Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 26, 2007

Weekend Reading

Welcome to Weekend Reading, a new feature at contentions: thought-provoking selections from the COMMENTARY archive to help tide you over until Monday. One of the great pleasures of being a part of COMMENTARY lies in our ability to give our readers glimpses into the magazine’s fascinating past. This weekend we’d like to offer you a handful of stories that first appeared in our pages (in three cases, for the first time in English) and that are among the acknowledged greats of the 20th century. Enjoy.

First Love
Isaac Babel

Looking for Mr. Green
Saul Bellow

Forevermore
S. Y. Agnon

Idiots First
Bernard Malamud

Yentl the Yeshiva Boy
Isaac Bashevis Singer

Envy; or, Yiddish in America
Cynthia Ozick

Welcome to Weekend Reading, a new feature at contentions: thought-provoking selections from the COMMENTARY archive to help tide you over until Monday. One of the great pleasures of being a part of COMMENTARY lies in our ability to give our readers glimpses into the magazine’s fascinating past. This weekend we’d like to offer you a handful of stories that first appeared in our pages (in three cases, for the first time in English) and that are among the acknowledged greats of the 20th century. Enjoy.

First Love
Isaac Babel

Looking for Mr. Green
Saul Bellow

Forevermore
S. Y. Agnon

Idiots First
Bernard Malamud

Yentl the Yeshiva Boy
Isaac Bashevis Singer

Envy; or, Yiddish in America
Cynthia Ozick

Read Less

Compromised Memorial

New York’s World Trade Center memorial is again the subject of controversy. Two years ago I criticized the design in the New Criterion for its remorseless Zen minimalism, and for offering only negations. The design, I wrote, “with its drumbeat of void, absence, falling, is filled with the presence of death and nowhere aware of the context of that death.” To some extent this was inevitable, given that the design plan mandated that the footprints of the fallen towers be retained, but the choices made by the designer, Michael Arad, have only tended to enhance its overwhelming sense of despair.

One choice in particular—how to list the names of the victims—was especially upsetting to the bereaved families. Arad rejected any systematic order, either alphabetical or by affiliation; instead he proposed to place the names in random order, making no distinction between World Trade Center employees, hijacked passengers, and first-responders. After two years of furious protest by police, fire, and rescue units, which felt that their sacrifices were of a different order, a compromise was made, in which names would be grouped according to where victims died, and crucial bits of information—such as airline flight number or fire house—would be provided.

This compromise has now drawn the ire of other survivors, who fear that separate classes of victims are being established, with their loved ones enjoying less status than those who sought to rescue them. It is a painful dilemma, and one sympathizes with both factions. Unfortunately, it does not lend itself to an elegant and elegiac solution like that of the Vietnam veterans memorial in Washington, where the names are inscribed in the sequence in which they died. One wonders if a better designed monument, one that offered hope and solace and not merely gloom, might have provoked less squabbling. As it is, the void of the memorial offers little comfort beyond the incised names themselves. Small wonder, then, that they are contested so bitterly.

New York’s World Trade Center memorial is again the subject of controversy. Two years ago I criticized the design in the New Criterion for its remorseless Zen minimalism, and for offering only negations. The design, I wrote, “with its drumbeat of void, absence, falling, is filled with the presence of death and nowhere aware of the context of that death.” To some extent this was inevitable, given that the design plan mandated that the footprints of the fallen towers be retained, but the choices made by the designer, Michael Arad, have only tended to enhance its overwhelming sense of despair.

One choice in particular—how to list the names of the victims—was especially upsetting to the bereaved families. Arad rejected any systematic order, either alphabetical or by affiliation; instead he proposed to place the names in random order, making no distinction between World Trade Center employees, hijacked passengers, and first-responders. After two years of furious protest by police, fire, and rescue units, which felt that their sacrifices were of a different order, a compromise was made, in which names would be grouped according to where victims died, and crucial bits of information—such as airline flight number or fire house—would be provided.

This compromise has now drawn the ire of other survivors, who fear that separate classes of victims are being established, with their loved ones enjoying less status than those who sought to rescue them. It is a painful dilemma, and one sympathizes with both factions. Unfortunately, it does not lend itself to an elegant and elegiac solution like that of the Vietnam veterans memorial in Washington, where the names are inscribed in the sequence in which they died. One wonders if a better designed monument, one that offered hope and solace and not merely gloom, might have provoked less squabbling. As it is, the void of the memorial offers little comfort beyond the incised names themselves. Small wonder, then, that they are contested so bitterly.

Read Less

All the News That’s Fit to Print?

Despite warnings that it is damaging national security, despite the prospect that it is inviting an unprecedented prosecution under the espionage statutes barring communication of national-defense information, the New York Times presses ahead in its campaign to place our country’s most highly classified military, counterterrorism, and diplomatic secrets on its front page. The string of extremely sensitive leaked information making it into the paper was extended recently when a memorandum by National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, summarizing difficulties the U.S. faces with Iraq’s prime minister, appeared on page one.

But while avidly disclosing U.S. secrets, how does the Times report on intelligence operations directed against the United States by foreign powers?

Back in June, a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) analyst by the name of Ronald Montaperto was convicted on espionage charges. According to the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, Montaperto had held 60 meetings with Chinese military intelligence officers over two decades and provided them with information bearing “secret” and “top-secret” designations. Despite the gravity of the offense, Montaperto was sentenced to only three months in jail. This stands in striking contrast to other well-known cases. Jonathan Pollard, who passed information to Israel in the 1980’s, is serving out a life sentence. Last January, Larry Franklin, a Defense Department desk officer, was sentenced to twelve years in prison for mishandling classified documents and passing sensitive national-defense information to employees of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

There are many mysteries here. One of them is why Montaperto got only a slap on the wrist. One answer is that unlike Pollard and Franklin, he was not a nobody or an outsider but a creature of the establishment. In addition to his work for the DIA, he helped to produce a Council on Foreign Relations study on Chinese nuclear weapons and had many friends in the fraternity of China experts, both in and out of government. The federal judge in the case evidently reduced his sentence on the strength of numerous letters he received from Montaperto’s former colleagues. One of those letters came from the current deputy national-intelligence officer for East Asia, Lonnie Henley. Yesterday came word, from Bill Gertz of the Washington Times, that several months ago Henley received a formal reprimand for writing it.

Another even more intriguing mystery is why, even as the New York Times feels free to compromise one classified program after another, it has kept readers in the dark about the Montaperto matter and Henley’s intervention. The story is already beginning to age, Montaperto will be getting out of prison next month, but his name has yet to be even mentioned in our newspaper of record. One explanation for this silence, easy to demonstrate from their own behavior, is that the editors of the Times do not think the loss of governmental secretswith the single revealing exception of the leak of Valery Plame’s CIA affiliationis of any consequence to national security. It is thanks only to the dogged reporting of Bill Gertz, who has himself been known to publish highly sensitive governmental secrets, that the public is aware of these cases at all. 

To find out about A & O (admission and orientation) programs for a federal prisoner like Ronald N. Montaperto, inmate number 71342-083, click here.

Despite warnings that it is damaging national security, despite the prospect that it is inviting an unprecedented prosecution under the espionage statutes barring communication of national-defense information, the New York Times presses ahead in its campaign to place our country’s most highly classified military, counterterrorism, and diplomatic secrets on its front page. The string of extremely sensitive leaked information making it into the paper was extended recently when a memorandum by National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, summarizing difficulties the U.S. faces with Iraq’s prime minister, appeared on page one.

But while avidly disclosing U.S. secrets, how does the Times report on intelligence operations directed against the United States by foreign powers?

Back in June, a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) analyst by the name of Ronald Montaperto was convicted on espionage charges. According to the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, Montaperto had held 60 meetings with Chinese military intelligence officers over two decades and provided them with information bearing “secret” and “top-secret” designations. Despite the gravity of the offense, Montaperto was sentenced to only three months in jail. This stands in striking contrast to other well-known cases. Jonathan Pollard, who passed information to Israel in the 1980’s, is serving out a life sentence. Last January, Larry Franklin, a Defense Department desk officer, was sentenced to twelve years in prison for mishandling classified documents and passing sensitive national-defense information to employees of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

There are many mysteries here. One of them is why Montaperto got only a slap on the wrist. One answer is that unlike Pollard and Franklin, he was not a nobody or an outsider but a creature of the establishment. In addition to his work for the DIA, he helped to produce a Council on Foreign Relations study on Chinese nuclear weapons and had many friends in the fraternity of China experts, both in and out of government. The federal judge in the case evidently reduced his sentence on the strength of numerous letters he received from Montaperto’s former colleagues. One of those letters came from the current deputy national-intelligence officer for East Asia, Lonnie Henley. Yesterday came word, from Bill Gertz of the Washington Times, that several months ago Henley received a formal reprimand for writing it.

Another even more intriguing mystery is why, even as the New York Times feels free to compromise one classified program after another, it has kept readers in the dark about the Montaperto matter and Henley’s intervention. The story is already beginning to age, Montaperto will be getting out of prison next month, but his name has yet to be even mentioned in our newspaper of record. One explanation for this silence, easy to demonstrate from their own behavior, is that the editors of the Times do not think the loss of governmental secretswith the single revealing exception of the leak of Valery Plame’s CIA affiliationis of any consequence to national security. It is thanks only to the dogged reporting of Bill Gertz, who has himself been known to publish highly sensitive governmental secrets, that the public is aware of these cases at all. 

To find out about A & O (admission and orientation) programs for a federal prisoner like Ronald N. Montaperto, inmate number 71342-083, click here.

Read Less

Carter’s Lies

“This is the first time I’ve ever been called a liar,” said former President Jimmy Carter during his much-ballyhooed foray into the lion’s den of Brandeis University this week.

This, of course, is a lie.

The most talked-about article to appear during the 1976 presidential campaign was “Jimmy Carter’s Pathetic Lies.” Appearing in Harper’s, it contained Steven Brill’s account of several days spent accompanying Carter on the campaign trail, in the course of which Brill discovered that most of what Carter told audiences about himself was simply false.

Invariably Carter introduced himself as a “nuclear physicist and a peanut farmer.” He was neither: he held only a bachelor’s degree, and he owned a peanut warehouse. He invited listeners to write to him. “Just put ‘Jimmy Carter, Plains, Georgia’ on the envelope, and I’ll get it. I open every letter myself and read them all.” But Carter’s press secretary admitted to Brill that all mail so addressed was forwarded to the campaign staff in Atlanta. Carter boasted that at the completion of his term as governor he had left Georgia with a budget surplus of $200 million, but Brill discovered that the true amount was $43 million, which was all that remained of a $91 million surplus Carter had inherited when he took office. Carter described an innovative program he had pioneered, employing welfare mothers to care for the mentally handicapped. “You should see them bathing and feeding the retarded children. They’re the best workers we have in the state government,” he enthused to audiences. But there was no way to see them–they did not, in fact, exist, as Brill learned from state officials. “I guess he was mistaken,” conceded Carter’s press secretary. Brill’s piece contained much more in this vein.

In Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, his recent book on the Middle East, Carter repeats the egregious lie that he set out twenty-odd years ago in his previous book on the subject–namely, that in the 1967 war Israel preemptively attacked Jordan. This is no small matter: it was from Jordan that Israel took the West Bank, the focus of most of today’s controversy. But the record is abundantly clear that while preemptively attacking Egypt and Syria, Israel pleaded with Jordan (through American intermediaries) to stay out of the fray. King Hussein felt he could not do that, so he ordered his forces to attack Israel, and the Israelis fought back. Both Carter’s old book and the new one are replete with countless other outright lies as well as less outright ones (as others have pointed out).

Whatever the subject, Carter makes a specialty of exploiting grammatical ambiguities to leave listeners or readers with the impression that he has said one thing, while a precise examination of his words shows them to mean something else. In a 2003 op-ed in USA Today on the North Korean nuclear crisis, he wrote: “There must be verifiable assurances that prevent North Korea from becoming a threatening nuclear power.” The average reader might think that the word “threatening” is merely descriptive. But, in fact, Carter had fought to allow Pyongyang to have some nuclear weapons, because he believed that was the price of an agreement. The word “threatening,” as Carter used it, actually meant that North Korea could have some nuclear weapons–but not so many as to be “threatening.”

This raises an obvious question: how many nukes, exactly, would that be? Carter hasn’t told us yet, but if he ever does, make sure to read his words carefully.

“This is the first time I’ve ever been called a liar,” said former President Jimmy Carter during his much-ballyhooed foray into the lion’s den of Brandeis University this week.

This, of course, is a lie.

The most talked-about article to appear during the 1976 presidential campaign was “Jimmy Carter’s Pathetic Lies.” Appearing in Harper’s, it contained Steven Brill’s account of several days spent accompanying Carter on the campaign trail, in the course of which Brill discovered that most of what Carter told audiences about himself was simply false.

Invariably Carter introduced himself as a “nuclear physicist and a peanut farmer.” He was neither: he held only a bachelor’s degree, and he owned a peanut warehouse. He invited listeners to write to him. “Just put ‘Jimmy Carter, Plains, Georgia’ on the envelope, and I’ll get it. I open every letter myself and read them all.” But Carter’s press secretary admitted to Brill that all mail so addressed was forwarded to the campaign staff in Atlanta. Carter boasted that at the completion of his term as governor he had left Georgia with a budget surplus of $200 million, but Brill discovered that the true amount was $43 million, which was all that remained of a $91 million surplus Carter had inherited when he took office. Carter described an innovative program he had pioneered, employing welfare mothers to care for the mentally handicapped. “You should see them bathing and feeding the retarded children. They’re the best workers we have in the state government,” he enthused to audiences. But there was no way to see them–they did not, in fact, exist, as Brill learned from state officials. “I guess he was mistaken,” conceded Carter’s press secretary. Brill’s piece contained much more in this vein.

In Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, his recent book on the Middle East, Carter repeats the egregious lie that he set out twenty-odd years ago in his previous book on the subject–namely, that in the 1967 war Israel preemptively attacked Jordan. This is no small matter: it was from Jordan that Israel took the West Bank, the focus of most of today’s controversy. But the record is abundantly clear that while preemptively attacking Egypt and Syria, Israel pleaded with Jordan (through American intermediaries) to stay out of the fray. King Hussein felt he could not do that, so he ordered his forces to attack Israel, and the Israelis fought back. Both Carter’s old book and the new one are replete with countless other outright lies as well as less outright ones (as others have pointed out).

Whatever the subject, Carter makes a specialty of exploiting grammatical ambiguities to leave listeners or readers with the impression that he has said one thing, while a precise examination of his words shows them to mean something else. In a 2003 op-ed in USA Today on the North Korean nuclear crisis, he wrote: “There must be verifiable assurances that prevent North Korea from becoming a threatening nuclear power.” The average reader might think that the word “threatening” is merely descriptive. But, in fact, Carter had fought to allow Pyongyang to have some nuclear weapons, because he believed that was the price of an agreement. The word “threatening,” as Carter used it, actually meant that North Korea could have some nuclear weapons–but not so many as to be “threatening.”

This raises an obvious question: how many nukes, exactly, would that be? Carter hasn’t told us yet, but if he ever does, make sure to read his words carefully.

Read Less

Too Many Hats in the Ring

In a recent column, satirist Andy Borowitz suggests that in 2008, there will be more presidential candidates than there are voters:

With politicians throwing their hats in the ring at a torrid pace, by November 2008, one out of every two Americans is expected to be running for the nation’s highest office—an extraordinary figure by any measure.

Why so many candidates? Because the barriers to entry are so low and the psychic rewards so great. Today the presidential campaign has become a kind of Davos for the political set: a seemingly endless opportunity for opining on energy, education, and health care, pontificating about the future, rubbing elbows with high-profile journalists, and being taken very, very seriously. No other avenue of American life grants so much attention and national exposure to individuals of such modest accomplishments. How else can one explain the presidential campaigns of Congressman Duncan Hunter, Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, or former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore?

All this places the media in a dilemma: how can they cover so many candidates without appearing biased? Because they fear being accused of pre-emptively anointing a front-runner, the media use a spurious evenhandedness in discussing the growing roster of aspirants. As the passing weeks have launched the presidential ambitions of one mediocre pol after another, one wonders whether each will be accorded the full road-to-the-White-House treatment: extended excerpts of his speeches on the Jim Lehrer Newshour; a one-on-one interview with Marvin Kalb at the Kennedy School; cinema verité footage of his New Hampshire town meetings on C-SPAN, etc.

While editorial writers are loath to admit it, there is, in the end, only one way to separate the presidential wheat from the chaff: fundraising. Asking someone for $2,000 to support your candidacy—or, more accurately, asking someone to find 20 such donors—is still the best test of a candidate’s national viability. This point seems to be utterly lost on those public watchdogs who insist that there is too much money in our campaigns. Fred Wertheimer, the founder of campaign-finance watchdog Common Cause and now president of Democracy21, held a press conference on Wednesday to bemoan the fact that Hillary Clinton may forgo public funding of her campaign. Public funding, Wertheimer contends, gives “serious candidates” a chance to be heard.

Yet surely any “serious” candidate ought to be interesting enough to attract serious money, or at least enough to mount a competitive campaign. The alternative is to rely on public financing, the favorite hobby horse of Wertheimer, former Presidential candidate Bill Bradley, the New York Times, the Center for Responsive Politics, and many other self-appointed guardians of good government. It is remarkable that this argument can still be made with a straight face: do we really want a taxpayer-funded system that enables and indeed fosters the narcissistic electoral pursuits of Dennis Kucinich?

In a recent column, satirist Andy Borowitz suggests that in 2008, there will be more presidential candidates than there are voters:

With politicians throwing their hats in the ring at a torrid pace, by November 2008, one out of every two Americans is expected to be running for the nation’s highest office—an extraordinary figure by any measure.

Why so many candidates? Because the barriers to entry are so low and the psychic rewards so great. Today the presidential campaign has become a kind of Davos for the political set: a seemingly endless opportunity for opining on energy, education, and health care, pontificating about the future, rubbing elbows with high-profile journalists, and being taken very, very seriously. No other avenue of American life grants so much attention and national exposure to individuals of such modest accomplishments. How else can one explain the presidential campaigns of Congressman Duncan Hunter, Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, or former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore?

All this places the media in a dilemma: how can they cover so many candidates without appearing biased? Because they fear being accused of pre-emptively anointing a front-runner, the media use a spurious evenhandedness in discussing the growing roster of aspirants. As the passing weeks have launched the presidential ambitions of one mediocre pol after another, one wonders whether each will be accorded the full road-to-the-White-House treatment: extended excerpts of his speeches on the Jim Lehrer Newshour; a one-on-one interview with Marvin Kalb at the Kennedy School; cinema verité footage of his New Hampshire town meetings on C-SPAN, etc.

While editorial writers are loath to admit it, there is, in the end, only one way to separate the presidential wheat from the chaff: fundraising. Asking someone for $2,000 to support your candidacy—or, more accurately, asking someone to find 20 such donors—is still the best test of a candidate’s national viability. This point seems to be utterly lost on those public watchdogs who insist that there is too much money in our campaigns. Fred Wertheimer, the founder of campaign-finance watchdog Common Cause and now president of Democracy21, held a press conference on Wednesday to bemoan the fact that Hillary Clinton may forgo public funding of her campaign. Public funding, Wertheimer contends, gives “serious candidates” a chance to be heard.

Yet surely any “serious” candidate ought to be interesting enough to attract serious money, or at least enough to mount a competitive campaign. The alternative is to rely on public financing, the favorite hobby horse of Wertheimer, former Presidential candidate Bill Bradley, the New York Times, the Center for Responsive Politics, and many other self-appointed guardians of good government. It is remarkable that this argument can still be made with a straight face: do we really want a taxpayer-funded system that enables and indeed fosters the narcissistic electoral pursuits of Dennis Kucinich?

Read Less




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