The phrase that has been irritating me lately is “the elephant in the room.” It’s been around a while. I remember it coming up in therapy discussions of family dynamics and denial in the mid-1980s. That is long before this 2006 book, or this one.
Lately, a whole herd of these pachyderms have been stampeding the information superhighway (remember that one?). Just look at this recent online article, or this blog headline, or this one. There’s even a picture of the beast.
All clichés begin life as meaningful phrases, but then they have the misfortune of being pounded into irrelevancy by overuse.
This elephant has been pounded enough. Let’s put it back in the savanna. Please.
Whether the president himself was directly involved or not is irrelevant. The two questions that are relevant are: 1. Does Congress need the information it wants to fulfill its responsibilities and 2. Does the president have a reason to withhold the information.
Number 1 is obvious in this case; Congress obviously does have a responsibility to determine whether US attorneys were fired in furtherance of the Republican Party's agenda.
Number 2 is the tricky part. George Washington decided when he was president that the rule should be to turn over to Congress any information that is in the public interest and withold any information that's not. Subsequent presidents mainly stuck with this approach though some construed the "public interest" more broadly than others. Probably the broadest claim was asserted by Eisenhower who decreed that any member of the executive branch who responded to requests for information from Joe McCarthy would be fired. Ike got away with that broad assertion because most Americans by then were growing suspicious of McCarthy. In a fight between Ike and Joe there was no question most would pick Ike. President Bush is not beloved like Ike. His claims must be more modest therefore.
But it's irrelevant if he's trying to protect conversations he personally had with Miers or whether he's protecting conversations she had with others. What needs to be answered is how the public interest is served by withholding her testimony.
I can't think of a single reason myself.
I hate to admit agreeing with Barnes but he's right.
Obama was asked if he would agree to meet with the leaders of Cuba, Venezuela, Iran and other hostile regimes. He would he said. Hillary said she wouldn't make any promises. She'd want to see what was being offered in return.
A meeting with the president of the USA should always be considered a bargaining chip. Want to meet with POTUS? Be prepared to offer something.
That's what experienced pols know. Obama's inexperience is showing.
I won't repeat all my old arguments, but my conclusion remains the same: Obama is not ready to be president.
So it’s good, if depressing, to see this Washington Post article on a digital divide that is not getting smaller, but is growing. It reminds us that this new form of questioning, while reducing slightly the media’s power as gatekeeper, does nothing to weaken the role of income and class in keeping the riff-raff from asking embarrassing questions.
In fact the very real democratizing possibilities of the web have always been limited by a dovetailing of American’s long-held love for the latest technology with online advertiser's desire to target the upper half of the economic food chain.
News media began expanding their video content long before many people had the capacity to view it easily. They did so because advertisers wanted their products to be seen in that context. What the advertisers got were viewers who were younger (and, they hoped, more impressionable) and those who were likely to have a higher average income than the folks who were limited by phone modems or who had no access at all. Although broadband access has expanded greatly since then, the Post article reminds us that there remains a broad swath of the population that is simply cut out.
CNN has found a great way to be cool for a day. YouTube gets more exposure in the adult world. Advertisers sell products. And if you can’t afford the internet—or if you live out in the sticks--maybe you can see highlights later.
Now compare the Lincoln picture with a recent photo of President Bush, age 61.
David Brooks is thrilled that President Bush seems impervious to bad news and looks great. I'm not. The president should be rolling on the floor in agony. We'd feel better about him if he was, as Peggy Noonan suggested last week.
My reading of history suggests that the greatest leaders all suffer terribly as they deal with the great events facing them. GW, Lincoln, FDR--all of them, even as they managed to retain their balance wore the cares of their office on their faces. FDR at the end of his 2nd term told a friend he couldn't possibly consider a 3rd term unless events in Europe went terribly awry (as they did). He was simply too tired. You can get up about the room when you're tired and go for a walk, FDR said. But he had to sit in his chair day after day and week after week and he was just sick of it.
There is something pathologically strange about Bush's imperviousness to bad news. As I have indicated before, I believe it stems from a combination of his religious faith and history of alcoholism. I find neither explanation reassuring.
It’s also the story of how we are failing the people who have worked most closely with us.
We have capped the number of Iraqi refugees who can come to the US at 7000. Making it worse, our bureaucracy along with that of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, so mucks up the application process that we don’t even let that many people in.
It is also just one act of savagery by Ansar al Sunna, the group that tortured her to death. There is no excuse-- not invasion, not God, not anything--that justifies barbarism like that.
I don’t know how the next year in Iraq is going to play out. But no matter what happens, the likelihood is that more Iraqis will join the over two million that have already fled their country. We have, at the barest minimum, the responsibility to let in those who have actively helped us and who are in danger. And if that crimps our economy, that’s tough. And if it allows a terrorist or two, then we have to deal with it.
No matter whether it is a good war or the wrong war, no matter whether we can win or not, we owe these people. Whoever the president is, he or she better have the guts to demand this.
See NYT, page 1: A New Populism Spurs Democrats on the Economy .
But if voters seem to be feeling ok about the economy then Dems shouldn't be going populist.
See NYT, Week in Review, p. 4: Somehow the Spending Doesn’t Stop.
If the story on page 4 is right then the story on page 1 spells trouble.
My guess is no.
Able politicians respond to the times. Presidents have to grapple with the historic challenges of their age. Rural poverty was one of the great challenges of the 1960s. Today--not so much.
Concern with poverty is obviously a virtue in a president. After Katrina it might have become a national passion. But Bush let the moment go. Today the country's moved on to other concerns.
Edwards might be able to position himself as the candidate of the poor but if he does he won't be doing himself much good. He'd be repeating the mistake Democrats made in the 1960s when they allowed their party to become so identified with the poor than middle class Americans felt slighted.
This isn't a country one-third ill-housed, ill-fed, as FDR put it in the 1930s. It's a middle class country.
If Edwards wants to be brave he can tell Americans some uncomfortable truths about Iraq; that might do some good. He could start by saying that Americans themselves--not George W. Bush--need to take responsibility for this awful mess of a war. Blaming Bush alone is too easy. Th country went along with him because people were scared and willing to be bamboozled.
Tell people that, Mr. Edwards.
That's one of the headlines out of today's news conference.
Here's the money quote:
Now, history is going to look back to determine whether or not there might have been a different decision made. But at the time, the only thing I can tell you is that I relied upon military commander to make the proper decision about troop strength in acting.
And I can remember meeting with the Joint Chiefs, who said: We've reviewed the plan, and seemed satisfied with it.
I remember sitting in the PIAT (ph), or the situation room, downstairs here at the White House. And I went to commander and commander, that were all responsible for different aspects of the operation to remove Saddam.
I said to each of them, Do you have what it takes? Are you satisfied with the strategy? And the answer was yes.
Other presidents have had their difficulties with commanders. When they did they fired them. They did not publicly blame them for giving them bad advice.
Bush is an expert in sprading blame around and never taking responsibility for his mistakes.
He admires Truman. Does he think Truman blamed the Korean commanders for giving him bum advice? What Truman did was fire MacArthur not blame him.
Surgeon generals have never been free of politics. One need only remember the fate of Joycelyn Elders, Bill Clinton’s first appointee to that office. Ronald Reagan appointed C. Everett Koop, at least in part, to place a pro-life advocate in that position.
But Koop’s stand on AIDS, which was highly unpopular in conservative circles at the time, is an example of what Surgeon Generals are supposed to be: truth-tellers on issues related to medicine regardless of the politics. I have no idea what pressures may have been brought on Koop in private, but he did issue his report, and to my knowledge, Reagan did not force changes. Koop continued in his office until fall of 1989.
Our noble editor had an entry recently on Bush’s Serenity in the face of facts in Iraq. I don’t know if Bush’s war on scientific independence is a result of the belief that he is doing God's will or is the result of something more cynical.
Or maybe it is something else, something almost Promethean. I do remember that one of Bush’s neo-conservatives, back in the heady days leading up to the invasion of Iraq, made the point that Bush’s firm actions would reshape reality and his critics would simply have to catch up. (If anyone knows who said that and what the exact quote is, please share.)
Added later on July 11: My thanks to Jonathan Dresner for this source for the quote.
At one level, that is true. Large-scale actions do reshape reality, and the opponents and supporters alike do have to keep up. This invasion has reshaped reality for millions, and we may have a whole generation of catching up to do.
Maybe this is symptomatic of the entire Bush approach to the world. Reality is what you make it. Period.
I don’t think this is Christianity. Nor is it necessarily cynicism, these constant attempts to reshape the world in the face of reality.
It's 19th century Romanticism come again. Really, it’s almost pagan.
FDR began his day reading the papers, half a dozen or so by 10am. JFK also devoured the papers. Nixon famously set up an elaborate system to provide a summary of news stories in dozens of papers.
And then we have Mr. Bush. He told one visitor to the White House he never read the papers and didn't see why he should. His aides filled him in about what he needed to know. Laura quickly let it be known that both read the papers in bed every morning. But the damage was done. Once again Bush appeared to be out of touch.
Presidents should read newspapers. So should voters. Relying on aides or TV is insufficient.
This seems rudimentary. But here we are at the dawn of the 21st century and still we have trouble absorbing the point.
If you don't think it's vital to read the paper daily (and a good paper at that!) try an experiment this summer. When you return from vacation see if you understand what's really happening in the world as well as you did before you left (this is assuming you didn't read the papers while away, as most don't).
Now imagine never reading the papers.
Now you're starting to see how the world looks to most Americans.
But could the Iraq War be different?
This war has required few sacrifices from Americans generally. Only those who have done the fightin' and dyin' have been encumbered.
Pew polls indicate that the country is now more prepared to embrace core liberal values than it has in years. Democrats expect to win the White House in 2008.
If the Democrats' hopes are realized President Bush will be to blame. But it won't just be because he bungled the war strategy in Iraq. A contributing factor will be that he never called for sacrifices to be made on behalf of the war, sacrifices which typically in other wars wore out people. Who's worn out now besides the fighters and their families?
Bush did indeed sound an idealistic note on occasion in this war. He intoned that we are fighting for freedom. But more often he has sounded notes of fear. These ring in our ears still.
If people are sick and tired of anything after 4 years of war it is not of sacrifice and highfaultinism but fear. What people want is hope.
If the Democrats can offer a feeling of hope they'll win unless we get hit yet again with another 9-11 style attack. Then fear will be in the saddle again and fear-mongering will be irrestible.
I see no sign that President Bush has become more flexible in recent months. He has dug in his heels on the Iraq War, rejecting the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations. A more politically agile president would have seized on the Group’s report to shift course. He has implacably stuck with Gonzales, his embattled attorney general, who embarrassed himself in hearings before the Senate. And he has now commuted the sentence of the vice president’s former chief of staff, Libby, either to placate his conservative base or to give Libby an incentive to remain quiet.
How does he keep going?
This is a puzzle of sorts. Few other presidents with similarly low poll numbers have managed to remain as serene as he appears to be. Nixon drank heavily during Watergate, Reagan retreated from public view for 8 months during Iran-contra.
I’d guess he remains convinced that he is doing God’s work.
There’s a connection in other words between his inflexibility and his serenity. Because he believes that God made him president he doesn’t seem concerned with the opinion of his fellow citizens. After all, he tells himself, he’s got God on his side.
Other presidents too thought that God was on their side, most notoriously Woodrow Wilson, who opined that God had made him president (his campaign manager had quite a different explanation).
Unfortunately, while a faith in God can be sustaining, the conviction that God is directing one’s fate seems to lead to rigidity. Bush, as Wilson before him, suffer from this.
Bailyn, writing about another matter entirely, reminded me that the Constitution includes this proviso: “No person holding office under the US shall be a member of either house during his continuance in office.”
The reason for the insertion of this simple and straightforward prohibition was that in the 18th century the British prime minister had used his office to corrupt the members of Parliament by bewstowing on them various and sundry offices. The founders did not want to repeat this treacherous history of corruption.
Cheney claims he is a member of the legislative branch as well as the executive branch. But this is impossible. He merely exercises some legislative functions as does the president (who after all participates in the legislative process through his exercise of the veto). He is not a member of the legislature. If he were the Constitution would be in self-contradiction. It cannot both create an office in one place that it expressly forbids in another. If Cheney truly thinks it does he should ring up Alexander Hamilton and James Madison for a talk. Maybe they can straighten him out.
So no Cheney cannot be both a member of the legislative and executive branches. As a person holding office (the vice presidency) he cannot be a member of the Senate.
The media have argued it is nonsense.
But as Eric Rauchway indicates in an interesting TNR post there's something to Cheney's position; Ike seemed to hold it. But then the Congress seems not to have agreed.
The money quote:
Dwight Eisenhower wrote in 1963 that he believed his vice president, Richard Nixon,"not being technically in the Executive Branch of government, was not subject to presidential orders." Yet Eisenhower had entrusted Nixon with vital executive duties: Someone not accountable to the president was executing the laws of the United States.
If Eisenhower was interpreting the Constitution correctly, Congress contributed to this Constitutional anomaly: the 1949 National Security Act made the vice president a member of the president's National Security Council, on which no other non-executive officer sat. John Kennedy made the anomaly worse: He put his vice president in the Executive Office Building--which you might think would house executive offices.
Of course I am referring to ...
Eleanor Roosevelt. Did I have you fooled? Good. It's worth remembering that reputations change. After FDR died and Eleanor established her own career as a public figure she managed to reinvent herself. By the time of her death she was a beloved leader. Today of course she is regarded by most Americans as one of the most influential women in US history.
Hillary is reviled by some 40 percent of the public today, but I remain unconvinced that we must therefore conclude she is unelectable.
Reputations do change when circumstances change. New Yorkers gave her a second look when she ran for the Senate (and liked what they saw). Unless you think New Yorkers are more generous than other Americans, a quality few have perceived in this particular breed of folk, there's no reason to think that she can't improve her numbers substantially once the race heats up.
I am not saying that the presidency is hers to lose. She'd face an uphill climb to the White House--as would any woman. But I am confident she can make it.
Now that it’s all over except for the grading (and preparing for next year), I’m able to look around.
There’s a multi-part investigation of Dick Cheney and his role in making policy. I’ve just begun to read it, but this quote from James Baker III may well capture the gist of it:
"He has been pretty damn good at accumulating power, extraordinarily effective and adept at exercising power."
To quote a host of B movies, and at least one Hardy Boy’s novel, “If only he had used his powers for good.”
I get the impression that in the past two weeks nothing happened in the presidential campaign that is worth remembering. If I’m wrong please let me know.
OK, there was one thing that might be worth remembering: Michael Bloomberg may run as an independent candidate.
The history of independent candidates and attempts to form third parties has not been good in the last half-century. Generally speaking, the strongest candidates have not been that interested in truly establishing a political party that would outlast them, and the people who work so hard at forming third parties simply don’t get the press they need if the don’t have a big name to grab the reporters and make the big venues, like Comedy Central.
The author of the Wired article linked above calls this response from ETC (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration) “alarmist," and indeed the rhetoric is a bit over the top. However, they make interesting points. Here is one:
"Venter and his colleagues have breached a societal boundary, and the public hasn't even had a chance to debate the far-reaching social, ethical and environmental implications of synthetic life."
At one level this is not true. There has been considerable public discussion. This is a 1996 posting on the patenting issue. Here is a 2005 article at MSNBC on advances in creating new life forms. While I am not always fond of the way Michael Crichton mixes fact and fiction, his new recent novel, Next and his op-ed approach to publicity have brought the issue to the attention of many more people.
However, at another level, the ETC statement is correct. This debate is public but it is far from popular. Most people when they here about this either don't understand at all or are not interested. I suspect their attitudes are much like the populace’s attitude toward Global Warming twenty years ago: It's just one more damned thing after another and not something worth worrying about in particular.
It does not help that pharmaceutical companies are very happy about the ability to patent life, and the pharmaceutical lobby is a remarkably important source of campaign contributions. This does not make it impossible for politicians to address the issue. I am sure a few have. But it does make it uninviting for a presidential candidate to spend either paid political advertising or free debate time on the issue.