Brooke Astor, “Aristocrat of the People,” as her Times obituary labeled her, died Monday afternoon at the ripe age of 105. She will be missed sorely by a city that loved her, and that she loved back.
Taking a stroll in any of the city’s five boroughs, it is unlikely that one could avoid noticing some park, tenement, library or other institution that Mrs. Astor’s generosity had not touched.
Hopefully a very public, and very ugly, fight will not erupt over Mrs. Astor’s will. Her son, Anthony Marshall, made headlines for allegedly stealing priceless art work from Astor’s apartment and leaving his own mother in a state of egregiously poor care. He was sued by his own son, Philip, who secured affidavits from a host of New York dignitaries (Henry Kissinger, Annette de la Renta, David Rockefeller) to protect his grandmother’s safety. Marshall and his wife, as part of a settlement in which they would not have to admit guilt, agreed to give up their roles as co-executors of Mrs. Astor’s estate.
Everyone who has enjoyed the cultural blessings that New York City has to offer owes a debt of gratitude to Brooke Astor. Perhaps her greatest contribution was not Astor Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Astor Hall at the New York Public Library, or the windows she paid to install at a nursing home on Riverside Drive, but the example she set of private philanthropy for the betterment of her fellow citizens.
The National Journal has an interesting article in the current issue on “The Air Force’s Next Bomber,” by Sydney Freedberg. Unfortunately, it’s not available for free online. (For the paid version, see here). But the gist is that the Air Force, after years of pressure from Congress and political appointees in the Department of Defense, reluctantly has agreed to begin developing a new bomber by 2018. Yet many analysts doubt whether the Air Force is serious.
To an outsider this might seem like a head-scratcher. Why wouldn’t the Air Force want a new airplane? The need for a new bomber seems clear given that, of the current bomber fleet of 180 aircraft, more than half are B-52’s that were last built in 1962. They still perform admirably, but it’s not clear how much longer we can continue to rely for our defense on aircraft that are older than the pilots. Yet the Air Force hasn’t been planning to get any more bombers for decades—not until 2037, when the B-52 turns 75. (Would you drive a 75-year-old car?) The last addition to its bomber fleet was the B-2 stealth bomber, of which it now has 21, the last having arrived in 1997.
“Japan caused great damage and pain to people in many countries, especially in Asia,” Shinzo Abe said yesterday. “With a strong sense of regret, I express my sympathy to these victims on behalf of the people of Japan.” On the 62nd anniversary of Tokyo’s surrender in World War II, Japan’s Prime Minister paid his respects at a secular memorial. Yet he did not visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors war dead.
Some criticized him for not doing so. About ten sound trucks showed up in front of the prime minister’s residence blasting nationalist slogans and labeling Abe “a traitor to the Japanese people.” Abe stayed away from Yasukuni in an effort to avoid triggering protests in Asia, and to keep relations with the region on track. Beijing and Seoul, in particular, have been upset by the regular visits to Yasukuni by Junichiro Koizumi, Abe’s immediate predecessor. (Koizumi, incidentally, visited the controversial Shinto shrine yesterday, greeted with shouts of “Banzai!” from his supporters.)
Analysts will undoubtedly pore over yesterday’s events in Tokyo. Many worry about rising nationalism in Japan. Even Abe, who has devoted much of his short tenure to soothing relations with neighbors, has worked to institute patriotic education and strengthen Japan’s military. He has also triggered controversy this year by making comments absolving the Japanese government and military for sexual slavery during the war. China, for its part, has authorized a new round of commemorations of the Nanjing Massacre, in which, beginning in December 1937, tens of thousands of Chinese civilians (if not more) were slaughtered by Japanese troops. If Koizumi replaces the unpopular Abe, as some Liberal Democratic Party stalwarts want, we will undoubtedly see a new round of Yasukuni visits—and protests around Asia.
Tokyo and Moscow have never formally signed a peace treaty with each other to end World War II. Even if they do so—not likely, due to ongoing disputes over islands that Soviet troops grabbed at the end of the conflict—it does not appear that the war in Asia will be over anytime soon.
At 9 AM on Sept 11 2001, I was at my dentist’s office on New York’s east side getting my teeth cleaned. I already knew that a plane had plowed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center, although I had no idea it was anything but a horrible accident. But rumors and reports were coming in as I sat in the dentist’s chair. When I heard that the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol had also both been hit by aircraft, I pulled the paraphernalia out of my mouth, got up, ran out, and returned to COMMENTARY’s office nearby to watch the action unfold on television.
Many things happened over the ensuing days. One of the more mundane ones was my return, a week later, to my dentist’s office. Two things stand out from that visit.
My dentist, like a great many other Americans, was in a state of outrage. “Nuke’em all” was what he said, and his favored target was Saddam Hussein. In the six years since I’ve seen him twice annually, and, because he tends to lecture me about politics—he is an avid Left-liberal—as he is working on me and I can’t immediately reply, I have had occasion afterward to remind him of what he said after 9/11. He affects to have forgotten. The only person he wants to nuke today is George W. Bush.
Yesterday’s Washington Post reported that Senator Barack Obama claims he can move the country out of “ideological gridlock” and bring the country together more effectively than can Senator Hillary Clinton. This declaration is consistent with Obama’s broader claim, which is that he will put an end to “polarizing politics.”
Obama is attempting to tap into something real, which is the reluctance on the part of many Americans to be drawn back into the psychodramas of the Clinton years: Ken Starr and Kathleen Willey; private investigators hired to look into the private lives of women alleged to have had affairs with Bill Clinton; the (still-resonating) charge of a “vast right-wing conspiracy”; and the brass-knuckle tactics of James Carville, Paul Begala, Sidney Blumenthal, and others. Most of us would like that chapter of American politics to stay closed.
At the same time, the claim that a divided America is somehow “bad” is itself intellectually sloppy. Most of us prefer social harmony to discord—but unity is not the only, or even the highest good in politics. Was there a more divisive and reviled president than Lincoln, who uprooted the centuries-old institution of slavery? The biographer Robert Jackson wrote that after Franklin Roosevelt had been in office for a brief period, “the lines began to separate between those in whom he inspired an all-out devotion and those in whom he aroused an implacable hatred.” Martin Luther King, Jr. was “the object of bitter hatred.” And in 1984 the pollster Lou Harris claimed that Ronald Reagan was polarizing the country more than any president since FDR.
“Conviction politicians” are often polarizing because they take ideas seriously and are willing to do battle on their behalf. And often the greatest advances in history come about only after contentious political debates led by brave and, yes, polarizing political leaders.