Commentary Magazine


No Criticism Allowed

In his blog over at the New Yorker, George Packer writes this:

Unfortunately, [David] Brooks’s fair-minded critique is rare on the right. Most conservative critics of Obama’s first month are not hoping to be proved wrong, as Brooks says he is. Far from it: their dice were loaded from the start. Charles Krauthammer, Karl Rove, Peter Wehner, and others have already concluded that Obama is a failure, even as they pretend to reserve final judgment. Given the amount of wrongheadedness and damage pundits like these have inflicted on the country in its recent history, the decent thing for them to have done is say nothing for at least six months. They might even have learned something.

Let’s untangle Packer’s arguments.

1. Packer claims that I have "already concluded that Obama is a failure" — even though in the piece he cites, I wrote this:

[W]hile Obama has sent of jolt of energy through the GOP, which is in far stronger shape than anyone could have imagined just a month ago, I hope Obama and his administration can adjust in time. After all, the fate of our country is now tied in large measure to his actions. It’s a bad thing to have as our commander-in-chief a person with, in Krauthammer’s vivid phrase, a "kick me" sign on his back. The first month has been ragged, and some disturbing signs have arisen. It’s still very early — Obama has yet to complete his first full month in office, after all — and he may get his sea legs soon.  He remains a formidable political figure. And sending 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, while done in a somewhat haphazard way, was reassuring.

There are plenty of other passages I’ve written that Packer could have cited, including this one:

To be fair, it is still extremely early. President Obama, a man of formidable skills, can regain his footing easily enough. And what will matter in the end is how events unfold, rather than the process. That is almost always the case. If the economy is surging by 2010, Obama and his party will reap the benefits.

Or this one:

I’m not asking for a moratorium on criticism [of Obama] or arguing that criticisms are unwarranted in every instance. That needs to be determined by facts and circumstances. And certainly we should have vigorous debates over the direction of policy.  But I do think we’d all be better served if we maintained perspective and reasonable expectations on what any President and his Administration can achieve and cut them some slack when their execution isn’t perfect or they stumble along the way. That goes for those of us who didn’t vote for Barack Obama and will likely oppose many of his initiatives. We should extend to him and his team some of the grace and fair-mindedness that hasn’t always been shown to others in the past.

These are hardly the words of someone who has "concluded that Obama is a failure." He has been in office just over a month; to make a final judgment on Obama would be a mistake — just as it is for Packer to impute motivations of those with whom he disagrees (we are "pretending" to "reserve final judgment," even though we’ve already made a definitive, cast-in-stone assessment of the Obama presidency).

2. The problem with Packer and many of his colleagues at the New Yorker is that their knees go wobbly when speaking and writing about Obama. To take just one example: in the aftermath of Obama’s race speech in Philadelphia, Packer described it as an "intimate lecture," the "greatest speech on race by an American politician in many decades," one that seemed to have been composed in "intense solitude." It had the "personal drama, the encompassing structure, the moral and intellectual intricacy, of a great essay." In the "high-mindedness and subtlety on glorious display in Philadelphia," Obama paid "the electorate the supreme compliment of assuming that it, too, can appreciate complexity."

Packer’s boss, David Remnick, appeared on The Charlie Rose show in November and, in speaking about Obama, was almost overcome by emotion. Perhaps sensing how embarrassing the whole thing was, Remnick said, "And can I point out journalistically, Charlie, I think it is–we’ll climb out of the tank soon."

That day has yet to arrive. Packer and Remnick are acting less like journalists and more like infatuated teens. Because of their deep political and emotional investment in Obama, criticisms of him — even in terms much less harsh than those used against Bush, who was the object of deranged and hateful attacks — are often viewed as illegitimate and unfair. Some criticism is apparently acceptable, but only if it is done reluctantly, in an agonized fashion, and always in a way that shows proper regard for The One.

3. On the matter of "the amount of wrongheadedness and damage" that pundits have inflicted on this country, among the most important single policy issues of this generation is where one stood on the so-called surge strategy in Iraq. As it happens, Krauthammer, Rove, and I, all supported it. On September 17, 2007, Packer wrote a long essay, "Planning for Defeat: How should we withdraw from Iraq?"

According to Packer,

The Petraeus-Crocker testimony is the kind of short-lived event on which the Administration has relied to shore up support for the war: the "Mission Accomplished" declaration, the deaths of Uday and Qusay Hussein, Saddam’s capture, the transfer of sovereignty, the three rounds of voting, the Plan for Victory, the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Every new milestone, however illusory, allows the Administration to avoid thinking ahead, to the years when the mistakes of Iraq will continue to haunt the U.S.

The media have largely followed the Administration’s myopic approach to the war, and there is likely to be intense coverage of the congressional testimony. But the inadequacy of the surge is already clear, if one honestly assesses the daily lives of Iraqis.

This turned out to be exactly wrong. By September 2007 the surge, far from being clearly inadequate, was clearly making progress. (General Petraeus reported in his Congressional testimony that civilian deaths had declined considerably, by over 45 percent, Iraq-wide since the height of the sectarian violence the previous December, with a 70 percent decline in civilian deaths in Baghdad). By the way, Packer’s piece included this paragraph:

Peter Wehner, a former adviser to President George W. Bush who left the White House last month, acknowledged that the Administration had made many mistakes in Iraq. But he insisted that victory was still possible. Bush, he said, "has the stiffest spine in the Administration," and he described Petraeus as a man who could enter the military pantheon next to Grant, if only the American people would give him the chance. "What happens if, at the eleventh hour, we’re witnessing one of the most remarkable feats in American history on the part of a general?" he said. "If that’s the case, why do you want to give up now?"

Why indeed?

4. Neither Rove, my former colleague and friend, nor Krauthammer need me to defend them. But Packer, who himself is a fine reporter, should be careful about inviting comparisons with others in his profession. Krauthammer’s extraordinary body of work speaks for itself and, on his worst day, he is vastly superior to Packer as both a writer and a thinker. But Packer shouldn’t feel too bad: that’s true for most of us.

5. Over the years, I have had lunch with Packer and met him for coffee (I found him to be good and interesting company). He has interviewed me several times for articles he’s written. He was intrigued, I think, with some favorable things I had written about Obama. At that time, apparently, my sins were less grievous and my words were worth listening to (or at least worth quoting in Packer’s articles). But then I deigned to express criticisms of Obama, both on substance and on what I considered to be his somewhat ragged start. That was apparently too much for George; now I should be silent for six months.

Once upon a time, it was left to an Administration, its spokesmen, national committees, and political hacks to insist that critics be silenced. Barack Obama has the advantage of having members of the press perform this task for him. As I have argued before, for some members of the media, Obama is their prince, and they are his courtiers. Hero-worship, it appears, can cause intelligent people to say silly things.

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