Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 18, 2007

Weekend Reading

From 1970 to 1973, Norman Podhoretz, then COMMENTARY’s editor-in-chief (and now its editor-at-large), wrote a monthly column to introduce and expand on the themes and points raised in the issue’s most important articles. The column, titled “Issues,” lasted only three years, but it ranged over a huge variety of subjects and illuminated some of the most pressing cultural, political, and intellectual questions of the day. This weekend, we offer several of the best of “Issues.”

Laws, Kings, and Cures
October 1970

Liberty and the Intellectuals
November 1971

The Idea of a Common Culture
June 1972

Between Nixon and the New Politics
September 1972

Vietnam and Collective Guilt
March 1973

From 1970 to 1973, Norman Podhoretz, then COMMENTARY’s editor-in-chief (and now its editor-at-large), wrote a monthly column to introduce and expand on the themes and points raised in the issue’s most important articles. The column, titled “Issues,” lasted only three years, but it ranged over a huge variety of subjects and illuminated some of the most pressing cultural, political, and intellectual questions of the day. This weekend, we offer several of the best of “Issues.”

Laws, Kings, and Cures
October 1970

Liberty and the Intellectuals
November 1971

The Idea of a Common Culture
June 1972

Between Nixon and the New Politics
September 1972

Vietnam and Collective Guilt
March 1973

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the National Archives

The website of Stonebridge International, a consulting firm that provides advice on doing business in China, Russia, India, Brazil, and other promising markets, has a tab called “in the news.” I clicked on it this morning and two items caught my eye. One was “Let’s Get to Know the Saudis,” and the other was “How Turning Capitalism Into Equality Can Mean Profit for All.” Interesting stuff–if you are a client of Stonebridge International, that is.

But even more interesting is a news story about Stonebridge that does not appear on its website, or for that matter in most of the newspapers in this country that count.

Stonebridge’s chairman is Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger, National Security Advisor to Bill Clinton. In 2005, Berger was convicted of pilfering classified documents from the National Archives as he was preparing to testify before the 9/11 Commission. He had smuggled them out by stuffing them into his trousers and socks and then hidden some of them in a nearby construction site. He was subsequently fined $56,905 and sentenced to 100 hours of community service, which he fulfilled by picking up litter in Virginia parks.

Yesterday, to avoid the ignominy of being disbarred—or perhaps, more importantly, to avoid being asked further questions under oath about what he had done—Berger agreed to surrender his license to practice law. A two-page agreement states that Berger “acknowledges that the material facts upon which the allegations of misconduct are predicated are true” and that he “could not successfully defend against them.”

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The website of Stonebridge International, a consulting firm that provides advice on doing business in China, Russia, India, Brazil, and other promising markets, has a tab called “in the news.” I clicked on it this morning and two items caught my eye. One was “Let’s Get to Know the Saudis,” and the other was “How Turning Capitalism Into Equality Can Mean Profit for All.” Interesting stuff–if you are a client of Stonebridge International, that is.

But even more interesting is a news story about Stonebridge that does not appear on its website, or for that matter in most of the newspapers in this country that count.

Stonebridge’s chairman is Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger, National Security Advisor to Bill Clinton. In 2005, Berger was convicted of pilfering classified documents from the National Archives as he was preparing to testify before the 9/11 Commission. He had smuggled them out by stuffing them into his trousers and socks and then hidden some of them in a nearby construction site. He was subsequently fined $56,905 and sentenced to 100 hours of community service, which he fulfilled by picking up litter in Virginia parks.

Yesterday, to avoid the ignominy of being disbarred—or perhaps, more importantly, to avoid being asked further questions under oath about what he had done—Berger agreed to surrender his license to practice law. A two-page agreement states that Berger “acknowledges that the material facts upon which the allegations of misconduct are predicated are true” and that he “could not successfully defend against them.”

What exactly was Berger up to in the National Archives? Why did he want those documents so badly that he was willing to risk so much, including 100 hours picking up soda cans instead of racking up billable hours at Stonebridge? We still don’t really know. His own stated explanation—that he simply wanted to read the documents at his leisure at home—does not comport with stowing them in a construction-site dead-drop like a semi-trained spy. And why are only two newspapers—the Washington Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution—keeping us up to date on this bizarre story? If a Bush or a Reagan administration official had done something similar would the media be so incurious? The media’s quiet handling of this is almost as baffling as in the Montaperto matter, although for sheer mystery that case is hard to beat. 

Ronald Montaperto, an analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency, and something of a soft-liner on China policy, pleaded guilty last June to the illegal retention of classified documents. He acknowledged in the course of the proceedings against him that he had passed secret and top-secret information to Chinese intelligence officers. Last September, he was sentenced to three months in prison and was released from incarceration this past February. The sentence stands in sharp contrast to the twelve-plus years that were given to Lawrence Franklin in the AIPAC matter for the less serious offense of passing classified documents to American citizens and mishandling others by keeping them in his home.

Neither the Washington Post nor the New York Times nor any of our country’s leading newspapers–except for the conservative Washington Times—has yet to report a word about Montaperto’s escapades. It is as if this Chinese espionage case didn’t happen. I do not believe it could possibly be politics that explains this silence. Newspapers like the Post and Times may not always be the altogether neutral purveyors of news that they purport to be, but they wouldn’t ever actually suppress important information. Or would they, and why?  

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Another Grey Gardens

What makes two addled society ladies into legends? Being the subject of a classic film certainly doesn’t hurt. The 1976 documentary Grey Gardens, by Albert and David Maysles, took as its subjects the reclusive Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edie (known as Big Edie and Little Edie), respectively an aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The Edies lived in a decaying East Hampton mansion, from which the film drew its title. Grey Gardens features the pair squabbling and good-naturedly chatting with the filmmakers, pleased to have, finally, an audience for their narcissistic monologues and atonal warbling of nightclub tunes. The opposite of intrusive paparazzi, the artful Maysles brothers actually provided the Beales an opportunity for self-validation; Grey Gardens developed a cult-like following. And now a Broadway musical—recently nominated for ten Tonys and newly available on CD from PS Classics—based on the film has become the latest radical transformation of Big Edie and Little Edie for public consumption.

The musical Grey Gardens, which opened last November after an off-Broadway run, stars Christine Ebersole (Little Edie), who possesses a brilliant voice, an astonishing gift for mimicry, and razor-sharp timing. The veteran stage actress Mary Louise Wilson, as Big Edie, expresses the hopeless fierceness and comic triviality of a Samuel Beckett character. Their extraordinary performances are bathed in subtle lighting designed by Peter Kaczorowski, a design in stark contrast to the harsh and unforgiving light in the Maysles’ film, which exposed the Beales’ every wrinkle and bodily flaw.

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What makes two addled society ladies into legends? Being the subject of a classic film certainly doesn’t hurt. The 1976 documentary Grey Gardens, by Albert and David Maysles, took as its subjects the reclusive Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edie (known as Big Edie and Little Edie), respectively an aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The Edies lived in a decaying East Hampton mansion, from which the film drew its title. Grey Gardens features the pair squabbling and good-naturedly chatting with the filmmakers, pleased to have, finally, an audience for their narcissistic monologues and atonal warbling of nightclub tunes. The opposite of intrusive paparazzi, the artful Maysles brothers actually provided the Beales an opportunity for self-validation; Grey Gardens developed a cult-like following. And now a Broadway musical—recently nominated for ten Tonys and newly available on CD from PS Classics—based on the film has become the latest radical transformation of Big Edie and Little Edie for public consumption.

The musical Grey Gardens, which opened last November after an off-Broadway run, stars Christine Ebersole (Little Edie), who possesses a brilliant voice, an astonishing gift for mimicry, and razor-sharp timing. The veteran stage actress Mary Louise Wilson, as Big Edie, expresses the hopeless fierceness and comic triviality of a Samuel Beckett character. Their extraordinary performances are bathed in subtle lighting designed by Peter Kaczorowski, a design in stark contrast to the harsh and unforgiving light in the Maysles’ film, which exposed the Beales’ every wrinkle and bodily flaw.

Playbill candidly informs us that the events of the musical Grey Gardens are “based on both fact and fiction.” The show’s website may be less than accurate in proclaiming: “Meet Jackie O’s most scandalous relatives!” (Surely the Kennedy relatives who have been accused of felonies surpassed the Beales’ unhappiness in love or failed attempts at singing careers?) The website also somewhat disingenuously introduces the Beales as the “delightfully eccentric aunt and the cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.” The journalist Gail Sheehy, who in 1972 published a groundbreaking article about the Beales, recalled Grey Gardens’ floors as “lumped and crusty with old cat feces; the roof punctured with raccoon holes.” “Delightfully eccentric” indeed! But the musical’s greatest departure from the film is, of course, its filtering of the Beales’ tremendous weirdness through the great skill of two gifted and seasoned actresses, rather than showing them warts and all.

In the musical, Big Edie’s father castigates her for being an “actress without a stage.” If anything, the Beales’ posterity looks likely to contain too many stages: another movie—this one fully fictional and minus the songs—starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange is reportedly in the works. Still, the reality of the Beales’ lives may continue to dwarf any efforts at interpretation on stage or screen. After all, in 1979 Little Edie—who would die in 2002 at age 84—sold Grey Gardens to former Washington Post editor Benjamin Bradlee and his wife, Sally Quinn, who laboriously restored it and currently rent it out for most of the year. What screenwriter could have concocted that anticlimactic coda to the Beales’ improbable tale?

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Beyond Japan’s “Peace Constitution”

On Monday, Japan’s Diet enacted a law establishing procedures for national referenda on amendments to the country’s constitution. On Tuesday, China publicly complained. This is not really surprising: for many Asians, Japan’s constitutional arrangements have long been a matter of international concern.

Japan’s “peace constitution” was imposed in 1946 by General Douglas MacArthur, the so-called “second emperor.” In article nine of that document the Japanese people “forever” renounced both “war” and “the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” They also promised “never” to maintain “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential.”

But article nine has not been enforced for decades. Tokyo now maintains approximately 240,000 soldiers, sailors, and pilots supported by the world’s fifth-largest military budget. Article nine today is narrowly interpreted as a ban on participation in “collective self-defense,” but even that prohibition has been eroded. Japan sent minesweepers to the Persian Gulf in 1991, an Aegis destroyer to the Indian Ocean in 2002 to support U.S. operations, and, most notably, a contingent of troops to Iraq in 2004. The Iraq deployment was the first time Japan has sent ground troops to a war zone since the end of World War II. And, unlike Japan’s 1992 mission in Cambodia and later peacekeeping efforts, the soldiers sent to Iraq operated outside a UN framework.

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On Monday, Japan’s Diet enacted a law establishing procedures for national referenda on amendments to the country’s constitution. On Tuesday, China publicly complained. This is not really surprising: for many Asians, Japan’s constitutional arrangements have long been a matter of international concern.

Japan’s “peace constitution” was imposed in 1946 by General Douglas MacArthur, the so-called “second emperor.” In article nine of that document the Japanese people “forever” renounced both “war” and “the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” They also promised “never” to maintain “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential.”

But article nine has not been enforced for decades. Tokyo now maintains approximately 240,000 soldiers, sailors, and pilots supported by the world’s fifth-largest military budget. Article nine today is narrowly interpreted as a ban on participation in “collective self-defense,” but even that prohibition has been eroded. Japan sent minesweepers to the Persian Gulf in 1991, an Aegis destroyer to the Indian Ocean in 2002 to support U.S. operations, and, most notably, a contingent of troops to Iraq in 2004. The Iraq deployment was the first time Japan has sent ground troops to a war zone since the end of World War II. And, unlike Japan’s 1992 mission in Cambodia and later peacekeeping efforts, the soldiers sent to Iraq operated outside a UN framework.

Other Asians are uncomfortable with Japanese participation in such military efforts. As Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore, famously said, permitting the Japanese to carry arms abroad is like “giving liqueur chocolates to a reformed alcoholic.” The new referendum law caused “high concern and misgivings among the people of Asia who suffered Japanese invasion and enslavement,” according to a statement released by Beijing’s official Xinhua news agency. “People have begun to doubt whether Japan will continue its path of peaceful development.”

Paradoxically, however, Tokyo’s attempt formally to legalize its defensive forces is a necessary step in ensuring that peaceful development. Article nine makes it extremely difficult for the Japanese to have honest debates among themselves about their history. The constitution stigmatizes the past and, as one of the country’s most prominent journalists said to me recently, prevents Japan from becoming “a normal country.”

East Asians may never feel fully comfortable with a rearmed Japan, but their unease is heightened by Tokyo’s openly violating the country’s constitution. The way to end, finally, the long aftermath of World War II in Asia is for the Japanese to amend their constitution—and subsequently to adhere to it.

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