Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 2, 2007

Franken’s Shtick

The comedian Al Franken, author of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, recently announced that he is running for Senate from Minnesota, where he grew up. An alumnus of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, Franken made his name satirizing conservative figures like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and National Review’s Rich Lowry, whom he challenged to a fist fight in his garage.

His candidacy has been greeted with predictable enthusiasm. As Time gushed, “Enter the clown, who’s ready to play not Hamlet but Disraeli.” But is Franken really ready? Obviously, Americans have taken a political chance on ex-entertainers before, most notably with Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, but Franken’s case poses special difficulties because his work has always been so harshly political and partisan.

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The comedian Al Franken, author of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, recently announced that he is running for Senate from Minnesota, where he grew up. An alumnus of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, Franken made his name satirizing conservative figures like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and National Review’s Rich Lowry, whom he challenged to a fist fight in his garage.

His candidacy has been greeted with predictable enthusiasm. As Time gushed, “Enter the clown, who’s ready to play not Hamlet but Disraeli.” But is Franken really ready? Obviously, Americans have taken a political chance on ex-entertainers before, most notably with Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, but Franken’s case poses special difficulties because his work has always been so harshly political and partisan.

In the final episode of his program on Air America, the now-bankrupt liberal radio station, Franken announced his candidacy with old-fashioned American optimism. “I know I have an awful lot to learn from the people of Minnesota,” he declared. I want “to help our country become everything I hope it can be and everything I know it can be.”

But reconciling aw-shucks populist rhetoric with the well-established cynicism of Franken’s public persona won’t be easy. After all, this is a “comedian” who once ironically raised the possibility that George Bush and Dick Cheney should be executed for treason, quickly adding that “we should never ever, ever, ever execute a sitting President.” He has also made snide comments about McCain’s POW experience: “I don’t understand why all this war hero stuff. I mean, anybody can get captured. Isn’t the idea to capture the other guy? As far as I’m concerned, he sat out the war.”

There are many who find humor in Franken’s shtick, and his candidacy can’t be judged solely on the basis of his stand-up routine and the books he has written. But episodes like the one at a Dean fundraiser in 2003, when Franken went on an expletive-laced, demagogic rant about Brit Hume and Fox News, are among many troubling instances when he has seemed authentically malicious–and out of control.

At Franken’s official campaign website, you can listen to him talk about middle-class values and his hardscrabble family history; you can even hear this Harvard grad use the expression “guv’ment.” But his attempts at folksy spontaneity seem flat and scripted. After ten minutes of self-mythologizing, he finally gets to a subject he can warm to: his agenda, which sounds like leftovers from a 2003 John Kerry press release.

Franken is clearly an intelligent man. He knows that rural-style charm and meat-and-potatoes liberalism play well in Minnesota. But unless he is a preternaturally gifted politician, his humble-pie charade will not survive the extreme rhetoric and partisan titillation in which he has always trafficked. In the run-up to the election in 2008, Minnesotans will have to be on the look-out for the real Al Franken.

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Weekend Reading

February 21, 2007 marked the centennial of the birth of W.H. Auden, one of the most important poets of the 20th century. Most widely known perhaps as the author of “September 1st, 1939″ and “Funeral Blues,” Auden remains unmatched as a formal virtuoso and as what might best be called a poet of civilization. Though many have tried, no one else has spoken in his distinctive double voice, endued at once with the full cultural authority of the English lyric tradition and with the highest erotic irony. To commemorate this occasion, we offer you Auden’s poem “Pleasure Island,” which first appeared in the pages of COMMENTARY in May 1949, and the Australian critic Clive James’s penetrating essay “Auden’s Achievement.” Enjoy.

February 21, 2007 marked the centennial of the birth of W.H. Auden, one of the most important poets of the 20th century. Most widely known perhaps as the author of “September 1st, 1939″ and “Funeral Blues,” Auden remains unmatched as a formal virtuoso and as what might best be called a poet of civilization. Though many have tried, no one else has spoken in his distinctive double voice, endued at once with the full cultural authority of the English lyric tradition and with the highest erotic irony. To commemorate this occasion, we offer you Auden’s poem “Pleasure Island,” which first appeared in the pages of COMMENTARY in May 1949, and the Australian critic Clive James’s penetrating essay “Auden’s Achievement.” Enjoy.

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Bush the Bookworm

No myth about George W. Bush has been cultivated more sedulously by his enemies than the idea that he has never read anything—that he is too ignorant to be the leader of the West. Of course, the same myth was created about Reagan, but the Teflon president had the natural ebullience to remain indifferent and undamaged in public esteem. Bush is more vulnerable.

Yet the accusation is even less warranted in his case than it was in Reagan’s. Last Wednesday the British historian Andrew Roberts was a lunch guest at the White House. The President had already read Roberts’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900—a chunky volume of over 700 pages—over Christmas, months before it was published in the United States. (It had appeared in Britain last fall.) His first instinct was to arrange to meet the author, a long-standing habit of his.

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No myth about George W. Bush has been cultivated more sedulously by his enemies than the idea that he has never read anything—that he is too ignorant to be the leader of the West. Of course, the same myth was created about Reagan, but the Teflon president had the natural ebullience to remain indifferent and undamaged in public esteem. Bush is more vulnerable.

Yet the accusation is even less warranted in his case than it was in Reagan’s. Last Wednesday the British historian Andrew Roberts was a lunch guest at the White House. The President had already read Roberts’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900—a chunky volume of over 700 pages—over Christmas, months before it was published in the United States. (It had appeared in Britain last fall.) His first instinct was to arrange to meet the author, a long-standing habit of his.

According to Roberts, he and his wife Susan “spent 45 minutes alone with the President in the Oval Office” before they were joined at lunch by Vice President Cheney and other senior officials. Then Mr. Bush proudly showed his guests the desk at which Churchill and Roosevelt were sitting when the latter broke the news of the British defeat at Tobruk—the opening scene of Roberts’s next book. In other words, the President had not only read the current book but had taken the trouble to inform himself about Roberts’s next one, too.

So how does this distinguished historian think President Bush compares to his predecessors? “He’s an amazingly well-read man, contrary to the way he’s portrayed in the media,” Roberts told the Daily Telegraph.

This chimes with the experience of my father, Paul Johnson, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Mr. Bush last December. In his eulogy, the President listed a few of my father’s many books and added, with typically self-deprecating irony, “I’ve read them all, of course.” The audience laughed, but it emerged in conversation that he actually had read some of them. Like Reagan, whose reading—including Modern Times, my father’s history of the world since 1917—encouraged him to persevere in his mission to win the cold war, George W. Bush has been strengthened by books in his determination not to give up in the war on terror.

Is it only the natural modesty of this President that leads him to wear his erudition so lightly that a cynical intelligentsia assumes that he has never opened a book? Or is it native cunning? Far better to be “misunderestimated” by your enemies than to flaunt your academic prowess and then—like the former president of France, Valery Giscard d’Estaing—find your admission to the Académie Française publicly ridiculed. The only possible motive for President Bush to read big books by historians like Andrew Roberts and Paul Johnson is that he thinks history has important lessons to teach him. Whether he draws the correct conclusions from what he reads is another matter—but he can be sure that future historians of the early 21st century will at least judge him without the insufferable condescension of his contemporaries.

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Eliot A. Cohen to Join Rice at State

As the Washington Post announced today, veteran COMMENTARY contributor Eliot A. Cohen has been hired by Condoleezza Rice as counselor at the State Department, a position previously occupied by figures like George F. Kennan and Helmut Sonnenfeldt. COMMENTARY is now hosting a slate of his articles, all available free of charge.

As the Washington Post announced today, veteran COMMENTARY contributor Eliot A. Cohen has been hired by Condoleezza Rice as counselor at the State Department, a position previously occupied by figures like George F. Kennan and Helmut Sonnenfeldt. COMMENTARY is now hosting a slate of his articles, all available free of charge.

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Not Quite Human

The stem-cell debate raging in the U.S. these last six years has hinged on a question of life and death—that is, whether destroying a human embryo should be permissible. But it is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ethical quandaries in the age of biotechnology. The kind of debates waiting for us just past the next turn will be far more subtle and complex, and directed to questions of human dignity as much as human life.

To get a hint of the mind-boggling issues to come, consider the debate over human-animal hybrids in Britain. Scientists in the UK have asked for government permission to use cloning techniques to produce a new entity that is almost entirely human, but not quite. In human cloning, a human egg is emptied of its nucleus, and in its place scientists insert the nucleus of another human adult cell (like a skin cell, for instance). The result is a developing embryo—a clone—with the genetic identity of the skin-cell donor, along with small amounts of DNA remaining from the egg donor.

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The stem-cell debate raging in the U.S. these last six years has hinged on a question of life and death—that is, whether destroying a human embryo should be permissible. But it is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ethical quandaries in the age of biotechnology. The kind of debates waiting for us just past the next turn will be far more subtle and complex, and directed to questions of human dignity as much as human life.

To get a hint of the mind-boggling issues to come, consider the debate over human-animal hybrids in Britain. Scientists in the UK have asked for government permission to use cloning techniques to produce a new entity that is almost entirely human, but not quite. In human cloning, a human egg is emptied of its nucleus, and in its place scientists insert the nucleus of another human adult cell (like a skin cell, for instance). The result is a developing embryo—a clone—with the genetic identity of the skin-cell donor, along with small amounts of DNA remaining from the egg donor.

The British scientists propose to use an animal egg cell—say, from a rabbit—in place of the human egg cell in this process, to avoid the risks and difficulties of obtaining eggs from women. The other adult cell would still come from a human being, so the resulting embryo would be human, but with some lingering animal DNA. No one quite knows what this would mean for its development, but the researchers propose to destroy the embryos to use their cells in research, rather than allow them to develop, so they argue there is nothing wrong with the concept. No clones would be born, and no human-animal hybrid would develop past about two weeks after conception.

The issues this raises go far beyond the “life question.” What should we make of the effort to muddy the human-animal boundary? And what of the cloning process involved? Should society abide the asexual production of a mostly-but-not-quite-human creature? The British government at first said no. But the predictable pressure from researchers soon came, with promises of cures and claims of therapeutic benefits. After a political and press campaign of several months, the hybrid advocates seem to have won the day: the government today signaled it will rethink its opposition. Welcome to the future.

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America’s Favorite Buildings

The architecture of California, to the chagrin of the Los Angeles Times, is uninspiring. Or so one might conclude from a poll of America’s 150 favorite buildings, put together by the American Institute of Architects to mark its 150th anniversary. It shows that the country’s most beloved buildings are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Northeast, including the Empire State Building (1), the White House (2), the U.S. Capitol (6), the Chrysler Building (9), and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (10). In fact, of the top twenty, a full sixteen are in either New York or Washington, D.C. And California’s most impressive showing is not for a building at all but for an engineering marvel, the Golden Gate Bridge (5).

Of particular distress to the Times were the lackluster ratings given those much-acclaimed Los Angeles gems, the Getty Museum (95) and the Disney Concert Hall (99). The paper offers no explanation for these low rankings, but it may be on to something. How is it that the center of the entertainment industry, which creates the imagery that comprises American popular culture, has been so lackluster in creating memorable architecture? The relative newness of the West Coast is only a partial answer, since the public clearly feels deep affection for a recent monument like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (10).

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The architecture of California, to the chagrin of the Los Angeles Times, is uninspiring. Or so one might conclude from a poll of America’s 150 favorite buildings, put together by the American Institute of Architects to mark its 150th anniversary. It shows that the country’s most beloved buildings are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Northeast, including the Empire State Building (1), the White House (2), the U.S. Capitol (6), the Chrysler Building (9), and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (10). In fact, of the top twenty, a full sixteen are in either New York or Washington, D.C. And California’s most impressive showing is not for a building at all but for an engineering marvel, the Golden Gate Bridge (5).

Of particular distress to the Times were the lackluster ratings given those much-acclaimed Los Angeles gems, the Getty Museum (95) and the Disney Concert Hall (99). The paper offers no explanation for these low rankings, but it may be on to something. How is it that the center of the entertainment industry, which creates the imagery that comprises American popular culture, has been so lackluster in creating memorable architecture? The relative newness of the West Coast is only a partial answer, since the public clearly feels deep affection for a recent monument like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (10).

In fact, what is most impressive about the poll is how impervious it is to hype and publicity. The list is heavy on public monuments, museums, and buildings of state, and in that sense is deeply conservative. Perhaps it reflects a widespread affection for America’s symbolic architecture in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Center (19). It is difficult to imagine that a list of popular buildings compiled before 9/11 would have been so steeped in tradition.

My main quibble with the poll is different from that of the Times. How is it that Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (27) and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater (29)—America’s two greatest houses, and two of the world’s greatest houses—are ranked below the Bellagio Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas (22)?

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