Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 18, 2008

Bush at Sharm el Sheikh

President Bush gave a stunning speech at the World Economic Forum meeting in Sharm el Sheikh today in which he said, among other things:

Too often in the Middle East, politics has consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail.

In our democracy, we would never punish a person for owning a Koran. We would never issue a death sentence to someone for converting to Islam. Democracy does not threaten Islam or any religion. Democracy is the only system of government that guarantees their protection.

I can’t recall a more serious rebuke issued on Arab soil by any President. Any chance that paragon of bipartisanship, Barack Obama, will quit carping about Bush’s Knesset speech long enough to acknowledge these remarks?

I won’t hold my breath.

President Bush gave a stunning speech at the World Economic Forum meeting in Sharm el Sheikh today in which he said, among other things:

Too often in the Middle East, politics has consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail.

In our democracy, we would never punish a person for owning a Koran. We would never issue a death sentence to someone for converting to Islam. Democracy does not threaten Islam or any religion. Democracy is the only system of government that guarantees their protection.

I can’t recall a more serious rebuke issued on Arab soil by any President. Any chance that paragon of bipartisanship, Barack Obama, will quit carping about Bush’s Knesset speech long enough to acknowledge these remarks?

I won’t hold my breath.

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Sorry, Sheryl

I really don’t enjoy being nitpicky, but when the New York Times saw fit to criticize President Bush for his poor Hebrew, I suspected something was amiss. Here’s Sheryl Gay Stolberg on Bush’s visit to Jerusalem:

Personal relationships were also on Mr. Bush’s mind as he arrived here in Jerusalem, just days after the May 10 wedding of his daughter, Jenna.

His Israeli hosts were well aware of the nuptials; many greeted the president with the traditional Jewish offer of congratulations, “Mazel tov,”which means, “Good luck.”

But Mr. Bush had clearly not brushed up on his Hebrew. Before he left the White House, two Israeli journalists opened an interview by congratulating him – in English.

“Thank you,” Mr. Bush said. “It was – as my Jewish friends tell me, there was mazel tov.”

Trouble is, it’s not Bush’s Hebrew that needs brushing up, it’s Stolberg’s. Although “Mazel” can sometimes mean “luck,” and “tov” means “good,” the two words together do not ever mean “Good Luck.” A “mazel” is a constellation of stars, like a Zodiac sign, and to say “mazel tov” is actually more of a blessing than a congratulation: “Let this event take place under a good sign,” or possibly, “let this event be a good sign for all of us.” (Hence the famous Jewish song at festive events, “siman tov umazel tov yehei lanu” — “Let it be a good sign for us”; “siman” being a synonym for “mazel.”) So, when Bush said, “there was mazel tov,” he was using the expression quite correctly.

I really don’t enjoy being nitpicky, but when the New York Times saw fit to criticize President Bush for his poor Hebrew, I suspected something was amiss. Here’s Sheryl Gay Stolberg on Bush’s visit to Jerusalem:

Personal relationships were also on Mr. Bush’s mind as he arrived here in Jerusalem, just days after the May 10 wedding of his daughter, Jenna.

His Israeli hosts were well aware of the nuptials; many greeted the president with the traditional Jewish offer of congratulations, “Mazel tov,”which means, “Good luck.”

But Mr. Bush had clearly not brushed up on his Hebrew. Before he left the White House, two Israeli journalists opened an interview by congratulating him – in English.

“Thank you,” Mr. Bush said. “It was – as my Jewish friends tell me, there was mazel tov.”

Trouble is, it’s not Bush’s Hebrew that needs brushing up, it’s Stolberg’s. Although “Mazel” can sometimes mean “luck,” and “tov” means “good,” the two words together do not ever mean “Good Luck.” A “mazel” is a constellation of stars, like a Zodiac sign, and to say “mazel tov” is actually more of a blessing than a congratulation: “Let this event take place under a good sign,” or possibly, “let this event be a good sign for all of us.” (Hence the famous Jewish song at festive events, “siman tov umazel tov yehei lanu” — “Let it be a good sign for us”; “siman” being a synonym for “mazel.”) So, when Bush said, “there was mazel tov,” he was using the expression quite correctly.

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It Matters Not Who Won Or Lost

George Will distainfully observes: “Women, or at least those whose consciousnesses have been properly raised, supposedly think that the impatience being expressed about the protracted futility of Hillary Clinton’s campaign is disrespectful.” He goes on to conclude that they and Hillary Clinton should get over it–she lost fair and square. This misses the point.

Devotees of baseball should know something of sportsmanship. It usually involves eschewing trash talk both by the announcers and the victorious team. And it requires that the announcers–despite a large or even insurmountable lead by one team–not wander out of the stadium to follow another game before the last out.

It is not the winning but the style, grace and decency shown to the loser that is at issue with many of Clinton’s aggrieved fans. (I think even Barack Obama has figured this out. Several weeks ago he personally stopped suggesting Clinton bug out.) None of all that changes the results of the primary race–the votes, like the score in a game, settle everything eventually.

But unlike sports, primary politics depends on keeping the other candidate’s fans on your side and not sulking away. Or worse yet, joining the next round’s opponent out of spite.

George Will distainfully observes: “Women, or at least those whose consciousnesses have been properly raised, supposedly think that the impatience being expressed about the protracted futility of Hillary Clinton’s campaign is disrespectful.” He goes on to conclude that they and Hillary Clinton should get over it–she lost fair and square. This misses the point.

Devotees of baseball should know something of sportsmanship. It usually involves eschewing trash talk both by the announcers and the victorious team. And it requires that the announcers–despite a large or even insurmountable lead by one team–not wander out of the stadium to follow another game before the last out.

It is not the winning but the style, grace and decency shown to the loser that is at issue with many of Clinton’s aggrieved fans. (I think even Barack Obama has figured this out. Several weeks ago he personally stopped suggesting Clinton bug out.) None of all that changes the results of the primary race–the votes, like the score in a game, settle everything eventually.

But unlike sports, primary politics depends on keeping the other candidate’s fans on your side and not sulking away. Or worse yet, joining the next round’s opponent out of spite.

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And Then a Step to the Right . . .

Count me among those who fail to understand what Obama is saying when he speaks about Hamas. His latest swipe at Bush and McCain goes like this: “They’re going to have to explain why Hamas now controls Gaza, Hamas that was strengthened because the United States insisted that we should have democratic elections in the Palestinian Authority.”

Um, what? Obama seems to be saying that he opposes Palestinian democracy, since it strengthens radicals. Or perhaps he accepts Natan Sharansky’s critique of the administration, who did not like that fact that it emphasized elections rather than first inculcating democratic norms, such as free speech and press. Obama certainly seems to have forgotten that Hamas’s coup in Gaza was a widely predicted outcome of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, which Bush had little choice in supporting once Sharon was pushing it. Maybe these are legitimate criticisms of Bush, but unless I’m missing something, they appear to be criticisms from the Right. Do we have any reason to think Obama would have been tougher on Hamas or the Palestinians than Bush?

Maybe this is how he’s trying to fend off the appeasement label: Dance so fast from left to right that you can’t see him any more.

Count me among those who fail to understand what Obama is saying when he speaks about Hamas. His latest swipe at Bush and McCain goes like this: “They’re going to have to explain why Hamas now controls Gaza, Hamas that was strengthened because the United States insisted that we should have democratic elections in the Palestinian Authority.”

Um, what? Obama seems to be saying that he opposes Palestinian democracy, since it strengthens radicals. Or perhaps he accepts Natan Sharansky’s critique of the administration, who did not like that fact that it emphasized elections rather than first inculcating democratic norms, such as free speech and press. Obama certainly seems to have forgotten that Hamas’s coup in Gaza was a widely predicted outcome of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, which Bush had little choice in supporting once Sharon was pushing it. Maybe these are legitimate criticisms of Bush, but unless I’m missing something, they appear to be criticisms from the Right. Do we have any reason to think Obama would have been tougher on Hamas or the Palestinians than Bush?

Maybe this is how he’s trying to fend off the appeasement label: Dance so fast from left to right that you can’t see him any more.

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The Madness May Not Be Very Effective

I do agree, John, that the over-the-top reaction by Barack Obama and the Democrats in response to President Bush’s Knesset speech revealed a super-sensitivity about being labeled weak on national security. But it may simply be an impossible task for them to convince voters that Obama is the superior candidate on this issue. (For example in the Washington Post/ABC poll John McCain leads Obama on foreign policy knowledge 65-24%.)

By dwelling on this topic, Obama is playing on McCain’s side of the field. Polling since May 13 shows a small but significant uptick for McCain in the head-to-head match up against Obama. Is this the impact of Obama’s West Virginia drubbing? Or is it the non-stop focus on national security and the McCain’s team success in working into every news cycle a message about Obama that voters don’t like ( i.e. Obama wants to meet personally, without pre-conditions, with the leaders of rogue states). One wonders if McCain staffers will now routinely refer to their opponent as “Senator Obama, who want to meet unconditionally with Ahmadinejad . . . ” in all their press releases, regardless of the subject matter.

If we’ve learned anything in this primary season it is that polls fluctuate and don’t necessarily match voters’ expressed preferences at the ballot box. We therefore should be wary of small movements in the polls. But I can’t help thinking that McCain would be delighted to spend the next five and a half months arguing about Iran and Hamas. Every day spent doing that not only plays to his strengths, but deprives Obama of the opportunity to talk about health care, housing foreclosures, and the rocky economy.

So the Democrats’ hysteria is not just meshugah–it may be counterproductive. In politics, that’s worse.

I do agree, John, that the over-the-top reaction by Barack Obama and the Democrats in response to President Bush’s Knesset speech revealed a super-sensitivity about being labeled weak on national security. But it may simply be an impossible task for them to convince voters that Obama is the superior candidate on this issue. (For example in the Washington Post/ABC poll John McCain leads Obama on foreign policy knowledge 65-24%.)

By dwelling on this topic, Obama is playing on McCain’s side of the field. Polling since May 13 shows a small but significant uptick for McCain in the head-to-head match up against Obama. Is this the impact of Obama’s West Virginia drubbing? Or is it the non-stop focus on national security and the McCain’s team success in working into every news cycle a message about Obama that voters don’t like ( i.e. Obama wants to meet personally, without pre-conditions, with the leaders of rogue states). One wonders if McCain staffers will now routinely refer to their opponent as “Senator Obama, who want to meet unconditionally with Ahmadinejad . . . ” in all their press releases, regardless of the subject matter.

If we’ve learned anything in this primary season it is that polls fluctuate and don’t necessarily match voters’ expressed preferences at the ballot box. We therefore should be wary of small movements in the polls. But I can’t help thinking that McCain would be delighted to spend the next five and a half months arguing about Iran and Hamas. Every day spent doing that not only plays to his strengths, but deprives Obama of the opportunity to talk about health care, housing foreclosures, and the rocky economy.

So the Democrats’ hysteria is not just meshugah–it may be counterproductive. In politics, that’s worse.

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Re: Apology Time, Or Not

Dumping on military service may be bad politics, as Jennifer suggests. But it’s no surprise Sen. Harkin would consider military service overrated as a qualification to be Commander in Chief. After all, if having served your country were deemed desirable in a presidential candidate, we could eliminate three-quarters of the House and Senate from consideration.

It wasn’t always so. The current Congress has the lowest percentage of veterans in modern history, and the last election produced a freshman class in which only about 10 percent had served in the military. The peak for House members came in 1977-78, when about 80 percent had served; in the Senate, the peak was 1983-84, when 75 percent of senators were veterans.

I can’t help believing that this trend portends poorly for our future. Wouldn’t it be better if those seeking the highest office in the land had already shown they were willing to sacrifice at least a couple of years for their country?

Sure, being a soldier doesn’t guarantee that the person will be a good president. We’ve had some great presidents, like Ronald Reagan, whose military service was somewhat limited–and some bad ones, like Ulysses S. Grant, whose service was extraordinary. But overall, the sense of duty and patriotism that motivate a young man (or woman) to sign up show genuine character. I’m betting John McCain’s years as an officer–not to mention his time as a prisoner of war–are better preparation to be Commander in Chief than Barack Obama’s years at Harvard or his time spent as a foot soldier in the Saul Alinsky brigade.

Dumping on military service may be bad politics, as Jennifer suggests. But it’s no surprise Sen. Harkin would consider military service overrated as a qualification to be Commander in Chief. After all, if having served your country were deemed desirable in a presidential candidate, we could eliminate three-quarters of the House and Senate from consideration.

It wasn’t always so. The current Congress has the lowest percentage of veterans in modern history, and the last election produced a freshman class in which only about 10 percent had served in the military. The peak for House members came in 1977-78, when about 80 percent had served; in the Senate, the peak was 1983-84, when 75 percent of senators were veterans.

I can’t help believing that this trend portends poorly for our future. Wouldn’t it be better if those seeking the highest office in the land had already shown they were willing to sacrifice at least a couple of years for their country?

Sure, being a soldier doesn’t guarantee that the person will be a good president. We’ve had some great presidents, like Ronald Reagan, whose military service was somewhat limited–and some bad ones, like Ulysses S. Grant, whose service was extraordinary. But overall, the sense of duty and patriotism that motivate a young man (or woman) to sign up show genuine character. I’m betting John McCain’s years as an officer–not to mention his time as a prisoner of war–are better preparation to be Commander in Chief than Barack Obama’s years at Harvard or his time spent as a foot soldier in the Saul Alinsky brigade.

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Bookshelf

• Anyone who doubts the existence of original sin, or something very much like it, would do well to reflect on the enduring popularity of the novels of Richard Stark. For forty-six years now, Stark has been writing terse, hard-nosed books about a cold-hearted burglar named Parker (nobody seems to know his first name) who steals for a living, usually gets away with it, and stops at nothing, including murder, in order to do so. I couldn’t begin to count the number of people Parker has killed in the course of the twenty-four books in which he figures. His only virtues are his intelligence and his professionalism–yet you end up rooting for him whenever you read about him. Nietzsche knew why: when you look into an abyss, the abyss looks into you.

In real life “Richard Stark” is the pseudonym of Donald E. Westlake, a thoroughly delightful literary craftsman about whose virtues I have previously written in this space.

It’s a permanent puzzlement that Westlake, who is best known for his charming comic crime novels, should also have dreamed up so comprehensively unfunny a character as Parker, which doubtless tells us something of interest about human dualism, the subject matter of all film noir and noir-style fiction. I wouldn’t care to speculate about what it is in Westlake’s psyche that makes him so good at writing about Parker, much less what it is that makes me like the Parker novels so much. Suffice it to say that Stark/Westlake is the cleanest of all noir novelists, a styleless stylist who gets to the point with stupendous economy, hustling you down the path of plot so briskly that you have to read his books a second time to appreciate the elegance and sober wit with which they are written.

Parker’s latest caper, Dirty Money (Grand Central, 276 pp., $23.99), is a sequel to Nobody Runs Forever, the 2004 novel in which he stole two million dollars from an armored car, then had to stash it in an abandoned New England country church in order to escape arrest. The money, it turns out, is “poisoned,” meaning that the authorities have a record of the serial number on each bill, so Parker has to figure out not only how to get it back but also how to launder it. As always, his task is complicated by the fact that his colleagues in crime lack his chilly singlemindedness–unlike them, Parker always keeps both eyes on the prize–and thus have a way of lousing things up.

Readers familiar with the series of comic novels written by Westlake about a hapless career criminal named Dortmunder will know that they take place in a parallel universe in which the not-so-tough guys are constantly tripping over their own feet. The first of these books, The Hot Rock, began life as a Parker novel, but Westlake changed it when he realized that it was turning out funny. In a later Dortmunder novel, Jimmy the Kid, one of the characters actually gets an idea for a caper by reading a nonexistent Parker novel called Child Heist.

Needless to say, nothing like that happens in Dirty Money–Parker is all business–but you’ll smile from time to time at the spare economy with which Stark/Westlake paints his verbal pictures of life on the wrong side of the law. Imagine, for instance, that you’re a slightly crooked doctor who made the mistake of doing business with Parker’s gang and is now being interrogated by a bad guy. How might you be feeling? Probably a lot like this:

The doctor felt as though invisible straps were clamping every part of his body. He sat tilted forward, feet together and heels lifted, knees together, hands folded into his lap as though he were trying to hide a baseball….The doctor’s mind filled with regrets, that he had ever involved himself with these people, but then regrets for the past were overwhelmed by horror of the present. What could he do?

Answer: nothing.

It’s possible to read and enjoy Dirty Money without having read Nobody Runs Forever, but you’ll enjoy it even more if you know how Parker got into this mess, so I suggest you buy both books and read them in sequence, after which you’ll doubtless want to work your way through Richard Stark’s complete oeuvre. That isn’t so easy to do, alas, since many of his earlier novels are out of print. (My favorite Parker novel, Butcher’s Moon, is currently going for as much as $300 a copy on the used-book market.) Fortunately, a dozen or so of the best ones are quite easy to find. As for the others, you could always heist them.

• Anyone who doubts the existence of original sin, or something very much like it, would do well to reflect on the enduring popularity of the novels of Richard Stark. For forty-six years now, Stark has been writing terse, hard-nosed books about a cold-hearted burglar named Parker (nobody seems to know his first name) who steals for a living, usually gets away with it, and stops at nothing, including murder, in order to do so. I couldn’t begin to count the number of people Parker has killed in the course of the twenty-four books in which he figures. His only virtues are his intelligence and his professionalism–yet you end up rooting for him whenever you read about him. Nietzsche knew why: when you look into an abyss, the abyss looks into you.

In real life “Richard Stark” is the pseudonym of Donald E. Westlake, a thoroughly delightful literary craftsman about whose virtues I have previously written in this space.

It’s a permanent puzzlement that Westlake, who is best known for his charming comic crime novels, should also have dreamed up so comprehensively unfunny a character as Parker, which doubtless tells us something of interest about human dualism, the subject matter of all film noir and noir-style fiction. I wouldn’t care to speculate about what it is in Westlake’s psyche that makes him so good at writing about Parker, much less what it is that makes me like the Parker novels so much. Suffice it to say that Stark/Westlake is the cleanest of all noir novelists, a styleless stylist who gets to the point with stupendous economy, hustling you down the path of plot so briskly that you have to read his books a second time to appreciate the elegance and sober wit with which they are written.

Parker’s latest caper, Dirty Money (Grand Central, 276 pp., $23.99), is a sequel to Nobody Runs Forever, the 2004 novel in which he stole two million dollars from an armored car, then had to stash it in an abandoned New England country church in order to escape arrest. The money, it turns out, is “poisoned,” meaning that the authorities have a record of the serial number on each bill, so Parker has to figure out not only how to get it back but also how to launder it. As always, his task is complicated by the fact that his colleagues in crime lack his chilly singlemindedness–unlike them, Parker always keeps both eyes on the prize–and thus have a way of lousing things up.

Readers familiar with the series of comic novels written by Westlake about a hapless career criminal named Dortmunder will know that they take place in a parallel universe in which the not-so-tough guys are constantly tripping over their own feet. The first of these books, The Hot Rock, began life as a Parker novel, but Westlake changed it when he realized that it was turning out funny. In a later Dortmunder novel, Jimmy the Kid, one of the characters actually gets an idea for a caper by reading a nonexistent Parker novel called Child Heist.

Needless to say, nothing like that happens in Dirty Money–Parker is all business–but you’ll smile from time to time at the spare economy with which Stark/Westlake paints his verbal pictures of life on the wrong side of the law. Imagine, for instance, that you’re a slightly crooked doctor who made the mistake of doing business with Parker’s gang and is now being interrogated by a bad guy. How might you be feeling? Probably a lot like this:

The doctor felt as though invisible straps were clamping every part of his body. He sat tilted forward, feet together and heels lifted, knees together, hands folded into his lap as though he were trying to hide a baseball….The doctor’s mind filled with regrets, that he had ever involved himself with these people, but then regrets for the past were overwhelmed by horror of the present. What could he do?

Answer: nothing.

It’s possible to read and enjoy Dirty Money without having read Nobody Runs Forever, but you’ll enjoy it even more if you know how Parker got into this mess, so I suggest you buy both books and read them in sequence, after which you’ll doubtless want to work your way through Richard Stark’s complete oeuvre. That isn’t so easy to do, alas, since many of his earlier novels are out of print. (My favorite Parker novel, Butcher’s Moon, is currently going for as much as $300 a copy on the used-book market.) Fortunately, a dozen or so of the best ones are quite easy to find. As for the others, you could always heist them.

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