"We're not in the middle of a war on terror, they note. We're not facing an axis of evil. Instead, we are in the midst of an ideological conflict."
He then adds:
"It seems like a small distinction - emphasizing ideology instead of terror - but it makes all the difference, because if you don't define your problem correctly, you can't contemplate a strategy for victory."
Sounds reasonable, you say. Indeed it does. And that's the problem. It is just the kind of reasonable observation he should have been making all along. He shouldn't have needed the 9-11 report to tell him this.
He was wrong about Iraq--and finally admitted it recently. Now he is saying he was wrong about the war on terrorism, too.
It was President Bush who nonsensically declared war on terrorism. It was he, our putative educator-in-chief, who miseducated the public about the nature of the enemy we face.
Both liberal and conservative intellectuals have been finding fault with the way Bush has framed the issue. I can remember a column by David Corn in the Nation several years ago pointing out that you can't declare war against a tactic. I also remember a column by Daniel Pipes, also published years ago, which concluded the enemy is radical Islamism and we need to face that.
Bush's war has been sabotaged from the start by his misguided approach. It's what happens when you put a C student into a job requiring the brains and intellectual curiosity of an A student--or at least someone who displays the intellectual breadth of an A student.
Brooks will still pull the lever for Bush in November, I suspect. But why? Bush has fumbled the two leading foreign policy challenges of his presidency (9-11 and Iraq). Is anything more important than getting foreign policy right in an era like ours?
If there is perhaps David Brooks can enlighten us. Me, I can't fathom what that might be.
Even by the standards of American politics, President Bush's promise to Iowa voters that the next four years will be peaceful is extraordinarily audacious.
1. No president can say whether there will be war or peace on his watch. Look no further than Woodrow Wilson, who promised the voters in 1916 he"kept us out of war" and then promptly dragged the country into war after his inauguration a few months later.
2. This president has warned us that the war on terrorism will go on for years and years. What happened to that war? Did we win it? Is it over? Did I miss the announcement of victory? Or is President Bush saying that the war on terrorism can go on while we continue to live in peace?
3. And what about North Korea? Has North Korea agreed to disarm? Is the threat from North Korea lessening now that the country is known to have increased its stockpile of nuclear material? Did the North agree not to give terrorists nuclear bombs?
If President Bush has answers to these questions, let's hear them. If not, he should immediately withdraw his ill-conceived promise of peace.
FDR in the 1940 campaign promised he would never send American boys into a foreign war. His advisors thought he had made a mistake. FDR rationalized that if we were attacked, it would no longer be a foreign war. He was wrong to make the promise he made. The American people were right to forgive him. They had wanted peace at any cost in the 1930s while FDR had maneuvered to give Great Britain the assistance needed to fight Hitler. After Pearl Harbor Americans knew FDR had been right to come to the aid of Great Britain and they had been wrong to resist.
But President Bush has not been in a similar position. Before 9-11 he had largely ignored the threat terrorists posed. After 9-11 he reacted as most Americans did after Pearl Harbor. Like the country at large he recognized a threat to our national security and made war on our enemies. (I am referring to the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban, not the attack on Iraq.) He deserves no points for going after our enemies once they had attacked us. Any president would have done so.
Stanley Kutler writes in his otherwise perspicacious and wise review of the Clinton memoir:
Impeachment is Clinton's Scarlet Word. He likely will be best remembered as the first elected President to be impeached. He is deservedly bitter, but his bravado--that it is a "badge of honor"--fails to consider his best defense. Only a forceful recognition that the impeachment was a farce from the outset might protect his reputation. The tack taken by Senator Ted Stevens, that most loyal of Republicans, might offer Clinton a beginning. Stevens cast one of those curious, bifurcated votes, clearly to appease the more fanatical partisans, as he voted to convict the President on one charge and acquit him on the other. But Stevens had no illusions. For him the world was still a dangerous place, and he said he would not support removal if he thought his vote would be decisive. With striking candor, Stevens said that Clinton had "not brought that level of danger to the nation which...is necessary to justify such an action." Stevens correctly gauged the national mood; the trial simply was not serious.
What Kutler overlooks is that this "farce" had serious consequences. For a year Bill Clinton was hampered in the execution of his most important responsibility: safeguarding national security. One of the themes of the emerging literature of 9-11 is that the Clinton administration repeatedly missed opportunities to deal a death blow to al Qaeda. The Republicans just this week claimed that the 9-11 commission report is really an indictment of Clinton not Bush. After all, as Hastert and Delay observed, the report concerns 8 years of Clinton mistakes and only 8 months of Bush's.
Democrats may cringe at the thought that Bill Clinton abdicated his responsibility to protect the U.S. from terrorist attacks, but the record indicates that he didn't always do what was necessary to fend them off. He rarely met with his FBI director. He did not insist that the FBI hunt down terrorist cells in America. He did not back up his CIA director's claim that we were at war with al Qaeda with action.
It is overly harsh to blame Clinton for failing to do before 9-11 what we obviously needed to do after 9-11. Holding Clinton to a standard set after 9-11, an event that took place after his presidency, is an example of the worst form of present-mindedness, a historian's no-no.
Richard Clarke insists that Clinton did much to trounce the terrorists. He approved every request to snatch terrorists. He approved plans to kill bin Laden. And he told officials after the East African bombings in 1998 to prepare to act even though critics would argue that he was using the bombings as an excuse to divert public attention from the Lewinsky scandal. (The bombings took place one week before he was scheduled to be deposed by Kenneth Starr at the White House.)
But Clarke also notes that Clinton lacked the clout to remake the FBI and focus the agency on terrorism because of his preoccupation with the Lewinsky scandal. That includes the year he spent fighting off his impeachment and trial.
No one will ever be able to say how he may have reacted if he was not distracted by the Lewinsky affair. (Some graduate school students presumably are already beginning dissertations to piece together the twin strands of the story of the scandal and terrorism threats--at least I hope so.) But to dismiss the impeachment and trial of Clinton as farce is to ignore the consequences of the imbroglio.
Contrary to what Kutler says, Clinton's most effective argument would be to point out the devastating consequences this supposed"opera bouffe" had on his presidency and the country. It would be too easy to conclude that 3,000 people died on 9-11 because the Republicans stage-managed the impeachment of a president a couple of years earlier. But neither is it out of bounds to wonder if their all-out war on Bill Clinton didn't contribute to our losing the battle on 9-11.
Rick Perlstein, in a riveting piece in the Voice about Bush's conservative base, notes in passing that John Kerry once considered joining the priesthood. This is an interesting fact to know. At first glance Kerry's consideration of a life of religious sacrifice seems at odds with what we know about his febrile ambitiousness. We might conclude that having chosen in the end a political career instead of an ecclesiastical one, his ambitiousness won out, a telling sign of his true character.
But leaping to this conclusion is probably misguided. What is significant is not that he chose politics over religion but that at one point he took religion seriously enough to consider a career as a priest. That is evidence of a deep-seated idealism and says a lot about who John Kerry is at his core.
That a presidential candidate apparently considered two careers as different as politics and religion may seem idiosyncratic. It is hard to think of Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson or Bill Clinton for that matter deciding whether to choose between a life in the halls of power or a life inside the walls of a church. But actually presidents are far more likely than people in the general population to face just such a choice. Of the forty-two men who became president of the United States, five were raised to be ministers and another five were the children of ministers.
What you find when you dig deeply into the biographies of presidents is that a strong streak of idealism ran through nearly all of them. Even the most cynical of the lot like Richard Nixon revealed powerful idealistic impulses. In Nixon's case, he had a fervent desire to be regarded as a peacemaker, an inherited preoccupation from his Quaker mother, a pacifist. (From his father, a failed small businessman, he learned the less attractive lesson that losing is so awful that winning by almost any means is preferable.)
A reporter called up the other day wanting to know if Kerry's ambitiousness is abnormal. It is, I said, but nearly all presidents share a similar defect. Their drive for power is abnormal. Only abnormally driven people get to be president because every generation there aren't just one or two who want to live in the White House, there are dozens. In the competition to win the office candidates have to sacrifice their principles, their families, and their privacy. Only truly manically driven people are willing to do that.
What saves the presidents usually from all-consuming careerism and opportunism is a powerful idealistic streak. To find out that John Kerry once considered the priesthood is evidence that he too, somewhere deep down, responds to idealistic appeals.
There is a danger in idealism, too, of course, particularly in idealism that is rooted in religion. It can lead to self-righteousness and dogmatism. Unfortunately, it is this idealism that is most obvious in George W. Bush. Like Woodrow Wilson (who considered a career as a minister), Bush's powerful religious impulses seem to make him reluctant to compromise on core issues. To him and his supporters his reluctance to compromise is regarded as a sign of almost spiritual purity. To the rest of us it is evidence of a frightening willingness to ignore evidence and facts.
But really, what the Bush campaign is doing is over the top, as Pastor James L. Evans of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, AL, noted in a must-read column produced for the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago:
It may be that President Bush and his re-election campaign have finally found the limits of evangelical good will. The President's high profile faith and open acknowledgement of Jesus as his favorite political philosopher has endeared him to evangelicals all across the country. His efforts to institute faith based alternatives for social programs has also been warmly received among his evangelical following.
But now he may have gone too far. In an effort to energize and organize the evangelical community, campaign strategists have presented evangelical church leaders with a list of"22 duties." These duties are designed to help the faithful maximize their support and influence on behalf of the President.
Included on the list are some duties that most Christians are glad to do, and will probably do with or without any prompting. These items include praying for our country, praying for our leaders, praying for the troops serving around the world, and so forth. But there are other so-called duties on the list that go beyond the realm of acceptable ecclesiastical practice.
For one thing, campaign organizers for the President want church leaders to send them copies of their church rosters. The idea here is to compare the rosters to voter registration rolls to make sure as many church members as possible are registered. Given the past success of direct mail campaigns we should not be surprised when those rolls also become mailing lists and used for direct solicitation of money as well as votes.
The list of 22 duties also includes strategies for churches reaching out to other churches. Congregations are encouraged to identify other conservative congregations in their area and help organize those congregations to support the President's re-election bid. The net effect of this strategy will essentially turn local congregations into party precinct houses.
Other"duties" include voter registration, which is perfectly acceptable work for a local church to do so long as the registration remains non-partisan. However the duty list for churches also calls on church leaders to distribute voter's guides among congregants. The courts have ruled consistently that voter guides which directly or indirectly endorse candidates are a violation of law and could leave congregations vulnerable to losing their status as tax exempt entities. Churches and other non-profits that enjoy tax exempt status under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code are prohibited from engaging in partisan political activity.
Opposition to the President's plan to use churches in his campaign is already being heard from the usual corners. The Rev. Welton Gaddy, president of the D.C. based Interfaith Alliance issued a statement which said of campaign organizers,"They are leading religious leaders into the temptation of forfeiting the prophetic voice of religion."
Barry Lynn, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said in a statement that these campaign efforts were"a shameless attempt to misuse and abuse churches for partisan political purposes."
But concern is also coming from the heart of the President's base of support. Richard Land who serves as president of the influential Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention said he was"appalled that the Bush-Cheney campaign would intrude on a local congregation in this way." He went on to comment,"The bottom line is, when a church does it, it's nonpartisan and appropriate. When a campaign does it, it's partisan and inappropriate. I suspect that this will rub a lot of pastors' fur the wrong way."
To which I would add, it's about time.
When a country begins to draw its political leadership from the ranks of celebrities, there is reason for concern. When this happens in other countries--the Philippines comes to mind--we Americans sit back in wonder at the primitiveness of their political systems. But when it happens here the pundits cheer and say how inspired the choice is. Why surely he/she has a good shot at winning. And winning is everything, isn't it, as another football coach once said.
The country will survive, of course. And occasionally one or two of these celebrity politicians will actually turn out to be gifted at politics. But we should be worried by the trend.
Why is there a trend? Why after Reagan did we get Sony, and the Love Boat guy, and Jesse and Arnold and the others? It is because our politics is dominated by the media. When party bosses were in charge of politics they usually picked people on the basis of their resume, their loyalty to party, and their electability. In a mediacentric age only one of these three tests is regarded as essential: electability.
So what? Let me reel off the concerns: 1. celebrities tend to be rich and powerful, meaning our leadership class will increasingly be drawn from the rich and the powerful (yes, yes, our leaders already are; but things will get worse). 2. if celebrity is all that counts our politics will increasingly be about what Ike contemptuously called"personalities." 3. Serious people will not want to run for office because the coin of politics will have become diminished. 4. Advisors will increasingly assume more power because celebrity politicians will be reliant on them for help in navigating the tricky waterways of American politics. 5. The more celebrities win, the more parties will be inclined to pick celebrities, until we get a leadership class that looks more like an episode of Hollywood Squares than America. 6. ... Uh, do I need to go on?
Dwight Eisenhower discovered the difficulty a president faces in writing his memoirs when he came to the chapter involving America's role in the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh, the leftwing leader of Iran in the early 1950s. Mossadegh had challenged the existing order in Iran by nationalizing the oil industry, which for half a century had been run by the British. The British had abused their control of the industry, providing paltry sums to the Iranians while taking the lion share of the profits. The British wouldn't even let Iranians see the books. So Iranians never knew how much the British were taking.
When Mossadegh nationalized the company the British tried to oust him in a coup but failed. Harry Truman refused to help but when Ike was elected the Dulles brothers Allen and John Foster agreed to back a coup led by Kermit Roosevelt, the son of TR and a CIA officer. The ostensible reason was to save Iran from the communists; the Dulles brothers seem to have persuaded themselves that Mossadegh was so weak the communists might take control. The real reason, at least as far as the British were concerned, was to gain back control of the oil industry. Churchill told friends restoring the British oil monopoly in Iran was essential to his country's national security.
In his memoir Ike said he had little knowledge of what happened to Mossadegh, only acknowledging that he had received a written statement of events naming the involvement of Kermit Roosevelt. This was a patent lie. In his diary, released to historians years later, Ike confessed that he had been personally briefed by Roosevelt about the details of the coup. The account left him flabbergasted. He said it sounded more like the adventures in a dime novel than actual history.
Eisenhower might have told the truth in his memoir. But at the time the truth was still considered a top secret of the American government. Writing at the height of the Cold War, Ike was caught between his obligation as a former president to conceal state secrets and his responsibility as a writer to inform his readers of the truth. His presidential obligations won out.
In retrospect it may appear that Ike was merely trying to conceal his administration's involvement in an unfortunate and ugly event that ended ultimately in the establishment of a dictatorship by the shah. But at the time the coup seemed worthwhile. The United States secured a strong ally in the region. The communists lost any chance of taking over Iran. American and British oil companies split up the profits and secured a vital supply of oil.
Only since the 1979 Iranian revolution has it become clear what a disaster the coup was for both Iran and America. Only then could we begin to see where it led: to the dictatorship of the shah, the radicalization of the clergy under Ayatollah Khomeini, and the creation of a regime hostile to American interests. Half a century after the coup we are still living with its effects.
Bill Clinton may well have lied about an event or two in his administration, too. Eventually, we'll probably find out--if we're lucky. But it won't be Bill Clinton who tells us.
John Kerry's advisors think he has to emphasize values, says the NYT. It's about time. Maybe while he's at it he'll stop referring to his plans. When he came to Seattle a month ago I went out to watch his talk to get a feel for him in person. He kept talking about his plans. He had a plan for health care. He had a plan for homeland security. "I have a plan for that" was the only line afterwards I could remember.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson was quoted by the Times as saying Republicans usually emphasize values and Democrats rights. This is one of the smartest observations I've heard lately. It's one of those statements that is so obvious you wonder why the Democrats haven't figured this out before. Or did they figure this out and decide they were fine with the Republicans monopolizing values? Serious mistake, if so. If you see the winning team hiring great pitchers doesn't it make sense to go out and start looking for pitchers yourself? You don't need to hire their pitchers. If they hired righties you can hire lefties. But damnit get in the game. If you don't talk about values people think you don't have values.
And by not talking about values the Democrats have let Republicans define values narrowly in moralistic terms that give them an advantage with the evangelical community. How dumb is this?
Of course, the Democrats' approach to politics is rooted in the party's history as the defender of the rights of Jews, blacks and other minorities, including women (who should never be described as a minority anyway). But there's no downside to stealing your opponent's approach when it doesn't cost you anything. And that's the situation here. Democrats can define values in their terms and win over people who use values as a kind of test of character.
Take health care, as an example. Democrats always treat it as a rights issue. But it's a values issue, too. What kind of society lets 43 million people get by without health insurance?
Voters don't care for the details of policies. It bores them when politicians even begin explaining the difference between Part A and Part B in Medicare. But values are issues susceptible to public debate. You don't need to know about policy details to comment on the issue when it's framed in terms of values.
Again, this all sounds so obvious I fear I am insulting the readers of this blog. But Democrats still are reluctant to embrace the obvious.
A few weeks ago David Brooks was ranting in the NYT about the indifference of Democrats to religion. I think he was wrong. It's not religion per se that the voters want politicians talking about. It's values.
The Supreme Court decisions in the habeas corpus cases have prompted people in the media to conclude that "The System" worked. It occurred to me that we should start keeping score on when "The System" works and doesn't. Here's a quick tally from the last generation. The list reveals the subjectiveness and ambiguity of the judgments, which may be the most important reason for compiling such a list. Whether the system works or doesn't is a judgment call, even though we often treat the question as if it exists outside the usual arena of partisan politics.
The System Worked
- 1974 Nixon leaves office in disgrace after Watergate crimes are revealed.
- 1987 Reagan's Iran-contra scheme unravels.
- 1998 Bill Clinton is impeached by the House of Representatives, but the Senate wisely refuses to find him guilty.
- 2004 The Supreme Court snaps back an over-reaching executive in a series of habeas corpus cases that suggest that even accused terrorists have rights.
The System Didn't Work
- 1974 Ford pardons Nixon, leaving a bitter legacy that the rich and powerful receive special treatment. (Yes, many people approve of the pardon, but as I have argued for years, President Ford bungled the pardon by not adequately preparing public opinion in advance, reinforcing the cynicism that Watergate inspired in the first place.)
- 1992 Bush pardons Casper Weinberger for offenses arising from the Iran-contra scandal.
- 2000 Al Gore wins half a million more votes than George W. Bush; Bush is elected.
It's time once again to play "What If," the game millions (well, ok maybe not millions) of Americans have found a delightful alternative to the sport of politics. In "What If" players are asked to consider,"What If a Democrat Did What President Bush Did?" Winners are eligible for a grand prize which has yet to be announced. (Note: This game is prohibited in all states where Republicans control the statehouse.)
This week our subject is the Pentagon's decision to call up more than 5,000 vets who had already left the service. They are needed to fill holes in the army's overextended ranks. As the NYT explained, these people, in contrast to those who are in the reserves, "have not been associated with the armed services since their departure from the Army — except to register their location — and have not been training with a unit."
The Democrats' response to the news was to say that the Pentagon needs to consider plans to expand the size of the army.
Can you imagine what the Republicans would say if a Democratic administration tried this? They would be howling that Democrats had hollowed out the military and now were trying to balance our national security obligations on the backs of our veterans. Rush Limbaugh would scream. Faxes would whir. And Capitol Hill would be inundated with denunciations of the president.
Republicans and Democrats do, as Bill Clinton said last week in Time, play by different rules. Unfortunately, candidates who play by the Democrats' rules tend to lose. That's unfortunate for the Democrats. It's also unfortunate for the country.
Nicholas Kristof, writing in the NYT, is upset that the Left is now demonizing George W. Bush as a liar the way the Right used to demonize Bill Clinton. He does not suggest where this circle of viciousness began. He should have. It's instructive.
No, I am not going all the way back to the election of 1800 when Federalists charged that Jefferson planned to confiscate every American's bible. The more immediate roots of political jujitsu in Washington DC began in the 1960s and emerged from the deep divisions over Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement and feminism. Somewhat paradoxically, while Americans have reconciled themselves to the changes that took place in the 1960s--most think Vietnam was a mistake, the Civil Rights demonstrators deserve sainthood, and women should be treated the same as men--the polity has never recovered.It's been slash and burn politics ever since as if the Weather underground was still blowing up buildings.
For a time Washington politics remained insulated from the culture wars taking place across the country. Think back to the leaders of the Congress in the 1960s. Mike Mansfield, Gerald Ford, Carl Albert. There wasn't a single barnburner among them. But it was inevitable that the conflicts in American society would eventually surface in Washington despite the institutions then in place which tended to weaken the proclivity to engage in hand-to-hand combat.
Any number of turning points could be selected. One that stands out was the 1968 fight to stop LBJ from naming Abe Fortas chief justice of the Supreme Court. Nothing like it had ever been seen in American history by one measure. For the first time ever opponents staged a filibuster to block a president's nomination to the Supreme Court.
Fortas was already on the court so it was a little surprising to the country that his nomination provoked a wildfire in Congress. Part of the explanation of course was that LBJ was trying to move Fortas over to the top position during a heated political campaign and as the administration was in its final months in office.
But the real reason the nomination led to blistering attacks and extreme tactics had to do with the identity of the man Fortas was intended to replace: Earl Warren. Warren was at the center of many of the hottest political debates then dividing the country. Although he had been nominated by Dwight Eisenhower, by the 1960s Warren had become the number one political target of Republicans, attracting far more Republican abuse than LBJ or Hubert Humphrey, the putative leaders of the opposition party.
What particularly outraged Republicans was Warren's sly attempt to give LBJ a chance to fill his seat with a liberal Democrat before the election, an election that seemed likely to install a Republican in the White House. Rather than waiting to retire after the November elections, Warren submitted his resignation in time for Johnson to select his replacement.
Thus began the unfolding of a drama that was to lead eventually in Nixon's term to the resignation of Fortas, the call for the impeachment of William O. Douglas, and the double rejections of Harold G. Carswell and Clement Haynesworth. Washington never recovered from those imbroglios.
In the 1980s and 1990s as the political parties declined, and television soundbite politics took hold, the forces of division became more and more powerful, ending eventually in the election of Newt Gingrich, the impeachment of Bill Clinton and now the cries that George W. Bush is a liar.
Where it all ends ... good question. I don't have any idea.
The trouble with Tom Friedman's brilliant suggestion in this past week's NYT that President Bush join with China to create a Manhattan Project for alternative energy is that it is breathtakingly ahistorical. Friedman suggests Bush do a Nixon, reversing course on energy the way Nixon reversed course on China. But Nixon's change was more than a bold stroke of imagination. It was a product of his personality and era.
First, Nixon's move was an act of hope. The world was tired of Vietnam, tired of the Cold War, and ready to move on from the shibboleths of the 1950s. Nixon during his presidency consistently offered people hope (liberals may find this hard to believe, but it's true). He campaigned in 1968 on the promise that he would end Vietnam, bring the country together and heal the wounds of the Civil Rights Movement. While he found it convenient, as Garry Wills ably noted in Nixon Agonistes, to appeal to blue collar resentments, he also managed to put together a winning coalition of Silent Majority Americans who sincerely wanted peace in Vietnam and at home. Nixon convincingly argued that he was better able to achieve these goals than opponent Hubert "Happy Warrior" Humphrey. By 1968 the Democrats could no longer offer a real possibility of hope. Like Herbert Hoover in 1933, they all but confessed that they were at the end of their string.
Now look at Bush. His only prayer for re-election is to exploit the fears of Americans. If the election is about hope he loses. If it's about fear he wins. He does fear better than any politician of his generation. You have to go back to the days of the 50s to find a politician who played on people's fears the way President Bush does. Were he to offer a bold plan along the lines that Friedman suggests the steam would go out of his campaign.
Besides, Nixon's plan grew out of years of hard thinking about the ways in which he could redraw the map of world alliances. It didn't emerge from a focus group or a 15 minute policy review at the White House. He had carefully thought through the consequences and put in place a series of chess moves that gave him maneuvering room on Vietnam and a chance to invigorate the relationship with the USSR. Unlike this administration, Nixon's thought through policy initiatives.
Can you imagine what this administration would do if it really tried to reinvent the way Americans use energy? We are talking about oil and cars--one sixth of the American economy. The FBI can't even figure out how to do a Google-like search of its own data bases.
Nation-building in Iraq would be a cakewalk compared with redesigning the American economy to accommodate alternative energy. And would you really trust an oilman to make the changes that would be needed? Even Republicans would figure that somehow Bush would take care of his oil buddies.
Then there's the little problem of the Constitution. In foreign affairs the president is given wide latitude; Nixon was able to spring the change on China on the country because he didn't have to ask the permission of the Congress. But on domestic issues, presidents have to work with Congress and the opposition. Any president attempting to restructure the American economy as Friedman envisions would first have to win a landslide to gain the popular backing for such a revolutionary approach. In a divided country like ours that ain't going to happen just now.
And do we really want Bush trying nation-building again? And yet isn't that what restructuring the American economy would be all about? First thing any realistic plan would have to take into account would be SUV's. Is Bush really going to say to Americans that they should drive little cars to save fuel? Forget it.
John Kerry has been getting a lot of mileage out of George W. Bush's stubbornness. But is Bush stubborn?
I remember Frank Rich writing a column in the NYT at the outset of the administration--prior to 9-11--in which he said basically that Bush was a spoiled frat boy who folded whenever he got a lot of pressure. As evidence he cited Bush's willingness to drop the administration's faith-based initiative when members of Congress told him it wouldn't pass. In light of the last three years one would be inclined to conclude that Rich was wrong. Kerry is right. Say what you will about Bush he doesn't fold easily.
Or does he? In a recent National Journal article the reporter cited several cases in which Bush folded on critical issues of presidential power that a Nixon, say, would have resisted. He let Condi Rice testify before the 9-11 commission. He let the commission see the August 6 PDB, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." He agreed to be interviewed by the commission. He let the commission have a couple of extra months to finish its work. Each time he acted after considerable pressure had been brought to bear. Rice was allowed to testify, remember, after the executive director of the commission, historian Philip Zelikow, faxed over a picture of Admiral Leahy, a top assistant to both FDR and Truman, testifying about Pearl Harbor--and threatened, in effect, to shoot Leahy's photo all over Washington. The commission got to see the PDB after Richard Clarke had energized the commission with his apology for 9-11 and his statement that President Bush had seemed interested in knocking off Saddam shortly after 9-11. Bush gave the commission an extension because he didn't need another big headache the week the issue came to a boil; that same week the Kay Report came out saying Saddam didn't actually have any WMD.
And on domestic issues Bush has retreated numerous times on matters he claimed to be concerned about. He opposed the Democrats' plan for tax cut rebates his first year in office--then relented (and subsequently took credit for them!). He opposed the creation of a homeland security department--then relented (and subsequently branded as unpatriotic anybody who disapproved of his decision). He insisted he wanted to reign in spending--then relented when his own party, feeding at the trough, passed the most expensive farm subsidies in history. (In January the Heritage Foundation reported that spending under Bush climbed twice as fast as under Clinton.)
In Iraq he has repeatedly changed course in response to pressure. He bullied the UN and then turned over to Brahimi the selection of a new government. He insisted we would go after the killers of the four contractors murdered in broad daylight in Falluja and then let a Saddam-era colonel take charge of the military presence in the rebellious Sunni city when the insurgents resisted the U.S. military--and forgot all about his commitment to nab the murderers. He opposed interim elections, then embraced them. He opposed the creation of a separate entity for the Kurds, then agreed to it (and then backstabbed the Kurds at the UN when the resolution failed to include a direct reference to the new Iraqi constitution, which guarantees the Kurds a veto on legislation hostile to their interests).
And yet there remains the impression that Bush is stubborn. He insisted on going through with annual tax breaks even after the red ink started to flow and now insists that the tax breaks be made permanent--even as his government estimates a deficit this year nearing half a trillion dollars. He is adamant about remaining in Iraq (though his commitment to a democratic Iraq seems to be wavering). He is determined not to add troops to our Iraq force. He refuses to fire Rumsfeld. He never apologizes for any of his mistakes.
So which is he? Stubborn Bush or Wallflower Bush?
The answer is he's a good enough politician that people can't be sure. An inept politician like Jimmy Carter had a clear image by the end of his administration. People knew who he was. But Bush after three years plus is still an enigma. That is not by accident. Bush is an exceptionally agile politician. He uses the rhetoric of steadfastness to leave the impression that he is steadfast even as his actual policies betray a shifting set of agendas and repeated retreats. He tends to his corporate base religiously even as he gives his religious base short shrift. He opposes big government even as he approves the single largest expansion of government programs in years as embodied in the prescription drug bill.
Kerry is right to attack Bush's stubbornness. That's smart politics. But he shouldn't forget that Bush is stubborn more in name than in fact. Bush almost wants people to think of him as stubborn. That shields him from the accusation that he is a politician who shifts under pressure and panders to his base. The truth is Bush is all of these different Bushes. Thinking he is one or the other is a mistake Frank Rich made three years ago and a mistake John Kerry may be making now.
A gem from yesterday's NYT is a quote from John Kerry from 2000 after he found out that he had not been picked to be Gore's running mate:
"I learned when I woke up in the morning, like everyone else," Mr. Kerry said on a radio show at the time. "First thing I did was jump in my S.U.V. and go out for a really long drive on my Firestone tires."
Note: This page will be continuously updated during the period of Reagan's funeral services. New items will be posted at the bottom.
In the unlikely event you have not yet had your fill of articles about Ronald Reagan, here is a list I have compiled of links from all over that reveal aspects of his personality and politics.
For the big picture, there's the NYT archive of major articles on Reagan's presidency, which highlights select news clips from his era, including the defeat of Bork, the signing of the intermediate range nuclear missile treaty, the Iran-contra scandal, and Reagan's trillion dollar budget.
Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz notes that Reagan had a contentious relationship with the media in his days as president despite the uplifting tenor of the funeral coverage. George Skelton remembers the day he asked President Reagan about his sex life. Reagan biographer Lou Cannon notes that Reagan succeeded in stealing the show at Normandy one last time. Cornell Ph.D. candidate Joseph J. Sabia, in a feature article on David Horowitz's FrontPageMag.com, celebrates Reagan as the "greatest American President of the 20th century." Says Sabia:
In 1977, Reagan sat down with foreign policy advisor Richard Allen to discuss his philosophy on relations with the Soviet Union. Allen expected Reagan to describe a nuanced version of détente, the policy adopted by all Republican and Democratic presidents for 25 years. Instead, Reagan told Allen, “Here’s my strategy on the Cold War: We win, they lose.”
"We win, they lose." So simple, and yet so revolutionary. Allen says that Reagan’s words changed his life forever. No politician in either party had ever advanced the notion that we could, should, and would defeat communism. That was crazy talk. We could peacefully co-exist with Communism, hopefully contain it, but not actually defeat it.
In Dinesh D’Souza’s biography of Reagan, he shows that experts on both sides of the aisle were sure that Soviet Communism was here to stay. In 1982, Dr. Seweryn Bialer, a Sovietologist from Columbia University, proclaimed, "The Soviet Union is not now, nor will it be during the next decade, in the throes of a true systematic crisis." Later that same year, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. indicated that "those in the United States who think the Soviet Union is on the verge of economic and social collapse (are) wishful thinkers." Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger insisted that "the Soviet system will not collapse."
They were all wrong. Ronald Reagan was right.
Peter Robinson, a Reagan speech writer, insists that Reagan actually won the Cold War. Paul Craig Roberts, the conservative economist, argues that it wasn't Reagan's military build-up that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was his giant tax cuts. Speech writer Peggy Noonan says in the WSJ that Reagan was surprisingly modest for a man who "changed the world." The WSJ reran an editorial from 1980 that celebrated his election. Media critic Joe Strupp says the media are ignoring many of Reagan's flaws. Not Christopher Hitchens. His piece in Slate is called, "The Stupidity of Ronald Reagan."
The NYT's David Brooks says that optimism was central to Reagan, but it wasn't simply a personality trait, "It flowed from his core convictions and makes no sense if severed from the beliefs that gave it force." Critics of Reagan's administration cite his silence on AIDS, his opposition to an extension of civil rights, and his attempts to reduce aid to the poor. Historians are offering a mixed evaluation of Reagan's presidency, according to this report in Federal News Radio. Salon, in its roundup of political opinion, features comments by Michael Lind (Reagan didn't change much), Andrew Cockburn (Reagan was Saddam's best friend), John Judis ("I lived through Ronald Reagan's two terms as governor of California and his two terms as president, and was forever bewildered by his political success"), and Martin Andersen (Reagan will be remembered for being present when communism ended, the threat of nuclear war between the major powers eased, and economic prosperity improved lives).
Agence France Presse reminds readers of Reagan's role in helping Saddam, noting that "In February 1982, the State Department dropped Baghdad from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, clearing the way for aid and trade." Dick Morris says that Clinton secured the adoption of Reagan's policies: "Historian David Eisenhower speaks of the role of 'ratifiers' in our political culture. Eisenhower notes that a 'dynastic' cycle in politics is only completed when an innovators policies survive the tenure of his political opponents. In that light, he sees his grandfather Dwight Eisenhower as the ratifier of the FDR New Deal initiatives the president from the opposing party who did not repeal but further refined the original policies. And so Clinton was Reagans ratifier."
Columnist Jim Hoagland says that Reagan's death is transforming him into a hero no subsequent president will find easy to match--despite the fact that Reagan's actual performance was often less than heroic. Conservative author Dinesh D'Souza says that when he came to Washington as a journalist in the 1980s he had high hopes for Reagan but then saw little change and doubted Reagan's abilities as a leader:"Now, with more than a decade of hindsight, I realize how wrong I was."
Jason Maoz in the JewishPress.com says that Israel welcomed Reagan's election as president after four years with Carter, even though most Jews voted for Carter. In the NYT William P. Clark, Reagan's conservative NSC advisor, says that Reagan would have opposed using embryonic stem cell lines for research.
If journalism is history’s first draft, the death of Ronald Reagan has caused a step-up in the mass production of falsified history.
It’s mourning in America.
The main technique is omission. People who suffered from the Reagan presidency have no media standing today. It’s not cool to mention victims of his policies in, for example, Central America.
Sidney Blumenthal in Salon contrasts President Bush's embrace of the fantasy Reagan with the real Reagan:"Unlike the current occupant of the White House, Reagan was willing to improvise on the far-right script, which is what ultimately saved his presidency."
Gay activist and writer Larry Kramer lets forth with a bellow on Reagan in a piece called, "Adolf Reagan". It begins:
Our murderer is dead. The man who murdered more gay people than anyone in the entire history of the world, is dead. More people than Hitler even. In all the tributes to his passing, as I write this two days after his death, not one that I have seen has mentioned this. The hateful New York Times ("all the news that's fit to print") of course said nothing about this. We still are not fit to write about with total honesty in their pages. Not really. Just as we were not fit for Ronald Reagan to talk about us. What kind of president is that?
In Time Joe Klein says that the secret of Reagan's success was that his ideological commitment to anti-communism:"Unlike other Presidents—except, perhaps, for Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson—Reagan came to power as the leader of an ideological movement: in his case, a fierce conservatism forged and tempered by decades of disdain from the nation's moderate media and political establishment."
Charles Krauthammer, writing in the same issue of Time, says that Reagan had the good fortune, in a way, to come to the presidency at a time of trouble.
Milton Friedman, writing in the WSJ, says that Reagan stopp[ed socialism dead in its tracks:"The trend before Mr. Reagan is one of galloping socialism. Had it continued, federal non-defense spending would be more than half again what it is now. Mr. Reagan brought the gallop to a literal standstill."
William Greider, writing in the Nation, takes a decidedly different approach, as you might imagine, from Friedman.
In the Weekly Standard Matthew Continetti takes the NYT to task for allegedly slanted coverage of Reagan's death, noting in particular that on Sunday the paper of record published just one major article on the death of the 40th president while the Washington Post published four.
Whatever shortcomings in the NYT's initial coverage were overcome later in the week when the paper began flooding readers with articles about Reagan, including, in the online edition, a column by a Reaganite who says the Reagan take-over of the Republican Party began in 1976 with his challenge to Gerald Ford.
Still not through with Reagan, more than a week after his death, Peggy Noonan, in the WSJ says that Reagan should be remembered not for being a great guy but for the things he accomplished.
Evidence that the media overdid the Reagan week began surfacing by Friday when E.J. Dionne in the Wash Post began to complain that the fuineral had become an unpaid political advertisement for the Republican Party. In US News & World Report Dan Gildorf noted that many of Reagan's critics from the 1980s are still mad at him.
Columnist Khalid A-H Ansari wants to know why no one has noticed that there were almost no black faces at the long lines of Americans attending Reagan's funeral. Meanwhile, Joseph Sabia, writing in frontpagemag.com, complained that liberals were rewriting the history of the Reagan administration.
Slate's Gerald Shargel focuses on Reagan's federal court legacy--and no surprise here--finds it alarming. Holman Jenkins, Jr., writing in the WSJ, focuses on Reagan's ties to the corporate world--and finds them satisfyingly middle class. Sidney Blumenthal in the Guardian says that history seemed to stop during the Reagan funeral week as the country gave itself over entirely to nostalgia. (Don't miss his acute commentary on the unveiling of Clinton's painting.)
Here's how the game will work. Say President Bush goes to the Pope and says, Gee, I need the help of Catholic bishops in pushing the anti-gay agenda (like the proposed constitutional amendment banning gay weddings). Could you help? POTUS would then play the"What If" angle, in this case asking, what readers think the Republican response would be if, say, John Kerry went to the Pope and asked him to lean on the bishops to denounce the Iraq war?
Of course, it's inconceivable that President Bush would ask the Pope to intervene in domestic politics, right? Riiiiiiiight.
It is inconceivable that John Kerry would go to the Pope and ask for his help in domestic politics. That would rightly be seen as exploiting religion for partisan gain. And as a Catholic John Kerry couldn't do it as a matter of practical politics. But Bush as a Protestant apparently can. A double standard? It would seem so. If you're Catholic you can't ask the Pope's help, if you're Protestant you can.
The Catholic JFK specifically said he wouldn't be looking to Rome for his political instructions. Now we have a Protestant president who is?
Well, not exactly. It isn't Rome's advice Bush wants. It's Rome's political muscle.
This should alarm anybody who cares about the separation of church and state. And if Republicans can't understand that, then they too need to begin playing the"What If" game. Would they want to see a Protestant Democrat asking the Pope to denounce President Bush for the war in Iraq?
A brush fire has broken out on HNN over Warren Harding's reputation, David Beito celebrating Harding here, and Ralph Luker trashing him here. Ronald Reagan is in the news and we are talking about Warren Harding? Maybe Calvin Coolidge, whose picture Reagan hung prominently in the White House, but Harding, whom Alice Roosevelt Longworth famously described as a slob? Actually, there's a good reason to, as I'll get to in a moment.
Conservatives of various stripes have found Harding appealing for at least a decade or two, perhaps because Paul Johnson found him interesting and estimable in Modern Times. In the pages of TomPaine.com (yes, it's archaic to refer to the pages of a website, but so be it), our own William Thompson celebrated Harding's career in a lengthy piece I published a few years ago. Beito now ranks him a great or near-great president. (Harding's stock is going up. In February Beito had him only as above-average.)
I remember finding Johnson's praise of Harding a remarkable instance of historical revisionism. What Johnson forgot was that Harding himself concluded he was unfit for the presidency (according to William Allen White's account), and that the people who nominated him agreed.
My colleagues at HNN wonder what facts against Harding can be mustered. I have one, which sticks in the mind. He let the head of the Veterans Bureau escape to Europe after he learned of the man's flagrant thievery. (Eventually the official was caught and convicted.) Not since Grant had a president blinded himself to the corruption of his appointees. In the end of course he came round to the view that many were corrupt, noting that it was his friends he had to fear and not his enemies.
Have the historians who defend Harding ever listened to one of his speeches? You can, as the Library of Congress has made several available. They are much worse than the usual claptrap that passes for ordinary discourse at the national level. I used one of his lines as the title for a book. Harding, incensed at the debunkers of the 1920s, celebrated the founding fathers in a speech. Of Paul Revere, he wrote: "I love the story of Paul Revere, whether he rode or not." A great line, but not in the way Harding intended. It makes Harding sound like a hick who doesn't care about facts.
Which brings me back to Ronald Reagan. Harding was saying in this speech about the founding fathers that what matters aren't stupid facts but the story. Sound familiar? Historians naturally find this offensive as our job is to produce facts and to separate facts from fictions. The politician's job is often to create fictions, as Ronald Reagan did, sometimes to negative effect by playing off stereotypes (welfare queens) and at other times simply by exploiting peoples' natural desire to feel good (America is a chosen city on a hill).
If Harding had used his fictions to help Americans define themselves in a more democratic manner, as Lincoln did in propounding a national narrative out of the Declaration of Independence, I might be inclined to overlook his deficiencies. But it's plain that all he wanted to do was sentimentalize American history. That's a sin historians are well disposed to dismiss.
The media, in search of a handy, bite-sized soundbite, are asking how Ronald Reagan ranks as a president.
First, it is too soon to make a definitive judgment. Second, there are no definitive judgments. Third, I am still inclined to make two observations, which may seem in conflict.
One: Reagan was one of the two most important presidents of the 20th century. (The other being FDR, of course.)
Two: Reagan was too flawed a president to rank among the top of his peers. He simply made too many errors of fact (trees cause pollution), had too weak a grasp of reality (especially toward the end of his presidency), and was too apathetic about important issues like AIDS and civil rights to be considered first rate.
Evidence of his strength and weakness as a leader can be seen in the way he handled arms control negotiations. In 1982 he called on the Soviets to agree to cut all land-based nuclear weapons by half. The proposal went nowhere. Reagan at the time was baflled and upset. Only later, late in 1983, did he admit to astonished members of Congress that at the time he hadn't realized that most of the Soviet's nuclear forces were land-based (while ours were divided between land, sea and air). Thus, his proposal wasn't taken seriously as it required the Soviets to make far steeper cuts than the U.S.
But a few years later (1986) Reagan signed the first nuclear treaty with the Soviets that actually succeeded in cutting nuclear forces, eliminating an entiure class of nuclear weapons, intermediate range nuclear weapons.
So when the media ask ... Was Reagan a great president, I hesitate to say. The question is complicated because he was complicated ... more complicated than either his friends or enemies liked to admit. The Left insists that Reagan was a dangerous war-monger (remember Carter's alarmist complaints in 1980?). The Right thinks of Reagan as a simple conservative. But they were both wrong. He hated nuclear weapons as fiercely as the peaceniks who demonstrated against him in Europe in the early 80s. And he willingly compromised his conservative principles repeatedly. When he saw deficits rising he just ignored them, even though for 20 years he had railed against deficits. And as Michael Kinsley and others have pointed out, he never reduced the size of the federal government. At the end of his presidency there were 3 million people on the federal payroll--several hundred thousand more than when he began.
That people on both the Left and the Right think he was a cardboard cut-out of a president is a testament to his magical rhetorical flourishes. As all presidents would confess, you can't get anywhere with the American people unless you present them with a simple, easy-to-understand menu of choices. He did. Jimmy Carter, though putatively smarter, didn't figure this out until late in his presidency.
Blogger Matt Stoller draws attention to a serious problem that's surfaced in election 2004: the attempt by some Republicans to equate a Kerry victory in November with a victory for terrorists, as exemplified in this quotation from Dick Morris:
Every bomb, terror attack, suicide raid or urban guerilla offensive is aimed squarely at ending Bush's political career. Ironically, the real test of American resolve will not be our willingness to stay in Iraq, but our desire to keep Bush in office.
Stoller says: "This is not just regular old partisanship. This is deeper. I remember reading on a message board somewhere a conservative's opinion of why eliminating the Democratic Party would allow for greater diversity. He said, we'll have three parties: libertarians, paleoconservatives, and neoconservatives. This is not just an election, and this is not normal politics."
He's right in saying that this level of partisanship is not normal, but wrong to imply it is unprecedented. It happens every time a cloud is cast over a president's election. It happened after 1948 when Republicans felt that they had somehow been cheated out of the presidency (Dewey was supposed to win, wasn't he?), which prepared the GOP to embrace the extreme rhetoric of Joe McCarthy (as explained in March in an HNN blog entry by the historian of McCarthyism, Thomas Reeves).
It happened again in 1992 when Clinton was elected; Republicans again felt cheated, this time because they believed (perhaps correctly) that Ross Perot had cost them the presidency.
In 2000 it was the Democrats' turn to feel cheated.
Dick Morris and others like him are trying in advance of the 2004 election to delegitimize the Democrats because it's an effective political argument in a country that doesn't pay a whole of attention to issues. It's hot button. It's emotional. It's Ann Coulter gibberish. And it works with a certain percentage of voters.
But I don't think it is something we need be alarmed about. This is nothing a good Democratic landslide can't cure. If we can't get a landslide, at least let's hope that JFK (John Forbes Kerry) can do well enough in the presidential debates to inspire people. It's said that JFK (John F. Kennedy) was able to overcome doubts about his legitimacy as president following the close 1960 election by making a commanding impression on people during the debates. Even people who didn't vote for him had confidence he could handle the job. Within months of his election he was at 70 percent in the polls.
I got the news about Reagan from an email, a technology that wasn't even available when he was president (except to a select group of universities on the edge of the technological cutting edge of the 1980s). That was a measure of how long ago Ronald Reagan was president. He was pre-Internet. When he was president the Cold War still raged. And yet how remarkably vital his presidency still feels. Fifteen years after his presidency ended his administration seems more a part of our present than of our past.
That, it seems to me, says volumes.
Going back through the list of presidents who died in the last half century I can't think of one whose impact was comparable. When Nixon died in the 1990s his presidency seemed as dated as the old clips of the Watergate hearings. Detente no longer mattered. Wage and price controls had become a bad memory even his supporters declined to celebrate. All that was left of his memory was the boil he had left on the body politic, from which we are still suffering.
Lyndon Johnson's death in 1973 came so soon after his presidency that he still seemed very much a vital figure. After all, the war he started was still raging. But no one drew much inspiration from his presidency, not even the Democrats who served in it. They were too busy feeling guilty about Vietnam to pause to celebrate the Great Society, which embodied his party's ideals even if it did not successfully put them into practice. (Note: A reader has chastised me for saying that LBJ started the war in Vietnam. Complicated issue, of course. This did not seem the place to weigh Johnson's role in our involvement in Vietnam, which can be traced, of course, as far back as Truman and perhaps even FDR. I have always thought that JFK more than any president on this list of war presidents made the fateful moves. But at his death there were still only some 11,000 or so troops--"advisors"--there. It was LBJ who turned Vietnam into a real war.)
Harry Truman's death the year before--this was before he had been turned into an American folk hero by David McCullough--barely registered. A captain in World War I, he seemed dated and irrelevant. By the 1970s no one was talking about the Fair Deal. Not even Democrats were harking back to his presidency for inspiration.
Ike's death probably had more of an impact than any of these others if only because his presidency, so long ago, seemed a blurry memory of the good times we once enjoyed and now no longer did. But neither party was eager to embrace his memory by then. The Democrats didn't want to celebrate a figure of Modern Republicanism and the Republican base felt more emotionally connected to the 1964 loser Barry Goldwater than to the double 1950's winner, Dwight Eisenhower.
Herbert Hoover died in 1964. Who could believe the man was still alive?
John Kennedy's death at the hands of an assassin cannot fairly be lumped in with these others.
Which brings me back to Ronald Reagan. Fifteen years after his presidency and still he seems ... a live presence in American life and politics. In part this is because an energetic group of loyalists continues to celebrate his memory, even recommending that his face replace FDR's on the dime. But mostly it reflects the impact he had on the world as it is.
President Bush has said that 9-11 changed our world. But it apparently did not change it as much as might be believed. If it had, Reaganism would seem very much a thing of the past. But it doesn't. For a man who began his career at the dawn of the radio era that is a remarkable testament to his influence.