Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 20, 2009

Wow. This I Didn’t Expect.

So far, I think he’s bombing.

So far, I think he’s bombing.

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‘The Question Is Not Whether Our Government Is Too Big or Too Small, But Whether It Works’

Yes, he’s a liberal.

Yes, he’s a liberal.

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‘There Are Some Who Question The Size of Our Ambitions’

Who? I’d like some names.

Who? I’d like some names.

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Inadvertent Irving Berlin Reference

“We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and….” start all over again!

“We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and….” start all over again!

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Risk Takers

An odd moment early in the Obama speech — he condemned those who sought only riches or fame, but then praised the risk-takers and entrepreneurs, people who are, at root, motivated by the desire for riches and fame.

An odd moment early in the Obama speech — he condemned those who sought only riches or fame, but then praised the risk-takers and entrepreneurs, people who are, at root, motivated by the desire for riches and fame.

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Life Can’t Always Be Planned

We’ve had smoother oaths of office. But there is a lesson there: not everything can be scripted. And he is now our 44th President.

We’ve had smoother oaths of office. But there is a lesson there: not everything can be scripted. And he is now our 44th President.

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Leaving the White House

Well, there’s a metaphor for the Dick Cheney haters — as he leaves in a wheelchair. But the spirit of goodwill and unity surrounds the scene as the pairs exit — the VP and Presidential wives, the VPs and the Presidents. And we know behind the scenes the scurrying has begun — the Obama family belongings are moving in and the last Bush staffers are exiting. Inch by inch, power shifts from one to the other.

On the Inaugural platform the Senators all seem so congenial, the defeated rivals in good cheer. We know it won’t last, but for a day it’s nice to think it will.

Well, there’s a metaphor for the Dick Cheney haters — as he leaves in a wheelchair. But the spirit of goodwill and unity surrounds the scene as the pairs exit — the VP and Presidential wives, the VPs and the Presidents. And we know behind the scenes the scurrying has begun — the Obama family belongings are moving in and the last Bush staffers are exiting. Inch by inch, power shifts from one to the other.

On the Inaugural platform the Senators all seem so congenial, the defeated rivals in good cheer. We know it won’t last, but for a day it’s nice to think it will.

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Declaring Victory in the Jaws of Defeat

Arab nations have a habit of denying obvious military losses. Saddam Hussein declared victory in the aftermath of the Gulf War. He had been thoroughly defeated, his forces crushed and driven out of Kuwait, and he was forced to accept severe restrictions, sanctions, and conditions in exchange for being left in power — but he had survived, and could still shout his defiance at the world. So, by his standards, he had won. During the Iraq War, the Iraqi Information Minister became a living embodiment of this delusional attitude. The bombastic (and utterly divorced from reality) proclamations became an international joke, as did Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf himself. Who can forget his fierce denials of American troops being anywhere near Baghdad while the press conference attendees could clearly hear the tanks?

In 2006, Israel finally got fed up with Hezbollah’s incessant attacks and invaded Lebanon. Hundreds of Hezbollah fighters were killed, numerous weapons stockpiled, and the “brave warriors” were driven to flee. But because they were not exterminated (and, also, because the international community has since willfully turned a blind eye while Hezbollah rearmed, reoccupied southern Lebanon, and consolidated its power within the Lebanese government, all in contravention of UN Security Council Resolution 1701), they have declared the whole mess a “great victory” — in light of the parenthetical observations above, with more than a smidgen of justification.

Hamas likewise considers the Gaza war a “victory,” the straight-face proclamation of which requires selectively forgetting that Israel decimated all worthy targets before marching in with ground troops to intensify the attacks, while incurring minimal casualties. Then Israel declared a unilateral cease-fire and sent its troops home. Hamas’s role in the whole process was largely confined to that of a punching bag. But it was nonetheless not exterminated, and by the standards established by Middle Eastern tradition, anything short of utter annihilation is a victory — indeed, a great victory.

There is a bit of symbolism behind the phrase “denial is not just a river in Egypt.” That this river runs through a Muslim nation is a meaningful coincidence. For its own sense of denial in fighting the Jewish state, Egypt has faced the most severe repercussions to date. In 1967, it found itself deprived of the entire Sinai Peninsula, and surrounded by Israeli troops on the east side of the Suez Canal. The bitter taste left by Egypt’s anti-Israeli adventure contributed heavily to its willingness to make peace with Israel at Camp David.

Anything less than total, complete, abject defeat of Hamas, Hezbollah, and their ilk will be declared a great victory by terrorists, and a grave defeat for Israel. Israeli leaders should keep that in mind through all future conflicts.

Arab nations have a habit of denying obvious military losses. Saddam Hussein declared victory in the aftermath of the Gulf War. He had been thoroughly defeated, his forces crushed and driven out of Kuwait, and he was forced to accept severe restrictions, sanctions, and conditions in exchange for being left in power — but he had survived, and could still shout his defiance at the world. So, by his standards, he had won. During the Iraq War, the Iraqi Information Minister became a living embodiment of this delusional attitude. The bombastic (and utterly divorced from reality) proclamations became an international joke, as did Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf himself. Who can forget his fierce denials of American troops being anywhere near Baghdad while the press conference attendees could clearly hear the tanks?

In 2006, Israel finally got fed up with Hezbollah’s incessant attacks and invaded Lebanon. Hundreds of Hezbollah fighters were killed, numerous weapons stockpiled, and the “brave warriors” were driven to flee. But because they were not exterminated (and, also, because the international community has since willfully turned a blind eye while Hezbollah rearmed, reoccupied southern Lebanon, and consolidated its power within the Lebanese government, all in contravention of UN Security Council Resolution 1701), they have declared the whole mess a “great victory” — in light of the parenthetical observations above, with more than a smidgen of justification.

Hamas likewise considers the Gaza war a “victory,” the straight-face proclamation of which requires selectively forgetting that Israel decimated all worthy targets before marching in with ground troops to intensify the attacks, while incurring minimal casualties. Then Israel declared a unilateral cease-fire and sent its troops home. Hamas’s role in the whole process was largely confined to that of a punching bag. But it was nonetheless not exterminated, and by the standards established by Middle Eastern tradition, anything short of utter annihilation is a victory — indeed, a great victory.

There is a bit of symbolism behind the phrase “denial is not just a river in Egypt.” That this river runs through a Muslim nation is a meaningful coincidence. For its own sense of denial in fighting the Jewish state, Egypt has faced the most severe repercussions to date. In 1967, it found itself deprived of the entire Sinai Peninsula, and surrounded by Israeli troops on the east side of the Suez Canal. The bitter taste left by Egypt’s anti-Israeli adventure contributed heavily to its willingness to make peace with Israel at Camp David.

Anything less than total, complete, abject defeat of Hamas, Hezbollah, and their ilk will be declared a great victory by terrorists, and a grave defeat for Israel. Israeli leaders should keep that in mind through all future conflicts.

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At the White House

The small rituals of the day are both touching and reassuring. They offer perspective on the peaceful transfer of power afforded by the American political system — a perspective of which we’ve had precious little, as the Washington Post, among others, tells us the the new President “could redefine the presidency.” This sort of ludicrous overstatement needs to be curbed by an appropriate respect for our political institutions and by the understanding that each and every president serves in his own way, while the presidency goes on.

As the President meets the President-elect on the steps, you can’t help but be struck by the contrast between the two: reviled and adored, old and young, conservative and liberal (sort of), white and black. Yet, in the larger sense, this has all been done before (since 1877) and will be done again. That’s what this day is truly about: the remarkable mix of tradition and novelty.

The President-elect has dispensed with formal attire. Have we seen the latest of morning coats? Michelle Obama is wearing a lovely gold dress and matching coat, and carrying a gift. Do the incoming President and first lady look different, more “official” somehow? Perhaps we have already started to see them differently. That too is what today is all about.

The small rituals of the day are both touching and reassuring. They offer perspective on the peaceful transfer of power afforded by the American political system — a perspective of which we’ve had precious little, as the Washington Post, among others, tells us the the new President “could redefine the presidency.” This sort of ludicrous overstatement needs to be curbed by an appropriate respect for our political institutions and by the understanding that each and every president serves in his own way, while the presidency goes on.

As the President meets the President-elect on the steps, you can’t help but be struck by the contrast between the two: reviled and adored, old and young, conservative and liberal (sort of), white and black. Yet, in the larger sense, this has all been done before (since 1877) and will be done again. That’s what this day is truly about: the remarkable mix of tradition and novelty.

The President-elect has dispensed with formal attire. Have we seen the latest of morning coats? Michelle Obama is wearing a lovely gold dress and matching coat, and carrying a gift. Do the incoming President and first lady look different, more “official” somehow? Perhaps we have already started to see them differently. That too is what today is all about.

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Misunderestimating History

The international media – Israeli media and elite opinion included – have adopted wholeheartedly the notion that George W. Bush was “the worst president in history.” As John Byrne sums up  at the Raw Story:

Papers in Canada and France say he’s the worst president ever. An outlet in Scotland says Bush drove the world to the brink of economic collapse. A pan-Arabic newspaper penned a headline, “The Joke’s On Us.”

“Goodbye to the worst president ever,” declared the Toronto Sun’s editorial page. “Bush was an unmitigated disaster, failing on the big issues from the invasion of Iraq to global warming, Hurricane Katrina and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.”

Of course, Bush as “worst president ever” is not a new theme for the American media. And one might assume that the international media is merely following the American lead. Here’s where U.S. opinion stands, according to a Gallup poll from last week

Although Bush is about tied with Nixon in perceptions that history will remember him as an outstanding or above-average president, he fares worse than Nixon on the basis of his “below average” and “poor” ratings: 59% for Bush vs. 48% for Nixon. As a result, Bush’s net positive score (total percent outstanding or above average minus total percent below average or poor) is worse than Nixon’s: -42 for Bush versus -33 for Nixon.

But this can’t fully explain Bush’s excoriation in media outlets all over the globe. When Americans were still with Bush, reelecting him in 2004, the international media was already vehemently against him. Now, with the American public turned against Bush, it appears that the “idiots” who voted him into the White House for a second term have finally wised up and confirmed international opinion. (I recently did an Israeli TV talking heads spot, and my hosts were amazed to learn that I did not necessarily share this well-accepted notion. For Hebrew speakers only: part of the show is here.)

Prematurely portraying Bush as the “worst president ever” is too easy. It is impossible to assess leaders without the broader outlook that only the distance of time can provide. The Bush-Truman comparison is already tired – which does not make it right or wrong.

Yesterday, in Slate, Christopher Hitchens asked why “[t]he crashing of two airliners into two large skyscrapers isn’t shown” in Oliver Stone’s movie W. – and then aptly answered his own question:

The answer, I am reasonably certain, is that it is the events of Sept. 11, 2001, that explain the transformation of George Bush from a rather lazy small-government conservative into an interventionist, in almost every sense, politician. The unfortunate thing about this analysis, from the liberal point of view, is that it leaves such little room for speculation about his Oedipal relationship with his father, his thwarted revenge fantasies about Saddam Hussein, his dry-drunk alcoholism, and all the rest of it. (And, since Laura Bush in the film is even more desirable than the lovely first lady in person, we are left yet again to wonder how such a dolt was able to woo and to win such a honey.)

So with Bush, history offers not one test but two. The first one will be the test of reality: will world events prove that Bush’s analysis of problems and recipes for cures were apt and courageous? The second test: assuming he passes the first, will the evidence be able to overcome the popular prejudice, misunderstandings, shallowness, and partisanship that plagued the President’s two terms.

In a final note: To his credit, Barack Obama has not participated in the whack-Bush-at-the-last-minute game. But one can’t escape the feeling that Bush is being denigrated today to make Obama’s victory even more profound than it really is – to make Obama bigger by painting his predecessor as being so very small. That’s sad: Obama’s historic ascendancy to the White House should be celebrated for what it is. If we rejoice in Obama’s triumph because he helped the world get rid of George W. Bush, it will make his extraordinary and historic victory less special, not more.

The international media – Israeli media and elite opinion included – have adopted wholeheartedly the notion that George W. Bush was “the worst president in history.” As John Byrne sums up  at the Raw Story:

Papers in Canada and France say he’s the worst president ever. An outlet in Scotland says Bush drove the world to the brink of economic collapse. A pan-Arabic newspaper penned a headline, “The Joke’s On Us.”

“Goodbye to the worst president ever,” declared the Toronto Sun’s editorial page. “Bush was an unmitigated disaster, failing on the big issues from the invasion of Iraq to global warming, Hurricane Katrina and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.”

Of course, Bush as “worst president ever” is not a new theme for the American media. And one might assume that the international media is merely following the American lead. Here’s where U.S. opinion stands, according to a Gallup poll from last week

Although Bush is about tied with Nixon in perceptions that history will remember him as an outstanding or above-average president, he fares worse than Nixon on the basis of his “below average” and “poor” ratings: 59% for Bush vs. 48% for Nixon. As a result, Bush’s net positive score (total percent outstanding or above average minus total percent below average or poor) is worse than Nixon’s: -42 for Bush versus -33 for Nixon.

But this can’t fully explain Bush’s excoriation in media outlets all over the globe. When Americans were still with Bush, reelecting him in 2004, the international media was already vehemently against him. Now, with the American public turned against Bush, it appears that the “idiots” who voted him into the White House for a second term have finally wised up and confirmed international opinion. (I recently did an Israeli TV talking heads spot, and my hosts were amazed to learn that I did not necessarily share this well-accepted notion. For Hebrew speakers only: part of the show is here.)

Prematurely portraying Bush as the “worst president ever” is too easy. It is impossible to assess leaders without the broader outlook that only the distance of time can provide. The Bush-Truman comparison is already tired – which does not make it right or wrong.

Yesterday, in Slate, Christopher Hitchens asked why “[t]he crashing of two airliners into two large skyscrapers isn’t shown” in Oliver Stone’s movie W. – and then aptly answered his own question:

The answer, I am reasonably certain, is that it is the events of Sept. 11, 2001, that explain the transformation of George Bush from a rather lazy small-government conservative into an interventionist, in almost every sense, politician. The unfortunate thing about this analysis, from the liberal point of view, is that it leaves such little room for speculation about his Oedipal relationship with his father, his thwarted revenge fantasies about Saddam Hussein, his dry-drunk alcoholism, and all the rest of it. (And, since Laura Bush in the film is even more desirable than the lovely first lady in person, we are left yet again to wonder how such a dolt was able to woo and to win such a honey.)

So with Bush, history offers not one test but two. The first one will be the test of reality: will world events prove that Bush’s analysis of problems and recipes for cures were apt and courageous? The second test: assuming he passes the first, will the evidence be able to overcome the popular prejudice, misunderstandings, shallowness, and partisanship that plagued the President’s two terms.

In a final note: To his credit, Barack Obama has not participated in the whack-Bush-at-the-last-minute game. But one can’t escape the feeling that Bush is being denigrated today to make Obama’s victory even more profound than it really is – to make Obama bigger by painting his predecessor as being so very small. That’s sad: Obama’s historic ascendancy to the White House should be celebrated for what it is. If we rejoice in Obama’s triumph because he helped the world get rid of George W. Bush, it will make his extraordinary and historic victory less special, not more.

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David Frum’s NewMajority

The inimitable David Frum closes his “Diary” at National Review Online and opens his new website, NewMajority.com, with these words:

In the months ahead, conservatives and Republicans will face the most adverse political environment since the middle 1960s. At the same time, the current economic crisis raises some of the most searching intellectual problems conservatives have faced since their rise as a coherent intellectual movement. How did we get into this mess? How do we get out? And perhaps above all: Why did American incomes stagnate so dismally on our watch, even before the crisis struck?

The work ahead is difficult. As ever, it is difficulty that brings out the best in individuals and in political movements. I look forward eagerly to working through those difficulties together with you, our readers and (I hope) future commenters – and with the brilliant band of colleagues and associates who will be posting at NewMajority.com

NewMajority will surely be a daily read for me, and I encourage everyone to check it out.

The inimitable David Frum closes his “Diary” at National Review Online and opens his new website, NewMajority.com, with these words:

In the months ahead, conservatives and Republicans will face the most adverse political environment since the middle 1960s. At the same time, the current economic crisis raises some of the most searching intellectual problems conservatives have faced since their rise as a coherent intellectual movement. How did we get into this mess? How do we get out? And perhaps above all: Why did American incomes stagnate so dismally on our watch, even before the crisis struck?

The work ahead is difficult. As ever, it is difficulty that brings out the best in individuals and in political movements. I look forward eagerly to working through those difficulties together with you, our readers and (I hope) future commenters – and with the brilliant band of colleagues and associates who will be posting at NewMajority.com

NewMajority will surely be a daily read for me, and I encourage everyone to check it out.

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A Great Day

Today Barack Hussein Obama will be inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States. And I could not be prouder.

I am proud because, for the 38th time in our history, a president will willingly hand over power to his successor without a fuss or fears of a coup.

As of noon today, Barack Obama will not just be the president, but my president. For better or worse (better, I hope), he will be the chief executive of the nation for the next four years.

Reality is already setting in around the world. In Iran, he is already being given the traditional Iranian tribute to American presidents — pictures of him are being burned in public.

That’s my president they’re showing such contempt for over in Iran.  And I’ll treat that deed just as I did when it was done to any other president. I will remember it when Iran comes to us in the expectations of negotiations. I will remember it should they find themselves needing our help. I will remember it when they make promises and threats. I will remember it when they call us Satan and Zionists and crusaders and conquerors.

Today is a great day for our nation. It is, indeed, a historic day, as so many things will change at the stroke of noon.

But the world will not change so readily. There are still a lot of people in the world who hate us, who want to cause us harm, who wish to hurt and kill those we call friends. And it is the duty of our president to confront that.

Good luck, Mr. President. I fear you’ll need it.

Today Barack Hussein Obama will be inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States. And I could not be prouder.

I am proud because, for the 38th time in our history, a president will willingly hand over power to his successor without a fuss or fears of a coup.

As of noon today, Barack Obama will not just be the president, but my president. For better or worse (better, I hope), he will be the chief executive of the nation for the next four years.

Reality is already setting in around the world. In Iran, he is already being given the traditional Iranian tribute to American presidents — pictures of him are being burned in public.

That’s my president they’re showing such contempt for over in Iran.  And I’ll treat that deed just as I did when it was done to any other president. I will remember it when Iran comes to us in the expectations of negotiations. I will remember it should they find themselves needing our help. I will remember it when they make promises and threats. I will remember it when they call us Satan and Zionists and crusaders and conquerors.

Today is a great day for our nation. It is, indeed, a historic day, as so many things will change at the stroke of noon.

But the world will not change so readily. There are still a lot of people in the world who hate us, who want to cause us harm, who wish to hurt and kill those we call friends. And it is the duty of our president to confront that.

Good luck, Mr. President. I fear you’ll need it.

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Awe and Anxiety

The Washington Post editors aptly sum up the day: “The dawn of a new presidency is always a time of awe and anxiety.” There has been saturation coverage of the former, and rightly so. But I admit to being overcome at times by the latter.

Will President Obama be a sane moderate, immune to the clarion calls of the liberal extremists in the Congress? Will he be tough and definitive enough in foreign affairs to bolster our allies and dissuade our foes? And does he fully appreciate that with each expansion of federal power comes not just new financial burdens, but a bevy of opportunities for corruption and the inexorable law of unintended consequences? That is what keeps me up at night.

Every president brings his own strengths and weaknesses to the White House. Whatever the weaknesses of the outgoing President, we can be sure the new one will have his own. George W. Bush wasn’t much of a talker but he was, he famously told us, a decider. Yet both talents are essential for a successful president. Bush was intensely loyal, but to a fault. A successful president needs to know when to stick by his advisors and when to cut them loose. Bush was a conviction president without much nuance. A successful president needs to have firm ideals with an eye for achieving what is doable.

For a moment in time we see all the faults of the 43rd President writ large while the 44th has an unblemished record. This won’t last, we know. Each day brings errors and disappointments.

The Post concludes:

Mr. Obama is a man of great promise but relatively little experience. The hopefulness of recent inauguration days soon gave way to cynicism and disappointment. Each new administration promises to reject the slash-and-burn politics of the previous crowd, only to get caught up in more of the same, or worse. Too often, the way presidents pledged to govern as candidates bears little resemblance to the way they operate once in office. And history plays its own tricks: The challenges a president ends up wrestling with are rarely foreseen on Inauguration Day. ”

Yet, like most Americans, we can’t help feeling something particularly special about this Inauguration Day. Like most Americans, we will be rooting for Mr. Obama to succeed.

Amen.

The Washington Post editors aptly sum up the day: “The dawn of a new presidency is always a time of awe and anxiety.” There has been saturation coverage of the former, and rightly so. But I admit to being overcome at times by the latter.

Will President Obama be a sane moderate, immune to the clarion calls of the liberal extremists in the Congress? Will he be tough and definitive enough in foreign affairs to bolster our allies and dissuade our foes? And does he fully appreciate that with each expansion of federal power comes not just new financial burdens, but a bevy of opportunities for corruption and the inexorable law of unintended consequences? That is what keeps me up at night.

Every president brings his own strengths and weaknesses to the White House. Whatever the weaknesses of the outgoing President, we can be sure the new one will have his own. George W. Bush wasn’t much of a talker but he was, he famously told us, a decider. Yet both talents are essential for a successful president. Bush was intensely loyal, but to a fault. A successful president needs to know when to stick by his advisors and when to cut them loose. Bush was a conviction president without much nuance. A successful president needs to have firm ideals with an eye for achieving what is doable.

For a moment in time we see all the faults of the 43rd President writ large while the 44th has an unblemished record. This won’t last, we know. Each day brings errors and disappointments.

The Post concludes:

Mr. Obama is a man of great promise but relatively little experience. The hopefulness of recent inauguration days soon gave way to cynicism and disappointment. Each new administration promises to reject the slash-and-burn politics of the previous crowd, only to get caught up in more of the same, or worse. Too often, the way presidents pledged to govern as candidates bears little resemblance to the way they operate once in office. And history plays its own tricks: The challenges a president ends up wrestling with are rarely foreseen on Inauguration Day. ”

Yet, like most Americans, we can’t help feeling something particularly special about this Inauguration Day. Like most Americans, we will be rooting for Mr. Obama to succeed.

Amen.

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History Will Vindicate George W. Bush

As George W. Bush spends his last few hours as President, many of us who worked for him and deeply admire him are filled with mixed feelings. It is hard to see him leave the scene with approval ratings hovering at 30 percent, with the nation clearly weary and ready to turn the page. All of us hoped he would leave the Presidency with an outpouring of gratitude and affection from the nation.

It was not to be, and it would be silly and misleading to pretend that this did not matter at all. How could it not? Yet most of us have the conviction — a fairly deep one, actually — that President Bush will be looked upon by history favorably and that his decisions will be, in the main, vindicated. The obvious question concerns what we see that most of our fellow citizens do not. Why are we convinced that Bush’s presidency will be judged a success when so many people right now consider it to be a failure?

The answer, I think, is several fold. For one things, it is rooted in the belief that on the most important issues of his presidency — keeping America safe after the attacks of 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our broader struggle against militant Islam, the appointment of two Supreme Court justices, and more — Bush got it right or mostly right.

This doesn’t mean that there weren’t serious missteps along the way — failures in judgment, personnel, execution, communication, and persuasion. In Iraq especially, we were much too slow in recognizing the nature of the conflict and adjusting to it. Yet despite those mistakes, it is certainly possible that Iraq will end up very nearly as we initially hoped it would: free and self-governing, an ally of America instead of an enemy, a counterweight to Iran, the place that gave rise to an Arab uprising against militant Islam, and a nation that eventually helps to reshape the political culture of the Middle East. If this in fact occurs, the verdict on Bush dramatically shifts. What was widely seen as his greatest failure while in office will be seen as a significant, and even history-shaping, success. As Ambassador Ryan Crocker has said, how we leave Iraq will matter a great deal more than how we got into Iraq.

Second, George W. Bush’s unpopularity created the context for what I believe was easily his most impressive act as President: his advocacy of the surge despite the enormous opposition to it. People forget what many of us in the White House at the time never will: the across-the-board resistance — from all Democrats, most Republicans, the entire foreign policy establishment, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the President’s own commanding general in Iraq, and the overwhelming majority of Americans — to the surge. There was the very real sense that this plan might be strangled in its crib.

I recall e-mailing Josh Bolten, Karl Rove, and Dan Bartlett two days after the President’s January 10th, 2007 speech announcing the surge, expressing my profound concern that it would be derailed even before it had a chance to be implemented. Josh called me from Camp David, which was quite rare. When I picked up the call and asked him how he was, Josh replied, “Alarmed,” because I was so alarmed (Josh knew my pendulum doesn’t swing all that widely and I wasn’t in the habit of sending up emergency flares). It is still remarkable to me that President Bush was able to fight off the efforts by so many — including prominent leaders in his own party — trying to undercut the new counterinsurgency strategy.

To have seen President Bush hold shape in the midst of such white-hot political heat and cascading criticisms is something those of us who served him can never forget. We understood — or should have understood — what an extraordinary act this was. It will one day rank among the most important and impressive decisions ever made by an American president. The outcome of a war rested on it.

Third, most of us know enough about history to know that things that appear one way in a moment in time might (and probably will) look very different later. Abraham Lincoln could be considered a failure for much of the Civil War — reviled, scoffed at, derided, and unpopular — and yet end up with his face chiseled on Mt. Rushmore, having earned the distinction as the finest statesman our Republic has ever produced. Harry Truman could leave office with approval ratings lower than Bush, yet eventually make his way to near the top rank of the 20th centuries greatest presidents. None of this means Bush will end up like Truman and he will certainly not end up like Lincoln (neither, by the way, will Barack Obama); each president is sui generis, and Bush’s place depends in part on events that still have to play themselves out. But we know enough to recognize that sweeping historical pronouncements and efforts at instant history are silly.

Fourth, many of Bush’s achievements — from vindication on his stance on embyronic stem cell research, to his sweeping and successful reforms in education, to his unprecedented efforts to help the continent of Africa, to his enormously successful Medicare prescription drug plan, to promoting anti-drug policies that led to a 25 percent reduction in drug use, to much else — have been occluded or largely ignored. But as the waters calm in the coming years, these things will be seen for what they are.

Fifth, Bush’s speeches will stand the test of time. People who go back and read the September 14 address to the National Cathedral, his September 20th speech to the joint session of Congress, his two inaugural addresses, his speeches to the National Endowment for Democracy and at Whitehall Palace and Goree Island to many others will be struck by the grace and eloquence and power of his language.

Words matter, and words endure.

Having said all this, I am the first to admit that I am not entirely objective when it comes to George W. Bush. I don’t consider him flawless; far from it. I have seen his foibles up close, and I can list the things we did wrong or could have done better over the course of eight years in my sleep. He’s leaving the stage to a whole lot less applause than I would have thought just a few years ago.

At the same time, George W. Bush turned out to be one of the gutsiest politicians of our lifetime. He showed a ferocious commitment in pursuing his main duty: protecting our country. His memories of 9/11 and the wound it inflicted on America did not dim, even for a day, even for a moment. He mobilized this nation for war — and when others lost interest and their commitment to the struggle began to fade, his would not. President Bush knew what to stand for, and what to stand against. He is a man of enormous personal decency and integrity. And he ended up with all the right people hating him, from Osama bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Frank Rich and Keith Olbermann.

President Bush has spent eight years in the arena. He has been harshly criticized and bloodied along the way. But as things got harder, he got better — and when things were hardest, he did best. Having faced crises of enormous dimensions, he leaves the presidency unbroken and at peace. He served his nation well and with honor. That is what matters, and that is what will endure.

Godspeed, George Walker Bush.

As George W. Bush spends his last few hours as President, many of us who worked for him and deeply admire him are filled with mixed feelings. It is hard to see him leave the scene with approval ratings hovering at 30 percent, with the nation clearly weary and ready to turn the page. All of us hoped he would leave the Presidency with an outpouring of gratitude and affection from the nation.

It was not to be, and it would be silly and misleading to pretend that this did not matter at all. How could it not? Yet most of us have the conviction — a fairly deep one, actually — that President Bush will be looked upon by history favorably and that his decisions will be, in the main, vindicated. The obvious question concerns what we see that most of our fellow citizens do not. Why are we convinced that Bush’s presidency will be judged a success when so many people right now consider it to be a failure?

The answer, I think, is several fold. For one things, it is rooted in the belief that on the most important issues of his presidency — keeping America safe after the attacks of 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our broader struggle against militant Islam, the appointment of two Supreme Court justices, and more — Bush got it right or mostly right.

This doesn’t mean that there weren’t serious missteps along the way — failures in judgment, personnel, execution, communication, and persuasion. In Iraq especially, we were much too slow in recognizing the nature of the conflict and adjusting to it. Yet despite those mistakes, it is certainly possible that Iraq will end up very nearly as we initially hoped it would: free and self-governing, an ally of America instead of an enemy, a counterweight to Iran, the place that gave rise to an Arab uprising against militant Islam, and a nation that eventually helps to reshape the political culture of the Middle East. If this in fact occurs, the verdict on Bush dramatically shifts. What was widely seen as his greatest failure while in office will be seen as a significant, and even history-shaping, success. As Ambassador Ryan Crocker has said, how we leave Iraq will matter a great deal more than how we got into Iraq.

Second, George W. Bush’s unpopularity created the context for what I believe was easily his most impressive act as President: his advocacy of the surge despite the enormous opposition to it. People forget what many of us in the White House at the time never will: the across-the-board resistance — from all Democrats, most Republicans, the entire foreign policy establishment, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the President’s own commanding general in Iraq, and the overwhelming majority of Americans — to the surge. There was the very real sense that this plan might be strangled in its crib.

I recall e-mailing Josh Bolten, Karl Rove, and Dan Bartlett two days after the President’s January 10th, 2007 speech announcing the surge, expressing my profound concern that it would be derailed even before it had a chance to be implemented. Josh called me from Camp David, which was quite rare. When I picked up the call and asked him how he was, Josh replied, “Alarmed,” because I was so alarmed (Josh knew my pendulum doesn’t swing all that widely and I wasn’t in the habit of sending up emergency flares). It is still remarkable to me that President Bush was able to fight off the efforts by so many — including prominent leaders in his own party — trying to undercut the new counterinsurgency strategy.

To have seen President Bush hold shape in the midst of such white-hot political heat and cascading criticisms is something those of us who served him can never forget. We understood — or should have understood — what an extraordinary act this was. It will one day rank among the most important and impressive decisions ever made by an American president. The outcome of a war rested on it.

Third, most of us know enough about history to know that things that appear one way in a moment in time might (and probably will) look very different later. Abraham Lincoln could be considered a failure for much of the Civil War — reviled, scoffed at, derided, and unpopular — and yet end up with his face chiseled on Mt. Rushmore, having earned the distinction as the finest statesman our Republic has ever produced. Harry Truman could leave office with approval ratings lower than Bush, yet eventually make his way to near the top rank of the 20th centuries greatest presidents. None of this means Bush will end up like Truman and he will certainly not end up like Lincoln (neither, by the way, will Barack Obama); each president is sui generis, and Bush’s place depends in part on events that still have to play themselves out. But we know enough to recognize that sweeping historical pronouncements and efforts at instant history are silly.

Fourth, many of Bush’s achievements — from vindication on his stance on embyronic stem cell research, to his sweeping and successful reforms in education, to his unprecedented efforts to help the continent of Africa, to his enormously successful Medicare prescription drug plan, to promoting anti-drug policies that led to a 25 percent reduction in drug use, to much else — have been occluded or largely ignored. But as the waters calm in the coming years, these things will be seen for what they are.

Fifth, Bush’s speeches will stand the test of time. People who go back and read the September 14 address to the National Cathedral, his September 20th speech to the joint session of Congress, his two inaugural addresses, his speeches to the National Endowment for Democracy and at Whitehall Palace and Goree Island to many others will be struck by the grace and eloquence and power of his language.

Words matter, and words endure.

Having said all this, I am the first to admit that I am not entirely objective when it comes to George W. Bush. I don’t consider him flawless; far from it. I have seen his foibles up close, and I can list the things we did wrong or could have done better over the course of eight years in my sleep. He’s leaving the stage to a whole lot less applause than I would have thought just a few years ago.

At the same time, George W. Bush turned out to be one of the gutsiest politicians of our lifetime. He showed a ferocious commitment in pursuing his main duty: protecting our country. His memories of 9/11 and the wound it inflicted on America did not dim, even for a day, even for a moment. He mobilized this nation for war — and when others lost interest and their commitment to the struggle began to fade, his would not. President Bush knew what to stand for, and what to stand against. He is a man of enormous personal decency and integrity. And he ended up with all the right people hating him, from Osama bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Frank Rich and Keith Olbermann.

President Bush has spent eight years in the arena. He has been harshly criticized and bloodied along the way. But as things got harder, he got better — and when things were hardest, he did best. Having faced crises of enormous dimensions, he leaves the presidency unbroken and at peace. He served his nation well and with honor. That is what matters, and that is what will endure.

Godspeed, George Walker Bush.

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Re: “I Dunno” Is the Answer, Mr. Geithner?

Everything depends on the public’s reaction come Wednesday, Jen.  The new administration is taking a risk here, similar to the one the Clinton administration took in 1992 with Zoe Baird.  Even after learning of Baird’s nanny problem, the Clinton team decided to move ahead with hearings and it wasn’t until those hearings generated public disapproval that the nomination went down.

The fact that the Obama team hasn’t pulled the plug yet doesn’t mean that they won’t if the public outcry is loud and sustained. So far, we haven’t seen much outrage from ordinary Americans, but then the media haven’t exactly given the story the kind of coverage that might generate indignation either. And the Republicans aren’t eager to look like spoilers.

When the satellite trucks camp outside Geithner’s doorstep, we’ll know he’s in trouble.  Until then, “I dunno” might be his best bet.

Everything depends on the public’s reaction come Wednesday, Jen.  The new administration is taking a risk here, similar to the one the Clinton administration took in 1992 with Zoe Baird.  Even after learning of Baird’s nanny problem, the Clinton team decided to move ahead with hearings and it wasn’t until those hearings generated public disapproval that the nomination went down.

The fact that the Obama team hasn’t pulled the plug yet doesn’t mean that they won’t if the public outcry is loud and sustained. So far, we haven’t seen much outrage from ordinary Americans, but then the media haven’t exactly given the story the kind of coverage that might generate indignation either. And the Republicans aren’t eager to look like spoilers.

When the satellite trucks camp outside Geithner’s doorstep, we’ll know he’s in trouble.  Until then, “I dunno” might be his best bet.

Read Less

Flotsam and Jetsam

The Obama team can’t make heads or tails of Governor Paterson’s “process” for selecting a replacement for Hillary Clinton. Is there a process? But the message is clear: if the whispers from the deceased President didn’t register, the new one is telling him: pick Caroline!

But not to worry, Paterson will pick her so as not to “humiliate” her and her family? That’s a humiliating explanation.

Politico’s congressional reporter thinks Rush Limbaugh is giving Tim Geithner a pass. Ah, not really. He’s excoriating the MSM for giving him a pass. But if you don’t actually listen to talk radio it’s easy to make the mistake.

A tough letter to the editor gets to the nub of it: “At a time when the nation needs a reliable, respected voice on financial issues at the Treasury Department, is an admitted tax cheat the best we can do? Over several years, Treasury secretary nominee Timothy F. Geithner failed to pay Social Security taxes, even though he was advised by his employer to do so, signed an agreement indicating that he understood that such payments were his responsibility and received extra pay from his employer specifically for that purpose. Mr. Geithner ‘came clean’ only when he was caught, first by an IRS audit that found he owed Social Security taxes for 2003 and 2004 and then when additional tax liabilities for 2001 and 2002 were discovered after his nomination. He has been praised for repaying these additional taxes for the earlier years, which apparently may not have been required under a statute of limitations, but this raises another question: Why didn’t he voluntarily correct his 2001 and 2002 taxes once he found out that he had made the same error in 2003 and 2004?”

Fred Barnes wants to know when the moderate, bipartisan President Obama will show up: “The answer is soon, since Democrats are in a hurry to pass a bill. If he informs congressional Democrats that the package is unsatisfactory, they’re likely to accede to his wishes. They don’t want to embarrass a new Democratic president. By stepping in forcefully, Obama will pass the test of leadership. . . Obama is also committed to gaining the support of a critical mass of Republicans. But he can’t achieve that with the stimulus package put together by House Democrats. The easiest way to attract Republicans is by including tax incentives for private investment. Such tax cuts, if retroactive to January 1, would have the added value of an immediate impact on the economy.”

David Brooks on what to expect from the Inaugural Address and what to be wary of afterwards: “Look for him to emphasize the themes of responsibility, cohesion and unity. Look for him to reject the culture, which lingered in the financial world, of anything goes. Part will be accomplished with his aggressive outreach efforts. Already he has cooperated with Republicans. He has rejected the counsel of the old liberal warriors who want retribution and insularity. But the real test will come in the realm of policy. The next few months will be occupied with the stimulus package. And anybody who is not terrified by the prospect of spending $800 billion hastily has not spent enough time studying the difference between economic textbooks and the way government actually operates.”

If this account is true — that Joe Biden was considered for both State and the VP –  we lucked out. He chose the position where he could be downsized.  (The Obama team was forced to offer a clarification.) Has there ever been a sillier, more undisciplined person in the VP slot?

Bill McGurn is right: “Mr. Bush’s disfavor in Washington owes more to his greatest success. Simply put, there are those who will never forgive Mr. Bush for not losing a war they had all declared unwinnable.”

Mitt Romney talks sense on the economy with a calm, bipartisan tone. (The post that accompanies it is misleading — he’s hardly “chatting up” the $850B stimulus plan.)

Another day another Norm Coleman legal strategy. This may become the “how not to”  textbook for election recounts.

The new President is proposing a spending free-for all now but will it slow him down later? So at some point deficits will matter again? It is dizzying to follow the on-again-off-again concern for fiscal discipline.

Lots of smoke and mirrors about a dramatic change in foreign policy, but read closely and you’ll see the  expectations are low for the “peace process,” troops are being increased in Afghanistan and decreased in Iraq, and Guantanamo gets a showy closing announcement without shutting down anytime soon. Will anyone notice there isn’t much change?

A tidbit from the Eric Holder confirmation hearing: “Mr. Holder now concedes that Presidents have inherent powers that even a statute can’t abridge, notwithstanding his campaign speeches. That makes us feel better about a General Holder on national security. But his concession is further evidence that the liberal accusations about ‘breaking the law’ and ‘illegal wiretaps’ of the last several years were mostly about naked partisanship. Mr. Holder’s objection turns out to be merely the tactical political one that the Bush Administration would have been better off negotiating with Congress for wiretap approval, not that it was breaking the law. Now he tells us.”

If Fiat buys Chrysler can we stop giving the latter money? Once the former eventually takes a majority interest, it’s really not that different from Honda. Come to think of it, it makes more sense to give Honda the money since they seem able to produce cars in the U.S. with U.S. workers — and these are cars we actually want to buy.

The Obama team can’t make heads or tails of Governor Paterson’s “process” for selecting a replacement for Hillary Clinton. Is there a process? But the message is clear: if the whispers from the deceased President didn’t register, the new one is telling him: pick Caroline!

But not to worry, Paterson will pick her so as not to “humiliate” her and her family? That’s a humiliating explanation.

Politico’s congressional reporter thinks Rush Limbaugh is giving Tim Geithner a pass. Ah, not really. He’s excoriating the MSM for giving him a pass. But if you don’t actually listen to talk radio it’s easy to make the mistake.

A tough letter to the editor gets to the nub of it: “At a time when the nation needs a reliable, respected voice on financial issues at the Treasury Department, is an admitted tax cheat the best we can do? Over several years, Treasury secretary nominee Timothy F. Geithner failed to pay Social Security taxes, even though he was advised by his employer to do so, signed an agreement indicating that he understood that such payments were his responsibility and received extra pay from his employer specifically for that purpose. Mr. Geithner ‘came clean’ only when he was caught, first by an IRS audit that found he owed Social Security taxes for 2003 and 2004 and then when additional tax liabilities for 2001 and 2002 were discovered after his nomination. He has been praised for repaying these additional taxes for the earlier years, which apparently may not have been required under a statute of limitations, but this raises another question: Why didn’t he voluntarily correct his 2001 and 2002 taxes once he found out that he had made the same error in 2003 and 2004?”

Fred Barnes wants to know when the moderate, bipartisan President Obama will show up: “The answer is soon, since Democrats are in a hurry to pass a bill. If he informs congressional Democrats that the package is unsatisfactory, they’re likely to accede to his wishes. They don’t want to embarrass a new Democratic president. By stepping in forcefully, Obama will pass the test of leadership. . . Obama is also committed to gaining the support of a critical mass of Republicans. But he can’t achieve that with the stimulus package put together by House Democrats. The easiest way to attract Republicans is by including tax incentives for private investment. Such tax cuts, if retroactive to January 1, would have the added value of an immediate impact on the economy.”

David Brooks on what to expect from the Inaugural Address and what to be wary of afterwards: “Look for him to emphasize the themes of responsibility, cohesion and unity. Look for him to reject the culture, which lingered in the financial world, of anything goes. Part will be accomplished with his aggressive outreach efforts. Already he has cooperated with Republicans. He has rejected the counsel of the old liberal warriors who want retribution and insularity. But the real test will come in the realm of policy. The next few months will be occupied with the stimulus package. And anybody who is not terrified by the prospect of spending $800 billion hastily has not spent enough time studying the difference between economic textbooks and the way government actually operates.”

If this account is true — that Joe Biden was considered for both State and the VP –  we lucked out. He chose the position where he could be downsized.  (The Obama team was forced to offer a clarification.) Has there ever been a sillier, more undisciplined person in the VP slot?

Bill McGurn is right: “Mr. Bush’s disfavor in Washington owes more to his greatest success. Simply put, there are those who will never forgive Mr. Bush for not losing a war they had all declared unwinnable.”

Mitt Romney talks sense on the economy with a calm, bipartisan tone. (The post that accompanies it is misleading — he’s hardly “chatting up” the $850B stimulus plan.)

Another day another Norm Coleman legal strategy. This may become the “how not to”  textbook for election recounts.

The new President is proposing a spending free-for all now but will it slow him down later? So at some point deficits will matter again? It is dizzying to follow the on-again-off-again concern for fiscal discipline.

Lots of smoke and mirrors about a dramatic change in foreign policy, but read closely and you’ll see the  expectations are low for the “peace process,” troops are being increased in Afghanistan and decreased in Iraq, and Guantanamo gets a showy closing announcement without shutting down anytime soon. Will anyone notice there isn’t much change?

A tidbit from the Eric Holder confirmation hearing: “Mr. Holder now concedes that Presidents have inherent powers that even a statute can’t abridge, notwithstanding his campaign speeches. That makes us feel better about a General Holder on national security. But his concession is further evidence that the liberal accusations about ‘breaking the law’ and ‘illegal wiretaps’ of the last several years were mostly about naked partisanship. Mr. Holder’s objection turns out to be merely the tactical political one that the Bush Administration would have been better off negotiating with Congress for wiretap approval, not that it was breaking the law. Now he tells us.”

If Fiat buys Chrysler can we stop giving the latter money? Once the former eventually takes a majority interest, it’s really not that different from Honda. Come to think of it, it makes more sense to give Honda the money since they seem able to produce cars in the U.S. with U.S. workers — and these are cars we actually want to buy.

Read Less




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