Commentary Magazine


Pledging Allegiance, by Sidney Blumenthal

Pledging Allegiance: The Last Campaign of the Cold War.
by Sidney Blumenthal.
Harper & Row. 374 pp. $22.50.

When Sidney Blumenthal first came to notice as a writer he was at the further edges of the Left, the co-editor of a conspiracy book about, among other things, Kennedy and King assassination plots (Government by Gunplay, 1976), and a contributor to an “alternative paper” in Boston. His career has ever since been marked by a crabwise move toward respectability: from the Progressive and the Nation and In These Times to the Washington Post, where he took on the beat of policing neoconservatives, and the New Republic. His last book, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment, a projection of his fears of neoconservatives, has led naturally to the present account of the election of 1988, presented as if in the conventional manner pioneered by Theodore White.

Unlike White, however, Blumenthal is unwilling to be mainly a reporter; it is important for him to have an ideological theory about the elections—and, moreover, a theory set against a cosmic background. Blumenthal’s thesis is that the cold war has corrupted and poisoned American life since 1948—so much so that in the election of 1988, both Democrats and Republicans, their minds locked in habits instilled by the East-West conflict, failed utterly to notice that a great figure, Mikhail Gorbachev, had created an entirely new historical reality.

The design of Blumenthal’s book is straightforward. Two chapters sketch the cosmic background, introduce the chief protagonists, and set the plot in motion. A chapter at the end emphasizes the ideological conclusion. In between come eleven more or less descriptive chapters on all eleven presidential candidates and the highlights of their campaigns. Since few contests in history have been so thoroughly covered as the 1988 presidential campaign—cable television, in particular, multiplied by many times over the hours of footage that political junkies could watch—Blumenthal is unable to produce much new information. Who could? But recalling the blow-by-blow does offer some pleasures.

For me, the most interesting parts are the treatments of Gary Hart, Jesse Jackson, and Michael Dukakis. In this book Blumenthal takes a greater distance from Hart than he did in 1984, when he was simultaneously contributing to speeches for Hart and publishing political columns that praised Hart’s campaign. But he still sees Hart as a bearer of forces much greater than himself: the tide of ideas, a new generation, a new correlation of powers. (It is characteristic of Blumenthal that he is always looking for metaphysical forces that carry individuals along like bits of wood on the ocean.) As for Jesse Jackson, Blumenthal’s treatment of him is surprisingly critical, even mocking. He makes fun of Jackson’s penchant for publicity, and his lack of systematic knowledge:

On Jackson’s map of the world, the Soviet Union was a large blank space. His understanding was at best rudimentary. For all his global talk, he simply failed to account for the Soviet Union. Was it a new nation that was a model for and backer of the masses of the third world? Or was it part of the exploiting West? Was it a superpower exactly like the U.S.? Where did Russian nationalism, which is strongly anti-Western, fit in? What of pan-Slavism and the problem of Central Europe? What of the nationalities within the Soviet Union? . . . Jackson never addressed any of these questions, or any like them.

Concerning the hapless Dukakis, Blumenthal is far more contemptuous, even withering, than ever was George Bush, whom Blumenthal nevertheless continually accuses of “negative campaigning.”

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But in the end none of the American presidential candidates, Bush included, matters all that much in Blumenthal’s vision, which is dominated first and foremost by the figure of Mikhail Gorbachev. Blumenthal, indeed, pictures Mikhail Gorbachev as having been totally in control of Ronald Reagan, ever since they met for the first time in Geneva in 1985. Thereafter, Gorbachev conceived of a new “starring role” for the uncomprehending Reagan, “wrote a script” for it, “produced” the drama of the end of the cold war, and in general became Reagan’s “handler” and “rescuer.” In so doing, Gorbachev “helped save the Reagan presidency, thereby indirectly fostering the environment for Bush’s election” in 1988. A year later, “Gorbachev’s decision to abet the overthrow of the Stalinist regimes of Central Europe then helped raise Bush to the heights of popularity.” (Blumenthal plainly does not see these matters through the eyes of Eastern Europeans, whose admiration of, and gratitude toward, Ronald Reagan is immense, and whose measured dismissal of Gorbachev is quite stunning.)

To Blumenthal, however, the benefit of Gorbachev to American politics does not stop with Reagan and Bush. Far from it: the real accomplishment of this “unintended agent of change” has been something much different and much greater, namely, “creating the preconditions for the revival of liberalism.” This, indeed, is the final lesson that Blumenthal derives from the campaign of 1988. Despite a penultimate chapter entitled “The Dead Democrats,” Blumenthal foresees not the death but the resurrection of the Democratic party as a result of the end of the cold war.

He may be right, of course. But somehow, I doubt it because, if Blumenthal is an example, the Left has become what the Right was once accused of being—“the stupid party,” listening to nothing, learning nothing.

For one thing, Blumenthal has by no means glimpsed the many reasons why Americans still do not trust the Left. His own descriptions of the disarray within the Democratic party, devastating as they are, miss the point. Although in some ways the Democrats are the second most capitalist party in the world, their ideological leadership has been seized by a “new class” whose vision is incoherent and leads toward political self-destruction.

The fundamental incoherence is this. The new class has an ideological compulsion to identify itself with the workers and the poor, on whose needy condition it depends for its own sense of moral righteousness. But emotionally, the new class is radically opposed to the symbols, values, and moral principles by which the working class lives and moves. This incoherence is apparent in Blumenthal’s handling of the campaign incident from which his book takes its title.

In Massachusetts, the new class was embodied in the teachers’ unions, the suburban liberals, the Kennedy School, the Boston Globe, the Massachusetts Supreme Court, and Governor Michael Dukakis, and it was solidly opposed to the regular recitation of the pledge of allegiance in the state’s classrooms. Ironically, this same new class had as its battle cry for the 1988 election “community” and “communitarian values”—a community, apparently, incompatible with a pledge to the republic for which the flag stands. In any case, the people wanted the pledge and the new class did not. Dukakis sided with the new class and lost; Bush had the wit (which he has not always shown) to side with the people.

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A second incoherence concerns matters of race. The new class aims (it says) at racial equality, but its methods, its rhetoric, and its favorite symbolic images stress the inequality of the races and the need for double standards. In these respects, the new class seems to have given up on equality and individual merit, and to have invented a new form of racism—liberal racism. The iconography of the new class ignores the diligent, successful black male—an assistant manager at IBM, or a systems engineer at TRW—and treats him with faint disgust as an “oreo,” black on the outside but living by contemptible white bourgeois values, and unfaithful to his race. By contrast, the jobless, hostile, fist-clenching, un-socialized mugger is accepted lovingly by the new class as the authentic voice of the ghetto. The black hero to whom the new class extends its sympathy, its counseling, and its privileges is—Willie Horton.

For Sidney Blumenthal, of course, “Even Willie Horton was about the cold war.” For Blumenthal, everything is about the cold war (except the cold war itself, in his eyes nothing but a fantasy). Nonetheless, he is right about an underlying analogy. In dealing with criminals like Willie Horton, the new class prefers appeasement, aid, negotiations—furloughs. It is the working class, not restrained by prohibitions against common sense, that prefers deterrence. Deterrence is race-neutral; it is rooted in a vision of good and evil. As long as presidential elections are, or can be turned into, referenda on the new class and its peculiar social morality, it is not easy to see how a Democrat can win.

Blumenthal also cannot understand the penetrating, myth-shattering effectiveness of President Reagan’s deliberate public assertion in 1983 that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire,” “the focus of evil” in our time; it is an assertion Blumenthal disdains as silly. But in the end, even Gorbachev had to say that the Soviet past was “marked by Stalinist criminality, enormous and unforgivable.” Indeed, Blumenthal himself obliquely concedes Reagan’s point, for by his own testimony the one great change in the world in the 1980′s occurred in the USSR, and that single change made the world a much more hopeful place.

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Finally, Blumenthal’s failure to grasp the evils of Communism and the crucial importance of resisting such evil early and, if necessary, with military force, bodes ill for the international vision of the Democratic party of his dreams. His dismissal of the cold war as fantasy is a sacrilege upon the graves of the millions who perished in the gulags and detention centers of Communism from Prague to Hanoi. And it is also an insult to the modern leaders of the Democratic party, from Harry S. Truman through Hubert Humphrey, John F. Kennedy, and Henry Jackson who, when so many Republicans were still isolationists, inspired the people of this nation to endure forty long years of heavy expenditures (and the sacrifice of many young lives) until the magnificent counterrevolutions of 1989 brought sudden victory. Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, and many other leaders of the newly liberated peoples have offered the thanks to America that Blumenthal cannot bring himself to utter.

The moral issue underlying the cold war—the struggle for peace through strength—will not disappear from history with the perishing of the cold war itself. Even while Blumenthal’s book was on press, the face of evil once more rose into view in the murderous person of Saddam Hussein. On the domestic front, the great values of the American people, and especially working-class Democrats, still cluster around the themes of work, family, and neighborhood—issues to which Blumenthal seems tone-deaf. It would be ironic indeed if the Democrats were now to become the party of class warfare, envy, and the “new soft tyranny” of the thoroughly administrative state, just as socialist economics is becoming a term of derision in the East. Given Republican incompetence, anything can happen, but if the Democratic party intends to win the presidency, it will not be by way of the values and ideas to which the likes of Sidney Blumenthal pledge their allegiance.

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