Commentary Magazine


Topic: Andrew Ferguson

The South’s Past Haunts Barbour’s Candidacy

Haley Barbour may be among the smartest men in contemporary politics, as well as one of the most able governors in the country. But there’s no denying that his potential presidential candidacy has taken a hit as a result of his remarks about growing up in Yazoo City, Mississippi, and the role of the Citizens Councils in the racial strife of that era.

A profile of Barbour in the Weekly Standard by Andrew Ferguson quoted the governor as characterizing the segregated Mississippi of his youth in a rosy light. “I just don’t remember it as being that bad,” said Barbour, who also went on to describe the Citizens Councils as being the good guys who kept the Ku Klux Klan out of his hometown while neglecting to also note that they were the local enforcers of the racial status quo and the oppression of blacks. Yesterday, Barbour attempted to put out the fire with a clarification, admitting that the Citizens Councils were “totally indefensible, as is segregation. It was a difficult and painful era for Mississippi, the rest of the country and, especially, African-Americans who were persecuted in that time.”

But that wasn’t good enough for some of his critics, particularly the editorial page of the New York Times, which roasted Barbour in today’s edition for what they termed his recollection of a “hazy, dream-coated South” that shows he suffers “from the faulty memory all too common among those who stood on the sidelines during one of the greatest social upheavals in history.” The Times‘s goal here is not so much clarity about history but to draw a line in the sand about Barbour’s future as it declared that “his recent remarks on the period fit a well-established pattern of racial insensitivity that raises increasing doubts about his fitness for national office.”

Given that it was the Times and other liberal organs that were quick to make a meal of this brouhaha, many conservatives will reflexively defend Barbour. It is, after all, more than a little unfair to speak of the Mississippi governor as someone who “stood on the sidelines” of this battle, since he was merely a teenager during the drama of the early 1960s. No one has alleged that he has ever been guilty of an act of racism, either then or since. Indeed, the worst that the Times can say of him is that he once scolded an aide for making a racist remark with a joke about watermelons. And, as the perceptive Ferguson noted in his article, a big part of the problem is Barbour’s thick and “unapologetic” Southern drawl, which may be more than a bit off-putting for Northerners quick to make stereotypical generalizations about Southern whites while ignoring the racial past of their own region.

But as Barbour’s quick retreat from his Weekly Standard quotes indicates, this is not a problem that he can simply dismiss as liberal media bias. While Barbour may be innocent of any racism personally, denial of the truth about the essential ugliness of much of what some like to term the “heritage” of the South is unacceptable. As the nation celebrates the sesquicentennial of the Civil War over the next four years, the willingness of some to indulge in fantasies about the Confederacy is something that is bound to cause problems for Southern white Republicans, especially one who is thinking about running against the first African-American president of the United States. Read More

Haley Barbour may be among the smartest men in contemporary politics, as well as one of the most able governors in the country. But there’s no denying that his potential presidential candidacy has taken a hit as a result of his remarks about growing up in Yazoo City, Mississippi, and the role of the Citizens Councils in the racial strife of that era.

A profile of Barbour in the Weekly Standard by Andrew Ferguson quoted the governor as characterizing the segregated Mississippi of his youth in a rosy light. “I just don’t remember it as being that bad,” said Barbour, who also went on to describe the Citizens Councils as being the good guys who kept the Ku Klux Klan out of his hometown while neglecting to also note that they were the local enforcers of the racial status quo and the oppression of blacks. Yesterday, Barbour attempted to put out the fire with a clarification, admitting that the Citizens Councils were “totally indefensible, as is segregation. It was a difficult and painful era for Mississippi, the rest of the country and, especially, African-Americans who were persecuted in that time.”

But that wasn’t good enough for some of his critics, particularly the editorial page of the New York Times, which roasted Barbour in today’s edition for what they termed his recollection of a “hazy, dream-coated South” that shows he suffers “from the faulty memory all too common among those who stood on the sidelines during one of the greatest social upheavals in history.” The Times‘s goal here is not so much clarity about history but to draw a line in the sand about Barbour’s future as it declared that “his recent remarks on the period fit a well-established pattern of racial insensitivity that raises increasing doubts about his fitness for national office.”

Given that it was the Times and other liberal organs that were quick to make a meal of this brouhaha, many conservatives will reflexively defend Barbour. It is, after all, more than a little unfair to speak of the Mississippi governor as someone who “stood on the sidelines” of this battle, since he was merely a teenager during the drama of the early 1960s. No one has alleged that he has ever been guilty of an act of racism, either then or since. Indeed, the worst that the Times can say of him is that he once scolded an aide for making a racist remark with a joke about watermelons. And, as the perceptive Ferguson noted in his article, a big part of the problem is Barbour’s thick and “unapologetic” Southern drawl, which may be more than a bit off-putting for Northerners quick to make stereotypical generalizations about Southern whites while ignoring the racial past of their own region.

But as Barbour’s quick retreat from his Weekly Standard quotes indicates, this is not a problem that he can simply dismiss as liberal media bias. While Barbour may be innocent of any racism personally, denial of the truth about the essential ugliness of much of what some like to term the “heritage” of the South is unacceptable. As the nation celebrates the sesquicentennial of the Civil War over the next four years, the willingness of some to indulge in fantasies about the Confederacy is something that is bound to cause problems for Southern white Republicans, especially one who is thinking about running against the first African-American president of the United States.

Evidence of the possibilities for such problems was displayed on the Times‘s website this week with a troubling article about a “Secession Gala” held in Charleston, South Carolina, where 300 participants dressed up like extras from Gone With the Wind to celebrate the anniversary of that state’s decision to leave the Union in 1860. While the event and the NAACP-sponsored protest outside the party went off without violence, the comments from the secession celebrants — in which they claimed that the Civil War was not fought over slavery — reflected the fact that many in the South are still in denial about this epic moment in American history. Post–Civil War reconciliation between the regions was based on a willingness by both sides to acknowledge the bravery of the combatants, but surely enough time has passed since the fighting that Americans no longer have to pretend that the “lost cause” was a noble one in order to unify the nation.

Even if all of the above were not an issue, it is still far from clear that Barbour’s prodigious political skills can transform him into a serious presidential contender in 2012. But if Barbour is really determined to run, he is going to have to do more to dispel this negative perception than the sort of damage-control comments we heard from him this week.

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Article of the Week…

…is by COMMENTARY’s own Andrew Ferguson, in the new Weekly Standard. Entitled “The Roots of Lunacy,” this superb piece of political analysis and cultural takedown considers the way in which political hatred morphs over time, with particular emphasis on Dinesh D’Souza’s new bestseller, The Roots of Obama’s Rage. Andy’s point in the end is that looking for explanations for the origins of Obama’s politics is a ridiculous exercise since he is simply an “unchecked liberal” who is likely more moderate than a President Kerry or a President Edwards would have been. I don’t think that’s right; Obama’s unchecked liberalism is of an order different from the liberalism of anyone who might have served in his stead owing to the fact that it really is unchecked by any experience in political or ideological compromise of any sort. Edwards was a Democratic pol in a Southern state and had some sense at least of how to talk to people who don’t agree with him; Kerry served in the Senate for a very long time under Democratic and Republican majorities and at least had learned how to maneuver in a heterodox partisan atmosphere. None of that is true of Obama, whose inexperience both helped get him elected and now gives him absolutely no sense of how to handle the turnaround in the national mood or the disenchantment of the voters with him. Ideologically, he gives one the sense that the only conservative he’s ever talked to is David Brooks, and he views the plurality of the electorate that uses the word “conservative” to describe itself as a strange, distasteful foreign creature whose president he also, unfortunately, must be.

…is by COMMENTARY’s own Andrew Ferguson, in the new Weekly Standard. Entitled “The Roots of Lunacy,” this superb piece of political analysis and cultural takedown considers the way in which political hatred morphs over time, with particular emphasis on Dinesh D’Souza’s new bestseller, The Roots of Obama’s Rage. Andy’s point in the end is that looking for explanations for the origins of Obama’s politics is a ridiculous exercise since he is simply an “unchecked liberal” who is likely more moderate than a President Kerry or a President Edwards would have been. I don’t think that’s right; Obama’s unchecked liberalism is of an order different from the liberalism of anyone who might have served in his stead owing to the fact that it really is unchecked by any experience in political or ideological compromise of any sort. Edwards was a Democratic pol in a Southern state and had some sense at least of how to talk to people who don’t agree with him; Kerry served in the Senate for a very long time under Democratic and Republican majorities and at least had learned how to maneuver in a heterodox partisan atmosphere. None of that is true of Obama, whose inexperience both helped get him elected and now gives him absolutely no sense of how to handle the turnaround in the national mood or the disenchantment of the voters with him. Ideologically, he gives one the sense that the only conservative he’s ever talked to is David Brooks, and he views the plurality of the electorate that uses the word “conservative” to describe itself as a strange, distasteful foreign creature whose president he also, unfortunately, must be.

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Mitch Daniels Makes the Rounds

Mitch Daniels is clearly raising his profile and leaving the door open to a 2012 presidential run. COMMENTARY contributor Andrew Ferguson’s story is as comprehensive a piece on his views and persona as we have seen. Daniels is in Washington this week doing interviews and meeting with groups like the Business Roundtable. This morning, he met with a group of mostly conservative new-media and print journalists. He proved both impressive and problematic for conservatives seeking a favorite in the 2012 race.

On the positive side, he is plainly not Obama. He is precise, self-effacing, down to earth, and rooted in conservative philosophy. The first question was about education, and, out of the box, he acknowledged that education was “one of the shortcomings of our administration,” and although he has made limited progress, he wants to step up his efforts in the remainder of his term. He then went on to discuss the substantial reforms he has made with the help of a new superintendent (ending social promotion, insulating teachers from lawsuits if they enforce discipline, opening up credentials so people who have had other careers can get into the classrooms, etc.). What he conveyed was both candor and a big-picture view (“Public education has evolved into a situation . . . where it is set up as much for the benefit of the adults as for the kids.”)

He also explained his effort to tame public-employees’ unions, pointing out that teachers in his state are paid 22 percent more than the average worker and that he needed to bring the union to heel if “we were going to overhaul government.” By executive order, he ended mandatory union dues, and 90 percent of the employee chose not to pay. (“They gave themselves a 2 percent pay increase.”) But he is not anti-union by any means. He explained that the playing field should be level, and workers should have the choice to unionize. He said the right to join a union is “fundamental” and has “led to freedom in a lot of countries.”

He was at his best when discussing political theory and domestic policy. Asked what conservatives he looks to for guidance, he listed Hayek, Friedman, and Charles Murray. All of them, he explained, “are realistic and therefore modest in what government is capable of doing.” He continued that they evince “skepticism of bigness — in all its forms.” When I asked him what the principle errors of Obama and Congress had been, he began by pointing out that most of them “have not spent a day in a profit-making enterprise.” He explained that the choice between political parties is the clearest we’ve ever had. Conservatives believe, he said, that public service is a temporary job and that their duty is “to promote free enterprise, family, and other intermediary institutions.” Democrats believe the opposite, he said — that society will work better “if the ‘enlightened’” make the decisions.

He explained: “I’m concerned. I’m alarmed about the direction of the country.” Even apart from the theoretical argument, he observed that looking at entitlements and the debt, “Can we all agree the arithmetic doesn’t work?” But he said he is interested in the bigger philosophical questions: “What kind of people do we want to be?” Are we still capable of preserving liberty and independence?

About entitlements and the debt, he said he has faith that we can have a “grown-up” conversation. He then proceeded to have one. “Americans,” he asserted, “have a renewed sense of the menace of too much debt.” In their personal lives, with credit-card and mortgage debt, he notes that “they had a searing personal experience.” What to do about entitlements? “Paul Ryan is right — we need to bifurcate these programs.” He said that Democrats would have been best suited to do the hard work, given the negative rhetoric hurled at Republicans when they undertake entitlements control, but he said that is a “lost opportunity. Someone’s got to try.” He continued: “Why should we pay for Warren Buffet’s health care? Why should be pay Bill Gates a pension?” Like businesses that have phased out defined-benefit plans, he recommended that we have “a new plan and an old plan.” And he wasn’t shy about criticizing Republicans for grandstanding on Medicare cuts during the health-care debate.

He explained: “None of this will work if we don’t have a sustained period of growth.” Unfortunately, he said, “Everything they are doing as far as I can see leans against economic growth.” And he pointed to his own job-creation record. Indiana has 2 percent of the population and 7 percent of the new jobs. He has made sure “the next job comes to Indiana and not someplace else.”

He also showed a knack for political message. He questioned “what the hell” did “change you can believe in.” He suggested that the conservatives’ motto should be “Change that believes in you,” stressing that Americans are “fully capable” of running their own lives, buying their own health-care insurance, etc.

If Daniels makes a run in 2012 — although he said we should now focus on the “what” and figure out the “who” later — he may have trouble with both social conservatives and those favoring a vigorous foreign policy that projects American power and promotes our values. On social policy, John McCormack followed up on a point Daniels had made in the Weekly Standard story. Daniels had said we should declare a truce on social issues. McCormack asked whether that meant Daniels would stand down on opposing taxpayer-funded abortions and reversing the Mexico City policy on funding international institutions that provide abortion services. It was an easy moment to clarify and assert that you can’t simply concede the playing field to the opposition. Instead, Daniels reiterated his view that we should “set aside” these issues for a while to focus on our fiscal emergency. So do the pro-abortion forces win these issues? Not clear.

I asked him the sole question on foreign policy — in what fundamental ways Obama had erred? He did not address any of the basic concerns conservatives have been discussing (e.g., engagement with despots, indifference on human rights, animus toward Israel). Instead, he gave a platitude, “Peace through strength has totally been vindicated.” And then he immediately asserted that we have to “ask questions about the extent of our commitments.” He said, “If we go broke, no one will follow a pauper.” At least temporarily, he said, we can’t maintain all our commitments. But if our foes don’t take a break, what do we do? Should we pull up stakes in Iraq and Afghanistan and hack away at the defense budget? It’s not clear whether he has thought these issues through, or whether he views foreign policy as anything more than a cost-control issue.

Daniels is an impressive figure. If he wants to run for another office, however, he will have to stretch beyond his comfort zone and address the full gamut of issues that concern Republican primary voters. If he doesn’t want to or can’t do that, he’d make a heck of a Treasury Secretary.

Mitch Daniels is clearly raising his profile and leaving the door open to a 2012 presidential run. COMMENTARY contributor Andrew Ferguson’s story is as comprehensive a piece on his views and persona as we have seen. Daniels is in Washington this week doing interviews and meeting with groups like the Business Roundtable. This morning, he met with a group of mostly conservative new-media and print journalists. He proved both impressive and problematic for conservatives seeking a favorite in the 2012 race.

On the positive side, he is plainly not Obama. He is precise, self-effacing, down to earth, and rooted in conservative philosophy. The first question was about education, and, out of the box, he acknowledged that education was “one of the shortcomings of our administration,” and although he has made limited progress, he wants to step up his efforts in the remainder of his term. He then went on to discuss the substantial reforms he has made with the help of a new superintendent (ending social promotion, insulating teachers from lawsuits if they enforce discipline, opening up credentials so people who have had other careers can get into the classrooms, etc.). What he conveyed was both candor and a big-picture view (“Public education has evolved into a situation . . . where it is set up as much for the benefit of the adults as for the kids.”)

He also explained his effort to tame public-employees’ unions, pointing out that teachers in his state are paid 22 percent more than the average worker and that he needed to bring the union to heel if “we were going to overhaul government.” By executive order, he ended mandatory union dues, and 90 percent of the employee chose not to pay. (“They gave themselves a 2 percent pay increase.”) But he is not anti-union by any means. He explained that the playing field should be level, and workers should have the choice to unionize. He said the right to join a union is “fundamental” and has “led to freedom in a lot of countries.”

He was at his best when discussing political theory and domestic policy. Asked what conservatives he looks to for guidance, he listed Hayek, Friedman, and Charles Murray. All of them, he explained, “are realistic and therefore modest in what government is capable of doing.” He continued that they evince “skepticism of bigness — in all its forms.” When I asked him what the principle errors of Obama and Congress had been, he began by pointing out that most of them “have not spent a day in a profit-making enterprise.” He explained that the choice between political parties is the clearest we’ve ever had. Conservatives believe, he said, that public service is a temporary job and that their duty is “to promote free enterprise, family, and other intermediary institutions.” Democrats believe the opposite, he said — that society will work better “if the ‘enlightened’” make the decisions.

He explained: “I’m concerned. I’m alarmed about the direction of the country.” Even apart from the theoretical argument, he observed that looking at entitlements and the debt, “Can we all agree the arithmetic doesn’t work?” But he said he is interested in the bigger philosophical questions: “What kind of people do we want to be?” Are we still capable of preserving liberty and independence?

About entitlements and the debt, he said he has faith that we can have a “grown-up” conversation. He then proceeded to have one. “Americans,” he asserted, “have a renewed sense of the menace of too much debt.” In their personal lives, with credit-card and mortgage debt, he notes that “they had a searing personal experience.” What to do about entitlements? “Paul Ryan is right — we need to bifurcate these programs.” He said that Democrats would have been best suited to do the hard work, given the negative rhetoric hurled at Republicans when they undertake entitlements control, but he said that is a “lost opportunity. Someone’s got to try.” He continued: “Why should we pay for Warren Buffet’s health care? Why should be pay Bill Gates a pension?” Like businesses that have phased out defined-benefit plans, he recommended that we have “a new plan and an old plan.” And he wasn’t shy about criticizing Republicans for grandstanding on Medicare cuts during the health-care debate.

He explained: “None of this will work if we don’t have a sustained period of growth.” Unfortunately, he said, “Everything they are doing as far as I can see leans against economic growth.” And he pointed to his own job-creation record. Indiana has 2 percent of the population and 7 percent of the new jobs. He has made sure “the next job comes to Indiana and not someplace else.”

He also showed a knack for political message. He questioned “what the hell” did “change you can believe in.” He suggested that the conservatives’ motto should be “Change that believes in you,” stressing that Americans are “fully capable” of running their own lives, buying their own health-care insurance, etc.

If Daniels makes a run in 2012 — although he said we should now focus on the “what” and figure out the “who” later — he may have trouble with both social conservatives and those favoring a vigorous foreign policy that projects American power and promotes our values. On social policy, John McCormack followed up on a point Daniels had made in the Weekly Standard story. Daniels had said we should declare a truce on social issues. McCormack asked whether that meant Daniels would stand down on opposing taxpayer-funded abortions and reversing the Mexico City policy on funding international institutions that provide abortion services. It was an easy moment to clarify and assert that you can’t simply concede the playing field to the opposition. Instead, Daniels reiterated his view that we should “set aside” these issues for a while to focus on our fiscal emergency. So do the pro-abortion forces win these issues? Not clear.

I asked him the sole question on foreign policy — in what fundamental ways Obama had erred? He did not address any of the basic concerns conservatives have been discussing (e.g., engagement with despots, indifference on human rights, animus toward Israel). Instead, he gave a platitude, “Peace through strength has totally been vindicated.” And then he immediately asserted that we have to “ask questions about the extent of our commitments.” He said, “If we go broke, no one will follow a pauper.” At least temporarily, he said, we can’t maintain all our commitments. But if our foes don’t take a break, what do we do? Should we pull up stakes in Iraq and Afghanistan and hack away at the defense budget? It’s not clear whether he has thought these issues through, or whether he views foreign policy as anything more than a cost-control issue.

Daniels is an impressive figure. If he wants to run for another office, however, he will have to stretch beyond his comfort zone and address the full gamut of issues that concern Republican primary voters. If he doesn’t want to or can’t do that, he’d make a heck of a Treasury Secretary.

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The Speech and the Policy

Last week, I wrote that the December 1 speech and the decision it would announce were going to give us “some sense of whether Obama is finally surrendering to the logic of the presidency, in which you have to deal with the world as it is and make policy out of the materials at hand rather than wishing bad stuff away. If he does so, he will announce his acceptance of the McChrystal plan, and he will take a giant step toward filling the Oval Office in the way it needs to be filled.”

Whatever the flaws in the speech itself — and they were considerable — Obama’s announcement and the details of the plan together represent a landmark moment. After spending a few months desperately looking for another choice, a third choice, a cute choice, Obama did in fact surrender to the logic of the presidency. Having called the conflict in Afghanistan a “war of necessity,” he has committed the nation to it, and himself to it. Even his words about troop withdrawal in 2011 suggest the seriousness of that commitment, since he only mentioned beginning the withdrawals and conditioned even that on the facts on the ground at the time. As Andrew Ferguson writes,

Obama is the first Democratic president in forty years to call for a significant deployment of American troops in the national security interest of his country. This is very big news. His predecessor, President Clinton, could give a stirring address dispatching bombers over Bosnia and be confident of the support of his fellow Democrats, because the show of power was purely humanitarian and had nothing to do with keeping us safe from our enemies. With great courage, Obama is trying something that hasn’t been tried within the living memory of most of the members of his party.

I think Andy Ferguson is right about Obama’s courage. He is clearly acting against his own gut instincts and those within the ideological tendency that is his natural and longtime home, and that does take courage. Indeed, that is what accounts for the unsatisfying quality of the speech he delivered. He was trying to find language with which he could make his decision explicable to people like him — indeed, perhaps even to an alternate-universe Barack Obama who hadn’t won the presidency and would almost certainly have viewed the notion of committing more troops to Afghanistan in a Bush-like “surge” an awful proposition. That mollification isn’t really possible, and so the speech didn’t work as a matter of rhetoric or suasion.

But that is a missed opportunity for him. It doesn’t really matter. It’s the policy that matters.

Last week, I wrote that the December 1 speech and the decision it would announce were going to give us “some sense of whether Obama is finally surrendering to the logic of the presidency, in which you have to deal with the world as it is and make policy out of the materials at hand rather than wishing bad stuff away. If he does so, he will announce his acceptance of the McChrystal plan, and he will take a giant step toward filling the Oval Office in the way it needs to be filled.”

Whatever the flaws in the speech itself — and they were considerable — Obama’s announcement and the details of the plan together represent a landmark moment. After spending a few months desperately looking for another choice, a third choice, a cute choice, Obama did in fact surrender to the logic of the presidency. Having called the conflict in Afghanistan a “war of necessity,” he has committed the nation to it, and himself to it. Even his words about troop withdrawal in 2011 suggest the seriousness of that commitment, since he only mentioned beginning the withdrawals and conditioned even that on the facts on the ground at the time. As Andrew Ferguson writes,

Obama is the first Democratic president in forty years to call for a significant deployment of American troops in the national security interest of his country. This is very big news. His predecessor, President Clinton, could give a stirring address dispatching bombers over Bosnia and be confident of the support of his fellow Democrats, because the show of power was purely humanitarian and had nothing to do with keeping us safe from our enemies. With great courage, Obama is trying something that hasn’t been tried within the living memory of most of the members of his party.

I think Andy Ferguson is right about Obama’s courage. He is clearly acting against his own gut instincts and those within the ideological tendency that is his natural and longtime home, and that does take courage. Indeed, that is what accounts for the unsatisfying quality of the speech he delivered. He was trying to find language with which he could make his decision explicable to people like him — indeed, perhaps even to an alternate-universe Barack Obama who hadn’t won the presidency and would almost certainly have viewed the notion of committing more troops to Afghanistan in a Bush-like “surge” an awful proposition. That mollification isn’t really possible, and so the speech didn’t work as a matter of rhetoric or suasion.

But that is a missed opportunity for him. It doesn’t really matter. It’s the policy that matters.

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Puncturing the Obama Balloon

Today, in the Weekly Standard, Andrew Ferguson has produced one of the landmark pieces of political portraiture of our time. It’s called “The Wit and Wisdom of Barack Obama,” and it is so rich in detail about the sources of Obama’s rhetoric and the fanciful nature of those who believe he is offering anything genuinely new. Ferguson is one of the best writers in America, and this may be the best article he has ever written. Just one taste for you:

He lives in an era when the public memory has shrunk to a length of days or weeks. Especially in American politics, policed by a posse of commentators and reporters who crave novelty above all, the past is a blank; every day is Groundhog Day, bringing shocking discoveries of things that have happened over and over again. No politician has benefited from this amnesia as much as Obama. He is credited with revelatory eloquence for using phrases that have been in circulation for years. “Politics is broken,” he says in his stump speech, and his audience of starry-eyed college students swoons and the thirtysomething reporters jot excitedly in their notebooks. The rest of us are left to wonder if he’s tipping his hat to Bill Bradley, who left the Senate in 1996 because, Bradley said, “politics is broken,” or if he’s stealing from George W. Bush, who announced in his own stump speech in 2000 that “politics is broken.” Obama could be flattering us or snowing us.

There’s so, so much more. Read the whole thing. Twice.

Today, in the Weekly Standard, Andrew Ferguson has produced one of the landmark pieces of political portraiture of our time. It’s called “The Wit and Wisdom of Barack Obama,” and it is so rich in detail about the sources of Obama’s rhetoric and the fanciful nature of those who believe he is offering anything genuinely new. Ferguson is one of the best writers in America, and this may be the best article he has ever written. Just one taste for you:

He lives in an era when the public memory has shrunk to a length of days or weeks. Especially in American politics, policed by a posse of commentators and reporters who crave novelty above all, the past is a blank; every day is Groundhog Day, bringing shocking discoveries of things that have happened over and over again. No politician has benefited from this amnesia as much as Obama. He is credited with revelatory eloquence for using phrases that have been in circulation for years. “Politics is broken,” he says in his stump speech, and his audience of starry-eyed college students swoons and the thirtysomething reporters jot excitedly in their notebooks. The rest of us are left to wonder if he’s tipping his hat to Bill Bradley, who left the Senate in 1996 because, Bradley said, “politics is broken,” or if he’s stealing from George W. Bush, who announced in his own stump speech in 2000 that “politics is broken.” Obama could be flattering us or snowing us.

There’s so, so much more. Read the whole thing. Twice.

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Missing Fred Thompson

Now that he is out of the race, and not that anybody ever asked me, I will disclose that I was always a Fred Thompson guy. I liked his political positions, but most of all I liked the way he went about campaigning. Thompson was manly, smart, self-effacing, quick with a good line, and refused the embarrassing, self-promotional boy-bandism that, as his failure probably proved, is today a required affectation of presidential politics.

Andrew Ferguson has a remembrance of all of this in the Weekly Standard that is an absolutely lovely piece of journalism:

The traditional restraint of old-time presidential candidates wasn’t arrogance or sanctimoniousness, the twin accusations that wised-up politicos made against Thompson during the campaign. There was a philosophical component to it too: By not seeming overeager–no matter how eager they were–candidates paid tribute to the democratic idea that political power is best sought, taken on, and used reluctantly. It was also a matter of seemliness, and Thompson, alone among recent candidates, felt its pull. In his stump speech he often mentioned George Washington, once a staple of political rhetoric for his willingness to walk away from the power that was thrust upon him. Today Washington’s restraint seems nothing more than an archaism. And by extolling it Thompson sounded merely odd.

“If people really want in their president a super type-A personality,” Thompson said at that Iowa town hall meeting, “someone who has gotten up every morning and gone to bed every night thinking for years about how they could achieve the presidency of the United States, someone who could look you straight in the eye and say they enjoy every minute of campaigning–I ain’t that guy.”

That’s why so many of us liked him.

Now that he is out of the race, and not that anybody ever asked me, I will disclose that I was always a Fred Thompson guy. I liked his political positions, but most of all I liked the way he went about campaigning. Thompson was manly, smart, self-effacing, quick with a good line, and refused the embarrassing, self-promotional boy-bandism that, as his failure probably proved, is today a required affectation of presidential politics.

Andrew Ferguson has a remembrance of all of this in the Weekly Standard that is an absolutely lovely piece of journalism:

The traditional restraint of old-time presidential candidates wasn’t arrogance or sanctimoniousness, the twin accusations that wised-up politicos made against Thompson during the campaign. There was a philosophical component to it too: By not seeming overeager–no matter how eager they were–candidates paid tribute to the democratic idea that political power is best sought, taken on, and used reluctantly. It was also a matter of seemliness, and Thompson, alone among recent candidates, felt its pull. In his stump speech he often mentioned George Washington, once a staple of political rhetoric for his willingness to walk away from the power that was thrust upon him. Today Washington’s restraint seems nothing more than an archaism. And by extolling it Thompson sounded merely odd.

“If people really want in their president a super type-A personality,” Thompson said at that Iowa town hall meeting, “someone who has gotten up every morning and gone to bed every night thinking for years about how they could achieve the presidency of the United States, someone who could look you straight in the eye and say they enjoy every minute of campaigning–I ain’t that guy.”

That’s why so many of us liked him.

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Bookshelf: The Best of 2007

I’ve been reviewing books in this space for the past year, and instead of telling you about a new one this week, I thought I’d remind you of five of the ones I enjoyed most in 2007:

• Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as Stage (HarperCollins, 208 pp., $19.95) is the best short book about Shakespeare that I know. Instead of writing about the plays, Bryson has chosen instead to concentrate on summarizing the known facts of Shakespeare’s life—of which there are precious few—and presenting them in a lively, literate manner.

• Joseph Epstein’s In a Cardboard Belt! (Houghton Mifflin, 410 pp., $26) will doubtless be self-recommending to regular readers of COMMENTARY and the Weekly Standard. It contains a wide-ranging selection of the familiar and literary essays that Epstein has published there and elsewhere in recent years, and like all his other books, it’s chatty, thoughtful and so irresistibly readable that the wise man will take care not to pick it up unless he has a free evening ahead of him.

• Andrew Ferguson’s Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America (Atlantic Monthly Press, 279 pp., $24) is a witty semi-memoir in which the author of Fools’ Names, Fools’ Faces tells us what it’s like to visit Lincoln-related sites and events throughout America. His adventures and misadventures among the Lincoln-lovers and Abe-haters are hugely amusing, but don’t let the one-liners throw you off the scent: Land of Lincoln is a deeply thoughtful consideration of Abraham Lincoln’s increasingly problematic place in postmodern American culture.

• Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts (W.W. Norton, 876 pp., $35) is a near-indescribable book whose virtues, like those of Land of Lincoln, are partially obscured by the fact that it’s so hard to pigeonhole. The best I can do is to quote myself:

[I]t’s a fat volume of short essays about a hundred or so people, most of them twentieth-century artists and writers of various kinds. Each essay is a commentary on a well-chosen quotation from its subject, and the essays are arranged alphabetically. The overarching theme of the book is the fate of humanism in what James describes as “an age of extermination, an epoch of the abattoir,” meaning that many of its subjects either ran afoul of Hitler and Stalin or sucked up to them.

Rarely has so gloomy a subject been written about with such infectious gusto. Don’t expect James to toe the right-of-center line, but the hard common sense with which he weighs the intellectual follies of the Low, Dishonest Century is arguably even more refreshing to hear from a littérateur of the center-left.

• Roger Scruton’s Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged (Encounter, 118 pp., $20) is an extended essay in which the noted philosopher makes the case for the primacy of Western culture at a moment when much of the West is experiencing “an acute crisis of identity” triggered by the twin challenges of radical Islam and the multicultural project. It is short, pointed, lucid, compelling and disturbing. Think of it as a stocking-stuffer for pessimists and you won’t be far wrong.

See you in 2008!

I’ve been reviewing books in this space for the past year, and instead of telling you about a new one this week, I thought I’d remind you of five of the ones I enjoyed most in 2007:

• Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as Stage (HarperCollins, 208 pp., $19.95) is the best short book about Shakespeare that I know. Instead of writing about the plays, Bryson has chosen instead to concentrate on summarizing the known facts of Shakespeare’s life—of which there are precious few—and presenting them in a lively, literate manner.

• Joseph Epstein’s In a Cardboard Belt! (Houghton Mifflin, 410 pp., $26) will doubtless be self-recommending to regular readers of COMMENTARY and the Weekly Standard. It contains a wide-ranging selection of the familiar and literary essays that Epstein has published there and elsewhere in recent years, and like all his other books, it’s chatty, thoughtful and so irresistibly readable that the wise man will take care not to pick it up unless he has a free evening ahead of him.

• Andrew Ferguson’s Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America (Atlantic Monthly Press, 279 pp., $24) is a witty semi-memoir in which the author of Fools’ Names, Fools’ Faces tells us what it’s like to visit Lincoln-related sites and events throughout America. His adventures and misadventures among the Lincoln-lovers and Abe-haters are hugely amusing, but don’t let the one-liners throw you off the scent: Land of Lincoln is a deeply thoughtful consideration of Abraham Lincoln’s increasingly problematic place in postmodern American culture.

• Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts (W.W. Norton, 876 pp., $35) is a near-indescribable book whose virtues, like those of Land of Lincoln, are partially obscured by the fact that it’s so hard to pigeonhole. The best I can do is to quote myself:

[I]t’s a fat volume of short essays about a hundred or so people, most of them twentieth-century artists and writers of various kinds. Each essay is a commentary on a well-chosen quotation from its subject, and the essays are arranged alphabetically. The overarching theme of the book is the fate of humanism in what James describes as “an age of extermination, an epoch of the abattoir,” meaning that many of its subjects either ran afoul of Hitler and Stalin or sucked up to them.

Rarely has so gloomy a subject been written about with such infectious gusto. Don’t expect James to toe the right-of-center line, but the hard common sense with which he weighs the intellectual follies of the Low, Dishonest Century is arguably even more refreshing to hear from a littérateur of the center-left.

• Roger Scruton’s Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged (Encounter, 118 pp., $20) is an extended essay in which the noted philosopher makes the case for the primacy of Western culture at a moment when much of the West is experiencing “an acute crisis of identity” triggered by the twin challenges of radical Islam and the multicultural project. It is short, pointed, lucid, compelling and disturbing. Think of it as a stocking-stuffer for pessimists and you won’t be far wrong.

See you in 2008!

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Bookshelf

• Back when I was flogging my H.L. Mencken biography on the book-tour circuit, people were always asking me if I thought there were any contemporary writers who were comparable in quality to Mencken, and I always gave the same answer: Tom Wolfe and Andrew Ferguson. Wolfe can take care of himself, but if I were to awake tomorrow morning and find myself in charge of a great big foundation, the first thing I’d do would be to award a great big grant to Ferguson so that he could quit his day job and do nothing but write books like Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America (Atlantic Monthly Press, 279 pp., $24). He is that rarest of birds, a writer who is at one and the same time very funny and very serious. Alas, he labors in the time-gobbling vineyards of weekly journalism, and his only previous book, Fools’ Names, Fools’ Faces (1996), was a collection of his wonderful magazine essays. Now he’s followed up that debut with a full-fledged book, and it is, not at all surprisingly, even better.

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• Back when I was flogging my H.L. Mencken biography on the book-tour circuit, people were always asking me if I thought there were any contemporary writers who were comparable in quality to Mencken, and I always gave the same answer: Tom Wolfe and Andrew Ferguson. Wolfe can take care of himself, but if I were to awake tomorrow morning and find myself in charge of a great big foundation, the first thing I’d do would be to award a great big grant to Ferguson so that he could quit his day job and do nothing but write books like Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America (Atlantic Monthly Press, 279 pp., $24). He is that rarest of birds, a writer who is at one and the same time very funny and very serious. Alas, he labors in the time-gobbling vineyards of weekly journalism, and his only previous book, Fools’ Names, Fools’ Faces (1996), was a collection of his wonderful magazine essays. Now he’s followed up that debut with a full-fledged book, and it is, not at all surprisingly, even better.

Land of Lincoln is not a biography of Abraham Lincoln, or a scholarly monograph on some aspect or other of Lincoln’s life and thought. It is, rather, a kind of intellectual travel book, an account of Ferguson’s visits to Lincoln-related sites and events across America, in the course of which he meets a wildly diverse assortment of Lincoln-lovers and Abe-haters, most of them eccentric in degrees varying from mildly aberrant to near-pathological. (Did you know that there’s an annual convention of Lincoln impersonators?) Everything he sees and everyone he encounters along the way is described with an engaging combination of dry, sly wit and what can only be described as empathy, for Ferguson is himself a recovering Lincoln buff who spent much of his Illinois childhood in the grip of a historical obsession:

I cleared my schedule—not so hard to do when you’re ten—whenever Abe Lincoln in Illinois or Young Mr. Lincoln was to show up on TV. My favorite book was a photographic album as thick and heavy as a plank of oak, called Lincoln in Every Known Pose. . . . Photographs of Lincoln hung on the walls of my bedroom. Sometimes at night, wakened by a bad dream, I’d rise from my bed and go to my desk and pull from the center drawer a sheaf of papers written in Lincoln’s own hand. I’d bought a packet of these yellowed, crinkly reproductions, reeking of the rust-colored dye that was meant to make them look antique, at a cavernous gift shop near his birthplace. The words carried the force of an incantation—entrancing, if not, to me, thoroughly comprehensible.

As always with Ferguson, his purpose in introducing us to the shadowland of Lincoln buffery is to make a deeply serious point about postmodern American life:

Lincoln hasn’t been forgotten, but he’s shrunk. From the enormous figure of the past he’s been reduced to a hobbyist’s eccentricity, a charming obsession shared by a self-selected subculture, like quilting or Irish step dancing. He has been detached from the national patrimony, if we can be said to have a national patrimony any longer. He is no longer a common possession. That earlier Lincoln, that large Lincoln, seems to be slipping away, a misty figure, incapable of rousing a reaction from anyone but buffs.

This is a very powerful theme, and though Ferguson states and varies it with the lightest of touches in Land of Lincoln, you are never in doubt of his underlying purpose. He visits Springfield’s Disney-style Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and captures its cheery essence in a single devastating sentence: “Cute and chilling and sad and chipper—and fun!—and never, not for a moment, more realistic than an animated movie.” He attends a workshop for businessmen who long to learn how to run their corporations along Lincolnian lines and imagines how the Gettysburg Address might have been reconceived as a PowerPoint presentation (“Key Proposition: Everybody Equal”). It’s all laughable, but the joke, we know, is on us, and on America as well.

“I’m just a journalist, not a scholar,” Ferguson says at book’s end. True enough, but journalism like Land of Lincoln beats most scholarship hollow. John Coltrane once said of Stan Getz, “We’d all play like that . . . if we could.” I wish I could write like Andrew Ferguson, but at least I can read him, as can you. Do so.

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