Commentary Magazine


Topic: actor

Sharansky: Reagan Right, Critics Wrong

Ronald Reagan, who would have been 100 this Sunday, had an instinctive affinity for Jews and Israel. As an actor who spent decades in the heavily Jewish environment of Hollywood and who counted scores of Jews among his friends and colleagues, he moved easily in pro-Israel circles. Both as a private citizen and as governor of California, he was a familiar sight and a favored speaker at various functions for Israel.

“I’ve believed many things in my life,” Reagan states in his memoirs, “but no conviction I’ve ever had has been stronger than my belief that the United States must ensure the survival of Israel.”

Reagan inaugurated what Israeli journalists Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman termed the “Solid Gold Era” in U.S.-Israel relations. Even so — and this underscores the inevitability of disagreement between Israel and even the friendliest of U.S. presidents — he found himself engaged in a series of tiffs with the Israeli government.

The earliest friction concerned Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in June 1981. The U.S. voted with the rest of the UN Security Council to condemn the action and briefly held up delivery of some F-16 aircraft to Israel, but there were no permanent ramifications.

“Technically,” Reagan notes in his memoirs, “Israel had violated an agreement with us not to use U.S.-made weapons for offensive purposes, and some cabinet members wanted me to lean hard on Israel because it had broken this pledge. … I sympathized with [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin’s motivations and privately believed we should give him the benefit of the doubt.” Read More

Ronald Reagan, who would have been 100 this Sunday, had an instinctive affinity for Jews and Israel. As an actor who spent decades in the heavily Jewish environment of Hollywood and who counted scores of Jews among his friends and colleagues, he moved easily in pro-Israel circles. Both as a private citizen and as governor of California, he was a familiar sight and a favored speaker at various functions for Israel.

“I’ve believed many things in my life,” Reagan states in his memoirs, “but no conviction I’ve ever had has been stronger than my belief that the United States must ensure the survival of Israel.”

Reagan inaugurated what Israeli journalists Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman termed the “Solid Gold Era” in U.S.-Israel relations. Even so — and this underscores the inevitability of disagreement between Israel and even the friendliest of U.S. presidents — he found himself engaged in a series of tiffs with the Israeli government.

The earliest friction concerned Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in June 1981. The U.S. voted with the rest of the UN Security Council to condemn the action and briefly held up delivery of some F-16 aircraft to Israel, but there were no permanent ramifications.

“Technically,” Reagan notes in his memoirs, “Israel had violated an agreement with us not to use U.S.-made weapons for offensive purposes, and some cabinet members wanted me to lean hard on Israel because it had broken this pledge. … I sympathized with [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin’s motivations and privately believed we should give him the benefit of the doubt.”

Later in 1981, a bitter fight was played out in Congress between the White House and supporters of Israel over Reagan’s determination to follow through on the Carter administration’s decision to sell Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft (AWACS) to Saudi Arabia. The sale was finally approved by a narrow margin, but the confrontation left bruised feelings and egos on both sides.

Ironically, Israeli military leaders were never in the forefront of the AWACS opposition; according to Raviv and Melman, “the commanders of the Israeli air force — the officers most directly concerned — were willing to live with AWACS flying over Saudi Arabia. They did not see them as a serious threat to Israel’s security.”

The U.S.-Israel relationship was strong enough by then to survive a series of mini-crises during the Reagan era, including Washington’s dismay at the scope of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon; the failure of the so-called Reagan Plan, which called for a freeze on Israeli settlements and the eventual creation of a quasi-independent Palestinian entity; the visit by Reagan to a German cemetery that contained the remains of SS soldiers; the Iran-Contra scandal, in which Israel played a major role; the arrest and conviction of an American citizen, Jonathan Pollard, on charges of spying for Israel; and the administration’s 1988 decision to talk to the PLO after Yasir Arafat made the requisite noises about recognizing Israel.

Through it all, Reagan provided more military and financial aid to Israel than any of his predecessors. Washington also worked closer with Israel on the economic front, and in 1985 the administration signed a landmark Free Trade Area agreement, long sought by Israel, which resulted in a hefty boost in Israeli exports to the U.S.

Beyond the Middle East, the plight of Soviet Jews was bound to strike a sympathetic chord with someone as unbendingly anti-Communist as Reagan.

“The Soviet leaders,” recalled former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir,  “told me that every time they met with [Secretary of State George] Shultz, he raised the issue of Soviet Jewry.”

The Reagan administration was instrumental in gaining the release in 1986 of prominent Jewish dissident Natan Sharansky, imprisoned for nine years on trumped-up treason charges. Sharansky has written of his reaction when, in 1983, confined to a tiny cell in a prison near the Siberian border, he saw on the front page of Pravda that Reagan — much to the ridicule and outrage of American and European liberals — had labeled the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”

As Sharansky describes it:

Tapping on walls and talking through toilets, word of Reagan’s “provocation” quickly spread throughout the prison. We dissidents were ecstatic. Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth — a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us. I never imagined that three years later I would be in the White House telling this story to the president. … Reagan was right and his critics were wrong.

Read Less

Reagan as Draftsman

Ronald Reagan’s hundredth birthday falls on Sunday, February 6. As Steven Hayward pointed out several years ago, Reagan is not only starting to feature in histories — a development that, given the passage of time, was inevitable — but he’s also getting a serious examination, and often a positive one. Historians don’t exist to serve as an applause squad, but when leaders get something right — or even when they have coherent and sensible reasons for doing something that turns out wrong — that deserves to be acknowledged.

Taking decisions under great pressure is an art. While never easy, it is easier to do well if you’ve given thought to the dilemmas beforehand. And Reagan left a remarkable body of evidence that he had, indeed, done that thinking. Kiron Skinner, with Annelise and Martin Anderson, did a great service by publishing Reagan in His Own Hand a decade ago. Years before Reagan’s diaries appeared, the collection revealed that the 40th president had given sustained thought to every aspect of foreign and domestic policy, and, like Eisenhower, had a unity of strategic vision that comes only with intelligence, hard work, and regular reading, speaking, and writing. Understanding Reagan is not the same thing as understanding his administration, or his era, but there is no excuse for saying that Reagan hadn’t prepared to lead.

Of course, Reagan had speechwriters, and remarkably skillful ones at that. But presidents get the speechwriters they deserve. Writing speeches is an art form akin to a Vulcan mind-meld: if the contents of the speaker’s mind are confused, cloudy, or vague, the speech is likely to suffer from the same defects. Reagan knew how to deliver a speech. (Being a former actor does have its advantages!) But he also knew how to write one. His famous “A Time for Choosing” address for Goldwater in 1964 launched his career. His “Goodbye Letter,” written three decades later, is just as clear and eloquent. In his farewell address, in 1989, Reagan explained why he thought he had the gift:

And in all of that time I won a nickname, “The Great Communicator.” But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: It was the content. I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn’t spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation — from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in principles that have guided us for two centuries. They called it the Reagan revolution. Well, I’ll accept that, but for me it always seemed more like the great rediscovery, a rediscovery of our values and our common sense.

Perhaps it’s not in keeping with Reagan’s legacy to lose hope. But I can’t help wondering if Reagan will be our last president who had the ability — even if none of them can be expected to have the time — to write his own speeches. If so, we will have lost something important. A president who cannot write clearly cannot be expected to think clearly either.

Ronald Reagan’s hundredth birthday falls on Sunday, February 6. As Steven Hayward pointed out several years ago, Reagan is not only starting to feature in histories — a development that, given the passage of time, was inevitable — but he’s also getting a serious examination, and often a positive one. Historians don’t exist to serve as an applause squad, but when leaders get something right — or even when they have coherent and sensible reasons for doing something that turns out wrong — that deserves to be acknowledged.

Taking decisions under great pressure is an art. While never easy, it is easier to do well if you’ve given thought to the dilemmas beforehand. And Reagan left a remarkable body of evidence that he had, indeed, done that thinking. Kiron Skinner, with Annelise and Martin Anderson, did a great service by publishing Reagan in His Own Hand a decade ago. Years before Reagan’s diaries appeared, the collection revealed that the 40th president had given sustained thought to every aspect of foreign and domestic policy, and, like Eisenhower, had a unity of strategic vision that comes only with intelligence, hard work, and regular reading, speaking, and writing. Understanding Reagan is not the same thing as understanding his administration, or his era, but there is no excuse for saying that Reagan hadn’t prepared to lead.

Of course, Reagan had speechwriters, and remarkably skillful ones at that. But presidents get the speechwriters they deserve. Writing speeches is an art form akin to a Vulcan mind-meld: if the contents of the speaker’s mind are confused, cloudy, or vague, the speech is likely to suffer from the same defects. Reagan knew how to deliver a speech. (Being a former actor does have its advantages!) But he also knew how to write one. His famous “A Time for Choosing” address for Goldwater in 1964 launched his career. His “Goodbye Letter,” written three decades later, is just as clear and eloquent. In his farewell address, in 1989, Reagan explained why he thought he had the gift:

And in all of that time I won a nickname, “The Great Communicator.” But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: It was the content. I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn’t spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation — from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in principles that have guided us for two centuries. They called it the Reagan revolution. Well, I’ll accept that, but for me it always seemed more like the great rediscovery, a rediscovery of our values and our common sense.

Perhaps it’s not in keeping with Reagan’s legacy to lose hope. But I can’t help wondering if Reagan will be our last president who had the ability — even if none of them can be expected to have the time — to write his own speeches. If so, we will have lost something important. A president who cannot write clearly cannot be expected to think clearly either.

Read Less

Morning Commentary

On Saturday, P5+1 officials will meet with Iranian leaders to push them to ensure that their nuclear program is peaceful. But it looks like Iran is doing everything in its power not to cooperate: “Iran, however, is coming to Turkey offering no signs that it is willing to respect United Nations Security Council resolutions and suspend its production of nuclear fuel. ‘There is nothing to discuss’ about Iran’s nuclear program, an Iranian official said. ‘In Istanbul, we will speak about something else.’”

The day after President Hu Jintao was honored with a State Dinner by President Obama, the Chinese leader met privately with lawmakers who pressed him on China’s poor record on human rights: “Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, emerged Thursday from his huddle with Hu optimistic and hopeful on all fronts, suggesting a major breakthrough had occurred in Hu’s recognition that his nation had a subpar human rights record and that key progress was made in making China engage other nations.”

Richard Falk, the UN’s Palestine investigator, once again came out as a supporter of the 9/11 “Truth movement” on his blog last week (he’s been making “truther” statements since 2004). UN Watch is now calling on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to fire Falk, especially in light of Ki-moon’s condemnation of Ahmadinejad for endorsing similar theories: “The effect of Mr. Falk’s conspiracy-mongering is to deny and excuse the terrorist acts committed by Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. It insults the memories of those who perished on 9/11, and deeply offends their families and loved ones — as well as all decent men and women worldwide. Mr. Falk’s repulsive comments violate UNHRC Resolution 5/2, which require U.N. experts to uphold the highest standards of integrity, probity, and good faith. Indeed, they shame the United Nations.”

Rep. Steve Cohen should probably avoid making any more public statements for the next few days, because he just keeps digging himself into a bigger hole. Cohen, who compared Republicans to Nazis earlier this week, apologized that his words are being used as a “distraction” by his political opponents, in a statement he released yesterday afternoon: “It is disappointing that my comments have been used to distract from the health care reform debate. It is my hope that we can return our focus to the matter at hand — health care for 32 million Americans.”

On the 30th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s inaugural, Mike Pence talked to National Review about how the former president inspired him: “Reagan is the reason I’m a Republican. … I was active in local Democratic politics when I was a teenager in Columbus, Indiana. Then I started to hear the voice of a B-movie actor, turned governor, turned candidate. He gave voice to the ideals and values that I was raised to believe in.”

On Saturday, P5+1 officials will meet with Iranian leaders to push them to ensure that their nuclear program is peaceful. But it looks like Iran is doing everything in its power not to cooperate: “Iran, however, is coming to Turkey offering no signs that it is willing to respect United Nations Security Council resolutions and suspend its production of nuclear fuel. ‘There is nothing to discuss’ about Iran’s nuclear program, an Iranian official said. ‘In Istanbul, we will speak about something else.’”

The day after President Hu Jintao was honored with a State Dinner by President Obama, the Chinese leader met privately with lawmakers who pressed him on China’s poor record on human rights: “Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, emerged Thursday from his huddle with Hu optimistic and hopeful on all fronts, suggesting a major breakthrough had occurred in Hu’s recognition that his nation had a subpar human rights record and that key progress was made in making China engage other nations.”

Richard Falk, the UN’s Palestine investigator, once again came out as a supporter of the 9/11 “Truth movement” on his blog last week (he’s been making “truther” statements since 2004). UN Watch is now calling on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to fire Falk, especially in light of Ki-moon’s condemnation of Ahmadinejad for endorsing similar theories: “The effect of Mr. Falk’s conspiracy-mongering is to deny and excuse the terrorist acts committed by Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. It insults the memories of those who perished on 9/11, and deeply offends their families and loved ones — as well as all decent men and women worldwide. Mr. Falk’s repulsive comments violate UNHRC Resolution 5/2, which require U.N. experts to uphold the highest standards of integrity, probity, and good faith. Indeed, they shame the United Nations.”

Rep. Steve Cohen should probably avoid making any more public statements for the next few days, because he just keeps digging himself into a bigger hole. Cohen, who compared Republicans to Nazis earlier this week, apologized that his words are being used as a “distraction” by his political opponents, in a statement he released yesterday afternoon: “It is disappointing that my comments have been used to distract from the health care reform debate. It is my hope that we can return our focus to the matter at hand — health care for 32 million Americans.”

On the 30th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s inaugural, Mike Pence talked to National Review about how the former president inspired him: “Reagan is the reason I’m a Republican. … I was active in local Democratic politics when I was a teenager in Columbus, Indiana. Then I started to hear the voice of a B-movie actor, turned governor, turned candidate. He gave voice to the ideals and values that I was raised to believe in.”

Read Less

The Culture War Against Israel

In 2010, the hard-core left married pro-Islamic and pro-Palestinian organizations and gave birth to an entertainment-boycott campaign aimed at Israel. Cultural-boycott efforts have spilled over into 2011, as American soul singer Macy Gray is now the target of hysterical attacks for her slated Tel Aviv concerts in February. She appears to have defied the Israel-bashers, saying, “I like coming to Israel.”

She used some intemperate and unsavory language, however, when describing Israeli security policies. Gray wrote on Facebook that “I’m getting a lot of letters from activists urging and begging me to boycott by not performing in protest of apartheid against the Palestinians. What the Israeli government is doing to the Palestinians is disgusting, but I want to go. I have a lot of fans there that I don’t want to cancel on, and I don’t know how my not going changes anything. What do you think? Stay or go?”

After roughly 4,000 fans responded, she tweeted that she plans to perform in Israel. To her credit, she defied the Arab lobby’s campaign to silence artistic free speech, which appears to be intimidating some. According to a Reuters news item: “Earlier this month, French singer Vanessa Paradis, who is married to actor Johnny Depp, canceled a February 10 concert in Israel. She said it clashed with an important meeting, but the Israeli media have speculated that is was a political decision.”

Last year, Grammy winner Carlos Santana, the alternative band the Pixies, and British singer Elvis Costello pulled the plug on their Israel concerts, a sign of mass artistic cowardice. In sharp contrast, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Leonard Cohen, and Johnny Rotten of the now-defunct punk band the Sex Pistols all performed last year in Israel.

Rotten, who now goes by his birth name, John Lydon, summed up, in a flash of neoconservative punkism, the misguided Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) campaign against the region’s only real democracy: “I really resent the presumption that I’m going there to play to right-wing Nazi jews [sic]. If Elvis-f-ing-Costello wants to pull out of a gig in Israel because he’s suddenly got this compassion for Palestinians, then good on him. But I have absolutely one rule, right? Until I see an Arab country, a Muslim country, with a democracy, I won’t understand how anyone can have a problem with how they’re treated. ”

The lesson here? Go on the offensive, as did Lydon, when engaged in combating the BDS campaign to block entertainers from performing in Israel.

In 2010, the hard-core left married pro-Islamic and pro-Palestinian organizations and gave birth to an entertainment-boycott campaign aimed at Israel. Cultural-boycott efforts have spilled over into 2011, as American soul singer Macy Gray is now the target of hysterical attacks for her slated Tel Aviv concerts in February. She appears to have defied the Israel-bashers, saying, “I like coming to Israel.”

She used some intemperate and unsavory language, however, when describing Israeli security policies. Gray wrote on Facebook that “I’m getting a lot of letters from activists urging and begging me to boycott by not performing in protest of apartheid against the Palestinians. What the Israeli government is doing to the Palestinians is disgusting, but I want to go. I have a lot of fans there that I don’t want to cancel on, and I don’t know how my not going changes anything. What do you think? Stay or go?”

After roughly 4,000 fans responded, she tweeted that she plans to perform in Israel. To her credit, she defied the Arab lobby’s campaign to silence artistic free speech, which appears to be intimidating some. According to a Reuters news item: “Earlier this month, French singer Vanessa Paradis, who is married to actor Johnny Depp, canceled a February 10 concert in Israel. She said it clashed with an important meeting, but the Israeli media have speculated that is was a political decision.”

Last year, Grammy winner Carlos Santana, the alternative band the Pixies, and British singer Elvis Costello pulled the plug on their Israel concerts, a sign of mass artistic cowardice. In sharp contrast, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Leonard Cohen, and Johnny Rotten of the now-defunct punk band the Sex Pistols all performed last year in Israel.

Rotten, who now goes by his birth name, John Lydon, summed up, in a flash of neoconservative punkism, the misguided Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) campaign against the region’s only real democracy: “I really resent the presumption that I’m going there to play to right-wing Nazi jews [sic]. If Elvis-f-ing-Costello wants to pull out of a gig in Israel because he’s suddenly got this compassion for Palestinians, then good on him. But I have absolutely one rule, right? Until I see an Arab country, a Muslim country, with a democracy, I won’t understand how anyone can have a problem with how they’re treated. ”

The lesson here? Go on the offensive, as did Lydon, when engaged in combating the BDS campaign to block entertainers from performing in Israel.

Read Less

Morning Commentary

It looks like Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier misread the judicial system in Haiti. Just days after he mysteriously returned to the country after a 25-year exile, the former Haitian dictator was arrested for corruption, theft of public funds, and human rights abuses that he allegedly committed during his vicious 15-year reign: “Two days after his return to the country he left following a brutal 15-year rule, a noisy crowd of his supporters protested outside the state prosecutor’s office while he was questioned over accusations that he stole public funds and committed human rights abuses after taking over as president from his father in 1971.”

Time for another article about the futility of the peace process. At Pajamas Media, David Solway is understandably pessimistic that the Palestinian Authority will agree to the conditions necessary for a successful completion of the negotiations, at least at the moment: “Peace in the Middle East is, in any sober analysis, probably and at the very least generations away from accomplishment. Peace may emerge after another thirty or fifty years of grinding exhaustion or a major outbreak of hostilities that leaves the belligerents incapable of pursuing so debilitating a struggle. And this is a best case scenario.”

The media is now wondering why the media covers Palin so obsessively: “And so, to Mr. Douthat’s chicken-and-egg dilemma — which came first: Ms. Palin or the media’s sometimes obsessive coverage of her? — we might want to add a third actor: the audience,” writes Nate Silver. He notes that a Politico poll from last month found that 59 percent of Americans have a strong opinion on Palin, and so any coverage of her is likely to elicit a lot of interest from the general public.

The American Jewish Committee will honor German Chancellor Andrea Merkel’s support for Israel with its Light Unto the Nations Award at a ceremony in Berlin today: “Chancellor Merkel is a true light unto the nations,” said AJC executive director David Harris. “Her outspoken support for the Jewish people, the State of Israel, and the values of human freedom and human dignity are hallmarks of Chancellor Merkel’s visionary political leadership.” Former recipients include French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, and Colombian President Álvaro Uribe Vélez.

Ricky Gervais’s performance at last weekend’s Golden Globe awards may have been panned by the mainstream media, but it’s also earned him folk-hero status among conservatives. Instead of taking the predictable swipes at people like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, Gervais turned the tables by relentlessly ridiculing the Hollywood elite in the audience: “It is an honour to be here in a room full of what I consider to be the most important people on the planet: actors. They’re just better than ordinary people, aren’t they?” If you haven’t seen the videos of his performance yet, they’re worth watching.

It looks like Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier misread the judicial system in Haiti. Just days after he mysteriously returned to the country after a 25-year exile, the former Haitian dictator was arrested for corruption, theft of public funds, and human rights abuses that he allegedly committed during his vicious 15-year reign: “Two days after his return to the country he left following a brutal 15-year rule, a noisy crowd of his supporters protested outside the state prosecutor’s office while he was questioned over accusations that he stole public funds and committed human rights abuses after taking over as president from his father in 1971.”

Time for another article about the futility of the peace process. At Pajamas Media, David Solway is understandably pessimistic that the Palestinian Authority will agree to the conditions necessary for a successful completion of the negotiations, at least at the moment: “Peace in the Middle East is, in any sober analysis, probably and at the very least generations away from accomplishment. Peace may emerge after another thirty or fifty years of grinding exhaustion or a major outbreak of hostilities that leaves the belligerents incapable of pursuing so debilitating a struggle. And this is a best case scenario.”

The media is now wondering why the media covers Palin so obsessively: “And so, to Mr. Douthat’s chicken-and-egg dilemma — which came first: Ms. Palin or the media’s sometimes obsessive coverage of her? — we might want to add a third actor: the audience,” writes Nate Silver. He notes that a Politico poll from last month found that 59 percent of Americans have a strong opinion on Palin, and so any coverage of her is likely to elicit a lot of interest from the general public.

The American Jewish Committee will honor German Chancellor Andrea Merkel’s support for Israel with its Light Unto the Nations Award at a ceremony in Berlin today: “Chancellor Merkel is a true light unto the nations,” said AJC executive director David Harris. “Her outspoken support for the Jewish people, the State of Israel, and the values of human freedom and human dignity are hallmarks of Chancellor Merkel’s visionary political leadership.” Former recipients include French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, and Colombian President Álvaro Uribe Vélez.

Ricky Gervais’s performance at last weekend’s Golden Globe awards may have been panned by the mainstream media, but it’s also earned him folk-hero status among conservatives. Instead of taking the predictable swipes at people like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, Gervais turned the tables by relentlessly ridiculing the Hollywood elite in the audience: “It is an honour to be here in a room full of what I consider to be the most important people on the planet: actors. They’re just better than ordinary people, aren’t they?” If you haven’t seen the videos of his performance yet, they’re worth watching.

Read Less

Starstruck Clooney Misses the Point About Disastrous Sudan Policy

George Clooney’s visit to the White House yesterday sent the press corps into something like a swoon as press secretary Robert Gibbs cut short the daily press conference so all present could ogle the actor and pepper him with a few easy questions. Clooney was there to talk to President Obama about the trip he had just taken to southern Sudan, a place that may soon replace Darfur as the focus of fears about the genocidal behavior of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s criminal regime.

To Clooney’s credit, his interest in Sudan seems genuine. He has lent his name and support to the Enough Project (which is run out of the left-wing Center for American Progress), a group that seeks to prevent African genocides such as the ones that have taken place in Darfur and Rwanda. But as much as Clooney’s concern about the imminent threat of war in southern Sudan between the largely Christian inhabitants of the region and the Muslim government in Khartoum is justified, his prescription for preventing it is a bit vague.

As for his reception by President Obama, Clooney was rapturous in describing his joy at what he thought was Obama’s intense interest in the subject — “You could feel the energy in the room” — and the sharpness of his questions. But what Clooney and the similarly starstruck press coverage of his visit failed to understand is that the current mess and the strength of Bashir’s current position stems in no small measure from the lack of “energy” demonstrated by the administration on this issue in the last year and a half. In case Clooney hasn’t noticed, human rights concerns have been accorded the lowest possible foreign policy priority by the Obama administration, as its stances toward Iran and China have demonstrated.

Even more to the point, the president’s special envoy to Sudan, Scot Gration, has placed the United States firmly on the side of appeasing Bashir, to the dismay of many advocates for the Darfuri people. That policy has set up the southern Sudanese as Bashir’s next likely victims, since the only way to ensure that such genocides don’t take place is by helping to get rid of Bashir and his Islamist gang, not by buying them off.

But unfortunately, Clooney’s idea of “robust diplomacy” is not designed to generate much pressure on the White House. He wants America to do something, but he’s not sure what. At one point, Clooney discussed the possibility for increased sanctions on the Sudanese government and the indicted war criminal at its head. At others, he mooted the possibility of a U.S. decision to normalize relations with Bashir and even consent to the suspension of his indictment by the International Criminal Court if the Sudanese leader makes peace with both southern Sudan and Darfur. As a last resort, he spoke of U.S. military action to interdict the Sudanese government’s forces and prevent another mass slaughter.

The answer for Clooney is that Gration has already proved that appeasement won’t work and that getting Bashir off the hook on war-crimes charges will merely give him impunity to commit future atrocities. As for the prospect of American intervention, Clooney ought not to hold his breath waiting for Obama to act. Having come in to office decrying the “neoconservative” agenda of trying to promote human rights and democracy around the world, the president has demonstrated that such causes are unlikely to generate action from this White House.

The disconnect between the sincere desire of liberals like Clooney to do something to help the Sudanese and their unwillingness to draw serious conclusions about how America should deal with Islamist mass murderers like Bashir is the problem here. If Clooney wants something more than lip service from Obama, he’s going to have to confront the administration, not lend his star power to the White House media strategy.

George Clooney’s visit to the White House yesterday sent the press corps into something like a swoon as press secretary Robert Gibbs cut short the daily press conference so all present could ogle the actor and pepper him with a few easy questions. Clooney was there to talk to President Obama about the trip he had just taken to southern Sudan, a place that may soon replace Darfur as the focus of fears about the genocidal behavior of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s criminal regime.

To Clooney’s credit, his interest in Sudan seems genuine. He has lent his name and support to the Enough Project (which is run out of the left-wing Center for American Progress), a group that seeks to prevent African genocides such as the ones that have taken place in Darfur and Rwanda. But as much as Clooney’s concern about the imminent threat of war in southern Sudan between the largely Christian inhabitants of the region and the Muslim government in Khartoum is justified, his prescription for preventing it is a bit vague.

As for his reception by President Obama, Clooney was rapturous in describing his joy at what he thought was Obama’s intense interest in the subject — “You could feel the energy in the room” — and the sharpness of his questions. But what Clooney and the similarly starstruck press coverage of his visit failed to understand is that the current mess and the strength of Bashir’s current position stems in no small measure from the lack of “energy” demonstrated by the administration on this issue in the last year and a half. In case Clooney hasn’t noticed, human rights concerns have been accorded the lowest possible foreign policy priority by the Obama administration, as its stances toward Iran and China have demonstrated.

Even more to the point, the president’s special envoy to Sudan, Scot Gration, has placed the United States firmly on the side of appeasing Bashir, to the dismay of many advocates for the Darfuri people. That policy has set up the southern Sudanese as Bashir’s next likely victims, since the only way to ensure that such genocides don’t take place is by helping to get rid of Bashir and his Islamist gang, not by buying them off.

But unfortunately, Clooney’s idea of “robust diplomacy” is not designed to generate much pressure on the White House. He wants America to do something, but he’s not sure what. At one point, Clooney discussed the possibility for increased sanctions on the Sudanese government and the indicted war criminal at its head. At others, he mooted the possibility of a U.S. decision to normalize relations with Bashir and even consent to the suspension of his indictment by the International Criminal Court if the Sudanese leader makes peace with both southern Sudan and Darfur. As a last resort, he spoke of U.S. military action to interdict the Sudanese government’s forces and prevent another mass slaughter.

The answer for Clooney is that Gration has already proved that appeasement won’t work and that getting Bashir off the hook on war-crimes charges will merely give him impunity to commit future atrocities. As for the prospect of American intervention, Clooney ought not to hold his breath waiting for Obama to act. Having come in to office decrying the “neoconservative” agenda of trying to promote human rights and democracy around the world, the president has demonstrated that such causes are unlikely to generate action from this White House.

The disconnect between the sincere desire of liberals like Clooney to do something to help the Sudanese and their unwillingness to draw serious conclusions about how America should deal with Islamist mass murderers like Bashir is the problem here. If Clooney wants something more than lip service from Obama, he’s going to have to confront the administration, not lend his star power to the White House media strategy.

Read Less

The CIA’s Self-Fulfilling Premises in Afghanistan

Dexter Filkins has a good dispatch from Afghanistan — or as the headline dubs it, “Corrupt-istan.” He (correctly, in my opinion) criticizes all too many senior U.S. officials for their condescending attitude toward governance in Afghanistan:

Since 2001, one of the unquestioned premises of American and NATO policy has been that ordinary Afghans don’t view public corruption in quite the same way that Americans and others do in the West. Diplomats, military officers and senior officials flying in from Washington often say privately that while public graft is pernicious, there is no point in trying to abolish it — and that trying to do so could destroy the very government the West has helped to build.

Filkins notes that this has become a self-fulfilling premise with the CIA, for example, “putting on its payroll some of the most disputable members of Mr. Karzai’s government.” But ordinary Afghans turn out to be just as disgusted by widespread corruption as ordinary Americans would be. Writes Filkins:

Ahmed Shah Hakimi, who runs a currency exchange in Kabul, had just finished explaining some of the shadowy dealings of the business and political elite when he stopped in disgust.

“There are 50 of them,” Mr. Hakimi said. “The corrupt ones. All the Afghans know who they are.”

“Why do the Americans support them?” he asked.

Mr. Hakimi, a shrewd businessman, seemed genuinely perplexed.

“What the Americans need to do is take these Afghans and put them on a plane and fly them to America — and then crash the plane into a mountain,” Mr. Hakimi said. “Kill them all.”

Hakimi’s attitude is, indeed, widespread in Afghanistan. There is little of the “tolerance” for corruption that senior American officials seem to think is prevalent. Instead, corruption is driving more and more Afghans into the arms of the Taliban, who claim to crack down on immorality. That makes it imperative to reduce the runaway graft that is fueled by Western money. General David Petraeus realizes that; he is bent on reducing the power of what his aides call, according to Filkins, “the MAN” — short for “malign actor network.” But other U.S. agencies, especially the CIA, are working at cross-purposes by empowering the “MAN.” There needs to be greater cohesion from the top of the administration to make sure that all agencies of the U.S. government work together to push Afghanistan in the right direction.

Dexter Filkins has a good dispatch from Afghanistan — or as the headline dubs it, “Corrupt-istan.” He (correctly, in my opinion) criticizes all too many senior U.S. officials for their condescending attitude toward governance in Afghanistan:

Since 2001, one of the unquestioned premises of American and NATO policy has been that ordinary Afghans don’t view public corruption in quite the same way that Americans and others do in the West. Diplomats, military officers and senior officials flying in from Washington often say privately that while public graft is pernicious, there is no point in trying to abolish it — and that trying to do so could destroy the very government the West has helped to build.

Filkins notes that this has become a self-fulfilling premise with the CIA, for example, “putting on its payroll some of the most disputable members of Mr. Karzai’s government.” But ordinary Afghans turn out to be just as disgusted by widespread corruption as ordinary Americans would be. Writes Filkins:

Ahmed Shah Hakimi, who runs a currency exchange in Kabul, had just finished explaining some of the shadowy dealings of the business and political elite when he stopped in disgust.

“There are 50 of them,” Mr. Hakimi said. “The corrupt ones. All the Afghans know who they are.”

“Why do the Americans support them?” he asked.

Mr. Hakimi, a shrewd businessman, seemed genuinely perplexed.

“What the Americans need to do is take these Afghans and put them on a plane and fly them to America — and then crash the plane into a mountain,” Mr. Hakimi said. “Kill them all.”

Hakimi’s attitude is, indeed, widespread in Afghanistan. There is little of the “tolerance” for corruption that senior American officials seem to think is prevalent. Instead, corruption is driving more and more Afghans into the arms of the Taliban, who claim to crack down on immorality. That makes it imperative to reduce the runaway graft that is fueled by Western money. General David Petraeus realizes that; he is bent on reducing the power of what his aides call, according to Filkins, “the MAN” — short for “malign actor network.” But other U.S. agencies, especially the CIA, are working at cross-purposes by empowering the “MAN.” There needs to be greater cohesion from the top of the administration to make sure that all agencies of the U.S. government work together to push Afghanistan in the right direction.

Read Less

Ya’alon Unloads on Obami

The entire interview with Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon should be read in full here. But a few of the Q&As are certainly of particular note. On the American administration’s amnesia:

Does the US not see in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s refusal to accept Ehud Olmert’s generous offer in 2008 as a lack of willingness on the Palestinian side to come to an agreement?

Apparently not. From the dawn of Zionism there has not been a Palestinian leadership willing to recognize Israel’s right to exist as the national home of the Jewish people. This is the source of the problem, and not what is called the occupied territories since ’67. The opposition to Zionism began before we liberated Judea, Samaria and Gaza; before we established a state.

On the issue of settlements:

Israel’s critics say enlarging settlements helps Palestinian extremists and ruins any efforts to get the Palestinians to recognize our right to be here.

The prime minister said before the elections he was willing to accept the commitments of the previous government, among them the understanding between [George] Bush and [Ariel] Sharon, that no new settlements would be built in Judea and Samaria, and that construction in the settlements would be allowed [to enable] normal life, not exactly natural growth. That was the understanding, and construction continued through the Olmert and Sharon governments.

More than that, [Netanyahu] said we accept our commitment regarding dismantling 23 outposts that were defined by the Sharon government as illegal. He accepted that, until it became clear that the US administration does not accept the commitments of the previous administration.

Secondly, we completely reject the argument that the settlements are the reason there is no peace. I think Arafat was willing to go to Oslo because of the settlements. When he saw the [massive Russian] aliya, and the settlements, he thought he was going to lose everything.

But if we are talking about coexistence and peace, why the insistence that the territory they receive be ethnically cleansed of Jews? Why do those areas have to be Judenrein? Don’t Arabs live here, in the Negev and Galilee? Why isn’t that part of our public discussion? Why doesn’t that scream to the heavens?

In order for there to a proper prognosis, you need a proper diagnosis. We are arguing, and not only with them, but with the Israeli Left, about what is the root of the problem. Part of the issue, which influences the US and European positions, is our internal confusion.

I also used to think the solution was land for peace, until I became the head of military intelligence, saw things from up close and my thinking underwent an evolution.

And on the American role in thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions:

Which leaders today are the most determined regarding Iran?

We see France today demonstrating the right policies, and Britain. They understand the enormity of the challenge.

Does Obama?

Something has happened here that we haven’t seen in the past. Previously the US led the aggressive line. Today, as I said, the president of France and prime minister of Britain are leading a more aggressive line than the president of the US. And then you have Germany and Italy, who join up with the American position.

I don’t think there is an actor in the world who wants to see a nuclear Iran.

There is much more of interest, including his take on the potential for an  imposed settlement. (“If someone really thinks they can impose peace just like that, then they are detached from reality.”) What is most noteworthy is the candor with which the disdain for the American administration comes through. It seems the Israelis have at least adopted one of Obama’s suggestions — be more “honest” in public and in private.

It’s incumbent on the American Jewish community now to do likewise. It is a time to make clear whether it intends to shuffle along, meekly accepting the administration’s inertness on Iran and its ferocity toward our democratic ally.

The entire interview with Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon should be read in full here. But a few of the Q&As are certainly of particular note. On the American administration’s amnesia:

Does the US not see in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s refusal to accept Ehud Olmert’s generous offer in 2008 as a lack of willingness on the Palestinian side to come to an agreement?

Apparently not. From the dawn of Zionism there has not been a Palestinian leadership willing to recognize Israel’s right to exist as the national home of the Jewish people. This is the source of the problem, and not what is called the occupied territories since ’67. The opposition to Zionism began before we liberated Judea, Samaria and Gaza; before we established a state.

On the issue of settlements:

Israel’s critics say enlarging settlements helps Palestinian extremists and ruins any efforts to get the Palestinians to recognize our right to be here.

The prime minister said before the elections he was willing to accept the commitments of the previous government, among them the understanding between [George] Bush and [Ariel] Sharon, that no new settlements would be built in Judea and Samaria, and that construction in the settlements would be allowed [to enable] normal life, not exactly natural growth. That was the understanding, and construction continued through the Olmert and Sharon governments.

More than that, [Netanyahu] said we accept our commitment regarding dismantling 23 outposts that were defined by the Sharon government as illegal. He accepted that, until it became clear that the US administration does not accept the commitments of the previous administration.

Secondly, we completely reject the argument that the settlements are the reason there is no peace. I think Arafat was willing to go to Oslo because of the settlements. When he saw the [massive Russian] aliya, and the settlements, he thought he was going to lose everything.

But if we are talking about coexistence and peace, why the insistence that the territory they receive be ethnically cleansed of Jews? Why do those areas have to be Judenrein? Don’t Arabs live here, in the Negev and Galilee? Why isn’t that part of our public discussion? Why doesn’t that scream to the heavens?

In order for there to a proper prognosis, you need a proper diagnosis. We are arguing, and not only with them, but with the Israeli Left, about what is the root of the problem. Part of the issue, which influences the US and European positions, is our internal confusion.

I also used to think the solution was land for peace, until I became the head of military intelligence, saw things from up close and my thinking underwent an evolution.

And on the American role in thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions:

Which leaders today are the most determined regarding Iran?

We see France today demonstrating the right policies, and Britain. They understand the enormity of the challenge.

Does Obama?

Something has happened here that we haven’t seen in the past. Previously the US led the aggressive line. Today, as I said, the president of France and prime minister of Britain are leading a more aggressive line than the president of the US. And then you have Germany and Italy, who join up with the American position.

I don’t think there is an actor in the world who wants to see a nuclear Iran.

There is much more of interest, including his take on the potential for an  imposed settlement. (“If someone really thinks they can impose peace just like that, then they are detached from reality.”) What is most noteworthy is the candor with which the disdain for the American administration comes through. It seems the Israelis have at least adopted one of Obama’s suggestions — be more “honest” in public and in private.

It’s incumbent on the American Jewish community now to do likewise. It is a time to make clear whether it intends to shuffle along, meekly accepting the administration’s inertness on Iran and its ferocity toward our democratic ally.

Read Less

America in Retreat

Lee Smith writes that Obama’s Israel bash-a-thon is precisely the wrong strategic move:

Of course, Washington shaming Israel will please the Arabs—even U.S. allies like Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Cairo, Egypt, that cheered on Jerusalem when it took on Iran’s assets Hezbollah and Hamas. Remember, the Arabs have been compelled by the American strong horse to swallow their pride for decades. But given that Arabs do not air their own dirty laundry for fear it will make them look weak, our public humiliation of an ally will earn us only contempt.

But here’s the most important thing: Even if you discount the centrality of shame and honor as operative principles in the Middle East, the Obama administration has blundered by jeopardizing not Israel’s stature but our own regional interests and the Pax Americana that has been ours over the last 35 years. Our position in the region depends on every actor there knowing that we back Israel to the hilt and that they are dependent on us. Sure, there are plenty of times we will not see eye-to-eye on things—differences that should be resolved in quiet consultations—but should any real distance open up between Washington and Jerusalem, that will send a message that the U.S.-backed order of the region is ready to be tested. And that’s exactly what the axis of resistance is seeing right now.

So the danger here is not that the nonexistent peace process will be imperiled but that this sends the wrong signal to Iran. We are not standing shoulder to shoulder with Israel but are moving toward a “containment” policy that imagines we can defend allies beneath our nuclear umbrella but not deprive the mullahs of nuclear weapons. In this light we see that “in rattling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cage, the Obama administration was warning Israel not even to contemplate an attack on Iran.” And the result, as we dump Israel and abandon efforts to stymie Iran’s ambitions, Smith says, is that “the American order of the region will be superseded by a new order in which we will play a secondary role at best. More likely, as Ahmadinejad and Assad say, it will mean a Middle East without American influence.”

If Smith is correct, then it is inaccurate to say that the last week is a dangerous distraction from our Iran policy. Rather, this is our Iran policy. Hobble and humiliate an ally, embolden adversaries, provide breathing space to the mullahs (did someone say something about sanctions at the end of 2009?), and hope that allowing the revolutionary Islamic state to acquire nuclear weapons will not come to be seen as the most dangerous foreign-policy calculation since the Munich Agreement.

How deliberate all this all is may be a matter of debate. What’s less in dispute is the inevitable result of a series of misguided moves by the Obama administration — each reinforcing the notion that we stand not with our allies or for our own national interests but merely for the proposition that conflict avoidance is the highest ideal. Obama intended to address “our standing in the world”. Little did we imagine where this was heading — a more innocuous and less reliable America, which is fast becoming an easier mark for despotic regimes.

Lee Smith writes that Obama’s Israel bash-a-thon is precisely the wrong strategic move:

Of course, Washington shaming Israel will please the Arabs—even U.S. allies like Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Cairo, Egypt, that cheered on Jerusalem when it took on Iran’s assets Hezbollah and Hamas. Remember, the Arabs have been compelled by the American strong horse to swallow their pride for decades. But given that Arabs do not air their own dirty laundry for fear it will make them look weak, our public humiliation of an ally will earn us only contempt.

But here’s the most important thing: Even if you discount the centrality of shame and honor as operative principles in the Middle East, the Obama administration has blundered by jeopardizing not Israel’s stature but our own regional interests and the Pax Americana that has been ours over the last 35 years. Our position in the region depends on every actor there knowing that we back Israel to the hilt and that they are dependent on us. Sure, there are plenty of times we will not see eye-to-eye on things—differences that should be resolved in quiet consultations—but should any real distance open up between Washington and Jerusalem, that will send a message that the U.S.-backed order of the region is ready to be tested. And that’s exactly what the axis of resistance is seeing right now.

So the danger here is not that the nonexistent peace process will be imperiled but that this sends the wrong signal to Iran. We are not standing shoulder to shoulder with Israel but are moving toward a “containment” policy that imagines we can defend allies beneath our nuclear umbrella but not deprive the mullahs of nuclear weapons. In this light we see that “in rattling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cage, the Obama administration was warning Israel not even to contemplate an attack on Iran.” And the result, as we dump Israel and abandon efforts to stymie Iran’s ambitions, Smith says, is that “the American order of the region will be superseded by a new order in which we will play a secondary role at best. More likely, as Ahmadinejad and Assad say, it will mean a Middle East without American influence.”

If Smith is correct, then it is inaccurate to say that the last week is a dangerous distraction from our Iran policy. Rather, this is our Iran policy. Hobble and humiliate an ally, embolden adversaries, provide breathing space to the mullahs (did someone say something about sanctions at the end of 2009?), and hope that allowing the revolutionary Islamic state to acquire nuclear weapons will not come to be seen as the most dangerous foreign-policy calculation since the Munich Agreement.

How deliberate all this all is may be a matter of debate. What’s less in dispute is the inevitable result of a series of misguided moves by the Obama administration — each reinforcing the notion that we stand not with our allies or for our own national interests but merely for the proposition that conflict avoidance is the highest ideal. Obama intended to address “our standing in the world”. Little did we imagine where this was heading — a more innocuous and less reliable America, which is fast becoming an easier mark for despotic regimes.

Read Less

Barack Millstone Obama

The news that Democratic Senator Evan Bayh is retiring is another stunning blow for a Democratic party that is already reeling. This development — because of who Bayh is (perceived as a moderate/centrist); because of the state he represents (a traditionally Red one but won by Barack Obama in 2008); and because of his political situation (it was assumed he was in a comfortable position to win re-election) — will have significant ramifications. It will accelerate almost every bad trend for Democrats (more retirements, fewer entries into national races, more intra-party acrimony, and more panic).

The last time we saw a double-digit shift in Senate seats in a single election was when a former movie actor by the name of Ronald Reagan was elected president (Republicans won a dozen seats back in 1980). A shift of those dimensions in a non-presidential election year would be basically unheard of. But as Jen points out, a pickup of 10 GOP seats — and recontrol of the Senate — is no longer out of the question. America’s political tectonic plates are shifting in a fairly dramatic and rapid fashion; and the resulting dislocation will batter and crush many Democratic candidates, perhaps on a scale we have not witnessed before in our lifetime, at least in a midterm election.

Such an outcome can still be averted — but as many of us have been predicting for a while now, the news for Democrats is continuing to get worse rather than better. Evan Bayh’s retirement is a body blow for the president and his party. It will cause more than a few knees in the Obama White House to buckle. It is beginning to dawn on them just what awaits them.

Rep. Marion Berry, yet another retiring Democrat, gave an interview to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette a few weeks ago in which he recounted meetings with White House officials, reminiscent of some during the Clinton years, where he and others urged them not to force Blue Dogs “off into that swamp” of supporting bills that would be unpopular with voters back home. “I’ve been doing that with this White House, and they just don’t seem to give it any credibility at all,” Berry said. “They just kept telling us how good it was going to be. The president himself, when that was brought up in one group, said, ‘Well, the big difference here and in ’94 was you’ve got me.’ We’re going to see how much difference that makes now.”

We shall indeed. The big difference between now and 1994 is that Democrats have Obama instead of Clinton as the head of their party. And that may turn out to be very bad news for Democrats. The Democratic party is in worse shape now than it was at a comparable period then. The mistrust of government runs deeper. The anti-incumbent tide is stronger. And the public uprising is greater.

The Clinton years — and Bill Clinton’s undeniable political gifts — are looking better and better to Democrats with every passing week.

Democrats indeed have got Obama, and they have Obama’s agenda as well. Could the political millstone be any heavier?

The news that Democratic Senator Evan Bayh is retiring is another stunning blow for a Democratic party that is already reeling. This development — because of who Bayh is (perceived as a moderate/centrist); because of the state he represents (a traditionally Red one but won by Barack Obama in 2008); and because of his political situation (it was assumed he was in a comfortable position to win re-election) — will have significant ramifications. It will accelerate almost every bad trend for Democrats (more retirements, fewer entries into national races, more intra-party acrimony, and more panic).

The last time we saw a double-digit shift in Senate seats in a single election was when a former movie actor by the name of Ronald Reagan was elected president (Republicans won a dozen seats back in 1980). A shift of those dimensions in a non-presidential election year would be basically unheard of. But as Jen points out, a pickup of 10 GOP seats — and recontrol of the Senate — is no longer out of the question. America’s political tectonic plates are shifting in a fairly dramatic and rapid fashion; and the resulting dislocation will batter and crush many Democratic candidates, perhaps on a scale we have not witnessed before in our lifetime, at least in a midterm election.

Such an outcome can still be averted — but as many of us have been predicting for a while now, the news for Democrats is continuing to get worse rather than better. Evan Bayh’s retirement is a body blow for the president and his party. It will cause more than a few knees in the Obama White House to buckle. It is beginning to dawn on them just what awaits them.

Rep. Marion Berry, yet another retiring Democrat, gave an interview to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette a few weeks ago in which he recounted meetings with White House officials, reminiscent of some during the Clinton years, where he and others urged them not to force Blue Dogs “off into that swamp” of supporting bills that would be unpopular with voters back home. “I’ve been doing that with this White House, and they just don’t seem to give it any credibility at all,” Berry said. “They just kept telling us how good it was going to be. The president himself, when that was brought up in one group, said, ‘Well, the big difference here and in ’94 was you’ve got me.’ We’re going to see how much difference that makes now.”

We shall indeed. The big difference between now and 1994 is that Democrats have Obama instead of Clinton as the head of their party. And that may turn out to be very bad news for Democrats. The Democratic party is in worse shape now than it was at a comparable period then. The mistrust of government runs deeper. The anti-incumbent tide is stronger. And the public uprising is greater.

The Clinton years — and Bill Clinton’s undeniable political gifts — are looking better and better to Democrats with every passing week.

Democrats indeed have got Obama, and they have Obama’s agenda as well. Could the political millstone be any heavier?

Read Less

Hillary’s RFK Remark

When politicians err, really err, it’s often because they recite the stage directions — the part of the script that directs an actor but is supposed to be unknown to the audience. The Elder George Bush once famously read his stage directions off a card in New Hampshire in 1991. “Message: I care,” he said, forgetting for the moment that he was supposed to do something to deliver the message, not speak his handlers’ words aloud.

Hillary Clinton yesterday made the mistake that will almost surely enter her name in the annals of campaign infamy. Asked why she was staying in the race, she essentially pointed out that, hey, you never know what’s going to happen, so why not stick around? People say June is so late, but RFK was assassinated in June 1968, so….uh oh….

What came out of her mouth was something discussed in late-night sessions at her campaign headquarters, or in tete-a-tetes with Bill — even if the race appears to be sewn up, how can you know something really bad isn’t going to happen to Obama? His crony Rezko could get convicted and agree to sell him out for a lesser sentence. Video could surface of Obama ranting like Jeremiah Wright. Bob Torricelli got indicted. Spitzer got caught with a hooker. McGreevey was outed by a gay lover. Or something really bad could happen. An assassination or something.

When one speaks as frequently as Hillary Clinton, speeches all day, local interviews all night, it would almost be impossible for gaffes not to emerge from her lips. (Obama, at a shul on Thursday, referred to himself as “one who is blessed,” which was unfortunate too, even though he was only translating his first name; another example of this, though far more anodyne, obviously.) But in her position, there is no margin for error, and certainly not in even making a sideways reference to an assassination when there is a black man running for president who might be the target of some psychotic’s murderous fascination.

The reaction is overwrought, and the whole business has been skilfully manipulated by the Obama campaign to deliver a TKO of its already wounded rival. But that’s politics. No one made her open a mouth.

When politicians err, really err, it’s often because they recite the stage directions — the part of the script that directs an actor but is supposed to be unknown to the audience. The Elder George Bush once famously read his stage directions off a card in New Hampshire in 1991. “Message: I care,” he said, forgetting for the moment that he was supposed to do something to deliver the message, not speak his handlers’ words aloud.

Hillary Clinton yesterday made the mistake that will almost surely enter her name in the annals of campaign infamy. Asked why she was staying in the race, she essentially pointed out that, hey, you never know what’s going to happen, so why not stick around? People say June is so late, but RFK was assassinated in June 1968, so….uh oh….

What came out of her mouth was something discussed in late-night sessions at her campaign headquarters, or in tete-a-tetes with Bill — even if the race appears to be sewn up, how can you know something really bad isn’t going to happen to Obama? His crony Rezko could get convicted and agree to sell him out for a lesser sentence. Video could surface of Obama ranting like Jeremiah Wright. Bob Torricelli got indicted. Spitzer got caught with a hooker. McGreevey was outed by a gay lover. Or something really bad could happen. An assassination or something.

When one speaks as frequently as Hillary Clinton, speeches all day, local interviews all night, it would almost be impossible for gaffes not to emerge from her lips. (Obama, at a shul on Thursday, referred to himself as “one who is blessed,” which was unfortunate too, even though he was only translating his first name; another example of this, though far more anodyne, obviously.) But in her position, there is no margin for error, and certainly not in even making a sideways reference to an assassination when there is a black man running for president who might be the target of some psychotic’s murderous fascination.

The reaction is overwrought, and the whole business has been skilfully manipulated by the Obama campaign to deliver a TKO of its already wounded rival. But that’s politics. No one made her open a mouth.

Read Less

Why Iran And Not Hamas?

Senator Barack Obama has staked out positions on both Hamas and Iran that are worth examining.

On Hamas, Obama says, “We must not negotiate with a terrorist group that’s intent on Israel’s destruction. We should only sit down with Hamas if they renounce terror, recognize Israel’s right to exist and abide by past agreements.” Elsewhere, Obama has said, “Hamas is a terrorist organization, responsible for the deaths of many innocents, and dedicated to Israel’s destruction, as evidenced by their bombarding of Sderot… I support requiring Hamas to meet the international community’s conditions of recognizing Israel, renouncing violence, and abiding by past agreements before they are treated as a legitimate actor.” So strongly does Obama feel about this matter that he has denounced as an offensive smear the implication that he would meet with Hamas.

On Iran, the story is different. According to Obama:

I would meet directly with the leadership in Iran. I believe that we have not exhausted the diplomatic efforts that could be required to resolve some of these problems — them developing nuclear weapons, them supporting terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas. That does not mean that we take other options off the table, but it means that we move forward aggressively with a dialogue with them about not only the sticks that we’re willing to apply, but also the carrots.

And this:

the notion that somehow not talking to countries [like Iran] is punishment to them — which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration — is ridiculous.

And this:

one of the disagreements that we have on this stage is the degree to which the next president is going to have to engage in the sort of personal diplomacy that can bring about a new era in the region. And, you know, that means talking to everybody. We’ve got to talk to our enemies and not just our friends.

And this:

Nothing’s changed with respect to my belief that strong countries and strong presidents talk to their enemies and talk to their adversaries … I find many of President Ahmadinejad’s statements odious and I’ve said that repeatedly. And I think that we have to recognize that there are a lot of rogue nations in the world that don’t have American interests at heart. But what I also believe is that, as John F. Kennedy said, we should never negotiate out of fear but we should never fear to negotiate.

So why would Obama emphatically insist that he would not meet with Hamas after saying he would meet with Iran’s President Ahmadinejad (a) without pre-conditions and (b) within the first year of his administration? According to the New York Times, Mr. Obama has been clear in making a distinction between his willingness to talk “not just to countries we like, but those we don’t,” as he puts it, and Hamas and other political movements similar to it. “Hamas is not a state,” Mr. Obama told a Jewish group last month. “Hamas is a terrorist organization.”

Of course, Iran is the world’s chief sponsor of terrorist organizations – including Hamas. Iran is also, to use the criteria Obama applied to Hamas, responsible for the deaths of many innocents, including the death of American troops in Iraq. It is manifestly failing to abide by past agreements. And Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has demanded that Israel be “wiped off the map,” hosted a conference of Holocaust deniers, and earlier this month referred to Israel as a “stinking corpse…on its way to annihilation.”

In addition, in January 2006 Hamas won a victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections, taking 76 of the 132 seats in the chamber — so the distinction Obama is making between the government of Iran and Hamas as a terrorist organization is more blurred than he would have us believe. Hamas, after all, is the de facto governing authority over the Gaza Strip. Would Obama meet with Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas, if Meshaal were the Prime Minister of a Palestinian state?

The more fundamental question is why Obama’s reasoning on Iran doesn’t apply to Hamas? Don’t “strong presidents talk to their enemies and talk to their adversaries”? Why doesn’t he “move forward aggressively with a dialogue” with Hamas and try to “exhaust diplomatic efforts”? Isn’t it the case that while we should never negotiate out of fear, we should never fear to negotiate? So what does Obama fear when it comes to negotiating with Hamas? And by the way, shouldn’t the next president engage in the sort of “personal diplomacy” that can “bring about a new era in the region” – and doesn’t that mean talking to “everybody,” to our enemies and not just our friends?

My own view is that Senator Obama is right to say that he wouldn’t meet with Hamas. At the same time, I would not say categorically that U.S. representatives shouldn’t meet with representatives of nations that are hostile to our interests (like Iran) under any circumstances. I concur with Charles Krauthammer, who says that in some instances presidents should meet with our enemies, though only after minimal American objectives have been met. The acid test for negotiations is whether they will advance or set back American interests, and those are matters of judgment and prudence. The problem for Obama is that the type of meeting he has in mind with Ahmadinejad would surely, in Krauthammer’s words, “not just strengthen and vindicate him at home, it would instantly and powerfully ease the mullahs’ isolation, inviting other world leaders to follow.” Beyond that, the arguments Obama has made and the logic he has employed for meeting with Ahmadinejad undercuts his rationale for not meeting with Hamas. And for Obama to so ferociously insist he won’t meet with Hamas unless it meets a set of conditions while showing such eagerness to meet with Ahmadinejad without any preconditions demonstrates how shallow and naïve Obama’s thinking is when it comes to foreign policy.

Barack Obama, a community organizer from Chicago, has no expertise in national security matters. And, we’re learning, he has very little wisdom as well.

Senator Barack Obama has staked out positions on both Hamas and Iran that are worth examining.

On Hamas, Obama says, “We must not negotiate with a terrorist group that’s intent on Israel’s destruction. We should only sit down with Hamas if they renounce terror, recognize Israel’s right to exist and abide by past agreements.” Elsewhere, Obama has said, “Hamas is a terrorist organization, responsible for the deaths of many innocents, and dedicated to Israel’s destruction, as evidenced by their bombarding of Sderot… I support requiring Hamas to meet the international community’s conditions of recognizing Israel, renouncing violence, and abiding by past agreements before they are treated as a legitimate actor.” So strongly does Obama feel about this matter that he has denounced as an offensive smear the implication that he would meet with Hamas.

On Iran, the story is different. According to Obama:

I would meet directly with the leadership in Iran. I believe that we have not exhausted the diplomatic efforts that could be required to resolve some of these problems — them developing nuclear weapons, them supporting terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas. That does not mean that we take other options off the table, but it means that we move forward aggressively with a dialogue with them about not only the sticks that we’re willing to apply, but also the carrots.

And this:

the notion that somehow not talking to countries [like Iran] is punishment to them — which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration — is ridiculous.

And this:

one of the disagreements that we have on this stage is the degree to which the next president is going to have to engage in the sort of personal diplomacy that can bring about a new era in the region. And, you know, that means talking to everybody. We’ve got to talk to our enemies and not just our friends.

And this:

Nothing’s changed with respect to my belief that strong countries and strong presidents talk to their enemies and talk to their adversaries … I find many of President Ahmadinejad’s statements odious and I’ve said that repeatedly. And I think that we have to recognize that there are a lot of rogue nations in the world that don’t have American interests at heart. But what I also believe is that, as John F. Kennedy said, we should never negotiate out of fear but we should never fear to negotiate.

So why would Obama emphatically insist that he would not meet with Hamas after saying he would meet with Iran’s President Ahmadinejad (a) without pre-conditions and (b) within the first year of his administration? According to the New York Times, Mr. Obama has been clear in making a distinction between his willingness to talk “not just to countries we like, but those we don’t,” as he puts it, and Hamas and other political movements similar to it. “Hamas is not a state,” Mr. Obama told a Jewish group last month. “Hamas is a terrorist organization.”

Of course, Iran is the world’s chief sponsor of terrorist organizations – including Hamas. Iran is also, to use the criteria Obama applied to Hamas, responsible for the deaths of many innocents, including the death of American troops in Iraq. It is manifestly failing to abide by past agreements. And Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has demanded that Israel be “wiped off the map,” hosted a conference of Holocaust deniers, and earlier this month referred to Israel as a “stinking corpse…on its way to annihilation.”

In addition, in January 2006 Hamas won a victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections, taking 76 of the 132 seats in the chamber — so the distinction Obama is making between the government of Iran and Hamas as a terrorist organization is more blurred than he would have us believe. Hamas, after all, is the de facto governing authority over the Gaza Strip. Would Obama meet with Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas, if Meshaal were the Prime Minister of a Palestinian state?

The more fundamental question is why Obama’s reasoning on Iran doesn’t apply to Hamas? Don’t “strong presidents talk to their enemies and talk to their adversaries”? Why doesn’t he “move forward aggressively with a dialogue” with Hamas and try to “exhaust diplomatic efforts”? Isn’t it the case that while we should never negotiate out of fear, we should never fear to negotiate? So what does Obama fear when it comes to negotiating with Hamas? And by the way, shouldn’t the next president engage in the sort of “personal diplomacy” that can “bring about a new era in the region” – and doesn’t that mean talking to “everybody,” to our enemies and not just our friends?

My own view is that Senator Obama is right to say that he wouldn’t meet with Hamas. At the same time, I would not say categorically that U.S. representatives shouldn’t meet with representatives of nations that are hostile to our interests (like Iran) under any circumstances. I concur with Charles Krauthammer, who says that in some instances presidents should meet with our enemies, though only after minimal American objectives have been met. The acid test for negotiations is whether they will advance or set back American interests, and those are matters of judgment and prudence. The problem for Obama is that the type of meeting he has in mind with Ahmadinejad would surely, in Krauthammer’s words, “not just strengthen and vindicate him at home, it would instantly and powerfully ease the mullahs’ isolation, inviting other world leaders to follow.” Beyond that, the arguments Obama has made and the logic he has employed for meeting with Ahmadinejad undercuts his rationale for not meeting with Hamas. And for Obama to so ferociously insist he won’t meet with Hamas unless it meets a set of conditions while showing such eagerness to meet with Ahmadinejad without any preconditions demonstrates how shallow and naïve Obama’s thinking is when it comes to foreign policy.

Barack Obama, a community organizer from Chicago, has no expertise in national security matters. And, we’re learning, he has very little wisdom as well.

Read Less

Brando and the Jews

The news of Charlton Heston’s death on April 5 at age 84 brought to mind the passing, four years ago, of one of his legendary contemporaries, primarily because April 3 would have been Marlin Brando’s 84th birthday.

I remembered the date because I had done a fair amount of research on Brando for a column I wrote shortly after he died. The column, which focused on an incident that both tarred Brando’s reputation for years afterward and served to illustrate how Jewish organizations and their spokesmen sometimes risk trivializing the serious issue of anti-Semitism, drew an unusually large number of reader responses.

It all began during an appearance on CNN’s “Larry King Live” in April 1996. Brando praised Jews for their contributions to civilization, only to be reminded by King that he had voiced some criticism of Jews in the past, particularly Hollywood’s Jewish movers and shakers. King kept badgering Brando for negative comments; at one point the actor blurted out, “See, you are rushing me, I can’t think . . . I’m slightly rattled here.”

Brando finally gave King what he wanted. Hollywood, he said,

is run by Jews; it is owned by Jews, and they should have a greater sensitivity about the issue of — of people who are suffering. Because they’ve exploited — we have seen the — have seen the nigger and greaseball, we’ve seen the chink, we’ve seen the slit-eyed dangerous Jap, we have seen the wily Filipino, we’ve seen everything but we never saw the kike. Because they know perfectly well, that is where you draw the wagons around.

Hardly reported was Brando’s reply when King wondered whether Brando’s complaint would play into the hands of anti-Semites: “No, no, because I will be the first one who will appraise the Jews honestly and say, ‘Thank God for the Jews.’ ”

Brando was an eccentric, a devotee of radical causes, a man given to all manner of weird fulmination. But he didn’t deserve the opprobrium that followed. Branded a Jew-hater, rebuked by the ADL and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, hounded by death threats from self-styled Jewish militants, Brando actually wept during a meeting with Jewish community representatives.

If Brando was an anti-Semite, I wrote at the time, we need more of that kind of anti-Semitism. As a young actor in 1946, he not only co-starred in Ben Hecht’s pro-Zionist play “A Flag Is Born,” he spoke at rallies and meetings organized by the play’s sponsor, Peter Bergson’s American League for a Free Palestine.

But Brando’s feelings about Jews can best be appreciated from the following eloquent passages in his 1994 autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, about the year he spent as a young man at New York’s New School for Social Research:

I lived in a world of Jews. . . . They introduced me to a world of books and ideas that I didn’t know existed. I stayed up all night with them — asking questions, arguing, probing, discovering how little I knew, learning how inarticulate I was and how abysmal my education was. I hadn’t even finished high school, and many of them had advanced degrees from the finest institutes in Europe. I felt dumb and ashamed, but they gave me an appetite to learn everything. They made me hungry for information. . . .

One of the great mysteries that has always puzzled me is how Jews, who account for such a tiny fraction of the world’s population, have been able to achieve so much and excel in so many different fields — science, music, medicine, literature, arts, business and more. . . .

They are an amazing people. Imagine the persecution they endured over the centuries: pogroms, temple burnings, Cossack raids, uprootings of families, their dispersal to the winds and the Holocaust . . . . Yet their children survived and Jews became by far the most accomplished people per capita that the world has ever produced. . . .

Whatever the reasons for their brilliance and success, I was never educated until I was exposed to them.

The news of Charlton Heston’s death on April 5 at age 84 brought to mind the passing, four years ago, of one of his legendary contemporaries, primarily because April 3 would have been Marlin Brando’s 84th birthday.

I remembered the date because I had done a fair amount of research on Brando for a column I wrote shortly after he died. The column, which focused on an incident that both tarred Brando’s reputation for years afterward and served to illustrate how Jewish organizations and their spokesmen sometimes risk trivializing the serious issue of anti-Semitism, drew an unusually large number of reader responses.

It all began during an appearance on CNN’s “Larry King Live” in April 1996. Brando praised Jews for their contributions to civilization, only to be reminded by King that he had voiced some criticism of Jews in the past, particularly Hollywood’s Jewish movers and shakers. King kept badgering Brando for negative comments; at one point the actor blurted out, “See, you are rushing me, I can’t think . . . I’m slightly rattled here.”

Brando finally gave King what he wanted. Hollywood, he said,

is run by Jews; it is owned by Jews, and they should have a greater sensitivity about the issue of — of people who are suffering. Because they’ve exploited — we have seen the — have seen the nigger and greaseball, we’ve seen the chink, we’ve seen the slit-eyed dangerous Jap, we have seen the wily Filipino, we’ve seen everything but we never saw the kike. Because they know perfectly well, that is where you draw the wagons around.

Hardly reported was Brando’s reply when King wondered whether Brando’s complaint would play into the hands of anti-Semites: “No, no, because I will be the first one who will appraise the Jews honestly and say, ‘Thank God for the Jews.’ ”

Brando was an eccentric, a devotee of radical causes, a man given to all manner of weird fulmination. But he didn’t deserve the opprobrium that followed. Branded a Jew-hater, rebuked by the ADL and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, hounded by death threats from self-styled Jewish militants, Brando actually wept during a meeting with Jewish community representatives.

If Brando was an anti-Semite, I wrote at the time, we need more of that kind of anti-Semitism. As a young actor in 1946, he not only co-starred in Ben Hecht’s pro-Zionist play “A Flag Is Born,” he spoke at rallies and meetings organized by the play’s sponsor, Peter Bergson’s American League for a Free Palestine.

But Brando’s feelings about Jews can best be appreciated from the following eloquent passages in his 1994 autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, about the year he spent as a young man at New York’s New School for Social Research:

I lived in a world of Jews. . . . They introduced me to a world of books and ideas that I didn’t know existed. I stayed up all night with them — asking questions, arguing, probing, discovering how little I knew, learning how inarticulate I was and how abysmal my education was. I hadn’t even finished high school, and many of them had advanced degrees from the finest institutes in Europe. I felt dumb and ashamed, but they gave me an appetite to learn everything. They made me hungry for information. . . .

One of the great mysteries that has always puzzled me is how Jews, who account for such a tiny fraction of the world’s population, have been able to achieve so much and excel in so many different fields — science, music, medicine, literature, arts, business and more. . . .

They are an amazing people. Imagine the persecution they endured over the centuries: pogroms, temple burnings, Cossack raids, uprootings of families, their dispersal to the winds and the Holocaust . . . . Yet their children survived and Jews became by far the most accomplished people per capita that the world has ever produced. . . .

Whatever the reasons for their brilliance and success, I was never educated until I was exposed to them.

Read Less

Hype Defined

Actor Ed Norton on the creative impetus behind his upcoming documentary on the Obama campaign:

We were all so struck by Barack’s speech and talked about how exciting it was to see someone from our generation, not our parents’, make his presence felt in such an inspiring way.

Doesn’t everyone who makes it into middle age experience a president from their generation?

Actor Ed Norton on the creative impetus behind his upcoming documentary on the Obama campaign:

We were all so struck by Barack’s speech and talked about how exciting it was to see someone from our generation, not our parents’, make his presence felt in such an inspiring way.

Doesn’t everyone who makes it into middle age experience a president from their generation?

Read Less

Oscar Predictions

Here’s the thing: I’m generally lousy at them, because I always overthink these things. So I suppose since everybody and his brother are saying No Country for Old Men is going to win, it probably is — and since everybody is saying there’s a backlash against Juno, I guess there is.

But here’s the rub: I talk to a lot of people who actually just go to the movies rather than write about them. And most of these people didn’t really like No Country. They thought there were wonderful scenes but found the last 15 minutes baffling in a particularly off-putting way. I haven’t met a single person who doesn’t love Juno. People who write about movies twist themselves into knots thinking about these matters so much they decide Juno is meretricious and the end of No Country doesn’t matter.

What I’m saying is, evidently it would be an upset if Juno won. But why? Would would a universally liked, enormously popular, and very affecting film be considered an underdog against a brilliantly made but bloody and unsatisfying existential thriller? There are only 6,000 Academy Awards voters. None of them is a critic.

Last year, when The Departed beat Little Miss Sunshine, it did so in large measure because people really loved The Departed – and it was a slightly bigger hit. Nobody really loves No Country for Old Men. Juno is the movie this year that knocked people for a loop, a happy loop.

So it just seems to me the smart money being on No Country is a result of overthink. Based on what we know about the Oscars, the only obvious choice is Juno, except for the fact that it’s a comedy. Which is a big except. All of this only goes to show that if Atonement — epic, romantic, with English accents — had been better, it would have walked away with the award.

Daniel Day Lewis will win for best actor. Nobody knows who will win Best Actress — although if Ellen Page takes it for Juno, that will be a serious indication that the movie is going to win the big one. And while everybody says Javier Bardem is a lock for supporting actor in No Country, supporting is where the surprises always happen. Nobody knows about supporting actress either, though it strikes me as weird that the Academy might give Cate Blanchett a second Oscar for impersonating a famous person (the first was Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator; this would be for being Bob Dylan in I’m Not There).

But I’ve never won an Oscar pool.

Here’s the thing: I’m generally lousy at them, because I always overthink these things. So I suppose since everybody and his brother are saying No Country for Old Men is going to win, it probably is — and since everybody is saying there’s a backlash against Juno, I guess there is.

But here’s the rub: I talk to a lot of people who actually just go to the movies rather than write about them. And most of these people didn’t really like No Country. They thought there were wonderful scenes but found the last 15 minutes baffling in a particularly off-putting way. I haven’t met a single person who doesn’t love Juno. People who write about movies twist themselves into knots thinking about these matters so much they decide Juno is meretricious and the end of No Country doesn’t matter.

What I’m saying is, evidently it would be an upset if Juno won. But why? Would would a universally liked, enormously popular, and very affecting film be considered an underdog against a brilliantly made but bloody and unsatisfying existential thriller? There are only 6,000 Academy Awards voters. None of them is a critic.

Last year, when The Departed beat Little Miss Sunshine, it did so in large measure because people really loved The Departed – and it was a slightly bigger hit. Nobody really loves No Country for Old Men. Juno is the movie this year that knocked people for a loop, a happy loop.

So it just seems to me the smart money being on No Country is a result of overthink. Based on what we know about the Oscars, the only obvious choice is Juno, except for the fact that it’s a comedy. Which is a big except. All of this only goes to show that if Atonement — epic, romantic, with English accents — had been better, it would have walked away with the award.

Daniel Day Lewis will win for best actor. Nobody knows who will win Best Actress — although if Ellen Page takes it for Juno, that will be a serious indication that the movie is going to win the big one. And while everybody says Javier Bardem is a lock for supporting actor in No Country, supporting is where the surprises always happen. Nobody knows about supporting actress either, though it strikes me as weird that the Academy might give Cate Blanchett a second Oscar for impersonating a famous person (the first was Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator; this would be for being Bob Dylan in I’m Not There).

But I’ve never won an Oscar pool.

Read Less

First Demi Moore Became a Kabbalist. Now This.

The actor Andrew McCarthy is writing a diary for Slate about his work on a new television show called Lipstick Jungle. The show is not good (this isn’t what McCarthy says; it’s what I’m telling you). But it turns out that McCarthy, who remains best known for his work as a teen and post-teen heartthrob in Pretty in Pink and St. Elmo’s Fire, is a very, very good writer. This is only a little more surprising than the discovery that Mare Winningham, who was in St. Elmo’s Fire with McCarthy and appeared in approximately 248 made-for-television movies playing a teenage prostitute, converted to Judaism a few years ago and recorded an album called “Refuge Rock Sublime,” which features a bluegrass version of “Etz Chaim” and another number in which she sings: “The Torah will be a fixed point in my life.” It’s…well…it’s certainly very…interesting….

The actor Andrew McCarthy is writing a diary for Slate about his work on a new television show called Lipstick Jungle. The show is not good (this isn’t what McCarthy says; it’s what I’m telling you). But it turns out that McCarthy, who remains best known for his work as a teen and post-teen heartthrob in Pretty in Pink and St. Elmo’s Fire, is a very, very good writer. This is only a little more surprising than the discovery that Mare Winningham, who was in St. Elmo’s Fire with McCarthy and appeared in approximately 248 made-for-television movies playing a teenage prostitute, converted to Judaism a few years ago and recorded an album called “Refuge Rock Sublime,” which features a bluegrass version of “Etz Chaim” and another number in which she sings: “The Torah will be a fixed point in my life.” It’s…well…it’s certainly very…interesting….

Read Less

Bookshelf

• The perfect non-fiction book is one that tells you everything you really need to know about a given subject, be it large or small, in 250 pages or less, and does the job with style. That was the yardstick I used when writing my brief life of George Balanchine, which is 185 pages long. I leave it to you to judge whether I succeeded, but even if I didn’t, I know such books when I see them, and Simon Goldhill’s How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today (University of Chicago, 248 pp., $18 paper) fills the bill—perfectly.

One of the many disheartening things I’ve learned after four years as a drama critic is that most contemporary productions of Greek tragedy are exercises in theatrical futility. Why do they go wrong, and what makes the good ones good? Until I read How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today, I was unable to answer those questions save by way of guesswork and instinct, not having had the benefits of a classical education or seen very many stagings of the Greek classics in my wasted youth. Henceforth, though, I’ll know what I failed to learn in school, thanks entirely to this priceless little book.

Goldhill, a professor of Greek literature and culture at Cambridge, is realistic about the vast cultural distance that separates us from the plays of which he writes:

Greek drama is a wordy genre. Whenever any character says, “I have told the whole story,” that is always the beginning of more stories and a lot more laments. There is little action, at least for those brought up on action movies. There are few people who run in Greek tragedy, fewer explosions, and rarely even any physical contact onstage—though when people do touch, it is explosive.

How to reduce that distance? Though Goldhill is no literal-minded antiquarian, he understands that part of the paradoxical answer to this difficult question lies in paying close attention to the circumstances under which Greek tragedies were originally produced. As he explains in his introduction:

The book highlights what I regard as the six most pressing problems that face any company that chooses to produce a Greek tragedy. Each of the six chapters . . . looks first at whether we can learn anything from the ancient world, and then discusses how modern companies have tried to solve these difficulties in the theater, and analyzes their successes and failures.

Some of Goldhill’s problems will make immediate sense to most readers: what do you do with the chorus? Others are subtler: in what ways did the architectural design of Greek amphitheaters influence the way in which Greek tragedies were written? And how do you play those long, long speeches?

Finding the right level of expression is always an actor’s problem: but Greek tragedy poses this problem in the most acute form, because there is no small talk. It is because of this that so many actors fall back on “grandeur” or “magnificence,” although grandiloquence so rarely leads into the heart of any role.

Without minimizing the formidable difficulties posed by the genre, Goldhill shows how a modern production that pays no heed whatsoever to ancient precedents is likely to run into trouble, whereas a director who keeps those precedents firmly in mind will often find that his six problems have a way of solving themselves. Though he is not a “theater person,” he has looked closely at countless contemporary productions—some of which, like The Gospel at Colonus and Deborah Warner’s 2001 staging of Euripides’ Medea, will be familiar to American playgoers—and analyzes them with a shrewdness that no critic will fail to envy. His approach is at once deeply informed by the best academic scholarship and no less deeply rooted in a commonsense understanding of what works on stage. The result is one of the most instructive and lucidly written books about theater to have been published in recent years. No one whose interest in drama is more than merely casual should pass it by.


• The perfect non-fiction book is one that tells you everything you really need to know about a given subject, be it large or small, in 250 pages or less, and does the job with style. That was the yardstick I used when writing my brief life of George Balanchine, which is 185 pages long. I leave it to you to judge whether I succeeded, but even if I didn’t, I know such books when I see them, and Simon Goldhill’s How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today (University of Chicago, 248 pp., $18 paper) fills the bill—perfectly.

One of the many disheartening things I’ve learned after four years as a drama critic is that most contemporary productions of Greek tragedy are exercises in theatrical futility. Why do they go wrong, and what makes the good ones good? Until I read How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today, I was unable to answer those questions save by way of guesswork and instinct, not having had the benefits of a classical education or seen very many stagings of the Greek classics in my wasted youth. Henceforth, though, I’ll know what I failed to learn in school, thanks entirely to this priceless little book.

Goldhill, a professor of Greek literature and culture at Cambridge, is realistic about the vast cultural distance that separates us from the plays of which he writes:

Greek drama is a wordy genre. Whenever any character says, “I have told the whole story,” that is always the beginning of more stories and a lot more laments. There is little action, at least for those brought up on action movies. There are few people who run in Greek tragedy, fewer explosions, and rarely even any physical contact onstage—though when people do touch, it is explosive.

How to reduce that distance? Though Goldhill is no literal-minded antiquarian, he understands that part of the paradoxical answer to this difficult question lies in paying close attention to the circumstances under which Greek tragedies were originally produced. As he explains in his introduction:

The book highlights what I regard as the six most pressing problems that face any company that chooses to produce a Greek tragedy. Each of the six chapters . . . looks first at whether we can learn anything from the ancient world, and then discusses how modern companies have tried to solve these difficulties in the theater, and analyzes their successes and failures.

Some of Goldhill’s problems will make immediate sense to most readers: what do you do with the chorus? Others are subtler: in what ways did the architectural design of Greek amphitheaters influence the way in which Greek tragedies were written? And how do you play those long, long speeches?

Finding the right level of expression is always an actor’s problem: but Greek tragedy poses this problem in the most acute form, because there is no small talk. It is because of this that so many actors fall back on “grandeur” or “magnificence,” although grandiloquence so rarely leads into the heart of any role.

Without minimizing the formidable difficulties posed by the genre, Goldhill shows how a modern production that pays no heed whatsoever to ancient precedents is likely to run into trouble, whereas a director who keeps those precedents firmly in mind will often find that his six problems have a way of solving themselves. Though he is not a “theater person,” he has looked closely at countless contemporary productions—some of which, like The Gospel at Colonus and Deborah Warner’s 2001 staging of Euripides’ Medea, will be familiar to American playgoers—and analyzes them with a shrewdness that no critic will fail to envy. His approach is at once deeply informed by the best academic scholarship and no less deeply rooted in a commonsense understanding of what works on stage. The result is one of the most instructive and lucidly written books about theater to have been published in recent years. No one whose interest in drama is more than merely casual should pass it by.


Read Less

The NIE and Neorealism

Norman Podhoretz has already pointed out that the new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran “represents a 180-degree turn from the conclusions of the last NIE on Iran’s nuclear program,” which were asserted with equal certitude. But the NIE has another, much more serious, problem.

The NIE asserts that “some combination of threats of intensified scrutiny and pressure”—no problem there—”along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways, might . . . prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program.” My first reaction to this was to wonder why, if the U.S. has succeeded in stopping Iran’s program without any bribes, we now need to include them to prevent Tehran from starting it up again, but no matter: the NIE generously admits that it is “difficult” to specify what such a “combination” of threats and opportunities might be. The more fundamental question is whether it is in the interest of the United States—and the world—to purchase (if obtainable) a continued halt at such a price. Since Tehran’s declared goals include eradicating Israel from the face of the earth and spreading the Iranian Revolution across the entire Middle East, the answer must be that it is not.

Deciding that, of course, is not the job of the intelligence community. But the NIE’s description of its rationale for reaching its conclusion about Iran’s malleability is revealing: Tehran, it argues, halted the program in 2003 in response to unspecified “international pressure”—apparently the same kind that bore so heavily on Qaddafi—which indicates that the regime’s decisions are guided by “a cost-benefit approach.”

Read More

Norman Podhoretz has already pointed out that the new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran “represents a 180-degree turn from the conclusions of the last NIE on Iran’s nuclear program,” which were asserted with equal certitude. But the NIE has another, much more serious, problem.

The NIE asserts that “some combination of threats of intensified scrutiny and pressure”—no problem there—”along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways, might . . . prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program.” My first reaction to this was to wonder why, if the U.S. has succeeded in stopping Iran’s program without any bribes, we now need to include them to prevent Tehran from starting it up again, but no matter: the NIE generously admits that it is “difficult” to specify what such a “combination” of threats and opportunities might be. The more fundamental question is whether it is in the interest of the United States—and the world—to purchase (if obtainable) a continued halt at such a price. Since Tehran’s declared goals include eradicating Israel from the face of the earth and spreading the Iranian Revolution across the entire Middle East, the answer must be that it is not.

Deciding that, of course, is not the job of the intelligence community. But the NIE’s description of its rationale for reaching its conclusion about Iran’s malleability is revealing: Tehran, it argues, halted the program in 2003 in response to unspecified “international pressure”—apparently the same kind that bore so heavily on Qaddafi—which indicates that the regime’s decisions are guided by “a cost-benefit approach.”

I winced when I read that phrase. Does anyone make decisions on that basis? States certainly do not. The phrase belongs to neorealism, to the unitary rational actor approach to the study of decision-making. The broad realist tradition—and a respectable one it is—extends back to Thucydides. Its modern and more limited variant, neorealism, exemplified today by Kenneth Waltz, Stephen Walt, and John Mearsheimer, refuses to try to understand policy-making in all its complexity. Instead, it treats states as billiard balls, ignores their leaders, politics, beliefs, and cultures, and considers only their size, their place on the table, and the position of the other billiard balls.

Neorealism has the advantage of parsimony: because it is based on simple but powerful assumptions, including the belief that nations act rationally, it generates testable predictions. But the simplifying assumptions that make it useful for scholars make it useless as a guide to how and why states actually make decisions. The only practical contribution the discipline of international relations has made in the last forty years is democratic peace theory, commonly summarized as “democracies do not fight each other.” Even if that is only mostly true, it is inexplicable to neorealists, who cannot understand why two democracies—the United States and Israel, for instance—might be allies even though the larger power has nothing much to gain from it materially.

The failure of neorealism stems directly from its assumptions. For states are not unitary. States have bureaucracies with their own agendas, factions and internal politics, and the most radical of them—like Iran—have a party machine that runs parallel to, and acts as a minder for, the official government. And states are not rational, at least not in a “cost-benefit” kind of way. Nor are they simply irrational. Rather, they have a hierarchy of preferences and seek to order them with some consistency. This kind of bounded rationality says nothing about what these preferences are, or whether they are moral, amoral, or immoral. Hitler, for instance, had two preferences: killing Jews and winning the war. And, in a bounded way, he was rational: he wanted to kill Jews more than he wanted to win, so he ran trains to Auschwitz, not the front.

The neorealist approach does have its uses. If you do not know anything about what is going on inside a country—for example, because it is a totalitarian dictatorship—a useful first cut is to ask what you would do if you were in charge. But to elevate neorealism, as the NIE has done, into a basis for offering high confidence assessments about such a state is an error. Walt and Mearsheimer’s embarrassingly amateur fantasies about the Israel Lobby demonstrate this all too clearly. For them, it is axiomatic that the United States has much more to gain from allying with the Arab oil dictators than with resource-poor Israel: the fact that the U.S. has failed to act in this way, has refused to carry out the proper “cost-benefit analysis,” can only be explained by a Jewish conspiracy. That is what passes for sophisticated thinking if you are a neorealist.

No, I do not believe that the U.S. intelligence community has stumbled into the Walt and Mearsheimer fever swamp. But the NIE’s resort to neorealist analysis is characteristic of ignorance: there is no reason to use this approach if you know what is going on. And that is the real problem. The U.S.—amazingly—publishes its National Intelligence Estimates. We make our policy in view of the entire world, and thereby impose serious constraints on our own government. We will not be able to be comfortable with Iran until we know as much about them as they know about us, and until they are as constrained by public debate as we are. And when we get that kind of Iran, we will not need high-profile but analytically shallow NIE’s.

Read Less

Bravo Adam Schiff!

Fans of television’s Law & Order have waited in vain for any commemoration of the 85th birthday of Steven Hill, the actor who played New York District Attorney Adam Schiff from 1990 to 2000. Hill retired at age 78 from the role, which is based on New York’s own Robert Morgenthau, now 88, who shows no signs of retiring, although he is three years older than Hill. Born Solomon Krakovsky in Seattle, Washington in 1922, Hill is one of the rare Orthodox Jews to pursue a mainstream acting career in television and film. From early on, his religious beliefs inspired (and sometimes interfered with) his career; his 1946 Broadway debut, alongside Paul Muni and Marlon Brando, was in Ben Hecht’s A Flag Is Born, which advocated a new Jewish State.

After an early stage career, mentored by Lee Strasberg at The Actors’ Studio, Hill began to work widely in television and film. Much of his best work (as a weary veteran in Paddy Chayevsky’s 1958 The Goddess and as the tormented father of a learning disabled child in John Cassavetes’s A Child Is Waiting must be hunted down on VHS tapes, still unavailable on DVD. It’s worth the effort, since Hill is the epitome of a “thinking actor,” who ruminates over roles until he drives some colleagues wild. Martin Landau, who appeared with Hill in the first year of television’s Mission Impossible (1966), called him “nuts, volatile, mad, and his work was exciting.” Hill was soon fired from Mission Impossible, for intransigence about a number of things, including an extremely strict observance of the Sabbath. Hill retired to an Orthodox community in Rockland County, where he worked in real estate from 1967 to 1977; by not acting during this decade, he avoiding being made into a plastic television star (his role in Mission Impossible was filled by the suave but mechanical Peter Graves).

Read More

Fans of television’s Law & Order have waited in vain for any commemoration of the 85th birthday of Steven Hill, the actor who played New York District Attorney Adam Schiff from 1990 to 2000. Hill retired at age 78 from the role, which is based on New York’s own Robert Morgenthau, now 88, who shows no signs of retiring, although he is three years older than Hill. Born Solomon Krakovsky in Seattle, Washington in 1922, Hill is one of the rare Orthodox Jews to pursue a mainstream acting career in television and film. From early on, his religious beliefs inspired (and sometimes interfered with) his career; his 1946 Broadway debut, alongside Paul Muni and Marlon Brando, was in Ben Hecht’s A Flag Is Born, which advocated a new Jewish State.

After an early stage career, mentored by Lee Strasberg at The Actors’ Studio, Hill began to work widely in television and film. Much of his best work (as a weary veteran in Paddy Chayevsky’s 1958 The Goddess and as the tormented father of a learning disabled child in John Cassavetes’s A Child Is Waiting must be hunted down on VHS tapes, still unavailable on DVD. It’s worth the effort, since Hill is the epitome of a “thinking actor,” who ruminates over roles until he drives some colleagues wild. Martin Landau, who appeared with Hill in the first year of television’s Mission Impossible (1966), called him “nuts, volatile, mad, and his work was exciting.” Hill was soon fired from Mission Impossible, for intransigence about a number of things, including an extremely strict observance of the Sabbath. Hill retired to an Orthodox community in Rockland County, where he worked in real estate from 1967 to 1977; by not acting during this decade, he avoiding being made into a plastic television star (his role in Mission Impossible was filled by the suave but mechanical Peter Graves).

Returning to acting, Hill landed minor roles in mostly forgettable films, with the exception of two charming if stagy filmed plays by Horton Foote, On Valentine’s Day (1986 ) and Courtship (1987). In 1990, when Law & Order debuted, Hill was seen at full force. He self-deprecatingly speaks of his role in Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion, saying: “I get a kick out of that curmudgeon business. I used to love to see actors like that, like Monty Woolley. You love those older people who do that deliberately.”

Yet, in many episodes, Hill far transcended the Monty Woolley shtick of comic disgruntlement. One that comes immediately to mind is “Terminal,” from Law & Order’s seventh season, so far unavailable on DVD. In it, Schiff has authorized his hospitalized, terminally ill wife to be unplugged from life support. As she flatlines, he watches, giving out an agonized whimper of animal-like intensity at the moment of her death. This is great acting by any definition; without dialogue and very succinctly, Hill manages to portray the physical and emotional effect of losing a life partner. Happy 85th, Mr. Hill!

Read Less

Silence as Gesture

The world-famous mime Marcel Marceau (1923-2007), who died this week at 84, was buried on September 26 in Paris’s historic Père-Lachaise cemetery. The previous Grand Rabbi of France, Algerian-born René-Samuel Sirat, read the Kaddish over Marceau’s grave, reminding the modest crowd—France’s Culture Minister Christine Albanel did not even bother to attend—that Marceau “always defined himself as a citizen of the world, with Jewish roots.”

Indeed, he was born Marcel Mangel to a Polish Jewish family in Strasbourg in 1923. His father Charles Mangel, a butcher and amateur baritone who raised pigeons as a hobby, was deported to Auschwitz in 1944, where he was murdered. Young Marcel moved to Limoges and joined the Resistance, specializing in the counterfeiting of identity papers and helping to hide Jewish children from the Nazis. He counterfeited his own identity, choosing the name Marceau from a heroic poem by Victor Hugo in praise of a French Revolutionary general, François-Séverin Marceau.

Retaining his warrior’s name for the rest of his life, Marceau was more of a fighter than the general public—sometimes exasperated by the whimsy of his Chaplinesque flower-carrying character Bip—might perceive. Rabbi Sirat eloquently pointed to Marceau’s wartime experiences as leading him to the art of mime, with its “twin lessons of silence and gestures.” After D-Day, Marceau joined the French Army commanded by Marshal de Lattre de Tassigny, and only became a full-time performer after the Armistice. Interestingly, he chose among his first teachers the exceptional actor—and notorious collaborator with the wartime Nazi occupant—Charles Dullin.

By 1948, Marceau had established his own theater company, and his character Bip was born, named, according to Marceau, after the character Pip in Dickens’ Great Expectation. Bip is recalled for quaintly chasing butterflies and walking against the wind (a routine Michael Jackson admitted to ripping off in order to stage his own meaningless moonwalk). Bip at times expressed an inner violence, as in his early pantomime, “The Murderer,” which Marceau described as inspired by Raskolnikov, the murderer in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Marceau also claimed this mimed violence conveyed his own desire to “boot the Germans out of France.” When I myself met Marceau some fifteen years ago for an interview at the Espace Pierre-Cardin in Paris, he already seemed travel-worn, although, until very recently, he adamantly maintained a grueling international schedule of tours, with over 200 annual performances.
Read More

The world-famous mime Marcel Marceau (1923-2007), who died this week at 84, was buried on September 26 in Paris’s historic Père-Lachaise cemetery. The previous Grand Rabbi of France, Algerian-born René-Samuel Sirat, read the Kaddish over Marceau’s grave, reminding the modest crowd—France’s Culture Minister Christine Albanel did not even bother to attend—that Marceau “always defined himself as a citizen of the world, with Jewish roots.”

Indeed, he was born Marcel Mangel to a Polish Jewish family in Strasbourg in 1923. His father Charles Mangel, a butcher and amateur baritone who raised pigeons as a hobby, was deported to Auschwitz in 1944, where he was murdered. Young Marcel moved to Limoges and joined the Resistance, specializing in the counterfeiting of identity papers and helping to hide Jewish children from the Nazis. He counterfeited his own identity, choosing the name Marceau from a heroic poem by Victor Hugo in praise of a French Revolutionary general, François-Séverin Marceau.

Retaining his warrior’s name for the rest of his life, Marceau was more of a fighter than the general public—sometimes exasperated by the whimsy of his Chaplinesque flower-carrying character Bip—might perceive. Rabbi Sirat eloquently pointed to Marceau’s wartime experiences as leading him to the art of mime, with its “twin lessons of silence and gestures.” After D-Day, Marceau joined the French Army commanded by Marshal de Lattre de Tassigny, and only became a full-time performer after the Armistice. Interestingly, he chose among his first teachers the exceptional actor—and notorious collaborator with the wartime Nazi occupant—Charles Dullin.

By 1948, Marceau had established his own theater company, and his character Bip was born, named, according to Marceau, after the character Pip in Dickens’ Great Expectation. Bip is recalled for quaintly chasing butterflies and walking against the wind (a routine Michael Jackson admitted to ripping off in order to stage his own meaningless moonwalk). Bip at times expressed an inner violence, as in his early pantomime, “The Murderer,” which Marceau described as inspired by Raskolnikov, the murderer in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Marceau also claimed this mimed violence conveyed his own desire to “boot the Germans out of France.” When I myself met Marceau some fifteen years ago for an interview at the Espace Pierre-Cardin in Paris, he already seemed travel-worn, although, until very recently, he adamantly maintained a grueling international schedule of tours, with over 200 annual performances.

In the 1970’s, I saw him perform in Manhattan before unfriendly crowds who expressed their impatience with the slow pace of his act, his reliance on inferior young students who performed a good part of the mime show, and his own form, creaky even then. Years ago, a French journalist challenged him about his “conventional” pantomimes that seemed never to change. Marceau, ever revolutionary in spirit, replied, “Everything is convention, a fine word that hearkens back to the French Revolution and the notion of convening.” In his sources of inspiration, Marceau may eventually be seen as a kind of mute Elie Wiesel, a survivor who distrusted France’s wartime linguistic hypocrisy to the point of expressing his art silently.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.