Commentary Magazine


Topic: Franklin

Happy Constitution Day

On this day in 1787, delegates to the Federal Convention completed their work (which began in May) and voted to approve a new Constitution, which was submitted to the states for ratification (which occurred on June 21, 1788). Now the oldest written national constitution in the world, the British statesman William Gladstone described it as “the most remarkable work known to me in modern times to have been produced by the human intellect.” It was also on this day that Benjamin Franklin, who by then was in his 80s and seldom participated in the constitutional debates, delivered a wise and moving speech in which he said this:

I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other. I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the Builders of Babel; and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats. Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good. I have never whispered a syllable of them abroad. Within these walls they were born, and here they shall die.

It is hard to overstate the importance of, and the sheer brilliance and prescience of, the American Constitution. It established the world’s first stable democratic government and provided the governing framework for the most powerful and benevolent nation in human history. The product above all of 36-year-old James Madison, an unparalleled master of political and constitutional theory, the Constitution also resulted in the Federalist Papers — 85 essays written between October 1787 and May 1788 by Alexander Hamilton (author of 51 of the essays), Madison (author of 29), and John Jay (author of five) — which explain the whole theory of constitutional government and which helped pave the way for ratification.

George W. Carey and James McClellan, in their fine introduction to The Federalist, write that this collection of essays, hastily written by three politicians in the midst of a political struggle, makes the Federalist Papers “a unique document, unparalleled in the literature of the Western political tradition.”

On this day in 1787, delegates to the Federal Convention completed their work (which began in May) and voted to approve a new Constitution, which was submitted to the states for ratification (which occurred on June 21, 1788). Now the oldest written national constitution in the world, the British statesman William Gladstone described it as “the most remarkable work known to me in modern times to have been produced by the human intellect.” It was also on this day that Benjamin Franklin, who by then was in his 80s and seldom participated in the constitutional debates, delivered a wise and moving speech in which he said this:

I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other. I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the Builders of Babel; and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats. Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good. I have never whispered a syllable of them abroad. Within these walls they were born, and here they shall die.

It is hard to overstate the importance of, and the sheer brilliance and prescience of, the American Constitution. It established the world’s first stable democratic government and provided the governing framework for the most powerful and benevolent nation in human history. The product above all of 36-year-old James Madison, an unparalleled master of political and constitutional theory, the Constitution also resulted in the Federalist Papers — 85 essays written between October 1787 and May 1788 by Alexander Hamilton (author of 51 of the essays), Madison (author of 29), and John Jay (author of five) — which explain the whole theory of constitutional government and which helped pave the way for ratification.

George W. Carey and James McClellan, in their fine introduction to The Federalist, write that this collection of essays, hastily written by three politicians in the midst of a political struggle, makes the Federalist Papers “a unique document, unparalleled in the literature of the Western political tradition.”

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“A Barbarous Relic”

Jennifer notes this morning that Ron Paul wants an audit of Fort Knox and the New York Federal Reserve Bank to see how much gold is stored there, if any. This is pure conspiracy theory, for one thing. Given the fact that both Fort Knox and the New York Fed have very large numbers of people who work there, with someone on-duty 24 hours a day, how could billions in gold be removed without the story getting out? As Benjamin Franklin said, “Two men can keep a secret, if one of them is dead.”

For another thing, most of the gold held in the vaults 85 feet below street level at the New York Fed on Liberty Street in lower Manhattan does not belong to the United States. It belongs to many of the world’s other countries, who store it there to facilitate transactions in gold between them. So if that gold is gone, it would not only be fraud; it would be theft, as well.

The truth of the matter is that the last link between gold and money was severed in 1971, when President Nixon ended the right of other countries to redeem dollars in gold. Individuals had lost that right in 1933. So if the gold in Fort Knox were to suddenly vanish into the bowels of the earth, as once happened to the contents of Scrooge McDuck’s money bin (don’t worry, he got it back), it wouldn’t really matter. Money today is money because people believe it to be money (i.e., “a commodity that is universally accepted in exchange for every other commodity”). If that belief were to flicker, if people were to begin to doubt the acceptability of the dollar in the market place, then it wouldn’t matter how much gold was stored in Fort Knox.

As Lord Keynes wrote in Monetary Reform, gold, as a monetary standard, “is already a barbarous relic.” That book was published in 1924, 11 years before Ron Paul was born.

Jennifer notes this morning that Ron Paul wants an audit of Fort Knox and the New York Federal Reserve Bank to see how much gold is stored there, if any. This is pure conspiracy theory, for one thing. Given the fact that both Fort Knox and the New York Fed have very large numbers of people who work there, with someone on-duty 24 hours a day, how could billions in gold be removed without the story getting out? As Benjamin Franklin said, “Two men can keep a secret, if one of them is dead.”

For another thing, most of the gold held in the vaults 85 feet below street level at the New York Fed on Liberty Street in lower Manhattan does not belong to the United States. It belongs to many of the world’s other countries, who store it there to facilitate transactions in gold between them. So if that gold is gone, it would not only be fraud; it would be theft, as well.

The truth of the matter is that the last link between gold and money was severed in 1971, when President Nixon ended the right of other countries to redeem dollars in gold. Individuals had lost that right in 1933. So if the gold in Fort Knox were to suddenly vanish into the bowels of the earth, as once happened to the contents of Scrooge McDuck’s money bin (don’t worry, he got it back), it wouldn’t really matter. Money today is money because people believe it to be money (i.e., “a commodity that is universally accepted in exchange for every other commodity”). If that belief were to flicker, if people were to begin to doubt the acceptability of the dollar in the market place, then it wouldn’t matter how much gold was stored in Fort Knox.

As Lord Keynes wrote in Monetary Reform, gold, as a monetary standard, “is already a barbarous relic.” That book was published in 1924, 11 years before Ron Paul was born.

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RE: The Ever-So-Convenient Myth

John, as you say, “The rich have certainly been getting richer in the last thirty years. In 1982 it took a measly $80 million or so to make it onto the Forbes 400 List. Today it takes over a billion. But this is an artifact not of crime but of the technological revolution the world is undergoing, thanks to the microprocessor. Every major technological development has produced an inflorescence of fortune making.”

But let’s not forget inflation, which compounded since 1982 amounts to 95 percent, and whittles down that Saganesque Billion to barely above $500 million. So the pockets of the rich have not grown quite as heavy as might appear at first blush. But that is beside the point.

For even if income inequality in America could be traced back to winner-take-all circumstances, which it can’t, I find it hard to believe that Democrats would shun zero-sum games on principle: all the entitlement programs of which they are so fond constitute zero-sum transactions — games I cannot call them, because a game opens to an uncertain outcome in a world where, in fact, everything is so, except, to quote Ben Franklin, “death and taxes.” But the principle remains predatory: take from some to give others, redistribute existing wealth without creating any new value.

President Obama and the other bleeding-heart egalitarians in Congress can’t even claim to be doing all this vigorous reshuffling for the poor little guy’s sake alone. Not after they authorized the bailout of imprudent banks and automobile giants — “big baaad businesses” par excellence. Not after they taxed indiscriminately, including among lower-income brackets, to subsidize the purchase of such expensive, ultra-fuel-efficient cars that, even after the “cash-for-clunkers” rebate, only the relatively rich could afford. Not after they handed out generous rebates to those wealthy enough to afford purchasing a home in this miserable economy.

No, if the party in power had any qualms about zero-sum games, it would blush at its own record. In mentioning income inequality as a rationale for nationalizing health care, Senator Max Baucus was probably just throwing some red meat to his leftist constituency, to whom everything looks more virtuous and worthwhile when seen under the prism of wealth redistribution.

John, as you say, “The rich have certainly been getting richer in the last thirty years. In 1982 it took a measly $80 million or so to make it onto the Forbes 400 List. Today it takes over a billion. But this is an artifact not of crime but of the technological revolution the world is undergoing, thanks to the microprocessor. Every major technological development has produced an inflorescence of fortune making.”

But let’s not forget inflation, which compounded since 1982 amounts to 95 percent, and whittles down that Saganesque Billion to barely above $500 million. So the pockets of the rich have not grown quite as heavy as might appear at first blush. But that is beside the point.

For even if income inequality in America could be traced back to winner-take-all circumstances, which it can’t, I find it hard to believe that Democrats would shun zero-sum games on principle: all the entitlement programs of which they are so fond constitute zero-sum transactions — games I cannot call them, because a game opens to an uncertain outcome in a world where, in fact, everything is so, except, to quote Ben Franklin, “death and taxes.” But the principle remains predatory: take from some to give others, redistribute existing wealth without creating any new value.

President Obama and the other bleeding-heart egalitarians in Congress can’t even claim to be doing all this vigorous reshuffling for the poor little guy’s sake alone. Not after they authorized the bailout of imprudent banks and automobile giants — “big baaad businesses” par excellence. Not after they taxed indiscriminately, including among lower-income brackets, to subsidize the purchase of such expensive, ultra-fuel-efficient cars that, even after the “cash-for-clunkers” rebate, only the relatively rich could afford. Not after they handed out generous rebates to those wealthy enough to afford purchasing a home in this miserable economy.

No, if the party in power had any qualms about zero-sum games, it would blush at its own record. In mentioning income inequality as a rationale for nationalizing health care, Senator Max Baucus was probably just throwing some red meat to his leftist constituency, to whom everything looks more virtuous and worthwhile when seen under the prism of wealth redistribution.

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Toomey’s Path to Victory: Don’t Listen to Rick

In today’s New York Post, COMMENTARY magazine contributor Abby Wisse Schachter writes about the voters’ “revolt in Pennsylvania,” as conservative Republican Pat Toomey now leads incumbent and newly minted Democrat Arlen Specter by a 45-to-31 percent margin in the latest Franklin & College poll. Given the rising tide of dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress; the cynical Specter party switch may turn out to have been in vain.

Interestingly, Schachter quotes former Republican Senator Rick Santorum (who backed Specter against Toomey in the 2004 GOP primary, which the latter lost by a whisker) as advising Toomey to stick to the economy while continuing his campaign in the coming months. He’s right about that but given the way his own career in the Senate ended in a landslide loss to lackluster Democrat Bob Casey, Jr. in 2006, Santorum is probably the last person Toomey should be listening to. Nevertheless, Santorum’s rise and fall provides an interesting set of lessons for Northeastern Republicans.

• Good Timing is Crucial: Santorum was first elected to the Senate in 1994, the year of the GOP Congressional avalanche led by Newt Gingrich. He lost his seat in 2006, the year the Democrats took back both houses of Congress. If, as it seems to be the case today, 2010 will be a big Republican year, Toomey’s got this point nailed.

• Be Fortunate in Your Opponents: In 1994, Santorum beat Harris Wofford, an old-time New Deal Democrat who didn’t excite voters in a year when being the incumbent didn’t help. In 2000, when Santorum won an easy race for re-election, he faced conservative Democrat Rep. Ron Klink. Besides an unfortunate name and no statewide appeal, Klink was intensely disliked by his party’s liberal base. Toomey has this category in his favor too. Specter has the burden of being an incumbent who also lacks an enthusiastic base, since most Democrats are less than thrilled about backing a turncoat whose cynicism is legendary.

• Don’t Let Your Opponent Brand You as an Extremist: In 1994, both Santorum and Wofford were able to say that their opponents represented their party’s hard-liners. Neither was able to capture the center but in a Republican year Santorum won a narrow victory. In 2000, after six years of doing his best to portray himself as a politician more interested in serving his constituents than in ideology, Santorum was immune to the Democratic strategy of branding him as an extremist. But by 2006, after a second term during which he acted as if the audience he cared most about was his party’s base as he maneuvered for a possible future run for the White House (an ambition that, believe it or not, he still seems to harbor), the Democrats were easily able to label Santorum as the embodiment of the Conservative Christian movement. This is a potential danger for Toomey as he is every bit the social conservative Santorum was. But as a relatively fresh face on the statewide level, Toomey has the chance to show voters what he cares most about: free market economics. Being pro-life isn’t the kiss of death in Pennsylvania — many Democrats, including the man who beat Santorum in 2006, are against abortion — but coming across as a rigid extremist is fatal.

• Stick to Your Principles: Voters respect a candidate who sticks to his guns even if they disagree on some issues. In 2006, as a two-term incumbent who had become part of a Senate leadership that had presided over a vast expansion of federal spending, Santorum was no longer able to portray himself as a principled conservative on economic issues. Toomey has built all his campaigns for office on opposing not only more taxes and spending but also the whole system of patronage and earmarks by which politicians have always bought the votes of their constituents. In a year in which anger at government is again at a fever pitch, Toomey is perfectly positioned to run against Arlen Specter, whose whole career has been built on the existing corrupt system.

Thus, while Pat Toomey is right to welcome Santorum’s belated support, the latter’s best advice would be “do as I say, not as I did.”

In today’s New York Post, COMMENTARY magazine contributor Abby Wisse Schachter writes about the voters’ “revolt in Pennsylvania,” as conservative Republican Pat Toomey now leads incumbent and newly minted Democrat Arlen Specter by a 45-to-31 percent margin in the latest Franklin & College poll. Given the rising tide of dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress; the cynical Specter party switch may turn out to have been in vain.

Interestingly, Schachter quotes former Republican Senator Rick Santorum (who backed Specter against Toomey in the 2004 GOP primary, which the latter lost by a whisker) as advising Toomey to stick to the economy while continuing his campaign in the coming months. He’s right about that but given the way his own career in the Senate ended in a landslide loss to lackluster Democrat Bob Casey, Jr. in 2006, Santorum is probably the last person Toomey should be listening to. Nevertheless, Santorum’s rise and fall provides an interesting set of lessons for Northeastern Republicans.

• Good Timing is Crucial: Santorum was first elected to the Senate in 1994, the year of the GOP Congressional avalanche led by Newt Gingrich. He lost his seat in 2006, the year the Democrats took back both houses of Congress. If, as it seems to be the case today, 2010 will be a big Republican year, Toomey’s got this point nailed.

• Be Fortunate in Your Opponents: In 1994, Santorum beat Harris Wofford, an old-time New Deal Democrat who didn’t excite voters in a year when being the incumbent didn’t help. In 2000, when Santorum won an easy race for re-election, he faced conservative Democrat Rep. Ron Klink. Besides an unfortunate name and no statewide appeal, Klink was intensely disliked by his party’s liberal base. Toomey has this category in his favor too. Specter has the burden of being an incumbent who also lacks an enthusiastic base, since most Democrats are less than thrilled about backing a turncoat whose cynicism is legendary.

• Don’t Let Your Opponent Brand You as an Extremist: In 1994, both Santorum and Wofford were able to say that their opponents represented their party’s hard-liners. Neither was able to capture the center but in a Republican year Santorum won a narrow victory. In 2000, after six years of doing his best to portray himself as a politician more interested in serving his constituents than in ideology, Santorum was immune to the Democratic strategy of branding him as an extremist. But by 2006, after a second term during which he acted as if the audience he cared most about was his party’s base as he maneuvered for a possible future run for the White House (an ambition that, believe it or not, he still seems to harbor), the Democrats were easily able to label Santorum as the embodiment of the Conservative Christian movement. This is a potential danger for Toomey as he is every bit the social conservative Santorum was. But as a relatively fresh face on the statewide level, Toomey has the chance to show voters what he cares most about: free market economics. Being pro-life isn’t the kiss of death in Pennsylvania — many Democrats, including the man who beat Santorum in 2006, are against abortion — but coming across as a rigid extremist is fatal.

• Stick to Your Principles: Voters respect a candidate who sticks to his guns even if they disagree on some issues. In 2006, as a two-term incumbent who had become part of a Senate leadership that had presided over a vast expansion of federal spending, Santorum was no longer able to portray himself as a principled conservative on economic issues. Toomey has built all his campaigns for office on opposing not only more taxes and spending but also the whole system of patronage and earmarks by which politicians have always bought the votes of their constituents. In a year in which anger at government is again at a fever pitch, Toomey is perfectly positioned to run against Arlen Specter, whose whole career has been built on the existing corrupt system.

Thus, while Pat Toomey is right to welcome Santorum’s belated support, the latter’s best advice would be “do as I say, not as I did.”

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Obama’s Petard

President Obama promised at least eight times during the campaign to have the legislative negotiations over reforming health care televised on C-Span. That has not happened and, in the final sprint to the finish line, will not happen. The letter from Brian Lamb, the head of C-Span, merely brought the obvious out into the open.

Republicans, naturally, are having a field day comparing Obama’s oft-repeated promise of openness and transparency with the reality of a few congressional Pooh-Bahs (none of them Republican) and White House aides meeting at unannounced times behind very closed doors. When they are done, a vast bill will be rushed to each congressional floor and voted on with just as much dispatch as Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid can manage. If no one except the negotiators even has a chance to read the bill, let alone consider it in depth, before the final vote, so much the better. It will then pass, unless some Democrats — looking over their shoulders at the increasing number of their fellow party members who have decided to spend more time with their families — figure out that their political survival requires defying the party bosses. And it will pass on a strictly party-line vote. The most significant piece of domestic legislation since the New Deal will pass without a single Republican vote.

Who is to blame for giving the Republicans such as wonderful cudgel with which to beat President Obama and the congressional Democrats over the head? Well, it was that political genius Barack Obama. It was a dumb political move on his part to have ever suggested open negotiations, let alone promising them over and over.

Real negotiations — as opposed to questioning witnesses and debating on the floor — are never held in public. If they were, political opponents and lobbyists would be hanging on every word. The give and take, the thinking out loud, the tentative suggestions, the horse-trading that are so much a part of any negotiation would be impossible when every casual phrase, recorded on C-Span’s camcorders, might be turned into an attack ad for the next election.

When the most momentous negotiations in American history — the Constitutional Convention of 1787 — met for the first time, the members of the convention agreed to strict secrecy. Sentries were posted at all doors. The windows — in a sweltering Philadelphia summer — were kept closed, a discreet member of the convention always attended Benjamin Franklin’s convivial dinner parties to make sure the great man did not talk too much. James Madison’s notes (by far the most important source we have for what went on) were not published until 1840, after all the delegates to the convention were dead.

The Founding Fathers did a pretty good job in those secret meetings 222 years ago. They created what is perhaps the only work of genius ever produced by a committee. The attendees at the secret negotiations over health care will probably not fare as well in the opinion of history. They are not founding a republic, after all; they are trying, with increasing desperation, to get a dirty deal done.

President Obama promised at least eight times during the campaign to have the legislative negotiations over reforming health care televised on C-Span. That has not happened and, in the final sprint to the finish line, will not happen. The letter from Brian Lamb, the head of C-Span, merely brought the obvious out into the open.

Republicans, naturally, are having a field day comparing Obama’s oft-repeated promise of openness and transparency with the reality of a few congressional Pooh-Bahs (none of them Republican) and White House aides meeting at unannounced times behind very closed doors. When they are done, a vast bill will be rushed to each congressional floor and voted on with just as much dispatch as Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid can manage. If no one except the negotiators even has a chance to read the bill, let alone consider it in depth, before the final vote, so much the better. It will then pass, unless some Democrats — looking over their shoulders at the increasing number of their fellow party members who have decided to spend more time with their families — figure out that their political survival requires defying the party bosses. And it will pass on a strictly party-line vote. The most significant piece of domestic legislation since the New Deal will pass without a single Republican vote.

Who is to blame for giving the Republicans such as wonderful cudgel with which to beat President Obama and the congressional Democrats over the head? Well, it was that political genius Barack Obama. It was a dumb political move on his part to have ever suggested open negotiations, let alone promising them over and over.

Real negotiations — as opposed to questioning witnesses and debating on the floor — are never held in public. If they were, political opponents and lobbyists would be hanging on every word. The give and take, the thinking out loud, the tentative suggestions, the horse-trading that are so much a part of any negotiation would be impossible when every casual phrase, recorded on C-Span’s camcorders, might be turned into an attack ad for the next election.

When the most momentous negotiations in American history — the Constitutional Convention of 1787 — met for the first time, the members of the convention agreed to strict secrecy. Sentries were posted at all doors. The windows — in a sweltering Philadelphia summer — were kept closed, a discreet member of the convention always attended Benjamin Franklin’s convivial dinner parties to make sure the great man did not talk too much. James Madison’s notes (by far the most important source we have for what went on) were not published until 1840, after all the delegates to the convention were dead.

The Founding Fathers did a pretty good job in those secret meetings 222 years ago. They created what is perhaps the only work of genius ever produced by a committee. The attendees at the secret negotiations over health care will probably not fare as well in the opinion of history. They are not founding a republic, after all; they are trying, with increasing desperation, to get a dirty deal done.

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Cravenness Unlimited

Arlen Specter is never one to get hung up on principles. Or demonstrate that he has any. In his new quest to out-liberal the liberal Democratic competition in his newfound party’s primary, he’s come out against the Afghanistan surge. Yes, the president wanted Specter on “his side,” and this is what it looks like. The pleasant surprise is his opponent, as Politico reports:

[Rep. Joe] Sestak, Specter’s more progressive-minded opponent, supports the surge however — and he has come out guns blazing, deriding Specter in an interview with POLITICO this week as a flip-flopper for “vot[ing] for the war in Iraq — and now he’s against a troop increase.”

“Sestak has routinely argued that Specter is not a real Democrat and his roots with the Republican Party run deep. He can add now the argument that Specter really has no principles here, and is just opposing the war surge for votes,” said Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll.

Sestak is a retired admiral who’s chosen not to run from the president on this one: “President Obama has presented a plan that will allow us to finally complete a mission that is as indispensable today as it was eight years ago: the elimination of the Al Qaeda terrorists who struck us on 9/11,” he declared. I suspect Sestak will suffer not at all from his position and gain some support from many former GOP voters who may have changed party registration in 2008. If so, it will be a lesson that politicians — the president included — should do the right thing and trust the voters to reward those who advocate smart national-security policy.

Arlen Specter is never one to get hung up on principles. Or demonstrate that he has any. In his new quest to out-liberal the liberal Democratic competition in his newfound party’s primary, he’s come out against the Afghanistan surge. Yes, the president wanted Specter on “his side,” and this is what it looks like. The pleasant surprise is his opponent, as Politico reports:

[Rep. Joe] Sestak, Specter’s more progressive-minded opponent, supports the surge however — and he has come out guns blazing, deriding Specter in an interview with POLITICO this week as a flip-flopper for “vot[ing] for the war in Iraq — and now he’s against a troop increase.”

“Sestak has routinely argued that Specter is not a real Democrat and his roots with the Republican Party run deep. He can add now the argument that Specter really has no principles here, and is just opposing the war surge for votes,” said Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll.

Sestak is a retired admiral who’s chosen not to run from the president on this one: “President Obama has presented a plan that will allow us to finally complete a mission that is as indispensable today as it was eight years ago: the elimination of the Al Qaeda terrorists who struck us on 9/11,” he declared. I suspect Sestak will suffer not at all from his position and gain some support from many former GOP voters who may have changed party registration in 2008. If so, it will be a lesson that politicians — the president included — should do the right thing and trust the voters to reward those who advocate smart national-security policy.

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Cynical Specter Runs to the Left on Afghanistan

How cynical is Arlen Specter? I know. That is sort of like asking how deep the ocean is or how high the moon. But sometimes, following the twists and turns of the five-term turncoat senator’s position on the issues can take the breath away from even those most used to his shenanigans. Take Afghanistan. Once a supporter of both the war in Iraq and the one in Afghanistan, the newly minted Democrat from Pennsylvania no longer sees the fight against the Taliban “as central to our national security” as Tim Fernholz reports in his blog at the American Prospect.

Specter switched parties because he knew he didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of beating Pat Toomey, former congressman, in a Republican primary next year. But because he is now facing a significant challenge for his new party’s nomination from longtime Iraq war opponent Congressman Joe Sestak, Specter has decided to go the former Navy admiral one better and come out against the war in Afghanistan. Cynical liberals spent the 2006 and 2008 campaigns saying that they opposed the war in Iraq because it took troops and effort away from the “good” war in Afghanistan, but those same people want to bug out of the latter conflict now that Obama is safely elected and they don’t have to pretend to take the war against Islamist terror seriously. Specter’s willingness to change positions on a dime outstrips even that record. He not only backed Bush (who saved Specter’s hide by backing him in a tight primary race against Toomey in 2004) but also enthusiastically backed both wars. But that didn’t stop him in a conference call with reporters this week from blasting Sestak for the congressman’s support of the request for more troops to bolster the allied effort in Afghanistan.

So give Sestak points for sincerity because, apparently unlike our president, he was actually telling the truth when he said in previous election years that he wanted to divert resources from Iraq to Afghanistan. The only question here is whether Democratic primary voters in Pennsylvania will fall for Specter’s incredible anti-war makeover. The latest (Oct. 28) Franklin & Marshall poll of the Democratic primary shows the incumbent senator with a 30-18 percent lead over Sestak. Specter has a big lead in money raised (according to Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent, Specter has $8.7 million in the bank while Sestak has $4.7 million and Toomey, just $1.8 million). But given the enormous imbalance in name recognition between the two, such numbers can hardly comfort Specter. Interestingly, the same survey shows a Toomey-Sestak matchup next November as a 28-20 Toomey advantage, while Specter leads Toomey in a general election rematch of the 2004 GOP primary by only 33-31.

No matter how you slice it, the mendacious Specter’s prospects look a bit shaky; as do the Democrats’ chances of holding onto this seat in an otherwise increasingly blue Pennsylvania.

How cynical is Arlen Specter? I know. That is sort of like asking how deep the ocean is or how high the moon. But sometimes, following the twists and turns of the five-term turncoat senator’s position on the issues can take the breath away from even those most used to his shenanigans. Take Afghanistan. Once a supporter of both the war in Iraq and the one in Afghanistan, the newly minted Democrat from Pennsylvania no longer sees the fight against the Taliban “as central to our national security” as Tim Fernholz reports in his blog at the American Prospect.

Specter switched parties because he knew he didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of beating Pat Toomey, former congressman, in a Republican primary next year. But because he is now facing a significant challenge for his new party’s nomination from longtime Iraq war opponent Congressman Joe Sestak, Specter has decided to go the former Navy admiral one better and come out against the war in Afghanistan. Cynical liberals spent the 2006 and 2008 campaigns saying that they opposed the war in Iraq because it took troops and effort away from the “good” war in Afghanistan, but those same people want to bug out of the latter conflict now that Obama is safely elected and they don’t have to pretend to take the war against Islamist terror seriously. Specter’s willingness to change positions on a dime outstrips even that record. He not only backed Bush (who saved Specter’s hide by backing him in a tight primary race against Toomey in 2004) but also enthusiastically backed both wars. But that didn’t stop him in a conference call with reporters this week from blasting Sestak for the congressman’s support of the request for more troops to bolster the allied effort in Afghanistan.

So give Sestak points for sincerity because, apparently unlike our president, he was actually telling the truth when he said in previous election years that he wanted to divert resources from Iraq to Afghanistan. The only question here is whether Democratic primary voters in Pennsylvania will fall for Specter’s incredible anti-war makeover. The latest (Oct. 28) Franklin & Marshall poll of the Democratic primary shows the incumbent senator with a 30-18 percent lead over Sestak. Specter has a big lead in money raised (according to Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent, Specter has $8.7 million in the bank while Sestak has $4.7 million and Toomey, just $1.8 million). But given the enormous imbalance in name recognition between the two, such numbers can hardly comfort Specter. Interestingly, the same survey shows a Toomey-Sestak matchup next November as a 28-20 Toomey advantage, while Specter leads Toomey in a general election rematch of the 2004 GOP primary by only 33-31.

No matter how you slice it, the mendacious Specter’s prospects look a bit shaky; as do the Democrats’ chances of holding onto this seat in an otherwise increasingly blue Pennsylvania.

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McCain Never Had It So Good

It was shocking enough when, five days ago, a Franklin & Marshall College poll showed that 19 percent of Hillary’s supporters would vote for John McCain if Barack Obama were to earn the Democratic nomination. Today, a new Gallup poll shows that number to have jumped 9 points to 28 percent. Almost a third! Interestingly, last week’s poll showed that 20 percent of Obama’s supporters would vote for John McCain if Hillary got the Democratic nomination, and today’s poll shows that number to have dropped to 19 percent.

This is further evidence of what most everyone seems to be coming around to: Obama had a catastrophic week. But it’s too early to see the effect of Hillary’s Bosnian adventure. One assumes that next week’s numbers will show that she’s taken some sort of hit. And then? Perhaps Michelle Obama will sound off, or a new Wright sermon will be uncovered, and the scales will tip again. With the delegate math firmly stacking up in Obama’s favor, the Democrats are now locked in a race to determine one thing: who can help John McCain more.

It was shocking enough when, five days ago, a Franklin & Marshall College poll showed that 19 percent of Hillary’s supporters would vote for John McCain if Barack Obama were to earn the Democratic nomination. Today, a new Gallup poll shows that number to have jumped 9 points to 28 percent. Almost a third! Interestingly, last week’s poll showed that 20 percent of Obama’s supporters would vote for John McCain if Hillary got the Democratic nomination, and today’s poll shows that number to have dropped to 19 percent.

This is further evidence of what most everyone seems to be coming around to: Obama had a catastrophic week. But it’s too early to see the effect of Hillary’s Bosnian adventure. One assumes that next week’s numbers will show that she’s taken some sort of hit. And then? Perhaps Michelle Obama will sound off, or a new Wright sermon will be uncovered, and the scales will tip again. With the delegate math firmly stacking up in Obama’s favor, the Democrats are now locked in a race to determine one thing: who can help John McCain more.

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The Adams Family

I’ll leave judgments about the historical veracity of HBO’s new miniseries, John Adams, to those with some expertise in the field (at least one historian seems to think it’s not perfect, but not bad either). The real question is: Is it worth watching? And judging from the two episodes that aired this week, the series is (slightly) less than the sum of its parts. The good news, however, is that the parts are generally excellent.

Strong performances anchor the series. Paul Giamatti plays the title character, a lumpy, bald Boston lawyer who finds his way to greatness after successfully defending the British soldiers involved in the Boston massacre. Giamatti is characteristically frumpy here, but he lends Adams an interesting blend of arrogance and anxiety as well. He’s a patriot, yes, concerned for his country, but also about his own family, life, and legacy. It’s a showcase for Giamatti, but Tom Wilkinson (as Ben Franklin), Laura Linney (as Abigail Adams), David Morse (as George Washington) and Stephane Dillane (as Thomas Jefferson) also make quite the impression as well.

Meanwhile, from the costumes to the extravagant sets, everything on the production side is superb, but the standout element is the photography, which looks positively stunning in HD. Director of Photography Tak Fujimoto is a longtime Hollywood hand (I first recall noticing his work in 1991′s The Silence of the Lambs), and his visual trademarks are evident in nearly every scene.

He’s got two main modes behind the lens—the participant and the voyeur. The first mode is primarily used in the larger setpieces, most notably in the series’ opening sequence, which depicts the Boston Massacre; a handheld camera follows Adams as he stumbles through the streets and into the bloody scene, running side-by-side with the man as if his partner. It puts viewers inside the scene, makes them part of it. The more intimate scenes, mostly between Adams and his wife Abigail, are typically shot in low light, and often from another room, or behind an object. The effect is of peering in on history from the outside, watching an American founder from the outside.

The series’ weaknesses come mostly in the script by Kirk Ellis, which, at least at this point, has failed to bring the many other fine elements together. There are many strong moments, especially between John and Abigail (a nighttime monologue in which Adams, laying next to his silent wife, thinks through his dilemma—and those of the country—is particularly touching). But too many scenes feel overly scripted, as if the characters were simply spouting miniature editorials. I have no doubt they were eloquent men, but surely they stumbled once in a while? And in both of the inaugural episodes, there is far too much reliance on courtroom-style drama, as the series would really rather be Law & Order: American Revolution. Still, it’s by far the best thing on TV right now, and anyone with even a passing interest in the subject would do well to check it out.

I’ll leave judgments about the historical veracity of HBO’s new miniseries, John Adams, to those with some expertise in the field (at least one historian seems to think it’s not perfect, but not bad either). The real question is: Is it worth watching? And judging from the two episodes that aired this week, the series is (slightly) less than the sum of its parts. The good news, however, is that the parts are generally excellent.

Strong performances anchor the series. Paul Giamatti plays the title character, a lumpy, bald Boston lawyer who finds his way to greatness after successfully defending the British soldiers involved in the Boston massacre. Giamatti is characteristically frumpy here, but he lends Adams an interesting blend of arrogance and anxiety as well. He’s a patriot, yes, concerned for his country, but also about his own family, life, and legacy. It’s a showcase for Giamatti, but Tom Wilkinson (as Ben Franklin), Laura Linney (as Abigail Adams), David Morse (as George Washington) and Stephane Dillane (as Thomas Jefferson) also make quite the impression as well.

Meanwhile, from the costumes to the extravagant sets, everything on the production side is superb, but the standout element is the photography, which looks positively stunning in HD. Director of Photography Tak Fujimoto is a longtime Hollywood hand (I first recall noticing his work in 1991′s The Silence of the Lambs), and his visual trademarks are evident in nearly every scene.

He’s got two main modes behind the lens—the participant and the voyeur. The first mode is primarily used in the larger setpieces, most notably in the series’ opening sequence, which depicts the Boston Massacre; a handheld camera follows Adams as he stumbles through the streets and into the bloody scene, running side-by-side with the man as if his partner. It puts viewers inside the scene, makes them part of it. The more intimate scenes, mostly between Adams and his wife Abigail, are typically shot in low light, and often from another room, or behind an object. The effect is of peering in on history from the outside, watching an American founder from the outside.

The series’ weaknesses come mostly in the script by Kirk Ellis, which, at least at this point, has failed to bring the many other fine elements together. There are many strong moments, especially between John and Abigail (a nighttime monologue in which Adams, laying next to his silent wife, thinks through his dilemma—and those of the country—is particularly touching). But too many scenes feel overly scripted, as if the characters were simply spouting miniature editorials. I have no doubt they were eloquent men, but surely they stumbled once in a while? And in both of the inaugural episodes, there is far too much reliance on courtroom-style drama, as the series would really rather be Law & Order: American Revolution. Still, it’s by far the best thing on TV right now, and anyone with even a passing interest in the subject would do well to check it out.

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John Ledyard

Soon 2007 will draw to a close, and with it the much-fêted fiftieth anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I’ve had all year to ponder it, but I’m no closer to understanding what the fuss is about. Could it really hurt to temper the praise by pointing out some of the book’s deficiencies? The reverential overtones of this title couldn’t be more appropriate; many fans treat the book as though it were some kind of religious text. But the real puzzle isn’t why people, many of them young people, love Kerouac. It’s why they don’t prefer the vastly more entertaining adventures of—to name a few—Richard Henry Dana, Herman Melville, or Mark Twain (or, if I may jump the pond, Eric Newby or Patrick Leigh Fermor) . . .

. . . or John Ledyard (1751–1789), the quintessential Dartmouth Man. The College’s Alma Mater boasts of the alumni that “’round the girdled earth they roam,” and the line might as well have been written with Ledyard in mind. Unable to pay his tuition, he chopped down a tree, made a dugout canoe, and escaped on the Connecticut River—which puts Kerouac’s automotive antics in perspective, I think. He later sailed on Captain Cook’s third voyage, which he chronicled in his Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage. The travelogue has the dual distinction of being the first American book to describe Hawaii and the first American book to be protected by copyright.

This year saw a renewed interest in Ledyard, with the publication of two books: Bill Gifford’s Ledyard: In Search of the First American Explorer and Edward G. Gray’s The Making of John Ledyard: Empire and Ambition in the Life of an Early American Traveler. Arts & Letters Daily has linked to an excerpt from the latter:

The list of famous individuals he came into contact with during his short life comes straight out of the indexes of history: Captain James Cook, on whose last voyage he sailed as a lowly marine; Robert Morris, financier of the American Revolution and Ledyard’s one-time employer; John Paul Jones, with whom he struck up an acquaintance and tried to raise funding for an ambitious expedition to the northwest coast of America; Ben Franklin, whom he met in Paris during Franklin’s last days as American ambassador there; Thomas Jefferson, Franklin’s successor, whom Ledyard also met in Paris. The list goes on, but it seems just as well to stop here. For it was in Paris that Ledyard enjoyed his first great social success, when he was accepted into the famous expatriate circle surrounding Thomas Jefferson.

Read the whole thing here. You might be inspired to retrace his steps.

Soon 2007 will draw to a close, and with it the much-fêted fiftieth anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I’ve had all year to ponder it, but I’m no closer to understanding what the fuss is about. Could it really hurt to temper the praise by pointing out some of the book’s deficiencies? The reverential overtones of this title couldn’t be more appropriate; many fans treat the book as though it were some kind of religious text. But the real puzzle isn’t why people, many of them young people, love Kerouac. It’s why they don’t prefer the vastly more entertaining adventures of—to name a few—Richard Henry Dana, Herman Melville, or Mark Twain (or, if I may jump the pond, Eric Newby or Patrick Leigh Fermor) . . .

. . . or John Ledyard (1751–1789), the quintessential Dartmouth Man. The College’s Alma Mater boasts of the alumni that “’round the girdled earth they roam,” and the line might as well have been written with Ledyard in mind. Unable to pay his tuition, he chopped down a tree, made a dugout canoe, and escaped on the Connecticut River—which puts Kerouac’s automotive antics in perspective, I think. He later sailed on Captain Cook’s third voyage, which he chronicled in his Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage. The travelogue has the dual distinction of being the first American book to describe Hawaii and the first American book to be protected by copyright.

This year saw a renewed interest in Ledyard, with the publication of two books: Bill Gifford’s Ledyard: In Search of the First American Explorer and Edward G. Gray’s The Making of John Ledyard: Empire and Ambition in the Life of an Early American Traveler. Arts & Letters Daily has linked to an excerpt from the latter:

The list of famous individuals he came into contact with during his short life comes straight out of the indexes of history: Captain James Cook, on whose last voyage he sailed as a lowly marine; Robert Morris, financier of the American Revolution and Ledyard’s one-time employer; John Paul Jones, with whom he struck up an acquaintance and tried to raise funding for an ambitious expedition to the northwest coast of America; Ben Franklin, whom he met in Paris during Franklin’s last days as American ambassador there; Thomas Jefferson, Franklin’s successor, whom Ledyard also met in Paris. The list goes on, but it seems just as well to stop here. For it was in Paris that Ledyard enjoyed his first great social success, when he was accepted into the famous expatriate circle surrounding Thomas Jefferson.

Read the whole thing here. You might be inspired to retrace his steps.

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Bush the “Madman”

Back in April 2004, Tony Blair and George Bush had a chat about the war in Iraq. In the course of it, Bush reportedly suggested bombing the Arab broadcasting station Al Jazeera, headquartered in Doha, Qatar. The White House has adamantly denied that such a proposal was ever made, calling the accusation “outlandish and inconceivable.”

But a British diplomatic communication about their conversation, marked “Secret-Personal,” evidently says otherwise—the subject may indeed have been broached, but possibly only in jest. Addressed to the British Foreign Secretary, the document began: “This letter is extremely sensitive. It must not be copied further and must be seen only by those with a need to know.”

We know about this document because a British cryptographer by the name of David Keogh, responsible for handling British diplomatic cable traffic, passed it on to an anti-war member of parliament who then disclosed its contents to the press. His objective, Keogh has frankly explained, was to intervene in America’s elections, helping John Kerry’s presidential bid by making George W. Bush appear to be a “madman.”

Read More

Back in April 2004, Tony Blair and George Bush had a chat about the war in Iraq. In the course of it, Bush reportedly suggested bombing the Arab broadcasting station Al Jazeera, headquartered in Doha, Qatar. The White House has adamantly denied that such a proposal was ever made, calling the accusation “outlandish and inconceivable.”

But a British diplomatic communication about their conversation, marked “Secret-Personal,” evidently says otherwise—the subject may indeed have been broached, but possibly only in jest. Addressed to the British Foreign Secretary, the document began: “This letter is extremely sensitive. It must not be copied further and must be seen only by those with a need to know.”

We know about this document because a British cryptographer by the name of David Keogh, responsible for handling British diplomatic cable traffic, passed it on to an anti-war member of parliament who then disclosed its contents to the press. His objective, Keogh has frankly explained, was to intervene in America’s elections, helping John Kerry’s presidential bid by making George W. Bush appear to be a “madman.”

Such behavior is profoundly undemocratic. A civil servant in a technical position took upon himself a responsibility reserved for elected officials: namely, running British foreign policy.

Here in the United States such conduct would be called a “leak,” and the leaker would be celebrated in some quarters as a “whistleblower.” His actions would be lauded by the press, which would in turn circle the wagons to keep the whistleblower from being apprehended. Pulitzer prizes might even be won (as they were by the New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Licthblau in the NSA terrorist surveillance case) for transmitting information from the leaker to the public about the hidden workings of government.

But T.S. Ellis, III, the federal judge who presided over the trial of the Pentagon official Lawrence Franklin for passing classified information to two employees of AIPAC, has a different view—and it is the correct one.

One can have all sorts of legitimate reservations about the Franklin and AIPAC prosecutions, and how they came about, and their highly selective nature—I have expressed my own doubts about them here and in the Los Angeles Times, and Dorothy Rabinowitz has persuasively done so in the Wall Street Journal. Nonetheless, in sentencing Franklin to more than twelve years in prison, Ellis had one very compelling point:

What this case is truly significant for is the rule of law. The law says what it says. The merits of the law really are committed to Congress. If it’s not sensible, it ought to be changed. But they’re—that’s the body that changes it. . . .

There is a law that says that if you have authorized possession of national defense information, you can’t disclose it to unauthorized people. . . .

It doesn’t matter that you think that you were really helping. That’s arrogating to yourself the decision of whether to adhere to a statute passed by Congress or not. And we can’t do that in this country. . . .

And it doesn’t matter who you disclosed it to. It doesn’t matter whether you disclose it to a newspaper. It doesn’t matter whether you disclose it to people who are fierce American patriots, or anything else. It doesn’t matter. It can’t be disclosed. That’s the rule of law.

The British courts agree. Calling David Keogh’s actions “reckless and irresponsible,” a judge on Wednesday sentenced him to six months in jail for breaching the Official Secrets Act.

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