Commentary Magazine


Topic: George Washington

In Defense of the Vice Presidency

Earlier today, my colleague Seth Mandel reacted to the speculation about San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro being positioned for the 2016 Democratic nomination for vice president by wondering whether we might not be better off abolishing the vice presidency altogether. Seth believes the spectacle of the two major parties lining up potential candidates mainly on the basis of either gender and race is unseemly. The talk of either party’s “veep bench” is equally absurd even if we are pretty sure of who will be at the top of the Democratic ticket in two years.

It’s also true that the office has, from its very beginnings, been of questionable utility. It’s only in the last generation that vice presidents have been given any responsibilities other than their constitutional task of presiding over the Senate. Seth also makes an excellent point when he observes that the Founding Fathers had a very different view of the office than we do today. In the first four presidential elections, the vice president was merely the man who came in second in the Electoral College vote with each elector being given two votes. That process was based in the belief on the part of the delegates at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 that parties would not play a role in electing our presidents. Once that system had to be changed because of Aaron Burr’s betrayal of Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 election, the original conception of the office became obsolete. Thus, Seth reasons we would save a lot of trouble by getting rid of a post that has rarely done the republic much service over the last 225 years.

But while there’s always been a potent critique to be made about the vice presidency—and one that has often been made by the hapless occupiers of the dubious honor—getting rid of it is a terrible idea. Whatever its drawbacks, and however mediocre or worse many of them have been, having a vice president lends legitimacy to the process of succession that is absolutely essential in a constitutional republic.

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Earlier today, my colleague Seth Mandel reacted to the speculation about San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro being positioned for the 2016 Democratic nomination for vice president by wondering whether we might not be better off abolishing the vice presidency altogether. Seth believes the spectacle of the two major parties lining up potential candidates mainly on the basis of either gender and race is unseemly. The talk of either party’s “veep bench” is equally absurd even if we are pretty sure of who will be at the top of the Democratic ticket in two years.

It’s also true that the office has, from its very beginnings, been of questionable utility. It’s only in the last generation that vice presidents have been given any responsibilities other than their constitutional task of presiding over the Senate. Seth also makes an excellent point when he observes that the Founding Fathers had a very different view of the office than we do today. In the first four presidential elections, the vice president was merely the man who came in second in the Electoral College vote with each elector being given two votes. That process was based in the belief on the part of the delegates at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 that parties would not play a role in electing our presidents. Once that system had to be changed because of Aaron Burr’s betrayal of Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 election, the original conception of the office became obsolete. Thus, Seth reasons we would save a lot of trouble by getting rid of a post that has rarely done the republic much service over the last 225 years.

But while there’s always been a potent critique to be made about the vice presidency—and one that has often been made by the hapless occupiers of the dubious honor—getting rid of it is a terrible idea. Whatever its drawbacks, and however mediocre or worse many of them have been, having a vice president lends legitimacy to the process of succession that is absolutely essential in a constitutional republic.

The gravest doubts about the survival of the American political experiment in its earliest years often centered on the question of legitimacy and succession. Would a president, especially one like George Washington, who was the idol of the country, ever willingly step down and lay the foundation for the future of democracy rather than have the republic quickly lapse into tyranny or monarchy as most previous such experiments had done? Would an incumbent that was defeated for reelection choose to peacefully hand over the government to his opponents?

Washington and Adams answered those questions in the affirmative to their everlasting honor. But still unanswered was the question as to what would happen if a president died? Would there be chaos? Would the government be at a standstill until a new election could be held? Having a vice president who was already voted into office by the same Electoral College created a stable process that kept the system from running off the rails in the event of a calamity. Indeed, when William Henry Harrison, the first president to die in office, passed away a month after his inauguration there were doubts about what would happen. But John Tyler slid neatly into Harrison’s place and the republic survived with no apparent trouble. The same has happened every time since then when America found itself with an accidental president.

Any possible alternative to a sitting vice president, including the option Seth mentioned of having the succession pass to the secretary of state, lacks the legitimacy of a national election in which the identity of the standby is determined. Nor is the idea of a snap presidential election when a successor is needed a viable option. Most voters and politicians would agree that one presidential election every four years is bad enough.

The stability of the American republic lies in no small measure on our constitutional traditions and the fact that our democratic system has already passed through most conceivable challenges and emerged intact. The vice presidency is in many ways an anomalous office and the competition for it is more often than not a parody of the presidential process. But, for all its faults, it has served us well since John Adams took the oath of office as our first vice president and wondered what exactly he had gotten himself into. We tinker with the basic structure of our government at our own peril.

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“No Mind Has Stamped More of Its Impression On American Institutions”

Lynne Cheney has written a splendid new biography, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered

There are many things one could focus on in a book on Madison, from his personal modesty and his “remarkable sweet temper” (in the words of William Pierce), to his loving marriage to Dolley and his lifelong, intimate friendship with Thomas Jefferson, to his indispensable role in the creation of the Constitution and his wartime leadership as president. Madison was a man of unusual self-possession and a steady temperament, brave in his struggle with seizures (which may have been caused by epilepsy), and fervently committed to religious liberty. 

But there’s one part of Madison’s life I want to concentrate on for the purposes of this post, which has to do with the fight for ratification in Madison’s home state of Virginia, which at the time was the nation’s largest and most important state. Mrs. Cheney sets the scene:

On June 14 [1788], the delegates finally began the point-by-point debate on the Constitution that George Mason had proposed eleven days before. Soon a pattern developed. [Patrick] Henry, George Mason, or James Monroe, who also opposed the Constitution, would claim there were reasons for grave concern in this clause or that one, and Madison would rise to explain briefly and cogently why their worry was unfounded. To Madison it often seemed a Sisyphean effort. He later told Edward Coles, his secretary, that Patrick Henry could undo an hour’s work with a single gesture… He wrote to Hamilton, “My health is not good, and the business is wearisome beyond expression.” … Two days later, Madison wrote to Washington, “I find myself not yet restored and extremely feeble.” He was, nevertheless, putting in a magnificent performance. One observer reported that although “the division” in the Virginia Convention was very close, a narrow win could be expected for the Federalists – “notwithstanding Mr. Henry’s declaratory powers, they being vastly overpowered by the deep reasoning of our glorious little Madison.” One of the delegates, Archibald Stuart, wrote to a friend on June 19, 1788, “Madison came boldly forward and supported the Constitution with the soundest reason and most manly eloquence I ever heart. He understands his subject well and his whole soul is engaged in its success…”

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Lynne Cheney has written a splendid new biography, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered

There are many things one could focus on in a book on Madison, from his personal modesty and his “remarkable sweet temper” (in the words of William Pierce), to his loving marriage to Dolley and his lifelong, intimate friendship with Thomas Jefferson, to his indispensable role in the creation of the Constitution and his wartime leadership as president. Madison was a man of unusual self-possession and a steady temperament, brave in his struggle with seizures (which may have been caused by epilepsy), and fervently committed to religious liberty. 

But there’s one part of Madison’s life I want to concentrate on for the purposes of this post, which has to do with the fight for ratification in Madison’s home state of Virginia, which at the time was the nation’s largest and most important state. Mrs. Cheney sets the scene:

On June 14 [1788], the delegates finally began the point-by-point debate on the Constitution that George Mason had proposed eleven days before. Soon a pattern developed. [Patrick] Henry, George Mason, or James Monroe, who also opposed the Constitution, would claim there were reasons for grave concern in this clause or that one, and Madison would rise to explain briefly and cogently why their worry was unfounded. To Madison it often seemed a Sisyphean effort. He later told Edward Coles, his secretary, that Patrick Henry could undo an hour’s work with a single gesture… He wrote to Hamilton, “My health is not good, and the business is wearisome beyond expression.” … Two days later, Madison wrote to Washington, “I find myself not yet restored and extremely feeble.” He was, nevertheless, putting in a magnificent performance. One observer reported that although “the division” in the Virginia Convention was very close, a narrow win could be expected for the Federalists – “notwithstanding Mr. Henry’s declaratory powers, they being vastly overpowered by the deep reasoning of our glorious little Madison.” One of the delegates, Archibald Stuart, wrote to a friend on June 19, 1788, “Madison came boldly forward and supported the Constitution with the soundest reason and most manly eloquence I ever heart. He understands his subject well and his whole soul is engaged in its success…”

On June 25, 1788 delegates voted 89 to 79 to ratify the Constitution. If Virginia’s vote had gone the other way, Cheney points out, in all likelihood so would New York’s, in which case the whole constitutional enterprise might have come crumbling down. A French diplomat wrote home saying this: “Mr. Madison is the one who, among all the delegates, carried the votes of the two parties. He was always clear, precise, and consistent in his reasoning and always methodical and pure in his language.”

This underscores one of Madison’s most impressive qualities. In an assemblage filled with extraordinary minds, Madison was equal to them all. But he was also the best-prepared person at the Constitutional Convention. Prior to it Jefferson, then in Paris, sent Madison crates of books–more than 200–to study various forms of government. (This led him to author “Of Ancient and Modern Confederacies.”) When Madison submitted his recommendations for the ideal legislator’s library, he cited the works of Locke, Hooker, Plutarch, Hobbes, Hume, Montesquieu, Machiavelli, Plato, and Aristotle, among others. No one studied harder or knew more about the requirements for self-government. 

Several years after the death of the “father of the Constitution,”  the lawyer and politician Charles Jared Ingersoll would say, “no mind has stamped more of its impressions on American institutions than Madison’s.” 

Different people will argue over who was the greatest founder. Some would argue that George Washington was America’s “indispensable man.” Others would point to the brilliant mind and beautiful pen of Thomas Jefferson. But on careful reflection, taking all things into account, it would be difficult to place anyone above the remarkable man from Montpelier.

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Race, Reparations, and the Idea of America

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Atlantic cover essay making the case for reparations has something for everyone to like and to dislike, because a wise and serious depiction of the subject–which Coates provides–scrambles ideological predispositions. Conservatives will be hesitant toward this essay because they are generally accused of racial animus at the drop of a hat. But conservatives should give the essay a chance, not only because of the parts they will agree with but because of the parts of the essay that challenge them.

Conservatives who decry the corrosive power of welfare-state institutions to insinuate poisonous effects into the fibers of family and community are often right, but they tend to forget how much more poisonous, yet less visible, are the generational effects of slavery and Jim Crow. A good explanation of this comes from the political scientists Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson in their bestseller Why Nations Fail. In a chapter on the “vicious circle” of extractive institutions, they write that the South’s economic doldrums caused by its reliance on slavery should have been shaken off after abolition. Instead:

A continuation of extractive institutions, this time of the Jim Crow kind rather than of slavery, emerged in the South. … These persisted for almost another century, until yet another major upheaval, the civil rights movement. In the meantime, blacks continued to be excluded from power and repressed. Plantation-type agriculture based on low-wage, poorly educated labor persisted, and southern incomes fell further relative to the U.S. average. The vicious circle of extractive institutions was stronger than many had expected at the time.

Political and economic institutions must be reformed and rerouted, not just declared over, if they are to be undone. Slavery was obviously a system that needed to be undone, and it was–but the broader economic framework of exploitation and aristocratic elitism in the South was not. Conservatives are right to want a political system that doesn’t play favorites at all. But they’re wrong to think that such a system is all that’s needed to erase the stain of Jim Crow.

However, in the course of arguing for reparations (and its attendant “national reckoning”) Coates makes an extremely important point about black poverty:

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Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Atlantic cover essay making the case for reparations has something for everyone to like and to dislike, because a wise and serious depiction of the subject–which Coates provides–scrambles ideological predispositions. Conservatives will be hesitant toward this essay because they are generally accused of racial animus at the drop of a hat. But conservatives should give the essay a chance, not only because of the parts they will agree with but because of the parts of the essay that challenge them.

Conservatives who decry the corrosive power of welfare-state institutions to insinuate poisonous effects into the fibers of family and community are often right, but they tend to forget how much more poisonous, yet less visible, are the generational effects of slavery and Jim Crow. A good explanation of this comes from the political scientists Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson in their bestseller Why Nations Fail. In a chapter on the “vicious circle” of extractive institutions, they write that the South’s economic doldrums caused by its reliance on slavery should have been shaken off after abolition. Instead:

A continuation of extractive institutions, this time of the Jim Crow kind rather than of slavery, emerged in the South. … These persisted for almost another century, until yet another major upheaval, the civil rights movement. In the meantime, blacks continued to be excluded from power and repressed. Plantation-type agriculture based on low-wage, poorly educated labor persisted, and southern incomes fell further relative to the U.S. average. The vicious circle of extractive institutions was stronger than many had expected at the time.

Political and economic institutions must be reformed and rerouted, not just declared over, if they are to be undone. Slavery was obviously a system that needed to be undone, and it was–but the broader economic framework of exploitation and aristocratic elitism in the South was not. Conservatives are right to want a political system that doesn’t play favorites at all. But they’re wrong to think that such a system is all that’s needed to erase the stain of Jim Crow.

However, in the course of arguing for reparations (and its attendant “national reckoning”) Coates makes an extremely important point about black poverty:

Liberals today mostly view racism not as an active, distinct evil but as a relative of white poverty and inequality. They ignore the long tradition of this country actively punishing black success—and the elevation of that punishment, in the mid-20th century, to federal policy. President Lyndon Johnson may have noted in his historic civil-rights speech at Howard University in 1965 that “Negro poverty is not white poverty.” But his advisers and their successors were, and still are, loath to craft any policy that recognizes the difference.

It may not be intended as such, but this is, in reality, a stern rebuke to the leftist tendency to hijack the black struggle and tether African Americans to their preferred policy aims. The left does this with regard to women and other minorities as well–the old joke about the New York Times reporting the apocalypse: World Ends, Women and Minorities Hardest Hit. But the struggle of African Americans was and is different; the left’s insistence that the issue of the day–climate change, inequality, environmental regulations–can or should be reduced to a “black issue” is precisely the act of ignoring African Americans’ history in the service of white liberals’ power.

Coates’s essay also highlights the tendency of well-intentioned liberal initiatives that end up exacerbating black economic dislocation and discrimination instead of alleviating it. For example, Coates discusses residential segregation, redlining, block busting, federally blessed “restrictive covenants,” and other methods of housing discrimination whose effects are still felt especially in or near major cities. This made them particularly vulnerable to predatory lending and the housing bubble. Here’s Coates:

Plunder in the past made plunder in the present efficient. The banks of America understood this. In 2005, Wells Fargo promoted a series of Wealth Building Strategies seminars. Dubbing itself “the nation’s leading originator of home loans to ethnic minority customers,” the bank enrolled black public figures in an ostensible effort to educate blacks on building “generational wealth.” But the “wealth building” seminars were a front for wealth theft. In 2010, the Justice Department filed a discrimination suit against Wells Fargo alleging that the bank had shunted blacks into predatory loans regardless of their creditworthiness. This was not magic or coincidence or misfortune. It was racism reifying itself.

The government’s involvement in efforts to sell mortgages to uncreditworthy black potential homeowners in such areas was supposed to be the antidote to redlining, a major historical correction. But in many cases lenders were pressured by the government to ignore the creditworthiness of minority applicants, and the result is something like: Housing Bubble Ends, Minorities Hardest Hit.

Aside from a cautionary tale about government intervention in the marketplace, this geographic isolation would also seem to argue for ways not only to help improve minority neighborhoods but also to get kids from those neighborhoods into better schools. The current government monopoly on such education, supported by the unions and Democrats at the highest levels including President Obama, guarantees the promulgation of an effective segregation and the breathing of life into a particularly insidious legacy of the Jim Crow era that the Great Migration could have, but did not, undo.

And that brings us back to the issue of reparations (to close the “wealth gap,” as Coates says) and the reason Coates wants to have this “national reckoning.” He writes:

A nation outlives its generations…. If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’s body. If George Washington crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the runagate Oney Judge.

Should the slaveholding of the Founders be as relevant as their political ideas in understanding the founding philosophical underpinnings of our nation’s identity? Coates seems to think so; later he writes that “white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it,” adding: “And so we must imagine a new country.”

Which opinions of the Founders must we carry as an addendum to the Constitution? Slavery was a violation of our founding principles. But the case for abolition was not just a moral one; it was also an economic one. This is what Acemoglu and Robinson show, and it’s what the historian David Brion Davis notes in his latest book, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation. He writes of Connecticut abolitionist Leonard Bacon’s argument that slavery was a long-term strain on the American economy:

Even apart from the desire for racial homogeneity, most American commentators shared this republican conviction that slavery subverted the nation’s prospects for balanced economic growth and prosperity, at least in the longer term.

Bacon wasn’t claiming that the institution of slavery didn’t provide economic benefits to those who practiced it, of course. But he, like many of his age, understood slavery as a betrayal of the American system, not just a moral failing. It was a bug, not a feature.

So yes, a tremendous amount of wealth was built up in America from the subjugation and plunder of black slaves. But to argue that the American identity and the country’s conception of self is not separate at all from its history, to argue that the idea of America is inseparable from the idea of racism and oppression, requires its own selective reading of America’s past and produces a false rendering of the American project.

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Is the Culture of the Senate to Blame?

The Obama administration is foundering, with its principals stumbling from gaffe to gaffe. Long after then-Senator John Kerry was famously for it before he was against it, Secretary of State Kerry’s rhetoric repeatedly serves to nurture extremism rather than achieve peace, as he convinces rejectionists that time is on their side and rejectionism works. Now Kerry, apparently speaking from the cuff, bashes religiosity. Vice President Joe Biden, of course, makes Kerry appear taciturn. After a disastrous confirmation hearing and ill-chosen words suggesting bigotry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has apparently learned that silence is golden because whenever he does open his mouth, he tends to get in trouble. Obama himself has mouthed off in ways that undercut both diplomacy and America’s strategic position. Indeed, USA Today asked whether Obama had actually made foreign policy by gaffe.

Senators are a funny bunch. They take several hundred votes per year, most on ordinary business—for example, confirmations and cloture votes—but some for more substantive bills. Whether they vote for or against, each is but one of 100 voices. Success is easy to claim, and responsibility easy to shirk. They must be masters of everything, and so are often skin deep on any particular issue. Rhetoric comes easy: Anyone who has ever testified at a hearing understands that he or she is merely a prop as senators make speeches geared more for their local papers before leaving the room. Over time, posturing becomes both second-nature and the key to success.

Being a leader, however, is different. The buck stops at the executive’s desk, whether for good or for bad. There’s a whole literature out there about why governors make better presidents, although some suggest the reality behind such conventional wisdom is uncertain. George Washington, John Adams, John Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Harry S. Truman were all great presidents, but none served as governor. Washington and Eisenhower, however, were generals and so did rise from a position of leadership. Adams was a lifelong politician and diplomat, and Kennedy and Truman both served time in the Congress.

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The Obama administration is foundering, with its principals stumbling from gaffe to gaffe. Long after then-Senator John Kerry was famously for it before he was against it, Secretary of State Kerry’s rhetoric repeatedly serves to nurture extremism rather than achieve peace, as he convinces rejectionists that time is on their side and rejectionism works. Now Kerry, apparently speaking from the cuff, bashes religiosity. Vice President Joe Biden, of course, makes Kerry appear taciturn. After a disastrous confirmation hearing and ill-chosen words suggesting bigotry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has apparently learned that silence is golden because whenever he does open his mouth, he tends to get in trouble. Obama himself has mouthed off in ways that undercut both diplomacy and America’s strategic position. Indeed, USA Today asked whether Obama had actually made foreign policy by gaffe.

Senators are a funny bunch. They take several hundred votes per year, most on ordinary business—for example, confirmations and cloture votes—but some for more substantive bills. Whether they vote for or against, each is but one of 100 voices. Success is easy to claim, and responsibility easy to shirk. They must be masters of everything, and so are often skin deep on any particular issue. Rhetoric comes easy: Anyone who has ever testified at a hearing understands that he or she is merely a prop as senators make speeches geared more for their local papers before leaving the room. Over time, posturing becomes both second-nature and the key to success.

Being a leader, however, is different. The buck stops at the executive’s desk, whether for good or for bad. There’s a whole literature out there about why governors make better presidents, although some suggest the reality behind such conventional wisdom is uncertain. George Washington, John Adams, John Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Harry S. Truman were all great presidents, but none served as governor. Washington and Eisenhower, however, were generals and so did rise from a position of leadership. Adams was a lifelong politician and diplomat, and Kennedy and Truman both served time in the Congress.

The problem, however, might simply be treating the president in isolation. Even if a president has emerged from the Congress, often he surrounds himself with a diverse cabinet whose experience does not mirror his own. Kennedy might have appointed a career politician to be his vice president, but he chose former military officer and lifelong diplomat Dean Rusk to be his secretary of state, and Robert McNamara, his secretary of defense, had been president of the Ford Motor Company. Johnson, for his part, kept Rusk and McNamara in State and Defense, until he replaced McNamara with lawyer Clark Clifford toward the end. Gerald Ford nominated businessman Nelson Rockefeller as his vice president and kept Kissinger in place, even if he appointed politicians and bureaucrats to the defense portfolio. Truman might have chosen fellow politician Alben Barkley as his vice president, but surrounded himself with a host of secretaries of state, war, and later defense whose backgrounds were more varied.

Barack Obama seems to be the first president who has, at least in his second term, awarded all of his key foreign-policy posts to former senators, amplifying the unique personality of that position onto his administration. Poor policy and ill-thought out strategy are one-thing, but the number of own-goals Obama’s team has so far inflicted on American national security, as well as a superficial understanding of world affairs, seems to have at least some roots in Obama choosing to fish from a very narrow pool of like-minded politicians, all of whom tend to duplicate rather than correct the president’s own flaws.

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Distinguishing Between Moderation and Political Compromise

I wrote a piece recently on compromise, moderation, and the American Constitution, and in reaction I received a note from Diana Schaub, a professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland.

She pointed out to me that it’s “helpful to distinguish the virtue of moderation, which is always right, from the practice of political compromise, the goodness of which depends on circumstances.” Moderation, Schaub went on to write, “doesn’t always entail the spirit of accommodation. There are times when one must stand fast, and one can do so without becoming immoderate.”

To buttress her argument, Schaub cited an example of George Washington (who became a revolutionary, having arrived at the conclusion that diplomatic compromise was no longer possible with Great Britain) and Abraham Lincoln (who was unwilling to consider certain sorts of compromise in order to maintain the Union and who steadfastly opposed any action that would remove the label of moral evil from the institution of slavery). Professor Schaub herself has used the apposite phrase “intransigent moderation” when describing Lincoln. 

Her main point, Schaub said in the note she sent to me (and which she kindly allowed me to quote from), is that “moderation, while usually receptive to political compromises, can at times be uncompromising without ceasing to be moderation.”

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I wrote a piece recently on compromise, moderation, and the American Constitution, and in reaction I received a note from Diana Schaub, a professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland.

She pointed out to me that it’s “helpful to distinguish the virtue of moderation, which is always right, from the practice of political compromise, the goodness of which depends on circumstances.” Moderation, Schaub went on to write, “doesn’t always entail the spirit of accommodation. There are times when one must stand fast, and one can do so without becoming immoderate.”

To buttress her argument, Schaub cited an example of George Washington (who became a revolutionary, having arrived at the conclusion that diplomatic compromise was no longer possible with Great Britain) and Abraham Lincoln (who was unwilling to consider certain sorts of compromise in order to maintain the Union and who steadfastly opposed any action that would remove the label of moral evil from the institution of slavery). Professor Schaub herself has used the apposite phrase “intransigent moderation” when describing Lincoln. 

Her main point, Schaub said in the note she sent to me (and which she kindly allowed me to quote from), is that “moderation, while usually receptive to political compromises, can at times be uncompromising without ceasing to be moderation.”

These words are ones I fully concur with and are consistent, I think, with some of the observations I made in my original piece. My emphasis, though, was somewhat different. What I intended to underscore is that to assume per se that moderation and compromise are problematic is itself problematic.

In any event, I thought Professor Schaub’s explication was wise and very intelligently stated, and certainly worth sharing. 

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“I Am Interested in the Views of the Opposition”

Over the weekend, while doing research for an essay, I re-read Catherine Drinker Bowen’s wonderful book Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention from May to September 1787. In it she quotes George Washington (a strong Federalist) on the value of the opposition.

“Upon the whole,” Washington wrote, “I doubt whether the opposition to the Constitution will not ultimately be productive of more good than evil; it has called forth, in its defence, abilities which would not perhaps have been otherwise exerted that have thrown new light upon the science of Government, they have given the rights of man a full and fair discussion, and explained them in so clear and forcible a manner, as cannot fail to make a lasting impression.”

Two centuries later the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin echoed these observations in an interview in which he was asked about critics of the Enlightenment (which Berlin was a great admirer of). 

“I am interested in the views of the opposition because I think that understanding it can sharpen one’s own vision,” Berlin said. “Clever and gifted enemies often pinpoint fallacies or shallow analyses in the thought of the Enlightenment. I am more interested in critical attacks which lead to knowledge than simply in repeating and defending the commonplaces of and about the Enlightenment.”

I cite both Washington and Berlin because what they are saying doesn’t come naturally to most of us and, in fact, runs deeply against our grain. Many of us have settled views on politics, on philosophy, on theology; we’re far more interested in refuting our critics than learning from them. Our moral intuitions and dispositions, our experiences and intellectual vanity can prevent us from appreciating the “new light” that can be cast by those with whom we disagree.

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Over the weekend, while doing research for an essay, I re-read Catherine Drinker Bowen’s wonderful book Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention from May to September 1787. In it she quotes George Washington (a strong Federalist) on the value of the opposition.

“Upon the whole,” Washington wrote, “I doubt whether the opposition to the Constitution will not ultimately be productive of more good than evil; it has called forth, in its defence, abilities which would not perhaps have been otherwise exerted that have thrown new light upon the science of Government, they have given the rights of man a full and fair discussion, and explained them in so clear and forcible a manner, as cannot fail to make a lasting impression.”

Two centuries later the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin echoed these observations in an interview in which he was asked about critics of the Enlightenment (which Berlin was a great admirer of). 

“I am interested in the views of the opposition because I think that understanding it can sharpen one’s own vision,” Berlin said. “Clever and gifted enemies often pinpoint fallacies or shallow analyses in the thought of the Enlightenment. I am more interested in critical attacks which lead to knowledge than simply in repeating and defending the commonplaces of and about the Enlightenment.”

I cite both Washington and Berlin because what they are saying doesn’t come naturally to most of us and, in fact, runs deeply against our grain. Many of us have settled views on politics, on philosophy, on theology; we’re far more interested in refuting our critics than learning from them. Our moral intuitions and dispositions, our experiences and intellectual vanity can prevent us from appreciating the “new light” that can be cast by those with whom we disagree.

It’s important to note that neither Washington nor Berlin gave up on their deeply held convictions. Washington did not become an anti-Federalist and Berlin did not become a critic of the Enlightenment. What both men were saying, I think, is that our ability to perceive the whole truth is impaired and can be improved upon; and one way it can be improved upon is to carefully weigh the arguments of one’s most (not least) serious critics. Even those we believe are wrong in their final judgments can identify weaknesses in our own arguments. None of us, after all, really and truly believes we hold exactly the right views on all the important issues at any given moment in time. We’re always learning new things, refining our views, and having to adjust them to shifting circumstances.

The second, and in some respects the more subtle, thing to be learned from the comments of Washington and Berlin is that they were speaking as empiricists, as individuals interested in gaining greater knowledge as a means to gaining greater wisdom. That is quite a different approach from being, say, ideologues who hermetically seal themselves off from data and arguments that challenge their views.

But here’s the dirty little secret. All of us are guilty, to one degree or another, of “epistemic closure” and confirmation bias. In addition, and for understandable reasons, we all tend to self-segregate. Among other things, there’s a natural human tendency to seek out a community of like-minded individuals who can offer us support and encouragement. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis writes that a friendship is born when two people discover they not only share common interests but see the same truth, who stand not face-to-face (as lovers do) but shoulder-to-shoulder. There’s an important place in our lives for intellectual and spiritual fellowship.

The question is where each of us falls on the continuum and whether we recognize intellectual rigidity in ourselves rather than others (which is one of the easiest sports known to man).

Recently I had a conversation with a treasured friend, an individual I have consistently turned to at critical junctures in my own life. He was visiting Washington and we had a lovely chat, during which he told me that as he gets older he finds himself to be a person characterized by less certitude on a range of issues.

What he was getting at wasn’t evidence of an existential crisis or a loss of faith. (His confidence in the love and sovereignty of God has actually grown over the years, with the result being he’s become more relaxed in his need to figure things out and to tie down loose ends.) What he meant, as I understood him, is that certain kinds of certitude actually inhibit the search for truth; that often it doesn’t take into account the subtleties and complexities of life; and that certain beliefs we might hold in the abstract dissolve once they make contact with real life, including when we learn first-hand the stories of people and their own struggles and triumphs along the way.

It turns out that life in this world–in politics, in philosophy, in theology, in our everyday lives–isn’t quite as neat and tidy as we might have thought.

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Defense of Declining “Forward” Not Doing Newspaper Any Favors

The Washington Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo went public yesterday about an increasingly pitched family feud in the Jewish world. In 1,100 words, Kredo cataloged the decline of the once-proud and now largely irrelevant Forward newspaper, which has gone from being one of America’s top Jewish outlets to publishing left-wing wishful thinking and agitprop. The responses from the Forward’s defenders have begun pouring in, including this frankly shrill outburst from Tablet’s Dan Klein.

Before getting to the substance of the debate: no one expects the anti-Israel wing of the pro-Israel community to make good arguments. They’re cooking with bad ingredients. But is it too much to ask that they limit themselves to mumbling through pro-forma talking points rather than launching sneering attacks? The choice should be between terrible arguments or smug self-satisfaction. Not both.

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The Washington Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo went public yesterday about an increasingly pitched family feud in the Jewish world. In 1,100 words, Kredo cataloged the decline of the once-proud and now largely irrelevant Forward newspaper, which has gone from being one of America’s top Jewish outlets to publishing left-wing wishful thinking and agitprop. The responses from the Forward’s defenders have begun pouring in, including this frankly shrill outburst from Tablet’s Dan Klein.

Before getting to the substance of the debate: no one expects the anti-Israel wing of the pro-Israel community to make good arguments. They’re cooking with bad ingredients. But is it too much to ask that they limit themselves to mumbling through pro-forma talking points rather than launching sneering attacks? The choice should be between terrible arguments or smug self-satisfaction. Not both.

Kredo traced the Forward’s free fall to the tenure of editor Jane Eisner. Eisner has not been bashful about turning her paper into an oleaginous politicized echo chamber. To take a small example, last year she sneered at Contentions for once calling a Forward cartoon by Eli Valley–whom she was at the time installing as the paper’s artist in residence –”ferociously repugnant.” She didn’t link to our 2008 post, which she said Valley could consider a “compliment,” so that her readers could judge the controversy for themselves. It’s here.

You almost get the sense that at some point Kredo just had to stop listing scandals out of exhaustion. He talked about the Forward’s distressingly uncritical showcasing of “Israel apartheid” accusations, but not about its work on behalf of Peter Beinart’s colossal flop of a BDS campaign. He outlined many of the paper’s attacks on conservative funders and activists, but didn’t get to its pro-Obama water-carrying during the ADL/AJC’s “don’t criticize Obama” dustup, which Contentions by turns criticized and mocked. He noted the Forward’s glowing profile of Hamas supporter and one-stater Ali Abunimah, but not the paper’s equally execrable defense of M.J. Rosenberg’s anti-Semitic and anti-Israel ravings (Rosenberg and his Media Matters then-employers eventually parted ways, marking the left-wing think tank as more sensitive to anti-Jewish and anti-Israel incitement than the ostensibly pro-Jewish and pro-Israel Forward).

Klein’s Tablet defense of the Forward began with a bombastic headline announcing that yesterday was the “wrong day to attack the ‘Forward.’” Apparently just that morning a Forward writer had taken a victory lap after tracking down George Washington’s 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport and arranging to have it publicly displayed. To be clear and explicit: Klein dismissed how the Forward has transformed itself into a platform for “Israel apartheid” propaganda, anti-Semitic rhetoric, and terrorist apologism — because the paper helped find a late 18th-century letter by George Washington. Mordant analysis, that.

Klein even wrote that he was “not going to defend” the damning Forward articles exposed by the WFB. He might at least have tried. If the Jewish far left is going to circle its wagons on the basis of transparent bluster, they ought to do so with a little less smugness. George Washington’s letter. Come on.

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Eisenhower, Washington, Lincoln, and Prudence

As commentators are beginning to note, Monday marks the 50th anniversary of Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, and the following Thursday marks the same anniversary for Kennedy’s inaugural, two classics of American rhetoric that could hardly be further apart and still remain in the same genre. It is a long way from Ike’s measured and noble praise of balance to Kennedy’s inspiring but unrestrained call to “pay any price.” It’s usual to say that the 1960s didn’t really began until Kennedy was assassinated, if not later, but the transition from Eisenhower’s restraint to Kennedy’s rhetorical lack of it may mark the transition more effectively than the murder in Dallas.

So far, my favorite pieces on the Eisenhower anniversary are by my friend and former colleague Will Inboden at Shadow Government and by my current colleague Jim Carafano in the Washington Examiner. I’ve got a piece myself coming out at Heritage’s Foundry on the actual anniversary that explores the rhetorical and substantial similarities between Eisenhower’s Farewell Address and its famous predecessor by George Washington. In writing that piece, I was struck by just how rarely it is that the U.S. elects a president who finds inspiration in prudence. Like Will, I’m not persuaded by Peter Feaver’s argument that Obama is meaningfully similar to Eisenhower: the attitudes of the two presidents toward federal spending, to take just one obvious and vitally important example, could hardly be more different. Read More

As commentators are beginning to note, Monday marks the 50th anniversary of Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, and the following Thursday marks the same anniversary for Kennedy’s inaugural, two classics of American rhetoric that could hardly be further apart and still remain in the same genre. It is a long way from Ike’s measured and noble praise of balance to Kennedy’s inspiring but unrestrained call to “pay any price.” It’s usual to say that the 1960s didn’t really began until Kennedy was assassinated, if not later, but the transition from Eisenhower’s restraint to Kennedy’s rhetorical lack of it may mark the transition more effectively than the murder in Dallas.

So far, my favorite pieces on the Eisenhower anniversary are by my friend and former colleague Will Inboden at Shadow Government and by my current colleague Jim Carafano in the Washington Examiner. I’ve got a piece myself coming out at Heritage’s Foundry on the actual anniversary that explores the rhetorical and substantial similarities between Eisenhower’s Farewell Address and its famous predecessor by George Washington. In writing that piece, I was struck by just how rarely it is that the U.S. elects a president who finds inspiration in prudence. Like Will, I’m not persuaded by Peter Feaver’s argument that Obama is meaningfully similar to Eisenhower: the attitudes of the two presidents toward federal spending, to take just one obvious and vitally important example, could hardly be more different.

Of course, a president doesn’t have to be prudential to be great. Still, the overlap between greatness (or near-greatness, in Eisenhower’s case) and prudentialism is striking. The only other president who has, to my knowledge, been described at length as philosophically prudential is Lincoln, by William Lee Miller in his Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography. Miller’s style takes being casual to a new and to me slightly irritating level, but it’s a fascinating read nonetheless. As Miller puts it: “The mature Abraham Lincoln would exhibit … a combination of the moral clarity and elevation of … the prophet, with the ‘prudence’ and ‘responsibility’ of a worthy politician. … Prudence as a virtue [does not] exclude, as pragmatism tends to do, general moral ideals and larger moral patterns beyond the immediate situation. … Prudence as a moral virtue made a bridge to intellectual virtue.”

But as Eisenhower might have noted, and as Miller does note, the entire tradition of prudence has been devalued, in favor of the more desiccated concept of pragmatism. As a more recent president put it, the question is simple: “What works?” And Eisenhower’s address helps explain why. As he noted, the threat to American liberties was posed not so much by big government as such but by top-down direction of all kinds. Much of this originated in the federal government, but not all of it: there was also a risk of becoming “the captive of a scientific-technological elite.” Such an elite, with its progressive pretensions to expertise and fixing things, is inherently hostile to concepts of prudence and balance, which imply that many problems can at best be managed, not solved.

Perhaps that is why Eisenhower’s Address is now, with the exception of the oft-misunderstood passage about the dangers of the military-industrial complex, much more cited than read: it is based on a philosophy that Eisenhower — like Washington — believed provided the safest foundation for American liberties but that is so profoundly out of tune with the age on which the U.S. embarked after he left office that we can no longer understand what he was saying. If that is so, I view our national need to recover that philosophy as a problem of the first magnitude.

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Hillary vs. China

Throwing your weight around is a time-honored tool in the diplomatic toolbox. Some circumstances call for it, but in others, it is cringe-inducingly inappropriate. With an oddly overt poke in China’s eye at the Asean conference this week, the Obama administration has unfortunately chosen to engage in weight-throwing under the latter conditions.

Almost every relevant headline in the mainstream media is some variation on that of the New York Times: “U.S. Challenges China on Island Chain.” Hillary Clinton, speaking at an Asean meeting in Hanoi, reportedly “said [the U.S. was] ready to step into a tangled dispute between China and its smaller Asian neighbors over a string of strategically sensitive islands in the South China Sea.” The islands in question make up the Spratly archipelago, claims to which confer tremendous undersea mineral resources on those who can enforce them. Clinton properly identified the U.S. interest as relating to freedom of navigation for world shipping, but her method of offering U.S. intervention in the regional dispute – one that China calls a “core interest” of its own national security – could hardly have been less diplomatic.

Nor could the timing have been worse. As Jillian wrote yesterday, the U.S. and South Korea are launching a naval exercise series that is planned to involve major operations in the Yellow Sea, obviously a sensitive area for Beijing. (The Chinese were unamused by USS George Washington’s foray into the Yellow Sea in October 2009, as discussed here.) Moreover, Bloomberg reports that the American delegation to the Asean conference got some very pointed additional business done on the side, inaugurating discussions on military cooperation with conference host Vietnam and restoring ties between the special forces of the U.S. and Indonesian militaries. Both nations border the South China Sea and have island claims in competition with China’s.

The point here is not that the U.S. doesn’t have a security interest in the South China Sea, nor is it that we can’t play a constructive role in fostering a peaceful and equitable settlement of the Spratly Islands dispute. But an offer of mediation is a departure from our decades-old policy of tacitly enforcing regional stability and promoting our own primary interest – freedom of maritime navigation – while respecting the sovereign concerns of the Spratly claimants as a matter for them to work out among themselves. This week’s policy departure has the appearance of being blurted out without prior diplomatic spade work.

Such an Obama initiative, introduced less pointedly and with less of the appearance of challenging China, might well have achieved a productive effect. We do want all the nations of the region to know that the U.S. will act to prevent the imbalance of power that China tends to seek. But conveying that quietly, through dedicated military presence and assiduous bilateral diplomacy – and without dramatic announcements and provocative headlines – is worth every minute of the tongue-biting patience necessary to operating with greater foresight. There is no strategic payoff from issuing gratuitous and public challenges to China, which is what the Obama administration has effectively done.

Throwing your weight around is a time-honored tool in the diplomatic toolbox. Some circumstances call for it, but in others, it is cringe-inducingly inappropriate. With an oddly overt poke in China’s eye at the Asean conference this week, the Obama administration has unfortunately chosen to engage in weight-throwing under the latter conditions.

Almost every relevant headline in the mainstream media is some variation on that of the New York Times: “U.S. Challenges China on Island Chain.” Hillary Clinton, speaking at an Asean meeting in Hanoi, reportedly “said [the U.S. was] ready to step into a tangled dispute between China and its smaller Asian neighbors over a string of strategically sensitive islands in the South China Sea.” The islands in question make up the Spratly archipelago, claims to which confer tremendous undersea mineral resources on those who can enforce them. Clinton properly identified the U.S. interest as relating to freedom of navigation for world shipping, but her method of offering U.S. intervention in the regional dispute – one that China calls a “core interest” of its own national security – could hardly have been less diplomatic.

Nor could the timing have been worse. As Jillian wrote yesterday, the U.S. and South Korea are launching a naval exercise series that is planned to involve major operations in the Yellow Sea, obviously a sensitive area for Beijing. (The Chinese were unamused by USS George Washington’s foray into the Yellow Sea in October 2009, as discussed here.) Moreover, Bloomberg reports that the American delegation to the Asean conference got some very pointed additional business done on the side, inaugurating discussions on military cooperation with conference host Vietnam and restoring ties between the special forces of the U.S. and Indonesian militaries. Both nations border the South China Sea and have island claims in competition with China’s.

The point here is not that the U.S. doesn’t have a security interest in the South China Sea, nor is it that we can’t play a constructive role in fostering a peaceful and equitable settlement of the Spratly Islands dispute. But an offer of mediation is a departure from our decades-old policy of tacitly enforcing regional stability and promoting our own primary interest – freedom of maritime navigation – while respecting the sovereign concerns of the Spratly claimants as a matter for them to work out among themselves. This week’s policy departure has the appearance of being blurted out without prior diplomatic spade work.

Such an Obama initiative, introduced less pointedly and with less of the appearance of challenging China, might well have achieved a productive effect. We do want all the nations of the region to know that the U.S. will act to prevent the imbalance of power that China tends to seek. But conveying that quietly, through dedicated military presence and assiduous bilateral diplomacy – and without dramatic announcements and provocative headlines – is worth every minute of the tongue-biting patience necessary to operating with greater foresight. There is no strategic payoff from issuing gratuitous and public challenges to China, which is what the Obama administration has effectively done.

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Some Cure

All I know is that back when hip internationalists made fun of George W. Bush every day, American decline wasn’t the buzzword it has become since they started loving Barack Obama. In today’s New York Times, British historian Piers Brendon offers a vaccine for American Decline Flu:

Despite its grave problems, there are some relatively simple steps America could take to recover its position. It could bring its military commitments in line with its resources, rely more on the “soft power” of diplomacy and economic engagement, and, as George Washington said, take advantage of its geographically detached situation to “defy material injury from external annoyance.” Such a policy would permit more investment in productive enterprise and pay for butter as well as guns, thus vindicating Joe Biden’s faith in the recuperative capacities of the Great Republic.

The problem is that Barack Obama is not too keen on guns and the First Lady has it in for butter. The administration is already so caught up in a containment policy of the U.S. that everything external constitutes an “annoyance.”

We’ve got the “soft” part covered; it’s the “power” that’s gone missing. Hard to see how Brendon can suggest a course of retraction from the world when we are, under this administration, already bystanders to most global events. The U.S. has failed to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions; failed to check Russia’s resurgent thuggishness; and accommodated all of China’s provocations. We couldn’t even push around Honduras (good thing, in that case), a poor country in our own back yard.

With the exception of two wars initiated by the previous administration, foreign policy has already become a spectator sport for the U.S. At the very same time, major and minor menaces such as Iran, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, and Burma are forging deeper and more dynamic ties. Yet it’s somehow prudent for us to capitalize on our “geographically detached situation” and go isolationist.

Embracing powerlessness as a means of conferring power has already failed a year-long experiment. Obama said in his inaugural address: “Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.” Nice thought, but since then Iran has gone enrichment-crazy, there have been multiple terrorist attempts on the U.S. (some successful), and our traditional allies are finding “the force of our example” a little wanting.

There is a clear course of action if Obama wants to halt American decline: U.S.-supported regime change in Iran; definitive victory in Afghanistan; a continued support role in Iraq; hardball with China; an embrace of old democratic allies, like Israel, Poland, and the Czech Republic, and new ones, such as India. Domestically, this means not following, debt-wracked Europe down the socialist sinkhole. Doing all this would, of course, bring the campus liberals back out into the streets and the international naysayers back to the lecterns. That state of affairs, however, does not indicate a country in decline, but rather its opposite: a nation strong enough to absorb internal debate and withstand international denunciation.

All I know is that back when hip internationalists made fun of George W. Bush every day, American decline wasn’t the buzzword it has become since they started loving Barack Obama. In today’s New York Times, British historian Piers Brendon offers a vaccine for American Decline Flu:

Despite its grave problems, there are some relatively simple steps America could take to recover its position. It could bring its military commitments in line with its resources, rely more on the “soft power” of diplomacy and economic engagement, and, as George Washington said, take advantage of its geographically detached situation to “defy material injury from external annoyance.” Such a policy would permit more investment in productive enterprise and pay for butter as well as guns, thus vindicating Joe Biden’s faith in the recuperative capacities of the Great Republic.

The problem is that Barack Obama is not too keen on guns and the First Lady has it in for butter. The administration is already so caught up in a containment policy of the U.S. that everything external constitutes an “annoyance.”

We’ve got the “soft” part covered; it’s the “power” that’s gone missing. Hard to see how Brendon can suggest a course of retraction from the world when we are, under this administration, already bystanders to most global events. The U.S. has failed to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions; failed to check Russia’s resurgent thuggishness; and accommodated all of China’s provocations. We couldn’t even push around Honduras (good thing, in that case), a poor country in our own back yard.

With the exception of two wars initiated by the previous administration, foreign policy has already become a spectator sport for the U.S. At the very same time, major and minor menaces such as Iran, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, and Burma are forging deeper and more dynamic ties. Yet it’s somehow prudent for us to capitalize on our “geographically detached situation” and go isolationist.

Embracing powerlessness as a means of conferring power has already failed a year-long experiment. Obama said in his inaugural address: “Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.” Nice thought, but since then Iran has gone enrichment-crazy, there have been multiple terrorist attempts on the U.S. (some successful), and our traditional allies are finding “the force of our example” a little wanting.

There is a clear course of action if Obama wants to halt American decline: U.S.-supported regime change in Iran; definitive victory in Afghanistan; a continued support role in Iraq; hardball with China; an embrace of old democratic allies, like Israel, Poland, and the Czech Republic, and new ones, such as India. Domestically, this means not following, debt-wracked Europe down the socialist sinkhole. Doing all this would, of course, bring the campus liberals back out into the streets and the international naysayers back to the lecterns. That state of affairs, however, does not indicate a country in decline, but rather its opposite: a nation strong enough to absorb internal debate and withstand international denunciation.

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The Centuries-Old Bond Between America and the Jews

The essential new website Jewish Ideas Daily today features a link to an extraordinary document — a letter from the Founding Father Benjamin Rush to his wife describing his experience attending a Jewish wedding ceremony in Philadelphia. Not only is Rush’s description simple, plain, and accurate, then and now, it testifies to the wondrous imaginative sympathy that even these 18th-century Americans had toward the Jewish people, and offers (like George Washington’s 1790 letter to the Touro synagogue) a glimpse of the unparalleled freedom and friendship this nation would extend toward Jews, ever more generously, as the years went on.

As it turns out, the issue of that marriage, Uriah Levy, was, my friend Robert Frost tells me, “a major figure in the history of the US Navy. In addition to saving Monticello from ruin, he was the Commodore of the Sixth Fleet (Mediterranean) which was a major accomplishment given that he faced significant anti-semitism in the Navy (not quite Dreyfus, but not fun). The recently opened Jewish Chapel at the Naval Academy is named after Levy.”

More on Levy’s astonishing life, including his six courts-martial and how his purchase of Monticello proved to be the salvation of Thomas Jefferson’s home, can be found here. It demonstrates that the course of true friendship between America and the Jews was not a simple upward arc.

The essential new website Jewish Ideas Daily today features a link to an extraordinary document — a letter from the Founding Father Benjamin Rush to his wife describing his experience attending a Jewish wedding ceremony in Philadelphia. Not only is Rush’s description simple, plain, and accurate, then and now, it testifies to the wondrous imaginative sympathy that even these 18th-century Americans had toward the Jewish people, and offers (like George Washington’s 1790 letter to the Touro synagogue) a glimpse of the unparalleled freedom and friendship this nation would extend toward Jews, ever more generously, as the years went on.

As it turns out, the issue of that marriage, Uriah Levy, was, my friend Robert Frost tells me, “a major figure in the history of the US Navy. In addition to saving Monticello from ruin, he was the Commodore of the Sixth Fleet (Mediterranean) which was a major accomplishment given that he faced significant anti-semitism in the Navy (not quite Dreyfus, but not fun). The recently opened Jewish Chapel at the Naval Academy is named after Levy.”

More on Levy’s astonishing life, including his six courts-martial and how his purchase of Monticello proved to be the salvation of Thomas Jefferson’s home, can be found here. It demonstrates that the course of true friendship between America and the Jews was not a simple upward arc.

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The True Administration of Justice is the Firmest Pillar of Good Government

About an hour ago I was holding an umbrella against the wind and rain, in the outer skirts of the crowd that had gathered on Foley Square, Manhattan, to protest Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s impending civil trial. Judging by how much space had been barricaded, I’d say the city must have expected a bigger turnout. Doubtless, the weather deterred many would-be attendees. But the 300-400 people who had shown up were determined and righteously angry—at the president’s and attorney general’s measly arguments for extending to the 9/11 mastermind the same legal privileges of American citizens; at the travesty of justice that his civil trial would entail; and at the cheap rhetorical shots through which the administration is dismissing the critics of its decision.

Several passionate speakers shared the podium, among them close relatives of 9/11 victims and a surviving firefighter from the first-response teams dispatched to the World Trade Center. They all voiced their disgust at how the administration is handling KSM with gloves of moral priggishness. And they also urged the demonstrators to leave no political stone unturned and to buttonhole their representatives until they take responsibility for this disgrace.

It was fitting that the rally stirred at the feet of the New York State Supreme Courthouse, whose Corinthian columns underscore the engraving “The true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government.” I wonder what George Washington, who wrote those words to Attorney General Edmund Randolph on September 28, 1789, would think of the kind of trial our current president and attorney general have in store for KSM and of the kind of justice that trial will beget. What is anyone to make of a civil trial whose outcome, whatever it is, will not determine whether the defendant is to be freed and exonerated? I, for one, would not think it civil at all, or just. And neither would the protesters on Foley Square today.  Some photographs from the rally:











About an hour ago I was holding an umbrella against the wind and rain, in the outer skirts of the crowd that had gathered on Foley Square, Manhattan, to protest Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s impending civil trial. Judging by how much space had been barricaded, I’d say the city must have expected a bigger turnout. Doubtless, the weather deterred many would-be attendees. But the 300-400 people who had shown up were determined and righteously angry—at the president’s and attorney general’s measly arguments for extending to the 9/11 mastermind the same legal privileges of American citizens; at the travesty of justice that his civil trial would entail; and at the cheap rhetorical shots through which the administration is dismissing the critics of its decision.

Several passionate speakers shared the podium, among them close relatives of 9/11 victims and a surviving firefighter from the first-response teams dispatched to the World Trade Center. They all voiced their disgust at how the administration is handling KSM with gloves of moral priggishness. And they also urged the demonstrators to leave no political stone unturned and to buttonhole their representatives until they take responsibility for this disgrace.

It was fitting that the rally stirred at the feet of the New York State Supreme Courthouse, whose Corinthian columns underscore the engraving “The true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government.” I wonder what George Washington, who wrote those words to Attorney General Edmund Randolph on September 28, 1789, would think of the kind of trial our current president and attorney general have in store for KSM and of the kind of justice that trial will beget. What is anyone to make of a civil trial whose outcome, whatever it is, will not determine whether the defendant is to be freed and exonerated? I, for one, would not think it civil at all, or just. And neither would the protesters on Foley Square today.  Some photographs from the rally:











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The Saucer

James Pethokoukis reports:

Just talked to a very insightful Capitol Hill Watcher who doesn’t think Harry Reid has the votes in the Senate to pass anything resembling comprehensive healthcare reform. You can count out Lieberman, Landrieu, Nelson and maybe even Bayh.

The endless parade of amendments and debates will continue. There will be no quickie Saturday votes in the Senate, as Nancy Pelosi rammed through on the House. That has, of course, real consequences, as Pethokoukis observes:

Once the Congress goes homes, members could be inundated with complains and protests, just like in August. Also, the rising unemployment rate continues to sap public confidence in the Obama agenda and Washington, in general.

The Founding Fathers would be pleased. As George Washington described it, “We pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.” The danger of ill-advised, ill-conceived, and hastily voted upon legislation is mitigated by the Senate’s laborious process and rules. Unlike the House, where many a member resides within the safe confines of gerrymandered district, the Senate has many an “unsafe” state — Red States with precariously perched Democratic incumbents (Arkansas), Blue States with enough independents and Republicans to swing Republican in a wave year (Connecticut and Pennsylvania), and ones in between with increasingly unpopular senators (Nevada). All will be looking cautiously over their shoulders, as well they should.

Democrats have declared health-care reform to be a political imperative, fearing that doing “nothing” will imperil them. But “not terrifying the voters” isn’t the same as doing nothing. Even Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, if forced to, can come up with a handful of reforms, gussy them up, and declare victory. That may come — but only after the Senate, just as it was designed to do, cools the House’s legislative brew.

James Pethokoukis reports:

Just talked to a very insightful Capitol Hill Watcher who doesn’t think Harry Reid has the votes in the Senate to pass anything resembling comprehensive healthcare reform. You can count out Lieberman, Landrieu, Nelson and maybe even Bayh.

The endless parade of amendments and debates will continue. There will be no quickie Saturday votes in the Senate, as Nancy Pelosi rammed through on the House. That has, of course, real consequences, as Pethokoukis observes:

Once the Congress goes homes, members could be inundated with complains and protests, just like in August. Also, the rising unemployment rate continues to sap public confidence in the Obama agenda and Washington, in general.

The Founding Fathers would be pleased. As George Washington described it, “We pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.” The danger of ill-advised, ill-conceived, and hastily voted upon legislation is mitigated by the Senate’s laborious process and rules. Unlike the House, where many a member resides within the safe confines of gerrymandered district, the Senate has many an “unsafe” state — Red States with precariously perched Democratic incumbents (Arkansas), Blue States with enough independents and Republicans to swing Republican in a wave year (Connecticut and Pennsylvania), and ones in between with increasingly unpopular senators (Nevada). All will be looking cautiously over their shoulders, as well they should.

Democrats have declared health-care reform to be a political imperative, fearing that doing “nothing” will imperil them. But “not terrifying the voters” isn’t the same as doing nothing. Even Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, if forced to, can come up with a handful of reforms, gussy them up, and declare victory. That may come — but only after the Senate, just as it was designed to do, cools the House’s legislative brew.

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Apology Time, Or Not

Mike Huckabee made a remarkably stupid joke at the NRA convention about Barack Obama. To no one’s surprise, he apologized within twenty-four hours.

Senator Tom Harkin criticized John McCain for his and his family’s apparently excessive time in military service:

“I think he’s trapped in that . . .Everything is looked at from his life experiences, from always having been in the military, and I think that can be pretty dangerous. . . [I]t’s one thing to have been drafted and served, but another thing when you come from generations of military people and that’s just how you’re steeped, how you’ve learned, how you’ve grown up. . . I just want to be very clear there’s nothing wrong with a career in the military . . . But now McCain is running for a higher office. He’s running for commander in chief, and our Constitution says that should be a civilian. And in some ways, I think it would be nice if that commander in chief had some military background, but I don’t know if they need a whole lot.”

Yes, I suppose it would have been far better had George Washington and Dwight D. Eisenhower not had all that military training. So far, nothing from either Harkin or the presumptive Democratic nominee apologizing for impugning all that service to America.

The Left’s reflexive disdain for all things military has not endeared them to average Americans in the past. Obama, who let Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s jibe at McCain’s military service go without a direct rebuke, should decide if he wants to perpetuate this error. For a candidate who has generated concern about his willingness to express patriotic emotion (and who seems divorced at times from the cultural values held by millions of Americans), it might be a good idea for him to start repudiating these comments.

Oh, I forgot . . . absent an appearance at the National Press Club by the offending speaker, he doesn’t do repudiation.

Mike Huckabee made a remarkably stupid joke at the NRA convention about Barack Obama. To no one’s surprise, he apologized within twenty-four hours.

Senator Tom Harkin criticized John McCain for his and his family’s apparently excessive time in military service:

“I think he’s trapped in that . . .Everything is looked at from his life experiences, from always having been in the military, and I think that can be pretty dangerous. . . [I]t’s one thing to have been drafted and served, but another thing when you come from generations of military people and that’s just how you’re steeped, how you’ve learned, how you’ve grown up. . . I just want to be very clear there’s nothing wrong with a career in the military . . . But now McCain is running for a higher office. He’s running for commander in chief, and our Constitution says that should be a civilian. And in some ways, I think it would be nice if that commander in chief had some military background, but I don’t know if they need a whole lot.”

Yes, I suppose it would have been far better had George Washington and Dwight D. Eisenhower not had all that military training. So far, nothing from either Harkin or the presumptive Democratic nominee apologizing for impugning all that service to America.

The Left’s reflexive disdain for all things military has not endeared them to average Americans in the past. Obama, who let Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s jibe at McCain’s military service go without a direct rebuke, should decide if he wants to perpetuate this error. For a candidate who has generated concern about his willingness to express patriotic emotion (and who seems divorced at times from the cultural values held by millions of Americans), it might be a good idea for him to start repudiating these comments.

Oh, I forgot . . . absent an appearance at the National Press Club by the offending speaker, he doesn’t do repudiation.

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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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Odierno’s Departure

Nadia Schadlow has an excellent article in the Wall Street Journal pointing out why it would be folly to move General Petraeus out of Iraq prematurely. This is a point that others, including me, have previously made, but Nadia adds an important historical dimension by noting all of the major generals, from George Washington to Creighton Abrams, who have spent years overseas directing American war efforts. By those standards, Petraeus’s deployment abroad, while lengthy and strenuous (counting a tour in the Balkans, since 2001 he has spent 50 months, or more than four years, overseas), is not out of the norm.

What is abnormal, as Schadlow shows, is the American military’s current penchant for rotating almost everyone in the war zone after six, twelve, or, at most, eighteen months. (The State Department and CIA operate under similar policies.) That rotation policy is understandable when it comes to grunts who have to deal with combat and all its stresses. It makes less sense for headquarters staffers who serve in relative comfort and safety. (I stress relative, since life in Iraq or Afghanistan will always be a lot less safe and less comfortable than being stateside.) Turning over personnel constantly can lead to a loss of invaluable experience. Newcomers can take months to get up to speed, and in the meantime momentum may be lost.

That is a real concern because right now the entire headquarters staff of Multi-National Corps-Iraq is leaving Iraq along with its commander, Lieutenant General Ray Odierno. They are being replaced by an entirely new group of staff officers led by Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin. While Austin arrives to positive publicity, he has not wracked up the kind of invaluable experience that Odierno has during the past year while working with General Petraeus to direct the successful surge. Odierno arrived to some negative notices (in particular from Tom Ricks, author of Fiasco) but he is leaving to almost universal acclaim. The changeover will probably go smoothly, but there is a real risk of friction and loss of momentum.

The Defense Department should rethink its rotation policies. After Vietnam, the military rebelled against the policy of replacing individuals rather than entire units. The individual-rotation policy meant that often combat formations were made up of strangers—a deadly handicap in the heat of battle when esprit de corps is all-important. But while the unit rotation policy and 12- to 18-month tours make sense for combat units, they make less sense for staff officers, who could be deployed for longer periods and whose departures could be staggered to avoid a vast loss of experience such as the one we are now facing in Iraq.

Already General Petraeus and his predecessor, General George Casey, have served for longer than a year at a time, and so have a few of their key subordinates. It would make sense to extend that policy a bit more broadly.

Nadia Schadlow has an excellent article in the Wall Street Journal pointing out why it would be folly to move General Petraeus out of Iraq prematurely. This is a point that others, including me, have previously made, but Nadia adds an important historical dimension by noting all of the major generals, from George Washington to Creighton Abrams, who have spent years overseas directing American war efforts. By those standards, Petraeus’s deployment abroad, while lengthy and strenuous (counting a tour in the Balkans, since 2001 he has spent 50 months, or more than four years, overseas), is not out of the norm.

What is abnormal, as Schadlow shows, is the American military’s current penchant for rotating almost everyone in the war zone after six, twelve, or, at most, eighteen months. (The State Department and CIA operate under similar policies.) That rotation policy is understandable when it comes to grunts who have to deal with combat and all its stresses. It makes less sense for headquarters staffers who serve in relative comfort and safety. (I stress relative, since life in Iraq or Afghanistan will always be a lot less safe and less comfortable than being stateside.) Turning over personnel constantly can lead to a loss of invaluable experience. Newcomers can take months to get up to speed, and in the meantime momentum may be lost.

That is a real concern because right now the entire headquarters staff of Multi-National Corps-Iraq is leaving Iraq along with its commander, Lieutenant General Ray Odierno. They are being replaced by an entirely new group of staff officers led by Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin. While Austin arrives to positive publicity, he has not wracked up the kind of invaluable experience that Odierno has during the past year while working with General Petraeus to direct the successful surge. Odierno arrived to some negative notices (in particular from Tom Ricks, author of Fiasco) but he is leaving to almost universal acclaim. The changeover will probably go smoothly, but there is a real risk of friction and loss of momentum.

The Defense Department should rethink its rotation policies. After Vietnam, the military rebelled against the policy of replacing individuals rather than entire units. The individual-rotation policy meant that often combat formations were made up of strangers—a deadly handicap in the heat of battle when esprit de corps is all-important. But while the unit rotation policy and 12- to 18-month tours make sense for combat units, they make less sense for staff officers, who could be deployed for longer periods and whose departures could be staggered to avoid a vast loss of experience such as the one we are now facing in Iraq.

Already General Petraeus and his predecessor, General George Casey, have served for longer than a year at a time, and so have a few of their key subordinates. It would make sense to extend that policy a bit more broadly.

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Missing Fred Thompson

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

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

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

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

That’s why so many of us liked him.

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

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

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

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

That’s why so many of us liked him.

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George Washington on the CIA’s Torture Tapes

First came the deeply flawed summary of the Iran NIE. The more we learn about this document, the more it is becoming apparent that leaks and the fear of leaks are what drove the decision to make it public.

Then came news of the destruction of the CIA “torture videos,” showing the interrogations of ranking members of al Qaeda. CIA director Michael Hayden made public the information that the videos had been destroyed because he expected possible “misinterpretations of the facts in the days ahead.” In other words, he expected that news of the destruction of the videos was on the verge of being leaked.

Now that the information is on the public record, the CIA is under investigation, its leading counterterrorism operatives may face criminal charges, and the agency’s efforts to apprehend and interrogate determined enemies of the United have been thrust into disarray.

We are in the midst of a war in which intelligence is the crucial front. But much of what the U.S. government tries to do in the realm of secret intelligence is rapidly made un-secret. And much of what it contemplates doing it cannot do because of fear that its plans will be leaked.

Does it make sense to have what is supposed to be a clandestine intelligence agency like the CIA operating transparently, its sources and methods and secrets bare to the world? “Upon secrecy, success depends in most enterprises,” George Washington said two-hundred some years ago, “and for want of it, they are generally defeated.”

Are we setting ourselves up for defeat? What can be done about damaging leaks? Connecting the Dots has made some suggestions, but they have not been acted upon and there is no sign that they will be — or that anything (aside from the spectacles of the AIPAC and Scooter Libby prosecutions) is even being contemplated. When disaster strikes next, it will be too late.

First came the deeply flawed summary of the Iran NIE. The more we learn about this document, the more it is becoming apparent that leaks and the fear of leaks are what drove the decision to make it public.

Then came news of the destruction of the CIA “torture videos,” showing the interrogations of ranking members of al Qaeda. CIA director Michael Hayden made public the information that the videos had been destroyed because he expected possible “misinterpretations of the facts in the days ahead.” In other words, he expected that news of the destruction of the videos was on the verge of being leaked.

Now that the information is on the public record, the CIA is under investigation, its leading counterterrorism operatives may face criminal charges, and the agency’s efforts to apprehend and interrogate determined enemies of the United have been thrust into disarray.

We are in the midst of a war in which intelligence is the crucial front. But much of what the U.S. government tries to do in the realm of secret intelligence is rapidly made un-secret. And much of what it contemplates doing it cannot do because of fear that its plans will be leaked.

Does it make sense to have what is supposed to be a clandestine intelligence agency like the CIA operating transparently, its sources and methods and secrets bare to the world? “Upon secrecy, success depends in most enterprises,” George Washington said two-hundred some years ago, “and for want of it, they are generally defeated.”

Are we setting ourselves up for defeat? What can be done about damaging leaks? Connecting the Dots has made some suggestions, but they have not been acted upon and there is no sign that they will be — or that anything (aside from the spectacles of the AIPAC and Scooter Libby prosecutions) is even being contemplated. When disaster strikes next, it will be too late.

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What Ivory Tower?

The public image of the college professor has certainly changed since 1941. That year, Howard Hawks’s Ball of Fire featured Gary Cooper as an academic so completely insulated from life that the slangy patter of a gangster’s moll, played by Barbara Stanwyck, baffled him. Since then, the cinematic professor has become more worldly. He is likely to be a womanizing alcoholic (One True Thing), a suicidal Proust scholar* (Little Miss Sunshine), or a womanizing failed writer (both Wonder Boys and The Squid and the Whale). William Deresiewicz dissects these and other examples in a provocative essay in the American Scholar, which looks at the public image of the contemporary college professor—and its underlying reality.

Read More

The public image of the college professor has certainly changed since 1941. That year, Howard Hawks’s Ball of Fire featured Gary Cooper as an academic so completely insulated from life that the slangy patter of a gangster’s moll, played by Barbara Stanwyck, baffled him. Since then, the cinematic professor has become more worldly. He is likely to be a womanizing alcoholic (One True Thing), a suicidal Proust scholar* (Little Miss Sunshine), or a womanizing failed writer (both Wonder Boys and The Squid and the Whale). William Deresiewicz dissects these and other examples in a provocative essay in the American Scholar, which looks at the public image of the contemporary college professor—and its underlying reality.

Deresiewicz, himself a professor at Yale, concedes that the modern professor is often a “careerist parvenu.” But if so, it is because he has no other choice; the old-boy network that once allocated teaching jobs among a small elite no longer exists. “[T]he old gentility rested on exclusion,” he explains, “and the new rat race is meritocracy in motion.” And he concedes that today’s professor is far more likely to sleep with his students than his pre-1960’s predecessors, but not with the freewheeling abandon that Hollywood imagines.

Deresiewicz is more interesting when he moves from the sociology of the professor to the sociology of the American public—and why Americans seem so hostile to academics. His proposed explanation is fascinating:

Americans’ traditional resentment of hierarchy and hostility toward intellect have intensified since World War II and particularly since the 1960s. Elites have been discredited, the notion of high culture dethroned, the means of communication decentralized. Public discourse has become more demotic; families, churches, and other institutions more democratic. The existence of academia, an institution predicated on intellectual hierarchy, irritates Americans’ insistence on equality, their feeling that intellect constitutes a contemptible kind of advantage. At the same time, as American society has become more meritocratic, its economy more technocratic, people want that advantage for themselves or their children. With the U.S. News rankings and the annual admissions frenzy, universities are playing an ever-more conspicuous role in creating the larger social hierarchy that no one acknowledges but everyone wants to climb. It’s no wonder that people resent the gatekeepers and enjoy seeing them symbolically humiliated.

Deresiewicz may well be right about this, but one element is missing from his spacious essay: the extent to which college professors have been complicit in their own loss of public prestige, particularly in the humanities, where Hollywood’s academic rogues are invariably found. Two generations ago they were respected for subordinating their lives to scholarship, and much of the prestige of their academic subjects—whether Shakespeare or Descartes or George Washington—accrued to them. Today, Shakespeare, Descartes, and Washington don’t seem to count as much as they once did. Now whose fault might that be?

*This character was originally misidentified as “womanizing;” the character is, in fact, gay.

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This Old (Presidential) House

Generations of schoolchildren once learned that George Washington was the Father of the Country—a platitude, of course, but one that encapsulated an essential truth. Now an exhibition on the site in Philadelphia where he lived during his presidency will concentrate on his role as a slave-owner. This too is a truth, a tragic one that requires telling. But is this the central truth about our first President—that he hypocritically spoke of liberty while enslaving others?

This question has become urgent with the rediscovery of the first President’s house, where Washington (and later John Adams) lived between 1790 and 1800, when Philadelphia served as the country’s capital. The house was demolished in the early 19th century, leaving behind only a few print images, and its precise form and location became a matter of historical controversy. This was recently settled, and in spectacular fashion, by Edward Lawler, Jr.—not a professional historian but a singer. (Full disclosure: I knew Lawler in graduate school in the early 1980’s.)

Read More

Generations of schoolchildren once learned that George Washington was the Father of the Country—a platitude, of course, but one that encapsulated an essential truth. Now an exhibition on the site in Philadelphia where he lived during his presidency will concentrate on his role as a slave-owner. This too is a truth, a tragic one that requires telling. But is this the central truth about our first President—that he hypocritically spoke of liberty while enslaving others?

This question has become urgent with the rediscovery of the first President’s house, where Washington (and later John Adams) lived between 1790 and 1800, when Philadelphia served as the country’s capital. The house was demolished in the early 19th century, leaving behind only a few print images, and its precise form and location became a matter of historical controversy. This was recently settled, and in spectacular fashion, by Edward Lawler, Jr.—not a professional historian but a singer. (Full disclosure: I knew Lawler in graduate school in the early 1980’s.)

Working systematically through original documents, Lawler disentangled two centuries of pious historiography to pinpoint the site of the house with forensic exactitude. His work made possible this year’s excavation, which has brought to light a surprising amount of the original house; it is easily the most important archaeological find for American history in a generation.

Finding the house was easy, however, compared to figuring out how to present it to the public. Designed by the Philadelphia firm Kelly/Maiello, the new museum that will rise over the foundations of the original house is an unfortunate object, both didactically and architecturally. The original executive mansion consisted of a front house on Market Street, a back building with servants’ quarters and a kitchen, and a stable to the rear. In a tiny wing connecting this stable to the back building lived Washington’s slaves. It is the physical remains of these slave quarters that dominate the museum’s educational program, whose six “substantive themes” are:

The House and the People Who Lived There; The Executive Branch of the U.S. Government; The System and Methods of Slavery; African-American Philadelphia, especially Free African-American; The Move to Freedom; and History Lost and Found.

One notes that Washington himself will not be a “substantive” presence in his house, other than as one of the “people who lived there.” The result will be, in effect, a museum of American slavery.

The issue of architectural merit may, perhaps, pale beside the larger questions this new museum raises. Still, it should be noted that the proposed design of the new visitors’ center is comically inept. Several generations ago, Americans celebrated their historical buildings by contriving plausible facsimiles (as at Colonial Williamsburg). Recently, Robert Venturi suggested a more imaginative approach when he reconstructed the lost Benjamin Franklin House—of which no contemporary images survived—as an abstract and ghostly lattice. The Kelly/Maiello design is an unhappy conflation of the two, a plaintively literal array of classical pediments hanging in the air that manages to starve both the eye and the imagination at the same time—no mean feat.

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