Commentary Magazine


Topic: Franklin Roosevelt

What Do Obama’s Critics Want From Him?

The reporting on President Obama’s foreign-policy address at West Point yesterday closely resembles the reporting that previewed the speech–a strong indication that the president didn’t make much of a point. Even the New York Times noticed the occasional “straw-man argument” on which Obama’s main themes rested. Listening to his critics, the Times reports, the president “grows deeply frustrated.”

So do the president’s defenders. There are far fewer of them in the wake of this speech, as the president didn’t really say much at all even though the address was billed as a way to clear things up a bit. Thus Fred Kaplan both gets the speech exactly right and the reaction to it perfectly wrong when he writes: “President Obama’s speech at West Point on Wednesday morning could be called a tribute to common sense, except that the sense it made is so uncommon.”

In fact, the criticism of the speech was really the opposite: everyone knows that, as Kaplan says, “not every problem has a military solution.” The chief complaint about Obama is that he refuses to engage intellectually with his critics; he merely creates straw men–such as those who think every problem has a military solution–and then strikes them down. He’s only ever arguing with himself. But Kaplan does highlight the reason the president felt goaded into making his speech in the first place: he wonders just what his critics want from him.

The answer is that they want a coherent vision with explanatory power, not truisms about the hell of war. The problem for Obama and his defenders like Kaplan is that, as David Frum notes, the president’s foreign policy isn’t chalking up much of a success rate. So contemptuous hand-waving about “common sense” doesn’t say much for the president: if he’s guided by such obviously sensible instincts, why is American policy so ineffectual? Here’s Frum (ellipses in the original):

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The reporting on President Obama’s foreign-policy address at West Point yesterday closely resembles the reporting that previewed the speech–a strong indication that the president didn’t make much of a point. Even the New York Times noticed the occasional “straw-man argument” on which Obama’s main themes rested. Listening to his critics, the Times reports, the president “grows deeply frustrated.”

So do the president’s defenders. There are far fewer of them in the wake of this speech, as the president didn’t really say much at all even though the address was billed as a way to clear things up a bit. Thus Fred Kaplan both gets the speech exactly right and the reaction to it perfectly wrong when he writes: “President Obama’s speech at West Point on Wednesday morning could be called a tribute to common sense, except that the sense it made is so uncommon.”

In fact, the criticism of the speech was really the opposite: everyone knows that, as Kaplan says, “not every problem has a military solution.” The chief complaint about Obama is that he refuses to engage intellectually with his critics; he merely creates straw men–such as those who think every problem has a military solution–and then strikes them down. He’s only ever arguing with himself. But Kaplan does highlight the reason the president felt goaded into making his speech in the first place: he wonders just what his critics want from him.

The answer is that they want a coherent vision with explanatory power, not truisms about the hell of war. The problem for Obama and his defenders like Kaplan is that, as David Frum notes, the president’s foreign policy isn’t chalking up much of a success rate. So contemptuous hand-waving about “common sense” doesn’t say much for the president: if he’s guided by such obviously sensible instincts, why is American policy so ineffectual? Here’s Frum (ellipses in the original):

If Obama had met his stated goals in Afghanistan … if the Russia “reset” had worked … if Iran talks were indeed producing nuclear disarmament … if the president’s “red line” in Syria was not being crossed and recrossed like center-ice in an exciting hockey game … if his Libyan intervention had not resulted in Libya becoming a more violent and unstable place … if his administration had sustained the progress toward peace in Iraq achieved during George W. Bush’s second term—if all this had been the case, the president would have been content to simply present his impressive record. But it is not the case.

Obama missing his own stated goals is not the fault of hawks to his right or humanitarian interventionists to his left. He is not the victim here. He’s right about American leadership. But that has been true since the end of World War II, and often American leadership has been extraordinarily successful. It has not been while under Obama’s stewardship.

In his new book on the transfer of Western leadership from Britain to the U.S. after World War II, Aiyaz Husain, a historian at the State Department, highlights the role that each leader’s “mental maps” played in the development of the postwar order. Husain writes of the British perspective, which was that of an empire slowly losing its hold on distant lands and thus keen to protect important footholds in each area through what Husain calls “regionalism.” In contrast, the American conception of the world was quite different, consisting of “globalism” and the integration of a stable world system:

The geographic assumptions in this globalism came to shape postwar American grand strategy. As James Lay, the executive secretary of the National Security Council wrote in 1952 in the pages of World Affairs, the administration had realized early on that “policies developed for the security of the United States have far-reaching impact throughout the world. Likewise, events throughout the world affect our national security. Policies, therefore, can no longer be decided solely within geographical limitations.”

When the British sought to make revisions to a plan for the postwar order that would have protected some of their waning influence, FDR sternly and impatiently responded that they “smacked too much [of] ‘spheres of influence’ policies, the very thing which it was supposedly designed to prevent.” The American perspective, carried out by the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, was a coherent and prescient view of the emerging interconnected world with American leadership at the helm.

The concern by some of our allies around the world today is that America, under Obama, is acting more like postwar Britain than FDR and Truman’s United States. They wonder if we’re ceding influence while trying to mask retreat in token diplomatic gestures and occasional displays of interest or strength intended to keep a foothold, but no more than a foothold, in regions too important to leave behind but too chaotic to defend with press releases.

America does not have imperial properties around the globe as Britain did, of course. At the same time, there is no other United States to step into the vacuum and protect a globalism that could easily give way to regionalism. And painting those who want to know if America can still be counted on as warmongers is not going to reassure anyone.

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The Estate Tax

The tax bill that passed the House last night and headed to the president’s desk (he’ll sign it this afternoon, apparently) raises the estate tax to 35 percent on estates over $5 million ($10 million for couples), from zero percent this year. Had nothing been done, however, it would have reverted to what it had been in 2000: 55 percent on estates over $1 million.

The estate tax goes all the way back to 1797, when Congress passed a stamp tax on wills to help finance the new American Navy. It was repealed in 1801. The Civil War and Spanish American War also saw estate taxes that were soon repealed when the wars were over. But the modern estate tax was not enacted as a revenue-raising measure so much as a social engineering one. Theodore Roosevelt was the first major politician to call for an estate tax to prevent the accumulation of great fortunes from one generation to the next. In 1906, he wrote:

As a matter of personal conviction, and without pretending to discuss the details or formulate the system, I feel that we shall ultimately have to consider the adoption of some such scheme as that of a progressive tax on all fortunes, beyond a certain amount, either given in life or devised or bequeathed upon death to any individual — a tax so framed as to put it out of the power of the owner of one of these enormous fortunes to hand on more than a certain amount to any one individual; the tax of course, to be imposed by the national and not the state government.

The colossal fortunes created by the industrialization of the country in the post–Civil War era caused many to worry about the development of a plutocracy, a few families with so much money, and thus power, that they could dictate policy. In 1916, the modern estate tax was passed. It called for a 1 percent tax on estates over $50,000 and going up to 10 percent on estates over $5 million (a very large fortune indeed in 1916). The tax was raised the next year, lowered but not eliminated in the 1920s, and then raised sky-high by Franklin Roosevelt, peaking at 71 percent for estates over $50 million in 1941. FDR made no bones about his reasons: “The transmission from generation to generation of vast fortunes by will, inheritance or gift is not consistent with the ideals and sentiments of the American people.” FDR, it turns out, was wrong. Read More

The tax bill that passed the House last night and headed to the president’s desk (he’ll sign it this afternoon, apparently) raises the estate tax to 35 percent on estates over $5 million ($10 million for couples), from zero percent this year. Had nothing been done, however, it would have reverted to what it had been in 2000: 55 percent on estates over $1 million.

The estate tax goes all the way back to 1797, when Congress passed a stamp tax on wills to help finance the new American Navy. It was repealed in 1801. The Civil War and Spanish American War also saw estate taxes that were soon repealed when the wars were over. But the modern estate tax was not enacted as a revenue-raising measure so much as a social engineering one. Theodore Roosevelt was the first major politician to call for an estate tax to prevent the accumulation of great fortunes from one generation to the next. In 1906, he wrote:

As a matter of personal conviction, and without pretending to discuss the details or formulate the system, I feel that we shall ultimately have to consider the adoption of some such scheme as that of a progressive tax on all fortunes, beyond a certain amount, either given in life or devised or bequeathed upon death to any individual — a tax so framed as to put it out of the power of the owner of one of these enormous fortunes to hand on more than a certain amount to any one individual; the tax of course, to be imposed by the national and not the state government.

The colossal fortunes created by the industrialization of the country in the post–Civil War era caused many to worry about the development of a plutocracy, a few families with so much money, and thus power, that they could dictate policy. In 1916, the modern estate tax was passed. It called for a 1 percent tax on estates over $50,000 and going up to 10 percent on estates over $5 million (a very large fortune indeed in 1916). The tax was raised the next year, lowered but not eliminated in the 1920s, and then raised sky-high by Franklin Roosevelt, peaking at 71 percent for estates over $50 million in 1941. FDR made no bones about his reasons: “The transmission from generation to generation of vast fortunes by will, inheritance or gift is not consistent with the ideals and sentiments of the American people.” FDR, it turns out, was wrong.

In the post–World War II era, the estate tax had little to do with revenues, never providing more than 2 percent of total federal income. Nor was it about plutocracy prevention. As I pointed out in a recent article in Philanthropy magazine, unlike European fortunes, American ones just don’t last, thanks to the tradition of dividing them among many heirs, new and larger fortunes being created in each generation, and the grand American tradition of the American rich making massive eleemosynary bequests. Of all names associated with the great fortunes of the Gilded Age, only Rockefeller, Mellon, and Hearst are to be found on the Forbes 400 list today. A considerable majority of the current list created their own fortunes.

Today only the liberal elite still subscribes to the idea of estate taxes. As William McGurn pointed out in the Wall Street Journal the other day, the American dream of getting rich and passing that wealth on to one’s children is very much alive and well. In the 1972 campaign, George McGovern called for a tax of 100 percent on estates over $500,000. The socialist Michael Harrington said to a friend who had been campaigning for McGovern in New York’s garment district that he must have had an easy time selling the idea to the poorly paid workers there:

The friend informed Harrington how wrong he was: “Those underpaid women … were outraged that the government would confiscate the money they would hand down to their children if they made a million dollars.” No matter how he tried to tell these garment workers how unlikely they ever were to see a million dollars in their lifetimes, they couldn’t get past the idea that the government would take it from them if they did.

The liberal elite has been agonizing over the zero-percent estate tax rate this year, as most recently manifested in Bernie Sanders’s socialist cri de coeur in the Senate. But while the estate tax was zero in 2010 (Good timing, George Steinbrenner and John Kluge!), the capital-gains tax applied. Most great fortunes consist of unrealized capital gains, but after the estate tax is paid, the heirs’ cost basis for the stock they inherit is bumped up to the date of death. Not in 2010, when it remained at the decedent’s cost basis, which is often virtually zero. That strikes me as the only estate tax we should have in a country where even the poorest can dream of one day being rich.

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Kissinger and the Moral Bankruptcy of Détente

The tapes from conversations recorded in the Oval Office during the presidency of Richard Nixon have provided historians with a treasure trove of material giving insight into the character of one of the most reviled figures in American political history. But the latest transcripts released by the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum have also put the reputation of the one figure that had emerged from that administration with his character unsullied by Watergate into question: former secretary of state Henry Kissinger.

On March 1, 1973, Nixon and Kissinger, then the national security adviser, met with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. She thanked the president for his support for her nation and implored him to speak out for the right of the captive Jewish population of the Soviet Union to emigrate. After she left, the tapes document the way the two men deprecated her request:

“The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” Mr. Kissinger said. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”

“I know,” Nixon responded. “We can’t blow up the world because of it.”

While both Nixon and Kissinger were known to be largely indifferent to the fate of Soviet Jewry or any other factor that might complicate their quest to achieve détente with Moscow, the callousness of Kissinger’s remarks is breathtaking.

The tapes are filled with Nixonian imprecations, including many anti-Semitic remarks that are often, and not without reason, put into perspective by those who note that the president did not allow his personal prejudice to stop him from supporting Israel during the Yom Kippur War. But if Nixon’s hate speech is old news, Kissinger’s blithe indifference to the possibility of a Communist Holocaust is something distressingly new.

There are two issues here that must be addressed. The first is the question of a wrong-headed policy and the attitudes that sustained it. The second is one of how a Jew, or any individual for that matter, should regard human-rights catastrophes up to and including the possibility of mass murder.

As for the first question, this exchange neatly summarized the general indifference to the fate of Soviet Jewry that was felt by much of the foreign-policy and political establishment at that time. Nixon and Kissinger’s joint concern was fostering détente with the Soviet Union, the centerpiece of their realist foreign-policy vision. Based on a defeatist view of the permanence and power of America’s Communist foe, that vision saw accommodation with the Soviets as the West’s best bet. And if that meant consigning 2 million Jews to their horrific fate, not to mention the captive peoples behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe, the Baltic republics and other parts of the Soviet Empire, so be it.

The assumption that the only choice was between appeasement of the Russians and “blowing up the world” was one that was, at least for a time, shared by these two so-called realists and those Soviet apologists and left-wingers who were otherwise devout Nixon and Kissinger foes. But, as Ronald Reagan, Henry Jackson, and other critics of détente asserted at the time and later proved, there was a choice. America could stand up for its values and speak out for human rights without triggering nuclear war. It was by aggressively supporting dissidents struggling against Communist oppression as well as by sharply opposing Soviet expansionism that the West not only kept the peace but also ultimately brought down the empire that Reagan so rightly characterized as “evil.” A principled and moral foreign policy was not a threat to peace; it was ultimately its guarantor.

While Kissinger has always defended his role in the Nixon White House as being that of the sage voice of wisdom restraining the irascible president, this exchange reveals him in a way that we have never seen before. It is one thing to see human rights as irrelevant to American foreign policy, but quite another to express indifference to the possibility of genocide. For a Jew who suffered Nazi persecution as a boy in Germany and who escaped the fate of 6 million others only by fleeing to freedom in the United States to say that a new set of “gas chambers” would not be “an American concern” was despicable.

A generation before Kissinger sat in the Oval Office with Nixon, another president was faced with the reality of the Holocaust. At that time, those Jews with access to Franklin Roosevelt feared losing his good will and thus restrained their advocacy for rescue or other measures that might have saved lives. Those same insiders abused and did their best to thwart those who were willing to speak out against American indifference. The reputation of Stephen A. Wise, the most distinguished American Jewish leader of that time and a devout FDR loyalist, has suffered greatly in recent decades as later generations carefully examined his refusal to speak out during the Holocaust. But say what you will about Wise, and many serious historians have been harshly critical of him, it is impossible to imagine him joking with Roosevelt about what was going on in Hitler’s Europe or musing airily about their catastrophic fate as Kissinger did about the Jews in Soviet Russia.

Whatever Kissinger’s motivation in making his remarks about “gas chambers” might have been, even the most sympathetic interpretation that can be imagined reveals him as a toady seeking Nixon’s approval and looking to establish himself as a Jew who wouldn’t speak up for other Jews, even if their lives were at stake.

The foreign-policy attitudes illustrated by Kissinger’s remarks should be held up to scorn whenever they are trotted out by apologists for American support for tyrannical regimes, be they Arab despotisms or the Communists who rule China. And Kissinger’s dishonorable indifference to the suffering of fellow Jews should stand forever as an example to be avoided at all costs by those Jews who seek or attain power in our democracy.

The tapes from conversations recorded in the Oval Office during the presidency of Richard Nixon have provided historians with a treasure trove of material giving insight into the character of one of the most reviled figures in American political history. But the latest transcripts released by the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum have also put the reputation of the one figure that had emerged from that administration with his character unsullied by Watergate into question: former secretary of state Henry Kissinger.

On March 1, 1973, Nixon and Kissinger, then the national security adviser, met with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. She thanked the president for his support for her nation and implored him to speak out for the right of the captive Jewish population of the Soviet Union to emigrate. After she left, the tapes document the way the two men deprecated her request:

“The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” Mr. Kissinger said. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”

“I know,” Nixon responded. “We can’t blow up the world because of it.”

While both Nixon and Kissinger were known to be largely indifferent to the fate of Soviet Jewry or any other factor that might complicate their quest to achieve détente with Moscow, the callousness of Kissinger’s remarks is breathtaking.

The tapes are filled with Nixonian imprecations, including many anti-Semitic remarks that are often, and not without reason, put into perspective by those who note that the president did not allow his personal prejudice to stop him from supporting Israel during the Yom Kippur War. But if Nixon’s hate speech is old news, Kissinger’s blithe indifference to the possibility of a Communist Holocaust is something distressingly new.

There are two issues here that must be addressed. The first is the question of a wrong-headed policy and the attitudes that sustained it. The second is one of how a Jew, or any individual for that matter, should regard human-rights catastrophes up to and including the possibility of mass murder.

As for the first question, this exchange neatly summarized the general indifference to the fate of Soviet Jewry that was felt by much of the foreign-policy and political establishment at that time. Nixon and Kissinger’s joint concern was fostering détente with the Soviet Union, the centerpiece of their realist foreign-policy vision. Based on a defeatist view of the permanence and power of America’s Communist foe, that vision saw accommodation with the Soviets as the West’s best bet. And if that meant consigning 2 million Jews to their horrific fate, not to mention the captive peoples behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe, the Baltic republics and other parts of the Soviet Empire, so be it.

The assumption that the only choice was between appeasement of the Russians and “blowing up the world” was one that was, at least for a time, shared by these two so-called realists and those Soviet apologists and left-wingers who were otherwise devout Nixon and Kissinger foes. But, as Ronald Reagan, Henry Jackson, and other critics of détente asserted at the time and later proved, there was a choice. America could stand up for its values and speak out for human rights without triggering nuclear war. It was by aggressively supporting dissidents struggling against Communist oppression as well as by sharply opposing Soviet expansionism that the West not only kept the peace but also ultimately brought down the empire that Reagan so rightly characterized as “evil.” A principled and moral foreign policy was not a threat to peace; it was ultimately its guarantor.

While Kissinger has always defended his role in the Nixon White House as being that of the sage voice of wisdom restraining the irascible president, this exchange reveals him in a way that we have never seen before. It is one thing to see human rights as irrelevant to American foreign policy, but quite another to express indifference to the possibility of genocide. For a Jew who suffered Nazi persecution as a boy in Germany and who escaped the fate of 6 million others only by fleeing to freedom in the United States to say that a new set of “gas chambers” would not be “an American concern” was despicable.

A generation before Kissinger sat in the Oval Office with Nixon, another president was faced with the reality of the Holocaust. At that time, those Jews with access to Franklin Roosevelt feared losing his good will and thus restrained their advocacy for rescue or other measures that might have saved lives. Those same insiders abused and did their best to thwart those who were willing to speak out against American indifference. The reputation of Stephen A. Wise, the most distinguished American Jewish leader of that time and a devout FDR loyalist, has suffered greatly in recent decades as later generations carefully examined his refusal to speak out during the Holocaust. But say what you will about Wise, and many serious historians have been harshly critical of him, it is impossible to imagine him joking with Roosevelt about what was going on in Hitler’s Europe or musing airily about their catastrophic fate as Kissinger did about the Jews in Soviet Russia.

Whatever Kissinger’s motivation in making his remarks about “gas chambers” might have been, even the most sympathetic interpretation that can be imagined reveals him as a toady seeking Nixon’s approval and looking to establish himself as a Jew who wouldn’t speak up for other Jews, even if their lives were at stake.

The foreign-policy attitudes illustrated by Kissinger’s remarks should be held up to scorn whenever they are trotted out by apologists for American support for tyrannical regimes, be they Arab despotisms or the Communists who rule China. And Kissinger’s dishonorable indifference to the suffering of fellow Jews should stand forever as an example to be avoided at all costs by those Jews who seek or attain power in our democracy.

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Obama Is No FDR

Jen references Michael Gerson’s devastating Washington Post column in which he calls President Obama an intellectual snob. Equally interesting, I think, is a front-page article in today’s New York Times, with its simply astonishing opening sentence: “It took President Obama 18 months to invite the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, to the White House for a one-on-one chat.” Who was it who ran for president as a “post-partisan,” and who was going to bring a new way of doing things to Washington?

The Times notes that, “Mr. Obama came to office vowing to reach across the aisle and change the tone in Washington, a goal he quickly abandoned when Republicans stood in lockstep against his stimulus bill.” The Republicans, of course, “stood in lockstep” against the stimulus bill because they were completely frozen out of any role in shaping it. (By the way, my inner copy editor shudders at the metaphor “stood in lockstep.” “Lockstep” is a mode of marching, not standing, but…) It was needless, counterproductive, and, alas, typical behavior on Obama’s part.

As Gershon points out, Franklin Roosevelt was an aristocrat to his fingertips, complete with Mayflower ancestors, a mansion overlooking the Hudson, a large trust fund, the right schools, the right clubs, and a “Park Avenue Oxford” accent. But he “was able to convince millions of average Americans that he was firmly on their side.” Obama has convinced millions of Americans that he regards them as fools, too scared to think straight.

The constitutional scholar in the White House might want to take a look at the Constitution’s preamble and refresh his memory as to who it was who ordained and established the government he heads. They’re going to be heard a week from tomorrow, and I don’t think President Obama is going to like what they have to say.

Jen references Michael Gerson’s devastating Washington Post column in which he calls President Obama an intellectual snob. Equally interesting, I think, is a front-page article in today’s New York Times, with its simply astonishing opening sentence: “It took President Obama 18 months to invite the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, to the White House for a one-on-one chat.” Who was it who ran for president as a “post-partisan,” and who was going to bring a new way of doing things to Washington?

The Times notes that, “Mr. Obama came to office vowing to reach across the aisle and change the tone in Washington, a goal he quickly abandoned when Republicans stood in lockstep against his stimulus bill.” The Republicans, of course, “stood in lockstep” against the stimulus bill because they were completely frozen out of any role in shaping it. (By the way, my inner copy editor shudders at the metaphor “stood in lockstep.” “Lockstep” is a mode of marching, not standing, but…) It was needless, counterproductive, and, alas, typical behavior on Obama’s part.

As Gershon points out, Franklin Roosevelt was an aristocrat to his fingertips, complete with Mayflower ancestors, a mansion overlooking the Hudson, a large trust fund, the right schools, the right clubs, and a “Park Avenue Oxford” accent. But he “was able to convince millions of average Americans that he was firmly on their side.” Obama has convinced millions of Americans that he regards them as fools, too scared to think straight.

The constitutional scholar in the White House might want to take a look at the Constitution’s preamble and refresh his memory as to who it was who ordained and established the government he heads. They’re going to be heard a week from tomorrow, and I don’t think President Obama is going to like what they have to say.

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The Biden-Hillary Switch: Don’t Scoff

Bob Woodward made news this week by asserting there is talk inside the Obama administration about saying goodbye to Joe Biden in 2012 and nominating Hillary Clinton in his stead as vice president for the Obama reelection bid. This revelation has been greeted with extreme skepticism by Obama-watchers like the Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder and others, who say it is not under consideration; Clinton and Robert Gibbs have issued flat denials. The skeptics say it’s been decades since anything like it was done. Gerald Ford swapped out Nelson Rockefeller for Bob Dole in 1976, but then neither Ford nor Rockefeller had actually been elected; Ford was brought in as veep after Spiro Agnew had to resign; only Franklin Roosevelt traded in vice presidents regularly, inadvertently blessing the country by doing so with Harry Truman in 1944, a decision that not only led to one of the most important and tough-minded presidencies in U.S. history but also saved  the nation from a President Henry Wallace, who proved himself, literally, a Communist stooge when he challenged Truman from the Left in 1948.

Fine, but that something hasn’t been done recently isn’t an argument. If one can say anything about Obama, it’s that he doesn’t follow precedent. And what this says to me is that he will almost certaintly consider something like it if he has reason to believe his reelection is in jeopardy in 2012. He was convinced to pick Joe Biden on the grounds that it would help him with working-class swing voters and because he couldn’t bring himself to pick Hillary in 2008. Biden has not been an asset; he hasn’t proved to be the national comic relief Dan Quayle was for George Bush the Elder, but that’s because the mainstream media are protective of the Obama administration. Biden could supply inadvertent daily hilarity, as he did yesterday by saying he would “strangle” a Republican if that imaginary Republican talked to him about closing the deficit. That he is not a national embarrassment is one mark of the way in which having a friendly media is a help to Obama.

Biden is not even as useful to Obama as Quayle was; Quayle did in fact do Bush some good by shoring up his boss’s support on the social-conservative Right when that could have melted down. Even so, recall that there was serious talk in 1992 of ditching Quayle for somebody else. Given that Bush scored 38 percent in November 1992, that Hail Mary play might have been of marginal utility to Bush, at least in the sense that it would have convinced voters he had a pulse, or wanted to do what it took to win, or wanted to change course, or something.

The problem with anointing Hillary would be the same as in 2008, I suppose; could Bill Clinton be kept from doing mischief? The answer would seem to be yes, since he is now the husband of the secretary of state and doesn’t seem to get much ink or be getting himself in too much trouble.

Anyway, if Obama needs to throw a change-up, and right now it’s looking like that’s a plausible thing, Hillary-for-Biden is as good a change-up as anything else one can think of. Biden could become a senior counselor or head of the DNC; he couldn’t become secretary of state, because that would be too cute. But then, who cares what Biden would be? Would Biden make trouble on his way out? That’s not his style. He would say it was his idea. He could go write a book, make television commercials, get nice and rich. A fine post-VP life.

Bob Woodward made news this week by asserting there is talk inside the Obama administration about saying goodbye to Joe Biden in 2012 and nominating Hillary Clinton in his stead as vice president for the Obama reelection bid. This revelation has been greeted with extreme skepticism by Obama-watchers like the Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder and others, who say it is not under consideration; Clinton and Robert Gibbs have issued flat denials. The skeptics say it’s been decades since anything like it was done. Gerald Ford swapped out Nelson Rockefeller for Bob Dole in 1976, but then neither Ford nor Rockefeller had actually been elected; Ford was brought in as veep after Spiro Agnew had to resign; only Franklin Roosevelt traded in vice presidents regularly, inadvertently blessing the country by doing so with Harry Truman in 1944, a decision that not only led to one of the most important and tough-minded presidencies in U.S. history but also saved  the nation from a President Henry Wallace, who proved himself, literally, a Communist stooge when he challenged Truman from the Left in 1948.

Fine, but that something hasn’t been done recently isn’t an argument. If one can say anything about Obama, it’s that he doesn’t follow precedent. And what this says to me is that he will almost certaintly consider something like it if he has reason to believe his reelection is in jeopardy in 2012. He was convinced to pick Joe Biden on the grounds that it would help him with working-class swing voters and because he couldn’t bring himself to pick Hillary in 2008. Biden has not been an asset; he hasn’t proved to be the national comic relief Dan Quayle was for George Bush the Elder, but that’s because the mainstream media are protective of the Obama administration. Biden could supply inadvertent daily hilarity, as he did yesterday by saying he would “strangle” a Republican if that imaginary Republican talked to him about closing the deficit. That he is not a national embarrassment is one mark of the way in which having a friendly media is a help to Obama.

Biden is not even as useful to Obama as Quayle was; Quayle did in fact do Bush some good by shoring up his boss’s support on the social-conservative Right when that could have melted down. Even so, recall that there was serious talk in 1992 of ditching Quayle for somebody else. Given that Bush scored 38 percent in November 1992, that Hail Mary play might have been of marginal utility to Bush, at least in the sense that it would have convinced voters he had a pulse, or wanted to do what it took to win, or wanted to change course, or something.

The problem with anointing Hillary would be the same as in 2008, I suppose; could Bill Clinton be kept from doing mischief? The answer would seem to be yes, since he is now the husband of the secretary of state and doesn’t seem to get much ink or be getting himself in too much trouble.

Anyway, if Obama needs to throw a change-up, and right now it’s looking like that’s a plausible thing, Hillary-for-Biden is as good a change-up as anything else one can think of. Biden could become a senior counselor or head of the DNC; he couldn’t become secretary of state, because that would be too cute. But then, who cares what Biden would be? Would Biden make trouble on his way out? That’s not his style. He would say it was his idea. He could go write a book, make television commercials, get nice and rich. A fine post-VP life.

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The Hacks Weren’t the Problem

Michael Gerson sums up Bob Woodward’s portrait of Obama:

The more we know about Obama’s views of the Afghan war, the less confidence he inspires. Is there a historical precedent for an American president, in time of war, hoping to convey an impression of studied, professorial ambivalence about the war itself? Is it possible to imagine Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman purposely cultivating such ambiguity?

Yes, President Obama has sent more skilled, well-led troops to Afghanistan. But he has also created a strategic challenge for America. Our enemy is patient and determined. Our president, by his own account, is neither.

Gerson describes Obama as “reluctant,” which is a generous characterization of a commander in chief who never seemed to grasp the distinction between political horse-trading and military strategy. (“Are we supposed to be reassured that a president, of no proven military judgment, driven at least partially by political calculations, imposed a split-the-difference approach only loosely related to actual need or analysis?”)

It’s neither sufficient nor accurate to blame the political hacks in the room. Granted that “Generals” Emanuel and Axelrod had no business dragging political concerns into war-planning. But the biggest problem was the president himself. As Gerson notes:

It is the most basic duty of a commander in chief to pursue the national interest above any other interest. The introduction of partisan considerations into strategic decisions merits a special contempt.

So it wasn’t reluctance on Obama’s part so much as dereliction of his duties. We all would like to think that our presidents behave admirably in matters of war and peace, and that they understand the grave responsibility that goes with the office. But it’s time to give up the fiction that Obama is thoughtful or nonideological. He’s neither. He’s simply a Chicago pol who has risen above his abilities.

Michael Gerson sums up Bob Woodward’s portrait of Obama:

The more we know about Obama’s views of the Afghan war, the less confidence he inspires. Is there a historical precedent for an American president, in time of war, hoping to convey an impression of studied, professorial ambivalence about the war itself? Is it possible to imagine Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman purposely cultivating such ambiguity?

Yes, President Obama has sent more skilled, well-led troops to Afghanistan. But he has also created a strategic challenge for America. Our enemy is patient and determined. Our president, by his own account, is neither.

Gerson describes Obama as “reluctant,” which is a generous characterization of a commander in chief who never seemed to grasp the distinction between political horse-trading and military strategy. (“Are we supposed to be reassured that a president, of no proven military judgment, driven at least partially by political calculations, imposed a split-the-difference approach only loosely related to actual need or analysis?”)

It’s neither sufficient nor accurate to blame the political hacks in the room. Granted that “Generals” Emanuel and Axelrod had no business dragging political concerns into war-planning. But the biggest problem was the president himself. As Gerson notes:

It is the most basic duty of a commander in chief to pursue the national interest above any other interest. The introduction of partisan considerations into strategic decisions merits a special contempt.

So it wasn’t reluctance on Obama’s part so much as dereliction of his duties. We all would like to think that our presidents behave admirably in matters of war and peace, and that they understand the grave responsibility that goes with the office. But it’s time to give up the fiction that Obama is thoughtful or nonideological. He’s neither. He’s simply a Chicago pol who has risen above his abilities.

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Some Thoughts About Last Night’s Speech

1. The most Obama could say about George W. Bush is that “no one could doubt President Bush’s support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security.” That’s correct; no one could doubt it, which is why there was no need to say it.

The real issue was whether Obama would praise Bush for the surge — one of the most courageous and wise presidential decisions in the modern era and one Bush pushed through over fierce, widespread opposition, including from Obama and his vice president, Joe Biden. But for Obama to praise Bush for the surge would be to admit his own massive error in judgment in opposing it — and a man of Obama’s vanity could not bring himself to do that. So Obama could only say that Bush was well-intentioned rather than right.

As for his own record on Iraq, the Obama administration is now trying to corrupt the historical record, with press secretary Robert Gibbs making assertions that are not only wrong but the opposite of the truth. Read More

1. The most Obama could say about George W. Bush is that “no one could doubt President Bush’s support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security.” That’s correct; no one could doubt it, which is why there was no need to say it.

The real issue was whether Obama would praise Bush for the surge — one of the most courageous and wise presidential decisions in the modern era and one Bush pushed through over fierce, widespread opposition, including from Obama and his vice president, Joe Biden. But for Obama to praise Bush for the surge would be to admit his own massive error in judgment in opposing it — and a man of Obama’s vanity could not bring himself to do that. So Obama could only say that Bush was well-intentioned rather than right.

As for his own record on Iraq, the Obama administration is now trying to corrupt the historical record, with press secretary Robert Gibbs making assertions that are not only wrong but the opposite of the truth.

2. On Iraq, Obama did say that while our combat mission is ending, “our commitment to Iraq’s future is not.” But you could be forgiven for believing, amid all the talk of page-turning and missions ended and over, that Obama has detached himself from a war he opposed and wants to have nothing more to do with it. He clearly considers it a distraction from his larger ambitions to transform America here at home.

What was also notable in the speech is how Obama — apart from one perfunctory paragraph (he devoted four to the economy) — failed to appropriately acknowledge many of the estimable things that have been achieved by the Iraq war, including deposing a malevolent and aggressive dictator, helping plant a representative (if imperfect) democracy in the heart of the Middle East, and administering a military defeat to al-Qaeda on the ground of its own choosing. Obama hinted at some of this, but it was said without passion or conviction. And we all know why: for Obama, this was a war without purpose, a nihilistic misadventure whose only good result is its end. This is not only wrong; it is a disfigurement of history and a failure to acknowledge what a remarkable thing our combat troops in Iraq achieved.

3. On the most important matter before us, Afghanistan, Obama did substantial damage. The reason can be found in this paragraph:

Within Afghanistan, I have ordered the deployment of additional troops who-under the command of General David Petraeus -are fighting to break the Taliban’s momentum. As with the surge in Iraq, these forces will be in place for a limited time to provide space for the Afghans to build their capacity and secure their own future. But, as was the case in Iraq, we cannot do for Afghans what they must ultimately do for themselves. That’s why we are training Afghan Security Forces and supporting a political resolution to Afghanistan’s problems. And, next July, we will begin a transition to Afghan responsibility. The pace of our troop reductions will be determined by conditions on the ground, and our support for Afghanistan will endure. But make no mistake: this transition will begin – because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s.

What Obama did here was not simply to repeat his commitment to the (arbitrary) summer 2011 drawdown date; he underscored and deepened it. The president’s declaration that the pace of troop reductions “will be determined by conditions on the ground” was overwhelmed by Obama’s declaring that our forces will be in place for “a limited time” and that we should “make no mistake: this transition will begin because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s.”

This statement occurred within a particular context. In his December 2009 address at West Point, Obama made essentially the same argument — though less emphatically than he did last night.

Many people (including me) underestimated just how harmful was Obama’s declaration that we would begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. Mentioning that it would be conditions-based was almost completely overlooked by both our friends and our enemies. The message they believed was sent, and which they received, is that America’s commitment is limited and we will leave on time and on schedule, come what may.

Don’t take my word for it; here is what Marine Commandant General James Conway said a week ago about the 2011 deadline: “In some ways, we think right now it’s probably giving our enemy sustenance. We think that he may be saying to himself … ‘Hey, you know, we only have to hold out for so long.’” Conway buttressed his claim by saying that intelligence intercepts suggest that Taliban fighters have been encouraged by the talk of the U.S. beginning to withdraw troops next year.

Knowing all this, Obama not only didn’t attempt to undo his previous error; he doubled down on it. This was an injurious message to send.

The Democratic Party can count several great wartime leaders among its ranks, including Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. John F. Kennedy, while denied the time and opportunities that FDR and Truman had, understood the stakes of the Cold War struggle and spoke with force and eloquence about America’s role in the world. These were admirable leaders, presidents whom our allies could count on and our enemies respected and feared.

In Barack Obama, we have someone very different — a president who is at times more eager to apologize for America than to defend her. He is a man not yet comfortable with his role as commander in chief. Obama views war not in terms of victory; he is above all committed to finding exit ramps.

President Obama has already inflicted enormous damage to our nation; last night he added to the wreckage.

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Can You Imagine?

In a fascinating interview with former UN Ambassador John C. Bolton, the Daily Caller tosses an interesting proposition into the ring: why not a Bolton GOP presidential run? That’d sure shake up things in Tehran. Bolton offers this on Obama:

“I’d call him the first post-American president and by that I mean – certainly in contemporary times – his view of America and its role in the world is different from the line of presidents since Franklin Roosevelt,” Bolton explained, when asked exactly why he finds the president’s foreign policy so offensive. “He doesn’t see himself effectively as a real advocate for America’s interest. He doesn’t see the world as a particularly challenging place. And, frankly, I just don’t think he cares that much about foreign policy.”

Well, yeah.

What about Israel?

“I think the risk of this obsession with the ‘peace process’ is that the inevitable failure of these talks coming up leave the United States in a worse position in the region and around the world than if we had never undertaken it to begin with,” he said. “Given there is no interlocutor on the Palestinian side that can make difficult commitments and then carry through on them, given the extent of the gaps in the positions of the two parties, failure seems to me to be inevitable. And when you combine that with many other things going on in the region – our failure to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons plan, our withdrawal from Iraq, our commitment to withdrawal from Afghanistan – it just gives a broad impression of American weakness that our adversaries will take advantage of and our friends will be concerned about.”

Well, yes, that’s right.

But what about domestic policy — he doesn’t have much to say about that, right? Umm, actually:

“I think this is the most radical president we have ever had,” he said, before naming the health care bill, the auto industry bailout, and financial regulation as examples of this radicalism. “I think this is the dream of leftwing America come true and the only good news is I really think this is their high water mark. Anything they don’t get now they are never going to get. If we do this right, we can roll a lot of it back and begin the task of reducing the scope of federal government activities in our economy.” …

“I’ve never attended any Tea Party functions,” he said. But, he added, if the movement is, as he understands it, “a true grassroots movement of people who are absolutely outraged at the extent that the Obama administration has bungled its economic policy, overspent dramatically, risked creating a deficit that will burden us for generations” than he thinks “it is pointed in exactly the right direction” and he is “all in favor of” it.

And just to confound the left, he says he has no problem repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and thinks gay marriage should be left up to the states.

Bolton has shown no signs of organizing a campaign and doesn’t downplay the difficulty for a non-politician to run for the presidency, but neither does he rule it out. It sure would make for some lively primary debates, wouldn’t it?

This is a reminder that more than two years before the 2012 election, there are many intriguing possible candidates out there. As for Bolton, if he doesn’t run, any Republican who does would be very wise to bring him on board. His advice would be invaluable.

In a fascinating interview with former UN Ambassador John C. Bolton, the Daily Caller tosses an interesting proposition into the ring: why not a Bolton GOP presidential run? That’d sure shake up things in Tehran. Bolton offers this on Obama:

“I’d call him the first post-American president and by that I mean – certainly in contemporary times – his view of America and its role in the world is different from the line of presidents since Franklin Roosevelt,” Bolton explained, when asked exactly why he finds the president’s foreign policy so offensive. “He doesn’t see himself effectively as a real advocate for America’s interest. He doesn’t see the world as a particularly challenging place. And, frankly, I just don’t think he cares that much about foreign policy.”

Well, yeah.

What about Israel?

“I think the risk of this obsession with the ‘peace process’ is that the inevitable failure of these talks coming up leave the United States in a worse position in the region and around the world than if we had never undertaken it to begin with,” he said. “Given there is no interlocutor on the Palestinian side that can make difficult commitments and then carry through on them, given the extent of the gaps in the positions of the two parties, failure seems to me to be inevitable. And when you combine that with many other things going on in the region – our failure to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons plan, our withdrawal from Iraq, our commitment to withdrawal from Afghanistan – it just gives a broad impression of American weakness that our adversaries will take advantage of and our friends will be concerned about.”

Well, yes, that’s right.

But what about domestic policy — he doesn’t have much to say about that, right? Umm, actually:

“I think this is the most radical president we have ever had,” he said, before naming the health care bill, the auto industry bailout, and financial regulation as examples of this radicalism. “I think this is the dream of leftwing America come true and the only good news is I really think this is their high water mark. Anything they don’t get now they are never going to get. If we do this right, we can roll a lot of it back and begin the task of reducing the scope of federal government activities in our economy.” …

“I’ve never attended any Tea Party functions,” he said. But, he added, if the movement is, as he understands it, “a true grassroots movement of people who are absolutely outraged at the extent that the Obama administration has bungled its economic policy, overspent dramatically, risked creating a deficit that will burden us for generations” than he thinks “it is pointed in exactly the right direction” and he is “all in favor of” it.

And just to confound the left, he says he has no problem repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and thinks gay marriage should be left up to the states.

Bolton has shown no signs of organizing a campaign and doesn’t downplay the difficulty for a non-politician to run for the presidency, but neither does he rule it out. It sure would make for some lively primary debates, wouldn’t it?

This is a reminder that more than two years before the 2012 election, there are many intriguing possible candidates out there. As for Bolton, if he doesn’t run, any Republican who does would be very wise to bring him on board. His advice would be invaluable.

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Plus ça Change Department

There is a move afoot in Congress to legalize Internet gambling by repealing a 2006 law that forbade banks to transmit payments to or from Internet-gambling operators.

The law hasn’t stopped Internet gambling, which, it is estimated, Americans spend $6 billion a year on. There are just too many ways these days — prepaid credit cards, online payment processors such as PayPal, etc. – to transmit money. But the effort to repeal the law does not stem merely from the fact that it doesn’t work. It also comes from the need for tax revenue, which might reach as high as $42 billion over 10 years. According to the Times, “Representative Brad Sherman, Democrat of California, said in an interview that the money was an attractive source of financing for other programs. ‘We will not pass an Internet gaming bill,’ Mr. Sherman predicted. ‘We will pass a bill to do something very important, funded by Internet gaming.’”

This is all very reminiscent of an earlier effort to stamp out bad habits among the general population by a means that didn’t work. That effort also was repealed in order not to correct a mistake — being a politician means never having to say you’re sorry — but instead to raise revenue.

Prohibition was supposed to get rid of demon rum so that husbands would go home to their families and not spend their paychecks at the local saloon. What it got us was Al Capone. It proved impossible in a democratic society to prevent the illegal production and distribution of alcohol, which millions in the population saw nothing wrong with. Rum runners imported millions of gallons of illegal alcohol over the border from Canada and by sea. Moonshiners produced millions more. Bootleggers distributed all this efficiently. Lavish bribes corrupted police and local officials, who looked the other way (and often drank themselves). Organized crime received a vast new cash flow and grew exponentially. Commercial disputes were settled in parking lots and alleyways rather than in court, the tommy gun being the means of choice. At least Prohibition produced a rich literary and cinematic genre that now rivals the western in extent. And NASCAR developed out of the souped-up cars used to deliver booze and, if necessary, outrun the police cars chasing them.

But it is axiomatic that it is much easier to pass a law than to repeal it. And it was only when the Great Depression caused unemployment to soar and tax revenues to plummet that the federal government moved to loosen and then repeal the 18th Amendment. Shortly after taking office, Franklin Roosevelt signed an amendment to the Volstead Act, which had given legislative flesh to the constitutional bones of the 18th Amendment. It changed the definition of “intoxicating beverage” from .5 percent alcohol to 3.2 percent. On signing it, FDR — no teetotaler he — said, “I think this would be a good time for a beer.” The brewing industry, moribund since 1920, sprang back to life, hiring thousands of workers in places like St. Louis and Milwaukee.

Congress had already proposed repealing the Amendment (on February 20). Knowing that many state legislatures were firmly in the grip of the “preachers and the bootleggers,” Congress specified that the 21st Amendment be ratified by a special convention in each state instead of by the legislatures, the only time that they have been used to amend the Constitution. Ironically, Utah, dominated by non-drinking Mormons, was the 36th state to ratify, the number needed to put the 21st Amendment into the Constitution. The most calamitous social-engineering experiment in American history was dead, and tax revenues began to flow copiously into federal and state coffers.

There is a move afoot in Congress to legalize Internet gambling by repealing a 2006 law that forbade banks to transmit payments to or from Internet-gambling operators.

The law hasn’t stopped Internet gambling, which, it is estimated, Americans spend $6 billion a year on. There are just too many ways these days — prepaid credit cards, online payment processors such as PayPal, etc. – to transmit money. But the effort to repeal the law does not stem merely from the fact that it doesn’t work. It also comes from the need for tax revenue, which might reach as high as $42 billion over 10 years. According to the Times, “Representative Brad Sherman, Democrat of California, said in an interview that the money was an attractive source of financing for other programs. ‘We will not pass an Internet gaming bill,’ Mr. Sherman predicted. ‘We will pass a bill to do something very important, funded by Internet gaming.’”

This is all very reminiscent of an earlier effort to stamp out bad habits among the general population by a means that didn’t work. That effort also was repealed in order not to correct a mistake — being a politician means never having to say you’re sorry — but instead to raise revenue.

Prohibition was supposed to get rid of demon rum so that husbands would go home to their families and not spend their paychecks at the local saloon. What it got us was Al Capone. It proved impossible in a democratic society to prevent the illegal production and distribution of alcohol, which millions in the population saw nothing wrong with. Rum runners imported millions of gallons of illegal alcohol over the border from Canada and by sea. Moonshiners produced millions more. Bootleggers distributed all this efficiently. Lavish bribes corrupted police and local officials, who looked the other way (and often drank themselves). Organized crime received a vast new cash flow and grew exponentially. Commercial disputes were settled in parking lots and alleyways rather than in court, the tommy gun being the means of choice. At least Prohibition produced a rich literary and cinematic genre that now rivals the western in extent. And NASCAR developed out of the souped-up cars used to deliver booze and, if necessary, outrun the police cars chasing them.

But it is axiomatic that it is much easier to pass a law than to repeal it. And it was only when the Great Depression caused unemployment to soar and tax revenues to plummet that the federal government moved to loosen and then repeal the 18th Amendment. Shortly after taking office, Franklin Roosevelt signed an amendment to the Volstead Act, which had given legislative flesh to the constitutional bones of the 18th Amendment. It changed the definition of “intoxicating beverage” from .5 percent alcohol to 3.2 percent. On signing it, FDR — no teetotaler he — said, “I think this would be a good time for a beer.” The brewing industry, moribund since 1920, sprang back to life, hiring thousands of workers in places like St. Louis and Milwaukee.

Congress had already proposed repealing the Amendment (on February 20). Knowing that many state legislatures were firmly in the grip of the “preachers and the bootleggers,” Congress specified that the 21st Amendment be ratified by a special convention in each state instead of by the legislatures, the only time that they have been used to amend the Constitution. Ironically, Utah, dominated by non-drinking Mormons, was the 36th state to ratify, the number needed to put the 21st Amendment into the Constitution. The most calamitous social-engineering experiment in American history was dead, and tax revenues began to flow copiously into federal and state coffers.

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How Bad in 2010?

Obama is tumbling in the polls, and his party will bear the brunt. That’s what Gallup reports today:

President Obama averaged 47.3% job approval during his sixth quarter in office, spanning April 20-July 19 — his lowest quarterly average to date. Americans’ approval of Obama has declined at least slightly in each quarter of his presidency. … The average presidential job approval rating across all presidents in Gallup’s trends since Franklin Roosevelt is 54%, about seven points above Obama’s sixth quarter average. … Elected presidents with sub-50% approval ratings in their sixth quarters in office — Carter, Reagan, and Clinton — tended to see more significant midterm congressional seat losses than other presidents.

Just how bad could those midterm losses be? Gallup’s chart going back to 1946 is eye-opening. In 1994, Bill Clinton was at 46 percent approval, and Democrats lost 53 House seats. LBJ was at 44 percent, and the Democrats lost 47 seats in 1966 (just two years after the 1964 landslide).

The problem may be even more acute for Democrats this year insofar as Obama’s approval is especially low in the very House districts that are in play. The extent of the losses will depend on a variety of factors in individual races, but the blame will fall on Obama. If history is any guide, the damage will be great as will the Democrats’ anger at the White House.

UPDATE: Gallup is not an outlier: “A year after President Barack Obama’s political honeymoon ended, his job approval rating has dropped to a negative 44 – 48 percent, his worst net score ever, and American voters say by a narrow 39 – 36 percent margin that they would vote for an unnamed Republican rather than President Obama in 2012, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today. … American voters also say 48 – 40 percent Obama does not deserve reelection in 2012.”

Obama is tumbling in the polls, and his party will bear the brunt. That’s what Gallup reports today:

President Obama averaged 47.3% job approval during his sixth quarter in office, spanning April 20-July 19 — his lowest quarterly average to date. Americans’ approval of Obama has declined at least slightly in each quarter of his presidency. … The average presidential job approval rating across all presidents in Gallup’s trends since Franklin Roosevelt is 54%, about seven points above Obama’s sixth quarter average. … Elected presidents with sub-50% approval ratings in their sixth quarters in office — Carter, Reagan, and Clinton — tended to see more significant midterm congressional seat losses than other presidents.

Just how bad could those midterm losses be? Gallup’s chart going back to 1946 is eye-opening. In 1994, Bill Clinton was at 46 percent approval, and Democrats lost 53 House seats. LBJ was at 44 percent, and the Democrats lost 47 seats in 1966 (just two years after the 1964 landslide).

The problem may be even more acute for Democrats this year insofar as Obama’s approval is especially low in the very House districts that are in play. The extent of the losses will depend on a variety of factors in individual races, but the blame will fall on Obama. If history is any guide, the damage will be great as will the Democrats’ anger at the White House.

UPDATE: Gallup is not an outlier: “A year after President Barack Obama’s political honeymoon ended, his job approval rating has dropped to a negative 44 – 48 percent, his worst net score ever, and American voters say by a narrow 39 – 36 percent margin that they would vote for an unnamed Republican rather than President Obama in 2012, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today. … American voters also say 48 – 40 percent Obama does not deserve reelection in 2012.”

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RE: Obama’s Boring Speech

Things have gotten so bad for Obama that MSNBC pundits sound like me. The troika of Keith Olbermann, Howard Fineman, and Chris Matthews, ripping Obama’s Oval Office speech with the bitterness of spurned lovers, complain he didn’t do much or say much or project much leadership. And indeed, with his hands folded on that really big and empty desk, you got the impression not that Obama was in charge of that office but that he didn’t do much real work there.

Salon’s Joan Walsh was similarly dismissive. (“I was underwhelmed by President Obama’s first Oval Office speech, as I expected to be. From the moment he began, hands folded on his desk like a well-behaved student, the imagery and energy was off, inadequate to the visual, horror-movie scope of the Gulf oil disaster.”) Maureen Dowd remains infuriated with the hapless president. (“How can a man who was a dazzling enough politician to become the first black president at age 47 suddenly become so obdurately self-destructive about politics?”) Hmm. Because he’s in over his head? Because all he’s ever done is promote himself? Even Politico — the Daily Variety of D.C., which has few harsh words for the town’s stars — acknowledged that “this wasn’t one of Obama’s best speeches” and observed “it wasn’t entirely clear where Obama would go from here to achieve this ‘national mission.’”

This was  certainly the liberal media’s big chance to write the “Comeback Kid” story on the oil spill, as they tried to do after every equally ineffective health-care address (“Game changer!” we heard after nothing at all was changed). Instead, they informed the president that he’s no FDR. (Howard Fineman: “It was Obama who compared the Gulf disaster to World War Two, and it was, unfortunately, Obama who was unable to approach let alone match the specificity, combativeness and passion of Franklin Roosevelt.”) Have they suddenly become more savvy or recovered their objectivity? Perhaps they see it all crumbling — the generic polling, the NPR poll, and the president’s ratings slide all confirm that Obama and his party are heading for a drubbing.

Not unlike what the White House did to Creigh Deeds: rather than admit to the failure of liberal ideas, the easiest solution is to blame the candidate — in this case, the perpetual candidate who resides in the White House. So just as readily as they scrambled onto the Obama bandwagon, they are scurrying off. The MSNBC gang and liberal columnists look now to empathize with and retain the loyalty of their liberal audience, which is frustrated that the “sort of a God” has proved inept.

The same “Run for your lives!” mentality will soon take hold of the Democrats on the ballot. Whether they aim to reconnect with their base (as Bill Halter tried to do) or dash to the center of the political spectrum, they will flee from association with the president for whom they walked the plank on vote after vote. I suspect they will have as hard a time retaining voters as MSNBC, Salon, and the New York Times will in keeping their target audience and readership. The Democratic base is depressed — for good reason — and probably won’t be much interested in voting, watching gobs of cable news, or reading endless recriminations from aggrieved columnists as the liberal media tracks the descent of the Obama presidency.

Things have gotten so bad for Obama that MSNBC pundits sound like me. The troika of Keith Olbermann, Howard Fineman, and Chris Matthews, ripping Obama’s Oval Office speech with the bitterness of spurned lovers, complain he didn’t do much or say much or project much leadership. And indeed, with his hands folded on that really big and empty desk, you got the impression not that Obama was in charge of that office but that he didn’t do much real work there.

Salon’s Joan Walsh was similarly dismissive. (“I was underwhelmed by President Obama’s first Oval Office speech, as I expected to be. From the moment he began, hands folded on his desk like a well-behaved student, the imagery and energy was off, inadequate to the visual, horror-movie scope of the Gulf oil disaster.”) Maureen Dowd remains infuriated with the hapless president. (“How can a man who was a dazzling enough politician to become the first black president at age 47 suddenly become so obdurately self-destructive about politics?”) Hmm. Because he’s in over his head? Because all he’s ever done is promote himself? Even Politico — the Daily Variety of D.C., which has few harsh words for the town’s stars — acknowledged that “this wasn’t one of Obama’s best speeches” and observed “it wasn’t entirely clear where Obama would go from here to achieve this ‘national mission.’”

This was  certainly the liberal media’s big chance to write the “Comeback Kid” story on the oil spill, as they tried to do after every equally ineffective health-care address (“Game changer!” we heard after nothing at all was changed). Instead, they informed the president that he’s no FDR. (Howard Fineman: “It was Obama who compared the Gulf disaster to World War Two, and it was, unfortunately, Obama who was unable to approach let alone match the specificity, combativeness and passion of Franklin Roosevelt.”) Have they suddenly become more savvy or recovered their objectivity? Perhaps they see it all crumbling — the generic polling, the NPR poll, and the president’s ratings slide all confirm that Obama and his party are heading for a drubbing.

Not unlike what the White House did to Creigh Deeds: rather than admit to the failure of liberal ideas, the easiest solution is to blame the candidate — in this case, the perpetual candidate who resides in the White House. So just as readily as they scrambled onto the Obama bandwagon, they are scurrying off. The MSNBC gang and liberal columnists look now to empathize with and retain the loyalty of their liberal audience, which is frustrated that the “sort of a God” has proved inept.

The same “Run for your lives!” mentality will soon take hold of the Democrats on the ballot. Whether they aim to reconnect with their base (as Bill Halter tried to do) or dash to the center of the political spectrum, they will flee from association with the president for whom they walked the plank on vote after vote. I suspect they will have as hard a time retaining voters as MSNBC, Salon, and the New York Times will in keeping their target audience and readership. The Democratic base is depressed — for good reason — and probably won’t be much interested in voting, watching gobs of cable news, or reading endless recriminations from aggrieved columnists as the liberal media tracks the descent of the Obama presidency.

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Colombia’s Presidential Election Is a U.S. Victory

As usually happens because of the global obsession with the actions of one tiny state in the Middle East, the controversy over the Gaza flotilla has become so all-encompassing that it is obscuring other important bits of news. Like what just happened in Colombia — another important American ally that receives its share of opprobrium from the left (although, of course, nothing compared to the vilification of Israel).

Colombia just held a presidential election. Polls had shown a neck-and-neck race between former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos and the loopy former Green Party mayor of Bogota, Antanas Mockus (who sports an Amish-style beard). It appeared that a big upset could be brewing with the defeat of President Alvaro Uribe’s handpicked successor — a man who was almost as closely associated as the outgoing president with the increasingly successful battle against Marxist rebels (the FARC) and narco-traffickers.

It turned out, however, that the outcome wasn’t that close. Santos got 46.5 percent of the vote, and Mockus, only 21.5 percent. Santos still fell short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a run-off, but there seems little prospect of Mockus winning in the second round. This was undoubtedly one of the most jaw-dropping failures of preelection polling since a 1936 Literary Digest survey predicted that Alf Landon would defeat Franklin Roosevelt with 57 percent of the vote. (FDR actually got won more than 60 percent.)

While pollsters sift their methodology or maybe simply go off to commit hara-kiri, let me just note that this is a big victory not only for the people of Colombia but also for the United States. We are now virtually assured of having a pro-American leader in Bogota, who will be interested in continuing to work closely with us to combat the baleful influence of the Hugo Chavez regime in neighboring Venezuela, which is in bed not only with FARC and the drug traffickers but also with Iran, Hezbollah, and other unsavory characters. It would be nice if Congress repaid the support of the Colombians by finally passing the long-delayed U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Accord. But no doubt the labor unions (to which the Obama administration appears to be in thrall) will continue to cast aspersions on Colombia’s considerable democratic achievement in order to disguise their protectionist agenda.

As usually happens because of the global obsession with the actions of one tiny state in the Middle East, the controversy over the Gaza flotilla has become so all-encompassing that it is obscuring other important bits of news. Like what just happened in Colombia — another important American ally that receives its share of opprobrium from the left (although, of course, nothing compared to the vilification of Israel).

Colombia just held a presidential election. Polls had shown a neck-and-neck race between former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos and the loopy former Green Party mayor of Bogota, Antanas Mockus (who sports an Amish-style beard). It appeared that a big upset could be brewing with the defeat of President Alvaro Uribe’s handpicked successor — a man who was almost as closely associated as the outgoing president with the increasingly successful battle against Marxist rebels (the FARC) and narco-traffickers.

It turned out, however, that the outcome wasn’t that close. Santos got 46.5 percent of the vote, and Mockus, only 21.5 percent. Santos still fell short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a run-off, but there seems little prospect of Mockus winning in the second round. This was undoubtedly one of the most jaw-dropping failures of preelection polling since a 1936 Literary Digest survey predicted that Alf Landon would defeat Franklin Roosevelt with 57 percent of the vote. (FDR actually got won more than 60 percent.)

While pollsters sift their methodology or maybe simply go off to commit hara-kiri, let me just note that this is a big victory not only for the people of Colombia but also for the United States. We are now virtually assured of having a pro-American leader in Bogota, who will be interested in continuing to work closely with us to combat the baleful influence of the Hugo Chavez regime in neighboring Venezuela, which is in bed not only with FARC and the drug traffickers but also with Iran, Hezbollah, and other unsavory characters. It would be nice if Congress repaid the support of the Colombians by finally passing the long-delayed U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Accord. But no doubt the labor unions (to which the Obama administration appears to be in thrall) will continue to cast aspersions on Colombia’s considerable democratic achievement in order to disguise their protectionist agenda.

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Joe Kennedy Innocent of One Charge, Guilty of the Rest

On a list of prominent 20th-century Americans who were easy to dislike, Joseph P. Kennedy has to rank near the top.

The father of our 35th president was widely reviled in his own time as an unscrupulous operator in the worlds of high finance and politics. Having invested heavily in the presidential candidacy of Franklin Roosevelt, he was rewarded by FDR first with the post of chairman of the Security and Exchange Commission (Roosevelt famously defended his appointment of a man thought to be a crook with the quip that it “takes one to catch one”) and then with the post of U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, where his anti-Semitism and support of appeasement of the Nazis was particularly damaging. A master of insider trading and market manipulation, he was also long rumored to be connected with the Mafia and to have made a fortune in bootlegging during Prohibition as a bootlegger.

But according to author Daniel Okrent, the elder Kennedy was innocent of one of these charges: bootlegging. In an excerpt from his new history of Prohibition published by the Daily Beast, Okrent writes that whatever else you can pin on the Kennedy patriarch, including his serial philandering, he wasn’t a bootlegger. Okrent’s research shows that despite his other nefarious activities, Kennedy’s involvement in the liquor industry was strictly legal. Prior to the repeal of Prohibition, he had sold liquor via legal “medicinal” permits. After it ended, with the help of FDR’s son James, Kennedy obtained import agreements to sell various British whiskey and gin, which added to his already considerable fortune. But, the former New York Times ombudsman says, there is no evidence that he illegally brought in hooch during Prohibition. The “bootlegger” charge is, he believes, a legend that grew up long after the time when these actions supposedly took place.

It’s an interesting point but shouldn’t change anyone’s opinion of the old reprobate. Joseph P. Kennedy was a despicable person on so many levels and his involvement in our national life was generally so malevolent that the fact that there is one less crime on his charge sheet doesn’t make him more attractive. Indeed, as one reader said in a response to the excerpt posted by the Daily Beast, “I would have respected Joseph Kennedy more if he HAD been a bootlegger.”

On a list of prominent 20th-century Americans who were easy to dislike, Joseph P. Kennedy has to rank near the top.

The father of our 35th president was widely reviled in his own time as an unscrupulous operator in the worlds of high finance and politics. Having invested heavily in the presidential candidacy of Franklin Roosevelt, he was rewarded by FDR first with the post of chairman of the Security and Exchange Commission (Roosevelt famously defended his appointment of a man thought to be a crook with the quip that it “takes one to catch one”) and then with the post of U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, where his anti-Semitism and support of appeasement of the Nazis was particularly damaging. A master of insider trading and market manipulation, he was also long rumored to be connected with the Mafia and to have made a fortune in bootlegging during Prohibition as a bootlegger.

But according to author Daniel Okrent, the elder Kennedy was innocent of one of these charges: bootlegging. In an excerpt from his new history of Prohibition published by the Daily Beast, Okrent writes that whatever else you can pin on the Kennedy patriarch, including his serial philandering, he wasn’t a bootlegger. Okrent’s research shows that despite his other nefarious activities, Kennedy’s involvement in the liquor industry was strictly legal. Prior to the repeal of Prohibition, he had sold liquor via legal “medicinal” permits. After it ended, with the help of FDR’s son James, Kennedy obtained import agreements to sell various British whiskey and gin, which added to his already considerable fortune. But, the former New York Times ombudsman says, there is no evidence that he illegally brought in hooch during Prohibition. The “bootlegger” charge is, he believes, a legend that grew up long after the time when these actions supposedly took place.

It’s an interesting point but shouldn’t change anyone’s opinion of the old reprobate. Joseph P. Kennedy was a despicable person on so many levels and his involvement in our national life was generally so malevolent that the fact that there is one less crime on his charge sheet doesn’t make him more attractive. Indeed, as one reader said in a response to the excerpt posted by the Daily Beast, “I would have respected Joseph Kennedy more if he HAD been a bootlegger.”

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Who Will Write the History of the Battle Over ObamaCare?

President Obama characterized yesterday’s vote on the health-care bill as the nation answering “the call of history.” This turn of phrase is an accurate depiction of how he and his liberal supporters view both the issue and modern American history. From this frame of reference, health care is just the latest — and by no means last — step toward greater social justice in which the state assumes greater and greater responsibility for the lives of every American. Like unemployment insurance, social security, and Medicare, this bill’s purported goal of providing affordable health insurance to every American is seen by Obama and his backers as not only just but also inevitable, much the same way they think of the “New Deal” legislation passed by Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” They are convinced that, like those laws, ObamaCare will soon be seen not as a massive expansion of government power but as yet another chapter in America’s inexorable journey to social justice that will transform this law into a sacrosanct element of our political life.

Thus, going forward to the November midterm elections and beyond, the real question is not whether the bill will actually achieve universal health insurance without lowering the quality of care or raising costs; that is an impossibility. Rather, the question will be whether liberals in Congress and especially the media will be able to imprint the idea into the majority of American minds that, however messy its passage was and problematic the details may be, ObamaCare had to be passed and cannot be reversed.

The challenge for conservatives is more than merely pointing out ObamaCare’s shortcomings, its enormous costs, and its impact on a huge American industry. The challenge is also more than demonstrating how the health care that ordinary Americans get — and which the vast majority currently think is good — will decline. Conservatives’ real job is to attack the liberal narrative. What they must point out is that, rather than the next inevitable step toward greater justice, Obama’s “reform” is, in fact, a move away from individual freedom and toward the same nanny welfare state that Americans thought they had put to rest. Rather than a progressive innovation, ObamaCare is a retrograde move that seeks to drag American politics and the economy back to the mistaken emphasis on government power of the mid-20th century. Like so much of the welfare economics and failed liberal policies of that era, ObamaCare has the potential to do far more harm than good. Policies that are driven merely by good intentions and a belief in expanding government power can help derail the engine of American wealth creation and freedom — just as the devastating mistakes of “Great Society” liberalism did in the past.

It is an axiom that the victors write the history of battles and wars. If those who rightly see ObamaCare as a potential disaster want to win, they must not accept the liberal frame of reference about this issue or history. They must recast the both the debate just concluded and the one about to begin. It’s about freedom, not the liberal myth of government-imposed social justice.

President Obama characterized yesterday’s vote on the health-care bill as the nation answering “the call of history.” This turn of phrase is an accurate depiction of how he and his liberal supporters view both the issue and modern American history. From this frame of reference, health care is just the latest — and by no means last — step toward greater social justice in which the state assumes greater and greater responsibility for the lives of every American. Like unemployment insurance, social security, and Medicare, this bill’s purported goal of providing affordable health insurance to every American is seen by Obama and his backers as not only just but also inevitable, much the same way they think of the “New Deal” legislation passed by Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” They are convinced that, like those laws, ObamaCare will soon be seen not as a massive expansion of government power but as yet another chapter in America’s inexorable journey to social justice that will transform this law into a sacrosanct element of our political life.

Thus, going forward to the November midterm elections and beyond, the real question is not whether the bill will actually achieve universal health insurance without lowering the quality of care or raising costs; that is an impossibility. Rather, the question will be whether liberals in Congress and especially the media will be able to imprint the idea into the majority of American minds that, however messy its passage was and problematic the details may be, ObamaCare had to be passed and cannot be reversed.

The challenge for conservatives is more than merely pointing out ObamaCare’s shortcomings, its enormous costs, and its impact on a huge American industry. The challenge is also more than demonstrating how the health care that ordinary Americans get — and which the vast majority currently think is good — will decline. Conservatives’ real job is to attack the liberal narrative. What they must point out is that, rather than the next inevitable step toward greater justice, Obama’s “reform” is, in fact, a move away from individual freedom and toward the same nanny welfare state that Americans thought they had put to rest. Rather than a progressive innovation, ObamaCare is a retrograde move that seeks to drag American politics and the economy back to the mistaken emphasis on government power of the mid-20th century. Like so much of the welfare economics and failed liberal policies of that era, ObamaCare has the potential to do far more harm than good. Policies that are driven merely by good intentions and a belief in expanding government power can help derail the engine of American wealth creation and freedom — just as the devastating mistakes of “Great Society” liberalism did in the past.

It is an axiom that the victors write the history of battles and wars. If those who rightly see ObamaCare as a potential disaster want to win, they must not accept the liberal frame of reference about this issue or history. They must recast the both the debate just concluded and the one about to begin. It’s about freedom, not the liberal myth of government-imposed social justice.

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O Death Penalty, Where Is Thy Sting?

The New York Times reports this morning that an inmate on Arizona’s death row has died. He was under sentence of execution for a murder he committed in 1982. That’s 28 years ago. Viva Leroy Nash was 68 when he committed his last murder. He was 94 when he died of natural causes.

If ever there was an illustration that something is profoundly wrong with how capital punishment is handled in this country, this is it. Convicted in 1983, the Supreme Court of Arizona upheld his conviction in 1985. But appeal after appeal after appeal to state and federal courts kept the case — and Viva Leroy Nash — alive for a quarter of a century.

The point of capital punishment, of course, is not only to punish the offender but also to deter others from committing the same crime with a force that a jail sentence, however long, cannot match. But if execution is not to come until a point well after the criminal’s normal life expectancy, how does it deter?

It wasn’t always this way. On February 15, 1933, a man named Giuseppe Zangara tried to assassinate president-elect Franklin Roosevelt in Miami. He missed Roosevelt but hit Anton Cermak, the mayor of Chicago, who was shaking hands with Roosevelt at the time. Zangara pleaded guilty to attempted murder and was sentenced to 80 years. But when Cermak died of his wounds two weeks later, Zangara was tried for murder, convicted, sentenced to death, and executed on March 20, 33 days — not years — after the crime.

If we are to have the death penalty in this country, the system needs to be thoroughly reformed to prevent the gaming of it that has rendered the system absurd. A big part of the problem here, of course, is the duel sovereignty of the states and the federal government. Appeals bounce back and forth between the two justice systems with agonizing slowness. Perhaps there should be special courts to handle only death-penalty cases and appeals, with both the federal and state appeals being pursued simultaneously, and strict time limits for all but evidentiary reasons. A requirement that first-rate lawyers be assigned the defendant, not the usual courthouse hangers-on, and a standard of beyond any doubt instead of mere reasonable doubt would go a long way to ensure that only the truly guilty were executed.

I’m not an eye-for-an-eye-tooth-for-a-tooth sort of guy, but I think that it is possible for a person in possession of his faculties to commit a crime of such enormity as to justify the forfeit of his life. Hitler, after all, was not crazy. Would anyone have objected to his being hanged with the other Nazis at Nuremberg? Norway abolished the death penalty in the early 1920s, but the Norwegian government in exile re-established it in 1942, and after the war the government tried and executed 37 collaborators for treason and war crimes, including Vidkun Quisling, whose name entered many languages as a synonym for traitor. Quisling became a word that, in Churchill’s phrase, “will carry the scorn of mankind down the centuries.” Having seen justice done, the Norwegian parliament then once again abolished the death penalty.

It seems to me this country should either abolish the death penalty or reform the system to make it effective.

The New York Times reports this morning that an inmate on Arizona’s death row has died. He was under sentence of execution for a murder he committed in 1982. That’s 28 years ago. Viva Leroy Nash was 68 when he committed his last murder. He was 94 when he died of natural causes.

If ever there was an illustration that something is profoundly wrong with how capital punishment is handled in this country, this is it. Convicted in 1983, the Supreme Court of Arizona upheld his conviction in 1985. But appeal after appeal after appeal to state and federal courts kept the case — and Viva Leroy Nash — alive for a quarter of a century.

The point of capital punishment, of course, is not only to punish the offender but also to deter others from committing the same crime with a force that a jail sentence, however long, cannot match. But if execution is not to come until a point well after the criminal’s normal life expectancy, how does it deter?

It wasn’t always this way. On February 15, 1933, a man named Giuseppe Zangara tried to assassinate president-elect Franklin Roosevelt in Miami. He missed Roosevelt but hit Anton Cermak, the mayor of Chicago, who was shaking hands with Roosevelt at the time. Zangara pleaded guilty to attempted murder and was sentenced to 80 years. But when Cermak died of his wounds two weeks later, Zangara was tried for murder, convicted, sentenced to death, and executed on March 20, 33 days — not years — after the crime.

If we are to have the death penalty in this country, the system needs to be thoroughly reformed to prevent the gaming of it that has rendered the system absurd. A big part of the problem here, of course, is the duel sovereignty of the states and the federal government. Appeals bounce back and forth between the two justice systems with agonizing slowness. Perhaps there should be special courts to handle only death-penalty cases and appeals, with both the federal and state appeals being pursued simultaneously, and strict time limits for all but evidentiary reasons. A requirement that first-rate lawyers be assigned the defendant, not the usual courthouse hangers-on, and a standard of beyond any doubt instead of mere reasonable doubt would go a long way to ensure that only the truly guilty were executed.

I’m not an eye-for-an-eye-tooth-for-a-tooth sort of guy, but I think that it is possible for a person in possession of his faculties to commit a crime of such enormity as to justify the forfeit of his life. Hitler, after all, was not crazy. Would anyone have objected to his being hanged with the other Nazis at Nuremberg? Norway abolished the death penalty in the early 1920s, but the Norwegian government in exile re-established it in 1942, and after the war the government tried and executed 37 collaborators for treason and war crimes, including Vidkun Quisling, whose name entered many languages as a synonym for traitor. Quisling became a word that, in Churchill’s phrase, “will carry the scorn of mankind down the centuries.” Having seen justice done, the Norwegian parliament then once again abolished the death penalty.

It seems to me this country should either abolish the death penalty or reform the system to make it effective.

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What Would Help?

The Hill asks the provocative question: “What can Obama say to restore confidence?” (Yes, there is always the LBJ speech.) Some of the answers offered by their commentators are certainly blunt. One physics professor offers this:

I don’t know of anything in Obama’s history, education, or experience that indicates that he knows anything at all about either national security or intelligence. So there is nothing he could say to the American people that would be credible. If he could find someone in his kingdom who does know something, that might be reassuring, but it is a telling fact that I can’t think of such a person.

Yikes. Then there is this one from a professor at the Univeristy of California at Irvine, Peter Navarro: “Obama has two communication problems that make this problematic: He has lost credibility on several other issues, particularly the economy, that he is no longer believable. He is way over-exposed in the media so any new appearance has less communicative value. End result: America is turned off and tuning him out.” Ouch.

Both of these gentlemen are, in essence, suggesting that the cure to what ails Obama cannot be cosmetic or simplistic. It would require more than spin and another round of Sunday talk-show appearances. Presidents do reinvent themselves, make adjustments, and recover their footing, however. Whether the Obami have the self-awareness and humility to do so is the big open question. Michael Barone tactfully recounts that Obama had an overabundance of “self-confidence” after his 2008 victory. (And who would not after toppling the Clintons and winning the presidency?) He observes:

Getting elected president of the United States must be an enormously confidence-building experience: So many people wanted the job, and you got it. Being president can be more chastening when events don’t turn out as you anticipated. The great presidents — Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt — faced events no one expected and in response changed policies and priorities without ever, so far as we know, losing their nerve. Lesser presidents, including Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, did so as well. Will Barack Obama?

Well, first, it would require some awareness that there is something amiss. Second, it would require that Obama gain back the attention of voters who have tuned him out. And finally, it would require that he have some improved set of policies or a new national-security vision. I’m not sure any of those are in the cards. Perhaps a jolting midterm election will help.


The Hill asks the provocative question: “What can Obama say to restore confidence?” (Yes, there is always the LBJ speech.) Some of the answers offered by their commentators are certainly blunt. One physics professor offers this:

I don’t know of anything in Obama’s history, education, or experience that indicates that he knows anything at all about either national security or intelligence. So there is nothing he could say to the American people that would be credible. If he could find someone in his kingdom who does know something, that might be reassuring, but it is a telling fact that I can’t think of such a person.

Yikes. Then there is this one from a professor at the Univeristy of California at Irvine, Peter Navarro: “Obama has two communication problems that make this problematic: He has lost credibility on several other issues, particularly the economy, that he is no longer believable. He is way over-exposed in the media so any new appearance has less communicative value. End result: America is turned off and tuning him out.” Ouch.

Both of these gentlemen are, in essence, suggesting that the cure to what ails Obama cannot be cosmetic or simplistic. It would require more than spin and another round of Sunday talk-show appearances. Presidents do reinvent themselves, make adjustments, and recover their footing, however. Whether the Obami have the self-awareness and humility to do so is the big open question. Michael Barone tactfully recounts that Obama had an overabundance of “self-confidence” after his 2008 victory. (And who would not after toppling the Clintons and winning the presidency?) He observes:

Getting elected president of the United States must be an enormously confidence-building experience: So many people wanted the job, and you got it. Being president can be more chastening when events don’t turn out as you anticipated. The great presidents — Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt — faced events no one expected and in response changed policies and priorities without ever, so far as we know, losing their nerve. Lesser presidents, including Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, did so as well. Will Barack Obama?

Well, first, it would require some awareness that there is something amiss. Second, it would require that Obama gain back the attention of voters who have tuned him out. And finally, it would require that he have some improved set of policies or a new national-security vision. I’m not sure any of those are in the cards. Perhaps a jolting midterm election will help.


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Obama, the Overmatched President

In Howard Fineman’s column in Newsweek we read this:

President Barack Obama begins and ends each workday at the White House by going over a to-do list with his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. The two were reviewing things recently when Emanuel reminded him of the sheer size of the administration’s workload, which includes fending off the Great Recession and dealing with terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now, evidently, Yemen. “You know, Mr. President,” Emanuel said, “Franklin Roosevelt had eight years to deal with the economy before he had to lead a war. You have to do it all at once.”

Perhaps Barack “No Drama” Obama has been replaced by Barack “Melodrama” Obama. It would be beneficial to us all if the president and his staff eased up just a bit on the whining, blame-shifting, and feeling sorry for themselves (not to mention the comparisons to FDR). They should become, to borrow an old-fashioned word, more manly.

Memo to the President: You face stiff challenges, as do all presidents. But for the record, a recession is not a depression and the war in Afghanistan is not comparable to World War II. The most difficult actions that had to be taken on the economic front were ones done by your predecessor, before you were sworn in – and a good deal of the responsibility for what went wrong rests with the party you represent (see blocking reforms of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae). The Iraq war you inherited is going pretty well (no thanks to the policies you advocated when you were in the Senate); our presence there is winding down. And al-Qaeda, while still a lethal threat, has been significantly degraded and weakened thanks to the policies of the last eight years. Here is the truth you do not want to hear but need to be told: You took a difficult situation you inherited and, in several respects, made things worse rather than better.

If the burdens of the office are too much for Mr. Obama, he should never have sought it in the first place — and he might consider not seeking it next time. For now, though, the office is his. We don’t need to hear how overworked and overwhelmed and overmatched he is. Unfortunately we see evidence of that almost every day.

In Howard Fineman’s column in Newsweek we read this:

President Barack Obama begins and ends each workday at the White House by going over a to-do list with his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. The two were reviewing things recently when Emanuel reminded him of the sheer size of the administration’s workload, which includes fending off the Great Recession and dealing with terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now, evidently, Yemen. “You know, Mr. President,” Emanuel said, “Franklin Roosevelt had eight years to deal with the economy before he had to lead a war. You have to do it all at once.”

Perhaps Barack “No Drama” Obama has been replaced by Barack “Melodrama” Obama. It would be beneficial to us all if the president and his staff eased up just a bit on the whining, blame-shifting, and feeling sorry for themselves (not to mention the comparisons to FDR). They should become, to borrow an old-fashioned word, more manly.

Memo to the President: You face stiff challenges, as do all presidents. But for the record, a recession is not a depression and the war in Afghanistan is not comparable to World War II. The most difficult actions that had to be taken on the economic front were ones done by your predecessor, before you were sworn in – and a good deal of the responsibility for what went wrong rests with the party you represent (see blocking reforms of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae). The Iraq war you inherited is going pretty well (no thanks to the policies you advocated when you were in the Senate); our presence there is winding down. And al-Qaeda, while still a lethal threat, has been significantly degraded and weakened thanks to the policies of the last eight years. Here is the truth you do not want to hear but need to be told: You took a difficult situation you inherited and, in several respects, made things worse rather than better.

If the burdens of the office are too much for Mr. Obama, he should never have sought it in the first place — and he might consider not seeking it next time. For now, though, the office is his. We don’t need to hear how overworked and overwhelmed and overmatched he is. Unfortunately we see evidence of that almost every day.

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Justice Brandeis, Call Your Office

The Times this morning ran a story on yet another fiddle that has been uncovered from the depths of the health-reform bill that passed in the Senate on Christmas Eve. This one favors construction unions. While, under the act, most companies with fewer than 50 employees would not have to provide government-mandated health insurance or pay a tax, those in the construction business would be exempt only if they have fewer than five employees. At least the Times notes that:

The construction industry provision is receiving a second look as work begins in earnest this week to resolve differences in bills passed by the Senate and the House to remake the nation’s health care system. Other provisions sure to be scrutinized include a tax break for the Blue Cross and Blue Shield plan in Nebraska; Medicare coverage for residents of Libby, Mont., sickened by a mineral mine; extra Medicaid money for Massachusetts, Nebraska and Vermont; and a special dispensation for a handful of doctor-owned hospitals.

One would hope that the endless number of constitutionally dubious provisions, including such lulus as requiring a supermajority in the Senate to repeal certain portions of the act, will also get a second look.

Of course, it may be that these provisions end up rescuing the country from this dreadful legislation. In 1933, at the very end of his 100 days, Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the National Industrial Recovery Act. Title II of that act established one of the New Deal’s most famous agencies, the Public Works Administration (PWA), which would build across the country post offices, highways, dams, etc. But Title I of the NIRA established the National Recovery Administration (NRA). It authorized the president to regulate industry, including the establishment of cartels and monopolies, to set prices, and, in effect, oversee the entire American economy, much as today’s health bill would regulate the health-care industry.

It was a breathtaking expansion of federal power and, for a while, the NRA’s symbol — a blue eagle with a gear wheel in one claw and lightning bolts in the other — and its slogan, “We Do Our Part,” were everywhere. But two years later, the Supreme Court ruled in a famous case, Schechter Poultry  Corp v. United States, that the bill violated both the separation of powers doctrine by delegating legislative authority to the president and the commerce clause.

While the court at that point had a majority of conservative justices (two years later FDR would try to pack the court to get rid of it), the decision was unanimous. Justice Louis Brandeis, no conservative, told aides of the president, “This is the end of this business of centralization, and I want you to go back and tell the president that we’re not going to let this government centralize everything.”

Where is Justice Brandeis now that we really need him?

The Times this morning ran a story on yet another fiddle that has been uncovered from the depths of the health-reform bill that passed in the Senate on Christmas Eve. This one favors construction unions. While, under the act, most companies with fewer than 50 employees would not have to provide government-mandated health insurance or pay a tax, those in the construction business would be exempt only if they have fewer than five employees. At least the Times notes that:

The construction industry provision is receiving a second look as work begins in earnest this week to resolve differences in bills passed by the Senate and the House to remake the nation’s health care system. Other provisions sure to be scrutinized include a tax break for the Blue Cross and Blue Shield plan in Nebraska; Medicare coverage for residents of Libby, Mont., sickened by a mineral mine; extra Medicaid money for Massachusetts, Nebraska and Vermont; and a special dispensation for a handful of doctor-owned hospitals.

One would hope that the endless number of constitutionally dubious provisions, including such lulus as requiring a supermajority in the Senate to repeal certain portions of the act, will also get a second look.

Of course, it may be that these provisions end up rescuing the country from this dreadful legislation. In 1933, at the very end of his 100 days, Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the National Industrial Recovery Act. Title II of that act established one of the New Deal’s most famous agencies, the Public Works Administration (PWA), which would build across the country post offices, highways, dams, etc. But Title I of the NIRA established the National Recovery Administration (NRA). It authorized the president to regulate industry, including the establishment of cartels and monopolies, to set prices, and, in effect, oversee the entire American economy, much as today’s health bill would regulate the health-care industry.

It was a breathtaking expansion of federal power and, for a while, the NRA’s symbol — a blue eagle with a gear wheel in one claw and lightning bolts in the other — and its slogan, “We Do Our Part,” were everywhere. But two years later, the Supreme Court ruled in a famous case, Schechter Poultry  Corp v. United States, that the bill violated both the separation of powers doctrine by delegating legislative authority to the president and the commerce clause.

While the court at that point had a majority of conservative justices (two years later FDR would try to pack the court to get rid of it), the decision was unanimous. Justice Louis Brandeis, no conservative, told aides of the president, “This is the end of this business of centralization, and I want you to go back and tell the president that we’re not going to let this government centralize everything.”

Where is Justice Brandeis now that we really need him?

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Blame America First — World War II Edition

Today is the 68th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. President Franklin Roosevelt memorably described December 7, 1941, as a “date that will live in infamy,” but as the number of veterans and the witnesses of that war dwindle, its importance in the American calendar has declined. Though the solemn ceremonies in Honolulu’s harbor continue, as far as the New York Times is concerned, the subject of the Japanese surprise attack is nowadays only dragged out of mothballs to make a political point that reinforces its current view of the United States. Thus, the only mention of Pearl Harbor in the print edition of the paper came a day early in an op-ed that placed the blame for the naval disaster and America’s forced entry in that war on Roosevelt.

But not, as author James Bradley points out, on Franklin but on his cousin Theodore, whose presidential term ended nearly 33 years before the Japanese navy set out to sink our Pacific fleet. Bradley’s claim to fame is that he is the author of Flags of Our Fathers, a book that chronicled the lives of the five Marines and one sailor (Bradley’s father) who raised the American flag over Mount Suribachi during the taking of the island of Iwo Jima from the Japanese in February 1945. Bradley’s main theme was that the famous photograph and the patriotic fervor it generated were, in a fundamental sense, fraudulent. His book was the source of an overpraised and equally cynical film by Clint Eastwood (who followed it with a companion film that treated the Japanese side of the battle without the same sort of cynicism). Bradley followed that up with a subsequent book, Fly Boys, which took on the same mission of viewing the war against Japan with moral relativism, and then another new volume, The Imperial Cruise, which elaborates on his thesis that it was all somehow the fault of TR. The Imperial Cruise earned a favorable review from the Times last month.

This revisionist take on the history of World War II may seem familiar to those who have seen the way some have taken our generation’s Pearl Harbor — the 9/11 attacks — and sought to blame it on American foreign policy or support for Israel rather than on America-hating al-Qaeda terrorists. The sheer wrongheadedness of an argument that seeks to mitigate the guilt of those who actually committed these atrocities and instead blame the victims is insufferable. But while most Americans know enough about the contemporary world to dismiss such garbage out of hand, given the well-documented decline in our knowledge of our own history, Bradley’s assault on the first president Roosevelt deserves at least a brief refutation.

First, contrary to Bradley’s thesis, the Japanese needed no encouragement from TR to set them on an imperialist path. The 1868 Meiji Restoration in Japan launched a long period of military and industrial buildup that aimed to create a modern state that would have the power not only to resist Western pressures but also to make the country a regional power. The roots of Japan’s attempt to extend its empire over the entire Pacific in the 1930s and 1940s can be found in that event and the subsequent development of a political and military culture that saw service to the militarized state as a religious duty for all Japanese.

Bradley also accuses TR of siding with the Japanese in their 1905 war with tsarist Russia and thereby facilitating their imperialist ambitions and their brutal control of Korea. But a full decade earlier, Japan had fought a war with China over that same issue without any assistance or encouragement from Roosevelt. As for the peace treaty that Roosevelt brokered (and that earned him a Nobel Peace Prize), far from it being a case of the president openly siding with Japan, as Bradley alleges, the treaty was criticized by many Japanese because its restrained terms took some of the fruits of their military victory away from them, as most of Manchuria was given back to China. Bradley also omits the fact that it was Britain, not the United States, that was the principal military ally of Japan during this period.

We may well look back on the racist attitudes of Theodore Roosevelt and other Americans toward Asia a century ago with some regret. But the idea that our 26th president was in any way responsible for the creation of a Japanese state that viewed the subjugation of the Eastern Hemisphere as a divinely inspired mission for whom any atrocity or deceit was permissible is utterly devoid of historical truth.

While an earlier generation of historical revisionists blamed Franklin Roosevelt for Pearl Harbor because they thought he welcomed a Japanese attack that would convince Americans to join World War II, today’s revisionists have an even broader agenda. As with interpretations of our current battle with Islamists that seek to blame it all on our own sins, Bradley prefers to spin tales about Teddy Roosevelt rather than to face up to the truth about the Japan that his father fought. It speaks volumes about the state of the New York Times that its editors would choose this crackpot historian’s rant as their only acknowledgement of the anniversary of December 7, 1941.

Today is the 68th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. President Franklin Roosevelt memorably described December 7, 1941, as a “date that will live in infamy,” but as the number of veterans and the witnesses of that war dwindle, its importance in the American calendar has declined. Though the solemn ceremonies in Honolulu’s harbor continue, as far as the New York Times is concerned, the subject of the Japanese surprise attack is nowadays only dragged out of mothballs to make a political point that reinforces its current view of the United States. Thus, the only mention of Pearl Harbor in the print edition of the paper came a day early in an op-ed that placed the blame for the naval disaster and America’s forced entry in that war on Roosevelt.

But not, as author James Bradley points out, on Franklin but on his cousin Theodore, whose presidential term ended nearly 33 years before the Japanese navy set out to sink our Pacific fleet. Bradley’s claim to fame is that he is the author of Flags of Our Fathers, a book that chronicled the lives of the five Marines and one sailor (Bradley’s father) who raised the American flag over Mount Suribachi during the taking of the island of Iwo Jima from the Japanese in February 1945. Bradley’s main theme was that the famous photograph and the patriotic fervor it generated were, in a fundamental sense, fraudulent. His book was the source of an overpraised and equally cynical film by Clint Eastwood (who followed it with a companion film that treated the Japanese side of the battle without the same sort of cynicism). Bradley followed that up with a subsequent book, Fly Boys, which took on the same mission of viewing the war against Japan with moral relativism, and then another new volume, The Imperial Cruise, which elaborates on his thesis that it was all somehow the fault of TR. The Imperial Cruise earned a favorable review from the Times last month.

This revisionist take on the history of World War II may seem familiar to those who have seen the way some have taken our generation’s Pearl Harbor — the 9/11 attacks — and sought to blame it on American foreign policy or support for Israel rather than on America-hating al-Qaeda terrorists. The sheer wrongheadedness of an argument that seeks to mitigate the guilt of those who actually committed these atrocities and instead blame the victims is insufferable. But while most Americans know enough about the contemporary world to dismiss such garbage out of hand, given the well-documented decline in our knowledge of our own history, Bradley’s assault on the first president Roosevelt deserves at least a brief refutation.

First, contrary to Bradley’s thesis, the Japanese needed no encouragement from TR to set them on an imperialist path. The 1868 Meiji Restoration in Japan launched a long period of military and industrial buildup that aimed to create a modern state that would have the power not only to resist Western pressures but also to make the country a regional power. The roots of Japan’s attempt to extend its empire over the entire Pacific in the 1930s and 1940s can be found in that event and the subsequent development of a political and military culture that saw service to the militarized state as a religious duty for all Japanese.

Bradley also accuses TR of siding with the Japanese in their 1905 war with tsarist Russia and thereby facilitating their imperialist ambitions and their brutal control of Korea. But a full decade earlier, Japan had fought a war with China over that same issue without any assistance or encouragement from Roosevelt. As for the peace treaty that Roosevelt brokered (and that earned him a Nobel Peace Prize), far from it being a case of the president openly siding with Japan, as Bradley alleges, the treaty was criticized by many Japanese because its restrained terms took some of the fruits of their military victory away from them, as most of Manchuria was given back to China. Bradley also omits the fact that it was Britain, not the United States, that was the principal military ally of Japan during this period.

We may well look back on the racist attitudes of Theodore Roosevelt and other Americans toward Asia a century ago with some regret. But the idea that our 26th president was in any way responsible for the creation of a Japanese state that viewed the subjugation of the Eastern Hemisphere as a divinely inspired mission for whom any atrocity or deceit was permissible is utterly devoid of historical truth.

While an earlier generation of historical revisionists blamed Franklin Roosevelt for Pearl Harbor because they thought he welcomed a Japanese attack that would convince Americans to join World War II, today’s revisionists have an even broader agenda. As with interpretations of our current battle with Islamists that seek to blame it all on our own sins, Bradley prefers to spin tales about Teddy Roosevelt rather than to face up to the truth about the Japan that his father fought. It speaks volumes about the state of the New York Times that its editors would choose this crackpot historian’s rant as their only acknowledgement of the anniversary of December 7, 1941.

Read Less

LIVE BLOG: America in the World

Obama takes some dramatic license in recounting his record:

I have spent this year renewing our alliances and forging new partnerships. And we have forged a new beginning between America and the Muslim World – one that recognizes our mutual interest in breaking a cycle of conflict, and that promises a future in which those who kill innocents are isolated by those who stand up for peace and prosperity and human dignity.

Finally, we must draw on the strength of our values – for the challenges that we face may have changed, but the things that we believe in must not.  That is why we must promote our values by living them at home – which is why I have prohibited torture and will close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. And we must make it clear to every man, woman and child around the world who lives under the dark cloud of tyranny that America will speak out on behalf of their human rights, and tend to the light of freedom, and justice, and opportunity, and respect for the dignity of all peoples. That is who we are. That is the moral source of America’s authority.

It would have been grand had he done all that! But to his credit, he also gives one of his more robust defenses of America’s role in the world:

Since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, and the service and sacrifice of our grandparents, our country has borne a special burden in global affairs. We have spilled American blood in many countries on multiple continents. We have spent our revenue to help others rebuild from rubble and develop their own economies. We have joined with others to develop an architecture of institutions – from the United Nations to NATO to the World Bank – that provide for the common security and prosperity of human beings.

We have not always been thanked for these efforts, and we have at times made mistakes. But more than any other nation, the United States of America has underwritten global security for over six decades – a time that, for all its problems, has seen walls come down, markets open, billions lifted from poverty, unparalleled scientific progress, and advancing frontiers of human liberty.

For unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination. Our union was founded in resistance to oppression. We do not seek to occupy other nations. We will not claim another nation’s resources or target other peoples because their faith or ethnicity is different from ours. What we have fought for – and what we continue to fight for – is a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and access opportunity.

More of that would be nice to hear — and when he is talking to other nations, and not just to the cadets at West Point.

Obama takes some dramatic license in recounting his record:

I have spent this year renewing our alliances and forging new partnerships. And we have forged a new beginning between America and the Muslim World – one that recognizes our mutual interest in breaking a cycle of conflict, and that promises a future in which those who kill innocents are isolated by those who stand up for peace and prosperity and human dignity.

Finally, we must draw on the strength of our values – for the challenges that we face may have changed, but the things that we believe in must not.  That is why we must promote our values by living them at home – which is why I have prohibited torture and will close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. And we must make it clear to every man, woman and child around the world who lives under the dark cloud of tyranny that America will speak out on behalf of their human rights, and tend to the light of freedom, and justice, and opportunity, and respect for the dignity of all peoples. That is who we are. That is the moral source of America’s authority.

It would have been grand had he done all that! But to his credit, he also gives one of his more robust defenses of America’s role in the world:

Since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, and the service and sacrifice of our grandparents, our country has borne a special burden in global affairs. We have spilled American blood in many countries on multiple continents. We have spent our revenue to help others rebuild from rubble and develop their own economies. We have joined with others to develop an architecture of institutions – from the United Nations to NATO to the World Bank – that provide for the common security and prosperity of human beings.

We have not always been thanked for these efforts, and we have at times made mistakes. But more than any other nation, the United States of America has underwritten global security for over six decades – a time that, for all its problems, has seen walls come down, markets open, billions lifted from poverty, unparalleled scientific progress, and advancing frontiers of human liberty.

For unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination. Our union was founded in resistance to oppression. We do not seek to occupy other nations. We will not claim another nation’s resources or target other peoples because their faith or ethnicity is different from ours. What we have fought for – and what we continue to fight for – is a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and access opportunity.

More of that would be nice to hear — and when he is talking to other nations, and not just to the cadets at West Point.

Read Less




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