rest of the government. That's the crisis! It's not Social Security which is in trouble in other words, it's government financing of the rest of the budget.
(There is a Medicare crisis, as this op ed in the WSJ recounts. But unlike the author of the op ed, I don't think that privatizing Social Security helps Medicare. Indeed, it hurts Medicare by putting the government in more debt.)
Toward the beginning of the report, which can be streamed online, a camera crew follows a small company of soldiers posted at a highway on-ramp checkpoint. At one point a car is seen in the distance. The soldiers do not wave it off, use hand signals or fire shots that could be perceived as warning shots. Instead, with the car barreling down the road toward them they pause, watch, and then start firing. From the soldiers' perspective it is impossible to determine the occupants of the car or their purpose. The car turns around and heads in the direction it came from. Was anybody shot or killed? Who knows? The soldiers don't investigate and the occupants of the car certainly don't hold a press conference to present their side.
I was appalled as I watched this video scene unfold. It seemed inconceivable that we could risk taking life on an ordinary highway so casually. When a few days later we all heard the news about the Italian journalist I couldn’t help but think that she was a victim of this same casual approach.
Sure, war is dirty and ugly and if I were stationed in Iraq I would be frightened not to shoot when a car is barreling down the road at me. But don't checkpoints need to be established with some care? Don't the people innocently traveling down the road need to be told IN ADVANCE that they are approaching a checkpoint?
And why aren't the media broadcasting this actual footage of a checkpoint so viewers can understand the casual way in which checkpoints have been established? That means you CNN, MSNBC, CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox. Call up Frontline. Get the video. AND SHOW IT.
NARRATOR: Today Dog Company has been ordered to set up a roadblock while the rest of the battalion hunts for insurgents hiding in the area.
Maj. LEIKER: Hey, Dan, you're in charge of that lane, OK?
Sgt. SHANE CARPENTER: What am I, chopped liver?
Pvt. JOSUE REYES: Everybody feels scared. When I go out the gate, I feel kind of anxious and nervous at the same time. But I don't really feel fear, like, so much fear that I can't function, you know?
Sgt. SHANE CARPENTER: All right? I don't want to hear it.
Pvt. JOSUE REYES: Especially when, you know, there's a car on the side of the road, and it's just sitting there and you have to go past it. And you— there's the sense that, you know, that could be the car that blows up.
NARRATOR: Suddenly, they spot a car coming their way.
Sgt. SHANE CARPENTER: Warning shot! Warning shot! Engage!
PFC. BENJAMIN MORGAN: He passed the trigger line. He passed the trigger line. Sir? The Humvee's right here, sir. He could see us!
NARRATOR: The car had approached the roadblock at high speed. To the soldiers, it seemed like the driver accelerated after the warning shot, so the order was given to shoot directly at the car.
Pvt. JOSUE REYES: Hey, dude. See him run right at us? The minute you said that, I was, like,"Fuck this."
PFC. BENJAMIN MORGAN: I know. The guy— after the warning shot, he sped up.
Pvt. JOSUE REYES: Yeah.
But we can indeed benefit from studying the decade of the 1790s, the decade which figures in so many of these books about Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson, Adams and the others.
In many ways it is the decade which offers the most relevant lessons for us in our time, despite the obvious differences.
The most obvious difference is that political parties were inchoate in the 1790s. Opposition to political parties of all stripes was a commonly held prejudice. Even Thomas Jefferson, while leading the opposition, denounced the idea of an opposition that takes the form of a party.
So what then can we usefully learn from the 1790s? One thing. Humility.
Like the 1790s ours is a decade of political polarization. Partisanship is red-hot. Political debates end in fiery denunciations. The middle in Washington is nearly vacant as politicians on both sides cleave to the margins, catering to the interest groups that form the base of their own power.
In these debates I hear the echoes of the 1790s when Jeffersonians and federalists believed the worst of each other. For example. Like his Jeffersonian critics, George Washington held the worst fears about the opposition. They thought he was a would-be monarchist. He thought they were bent on destroying the union in imitation of the French model of revolutionary change. (Hamilton literally was fearful that he might find himself, like Louis 16th, on the scaffold.)
We think our politics polarized on moral issues driven (some say) by religious fervor. But they were men of reason and even they found it easy to be taken in by the belief in their own righteousness. It did not occur to them to claim that they were doing God's work or that God had taken sides. And yet their politics were every bit as divisive as if they had invoked God.
Some have drawn parallels between our time and the 1850s. But the parallel with the 1850s of course is misguided. We are not headed for civil war.
But we are hobbled as politics was in the 1790s by a conviction that only our own side is possessed of truth, honor, justice and courage.
In a democracy this is dangerous.
In the 1790s the federalists became committed to self-defeating policies that ended a few years later in their own death. (Think: Alien and Sedition Acts.)
Neither party today is likely to overreach in such a similarly overdramatic fashion as to lead to political suicide. So how will it all end?
I have no idea. But things can't remain as they are. We will either move decisively in one party's direction or the other over time. The question that should preoccupy us now it to make the transition in such a manner as to leave the defeated party a little dignity.
Surely that can't be too much to ask. And it ought to be a standard both parties can adopt.
Stewart should know better than to call the game in the 3rd inning. He did after all write a history book of sorts. And if he can't take a broader, deeper, more historical perspective, what hope is there that his viewers can?
And if his viewers can't what hope is there that the millions who don't watch his show, the smartest on TV--can?
Update: Over on Richard Jensen's list I came across an observation by Alonzo Hamby that is apropos:
"[T]riumphalism is premature because we have not triumphed yet!"