Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 20, 2007

The Politics of Personality

At first, it seems hard to disagree with Peggy Noonan’s op-ed in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, which argues that in politics, ideas should outweigh loyalty to particular politicians. “It is better to see activists driven by philosophy than by personalities,” she writes. “Better to be faithful to the cause than to individuals with whom you merely have a history.” A long-time Reagan loyalist, Noonan argues that she was simply true to his conservative principles, never really knowing the man.

Yet it’s hard to deny that personality has played a very important—and positive—role in Republican politics. Democratic primary politics have always been about institutions and traditional alliances: unions, teachers, Hollywood, blacks, Jews, women, gays. Even today, Democratic jostling is not really over philosophy, but rather over who is a better voice for the reliable Democratic interest groups.

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At first, it seems hard to disagree with Peggy Noonan’s op-ed in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, which argues that in politics, ideas should outweigh loyalty to particular politicians. “It is better to see activists driven by philosophy than by personalities,” she writes. “Better to be faithful to the cause than to individuals with whom you merely have a history.” A long-time Reagan loyalist, Noonan argues that she was simply true to his conservative principles, never really knowing the man.

Yet it’s hard to deny that personality has played a very important—and positive—role in Republican politics. Democratic primary politics have always been about institutions and traditional alliances: unions, teachers, Hollywood, blacks, Jews, women, gays. Even today, Democratic jostling is not really over philosophy, but rather over who is a better voice for the reliable Democratic interest groups.

By contrast, Republican primaries have always been a potent mix of big ideas and outsize individuals. Reagan’s popularity surely depended not only on his pithy paeans to smaller government but on his sunny optimism about America—a distinct retreat from the more dour conservatism that preceded him. Their attraction to lone-wolf leaders has made possible the candidacies, however flawed, of Bob Dole, Pat Buchanan, John McCain, and Alexander Haig. Personality is what makes us listen to Fred Thompson’s ideas about what he might do as President.

It is also worth remembering that Republicans have always believed that character—an essential part of personality—really does matter. Many of Clinton’s policy ideas were not that bad, but his character—revealed so plainly in his first campaign for President—made him unfit to serve as our chief executive. We should be happy that the GOP continues to attract quirky, ambitious, colorful, admirable personalities who want to mix it up in the battle of ideas.

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Lord Hannay’s Defense

Last week I gave a lecture at the London School of Economics titled “What’s Wrong with the United Nations?” I was honored by the presence of Lord David Hannay, who served in the early 1990’s as the UK’s Permanent Representative to the UN. Lord Hannay is a smart and sophisticated man, and a friendly conversationalist. He also personifies the mindset of the UN.

In 2004, Kofi Annan, in the wake of the oil-for-food scandal and the Iraq war debate, undertook one of the UN’s most far-reaching reform initiatives by appointing a High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change. Lord Hannay was one of the panel’s few Western members. He and I had met once before, at a conference to evaluate the panel’s report. Where I was critical of the UN, Lord Hannay voiced the argument that the UN is nothing more than the sum of its member states and is used as a whipping boy by thoughtless critics.

This time, at a dinner following my talk, Lord Hannay took issue with an attack (similar to what I wrote in this recent post) I had made on the UN’s Human Rights Council. Hannay said that the Council’s singular chastisement of Israel was understandable in light of Israel’s use of cluster bombs in Lebanon last summer.

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Last week I gave a lecture at the London School of Economics titled “What’s Wrong with the United Nations?” I was honored by the presence of Lord David Hannay, who served in the early 1990’s as the UK’s Permanent Representative to the UN. Lord Hannay is a smart and sophisticated man, and a friendly conversationalist. He also personifies the mindset of the UN.

In 2004, Kofi Annan, in the wake of the oil-for-food scandal and the Iraq war debate, undertook one of the UN’s most far-reaching reform initiatives by appointing a High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change. Lord Hannay was one of the panel’s few Western members. He and I had met once before, at a conference to evaluate the panel’s report. Where I was critical of the UN, Lord Hannay voiced the argument that the UN is nothing more than the sum of its member states and is used as a whipping boy by thoughtless critics.

This time, at a dinner following my talk, Lord Hannay took issue with an attack (similar to what I wrote in this recent post) I had made on the UN’s Human Rights Council. Hannay said that the Council’s singular chastisement of Israel was understandable in light of Israel’s use of cluster bombs in Lebanon last summer.

Never mind that Israel’s actions in Lebanon were in response to a deadly attack on its territory and soldiers by a military force sworn to its destruction. Are Israel’s abuses, such as they are, more blameworthy than those of, say, Burma, Sudan, North Korea, Syria, Cuba, Zimbabwe, etc.? Is it possible that Lord Hannay believes that they are? More likely, he knows better, but suppresses common sense in order to defend the organization that he cherishes.

This impulse to protect the UN at all costs is just what led the body into its worst moments, and Lord Hannay, as it turns out, was in the thick of that. I refer to the UN’s refusal to lift a finger to stop genocide in Rwanda in 1994. The U.S., under President Clinton, was in the forefront of this disgraceful decision. But Lord Hannay stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States government.

Some UN peacekeepers were present in Rwanda when the slaughter began, and they pleaded for reinforcements. Instead, the opposite happened. As recalled by journalist Linda Melvern: “It was the British ambassador, Lord David Hannay, who first suggested to the council that the peacekeepers be withdrawn, and he had suggested ‘a token force’ to remain behind in Rwanda in order to ‘appease public opinion.’”

So much for Lord Hannay’s credentials on human rights. A decade later, when questioned by CNN about those events, Hannay pleaded ignorance. Reports by UN forces in the field saying that mass murder was imminent were “smothered,” he explained. “The Security Council was never told something appalling was going to happen. We were flying completely blind.”

Perhaps so. But who “smothered” the reports to which Lord Hannay was referring, the ones that were sent to UN headquarters in New York by General Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian who commanded UN forces in Rwanda? None other than the Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali; Kofi Annan, then the head of the UN department of peacekeeping; and Annan’s deputy, Iqbal Riza. They did so because they feared that the truth about Rwanda’s imminent genocide would lead UN member states to order actions that might fail and reflect poorly on the UN. Better to let events take their course. In short, Lord Hannay’s self-exoneration gives the lie to his own argument that the UN is nothing more than the sum of its parts.

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Debating Israel

According to Nicholas Kristof, writing in the New York Times last Sunday, American politicians, whether Republicans or Democrats, always bite their tongues when it comes to discussions about Israel. Both sides have “learned to muzzle themselves” and to acquiesce in President Bush’s “crushing embrace” of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. “That silence,” he argues, “harms America, Middle East peace prospects, and Israel itself.” Kristof’s piece is part of a growing genre: criticism of Israel whose starting point is to bemoan how such criticism cannot be made in public.

In Israel, Kristof informs us, there are no such constraints. Debates there “about the use of force and the occupation of Palestinian territories” are healthily “vitriolic.” “Why can’t [our] candidates be as candid as Israelis?”

Among the examples of sabra candor he admires is a 2004 remark made by Tommy Lapid, then Israel’s justice minister, comparing the Israeli army’s razing of a house in Gaza to the Nazis’ dispossession of his grandmother during World War II. “Can you imagine an American cabinet secretary ever saying such a thing?,” asks Kristof. He omits the fact that the house in question was an entry point for a network of tunnels running across the adjacent border with Egypt, tunnels used for smuggling terrorist weapons. Nor does he attempt to explain how our political conversation might be improved by importing Nazi analogies as irresponsible as Lapid’s. Is this the sort of “discussion” that Kristof wants to see? Read More

According to Nicholas Kristof, writing in the New York Times last Sunday, American politicians, whether Republicans or Democrats, always bite their tongues when it comes to discussions about Israel. Both sides have “learned to muzzle themselves” and to acquiesce in President Bush’s “crushing embrace” of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. “That silence,” he argues, “harms America, Middle East peace prospects, and Israel itself.” Kristof’s piece is part of a growing genre: criticism of Israel whose starting point is to bemoan how such criticism cannot be made in public.

In Israel, Kristof informs us, there are no such constraints. Debates there “about the use of force and the occupation of Palestinian territories” are healthily “vitriolic.” “Why can’t [our] candidates be as candid as Israelis?”

Among the examples of sabra candor he admires is a 2004 remark made by Tommy Lapid, then Israel’s justice minister, comparing the Israeli army’s razing of a house in Gaza to the Nazis’ dispossession of his grandmother during World War II. “Can you imagine an American cabinet secretary ever saying such a thing?,” asks Kristof. He omits the fact that the house in question was an entry point for a network of tunnels running across the adjacent border with Egypt, tunnels used for smuggling terrorist weapons. Nor does he attempt to explain how our political conversation might be improved by importing Nazi analogies as irresponsible as Lapid’s. Is this the sort of “discussion” that Kristof wants to see?

Still, there is no denying that political debate is somewhat more contentious in Israel than in the U.S. (although we seem gradually to be catching up). But it is also the case that, despite the rough-and-tumble of the debate Kristof praises so highly, a fairly stable consensus has been reached in Israel about certain policies pertaining to the Palestinians.

One is the need for a security fence to keep suicide bombers from entering Israel. Another is the disinclination to offer more concessions to a Palestinian entity that shows no inclination to live in peace with Israel. Despite his avowed admiration for Israel’s freewheeling brand of politics, Kristof takes the opposite view on both these questions.

His own analysis of the problem, such as it is, is little more than a series of clichés: he blames Israel and its “hard-line policies” for “radicalizing young Palestinians, empowering Hamas and Hizballah, isolating Israel in the world.” It does not occur to him that these “hard-line policies” (though it’s hard to see what is “hard-line” about building a defensive barrier and refusing to negotiate with radical movements devoted to your destruction) might be a response to years of Palestinian terror. And nowhere in his column does Kristof press for the Palestinians (or the larger Arab world) to engage in the kind of self-lacerating debate he so admires in Israeli politics. Apparently, the mere fact that “the Palestinian cause arouses ordinary people in coffee shops” across the Middle East is enough to warrant demanding of Israel that it bend over backward to address their grievance.

For all of the noise Kristof makes about candor in politics, his main concern is that Israel be cast, permanently and publicly, as the primary cause of its own problems: “The best hope for Israel isn’t a better fence or more weaponry. . . . Ultimately, security for Israel will emerge only from a peace agreement with Palestinians.” Why Kristof ignores Israel’s repeated demonstrations of its willingness to make peace is unclear. But before he demands more concessions of Israel, or changes in American discourse on the Middle East, he ought to wait until some healthy “vitriol” appears in Palestinian political debate. The silence of dissenters in that arena is truly deafening.

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Jesse Simons, R.I.P.

(Cross-posted at About Last Night)

Last night I went to a memorial service for Jesse Simons, one of the most delightful and fascinating men I’ve had the good luck to meet. Jesse, who died last year at the age of 88, was a Trotskyist turned labor arbitrator. He became sufficiently distinguished in the latter capacity to earn both a Wikipedia entry and a New York Times obituary, neither of which mentioned that he was also a bon vivant, a ladies’ man, and an unswervingly devoted balletomane.

Even in Manhattan, there aren’t all that many people interested in both George Balanchine and Leon Trotsky, so it was probably inevitable that Jesse and I should have gotten to know one another sooner or later. He reminded me of Eric Hoffer, another blue-collar man who turned himself into a intellectual by sheer force of will, though Jesse’s aesthetic streak was at least as pronounced as his interest in ideas. One of the speakers at his service mentioned his love of Robert Musil and Arthur Schnitzler, and his passion for Freud was a byword among all who knew him. Yet there was nothing pretentious about Jesse, who wore his learning lightly and was modest to a fault, though he had no earthly reason to be.

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(Cross-posted at About Last Night)

Last night I went to a memorial service for Jesse Simons, one of the most delightful and fascinating men I’ve had the good luck to meet. Jesse, who died last year at the age of 88, was a Trotskyist turned labor arbitrator. He became sufficiently distinguished in the latter capacity to earn both a Wikipedia entry and a New York Times obituary, neither of which mentioned that he was also a bon vivant, a ladies’ man, and an unswervingly devoted balletomane.

Even in Manhattan, there aren’t all that many people interested in both George Balanchine and Leon Trotsky, so it was probably inevitable that Jesse and I should have gotten to know one another sooner or later. He reminded me of Eric Hoffer, another blue-collar man who turned himself into a intellectual by sheer force of will, though Jesse’s aesthetic streak was at least as pronounced as his interest in ideas. One of the speakers at his service mentioned his love of Robert Musil and Arthur Schnitzler, and his passion for Freud was a byword among all who knew him. Yet there was nothing pretentious about Jesse, who wore his learning lightly and was modest to a fault, though he had no earthly reason to be.

Among countless other intriguing things, Jesse was one of the founding directors of the New York Pro Musica Antiqua, the pioneering early-music group. Noah Greenberg, who started the Pro Musica, was another ex-Trotskyist a labor organizer who subsequently turned his back on radical politics to immerse himself in the world of art. Late in life, Jesse was interviewed by James Gollin, Greenberg’s excellent biographer, to whom he made the following remark:

I knew dozens of the people who were around in those days. Politicals, labor people, intellectuals. We were all going to make the world a better place. But the only one who really left the world a better place than he found it was Noah, with his music.

I made a point of including those telling words in a piece about Greenberg that I wrote for COMMENTARY in 2001, partly because I knew that Jesse was a faithful reader of the magazine and hoped the gesture might please him. It was the only time his name ever appeared in COMMENTARY, and one of the few times it appeared in print during his lifetime. More’s the pity, for he could easily have written a classic autobiography. Instead his friends—of whom there were many—must rely on their memories. I know that mine will always stay bright and true.

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