The Hitler trap
I'm guessing from Bush's web site that the Hitler ad was bait. No political professional could figure it's smart to start throwing around Nazis in your standard election campaign. Instead, I think, they wanted to make Democrats squawk, then spring on them the incidents in which Bush's foes talked about "Brown shirts," putsches, and so forth, with the prize example being the entrant in Move-On's homemade ad contest from a few months ago. If so, I think the Bush people have been led astray by the right's instinct for score-keeping and grudge-holding. What will stick with the public is that the president's web site features Hitler in an attack ad; the counter-examples will look like small change to anyone not caught up in the sheer joy of unleashing debater's points against the left.
Or, a backup interpretation, maybe the Bush people think the counter-examples provide cover for a rough but effective tactic. Maybe they think calling someone a Hitler is good politics, and this way they can dilute the blame for using the tactic while gaining the benefits. As redistricting and management of Congress show, the GOP has a record of following Democratic infractions of the rules with huge incursions of their own. In this case they may simply think the left has opened up a high-octane line of attack that they now want to exploit themselves. But I doubt it. If you're not ready to think someone is Hitler, being told that he is won't convince you. The appeal is suited only to angry people who want to feel angrier; people who are tyring to make up their minds will just be put off.
That's why the Hitler trope has shown up in liberal rhetoric, since liberals are far less used to feeling angry than conservatives are. For the past two years we've gone thru a steadily accelerating process of whipping ourselves up. The Republican base, on the other hand, is always seething anyway. They just have to contemplate the idea of a Democrat wanting to be president: that alone is enough to get them fired up with injustice.
Too good to be true
George Will is always pleased with a chance to cut thru others' moral confusion. So it's fun to see how taken he was by the pre-revelations
The excerpts below feature "moral" and "moralist" a total of 3 times, always to point up Ryan's virtues. At the end, in a characteristic fillip, Will reflects on how depressing it would be for Ryan to win the seat and endure forced association with someone like Ted Kennedy. (Thank God the column only has in mind Kennedy's alleged failings as regards public education.)
1) Will isn't as good at spotting morality as he thought he was. Either that or morality is more tangled up and complicated than he generally lets on.
2) On the Kennedy remark, I always thought that was a liberal thing -- I mean the tracing of policy disagreements to your opponent's fallen nature
3) The tone of Will's old column brings to mind the Michael Lewis rule: "People who make a fuss about being nice usually aren't nice." (Or words to that effect.) There must be some way to recognize a person's good works without gloating and preening over his character as if it were a pair of ten-inch biceps. The column was vulgar.
4) I think Will plays to let the Ryan sex news go by without comment.
And now excerpts from the unwittingly freighted prose
of Mr. Will, vintage Nov. 3 of last year:
Amid the cold world's uncertainties, there is the comfort of having one incontrovertible axiom: If something seems too good to be true, it isn't true. Something, or someone.
Then along comes Jack Ryan.
Three years ago, when Ryan was 41, he walked away from moneymaking to start his real life. Or resume it. Earlier he had been doing what his family has always done, which involves making the rest of us seem like moral slackers.
Ryan, who keeps in moral and physical trim by going to mass and the gym each morning, left Goldman Sachs to become a teacher at Hales Franciscan High School in the heart of the huge African-American community on the South Side.
he favors the basic Republican agenda -- limited government, personal responsibility, strong national defense. But he is, above all, a moralist who hopes to get the state exercised about the fact that 410,000 of its children -- 270,000 of them in Chicago -- are in failing schools ... When he returns to walk the spotless halls of Hales Franciscan, crowds of boys embrace him, and are rewarded by being asked what their SAT scores are, and being told they are not high enough. ...
[If elected} he will hate life in the Senate, where grandees like Ted Kennedy, for whom public schools are distant rumors, get away with blocking school choice for poor inner-city children. The story Ryan is trying to write -- doing well in his campaign, then doing good in Washington -- is too good to be true.
The state of the debate
As I understand it, the Bush people are holding out for Iraq-al Qaeda ties in the sense that "ties" means any sort of intentional contact. The idea is that we invaded Iraq because Iraq took bin-Laden's phone calls. That is not a good reason for a war, but the administration doesn't care: it just wants to establish the claim that it was not lying back when it made the case for this war. The Republicans are holding on to a quibble like Bugs Bunny holding on to one of those little branches growing out below a cliff.
The public's double-jointed mind
Matthew Yglesias at Tapped
broke down the latest Washington Post
poll and found that, with handling terrorism having become (just barely) an issue that helps Kerry, only one issue is left on which the public favors Bush. To me, the strange thing is that this issue would be Iraq. Bush's five-point edge there is evidence of how loyalty can make conscious opinion run a little behind thought processes. All the recent developments in the War on Terror (Ashcroft's press conference aside) have been in Iraq. If the terror war is going so badly, it's because events in Iraq are going badly. But Iraq looks more like a traditional war, with soldiers stationed in a hostile land, and the public doesn't want to disrespect the commander-in-chief. Such is my theory anyway. The corollary is that when and if those five points melt anyway, the public will turn on Bush with the fury reserved for commanders-in-chief who do not live up to their trust.
UPDATE: And yet the same poll finds people disapprove of how Bush is handling Iraq -- 55 to 44. So my theory goes out the window. More likely is that the public can imagine a Democrat possibly, maybe, handling a diffuse challenge like terrorism but not leading the nation in a war involving battlefields. So the distinction between anti-terror campaigns and battlefield wars is still important, but what it triggers is a general dubiousness about Democatic valor, not a reflexive loyalty to whoever happens to be commander-in-chief at the moment. Or such is my new theory.
For his part, Yglesias ends his post with a thought that's very worthwhile:
The big X-factor in the campaign, I continue to think, is not the economy (not bad enough to sink Bush, not good enough to save him, especially in light of his very bad ratings on other domestic issues) but the possibility of a new terrorist attack. Will the public see that as evidence that their misgivings about counterterrorism à la Bush were well-founded, or will they rally around the erstwhile "strong leader" in a moment of crisis?
I don't want to like him
posted this transcript of Michael Moore and Katie Couric. I don't want to like him, but ...
COURIC: And wouldn't your movie have been better balanced if you had at least included some about Saddam Hussein's own reputation?
Mr. MOORE: You guys did such a good job of--of telling us how tyrannical and horrible he was. You already did that. What--the question really should be posed to NBC News and all of the other news agencies: Why didn't you show us that the people that we're going to bomb in a few days are these people, human beings who are living normal lives, kids flying kites, people just trying to get by in their daily existence. And as the New York Times pointed out last week, out of the 50 air strikes in those initial days, the--we were zero for 50 hitting the target. We killed civilians and we don't know how many thousands of civilians that we killed. And--and--and nobody covered that. And so for two hours, I'm going to cover it. I'm going to--out of four years of all of this propaganda, I'm going to give you two hours that says here's the other side of the story.
COURIC: In fact, you were highly critical of the media. What do you think was at work there? Why do you believe that the media wasn't more questioning when it came to the build-up to war? Frankly, many of us did try to ask cogent, appropriate, insightful questions. But in general, what do you think was at work there?
Mr. MOORE: I thi--look, to be fair, you--you--we're all Americans and so you wanted to be supportive of the troops and nobody wanted anybody to---everyone wanted them to come back alive. But--but that's a question that really you have to ask the people here at NBC News and the other agencies: Why didn't you ask harder questions? Why didn't you demand the evidence. You know, when I was a little kid I remember President Kennedy going on national television, and with large photographs, with a a pointer showing us, here's the...
COURIC: Well, didn't Colin Powell do that before the United Nations?
Mr. MOORE: No, he didn't. That's my poi--he--he went to the United Nations with cartoon drawings, with computer graphics. The--the--do you remember those little--the mobile labs and all this--they were all--looked like a 7th grade computer class did them, and then they had like two pho...
COURIC: Weren't they satellite photos?
Mr. MOORE: No, they had two photos then of--of, like a couple of, you know, cinder block buildings. Kennedy showed us the missiles.
COURIC: Let's talk...
Mr. MOORE: Where were the--where was the evidence to take us to war? I mean, you guys should have really demanded this. To send our kids off to war--over 800 dead now. If only the questions had been asked, and demanded and said, 'No, wait a minute.' If one of you--any of you--and I don't mean this to you personally--but just if anyone here had just said, 'Wait a minute. These are our children. You're not sending them to war unless you prove to us that our nation is under threat of attack, and that's the only reason we go to war.'
COURIC: Well, I don't want to get into this too much, but certainly with the reported Saddam Hussein, 9/11, al-Qaeda connection and some of the other intelligence information that the press was given...
Mr. MOORE: Which wasn't--now we know--yeah.
COURIC: Well, in hindsight, we know that now...
Mr. MOORE: You were given--I know, but why...
COURIC: ...but at the time we didn't.
Mr. MOORE: So you were given it and then you just reported it as fact. Why didn't anybody just say here, 'Whoa! Wait a minute.' If I just walked in here and said something like that, you'd go, 'Are you crazy? There's a connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam?' But if the administration says it, it's, 'Well, it must be true. It's coming from the White House.' I mean, come on, guy...
COURIC: Let--let me...
Mr. MOORE: We--I'm--I'm--my film is a--is a silent plea to all of you in the news media to do your job. We need you. You--we--you're our defense against this. If--if we don't have you, what do we have? And I just think a disservice was done to the American people. You know--you know what's great about this country? You and everyone else here gets to ask any question you want. Literally, you can ask any question you want. No one can stop you. You...
COURIC: And certainly that is what we try to do every day.
Mr. MOORE: Well--yes, hope...
Someone had to say it eventually
"I'm a neoconservative who's been mugged by reality," Agresto said as he puffed on a pipe next to a resort-size swimming pool behind the marbled palace that houses the occupation authority.
This fellow's full name is John Agresto, and he is an academic who got involved in nation-building, Bush-style
Noonan resentment spotted
Wonkette has a follow-up to the Peggy Noonan column on her unliked fellow Reagan speechwriter. Below is an open letter to the Wall Street Journal
from another Reagan speechwriter. This man never liked Noonan and says their colleagues didn't either. Read it if you enjoy bad feeling, though the writer also makes the bold and interesting claim that Reagan's speechwriters were the most important part of his administration. (This is to justify the following sentence, prime bait for mockery on liberal blogs: "The saga of how the speechwriters got around senior Administration officials to get speeches President Reagan wanted to give in his hands is one of untold heroism.") [UPDATE: The sentence has now attracted its liberal mockery. If curious, go to Billmon
and scroll down.]
Now, reprinted from Newsmax.com
, we have Mr. Jack Wheeler and his letter ...
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To: Ned Crabb, Letters Editor, Wall St. Journal
From: Jack Wheeler
It is a sad and bizarre spectacle to see Peggy Noonan immolate her reputation in a gratuitous spasm of spite. As someone who worked closely with the Reagan White House speechwriters for five years – 1983-1988 – I know the source of the resentment. She was never part of the team.
Peggy came late, arriving in Reagan’s second term, and was quickly identified by the other speechwriters as being dedicated to self-promotion. While the others were self-effacing and avoided taking any credit for a speech of the president’s, Peggy would never fail to call up every media contact she had to make sure any speechwriting of hers was fully publicized.
For all her self-promotion, the facts are that she never wrote many major presidential speeches and had quite limited access to the president. The Reagan speechwriters were the ultimate Reaganauts in the White House, and Peggy was an outsider. The saga of how the speechwriters got around senior Administration officials to get speeches President Reagan wanted to give in his hands is one of untold heroism.
Folks like George Schultz and James Baker desperately tried to prevent Reagan from uttering the most famous lines of his presidency, such as Reagan’s calling the Soviet Union an Evil Empire or demanding, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” The speechwriters were the focus of the effort to advocate and implement the Reagan Doctrine, the strategy that brought down the Soviet Empire. Plainly put, without Reagan’s speechwriters like Tony Dolan, Ben Elliott, Clark Judge, Dana Rohrabacher, Josh Gilder, and Peter Robinson, there would have been no Reagan Doctrine.
Peggy wasn’t a part of this and now, so many years later, she allows her resentment to trash her tribute to Chief Speechwriter Ben Elliott and disgracefully use President Reagan’s funeral service to do so. Of course, Peggy wasn’t sitting with the other speechwriters at the service. I was. Her name never came up. No one asked, “Where’s Peggy?” Her cheap, inexcusable, and completely gratuitous insults of her fellow speechwriters – describing one as a “malignant leprechaun,” another as more concerned with getting a haircut than speechwriting, and yet another as an illiterate hack -- expose a small and petty side to her character that will permanently blemish the reputation she has worked so hard to achieve.
Here’s the question she needs to ask herself: Do you think that President Reagan would think more or less of you for writing what you did, Peggy? You know the answer. He would be ashamed of you. The knowledge of that shame will stain your soul, Peggy. You owe your fellow speechwriters the deepest of apologies - just as you owe an apology to the memory of Ronald Reagan.
Putin says that after 9-11 his agents caught word of Iraqi plans for attacks against the US
. His revelation is supposed to help George Bush and appears to have been occasioned by nothing beyond release of the 9-11 panel's report. Of course, our first question should be why Putin's news is taken seriously. All it would mean -- most likely -- is that a foreign government had first chance at falling for this particular scam. Iraq's nonexistent mobile weapons labs became known to us thru the German intelligence service; but that didn't make the mobile labs any more real. As I understand it, part of Chalabi's modus operandi was to plant information with a variety of European intelligence services; the idea was to have evidence streaming to us from all corners. Putin's news could then very probably be considered one more installment to the same old deception. That is, if Putin himself is not simply lying and there is no Russian evidence, fake or genuine.
For the love of Noonan
Peggy Noonan has been writing about Reagan's funeral for a while now. In this post I'm flashing back to June 14, when she was moved to honor "the most unsung hero of all,"
a man named Bentley Elliott. He was Noonan's boss back when she wrote speeches for Reagan, and he battled the handlers to get red-meat drafts onto the President's desk. This lessened the chance the President would unwittingly say things he didn't agree with.
Noonan admires and loves her old boss, "a great man," and she takes the chance to settle some scores on his behalf. That choice is the point of this post. In two jumps Noonan goes from the death of her revered leader (Reagan) to bitching about the office politics of an office that hasn't existed for sixteen years. (Apparently, some guy in 1985 was going out for haircuts on company time.) The touchdown point in between is Ben Elliott, who I suppose may feel honored.
There's something very Noonan about this, the way spite is treated as an act of big-spirited righteousness. It's some part of the complicated mixture that makes her one of my top-shelf right-wing reading experiences. If pastry were like cheese and got a bit high and rancid instead of going stale, so that the flavor became more enticing and also more queasy -- that would be the flavor of a Noonan valentine.
The column winds up with Noonan's facing down the chief ingrate on Ben Elliott's now disbanded team. The man oils up to her: "He put his hand on my waist. This was a mistake." She answers with both barrels. "Afterward I told old Reagan hands about our exchange. They would laugh and say, 'Yes!' Because, as I say, they knew the Ben Elliott story. And now someone has put it in print." Well, God bless us. And God bless you, Peggy Noonan.
Contacts, but not a collaborative relationship
My father reenacts Iraqi-al Qaeda ties this way. Imagine one man doing two different voices:
Help us out.
Help us out.
Help us out.
I guess you could call call that on-going ties.
Rumsfeld's mystery money
Last I heard, the Iraq appropriations bills gave Rumsfeld a few billion dollars to be spent at his discretion. Lately we've learned of the Pentagon's legal theories regarding torture, not to mention that Rumsfeld directly ordered that one detainee be hidden from the Red Cross. Given all this, is the Rumsfeld slush fund getting any new attention? Because who knows what someone like that might get up to with a few billion unsupervised dollars.
Mysteries of the news flow
A month or so back I saw an article in The Hill
to the effect that Pat Roberts said Clarke had not perjured himself. Roberts had looked over classified testimony given by Clarke while with the administration, and he had found no contradiction between that and the damning public testimony Clarke later gave the 9-11 commission.
Supposed contradictions had been the reason Bill Frist got up before the Senate and hinted that Clarke might have lied under oath. The New York Times
played the accusation on the right, above the fold. A few weeks later Roberts, who is a Republican and chairman of the Senate Intelligence panel, says the evidence actually shows nothing wrong. That story gets played almost nowhere. The Hill
was the one spot I found -- without actively searching, it's true, but I do a lot of browsing around.
Get this: the blogs were as quiet as the newspapers. That raises the matter above the usual complaint as to feeble coverage of hot issues. Because normally the blogs jump on a development like this, with a full 40% of wordage going to how gutless and dim the regular press is for neglecting the story. This time around, no. Of course, out there someplace, we must have a lot of blogs that linked to this. But not Atrios, Talking Points, Kevin Drum, Matthew Yglesias ... It's a mystery and makes me feel I will never understand how people decide what is news.
Mark Kleiman quotes a line from the blog Beautiful Horizons
. It's a gem.
Look upon this as the unofficial motto of the Bush administration:
"The buck doesn't even slow down to catch its breath here."
It depends on the horse
Michael Barone is getting rebutted by liberal bloggers for an op-ed piece in which he points out that defeat for Lincoln in the 1864 election would have meant defeat for the US in the Civil War. He argues that this means defeat for Bush in November would produce victory for the world's terror networks. The claim is getting slapped around
like a fat kid in a mean gym class, but so far I haven't come across the best argument for changing horses in midstream.
In 1940 the British yanked Neville Chamberlain for Winston Churchill. They did this because Chamberlain had shown he was hopeless at prosecuting the war. The parallels with today are striking.
Moral clarity for liberals
Peter Beinart, the editor of The New Republic
, just published some reflections on how badly he screwed up by supporting the war. Atrios quotes and discusses it.
My favorite selection, because it hits the closest to home:
But, in retrospect, my efforts not to be limited proved limiting. Partisanship, it turned out, was an extremely useful analytical tool in understanding the Iraq war. Had I not tried so hard to cleanse myself of it, I might have seen some of the war's problems earlier than I did.
I think what Beinart means is that he mistook bending over backward for keeping a clear head. If so, I sympathize. I came late to the war debate, and I remember the struggle to resist ideological suction. It took four or five weeks of following the news and stubbornly putting off a decision before the choice became unmistakable. (The breakthru was the "dodgy dossier." As a friend pointed out, if the intelligence agencies had anything Blair's people wouldn't have been scraping material from old doctoral dissertations on the Internet.)
But I knew my choice made sense when I came upon this line posted on Slate
by a reader: "If Bush is for it, it must be stupid and dangerous." Reading that, I could finally do what liberals are accused of not doing: namely, I could allow my common sense to operate.
Beinart never had that moment. He fell into the evenhandedness trap, whereby fairness is presumed to exist as long as two sides are being treated with rough equality. When the two sides plainly do not deserve the same treatment, evenhandedness becomes a lazy ritual designed to lull the victim into thinking that he's thinking. He ignores fact and logic for a sensation. It's a sad story, and last year it was a common one.
From the New York Times
WASHINGTON, June 17 — The doomed passengers who fought with terrorist hijackers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 probably saved "countless" other lives and might well have prevented an attack on the White House or the Capitol, the staff of the commission investigating the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, said today.
I'm so glad Flight 93 hasn't been debunked. Americans are heroes -- or, I guess I should say, people anywhere, of any country, can be heroes when the time demands it. I'm just glad the people of my country haven't become flabby crybabies hiding behind the world's priciest military. The SUV culture hasn't rotted us after all.
This fact suggests a theme for the Kerry campaign. On the whole, Americans have done a good job facing the crisis. Our government hasn't. Let's fire this government and get a new team that's up to our level. If the boss screws up, fire him. This theme has truth to it, both in the particular (Bush and us) and the general (most bosses, most workers). I spent years working at different places where the people in charge could be counted on to be less competent than two-thirds of their employees. You don't forget a situation like that, and a lot of people never get a chance to try. Being under the thumb of loafers and bumblers is part of the work experience. But it should not be part of our anti-terrorism experience.
UPDATE: The tenor of this post might be considered in many ways to be contrary to the post below ("The Apocalyptic Vision"). That's because thinking about Flight 93 always braces me, and because the other post's panicked mob presumably came from various rungs of the political elite.
2d UPDATE: Some substance, though I hate to pollute my argument with fact. From Slate
's summing up of a New York Times
article on the 9-11 panel's report, some grains of factuality:
The 9/11 panel—its commissioners reading aloud from their reports and playing audio tapes of air traffic controllers and hijackers—made the case that the FAA and NORAD's collective response to the attacks was completely FUBAR. A separate piece in the NYT clarifies that the panel's blame is aimed mostly at the organizational structures and the senior officials who were guiding them; lower-level air-traffic and military personnel "thought outside the box," "were proactive in seeking information," and "made the best judgments they could based on the information they received."
As I said, I accept the idea that our leaders, in whatever institution they may be found, have not performed well during the past few years. I am not as sure that the rest of us have performed well. But maybe we did, and I like seeing any evidence suggesting so.
The apocalyptic vision
I always see small signs that social disaster is coming near. I can't help it. For instance Congress' mishandled drill
last week strikes me as very significant, the clue to an underlying master explanation for everything I don't like right now, but especially for the existence of George Bush and his administration. Just don't ask me why -- it's a vibe.
One hates to be Didionesque, but consider this eyewitness quote taken from The Hill
“Capitol police told staff, ‘Run! Run! Take your shoes off and run to Union Station!’ We had staffers and interns pushed, and some injured. A woman collapsed as staff and USCP ran by.”
Worse, I got on to this story because Wonkette
Like an old tune coming back
Bush/Cheney point to al-Zarqawi as al-Qaeda's link with Saddam Hussein. The Washington Post
Communications between Zarqawi and al Qaeda that Bush alluded to yesterday took place several months after Hussein was removed from power.
Well, there you are. It's the sound of spring 2003: administration lie followed by contrary and blindingly obvious fact. I think this two-step became more and more common in news stories as the Iraq rationale started to fall apart and the press picked up a little gumption. The Bush team was still putting out the old line on WMDs, but news writers felt free to provide counterpoint with boilerplate explanations of the places where reality and administration claims did not meet up. Then the Kay report pretty much ended attempts to keep the WMDs claim afloat. Abu Ghraib came along, and the point there was nobody had enough facts to demolish administration arguments on their face. So the two-step of dumb-lie, obvious-refutation dropped away for a time. Now it's back, welling up once again as the White House, for whatever reason, tries to argue us back into believing 9-11 justified the Iraq invasion. The obviously false is held out like a pinata waiting for a fact-checker to bust it open.
I don't know why Bush and his people returned to such factually disadvantageous ground, especially since Bush said last fall that Iraq never had a hand in 9-11. Maybe Cheney, being stubborn, just opened his mouth, and then Bush stumbled into line thru suggestibility. But it's reassuring to see. Times are confusing, especially when sorting thru your country's involvement in torture. I have strong feelings and strong opinions, and backing them a cloud of facts and speculation that has been building up for 16 months. Everything is intense; everything is starkly plain outline; but nothing is too clear in detail. So it's nice to find this small tic -- lie, debunking fact -- appearing once again in news coverage. I feel like maybe things can make sense, facts can snap together and indicate a plain truth. And I'm reminded of yet another point at which the other side exposed itself as utterly, beyond a doubt, wrong. That makes me feel like I am not wrong, which may be the wrong conclusion to draw. But for a while anyway I feel better.
A Canadian liberal writes
My friend Matthew lays into Reagan Week and the great man's legend below. For my part, I agree with most of his argument but feel it's only 70% of the story. The other 30% is where I have to give Reagan some credit. For me it's a difficult and uncertain zone that I haven't entirely figured out; for the press last week, it amounted to the entire story and with no uncertainty allowed. So, even though we're not completely eye to eye here, I was happy to see Matthew's sustained exercise in pushing back.
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Speaking of belligerent and warlike ... yeah, Reagan. I was seven when he got into office, fifteen when he got out. Just about old enough to be horrified by the things going on in the States. I never really had much good to say about the man. But the way people down south have been going on about him, geez. I dunno, maybe this is just decadent internationalism talking, but I'm stunned at the way people lined up to give him sole credit for winning the Cold War. Puts that also-ran Gorbachev in his place, I suppose. From up here it looked like Reagan just continued the policies of every other American government since the Russian Revolution. Given that Soviet defence spending didn't increase in the 80s, I can only conclude that nobody bothered to tell *them* that Reagan was deliberately spending their system into bankruptcy.
(And, again, maybe this is a Canadian thing, but when we see a Conservative government spending govenrment funds left right and centre, we just *assume* that it's a patronage jobs-for-the-boys sort of thing. Perhaps this is the real distinction between the Canadian and American right wingers -- ours are transparently and semi-engagingly sleazy, while Americans can throw up a wall of principled double-speak.)
Frankly, after watching a week's worth of Reagan tributes, I've come to the conclusion that he was single-handedly responsible not only for much of the worst of contemporary American character, but also for the current parlous state of the world. People consistently spoke about him restoring pride in America, but nobody I saw noticed that real greatness is usually accompanied by humility, while pride (at least, vocal pride) more naturally accompanies insecurity and inadequacy. Certainly nobody suggested that pride must be justified, or else it's simply obnoxious. And absolutely nobody suggested that the current situation in Iraq can be easily seen as a product of just the kind of hubris that Reagan brought to office; thus the current administration is afflicted with a refusal to engage with the realities and complexities of the place, an inability to see themselves as others see them, and an unshakeable conviction in their own righteousness.
Worse than this, the Reagan administration (corrupt and sleazy as it was) really seemed to enjoy arming essentially evil people. They gave Islamic extremists like Osama bin Laden weapons to fight the Russians in Afghanistan, while giving Saddam Hussein weapons of mass destruction so he cold fight Islamic extremists in Iran, to whom they sold weapons to in order to support nun-killing thugs in Central America. There seemed to be no dictator so wicked or corrupt that Reagan wouldn't cozy up to him, and the world is a worse place as a result. Choosing to fight alongside evil against a worse evil should be a policy of last resort; for the Reagan administration, it seemed to be business as usual. One judges a man by the company he keeps.
And then there was Reagan's odd, fanatic hatred of 'big government' -- which somehow didn't prevent him from running up a massive deficit and throwing the financial health of the US into serious doubt. It seems to me that the fetishising of private industry and the execration of government spending really began in the US under Reagan; with the inevitable result that the EPA was gutted and the Department of Education (!) was marked for death (if only for a while). I think the aftereffects of this craziness still afflict the States. Certainly the demonisation of 'liberals' and 'liberalism' was a notable feature of his tenure. The political landscape of the US is still out-of-whack with the rest of the industrialised western world, tilted way far to the right. I see very few articulate leftist views being presented as a matter of course on American TV, or in the American press outside of places like The Nation (well, maybe Harper's, from time to time). Without a full variety of perspectives, discourse is impoverished; and I'd say that's Reagan's legacy. Certainly many people in politics and in the media display a disturbing reluctance to look seriously and critically in the flaws in the country and in its policies.
To write, it helps to be definite. To understand the world, maybe it helps not to be so definite. This realization may give us a clue as to why conservatives are so good at sounding as if they make sense. Their arguments, as arguments, aren't so great if you match them against facts or check for hidden assumptions. But the prose sounds like straight, simple talk slicing thru confusion.
Reagan vs. Bush
This may be rehashing what I've already said. But anyway ... Tempting as it is to hold up Good Reagan vs. Bad Bush, I think the case for Reagan's common sense and good instincts is pretty shaky. He got himself in some dreadful tangles, and he was as lazy and incurious as Bush, if not more so. A Hugh Sidey-style anecdote about Reagan on the night before a G-8 summit: he was going to look at his briefing papers, Reagan told an aide, "but The Sound of Music
Obviously, Reagan or Nancy did a good job of picking handlers, and it's said Reagan knew how to do business with legislators, how to compromise for what he could get and then come back for more later on. But one has to assume Bush is not entirely without political skills, given that he made it to the White House in six years. A little while back he was rolling Congress in ways Reagan managed for only a year here and a year there out of his two terms. In fact the case for Bush's own common sense and instincts didn't fall apart until the great Iraqi crack-up. This doesn't mean Bush's non-Iraq policies have somehow been solid and acceptable. It's just that they have not yet resulted in national humiliation and lots of innocent deaths on-screen. Only the Iraq policy has been disastrous in the sense of bringing a disaster into full, immediate, unmistakable existence.
Creating a disaster takes a lot of maneuver room; politicians in a democracy don't get that kind of chance too often. Bush did, and racked himself up. Reagan didn't, so his crackpot enthusiasms and ideological crusades tended to detonate out at sea. But Star Wars, the contras, and the Laffer curve don't indicate a mind with a whole lot of room for common sense. And while Bush's instincts aren't good enough to see thru Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney, so far (we believe) he has never been shaken down by terrorists while believing that something else entirely was taking place.
Finally, I hold with the new consensus that Reagan's crown jewel was the Gorbachev breakthru. But why assume Bush would have backhanded Gorbachev? Margaret Thatcher, a hardshelled personality, took to the Soviet before Reagan even met him. ("Mr. Gorbachev is someone we can do business with," December 1984.) Like Blair today, Gorbachev made it his business to connect with American presidents, and he did it in the way that Bush is said to favor: acting like a human being with feelings and a personality. That's what Reagan saw in him. ("But then a man like this comes along," as Reagan said when explaining the new look in Soviet relations.) Reagan and Bush were sold on people the same way, by a lot of eye contact and hand gestures and dynamic language. Reagan drew Gorbachev, Bush drew Rumsfeld, and the rest is history. (A minus for my argument, of course, is that Bush hired Rumsfeld.)
So the difference between Reagan and Bush? One succeeded and the other didn't. Reasoning backward, we figure that the successful one was somehow superior to the failure. But maybe not. Maybe a lot of it was luck, just as liberals kept saying while Reagan rolled on thru his two terms. I'll say it again, though this time the partisan temptation is to give him a break and concentrate fire on Bush.
A CEO manager is one thing. But a CEO manager who doesn't want to know what's going on -- that's something else. And that's what we had with Reagan and have with Bush. Despising Bush makes admiring Reagan more plausible but not more justifiable.
Bush's management style
Bush doesn't realize that tips have icebergs.
Reagan was an era in my life, and at the time I spent a lot of energy reading and thinking about him. But I didn't have a TV, and my sense of his media skills, good as they were, never went beyond appreciation; enthusiasm was out of the question. The public certainly liked him at the time, except for the extended periods when they didn't.
Seeing him presented now as an icon of presidential achievement and an object of universal love is like waking up to find that the country worships some TV character who always had a following and whom I always kind of liked, but who had been in everybody's back files since I was much, much younger. For me it's like finding out that a big statue to Bullwinkle has gone up next to the Washington Monument.
Reagan and George W.
Reagan didn't have the range of action George W. does because Reagan lived in a world with the Soviet Union. Back then if the President was right-wing, not good on details, and given to crusades against foreign enemies, he might get a bunch of soldiers blown up in the Middle East, he might lavish support (financial or otherwise) on terrorists killing civilians in Angola and Central America, he might knock over a postage stamp country for the fun of it, he might sell weapons to Moslem terrorists and the money might somehow wind up with the aforementioned Central American terrorists. All those things might happen, and with Reagan they all did. But the President would not invade a full-sized nation sitting on top of oil reserves, because the Soviet Union would not stand for it. That was the Cold War's structure of peace: neither side could do anything too drastic so long as the other side had missiles and a nervous disposition. Bush, and we, can no longer claim that safeguard, which is why Reagan gets to be puffed up as a presidential great and Bush gets to shoot his foot off at the hip.
Also, hate seems to have been a subsidiary emotion with Reagan, while with Bush it seems to be, shall we say, more salient. That may have helped Reagan see the opportunity Gorbachev offered when his fellow Republicans didn't. It also makes Reagan a lot more cuddly than Bush, and therefore a better candidate for a week of nonpartisan, crosscountry weepiness. He was such a nice man; that makes a difference if you're mourning somebody you never met and whose accomplishments may be a bit unclear to you.
Reagan as Lady Di
Mourning crazes take me by surprise, if Lady Di and George Harrison are anything to go by. If the Reagan ... not festivities ... last all week, they may reach Di magnitude, at least in the U.S. With King and the Kennedys I can understand it: John Kennedy was president when he died, Robert Kennedy was running for president, King was just a few years past his Nobel Prize. They were hip-deep in the events of the day, and they went suddenly and violently. Diana had only half the combination, in that she went young and she went dramatically, but one couldn't point to much she had done in life (the public display of private dysfunction; good causes conducted by photo ops). Reagan had the other half, since he had been a leader of great influence but had also spent the past decade or so loitering in death's anteroom.
With Di no achievement was being mourned; with Reagan shock can't be cited as an intensifier. So why a Reagan grief festival to join the Di festival, and why are these the two greatest displays of public grief since the truly wrenching assassinations of the 1960s?
Because there are so many cable channels and they have to show something, and because Di and Reagan are very good things to show. They spent their adult lives on display, and it wasn't by accident. You can throw in special factors, such as America's need for a break from Abu Ghraib and Iraq, or Britain's supposed psychosocial transformation into a more unbuttoned sort of country. But trust to the fundamental reason as being looks and good footwork before the camera.
Eisenhower was loved in office, but his death resulted in a state funeral, not a pop phenomenon. That's because he was not exactly entrancing on camera (avuncular but stolid) and because he died in 1969, before the modern media age found itself. In 2000, Pierre Trudeau was mourned extensively and, here and there, fiercely by Canadians. Up here he's a Reagan-sized figure as far as influence went, but he also generated a lot of entrancing photos and TV appearances, and I think that made the difference. Because finally I have the trump card of the mourning-as-hype argument: the death and phenomen-ization of John Kennedy Jr. He was another lifelong media creature and had a face that dressed up the screen, but his record of accomplishment was blanker than Di's and he didn't even feature in a public soap opera (the dramas all belonged to relatives and were twenty years out of date). He still got his week. Having the week is probably the point: it's the pop culture equivalent of a school field trip, where you're not exactly left to yourself but at least get sprung from the classroom and business as usual. Then comes next week and everyone forgets about the planetarium, the Di Fund (or whatever her brother called it), John Kennedy Jr. as a slain knight, and Ronald Reagan as greatest president of the 20th century.
The old man is dead, is dead
Reagan was the first president to take office while I was an adult. Also, at the time the press made a tremendous fuss over him and his changes in U.S. policy, alerting us that we were living thru history. So he mattered something to me, and I felt a jolt when I saw the headline and photo at the New York Times'
site and discovered he had finally passed.
What I liked about him was the he was dreamy and fairly impractical, that he ruminated about big notions without understanding them, that he liked children and corny jokes, that he was habitually and happily polite, that he showed few signs of analytic intelligence but had an undeniable shrewdness at politics, that he was an adept and resassuring liar, that he could make you believe him (or feel like you should believe him) by the way he positioned his head and pitched his voice.
He was delightful on television and wrote accomplished private letters with a flair that could have brought him a fine career at the Saturday Evening Post.
The recipients were people he had met well before he became a big man, and he kept writing to them thru his decades of political fame.
Most important, I suppose, Reagan had the good sense and boyish enthusiasm to cotton to Gorbachev when his own party was still mired in the "threat or menace" debate.
What I disliked about him was everything else.
Except that he was not George W. Bush. That was one more thing I liked about Reagan. Every now and then you catch a rivulet of a pro-Reagan backlash among Democrats who have suffered too long under George W. I never quite went for that, mainly from a sense that it would be inconsistent and undignified, but it can sneak up on you.
Lately I've even been thinking fondly of Nancy Reagan, the old man's wife and ace consigliere
. Pre-Gorbachev she was telling Reagan that the leaders of the nuclear powers had to be on speaking terms; that showed good sense. Lately she's come out in favor of stem-cell research. Put it this way: Nancy is in favor of the rich, but she's not against
anyone. The GOP's present disposition can make you grateful for that.
Matt Yglesias makes a bad point
for a policy I favor, namely getting our troops out of their Cold War configuration in Europe:
"I've read a number of accounts over the years of why American troops need to stay in Europe but they strike me as deeply absurd. The notion is that without a large American deployment over there, European military rivalries will resurface and the long postwar era of peace and integration will somehow come to an end. Now I can't prove this won't happen, but as I say it's absurd."
If absurd things didn't happen, there wouldn't be any history. Doy.
Dick Morris finds a kindred soul: "Osama bin Laden could have made a good living as a political consultant if he did not choose to kill babies instead."
A little further on we find the "or the terrorists will have won" trope brought to its ultimate conclusion: "Ironically, the real test of American resolve will not be our willingness to stay in Iraq, but our desire to keep Bush in office."
Why? Well, actually he explains why in the sentence right before: "Every bomb, terror attack, suicide raid or urban guerilla offensive is aimed squarely at ending Bush's political career." But how does he know this? Go back to this post's top for my theory: a natural congruence of temperaments gives Morris an advantage in divining the thoughts of Osama bin Laden (and, I suppose, of Moqtada al-Sadr and those guys in Falluja).
Today's Washington Post
gets a little arch. Regarding Abu Ghraib, the paper cites Bush aides:
"But as they tell it, the president and his staff received many clues over the past year that there might be a problem -- for example, periodic reports from the International Committee of the Red Cross
-- and did nothing because they had been assured the Pentagon was on the case."
The emphasis is mine, to point up the joke for anyone who has problems with these things.