The Klein and the Fury
On Friday I wrote a response to Joe Klein’s most recent Time column – and apparently Joe didn’t like it very much. On Sunday he wrote not one but two responses to my posting. They are worth unpacking.
1. Klein refers to me as the “former chief White House propagandist for the
One might think that when it comes to
On February 22, 2003, he told Tim Russert on his CNBC program that the war was a “really tough decision” but that he, Klein, thought it was probably “the right decision at this point.” Klein then offered several reasons for his judgment: Saddam’s defiance of 17 U.N. resolutions over a dozen years; Klein’s firm conviction that Saddam was hiding WMD; and the need to send that message that if we didn’t enforce the latest U.N. resolution, it “empowers every would-be Saddam out there and every would-be terrorist out there.”
Earlier this year Klein called the
I’m afraid I’m going to get cranky about this: The Democrats who oppose the so-called "surge" are right. But they have to be careful not to sound like ill-informed dilettantes when talking about it.
And on April 5, 2007 Klein wrote this:
Never was Bush’s adolescent petulance more obvious than in his decision to ignore the Baker-Hamilton report and move in the exact opposite direction: adding troops and employing counterinsurgency tactics inappropriate to the situation on the ground. "There was no way he was going to accept [its findings] once the press began to portray the report as Daddy’s friends coming to the rescue," a member of the Baker-Hamilton commission told me. As with Bush’s invasion of
, the decision to surge was made unilaterally, without adequate respect for history or military doctrine. Iraq
Klein, then, favored going to war with
2. It’s also worth pointing out that during the “Arab Spring” – the early months in 2005 – Klein praised the President and his efforts to promote democracy in the Arab Middle East (Klein has since ridiculed the President’s “naïve support for democracy in countries that aren’t ready for it”).
In February 2005, for example, in the aftermath of the first Iraqi elections, Klein wrote this:
And yet, for the moment, Bush’s instincts—his supporters would argue these are bedrock values—seem to be paying off… The foreign-policy priesthood may be appalled by all the unexpected consequences, but there has been stunned silence in the non-neocon think tanks since the Iraqi elections.
And several weeks later he wrote this:
Under the enlightened leadership of Grand Ayatullah Ali Husaini Sistani, the Shiite majority has played the democracy game with gusto…. Most important, it has resisted the temptation to retaliate against the outrageous violence of Sunni extremists, especially against Shiite mosques…. If the President turns out to be right—and let’s hope he is—a century’s worth of woolly-headed liberal dreamers will be vindicated. And he will surely deserve that woolliest of all peace prizes, the Nobel.
Klein was not only claiming possible vindication for George W. Bush in 2005; he was talking up the possibility of a Nobel Peace Prize for the President – something that not even I, the chief White House propagandist and Kool-Aid drinker, was doing.
3. The statement from Klein that set off our current back-and-forth was his explicit assertion that “the liberal message of national improvement is profoundly more optimistic, and patriotic, than the innate conservative pessimism about the perfectibility of human nature [emphasis added].” On Sunday morning Klein defended this charge – though by Sunday evening he was apologizing for using patriotism “as [conservatives] do – as a weapon.” But Klein’s use of patriotism as a weapon, he assures us, was only “marginal” – and nothing compared to what those nasty conservatives have done over the years.
In his initial defense, Klein wrote this:
I didn’t question the patriotism of conservatives: I simply argued that it is more patriotic to be optimistic about the chance that our collective will–that is, the best work of government–will succeed, rather than that it will fail or impinge on freedom. In others words, it is more patriotic to be in favor of civil rights legislation than to oppose it…to be in favor of social security and medicare than to oppose them…and to hope that the better angels of our legislators–acting in concert, in compromise–will produce a universal health insurance system and an alternative energy plan that we can all be proud of.
This is, I think, a very unwise road to travel down. Does Klein really want prudential policy differences become a referendum on people’s patriotism? Is a liberal plan on health care and energy inherently more patriotic than a conservative approach to these issues? And what about those who favored the 1996 welfare reform legislation; were they more patriotic than those who opposed it? What about school choice, racial quotas, and policies on crime and abortion? What about support for a missile defense and appointing originalists on the Supreme Court? Are they a referendum on patriotism as well?
It strikes me that it is much wiser simply to make the case on behalf of particular policies and leave the matter of patriotism out of it.
4. As Fred Barnes showed in his editorial in the Weekly Standard in 2003 , the charge that conservatives are constantly calling into question the patriotism of liberals is wrong. In the words of Barnes:
The claim that Democrats are targets of a political low blow by being labeled unpatriotic has become a Democratic refrain. It’s been used by Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, and presidential candidates Dick Gephardt, Wesley Clark, and Howard Dean. Kennedy was upbraided by Republicans in September for claiming Bush had concocted the
war for political gain. His response: "There’s no question that this White House sees political advantage in the war. And you can see it in the way they attack the patriotism of those who question them." But nobody called Kennedy or any other Democrat unpatriotic. Bush didn’t. Senate Republicans didn’t. House majority leader Tom DeLay denounced Kennedy, but didn’t accuse him of a lack of patriotism. In this and every other case in which Democrats claim to have been smeared as unpatriotic, the facts don’t bear them out. Bush has never used the words "Democrat" and "unpatriotic" in the same sentence or in nearby sentences. In fact, he’s never uttered the word "unpatriotic" in public in any context… There is, however, one political figure who’s been accused time and again of being unpatriotic: President Bush. The accusers? Democrats. Iraq
If conservatives unfairly charge liberals with being unpatriotic, it should be condemned. But what we are seeing is an increasingly tiresome tactic of trying to ward off substantive criticisms by accusing critics of impugning people’s patriotism. It’s a transparent effort to sideline important national debates, usually on matters of national security. Those efforts won’t succeed, and they shouldn’t be tried.
5. Klein writes:
It is fascinating that as proof of my irrational "anger" Wehner produces a column I wrote irate about the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth…who questioned John Kerry’s military service and patriotism, and were scurrilously wrong on almost every count.
Klein should re-read my post. My stated purpose in quoting his 2004 column was to point out how outraged Klein gets if conservatives question the patriotism of liberals. It’s worth pointing out as well that former Senator Zell Miller did not (as Klein wrote at the time) question John Kerry’s patriotism; what he questioned was Kerry’s judgment.
6. Klein says this:
Cynicism, by definition, is assuming the worst about people–racism, greed, disdain for the poor, fear of the stranger–and it has been a primary tool for Republican campaign consultants from
to Rove. Atwater
Klein is once again trying to smear those with whom he disagrees. In fact, Karl Rove hasn’t used appeals to racism, greed, disdain for the poor, or fear of the stranger, let alone made it a “primary tool.” How is it, exactly, that the Bush-Rove approach to immigration constitutes “fear of the stranger”? It’s true that divisive appeals to race were used in the 2000 election – though it was used against George W. Bush. The NAACP aired a commercial accusing Bush of killing “all over again” James Byrd, an African American who had been murdered by racists. And what was the reason for this incendiary ad? Bush didn’t sign into law a new hate crimes bill.
I have an advantage over Klein in that I know and worked with Rove. He was one of the most well-liked and admired people in the Administration. I know him as a person of integrity, decency, and personal kindness. And Rove’s command of policy (as well as politics) exceeds even that of Klein.
7. Klein’s rage toward conservatives is jolting. He asserts, for example, that “it is risible for conservatives to even pretend to care about ‘national improvement.’” It’s not even that conservatives don’t care about national improvement, according to Klein; we can’t even pretend to care.
Here again Klein can’t contain his ad hominem attacks. He is smearing members of an entire movement – one that includes the late William F. Buckley Jr. and George F. Will, Michael Novak and George Weigel, Charles Colson and Richard Land, Gertrude Himmelfarb and Irving Kristol, Jack Kemp and Sam Brownback, Antonin Scalia and John Roberts and, well, everyone who claims the appellation conservative.
Conservatives, you see, “use racism as a political tool, war as a witless quest for domination, patriotism as a scourge, government as an instrument of greed, religion and ‘morality’ as camouflage for spreading fear, ignorance and bigotry.” Is the kind of careful writing and meticulous argumentation that Time believes elevates public discourse?
8. Klein touches on our past relationship in his piece. In his words:
I’m angry at Wehner, whom I once considered a good friend, because I believe he drank the koolaid, abandoned positions he had long held and supported–no, promoted–an administration I consider to be thoughtless and dreadful. (Pete once wrote a wonderful op-ed for the Washington Post, in which he said that Jesus never once mentioned homosexuality but He talked nonstop about poverty–the difficulty, for famous example, of a rich man getting into heaven.)
Joe is right; we were good friends in the 1990’s. The break in our relationship, as best as I can tell, was based simply on the fact that I worked for and was loyal to President Bush, a person for whom Klein has utter contempt. He believes, I think, that I compromised my integrity and intellectual honesty in working for the Administration.
I don’t think Joe’s assessment of me is right, though I am mindful of the adage that a man should not be a judge and jury in his own trial. I do think, however, that the charge that I abandoned positions I had long held and supported doesn’t square with reality. I have worked in the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush Administrations – and for 15 years I worked closely with William J. Bennett, one of the nation’s most prominent conservatives. I don’t know of any dramatic shift in my positions over the years. For good or ill, I’ve been pretty consistent in my views.
As for the matter of faith and politics: if anything, my views on that issue have shifted even less than my views on policies. In 2005, for example, while serving in the Bush Administration, I spoke to a class at the University of Pennsylvania in which I said that my faith was more important than my politics; that the danger many Christians face is not disengagement from politics but absorption by it; that political idolatry is real and it needs to be resisted by both the Christian Right and the Christian Left; and that some of the most important people in my journey of faith hold very different political views than do I.
I regret the loss of the friendship with Joe Klein, who can be delightful and gracious company. And I hope that reconciliation might one day be possible. It happened, after all, with Jefferson and Adams – though they had the advantage of not living in the age of blogs, where angry outbursts can instantaneously become part of the public record. Perhaps when the Bush presidency is over and passions cool, the breach might be healed. Between now and then, though, we’ll both have our say on matter we care deeply about. We’ll have to leave it to others to judge the quality of our arguments and the respect and civility with which we treat those with whom we disagree.