Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 27, 2007

Oscar Peterson, RIP

cross-posted at About Last Night

Oscar Peterson, who died on Sunday, was one of a handful of jazz musicians to have cultivated a virtuoso technique comparable to that of the greatest classical instrumentalists. In part for this reason, he never got along well with jazz critics, most of whom were (and are) too musically ignorant to appreciate the near-unique nature of his achievement. Peterson’s peers knew better. He was very, very popular—every great virtuoso is—but it was his fellow artists who gauged his worth most accurately. Like Buddy Rich, he left a trail of collegial awe behind him wherever he went.

Peterson got more bad reviews than any other major jazz pianist, and on occasion he deserved them. Miles Davis, one of the few musicians of importance to have said anything unpleasant about him, famously remarked that Peterson “makes me sick because he copies everybody. He even had to learn how to play the blues.” That was both nasty and untrue, but it did point to the chink in his armor. Unlimited virtuosity is a snare for the unwary artist. “Only in limitation,” Goethe wrote, “is mastery revealed.” Peterson’s extreme technical facility, by contrast, sometimes lured him into the trap of glibness. When he was coasting, all you heard was the fireworks. Nor did it help that he recorded so prolifically throughout his seven-decade-long career. No one can make that many records save at the price of consistent inspiration, and Peterson paid that price too often for comfort.

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cross-posted at About Last Night

Oscar Peterson, who died on Sunday, was one of a handful of jazz musicians to have cultivated a virtuoso technique comparable to that of the greatest classical instrumentalists. In part for this reason, he never got along well with jazz critics, most of whom were (and are) too musically ignorant to appreciate the near-unique nature of his achievement. Peterson’s peers knew better. He was very, very popular—every great virtuoso is—but it was his fellow artists who gauged his worth most accurately. Like Buddy Rich, he left a trail of collegial awe behind him wherever he went.

Peterson got more bad reviews than any other major jazz pianist, and on occasion he deserved them. Miles Davis, one of the few musicians of importance to have said anything unpleasant about him, famously remarked that Peterson “makes me sick because he copies everybody. He even had to learn how to play the blues.” That was both nasty and untrue, but it did point to the chink in his armor. Unlimited virtuosity is a snare for the unwary artist. “Only in limitation,” Goethe wrote, “is mastery revealed.” Peterson’s extreme technical facility, by contrast, sometimes lured him into the trap of glibness. When he was coasting, all you heard was the fireworks. Nor did it help that he recorded so prolifically throughout his seven-decade-long career. No one can make that many records save at the price of consistent inspiration, and Peterson paid that price too often for comfort.

He was at his best from 1953 to 1958, when he led a drummerless trio featuring the guitarist Herb Ellis and the bassist Ray Brown that was celebrated for its aggressive, unrelenting swing. Peterson and his colleagues modeled themselves on the legendary King Cole Trio, but unlike that deliciously easy-going ensemble, the Peterson Trio was a straight-ahead group whose members favored fast tempos and liked nothing better than to light the afterburner and take off. Most of their recordings are out of print, but The Oscar Peterson Trio at Zardi’s, a thrilling live album recorded in 1955 at a Los Angeles nightclub, captures them at their most characteristic.

When Ellis decided to quit the road, Peterson replaced him not with another guitarist but with a drummer, the tasteful and elegant Ed Thigpen, thereby recharging his creative batteries for another half-dozen years. It was this version of the Oscar Peterson Trio that recorded most frequently, and one must pick and choose carefully among its many albums to get a clear sense of how good the group could be. Fortunately—and not coincidentally—the most popular of its recordings, Night Train, is also one of the finest. An after-hours 1962 studio set devoted to blues tunes and blues-flavored pop songs, Night Train shows how deeply Peterson could dig when he felt like laying back instead of showing off.

Peterson’s later albums are typically less interesting than the ones he made with Brown, Ellis, and Thigpen, but My Favorite Instrument, a 1968 collection of unaccompanied piano solos called that was privately recorded in Germany under optimal circumstances, is worthy of special mention. His playing here is both carefully controlled and consistently inspired, and even his harshest critics have singled it out as noteworthy. I also like The Trio, a live set from 1973 featuring the guitarist Joe Pass and the bassist Niels Pedersen, which contains a version of Nat Cole’s “Easy Listening Blues” that shows how much Peterson learned from his nonpareil predecessor.

In addition to recording with his own groups, Peterson cut hundreds of albums as a sideman, most of them made in the days when he was barnstorming with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic concert troupes and doubling as house pianist for Verve, Granz’s record label. He recorded with everyone who worked for Granz—Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Ben Webster, Lester Young, even Fred Astaire—and his sensitive, discreet support rarely failed to stimulate those for whom he played. Stan Getz and the Oscar Peterson Trio, recorded in 1957, is an especially choice example of his prowess as an accompanist.

Peterson also wrote a memoir, A Jazz Odyssey, about which I wrote in COMMENTARY when it was published in 2002:

I can think of no other jazz autobiography that has made the mysteries of music-making so readily accessible to the lay reader. Even those who dislike Oscar Peterson’s playing will find his book informative—surely a near-unprecedented achievement…. Despite his gifts as a raconteur, Peterson is not a natural writer—his ghostwritten prose is too often stiff and ostentatious—but when he speaks of music, the results have a clarity and specificity rarely found in books of this genre. And unlike most jazz memoirists, he is even willing to be critical of other players, including some of the most admired musicians in jazz. Peterson’s analysis of the “uneven and unfinished” playing of the bebop pianist Bud Powell, for instance, cuts sharply against the grain of conventional critical wisdom, and whether or not one agrees with his conclusions, they merit close scrutiny, not only in their own right but for the perspective they offer on his own remarkable technical achievements.

Alas, A Jazz Odyssey is out of print, but Gene Lees’s Oscar Peterson: The Will to Swing is still available in paperback. An intelligent and warmly sympathetic biography by one of the few jazz critics who appreciated Peterson properly, it profits from Lees’s close friendship with his subject.

Peterson was crippled by a stroke in 1993, and though he continued to play in public, his last performances added no luster to his reputation. Now that the long sunset of his post-stroke career is over, my guess is that he will fade from view for a time—perhaps even a long time. But sooner or later some patient and industrious critic will sift through the mountain of variably inspired recordings that he left behind, separate the wheat from the chaff, and tell a later generation of listeners what those who admired Oscar Peterson in his lifetime already know: when he was good, no one was better.

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2007′s Oddest Political Moments

There’s been a huge amount of talk this election season about the potential impact Youtube might have on the election specifically and on our political life in general. While that impact remains unclear, what is certain is that Youtube has made it more or less impossible for candidates to escape moments like these. And for that, we should all be thankful.

1. John McCain sings!

2. Larry Craig denies!

3. Karl Rove rocks the mike!

4. Rudy’s wife calls!

5. John Edwards primps!

6. Hillary gets patriotic!

7. Here’s one from across the pond: Sarkozy stumbles!

8. Andrew Young “clowns”!

9. Mitt Romney misidentifies!

There’s been a huge amount of talk this election season about the potential impact Youtube might have on the election specifically and on our political life in general. While that impact remains unclear, what is certain is that Youtube has made it more or less impossible for candidates to escape moments like these. And for that, we should all be thankful.

1. John McCain sings!

2. Larry Craig denies!

3. Karl Rove rocks the mike!

4. Rudy’s wife calls!

5. John Edwards primps!

6. Hillary gets patriotic!

7. Here’s one from across the pond: Sarkozy stumbles!

8. Andrew Young “clowns”!

9. Mitt Romney misidentifies!

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A Turning Point?

At least one report has al Qaeda claiming responsibility for today’s assassination of Benazir Bhutto. When it comes to Pakistan, determining guilt for this bombing or that assassination is a humbling task. But if the former prime minister was, in fact, killed by al Qaeda, then they may have once again overplayed their hand.

After years of al Qaeda carnage, people reached a saturation point in Iraq when they found their every effort at forward momentum stifled. Pakistan may be nearing something like the nihilistic burnout that drove Iraqis to turn en masse on al Qaeda. The situations are different, for sure, but there are key similarities—the most important being the frustration of citizens as they approach democracy. As Max Boot has pointed out, Pakistanis are already underwhelmed by extremist efforts at responsible governance. Benazir Bhutto had her detractors, but she had more than enough support to put fear into President Musharraf. If Pakistanis have to endure another stretch of emergency crackdowns they’ll be loath to tolerate the further debilitating efforts of al Qaeda and their ilk. After all, hopes for the Parliamentary elections (slated to take place in two weeks) are now shot once more.

Reports of looting and rioting are coming in from Pakistan. Undoubtedly, that country is in the onset of dangerously violent convulsions. Security is the immediate concern, and restoring order will be a gargantuan feat. But after the dust settles, we may see the kind of organic desire for consensual government that no outside ally or diplomat has yet been able to consolidate or mobilize.

At least one report has al Qaeda claiming responsibility for today’s assassination of Benazir Bhutto. When it comes to Pakistan, determining guilt for this bombing or that assassination is a humbling task. But if the former prime minister was, in fact, killed by al Qaeda, then they may have once again overplayed their hand.

After years of al Qaeda carnage, people reached a saturation point in Iraq when they found their every effort at forward momentum stifled. Pakistan may be nearing something like the nihilistic burnout that drove Iraqis to turn en masse on al Qaeda. The situations are different, for sure, but there are key similarities—the most important being the frustration of citizens as they approach democracy. As Max Boot has pointed out, Pakistanis are already underwhelmed by extremist efforts at responsible governance. Benazir Bhutto had her detractors, but she had more than enough support to put fear into President Musharraf. If Pakistanis have to endure another stretch of emergency crackdowns they’ll be loath to tolerate the further debilitating efforts of al Qaeda and their ilk. After all, hopes for the Parliamentary elections (slated to take place in two weeks) are now shot once more.

Reports of looting and rioting are coming in from Pakistan. Undoubtedly, that country is in the onset of dangerously violent convulsions. Security is the immediate concern, and restoring order will be a gargantuan feat. But after the dust settles, we may see the kind of organic desire for consensual government that no outside ally or diplomat has yet been able to consolidate or mobilize.

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Top Five Handshakes of 2007

The most choreographed aspect of any meeting between two heads-of-state is the handshake. Of course, some handshakes are better choreographed than others, but the essential elements are usually the same: warm smiles, tight clenches, and an eye towards the camera—no matter what the two leaders think of each other.

Given the prevalence of the handshake in international relations, most handshakes are entirely unspectacular. Yet, among the thousands of picture-perfect handshakes that leaders deliver to the media each year, some inevitably stand out as especially encouraging, disappointing, or ironic. With this in mind, I present the top five handshakes of 2007:

5. Saudi King Abdullah greets Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at Annapolis.

5. Russian President Vladimir Putin and George H.W. Bush’s dog. Granted, this isn’t a handshake, per se. Yet the intense look on Putin’s face indicates that serious business is being accomplished. With a respected former president looking on, Putin’s meeting with the well-connected mutt has the appearance of a major diplomatic success.

4. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. This handshake proves that memories are impressively short in international affairs. In 1989, Libya was implicated in the UTA 772 bombing, in which 170 people were murdered while flying to Paris; a French court found Qaddafi’s own brother-in-law, among five others, culpable. But this month, Qaddafi—having since accepted responsibility for the attack, compensated the families, and destroyed his WMD—was welcomed in Paris. It rarely gets more awkward than this, and not just because of Qaddafi’s beatnik-styled facial hair.

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The most choreographed aspect of any meeting between two heads-of-state is the handshake. Of course, some handshakes are better choreographed than others, but the essential elements are usually the same: warm smiles, tight clenches, and an eye towards the camera—no matter what the two leaders think of each other.

Given the prevalence of the handshake in international relations, most handshakes are entirely unspectacular. Yet, among the thousands of picture-perfect handshakes that leaders deliver to the media each year, some inevitably stand out as especially encouraging, disappointing, or ironic. With this in mind, I present the top five handshakes of 2007:

5. Saudi King Abdullah greets Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at Annapolis.

5. Russian President Vladimir Putin and George H.W. Bush’s dog. Granted, this isn’t a handshake, per se. Yet the intense look on Putin’s face indicates that serious business is being accomplished. With a respected former president looking on, Putin’s meeting with the well-connected mutt has the appearance of a major diplomatic success.

4. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. This handshake proves that memories are impressively short in international affairs. In 1989, Libya was implicated in the UTA 772 bombing, in which 170 people were murdered while flying to Paris; a French court found Qaddafi’s own brother-in-law, among five others, culpable. But this month, Qaddafi—having since accepted responsibility for the attack, compensated the families, and destroyed his WMD—was welcomed in Paris. It rarely gets more awkward than this, and not just because of Qaddafi’s beatnik-styled facial hair.

3. U.S. President George W. Bush poses with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. As I noted last month, the Annapolis Conference ended with a shutout: three Olmert-Abbas-with-Bush-in-between handshakes, and zero peace-promoting accomplishments.

2. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad greets his favorite basketball player Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. I know: Syria sent its deputy foreign minister to Annapolis, so it’s entering the U.S. orbit and moving away from Iran. Apparently the Syrian president and his Iranian counterpart haven’t gotten the memo.

1. Abbas shakes hands with Hamas leaders Khalid Meshal and Ismail Haniyeh. Like so many Hamas-Fatah truces before it, this one started with Hamas’s reeling from Israeli strikes and political isolation and ended with Hamas stronger than it had ever been previously. Hamas now controls Gaza, and has set its sights on the West Bank. Yet, for a few moments in February, this latest Hamas-Fatah truce held so much promise—as a symbol of their unity, Abbas, Meshal, and Haniyeh had even coordinated their outfits. It doesn’t get more choreographed than that.

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Ryan Crocker

I just left an on-the-record conference call in which Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, briefed some stateside pundits on how the situation looks at the end of the year. Not surprisingly, he said, that “2007 ends in a considerably better place than it began” and that he is “feeling a lot more encouraged than when I got here last March.” The key challenge now, of course, is to translate security progress into more political progress.

Crocker offered some encouraging signs of a “positive spiral engendered by security improvements,” including the fact that Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Vice President, recently met with Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the senior Shiite cleric, and that there were recently meetings between Sunni sheikhs from Anbar Province and Shiite sheikhs from Karbala Province. Those kinds of cross-sectarian meetings would not have happened a year ago.

He also pointed out that some of the Concerned Local Citizens groups in mixed parts of Baghdad that have taken up arms against extremists are composed of both Shiites and Sunnis. (The majority, however, are still exclusively Sunni, which makes sense, because they are operating in Sunni neighborhoods.)

Another welcome sign is that the central government is spending more of its budget and that the money is going out to Sunni and Shiite provinces alike “in a manner perceived as equitable.” In a related development, the Baghdad government recently agreed to pay pensions to tens of thousands of people who had been denied them because of their association with the Baathist regime. Crocker suggested this means that “they are paying for reconciliation.”

Trying to pass reconciliation legislation has, Crocker admitted, “been a slow, painful process.” Some of the bills, including one reversing previous de-Baathification decrees and another offering limited amnesty to some of those who have fought against coalition and Iraqi forces since 2003, are still winding their way through the legislative process. “They are making some progress,” he said. “They are going to have to make more.” He did add that the problem doesn’t seem to be Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki: “He’s a committed, dedicated person of great personal courage.”

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I just left an on-the-record conference call in which Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, briefed some stateside pundits on how the situation looks at the end of the year. Not surprisingly, he said, that “2007 ends in a considerably better place than it began” and that he is “feeling a lot more encouraged than when I got here last March.” The key challenge now, of course, is to translate security progress into more political progress.

Crocker offered some encouraging signs of a “positive spiral engendered by security improvements,” including the fact that Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Vice President, recently met with Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the senior Shiite cleric, and that there were recently meetings between Sunni sheikhs from Anbar Province and Shiite sheikhs from Karbala Province. Those kinds of cross-sectarian meetings would not have happened a year ago.

He also pointed out that some of the Concerned Local Citizens groups in mixed parts of Baghdad that have taken up arms against extremists are composed of both Shiites and Sunnis. (The majority, however, are still exclusively Sunni, which makes sense, because they are operating in Sunni neighborhoods.)

Another welcome sign is that the central government is spending more of its budget and that the money is going out to Sunni and Shiite provinces alike “in a manner perceived as equitable.” In a related development, the Baghdad government recently agreed to pay pensions to tens of thousands of people who had been denied them because of their association with the Baathist regime. Crocker suggested this means that “they are paying for reconciliation.”

Trying to pass reconciliation legislation has, Crocker admitted, “been a slow, painful process.” Some of the bills, including one reversing previous de-Baathification decrees and another offering limited amnesty to some of those who have fought against coalition and Iraqi forces since 2003, are still winding their way through the legislative process. “They are making some progress,” he said. “They are going to have to make more.” He did add that the problem doesn’t seem to be Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki: “He’s a committed, dedicated person of great personal courage.”

A wild card in all this remains the role of Iraq’s neighbors, particularly Syria and Iran, which have long been stoking the conflict. There have been mixed reports on whether the Iranians and Syrians have tamped down their efforts to destabilize Iraq, with conflicting claims being heard from the Pentagon and State Department.

Crocker was careful to take a middle-of-the-road position, saying, “I’m pretty modest about what I claim to know about Iran.” Crocker continued: “It’s unclear to me how much of what we’ve seen in throttling back of extremist militia activity represents an Iranian effort, how much of it is Sadrist leaders recognizing where good politics lie…. I’m making no assumptions. I’m handing out no certificates of good behavior.” This puts him at odds, seemingly, with some State Department colleagues back in Washington, who have been more effusive in attesting to Iran’s supposed change of behavior.

As for Syria, he said, there are “some indications of lessening numbers of foreign fighters slash suicide bombers coming across the border, but as far as we can tell that still remains the primary conduit for people who do really nasty things out here.”

He pointed out another aspect of Iraq’s foreign relations that hasn’t received the attention it deserves: the unwillingness of Arab countries to send ambassadors back to Baghdad despite the improving security situation. “It is past time,” Crocker said, “for Arab states to step up and be a positive, active influence in Iraq.” At the moment, they prefer to complain from the sidelines about Iranian influence without trying to get into the game themselves.

Crocker ended by saying that Iraqis no longer fear getting abandoned by the United States: “At the most fundamental level, there is a view that things are moving in the right direction, that security is improving, that the surge has worked, that Iraqi forces are more numerous and more capable, and therefore why on earth would we abandon a winning proposition?”

Good question. It’s one that some of the presidential candidates who are advocating a rapid drawdown of American forces should answer.

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The End of the Primary’s Holiday From History

The past three months have seen an odd turn in the presidential primary process in both parties — a turn away from the key issues confronting the United States and toward emotional and social vapor. The success of the surge in Iraq, coupled with the bizarre “we’re safe” reading of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, drained some of the passion from the anti-war fervor in the Democratic primary electorate and from the hawkish fervor of the Republican primary electorate. In their place came the Christian identity-politics rise of Mike Huckabee on the Republican side and the “we need a nice new politics” rise of Barack Obama on the Democratic side. Republicans squabbled about sanctuary cities and sanctuary mansions. Democrats squabbled about how many uninsured there would be left if their various health-care plans were imposed on the country.

The horrifying assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan this morning comes only one week before the Iowa caucuses and 12 days before New Hampshire. It is a sobering and frightening reminder of the challenges and threats and dangers posed to the United States by radical Islam,  the nature of the struggle being waged against the effort to extend democratic freedoms in the Muslim world, and the awful possibility of a nuclear Pakistan overrun by Islamofascists. This is what the next president will be compelled by circumstance to spend a plurality of his or her time on. This is what really matters, not the cross Mike Huckabee lit up behind his head in his Christmas ad.

American politics would dearly love to take a holiday from history, just as it did in the 1990s. But our enemies are not going to allow us to do so. The murder of Bhutto moves foreign policy, the war on terror, and the threat of Islamofascism back into the center of the 2008 campaign. How candidates respond to it, and issues like it that will come up in the next 10 months, will determine whether they are fit for the presidency.

The past three months have seen an odd turn in the presidential primary process in both parties — a turn away from the key issues confronting the United States and toward emotional and social vapor. The success of the surge in Iraq, coupled with the bizarre “we’re safe” reading of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, drained some of the passion from the anti-war fervor in the Democratic primary electorate and from the hawkish fervor of the Republican primary electorate. In their place came the Christian identity-politics rise of Mike Huckabee on the Republican side and the “we need a nice new politics” rise of Barack Obama on the Democratic side. Republicans squabbled about sanctuary cities and sanctuary mansions. Democrats squabbled about how many uninsured there would be left if their various health-care plans were imposed on the country.

The horrifying assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan this morning comes only one week before the Iowa caucuses and 12 days before New Hampshire. It is a sobering and frightening reminder of the challenges and threats and dangers posed to the United States by radical Islam,  the nature of the struggle being waged against the effort to extend democratic freedoms in the Muslim world, and the awful possibility of a nuclear Pakistan overrun by Islamofascists. This is what the next president will be compelled by circumstance to spend a plurality of his or her time on. This is what really matters, not the cross Mike Huckabee lit up behind his head in his Christmas ad.

American politics would dearly love to take a holiday from history, just as it did in the 1990s. But our enemies are not going to allow us to do so. The murder of Bhutto moves foreign policy, the war on terror, and the threat of Islamofascism back into the center of the 2008 campaign. How candidates respond to it, and issues like it that will come up in the next 10 months, will determine whether they are fit for the presidency.

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John Ledyard

Soon 2007 will draw to a close, and with it the much-fêted fiftieth anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I’ve had all year to ponder it, but I’m no closer to understanding what the fuss is about. Could it really hurt to temper the praise by pointing out some of the book’s deficiencies? The reverential overtones of this title couldn’t be more appropriate; many fans treat the book as though it were some kind of religious text. But the real puzzle isn’t why people, many of them young people, love Kerouac. It’s why they don’t prefer the vastly more entertaining adventures of—to name a few—Richard Henry Dana, Herman Melville, or Mark Twain (or, if I may jump the pond, Eric Newby or Patrick Leigh Fermor) . . .

. . . or John Ledyard (1751–1789), the quintessential Dartmouth Man. The College’s Alma Mater boasts of the alumni that “’round the girdled earth they roam,” and the line might as well have been written with Ledyard in mind. Unable to pay his tuition, he chopped down a tree, made a dugout canoe, and escaped on the Connecticut River—which puts Kerouac’s automotive antics in perspective, I think. He later sailed on Captain Cook’s third voyage, which he chronicled in his Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage. The travelogue has the dual distinction of being the first American book to describe Hawaii and the first American book to be protected by copyright.

This year saw a renewed interest in Ledyard, with the publication of two books: Bill Gifford’s Ledyard: In Search of the First American Explorer and Edward G. Gray’s The Making of John Ledyard: Empire and Ambition in the Life of an Early American Traveler. Arts & Letters Daily has linked to an excerpt from the latter:

The list of famous individuals he came into contact with during his short life comes straight out of the indexes of history: Captain James Cook, on whose last voyage he sailed as a lowly marine; Robert Morris, financier of the American Revolution and Ledyard’s one-time employer; John Paul Jones, with whom he struck up an acquaintance and tried to raise funding for an ambitious expedition to the northwest coast of America; Ben Franklin, whom he met in Paris during Franklin’s last days as American ambassador there; Thomas Jefferson, Franklin’s successor, whom Ledyard also met in Paris. The list goes on, but it seems just as well to stop here. For it was in Paris that Ledyard enjoyed his first great social success, when he was accepted into the famous expatriate circle surrounding Thomas Jefferson.

Read the whole thing here. You might be inspired to retrace his steps.

Soon 2007 will draw to a close, and with it the much-fêted fiftieth anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I’ve had all year to ponder it, but I’m no closer to understanding what the fuss is about. Could it really hurt to temper the praise by pointing out some of the book’s deficiencies? The reverential overtones of this title couldn’t be more appropriate; many fans treat the book as though it were some kind of religious text. But the real puzzle isn’t why people, many of them young people, love Kerouac. It’s why they don’t prefer the vastly more entertaining adventures of—to name a few—Richard Henry Dana, Herman Melville, or Mark Twain (or, if I may jump the pond, Eric Newby or Patrick Leigh Fermor) . . .

. . . or John Ledyard (1751–1789), the quintessential Dartmouth Man. The College’s Alma Mater boasts of the alumni that “’round the girdled earth they roam,” and the line might as well have been written with Ledyard in mind. Unable to pay his tuition, he chopped down a tree, made a dugout canoe, and escaped on the Connecticut River—which puts Kerouac’s automotive antics in perspective, I think. He later sailed on Captain Cook’s third voyage, which he chronicled in his Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage. The travelogue has the dual distinction of being the first American book to describe Hawaii and the first American book to be protected by copyright.

This year saw a renewed interest in Ledyard, with the publication of two books: Bill Gifford’s Ledyard: In Search of the First American Explorer and Edward G. Gray’s The Making of John Ledyard: Empire and Ambition in the Life of an Early American Traveler. Arts & Letters Daily has linked to an excerpt from the latter:

The list of famous individuals he came into contact with during his short life comes straight out of the indexes of history: Captain James Cook, on whose last voyage he sailed as a lowly marine; Robert Morris, financier of the American Revolution and Ledyard’s one-time employer; John Paul Jones, with whom he struck up an acquaintance and tried to raise funding for an ambitious expedition to the northwest coast of America; Ben Franklin, whom he met in Paris during Franklin’s last days as American ambassador there; Thomas Jefferson, Franklin’s successor, whom Ledyard also met in Paris. The list goes on, but it seems just as well to stop here. For it was in Paris that Ledyard enjoyed his first great social success, when he was accepted into the famous expatriate circle surrounding Thomas Jefferson.

Read the whole thing here. You might be inspired to retrace his steps.

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Benazir Bhutto

Some cynics in Washington and New York pooh-poohed Benazir Bhutto’s tough-on-terrorism rhetoric. She was only posturing to get American support, they said—telling the administration what it wanted to hear. But she kept on repeating her pledges to crack down on Islamist militants even after she returned home after a lengthy exile. Today, those pledges cost her her life. Apparently the suicide bombers took her seriously, even if Georgetown sophisticates did not.

Her death brutally exposes how little success Pervez Musharraf has had in cracking down on the jihadists. They have only grown stronger on his watch. It is possible that no other government could have done better; some might even have done worse. But there is also little doubt that the military regime has been compromised by all the alliances it has struck over the years with extremist groups who were deemed to be fighting for Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

The Bush administration has been making a grave mistake by so unreserverdly backing a regime so ambivalent in its commitment to the anti-terror fight. The restoration of democracy has been long overdue, and is finally, belatedly occurring: It’s a good thing Musharraf has stepped down as army chief of staff, but it’s unfortunate that he continues to cling to the presidency without submitting himself to a free and fair election.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the Islamic factions are not popular with the people of Pakistan as a whole; they are polling only 4% at the moment, about what Ron Paul is getting in polls of Republican voters. Their support has never exceeded 12% in any election, and that only because Musharraf hobbled the mainstream parties from competing. Now their backing has cratered because of their failure to deliver on their good governance pledges in Northwest Frontier Province which they have been running since 2002.

There is a vast “silent majority” in Pakistan that abhors the militants and has come to detest military rule. They are waiting for a leader. Bhutto, for all her imperfections, could have been that leader. She won’t be now. Alas. But let us hope that she will at least become a martyr for the cause of Islamic democracy, and that her death will inspire others to carry on her brave struggle.

Some cynics in Washington and New York pooh-poohed Benazir Bhutto’s tough-on-terrorism rhetoric. She was only posturing to get American support, they said—telling the administration what it wanted to hear. But she kept on repeating her pledges to crack down on Islamist militants even after she returned home after a lengthy exile. Today, those pledges cost her her life. Apparently the suicide bombers took her seriously, even if Georgetown sophisticates did not.

Her death brutally exposes how little success Pervez Musharraf has had in cracking down on the jihadists. They have only grown stronger on his watch. It is possible that no other government could have done better; some might even have done worse. But there is also little doubt that the military regime has been compromised by all the alliances it has struck over the years with extremist groups who were deemed to be fighting for Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

The Bush administration has been making a grave mistake by so unreserverdly backing a regime so ambivalent in its commitment to the anti-terror fight. The restoration of democracy has been long overdue, and is finally, belatedly occurring: It’s a good thing Musharraf has stepped down as army chief of staff, but it’s unfortunate that he continues to cling to the presidency without submitting himself to a free and fair election.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the Islamic factions are not popular with the people of Pakistan as a whole; they are polling only 4% at the moment, about what Ron Paul is getting in polls of Republican voters. Their support has never exceeded 12% in any election, and that only because Musharraf hobbled the mainstream parties from competing. Now their backing has cratered because of their failure to deliver on their good governance pledges in Northwest Frontier Province which they have been running since 2002.

There is a vast “silent majority” in Pakistan that abhors the militants and has come to detest military rule. They are waiting for a leader. Bhutto, for all her imperfections, could have been that leader. She won’t be now. Alas. But let us hope that she will at least become a martyr for the cause of Islamic democracy, and that her death will inspire others to carry on her brave struggle.

Read Less

Deterring World War V

Should a nuclear exchange between Israel and Iran be called World War V or something else? That’s an irrelevant question. The real issue is who would come out ahead. The answer to such calculation might determine whether such a war erupts in the first place.

Let’s assume the worst about Iran — even if it is a bit of a stretch: that its leaders are in the grip of messianic ideas that might incline them to launch a nuclear fusillade to annihilate Israel even if it meant incurring significant Iranian casualties, including the incineration of major cities.

But would the ayatollahs launch such an attack if they would lose several cities and millions of Iranians — and not manage to destroy Israel? That is the question raised by a new study — based upon a war game — by the military analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for International Studies in Washington D.C.  The study does not appear to be on-line yet, but is summarized in Tuesday’s New York Post.

It seems that Israel’s anti-ballistic-missile systems might spare it the worst, not that the results wouldn’t be horrific. According to the Post’s Andy Soltis, among the main points of the study are:

An exchange of nukes would last about 21 days and immediately kill 16 million to 28 million Iranians and 200,000 to 800,000 Israelis.

Long-term deaths, from the effects of radiation and other causes, were not estimated.

The greater Iranian death toll is explained by several factors:

*Israeli bombs have a bigger bang. Israel has produced 1-megaton nukes, while Iran would be unable to produce anything more than 100 kilotons, a weapon with one-tenth the impact.

*Iran would have fewer than 50 nuclear weapons, while Israel would have more than 200.

*Israel also has a homebuilt Arrow-2 missile defense, buttressed by U. S. made anti-missile weaponry. Iran has a limited missile defense.

*Israel’s missiles would be more accurate, due to high-resolution satellite imagery.

If Syria joined its ally Iran in a wider war, it could attack Israel with mustard gas, nerve agents and anthrax in non-nuclear warheads.

That could kill another 800,000 Israelis, but in response, up to 18 million Syrians would die.

The implications of the Cordesman study would seem, at first glance, to cut against the necessity for a preemptive Israeli or American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The logical inference one might draw from the conclusions of the CSIS study is that Iran would be deterred and Israel could therefore live with a nuclear-armed Iran.

That would be great news but, unfortunately, Israel cannot afford to gamble its future on the outcome of a Washington war-game. The Iranian calculation might differ significantly from Cordesman’s. More to the point, an Iranian nuclear umbrella would significantly embolden an already emboldened Iran in its quest for regional influence and the destruction of Israel by indirect means.  

Norman Podhoretz argued back in June that an American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities was a strategic neccesity, and he predicted that President Bush was likely to carry out such a strike sometime in the remainder of his term. That always seemed improbable to me given the acute American difficulties in neighboring Iraq. In the wake of the U.S. intelligence community’s estimate that Iran halted its nuclear program in 2003, the possibility of such action seems to have diminished to the vanishing point, even if the intelligence estimate is deeply flawed.

But U.S. action or no U.S. action under Bush, Norman’s case for a strike on Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons remains as compelling as before.

Should a nuclear exchange between Israel and Iran be called World War V or something else? That’s an irrelevant question. The real issue is who would come out ahead. The answer to such calculation might determine whether such a war erupts in the first place.

Let’s assume the worst about Iran — even if it is a bit of a stretch: that its leaders are in the grip of messianic ideas that might incline them to launch a nuclear fusillade to annihilate Israel even if it meant incurring significant Iranian casualties, including the incineration of major cities.

But would the ayatollahs launch such an attack if they would lose several cities and millions of Iranians — and not manage to destroy Israel? That is the question raised by a new study — based upon a war game — by the military analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for International Studies in Washington D.C.  The study does not appear to be on-line yet, but is summarized in Tuesday’s New York Post.

It seems that Israel’s anti-ballistic-missile systems might spare it the worst, not that the results wouldn’t be horrific. According to the Post’s Andy Soltis, among the main points of the study are:

An exchange of nukes would last about 21 days and immediately kill 16 million to 28 million Iranians and 200,000 to 800,000 Israelis.

Long-term deaths, from the effects of radiation and other causes, were not estimated.

The greater Iranian death toll is explained by several factors:

*Israeli bombs have a bigger bang. Israel has produced 1-megaton nukes, while Iran would be unable to produce anything more than 100 kilotons, a weapon with one-tenth the impact.

*Iran would have fewer than 50 nuclear weapons, while Israel would have more than 200.

*Israel also has a homebuilt Arrow-2 missile defense, buttressed by U. S. made anti-missile weaponry. Iran has a limited missile defense.

*Israel’s missiles would be more accurate, due to high-resolution satellite imagery.

If Syria joined its ally Iran in a wider war, it could attack Israel with mustard gas, nerve agents and anthrax in non-nuclear warheads.

That could kill another 800,000 Israelis, but in response, up to 18 million Syrians would die.

The implications of the Cordesman study would seem, at first glance, to cut against the necessity for a preemptive Israeli or American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The logical inference one might draw from the conclusions of the CSIS study is that Iran would be deterred and Israel could therefore live with a nuclear-armed Iran.

That would be great news but, unfortunately, Israel cannot afford to gamble its future on the outcome of a Washington war-game. The Iranian calculation might differ significantly from Cordesman’s. More to the point, an Iranian nuclear umbrella would significantly embolden an already emboldened Iran in its quest for regional influence and the destruction of Israel by indirect means.  

Norman Podhoretz argued back in June that an American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities was a strategic neccesity, and he predicted that President Bush was likely to carry out such a strike sometime in the remainder of his term. That always seemed improbable to me given the acute American difficulties in neighboring Iraq. In the wake of the U.S. intelligence community’s estimate that Iran halted its nuclear program in 2003, the possibility of such action seems to have diminished to the vanishing point, even if the intelligence estimate is deeply flawed.

But U.S. action or no U.S. action under Bush, Norman’s case for a strike on Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons remains as compelling as before.

Read Less




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