Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 25, 2013

ObamaCare and the Congressional Circus

Last night, Politico published what seemed like quite the scoop: members of Congress from both parties were holding secret negotiations with the aim of passing legislation that would exempt their staffers from unwieldy ObamaCare rules. The backlash was immediate, and virtually guaranteed that whether or not the Politico story got it right (it didn’t), it would at least have the effect of snuffing out whatever legislation was being contemplated.

The countdown began, and ended this afternoon when Harry Reid announced that the problem they spent months in secret negotiations trying to fix doesn’t actually exist, in his expert opinion, and thus would not require legislation that reeked of hypocrisy. So what actually happened? As Ezra Klein explained at the Washington Post, during the ObamaCare negotiations Chuck Grassley had proposed, and Congress subsequently passed, an amendment that requires congressional offices to purchase their health insurance policies from the insurance exchanges set up by ObamaCare. Grassley’s amendment was designed to embarrass Democrats by forcing them to reject part of ObamaCare as good enough for the ragged masses but not for them. Democrats, instead, accepted the amendment.

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Last night, Politico published what seemed like quite the scoop: members of Congress from both parties were holding secret negotiations with the aim of passing legislation that would exempt their staffers from unwieldy ObamaCare rules. The backlash was immediate, and virtually guaranteed that whether or not the Politico story got it right (it didn’t), it would at least have the effect of snuffing out whatever legislation was being contemplated.

The countdown began, and ended this afternoon when Harry Reid announced that the problem they spent months in secret negotiations trying to fix doesn’t actually exist, in his expert opinion, and thus would not require legislation that reeked of hypocrisy. So what actually happened? As Ezra Klein explained at the Washington Post, during the ObamaCare negotiations Chuck Grassley had proposed, and Congress subsequently passed, an amendment that requires congressional offices to purchase their health insurance policies from the insurance exchanges set up by ObamaCare. Grassley’s amendment was designed to embarrass Democrats by forcing them to reject part of ObamaCare as good enough for the ragged masses but not for them. Democrats, instead, accepted the amendment.

Democrats thought they had won the battle by meeting Grassley’s dare head-on. But there was a problem: the law excludes from those exchanges, in most cases, large employers–a category that includes the federal government. Which meant Hill staffers might have to foot the entire bill for their health insurance–of course made even more expensive thanks to ObamaCare–because the Grassley amendment, which Democrats so proudly accepted, put them into a strange new category Klein refers to as a regulatory limbo. They’ve been arguing ever since over what this means, with the fear that their staffers will all quit on them when they see the price tag on their shiny new health insurance plans.

In other words, the United States Congress has no idea what the law says or how to comply with it. But at least they’re not hypocrites, so don’t you feel better?

Klein is fairly sanguine about the whole thing, since it turned out to just be a terrible misunderstanding. But I actually think that’s the story. Congress started by trying to pass a massive bureaucratic overhaul of nearly one-fifth of the American economy, stared blankly at thousands of pages of regulations they wouldn’t even consider reading, and voted to make it the law of the land. Along the way, they treated the amendment process like a game of frat house beer pong, and their personal pride determined which amendments got through. Unsurprisingly, they passed amendments that made a hash of the law, because they didn’t read the law before enacting it.

When Nancy Pelosi suggested that it would just be tremendously exciting if no one looked at the bill and then we all found out together afterward to what extent Congress had just wrecked an entire industry, she was speaking for members of Congress as well as the public. So when Congress found out what Congress had wrought, they got to work trying to undo part of what they had done (the part, naturally, that affected them the most).

But that brought up another problem (just as we Jews famously answer questions with questions, so Congress “solves” problems with other problems): namely, that it would be quite a bummer if the public found out what they were up to. That’s because there are only two possible explanations for what they were doing, and neither sounded good. Either it would be exposed that they had no idea what was in the health care bill they passed, or it would seem like they did and now were trying to weasel out of part of it. And of course, by doing this in secret in a town where there are no secrets, they ensured the public would have both reactions.

Now that the public found out, Reid says there’s no need to take any action, that the law as written won’t do what they thought it might (he’s probably right). But Reid is a senator, not emperor, so he doesn’t get to make that decision–it’s up to the Office of Personnel Management. Reid’s statement, Klein notes, “doesn’t say much about what will happen if OPM doesn’t rule as Reid hopes.” It’s almost as if he’s not planning ahead. Klein continues:

If OPM doesn’t rule as Reid expects, I’ll be surprised to see this get fixed, at least quickly. Republicans view any chaos around Obamacare as a win for them. As of today, they’re telling me that that even extends to chaos caused by a Republican senator’s amendment that mainly effects (sic) their health insurance. I don’t think they’ll hold out long on that if it turns out they actually have to shoulder the full cost of their premiums. But it will be tough to preemptively back down too.

More games, more bluffing, more staring contests in response to the chaos they’ve created. Welcome to Congress.

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Hagel Did the Smearing, Not His Critics

The fight over the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense is long over. The former Nebraska senator’s inept confirmation hearing and the uncovering of damning statements he made concerning his views about Israel and its supporters wasn’t enough to convince the Senate to reject him or for enough of his critics to block the nomination with a filibuster. Since taking office, he has tried to put his problems behind him and is currently in Israel, where he has promised to stand by the Jewish state. Let’s hope he sticks to those pledges.

But for some of those who defended him, victory in that battle wasn’t enough. Yesterday the New Republic published an astonishing piece by Alec MacGillis in which he claimed Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens’s writing about Hagel should have disqualified him for the Pulitzer Prize in Commentary that he was awarded earlier this month. According to MacGillis, Stephens “smeared” Hagel by accusing him of anti-Semitism.

This is false. If there was anything that we learned during the debate about Hagel, it was that it was the nominee who had indulged in smear tactics against supporters of Israel over the years.

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The fight over the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense is long over. The former Nebraska senator’s inept confirmation hearing and the uncovering of damning statements he made concerning his views about Israel and its supporters wasn’t enough to convince the Senate to reject him or for enough of his critics to block the nomination with a filibuster. Since taking office, he has tried to put his problems behind him and is currently in Israel, where he has promised to stand by the Jewish state. Let’s hope he sticks to those pledges.

But for some of those who defended him, victory in that battle wasn’t enough. Yesterday the New Republic published an astonishing piece by Alec MacGillis in which he claimed Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens’s writing about Hagel should have disqualified him for the Pulitzer Prize in Commentary that he was awarded earlier this month. According to MacGillis, Stephens “smeared” Hagel by accusing him of anti-Semitism.

This is false. If there was anything that we learned during the debate about Hagel, it was that it was the nominee who had indulged in smear tactics against supporters of Israel over the years.

Far from being inaccurate or unfounded, Stephens was right on the money when he noted that Hagel’s comments about “the Jewish lobby” intimidating Congress were straight out of the traditional anti-Semitic playbook.

The only other example that MacGillis provides for his charge that Stephens “smeared” Hagel is his citation of a column about a speech Hagel gave at Rutgers University. MacGillis says Stephens was out of line for noting that the speech was sponsored by the school’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies that was chaired by an academic who had been charged with obstruction of justice in an investigation of a front group for the Iranian government. According to the TNR scribe that was nothing less than guilt by association.

But MacGillis either didn’t read the piece thoroughly or was at pains to conceal the real reason Hagel’s speech was significant. The appearance became the subject of comment when it was revealed that during the course of his appearance, Hagel made the astounding charge that the U.S. State Department was run by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, a smear so absurd that it reveals as much about the nominee’s stupidity as it does his malevolence. Yet nowhere in his diatribe about how wrong it was of Stephens to mention this incident does MacGillis mention Hagel’s comments.

MacGillis doesn’t attempt to dispute Stephens’s takedowns of Hagel (with which I repeatedly concurred both here on COMMENTARY’s blog and in my article about the controversy in the April issue of the magazine). He merely dismisses them. In his view, anyone who thinks there’s something wrong with a U.S. Senator engaging in these kinds of slurs against American Jews or the State of Israel in terms that are redolent with anti-Semitic insinuations is at fault.

No one need argue with MacGillis about Stephens’s qualifications for journalism’s highest honor. The only surprise here was that the Pulitzers, which honor the unworthy at least as often as they do those who deserve the plaudits, had the sense to recognize Stephens.

There is one more thing to be said about this tawdry attack on a great writer. There was a time not so long ago when the New Republic could always be counted on as one Israel’s great defenders as well as among the ranks of those most vocal in denouncing exactly the kind of anti-Semitic innuendo that Hagel was guilty of spreading around. But instead of joining the Journal and COMMENTARY in holding Hagel accountable, TNR has become one of those seeking to silence those who speak out against such vile slurs. Its new ownership and editors apparently have a different view of their responsibilities in this regard than their predecessors. They should be ashamed.

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Iraq, Syria, and American Foreign Policy

Recent developments in Syria and Iraq make clear that President Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East–a policy of disengagement disguised as “leading from behind”–is in a shambles.

In Iraq, fighting intensifies between the Shiite-dominated armed forces and Sunni tribesmen. The trouble started on Tuesday when security forces attacked Sunni protesters near Kirkuk, killing at least 50 people and wounding more than 100. Sunnis retaliated with attacks on the security forces, who in turn escalated their own attacks on Sunnis, to include using helicopter gunships against Sunni fighters in Sulaiman Bek, a village north of Baghdad. Many Sunnis are now beginning to link their revolt to that of Syrian Sunnis, to suggest that both are fighting Shiite dictators. This may be an exaggeration, but that is the perception Prime Minister Maliki has fostered, unrestrained by American pressure, with his vindictive and foolish attempts to prosecute leading Sunnis.

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Recent developments in Syria and Iraq make clear that President Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East–a policy of disengagement disguised as “leading from behind”–is in a shambles.

In Iraq, fighting intensifies between the Shiite-dominated armed forces and Sunni tribesmen. The trouble started on Tuesday when security forces attacked Sunni protesters near Kirkuk, killing at least 50 people and wounding more than 100. Sunnis retaliated with attacks on the security forces, who in turn escalated their own attacks on Sunnis, to include using helicopter gunships against Sunni fighters in Sulaiman Bek, a village north of Baghdad. Many Sunnis are now beginning to link their revolt to that of Syrian Sunnis, to suggest that both are fighting Shiite dictators. This may be an exaggeration, but that is the perception Prime Minister Maliki has fostered, unrestrained by American pressure, with his vindictive and foolish attempts to prosecute leading Sunnis.

President Obama tried to put a happy face on his failure to renegotiate a Status of Forces Agreement. When on October 21, 2011, he announced the end of talks with the Iraqis, he said, “This will be a strong and enduring partnership. With our diplomats and civilian advisors in the lead, we’ll help Iraqis strengthen institutions that are just, representative and accountable. We’ll build new ties of trade and of commerce, culture and education, that unleash the potential of the Iraqi people. We’ll partner with an Iraq that contributes to regional security and peace, just as we insist that other nations respect Iraq’s sovereignty.”

Predictably, it hasn’t worked out that way–instead Iraq is turning increasingly violent and American influence is at a nadir. Far from stabilizing the region, Iraq is contributing to instability–both because its government is supporting the Assad regime in its civil war and because Iraqi Sunni extremists are increasingly fighting against the Assad regime.

Obama has tried to do as little as possible about the Syria conflict even as the death toll climbed north of 70,000, as refugee flows destabilized neighboring states, and as al-Qaeda-linked extremists gained increasing ground. Now that the administration has finally conceded that U.S. intelligence agencies agree, “with varying degrees of confidence,” with Israeli, British and French counterparts that Assad has a crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons, America’s standoffish posture must change. If it doesn’t, Obama will have no credibility to lay out any red lines for Iran or North Korea.

But even action now, however warranted and overdue, will not be as effective as action could have been a year or two ago, before the conflict had become so deadly and debilitating. Many voices in and out of the administration urged Obama to act, but apparently paralyzed by the Iraq Syndrome, he has refused to do much of anything. Unfortunately, the longer the U.S. has waited to act, the harder it becomes to imagine a future Syrian government ever being able to pick up the pieces and to pacify the entire government. Both Syria and Iraq could continue to destabilize the entire region for a long time to come.

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Chemicals Mean Obama Must Act on Syria

The Assad regime has been sounding more confident lately, as it has become apparent that many of those fighting to oust the dictator are Islamists. As the New York Times noted in a front page feature today, Western concerns about turning Syria over to radical Muslims with strong connections to terrorism has emboldened Assad’s loyalists to begin pitching the idea that his murderous government is not only the lesser of two evils but a potential ally.

They’re dreaming if they think even Secretary of State John Kerry is foolish enough to buy into such thinking. The Obama administration has committed itself to opposing Assad and it’s not likely anything will deter them from working for his ouster. Nor should it, since for all of the justified worries about the rebels Assad remains an ally of Iran and Hezbollah. Nevertheless, the effort to separate the West from the opposition dovetails with the thinking of some Americans, like scholar Daniel Pipes, who think it probably is in America’s interests to keep the two sides in Syria fighting until exhaustion.

But the announcement today that the United States believes Damascus has used chemical warfare against the opposition ought to put an end to any idea that Assad could gain Western indifference, let alone support. The White House admission confirms the information that has been filtering out of Israel that pointed to the use of these extremely dangerous weapons by a Syrian government that has already slaughtered 70,000 people in the course of their war of survival. The question now is not whether the U.S. will be neutral about the regime’s survival but just how far it will go in order to secure his demise.

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The Assad regime has been sounding more confident lately, as it has become apparent that many of those fighting to oust the dictator are Islamists. As the New York Times noted in a front page feature today, Western concerns about turning Syria over to radical Muslims with strong connections to terrorism has emboldened Assad’s loyalists to begin pitching the idea that his murderous government is not only the lesser of two evils but a potential ally.

They’re dreaming if they think even Secretary of State John Kerry is foolish enough to buy into such thinking. The Obama administration has committed itself to opposing Assad and it’s not likely anything will deter them from working for his ouster. Nor should it, since for all of the justified worries about the rebels Assad remains an ally of Iran and Hezbollah. Nevertheless, the effort to separate the West from the opposition dovetails with the thinking of some Americans, like scholar Daniel Pipes, who think it probably is in America’s interests to keep the two sides in Syria fighting until exhaustion.

But the announcement today that the United States believes Damascus has used chemical warfare against the opposition ought to put an end to any idea that Assad could gain Western indifference, let alone support. The White House admission confirms the information that has been filtering out of Israel that pointed to the use of these extremely dangerous weapons by a Syrian government that has already slaughtered 70,000 people in the course of their war of survival. The question now is not whether the U.S. will be neutral about the regime’s survival but just how far it will go in order to secure his demise.

The replacement of Assad by a government dominated or even run by Islamists is a scary proposition. It’s even scarier if you think of these people being able to put their hands on Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons. But rather than inducing the U.S. to stand aside and let the dictator finish the job of massacring the opposition, the admission by the administration that Assad has succumbed to the temptation of employing his chemical arsenal may make it imperative that Washington step up its support of non-Islamist rebels.

Though Syria hawks sometimes talk as if we can pick and choose our friends in Syria, it’s probably not as simple as that. While it might have been easy to empower genuine pro-democracy forces in Syria two years ago when the rebellion started as part of the Arab Spring protests, the administration’s waffling on the issue has complicated this process. Islamist radicals now are an integral part of the opposition to Assad and it may not be possible to create a new Syrian government without incorporating some of them. But unless the West takes action to ensure that the more presentable Syrians gain the upper hand now, it’s probably a given that we will be stuck having to choose between a murderous Iranian ally and al-Qaeda types.

More to the point, this is a moment when the United States must reassert its responsibility to stop humanitarian disasters. While many, if not most, Americans don’t care whether Assad or some other thug rules Syria, the notion of the West standing back and watching while mass murder is taking place is unacceptable. Having already said that the use of chemical weapons is a “red line” Assad cannot cross without triggering Western action, the president cannot continue to stay on the sidelines.

For too long, President Obama’s Syria policy has been one of “leading from behind” and hoping that the problem will be solved before we are forced to do anything. But Assad won’t be toppled without Western involvement. Nor will we be able to keep his chemical weapons out of the hands of extremists by praying that others will do the job for us.

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Presidential Pyramids and Democracy

The ceremony opening George W. Bush’s presidential library and museum today in Dallas is the kind of thing that seems to bring out the best in all of current and former leaders. The gracious speeches praising the 43rd president from former presidents Carter and Clinton as well as from President Obama were in the best tradition of patriotism and bipartisanship. The institution they are dedicating today is, by all accounts, a magnificent achievement and will make a genuine contribution to our understanding of his time in office and to American history.

Just as important, the library’s opening seems to herald the beginning of a sea change in public opinion about Bush. He was badly treated by the media and, along with Vice President Cheney, became a piñata for both the chattering classes and popular culture and it may be that this day is the start of a reassessment of his presidency.

Yet there is also something slightly off-putting about the creation of what can only be described as yet another presidential pyramid. If at the beginning of the history of our republic, it was understood our presidents would, like the Roman hero Cincinnatus go home to their plows and resume life as an ordinary citizen of the republic, we now treat former commanders-in-chief as if they were dowager monarchs, each entitled to their own private court. The creation of the presidential library system, which started as an appropriate and necessary method for storing the papers of each administration, has become an excuse for the building of great monuments to each chief executive.

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The ceremony opening George W. Bush’s presidential library and museum today in Dallas is the kind of thing that seems to bring out the best in all of current and former leaders. The gracious speeches praising the 43rd president from former presidents Carter and Clinton as well as from President Obama were in the best tradition of patriotism and bipartisanship. The institution they are dedicating today is, by all accounts, a magnificent achievement and will make a genuine contribution to our understanding of his time in office and to American history.

Just as important, the library’s opening seems to herald the beginning of a sea change in public opinion about Bush. He was badly treated by the media and, along with Vice President Cheney, became a piñata for both the chattering classes and popular culture and it may be that this day is the start of a reassessment of his presidency.

Yet there is also something slightly off-putting about the creation of what can only be described as yet another presidential pyramid. If at the beginning of the history of our republic, it was understood our presidents would, like the Roman hero Cincinnatus go home to their plows and resume life as an ordinary citizen of the republic, we now treat former commanders-in-chief as if they were dowager monarchs, each entitled to their own private court. The creation of the presidential library system, which started as an appropriate and necessary method for storing the papers of each administration, has become an excuse for the building of great monuments to each chief executive.

Like the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, each successive president undertakes the building of their political mausoleums in order to ensure their memory is preserved. Even more importantly, it allows them to begin, as President Clinton noted today at the Bush ceremony, the task of “rewriting history” in order to burnish their reputations.

That there is no going back from this recently acquired tradition is certain. But it is worthwhile at such a moment to ponder just how recently this change went into effect. Prior to the mid-20th century, ex-presidents actually did go back to being ordinary citizens without Secret Service details or staffs paid for by the taxpayers. As Matthew Algeo noted in his 2011 book Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip, it was possible as last as 1953 for an ex-president and his wife to actually jump in their car and drive around the country on their own.

Theodore Roosevelt was the exception to the rule of citizen ex-presidents. His celebrity after leaving the White House—as well as his status as a central figure in our politics until his death ten years later—was, however, unique. But it would be decades before another ex-president would be as big a deal as him.

The creation of what a previous generation called the “imperial presidency” changed not only the way our leaders govern but also the way they were regarded after their terms ended. As the size and power of the federal government grew after the Great Depression and World War II, the presidency grew with it, gradually making it impossible for his predecessors to even think about emulating Truman’s road trip.

Parallel to this was the way their libraries grew from document repositories to vast museums. Where the first presidential libraries were modest affairs, they have now become mammoth institutions that go along with the large lifestyles that are part and parcel of being an ex-president. If, as Bush noted today, Alexander Hamilton feared ex-presidents would be ghosts that would haunt our politics, they are today exalted pensioners more akin to royalty than anything else.

Though they were almost all members of society’s elite in one way or another, this is something the Founders never intended to happen in the republic they created. The notion of a permanent political ruling class of this sort is not just antithetical to democracy in principle but inspires the sort of resentment of politicians that leads to the cynicism with which so many Americans view those involved in public service.

It is a given that these libraries will only get bigger and bigger with each passing president. If the Bush 43 library dwarfs some of the early presidential libraries, one can only imagine the humongous edifice that will be erected to gratify the ego and the hubris of his successor by his adoring followers.

The only possible antidote to this trend is the spirit of humility with which George W. Bush opened his library today. He rightly called it a tribute to the people of the United States more than to those that served them. If we can truly make these libraries temples of democracy rather than merely tributes to the presidents then perhaps we can hold onto some vestige of the founders’ ideas. If, as the saying goes, any American can grow up to be president, then perhaps we can also return to the concept that ex-presidents are just Americans and not retired kings or queens.  

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Bush’s “Decency” Was Always There, but Where Was the Media’s?

As the 2012 presidential election drew to a close, Mitt Romney made the rounds in the important state of Pennsylvania with a closing message: “The president has run a strong campaign, I believe he is a good man and wish him well, and his family well. He is a good father and has been a good example of a good father, but it is time for a new direction. It is a time for a better tomorrow.” Barack Obama is a good man and a good father–this was central to Romney’s campaign theme. As the liberal Mother Jones noted a month prior to Election Day: “Romney’s schtick has been an almost sorrowful acknowledgment that Obama is a good man, an honorable man, but in over his head.”

Romney delivered that message consistently. There may have been plenty of arrant nonsense about Obama’s eligibility from the fever swamps of the right and shameless self-promoters like Donald Trump, but the man who wanted to be president showed the man who is currently president the respect of the office. That is strikingly different from how the Democratic Party’s grandees treated George W. Bush, of course. John Kerry joked about assassinating Bush. Al Gore screamed wild-eyed that Bush “betrayed this country!” Obama himself traded in all sorts of conspiracy theories about Iraq, including the claim that the Iraq War was launched to distract the country from “a rise in the poverty rate.”

I don’t recount this to use the opening of the Bush library today to re-litigate the left’s Bush derangement syndrome–that’s all in the public record. But amid all the recollections and reconsiderations of the Bush presidency today, one in particular caught my attention. The mainstream press coverage of the Bush presidency was not a sober record of history as it developed but rather a daily expression of the Kerry-Gore-Obama attitude toward the president. Yet it’s possible to think that Kerry, Gore, and Obama were being cynical; perhaps they didn’t really believe all the things they said about Bush. But what if the reporters who covered the Bush presidency believed their own propaganda? In what serves as a stinging self-indictment, two Politico writers–both formerly of the Washington Post and one currently the editor in chief of Politico–today have filed a story titled “What we’ve learned about George W. Bush since he left town.”

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As the 2012 presidential election drew to a close, Mitt Romney made the rounds in the important state of Pennsylvania with a closing message: “The president has run a strong campaign, I believe he is a good man and wish him well, and his family well. He is a good father and has been a good example of a good father, but it is time for a new direction. It is a time for a better tomorrow.” Barack Obama is a good man and a good father–this was central to Romney’s campaign theme. As the liberal Mother Jones noted a month prior to Election Day: “Romney’s schtick has been an almost sorrowful acknowledgment that Obama is a good man, an honorable man, but in over his head.”

Romney delivered that message consistently. There may have been plenty of arrant nonsense about Obama’s eligibility from the fever swamps of the right and shameless self-promoters like Donald Trump, but the man who wanted to be president showed the man who is currently president the respect of the office. That is strikingly different from how the Democratic Party’s grandees treated George W. Bush, of course. John Kerry joked about assassinating Bush. Al Gore screamed wild-eyed that Bush “betrayed this country!” Obama himself traded in all sorts of conspiracy theories about Iraq, including the claim that the Iraq War was launched to distract the country from “a rise in the poverty rate.”

I don’t recount this to use the opening of the Bush library today to re-litigate the left’s Bush derangement syndrome–that’s all in the public record. But amid all the recollections and reconsiderations of the Bush presidency today, one in particular caught my attention. The mainstream press coverage of the Bush presidency was not a sober record of history as it developed but rather a daily expression of the Kerry-Gore-Obama attitude toward the president. Yet it’s possible to think that Kerry, Gore, and Obama were being cynical; perhaps they didn’t really believe all the things they said about Bush. But what if the reporters who covered the Bush presidency believed their own propaganda? In what serves as a stinging self-indictment, two Politico writers–both formerly of the Washington Post and one currently the editor in chief of Politico–today have filed a story titled “What we’ve learned about George W. Bush since he left town.”

Here is the fourth item on the list, and an explanation:

• Bush is a personally decent fellow

When he ran for president in 2000, the notion that Bush was on balance a likable guy — if not uniformly respected for his intelligence or preparation for the presidency — was widely assumed.

By 2009, his divisive policies and defiant political style had been so polarizing for so long that much of Bush’s personality and values had become obscured by a toxic cloud.

Since leaving office, he has avoided partisan politics and taken up painting. Several pieces of his art have ended up online, including a self-portrait of him in the shower.

Yes, two veteran political reporters actually wrote this. They never thought much of the former president while he was in office, but then, a few years later, they saw a painting. And you have to love their explanation for why they didn’t think Bush was a “decent fellow” earlier: “much of Bush’s personality and values had become obscured by a toxic cloud.”

And what was that toxic cloud? That would be the political reporting. So we have our answer: the press believed their own miserable propaganda. “Just remember,” George Costanza tells Jerry Seinfeld, “it’s not a lie if you believe it.” It is of course a lie that Bush wasn’t a thoroughly decent person throughout his presidency, so it was crucial for liberals and the press to believe it.

It’s not as though Bush’s obvious decency wasn’t visible to reporters. Ron Fournier, now with National Journal, had covered the Bush presidency, and a couple of days ago wrote about the decency he saw in Bush. The whole thing is worth reading, but one key takeaway, as Fournier gives example after example, is how Bush’s sense of personal decency was clear as day to anyone who interacted with him.

So yes, there was plenty of absurdity coming from the right and leveled at President Obama, and history will not look kindly on the disrespect and indignity of making the president feel compelled to show his birth certificate. Plenty of the attacks on Bill Clinton were–or should have been–out of bounds too. But ask yourself this: can you picture John McCain screaming at the top of his lungs that Barack Obama is a traitor to the country he leads, or jokingly suggesting he should assassinate Obama? And can you imagine political reporters writing four years after Obama leaves office that they never knew he was a personally decent man?

I hope you cannot imagine those things, but that is the reality that George W. Bush endured and absorbed with grace, good humor, unrequited compassion, and above all, yes, personal decency.

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The Dangers of Citizen Detective Work

Today the unfortunate news broke that a missing Brown University student, Sunil Tripathi, was found dead in the Providence River in Rhode Island. He had been missing for over a month. What catapulted his name into the news, however, wasn’t the fact that he was a 22-year-old missing Ivy League student; it was his alleged connection to the Boston Marathon bombings.

Soon after the FBI released photographs of the alleged bombers who were eventually identified as Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the social media site Reddit went to work trying to identify the men photographed in baseball caps. The possibility that the one of the bombers was Tripathi was broached by a commenter on Reddit on Thursday night, leading to his name becoming so infamous that it appeared on the top worldwide trends list on Twitter. Perhaps due to this social media buzz his name was reported over the Boston Police Department’s scanners early Friday morning, lending fuel to the fire of suspicion.

Soon the Tripathi family, already under an incredible amount of stress and strain after the disappearance of their loved one, were left defending him to Facebook commenters, Twitter users and the media. The vultures descended, leading the family to close the Facebook page dedicated to the search and release a statement:

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Today the unfortunate news broke that a missing Brown University student, Sunil Tripathi, was found dead in the Providence River in Rhode Island. He had been missing for over a month. What catapulted his name into the news, however, wasn’t the fact that he was a 22-year-old missing Ivy League student; it was his alleged connection to the Boston Marathon bombings.

Soon after the FBI released photographs of the alleged bombers who were eventually identified as Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the social media site Reddit went to work trying to identify the men photographed in baseball caps. The possibility that the one of the bombers was Tripathi was broached by a commenter on Reddit on Thursday night, leading to his name becoming so infamous that it appeared on the top worldwide trends list on Twitter. Perhaps due to this social media buzz his name was reported over the Boston Police Department’s scanners early Friday morning, lending fuel to the fire of suspicion.

Soon the Tripathi family, already under an incredible amount of stress and strain after the disappearance of their loved one, were left defending him to Facebook commenters, Twitter users and the media. The vultures descended, leading the family to close the Facebook page dedicated to the search and release a statement:

A tremendous and painful amount of attention has been cast on our beloved Sunil Tripathi in the past twelve hours.

We have known unequivocally all along that neither individual suspected as responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings was Sunil.

We are grateful to all of you who have followed us on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit—supporting us over the recent hours.

Now more than ever our greatest strength comes from your enduring support. We thank all of you who have reached out to our family and ask that you continue to raise awareness and to help us find our gentle, loving, and thoughtful Sunil.

Unfortunately, we know that even seasoned professionals sometimes get it wrong in the heated pursuit for a suspect in an incident as infamous as the Boston marathon bombing. Just this week an Elvis impersonator, Paul Kevin Curtis, was released from prison after being accused of sending ricin-laced letters to President Obama and lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The tragic story of Richard Jewell, a security guard who discovered the bomb and moved spectators to safety in the Atlanta Centennial Olympic Park, is well known to many. Jewell was under suspicion for the bombings for several months before being exonerated and went on to sue various media outlets for libel (each outlet that Jewell sued eventually settled out of court for undisclosed amounts). He died in 2007 at 44 and had reportedly said that even after being cleared, he could never escape his notoriety. In a rush to report news on the Newtown massacre the news media fingered the brother of the gunman, Ryan Lanza, as the assailant, a fact he learned while sitting at his desk in midtown Manhattan.

The coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing by news media was plagued almost from the outset with misinformation. The Huffington Post made a video compilation of the lowest news media moments and points out that soon after the bombings President Obama told the media and Americans, “In this age of instant reporting and tweets and blogs, there’s a temptation to latch on to any bit of information, sometimes to jump to conclusions. But when a tragedy like this happens … it’s important that we do this right.” In the hours after the bombing Jonathan also cautioned against jumping to any conclusions, warning:

Is to be hoped that all those who write on public affairs will refrain from jumping to conclusions about what happened until we have some definitive information. Until that happens, let’s take a moment to pray for the families of the dead and for the recovery of the wounded.

In a statement released before Tripathi’s body was discovered ABC News reports:

Reddit general manager Erik Martin apologized for the “dangerous speculation” that “spiraled into very negative consequences for innocent parties.”

“The Reddit staff and the millions of people on Reddit around the world deeply regret that this happened,” Martin wrote in a blog post on Monday.

“We all need to look at what happened and make sure that in the future we do everything we can to help and not hinder crisis situations,” he said.

One would hope that after the Jewell, Ryan Lanza and most recently Curtis incidents the news media and amateur sleuths would have learned their lesson. It’s hard enough for trained and experienced law enforcement officials to conduct high-stress searches for perpetrators, and while those in the social media community may feel as though they’re helping the investigation, it’s clear that in this instance, they did nothing but impede it.

We’ve also seen yet again that it’s time for the media to slow down and focus on being right, not first. It’s not yet known how long Tripathi’s body has been in the river but even if the pale of suspicion from Reddit and later the media didn’t lead directly to his death, it’s clear how painful the situation was for a family already gripped with fear over their missing loved one. The world will soon forget Tripathi’s name, but his family will likely never recover from the treatment they received from their fellow Americans and our news media in their darkest hour.

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“Knock-Off Jihadis” and Other Pests

Yesterday at a memorial service for Boston bombing victims, Joe Biden described the Tsarnaev brothers as “twisted, perverted, cowardly, knock-off jihadis.”

You know what they say. If it worships like a duck, radicalizes like a duck, plans like a duck, arms like a duck, bombs like a duck, and kills like a duck—it’s a knock-off.

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Yesterday at a memorial service for Boston bombing victims, Joe Biden described the Tsarnaev brothers as “twisted, perverted, cowardly, knock-off jihadis.”

You know what they say. If it worships like a duck, radicalizes like a duck, plans like a duck, arms like a duck, bombs like a duck, and kills like a duck—it’s a knock-off.

It would be nice if the burden of proof for receiving Massachusetts benefits was so tough. Since the only deranged systemic network that authorities have linked the brothers to is the state welfare agency, they’re just pretend jihadists incapable of disturbing Pax Obamacana.

Of course when al-Qaeda-linked groups claim credit for killing Americans these days, that too is deemed the product of inconsequential riff-raff. Jihadist all-stars Ansar al-Sharia bragged of committing the massacre at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi. So naturally the administration blamed angry YouTube viewers and arrested a provocative American “filmmaker.” The State Department’s version of coming around to the truth was Hillary Clinton’s angry declaration before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January: “With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d they go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?”

And at this point? With another four dead Americans, these killed on Patriot’s Day in a great American city, one an 8-year-old, it makes a difference. When innocent Americans are slain in the name of an anti-American idea it demands a measure of bravery and honesty from the rest of us. Calling the suspected perpetrators “knock-off jihadists” is a pretty shabby way to dishonor the dead.

It’s also a poor way to protect civilization. No matter how many thousand bad guys you incinerate with drones, you can’t defeat what you’re too scared to speak of. Forget the words Islamism and jihad. It’s gotten to the point where the administration’s using the word terrorism is perceived as a dangerously aggressive counterterrorist initiative reminiscent of the Bush years.

Last Sunday the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg said that Boston plunged us into the “era of the suspicious package.” Not very resonant, as far as historical eras go. But it does cover the ideological depth of national security thinking in Obama’s America. We’ve moved on from the unacceptable war on terror to a war on luggage. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist is another’s knapsack.

An imitation of leadership can only handle an imitation of jihad. The specter of a committed enemy would bring into focus the commitment on our side, the side of “what difference does it make?” Better to fight knock-offs and luggage than get into all that.

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Listen to Your Mother, Jeb

If there’s anything that most of us had drilled into our heads growing up, it’s this phrase: “Listen to your mother.” Mothers aren’t always right, but it’s never a bad policy to listen to the person who gave birth to you and generally has your best interests in mind. So let’s hope former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was watching the “Today” show this morning, when his mother, sister-in-law and two nieces were being interviewed by Matt Lauer about the opening of the George W. Bush Library and Museum in Dallas.

When asked whether her younger son Jeb should run for president, Barbara Bush, already the wife and the mother of presidents, left no doubt about her views:

He’s by far the best qualified man, but no, I really don’t. I think it’s a great country, there are a lot of great families, and, it’s not just four families or whatever. There are other people that are very qualified, and we’ve had enough Bushes.

The immediate reaction from most of the press as well as the other three family members present seemed to be that this was “Barbara being Barbara,” as Bush 41’s wife once again proved she was the most candid and outspoken member of the family. But those promoting the Jeb Bush boomlet should listen to her.

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If there’s anything that most of us had drilled into our heads growing up, it’s this phrase: “Listen to your mother.” Mothers aren’t always right, but it’s never a bad policy to listen to the person who gave birth to you and generally has your best interests in mind. So let’s hope former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was watching the “Today” show this morning, when his mother, sister-in-law and two nieces were being interviewed by Matt Lauer about the opening of the George W. Bush Library and Museum in Dallas.

When asked whether her younger son Jeb should run for president, Barbara Bush, already the wife and the mother of presidents, left no doubt about her views:

He’s by far the best qualified man, but no, I really don’t. I think it’s a great country, there are a lot of great families, and, it’s not just four families or whatever. There are other people that are very qualified, and we’ve had enough Bushes.

The immediate reaction from most of the press as well as the other three family members present seemed to be that this was “Barbara being Barbara,” as Bush 41’s wife once again proved she was the most candid and outspoken member of the family. But those promoting the Jeb Bush boomlet should listen to her.

Mrs. Bush seemed to understand something that other members of the clan don’t. There is something slightly unseemly about the idea that there is only one family that can produce a president. The United States isn’t some Central American banana republic where a few great names dominate politics, or at least it shouldn’t be. The greatest strength of the Republican Party is its deep bench. They have several strong potential candidates who are not linked to the George W. Bush presidency. While none is perfect, the idea of pushing them aside in order to give another Bush a chance, even one as talented and experienced as Jeb, would be a terrible idea.

The former first lady also seemed to have a stronger grasp of the political math of 2016 than a lot of supposedly smart people who have been speaking of Jeb as a potential juggernaut. She said he would inherit all of her husband and son’s enemies while only getting “half of our friends.” That isn’t a formula for success.

Although hers is a family that seems particularly dedicated to public service (her father-in-law was a U.S. senator), perhaps she has seen the beating her husband and eldest son have taken and doesn’t want Jeb to have to go through the same process. Mrs. Bush also seems to understand that its time for her party to turn the page.

There’s nothing wrong with great families, but while the idea of a Bush-Clinton clan rematch in 2016 might amuse journalists, it doesn’t speak well for our democracy that we can’t get beyond these famous names. It’s time to move on. Let’s hope Jeb Bush listens to his mother and doesn’t put the Republicans or the nation through another round of dispiriting dynastic politics.

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