Commentary Magazine


Topic: John F. Kennedy

Breaking Faith Is No “Profile In Courage”

John F. Kennedy may well be, as syndicated columnist Drew Pearson famously asserted back in 1957, the only person to win a Pulitzer Prize for a ghostwritten book. But the memory of his (or Ted Sorenson’s, assuming you don’t believe that faithful JFK courtier’s steadfast denials of authorship) Profiles in Courage is kept alive every year by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, which hands out an award to a politician they deem to be in the tradition of the book’s celebration of U.S. senators that bucked the tide of public opinion to do what they thought was right. Their latest choice—former President George H.W. Bush—is one that ought to appeal to both sides of the political aisle. Bush 41 is probably the closest thing we have these days to a consensus beloved elder statesman. Unlike every other living president, the elder Bush stopped being a lightening rod soon after leaving office. Given the hyper-partisanship of our times and the way that every president that followed him has spawned a derangement syndrome named in their honor, he may well be the last such figure to be viewed this way for the foreseeable future.

But the Foundation’s award has nevertheless spawned a rather spirited argument. The notion that Bush deserves to be honored for violating his “read my lips: no new taxes” pledge is one that ought to be fiercely disputed. At stake here is not so much the 41st president’s honor, but the sanctity of political promises as well as the principle of fiscal prudence that was at the heart of his shameless and ultimately self-destructive decision to repudiate that famous promise. To claim, as does the Foundation, that Bush was right to abandon conservative principles isn’t merely a liberal cheer to a GOP leader’s choice to frustrate the voters who put him in office. It is a celebration of a longstanding tradition in which those who hold office are supposed to disregard the views of the mob in favor of the public interest.

That’s the sort of view with which many of our Founders might have sympathized (not to mention British parliamentarian and conservative icon Edmund Burke), but as often as not it is also the refuge of scoundrels. The point about Bush’s “courage” in raising taxes as well as the decisions taken by many, if not most of the examples cited in Profiles, is that they were dead wrong.

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John F. Kennedy may well be, as syndicated columnist Drew Pearson famously asserted back in 1957, the only person to win a Pulitzer Prize for a ghostwritten book. But the memory of his (or Ted Sorenson’s, assuming you don’t believe that faithful JFK courtier’s steadfast denials of authorship) Profiles in Courage is kept alive every year by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, which hands out an award to a politician they deem to be in the tradition of the book’s celebration of U.S. senators that bucked the tide of public opinion to do what they thought was right. Their latest choice—former President George H.W. Bush—is one that ought to appeal to both sides of the political aisle. Bush 41 is probably the closest thing we have these days to a consensus beloved elder statesman. Unlike every other living president, the elder Bush stopped being a lightening rod soon after leaving office. Given the hyper-partisanship of our times and the way that every president that followed him has spawned a derangement syndrome named in their honor, he may well be the last such figure to be viewed this way for the foreseeable future.

But the Foundation’s award has nevertheless spawned a rather spirited argument. The notion that Bush deserves to be honored for violating his “read my lips: no new taxes” pledge is one that ought to be fiercely disputed. At stake here is not so much the 41st president’s honor, but the sanctity of political promises as well as the principle of fiscal prudence that was at the heart of his shameless and ultimately self-destructive decision to repudiate that famous promise. To claim, as does the Foundation, that Bush was right to abandon conservative principles isn’t merely a liberal cheer to a GOP leader’s choice to frustrate the voters who put him in office. It is a celebration of a longstanding tradition in which those who hold office are supposed to disregard the views of the mob in favor of the public interest.

That’s the sort of view with which many of our Founders might have sympathized (not to mention British parliamentarian and conservative icon Edmund Burke), but as often as not it is also the refuge of scoundrels. The point about Bush’s “courage” in raising taxes as well as the decisions taken by many, if not most of the examples cited in Profiles, is that they were dead wrong.

The choice of Bush was cheered in particular by New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal, whose piece about it not only sought to perpetuate the myth that raising taxes ensured the country’s subsequent prosperity but also engaged in snark at the expense of the younger President Bush and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. But in this case Norquist had the better argument. Having been elected on a pledge to fight back against the tax and spend inertia of the federal leviathan, Bush 41’s spineless surrender to the conventional wisdom imposed on him by the liberal media establishment and a Democratic-controlled Congress dedicated to opposing any reform was more than just your everyday political betrayal. It was an act of contempt for not only his party’s core political constituency but also for the whole point of the Reagan Revolution on which he had hitched a ride in 1980. By raising taxes Bush didn’t ensure the nation’s well being, but he did postpone the day of reckoning for the political establishment that was unable to see that the system had to be changed. The betrayal of the pledge he made when accepting his party’s nomination for the presidency was a low point in his career.

But it bears pointing out that in that sense he is no different from many of the senators lauded by JKF/Sorenson in the book. While a few of their examples are inarguably praiseworthy—Thomas Hart Benton for opposing the extension of slavery, Sam Houston for opposing secession, and Lucius Lamar for promoting post Civil War reconciliation—most of its subjects actually merited the abuse they received for their “courageous” decisions.

In it they laud Daniel Webster for embracing the Compromise of 1850 which sacrificed the right of free states to shelter runaway slaves. In essence Webster traded his honor and his principles for a measure that didn’t so much postpone the Civil War as to ensure it would tear the country apart. They also praise John Quincy Adams for leaving the Federalists in what was an act of intelligent if not particularly principled opportunism; George Norris for undermining U.S. preparedness before World War One and for later supporting a corrupt Democrat for president; and Robert A. Taft for opposing the Nuremberg Trials as ex post facto law rather than an effort to create international standards for human rights.

I might add Kansas Senator Edmund Ross—the Republican who cast the deciding vote not to convict Andrew Johnson after his impeachment—to the list of bad choices. I think Lincoln’s successor richly deserved eviction from office for his obstruction of reconstruction policies that might have granted some justice to freed slaves and avoided much of the harm that restoring the south to white rule did in the century that followed. But I also understand that there was some value to not creating a precedent that would have led to the impeachment of every president who displeased two-thirds of the Senate.

But the point here is that while there is something to be said for a politician that puts his principles above his political future, most of the subjects in Profiles did nothing of the sort. Most, like Webster and Ross, discarded their principles and took what they considered to be the pragmatic move and were rightly reviled for it. That’s what Bush did too, only perhaps in embracing an unnecessary tax increase he demonstrated that he never really had any principles on the issue of the size of government and taxation in the first place. Like the senators in the famous book, Bush paid for it with his political career. But there was nothing particularly courageous about his actions. To the contrary, standing for your principles against the force of conventional wisdom rather than caving in to it is the hardest thing you can do in Washington. Sometimes doing so is right and sometimes it is a mistake (see Cruz, Ted; government shutdown) but betraying your principles is almost always an act of craven cowardice. That the New York Times applauded such behavior should surprise no one.

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The Difference Between Iran and the USSR

In what was an otherwise lackluster State of the Union speech last night as well as one that gave short shrift to foreign policy, it was no small irony that one of the most pointed passages was the section devoted to opposing additional sanctions on Iran. Repeating arguments he has made before, President Obama declared he would veto any measure that imposed new sanctions on the Islamist regime, even those only slated to go into effect after the scheduled six-month negotiating period had failed:

And it is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program — and rolled back parts of that program — for the very first time in a decade. As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium.

It’s not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify every day that Iran is not building a bomb. And with our allies and partners, we’re engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

These negotiations will be difficult; they may not succeed. We are clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threaten our allies; and we’re clear about the mistrust between our nations, mistrust that cannot be wished away. But these negotiations don’t rely on trust; any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb. If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.

But these assertions about the interim argument aren’t merely exaggerations. They are false. The Iranian stockpile is not being eliminated and the inspections are not verifying that Iran isn’t working on a bomb. Just as importantly, the comparisons between his nuclear diplomacy and that of Kennedy or Reagan are specious. The Iranians are not as dangerous as the Soviet Union. But that’s precisely the reason his weak diplomacy, indeed, his abject appeasement, is so wrongheaded. Moreover, the even greater difference between those situations and this one has to do with the way America’s adversaries regard the U.S. The Russians knew both JFK and Reagan meant business. After five years of feckless diplomatic engagement, the Iranians have come to the opposite conclusion about Obama.

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In what was an otherwise lackluster State of the Union speech last night as well as one that gave short shrift to foreign policy, it was no small irony that one of the most pointed passages was the section devoted to opposing additional sanctions on Iran. Repeating arguments he has made before, President Obama declared he would veto any measure that imposed new sanctions on the Islamist regime, even those only slated to go into effect after the scheduled six-month negotiating period had failed:

And it is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program — and rolled back parts of that program — for the very first time in a decade. As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium.

It’s not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify every day that Iran is not building a bomb. And with our allies and partners, we’re engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

These negotiations will be difficult; they may not succeed. We are clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threaten our allies; and we’re clear about the mistrust between our nations, mistrust that cannot be wished away. But these negotiations don’t rely on trust; any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb. If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.

But these assertions about the interim argument aren’t merely exaggerations. They are false. The Iranian stockpile is not being eliminated and the inspections are not verifying that Iran isn’t working on a bomb. Just as importantly, the comparisons between his nuclear diplomacy and that of Kennedy or Reagan are specious. The Iranians are not as dangerous as the Soviet Union. But that’s precisely the reason his weak diplomacy, indeed, his abject appeasement, is so wrongheaded. Moreover, the even greater difference between those situations and this one has to do with the way America’s adversaries regard the U.S. The Russians knew both JFK and Reagan meant business. After five years of feckless diplomatic engagement, the Iranians have come to the opposite conclusion about Obama.

The interim nuclear accord does require Iran to halt the installation of new centrifuges and to stop enriching uranium at higher weapons-grade levels. But the centrifuges are still turning and their output can easily be converted to use for a bomb after a short “breakout” period. Even more deceptive is the president’s description of the disposal of Iran’s stockpile of nuclear fuel. It is being converted into oxide powder, but that is not the same as elimination. To the contrary, it can be easily reconverted into its previous form and then enriched further to reach the levels necessary for use in a bomb.

Nor are the inspections anywhere close to being as intrusive as Obama described. In particular, the International Atomic Energy Agency is still unable to monitor Iran’s military nuclear research facilities. Indeed, the accord signed in November by Secretary of State Kerry didn’t even mention them.

But just as misleading is the analogy between Iran and the Soviet Union that the United States dealt with in the past.

The president is correct in distinguishing the Soviet Union, a nuclear power, from Iran, a potential one.  But that is exactly the reason that the president’s decision to discard the military and economic leverage the U.S. possessed in talks with Iran last fall was so profoundly dangerous. In doing so the president decided to not only loosen existing sanctions but to tacitly recognize Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium with a deal that allowed that activity to continue unabated even as the president deceitfully described the accord as freezing Iran’s program.

The reasoning behind this astonishing retreat was the very opposite of America’s negotiating tactics—especially under Reagan—with the Soviets. The current U.S. retreat is premised in a belief that Iran is too strong and too determined not to be pressured by sanctions into giving up its nuclear program.

If the Soviet Union negotiated with the U.S. and wound up ultimately reducing its nuclear stockpile, as Reagan demanded, rather than merely limiting their increase, it was because they understood that he could not be intimidated. The Soviets knew they were dealing with a principled president. But the interim agreement with Tehran has convinced the Iranians of just the opposite about Obama. Having thus far persuaded him to accept enrichment and reduce sanctions, they have every reason to think he will go even further to appease them.

The Kennedy precedent provides yet another cautionary tale. In his first meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at a summit in Vienna, Kennedy admitted that he was insufficiently prepared for dealing with the Russian and the result was far from satisfactory. Though Kennedy had rightly opposed pressure to evacuate Berlin, he later told the New York Times that Khrushchev had “beaten the hell out of me” and left the meeting convinced that JFK was a political lightweight. It was this impression of weakness that led the Soviets to underestimate Kennedy and led to further provocations in the form of the building of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

That is an unfortunate precedent for Obama, whose supine position toward Iran ill becomes the American president and has similarly convinced Iran’s leaders that they need not fear his occasional threats to use force against them. Given the weakness of his position, he should welcome measures such as the bipartisan sanctions bill that has the support of 58 senators that would strengthen his hand in the talks.

Instead, he threatens a veto lest the proposal upset his Iranian negotiating partners. Rather than confirming the seriousness of his purpose, this irresponsible passage in the State of the Union will only reaffirm the Iranians’ belief that they can stand up to the U.S. and set the stage for either an American retreat on the nuclear issue or a confrontation that might be avoided by exactly the Senate measure the president opposes.

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Returning Politics to Its Rightful Place in American Life

While appearing on The News Hour last Friday, David Brooks was asked about how America changed as a result of the Kennedy presidency and his assassination.

Brooks argued they changed the way we define presidents and politics, that if you read President Eisenhower’s farewell address, it provides a very limited and modest sense of what government can do. “Kennedy comes in with that inaugural, and promises to bear any burden, pay any price, to end disease,” Brooks went on to say. “It becomes much more utopian. And that sort of utopian sense that politics can really transform life is underlined by his charisma, the charisma of an office, and then it’s underlined even more by the martyrdom, and by the mystique of Camelot that grows up.”

The effect of that, Brooks went on to say, is “the enlargement of politics” and the “subsequent disappointment when politics can’t deliver that sort of Camelot dream … And so it’s perversely, I think, inflated politics, created a much more image-conscious politics, but then led to disillusionment, as politics can’t live up to that sort of mirage of sort of religiosity.”

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While appearing on The News Hour last Friday, David Brooks was asked about how America changed as a result of the Kennedy presidency and his assassination.

Brooks argued they changed the way we define presidents and politics, that if you read President Eisenhower’s farewell address, it provides a very limited and modest sense of what government can do. “Kennedy comes in with that inaugural, and promises to bear any burden, pay any price, to end disease,” Brooks went on to say. “It becomes much more utopian. And that sort of utopian sense that politics can really transform life is underlined by his charisma, the charisma of an office, and then it’s underlined even more by the martyrdom, and by the mystique of Camelot that grows up.”

The effect of that, Brooks went on to say, is “the enlargement of politics” and the “subsequent disappointment when politics can’t deliver that sort of Camelot dream … And so it’s perversely, I think, inflated politics, created a much more image-conscious politics, but then led to disillusionment, as politics can’t live up to that sort of mirage of sort of religiosity.”

There’s much wisdom in these observations. For Kennedy and liberals in general, politics is the means through which idealism is pursued. Conservatives tend to be somewhat resistant to that outlook, believing politics is the way we should solve public problems–but believing as well that idealism should be pursued much more in our private lives, outside of the political arena.

To be sure, this doesn’t mean politics can’t take on special significance at particular moments in time. And it isn’t to downgrade the importance of politics in the least. But it is to say that when politics is done right and well, it allows the space for a free people to pursue excellence.

And of course the more grandeur and utopian hopes we invest in politics, the more likely it is that people will turn against it, as politics and government fail to produce the wonders and miracles we’re told to expect. For more, see Obama, Barack (2008), and promises like these.

One of the chief contributions of conservatism is to help people to understand the limitations of politics, to place more modest expectations on it, and to return politics in its rightful place in American society.  

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JFK and Obama: Press Access Lessons

On a day when the nation is awash with memories of John F. Kennedy and the 50th anniversary of his assassination, one comparison between JFK and Barack Obama is highly instructive: their attitudes toward the press and the control of information.

Few presidents have been as secretive as President Obama. As Chuck Todd rightly pointed out yesterday during the daily brief at the White House, this administration has not merely done its best to shut down the working press and silence dissent from within the ranks of the government with an unprecedented number of investigations and prosecutions over leaks. It has also created what amounts to nothing less than a state media as the White House has excluded journalists from some events and instead distributed its own official photos and stories via official websites (which unlike the ObamaCare site, don’t crash). Doing so enables the president to control the story in a way that few of his predecessors, even before the era of the mass media, could have dreamed of doing. By contrast, President Kennedy offered reporters and photographers an equally unprecedented amount of access.

The irony here is that by treating the press as his friends and allies rather than enemies, Kennedy was able to keep secrets about his health and his disgraceful personal conduct during his presidency since none of his journalistic cronies and enablers wished to undermine their friend in the Oval Office. He smartly used press conferences to reach the American people directly where he could show off his wit and command of the issues, but in doing so he knew the press he had seduced had his back.

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On a day when the nation is awash with memories of John F. Kennedy and the 50th anniversary of his assassination, one comparison between JFK and Barack Obama is highly instructive: their attitudes toward the press and the control of information.

Few presidents have been as secretive as President Obama. As Chuck Todd rightly pointed out yesterday during the daily brief at the White House, this administration has not merely done its best to shut down the working press and silence dissent from within the ranks of the government with an unprecedented number of investigations and prosecutions over leaks. It has also created what amounts to nothing less than a state media as the White House has excluded journalists from some events and instead distributed its own official photos and stories via official websites (which unlike the ObamaCare site, don’t crash). Doing so enables the president to control the story in a way that few of his predecessors, even before the era of the mass media, could have dreamed of doing. By contrast, President Kennedy offered reporters and photographers an equally unprecedented amount of access.

The irony here is that by treating the press as his friends and allies rather than enemies, Kennedy was able to keep secrets about his health and his disgraceful personal conduct during his presidency since none of his journalistic cronies and enablers wished to undermine their friend in the Oval Office. He smartly used press conferences to reach the American people directly where he could show off his wit and command of the issues, but in doing so he knew the press he had seduced had his back.

Though most of the White House press corps is as, if not more, eager to help Obama as their predecessors were to aid Kennedy, over the course of five years of stonewalling, deceptions, and end runs, he has managed to alienate even liberals who now are justified in complaining that the White House is little different from Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime when it comes to control of information.

The moral of the story is not just that Obama seems a lot closer to Richard Nixon in his behavior than to that of his avowed hero Kennedy, though that is a fair conclusion. Rather, it is that what is most needed in a democracy is a vigorous and free press that is neither prevented from doing its job by a semi-official government media run publishing propaganda from the White House nor compromised by the hero worship and cronyism.

Looking back on the history of the Kennedy era, the press should never lose the sense of shame that it ought to feel about its cover ups of the truth about the president’s health and his dissolute and even reckless personal behavior (having mistresses is one thing, debauching interns and sleeping with the molls of gangsters under federal investigation is quite another). But neither should it allow itself to be intimidated by a White House press operation that appears to be the polar opposite of Kennedy’s clever decision to co-opt the press.

Is it too much to ask that journalists not go into the tank for politicians or to be allowed to do their job without being superseded by a state propaganda arm? No, it’s not. Instead, of obsessing about Kennedy’s death, our media would do better to learn the lessons of JFK and Obama’s abuse of press freedom.

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JFK’s Legacy: The Charisma Fallacy

The 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s tragic death has brought forth a predictable outpouring of commentary debating his legacy. It is a sign of how the historical debate has shifted since the early days of Camelot, when court chroniclers like Arthur Schlesinger and William Manchester dominated the debate, that today’s leading JFK biographer, Robert Dallek, adopts a somewhat defensive stance in an op-ed about Kennedy’s legacy.

Dallek tries to mount a defense of Kennedy that is premised on might-have-beens–i.e. the claim that, had he lived, JFK would have done more on civil rights and less on Vietnam. Perhaps so, but the evidence for either contention is hardly conclusive, to put it mildly.

In the end Dallek, a good historian, falls back on this: “Kennedy’s greatest success was the very thing that critics often cast as a shortcoming: his charisma, his feel for the importance of inspirational leadership and his willingness to use it to great ends.”

There is little doubt that there is something here–Kennedy did inspire a generation and many felt called to public service because of his example. But the nation also paid a high cost for the youthful charisma that Kennedy brought to the presidency because its flip side was lack of know-how and experience.

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The 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s tragic death has brought forth a predictable outpouring of commentary debating his legacy. It is a sign of how the historical debate has shifted since the early days of Camelot, when court chroniclers like Arthur Schlesinger and William Manchester dominated the debate, that today’s leading JFK biographer, Robert Dallek, adopts a somewhat defensive stance in an op-ed about Kennedy’s legacy.

Dallek tries to mount a defense of Kennedy that is premised on might-have-beens–i.e. the claim that, had he lived, JFK would have done more on civil rights and less on Vietnam. Perhaps so, but the evidence for either contention is hardly conclusive, to put it mildly.

In the end Dallek, a good historian, falls back on this: “Kennedy’s greatest success was the very thing that critics often cast as a shortcoming: his charisma, his feel for the importance of inspirational leadership and his willingness to use it to great ends.”

There is little doubt that there is something here–Kennedy did inspire a generation and many felt called to public service because of his example. But the nation also paid a high cost for the youthful charisma that Kennedy brought to the presidency because its flip side was lack of know-how and experience.

Even Kennedy admirers have to admit his many early stumbles, such as the Bay of Pigs invasion (why on earth approve a hare-brained CIA scheme to restage D-Day but without air cover?), the Berlin crisis, and the Vienna summit with Khrushchev where the Soviet leader came away convinced that the new president was weak–a conclusion that led directly to the worst days of the Cold War. To be sure, Kennedy deserved high marks for his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis when he resisted the militaristic advice of his Joint Chiefs of Staff that, if adopted, could easily have triggered World War III. (Was this the last time that the top generals were more hawkish than the top civilian policymakers?)

Undoubtedly this was a sign of his growing maturity in office, and yet this chronicle of a president growing into his job bumps up against some inconvenient facts. Namely that in the last months of his life Kennedy was guilty of one of his worst blunders in office–approving the plot to overthrow South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem when it was obvious that there was no better alternative among all the South Vietnamese generals hungry for his post. Kennedy immediately expressed contrition for Diem’s death but he did not live to see how the removal of South Vietnam’s leader embroiled that country in years of instability and fostered a sense of American ownership of the conflict.

It is little wonder that in succeeding decades, as the luster of Camelot has faded, historians have been elevating Eisenhower and demoting Kennedy among the ranks of presidents–the former getting newfound respect for his steadiness, experience and deft handling of the international scene, all qualities that Kennedy lacked at least at first.

Yet we never seem to learn–we keep choosing charisma over experience. That helps to explain how Clinton beat Bush Sr., how Bush Jr. beat Gore, and how Obama beat McCain. It is remarkable that few would fly in a plane piloted by an inexperienced pilot or consent to surgery from an inexperienced surgeon–yet we regularly turn over the highest and hardest office in the land to newcomers, especially newcomers to the field of international relations which happens to be what the bulk of the presidency is concerned with. The predictable result is more early stumbles, such as Clinton’s failed health-care initiative, the Black Hawk Down disaster, and the failure to intervene early in Bosnia; Bush Jr.’s failure to boost the size of the armed forces, pay attention to the Al Qaeda threat before 9/11, and to do more to prepare for nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan; Obama’s ignoring of the Green Revolution in Iran, his heavy-handed insistence on an Israeli settlement freeze, and other missteps too numerous to mention.

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Our National Camelot Overdose

Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This means that all things JFK are back in vogue from ghoulish rehashing of the details of his murder (what Mona Charen aptly termed “assassination porn”), to the generally moronic conspiracy theories about the events of 11/22/63 as well as fierce debates about the legacy of the 35th president.

To some extent this is understandable. Kennedy’s death was probably the single most traumatic event for most Americans in between the attack on Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Moreover, as we have already been told endlessly and at length in just about every publication online or in print, Kennedy’s death while still young and handsome and before his successor’s administration was mired in Vietnam and the turmoil of the late 1960s has transformed him into a symbol of an earlier, less cynical era. But while conservatives and liberals are fighting over Kennedy and baby boomers are wallowing in Camelot nostalgia, some perspective is in order. Though he ranks high among our presidents in terms of symbolism, even in a week such as this it is not out place to point out that the obsession about his 1,000 days in office is completely disproportionate to his historical significance. If this anniversary is probably the last time anyone will make much of a fuss about Kennedy it is because once the generation that remembers where they were when they found out he was shot is gone, few will care about him.

To note this fact is not to dismiss Kennedy or to insult his memory. It is due to the fact that his presidency must, at best, be given a grade of incomplete simply because it was cut short by Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullets. But unless we, as Kennedy apologists are wont to do, play the “what if” game and assume that if he had lived he would have altered course and avoided escalation in Vietnam (as Lyndon Johnson operating under the influence of Kennedy Cabinet holdovers did not) and emphasized civil rights (as Johnson did), the argument for him as anything other than a transitional figure with slim accomplishments is not very convincing. If Kennedy’s presidency is remembered for anything other than the tragic manner in which it ended once the baby boom generation is no longer around, it will be because it was the first in which style was more important than substance as the magic of JFK’s charisma was conveyed to the nation via the magic of television.

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Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This means that all things JFK are back in vogue from ghoulish rehashing of the details of his murder (what Mona Charen aptly termed “assassination porn”), to the generally moronic conspiracy theories about the events of 11/22/63 as well as fierce debates about the legacy of the 35th president.

To some extent this is understandable. Kennedy’s death was probably the single most traumatic event for most Americans in between the attack on Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Moreover, as we have already been told endlessly and at length in just about every publication online or in print, Kennedy’s death while still young and handsome and before his successor’s administration was mired in Vietnam and the turmoil of the late 1960s has transformed him into a symbol of an earlier, less cynical era. But while conservatives and liberals are fighting over Kennedy and baby boomers are wallowing in Camelot nostalgia, some perspective is in order. Though he ranks high among our presidents in terms of symbolism, even in a week such as this it is not out place to point out that the obsession about his 1,000 days in office is completely disproportionate to his historical significance. If this anniversary is probably the last time anyone will make much of a fuss about Kennedy it is because once the generation that remembers where they were when they found out he was shot is gone, few will care about him.

To note this fact is not to dismiss Kennedy or to insult his memory. It is due to the fact that his presidency must, at best, be given a grade of incomplete simply because it was cut short by Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullets. But unless we, as Kennedy apologists are wont to do, play the “what if” game and assume that if he had lived he would have altered course and avoided escalation in Vietnam (as Lyndon Johnson operating under the influence of Kennedy Cabinet holdovers did not) and emphasized civil rights (as Johnson did), the argument for him as anything other than a transitional figure with slim accomplishments is not very convincing. If Kennedy’s presidency is remembered for anything other than the tragic manner in which it ended once the baby boom generation is no longer around, it will be because it was the first in which style was more important than substance as the magic of JFK’s charisma was conveyed to the nation via the magic of television.

As Joe McGinnis memorably wrote in The Selling of the President, Kennedy’s administration wooed the public in a manner that even the most popular of his predecessors had never quite tried: 

We forgave, followed and accepted because we liked the way he looked. And he had a pretty wife. Camelot was fun, even for the peasants, as long as it was televised to their huts.

That pretty much sums it up. The JFK mythmakers’ success was rooted in the way Kennedy appealed to America’s desire for a hero. He looked and sounded the part and though he accomplished relatively little, the tag stuck.

Of course, Kennedy had many outstanding qualities and some attractive elements in his biography. He was a genuine war hero and a man with the sort of grace in public that is a rarity in politicians. His presidency was also not without momentous events. JFK’s legion of admirers in the media and in the ranks of popular historians have elevated the Cuban Missile Crisis into the Gettysburg of the Cold War, but though he deserves credit for avoiding armed conflict, it was not quite the triumph that the Kennedy myth machine made it out to be. It was precipitated by Kennedy’s terrible performance in his first summit with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that left the latter thinking he was an indecisive pushover. And it would be years before most Americans realized that the deal to remove Soviet missiles from Cuba that was presented as such a triumph for Kennedy was offset by the U.S. withdrawal of missiles from Turkey. Kennedy’s role in the Civil Rights struggle is also a keynote of attempts to lionize, him but the fact was that he did little more than his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower and not nearly as much as Lyndon Johnson.

If both conservatives and liberals wish to claim him, it is not because any of this matters as much as the work of other, more important presidents but because of the genius of the public-relations package his followers managed to sell the country both during and after his time in office. That’s why conservatives and liberals think it worth the bother to fight over him. Author Ira Stoll is right to claim in his interesting new book that Kennedy’s instincts were conservative and that if you transpose his positions on most issues in the late ’50s and early ’60s to today’s political landscape, his fiscal conservatism, belief in tax cuts, and assertion of a vigorous anti-Communism and strong defense fits more comfortably on the right than the left. Would he have shifted left with the rest of his party if he had lived? Who knows? But like lifting any other president out of his historical context, the exercise serves more to show how politics in this country has changed than to tell us what an older JFK would have done. Personally, I don’t think he was much of a conservative or a liberal. He was, instead, a talented political opportunist of the first order who might have been great (like other presidents who grew in the office) if he had been given more opportunity and greater challenges.

The generation that remembers him clings to his memory because inflating an articulate, charming, wealthy, and morally dissolute young man into a legend allows them to relive their youth and to hold onto the dubious notion that the pre-Vietnam America was somehow more pure than the one that followed it. But once they are gone, there will be little reason to worry about JFK’s true political leanings or to try and inflate the Missiles of October into more than one of a few relatively minor Cold War skirmishes that might have gotten out of hand. Nor will there be much more reason for conspiracy nuts to twist the evidence into knots in order to put forward the absurd notion that the act of a Communist malcontent was really the work of right-wing bigots, big business, or the mafia.

So while Americans can indulge in one last binge of Kennedy mania this week, perhaps it’s not out of place to point out that, unlike the assassination of Lincoln, 50 or 100 years from now November 22, 1963 won’t be remembered any more than the day when James Garfield, another young, charismatic, and potentially fine president, was assassinated in 1881. The need to overdose on Camelot is after all, more about the people who loved him than the enduring legacy of the man himself.

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Another Weak Case for Containing Iran

Sunday’s Kenneth Pollack column on Iran qualifies as another installment in the good news/bad news dynamic of the media’s newfound appreciation for the Cold War. The good news is that the distaste for the “Cold War mind warp,” as the president calls it, has expired. The bad news is that for many on the left, the memory of those decades is a bit fuzzy. Bloomberg View, the news company’s online opinion pages, has become something of a clearinghouse for bizarre takes on the lessons of the Cold War.

In September, it featured a column called “Libertarians Are the New Communists,” perhaps the silliest thing yet written about libertarians, a distinction which remains the only aspect of the column worth mentioning. It followed that a few weeks ago with law professor and former Obama advisor Cass Sunstein’s attempt to explain the Tea Party by comparing it to the Hiss-Chambers case. Sunstein appears to have given up on the idea himself, having finished the column without actually connecting the two. He just seemed to want to take a moment, apropos of nothing, to remind the country that not all liberals are Communists, for some reason.

And now Pollack enters the fray by attempting to explain how, in the words of the headline, “Kennedy Showed How to Contain Iran.” The gist of the piece is that containing Iran could be done successfully by understanding how John F. Kennedy contained the Soviet Union despite the nuclear standoff.

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Sunday’s Kenneth Pollack column on Iran qualifies as another installment in the good news/bad news dynamic of the media’s newfound appreciation for the Cold War. The good news is that the distaste for the “Cold War mind warp,” as the president calls it, has expired. The bad news is that for many on the left, the memory of those decades is a bit fuzzy. Bloomberg View, the news company’s online opinion pages, has become something of a clearinghouse for bizarre takes on the lessons of the Cold War.

In September, it featured a column called “Libertarians Are the New Communists,” perhaps the silliest thing yet written about libertarians, a distinction which remains the only aspect of the column worth mentioning. It followed that a few weeks ago with law professor and former Obama advisor Cass Sunstein’s attempt to explain the Tea Party by comparing it to the Hiss-Chambers case. Sunstein appears to have given up on the idea himself, having finished the column without actually connecting the two. He just seemed to want to take a moment, apropos of nothing, to remind the country that not all liberals are Communists, for some reason.

And now Pollack enters the fray by attempting to explain how, in the words of the headline, “Kennedy Showed How to Contain Iran.” The gist of the piece is that containing Iran could be done successfully by understanding how John F. Kennedy contained the Soviet Union despite the nuclear standoff.

You may notice something right off the bat. Iran–unless Pollack knows something we don’t–is not a nuclear power. The whole point of the current impasse is that the West (hopefully) wants to prevent Iran from getting the bomb. Kennedy never had that choice. He was confronted with a bipolar world in which the Soviet Union had already achieved nuclear capability and thus his only option was to contain Khrushchev and prevent nuclear war.

We don’t know exactly how Kennedy would have prevented the Soviets from getting the bomb if he had the chance. But Kennedy was a proponent of a ban on nuclear testing in part because he had been an outspoken opponent of nuclear proliferation–at times he appeared downright panicked about the possibility of such proliferation. Pollack’s column skips ahead by implicitly accepting Iranian nuclear capability. History suggests Kennedy would have been staunchly opposed to such a development.

Additionally, Pollack argues that Iran wants to avoid war at all costs. He writes:

Like the Soviet Union early on in the Cold War, even a nuclear-armed Iran would be vastly outmatched by the U.S. strategic arsenal. Unlike the Soviets, the Iranians can’t ever hope to match the U.S. Thus, in any crisis, American negotiators will have the upper hand and should be able to compel the Iranians to back down quickly, even accepting significant reversals to avoid a war.

On past occasions when Iran crossed an American red line and was at risk of a U.S. military response — during the Tanker War in 1988, after the Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia in 1996 and after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the Iranians have backed down quickly and even made humiliating concessions of their own (such as ending the Iran-Iraq War and agreeing to suspend uranium enrichment) to avert an American attack.

Again, there are a couple of clear weaknesses in this argument. The first is Pollack’s habit of giving Iran too much credit. How much did the Iranians really back down after crossing those “red lines” and risking an American military response? The Khobar Towers bombing didn’t represent the cresting of the wave of Iranian attacks on Americans–as Pollack seems to realize with his referencing the American mission in Iraq. And Iran’s nuclear program hasn’t exactly been shelved–otherwise, what are we talking about here?

The other weakness is that this argument, like many arguments in favor of letting Iran go nuclear, is self-refuting. Pollack claims repeatedly that Iran will make tangible concessions “to avoid a war” with America and to “avert an American attack.” So the American threat of force is a powerful one. That’s a pretty strong case for leaving the threat of force on the table in full view. Pollack here is arguing that if the Iranians really believe the U.S. is willing to take military action against them, they’ll back down.

That may or may not be the case, but it seems ludicrous to allow Iran to go nuclear and then threaten war. If a credible threat of force can change Iranian behavior, then why take that option off the table by letting Iran get what it wants, ultimately making a later threat of force far less credible and far more dangerous? If there is a compelling argument in favor of letting Iran go nuclear, its proponents have yet to advance it.

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Obama’s Rhetoric Then and Now

Five years ago, Barack Obama spoke to 200,000 people in Berlin, presenting himself as a “citizen of the world,” noting he didn’t “look like the Americans who’ve previously spoken” there, with a speech that failed to mention the historic Berlin addresses of his predecessors–John F. Kennedy (“Ich bin ein Berliner”) and Ronald Reagan (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”). The signature line in 2008 was: “People of Berlin–people of the world–this is our moment. This is our time.” It was rhetoric that made people on two continents swoon back then.

In 2008, Obama regaled the crowd with his agenda for the future: “defeat the Taliban … work with Russia … seek a partnership that extends across this entire continent … answer the call for a new dawn in the Middle East … send a direct message to Iran … support the Lebanese who marched and bled for democracy …” and on and on. Five years later, the speech reads like a list of things not accomplished: the Taliban were not defeated; the Russian reset failed; Iran ignored the direct message; Hezbollah hijacked the Lebanese democracy; the “new dawn” in the Middle East saw a U.S. ally removed in Egypt (with U.S. assistance), a U.S. ambassador murdered in Libya (with no U.S. response), a U.S. stance in Syria that amounted to mere rhetoric; and on and on.

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Five years ago, Barack Obama spoke to 200,000 people in Berlin, presenting himself as a “citizen of the world,” noting he didn’t “look like the Americans who’ve previously spoken” there, with a speech that failed to mention the historic Berlin addresses of his predecessors–John F. Kennedy (“Ich bin ein Berliner”) and Ronald Reagan (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”). The signature line in 2008 was: “People of Berlin–people of the world–this is our moment. This is our time.” It was rhetoric that made people on two continents swoon back then.

In 2008, Obama regaled the crowd with his agenda for the future: “defeat the Taliban … work with Russia … seek a partnership that extends across this entire continent … answer the call for a new dawn in the Middle East … send a direct message to Iran … support the Lebanese who marched and bled for democracy …” and on and on. Five years later, the speech reads like a list of things not accomplished: the Taliban were not defeated; the Russian reset failed; Iran ignored the direct message; Hezbollah hijacked the Lebanese democracy; the “new dawn” in the Middle East saw a U.S. ally removed in Egypt (with U.S. assistance), a U.S. ambassador murdered in Libya (with no U.S. response), a U.S. stance in Syria that amounted to mere rhetoric; and on and on.

The 2013 Berlin speech consisted of warmed-over citizen-of-the-world rhetoric, poorly delivered, to a crowd 97 percent smaller than in 2008. The speech was replete with references to the Berlin Wall, but Obama again failed to acknowledge Reagan’s historic address. He proffered a historical account from which the American president’s contribution was absent (it was “citizens who choose whether to be defined by a wall, or whether to tear it down”). He intoned that since now “we face no concrete walls,” the new task involves less tangible ones: “as long as walls exist in our hearts to separate us from those who don’t look like us, or think like us, or worship as we do, then we’re going to have to work harder, together, to bring those walls of division down.”

The evening before the speech, deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes briefed the press on it. He told reporters its “historical context” was important; it would be given at the “place where U.S. Presidents have gone to talk about the role of the free world essentially, whether it was President Kennedy or President Reagan standing at the Brandenburg Gate,” and that the Gate, “given its history of U.S. Presidents — President Reagan, President Clinton — speaking there … is an appropriate place to do the speech.” In the speech, however, Obama mentioned only JFK. For some reason, he chose not to mention his other two predecessors.

Kennedy and Reagan’s Berlin speeches were both aimed at a specific threat–the one posed by the Soviet Union. In 2013, the countries that arguably constitute the similar strategic challenge are Iran and North Korea (once considered part of an “axis of evil”–tyrannical regimes, seeking nuclear weapons, explicitly threatening the U.S. and its allies). Obama’s 2013 speech devoted one sentence to that subject. He asserted “we can forge a new international framework for peaceful nuclear power, and reject the nuclear weaponization that North Korea and Iran may be seeking.”

One suspects the “new international framework” is another Obama pipe dream, and that the key challenge is to enforce the existing one. But “rejecting” the Iranian and North Korean violations is going to take more than rhetoric.  

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RE: Sorry, Chris, Your Health Is Our Business

I fully agree with Jonathan that the health of high public officials is very much the people’s business. But Chris Christie certainly has a large number of presidential precedents on which to base his attempt to keep his stomach surgery secret.

In the summer of 1893, Grover Cleveland had a cancer removed from his upper jaw in such secrecy that the operation was performed on a friend’s yacht while it cruised Long Island Sound. Cleveland was afraid that the news, if it got out, might add to the panic in the financial markets that had plunged the country into depression a few months earlier.

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I fully agree with Jonathan that the health of high public officials is very much the people’s business. But Chris Christie certainly has a large number of presidential precedents on which to base his attempt to keep his stomach surgery secret.

In the summer of 1893, Grover Cleveland had a cancer removed from his upper jaw in such secrecy that the operation was performed on a friend’s yacht while it cruised Long Island Sound. Cleveland was afraid that the news, if it got out, might add to the panic in the financial markets that had plunged the country into depression a few months earlier.

In 1919, Woodrow Wilson suffered a severe stroke that left him physically paralyzed and, in the words of one historian, “Wilson’s emotions were unbalanced, and his judgment was warped….Worse, his denial of illness and limitations was starting to border on delusion.” The severity of Wilson’s impairment was kept secret and his wife kept even the vice president and cabinet members away from him. She would relay questions to him and then give his answers. Whether they were his answers or, in fact, hers, can’t be known.

FDR’s paralysis was minimized with the help of a vast journalistic conspiracy. He was hardly ever photographed in his wheel chair. And his rapidly deteriorating health in 1944 and ’45 was likewise kept secret. His blood pressure was so high by that time that it couldn’t be measured, as blood pressure cuffs in those days only measured up to a systolic pressure of 350 mmHg. Anything above 180 is considered a crisis.

President Kennedy, who radiated an image of vigor and good health, was in fact, a very sick man for much of his adult life. His back pain from collapsed vertebrae was so severe that he took amphetamine shots to control it. He could barely climb a flight of stairs and couldn’t put on his own socks. In one 2 1/2 year period in the mid-1950s, when he was a senator, he was secretly hospitalized nine times.

One of the good things to come out of the Watergate scandal, perhaps, was the disappearance of the journalistic assumption of  a presidential right to privacy.

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History + Media Bias = Likable Obama

President Obama has had a run of bad luck recently. National tracking polls show he remains in a dead heat with Republican challenger Mitt Romney. The result of the Wisconsin recall election was an ominous portent of Democratic trouble in a battleground state he won by double digits four years ago. And his idiotic comment about the private sector doing “just fine” solidified his image as being out of touch with the nation’s economic troubles and incapable of responding to the problem with anything but liberal cant. But the president does have a few cards up his sleeve in his battle for re-election. Chief among them is that pollsters consistently show that most Americans find him to be “likable.” As Politico notes, having strong favorability ratings is usually enough to get a candidate re-elected. But what makes this election so interesting is that President Obama’s high personal numbers are combined with other factors such as a horrible economy that normally spell doom to an incumbent.

Voters are still vaguely sympathetic to the president, and that’s a potent electoral factor when combined with all of the advantages that come with being an incumbent. But the trouble with this discussion is that the characterization of Obama as “likable” is somewhat of a misnomer as it implies tremendous charisma or genuine personal affection. What is at work in creating the president’s favorability ratings is nothing like the appeal of a Bill Clinton or a John F. Kennedy or even the mixed feelings many Americans harbored for George W. Bush (or at least did so until Hurricane Katrina, the lingering Iraq War and the spillover from the war on terror made a man who was widely seen as a great guy if an imperfect leader the most unpopular living president). Barack Obama’s popularity is not a function of his personality but the product of the historic nature of his presidency and the willingness of the mainstream media to treat him with a deference they have not shown to any of his predecessors since Kennedy.

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President Obama has had a run of bad luck recently. National tracking polls show he remains in a dead heat with Republican challenger Mitt Romney. The result of the Wisconsin recall election was an ominous portent of Democratic trouble in a battleground state he won by double digits four years ago. And his idiotic comment about the private sector doing “just fine” solidified his image as being out of touch with the nation’s economic troubles and incapable of responding to the problem with anything but liberal cant. But the president does have a few cards up his sleeve in his battle for re-election. Chief among them is that pollsters consistently show that most Americans find him to be “likable.” As Politico notes, having strong favorability ratings is usually enough to get a candidate re-elected. But what makes this election so interesting is that President Obama’s high personal numbers are combined with other factors such as a horrible economy that normally spell doom to an incumbent.

Voters are still vaguely sympathetic to the president, and that’s a potent electoral factor when combined with all of the advantages that come with being an incumbent. But the trouble with this discussion is that the characterization of Obama as “likable” is somewhat of a misnomer as it implies tremendous charisma or genuine personal affection. What is at work in creating the president’s favorability ratings is nothing like the appeal of a Bill Clinton or a John F. Kennedy or even the mixed feelings many Americans harbored for George W. Bush (or at least did so until Hurricane Katrina, the lingering Iraq War and the spillover from the war on terror made a man who was widely seen as a great guy if an imperfect leader the most unpopular living president). Barack Obama’s popularity is not a function of his personality but the product of the historic nature of his presidency and the willingness of the mainstream media to treat him with a deference they have not shown to any of his predecessors since Kennedy.

Though Obama clearly thinks of himself as cool, his personality could be better characterized as cold and calculating. Though not incapable of warmth or grace, his primary attribute seems to be thoughtfulness. That is not a bad trait for a president to possess, but it is not the same thing as an ability to connect with ordinary Americans. He might come across as a bit more accessible than Mitt Romney, a man whose personal awkwardness prevents him from exhibiting much of a common touch. But the mass outpouring for the Obama campaign in 2008 that often verged on an outpouring of messianism was not the product of the candidate’s personality.

Instead, the “hope and change” mantra that swept the nation four years ago was the expression of a belief in the idea of racial harmony and our ability to overcome America’s history of racial prejudice and install a new age of harmony and enlightenment. Such a movement cannot be sustained indefinitely, especially when the object of its adoration must adapt to the realities of office and is also shown to be in many respects merely an ordinary garden-variety politician.

But no matter how far short Obama falls of the Olympian expectations his followers had of him, he is always going to be the first African-American president of the United States. As such, he has been and will continue to be graded on a curve that none of the presidents who have come before him enjoyed. Electing him made a lot of Americans, even those who didn’t necessarily agree with him on the issues, feel good about their country and themselves. Throwing him out of office after one term will remove some of those good feelings, and that’s going to ensure he has a fighting chance in November .

Just as important is the media bias in his favor that is a by-product of the historic nature of his presidency. The president and his family are given a “Camelot” treatment that has not been seen or heard since the Kennedys were charming the nation in the early 60s with the willful assistance of an adoring and purposefully blind press corps. That gives Obama an advantage that even the most liberal of his recent predecessors didn’t possess.

But while we should not be deceived by President Obama’s likability ratings in the polls into thinking that he is actually likable in the normal sense of the word, Republicans should not be under the misimpression this will be a negligible factor in the coming election. His historic status and liberal media bias are what has kept his favorability ratings afloat, but they are no less real for being the product of these arbitrary factors. If the economy improves even a little bit and Romney is seen as faltering, this may be enough for him to be re-elected.

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Religion and the Public Square

Like Alana, I re-read John F. Kennedy’s address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in light of Senator Santorum’s statement that he wanted to “throw up” in reaction to it. I concur with much of what Kennedy said, even as I’m familiar with (and somewhat sympathetic to) those who believe the speech went too far in dividing people’s private beliefs from their public duties and keeping religious convictions from shaping our public debate. Respectful disagreement with a serious speech is one thing; feeling the need to vomit all over it is quite another.

There are some important things missing from Santorum’s critique of Kennedy’s address. One is context. Those who served by Kennedy’s side have said no obstacle to the presidency handicapped Kennedy more than the widespread charge that a Catholic in the White House could not uphold America’s traditional and constitutional distance between the church and the state. The fear was that Kennedy would take his orders from the Vatican. Polls showed that well over half of Hubert Humphrey’s support was based solely on Kennedy’s religion. “People here aren’t anti-Kennedy,” said the publisher of West Virginia’s Coal Valley News. “They are simply concerned about the domination of the Catholic Church.” One article, written prior to the 1960 Wisconsin primary, mentioned the word “Catholic” 20 times in 15 paragraphs, even as it overlooked Kennedy’s positions on key public policy matters. That is what Kennedy was facing at the time.

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Like Alana, I re-read John F. Kennedy’s address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in light of Senator Santorum’s statement that he wanted to “throw up” in reaction to it. I concur with much of what Kennedy said, even as I’m familiar with (and somewhat sympathetic to) those who believe the speech went too far in dividing people’s private beliefs from their public duties and keeping religious convictions from shaping our public debate. Respectful disagreement with a serious speech is one thing; feeling the need to vomit all over it is quite another.

There are some important things missing from Santorum’s critique of Kennedy’s address. One is context. Those who served by Kennedy’s side have said no obstacle to the presidency handicapped Kennedy more than the widespread charge that a Catholic in the White House could not uphold America’s traditional and constitutional distance between the church and the state. The fear was that Kennedy would take his orders from the Vatican. Polls showed that well over half of Hubert Humphrey’s support was based solely on Kennedy’s religion. “People here aren’t anti-Kennedy,” said the publisher of West Virginia’s Coal Valley News. “They are simply concerned about the domination of the Catholic Church.” One article, written prior to the 1960 Wisconsin primary, mentioned the word “Catholic” 20 times in 15 paragraphs, even as it overlooked Kennedy’s positions on key public policy matters. That is what Kennedy was facing at the time.

“For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed,” JFK said in Houston, “in other years it has been — and may someday be again — a Jew, or a Quaker, or a Unitarian, or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that led to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today, I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart at a time of great national peril.”

That is a warning worth heeding. And when Kennedy insisted that “I do not speak for the Catholic Church on issues of public policy,” he was simply saying what Santorum is saying today on the matter of contraception. Senator Santorum says he has his own personal views on contraception, which track with the teaching of the Catholic Church, but that he has no intention of banning contraception. (Hopefully, no faithful Catholic will develop emesis based on Santorum’s stand.)

The core argument Kennedy was making in his 1960 speech is that there should be no religious test for public office – and in making that argument, Kennedy was upholding the Constitution (specifically Article VI). To Kennedy’s credit, he said, “If the time should ever come – and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible – when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same.” Kennedy also stated he would not “disavow my views or my church in order to win this election.”

I’d simply add that President Kennedy, in his remarkable inaugural address, gave one of the most eloquent reaffirmations of the animating spirit of the Declaration of Independence. “And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe,” President Kennedy said, “the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.” Obviously, Kennedy was not in favor of a completely naked public square.

There are many Democrats Rick Santorum could target with wrath and contempt; John F. Kennedy should not be one of them.

 

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Santorum Should Take a Tip from JFK

On the eve before the Michigan primary, with polls showing Rick Santorum’s emphasis on social issues is hurting him with voters, this is what the candidate chose to say on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos”:

Asked Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” how his faith fits in with his ideas about governing, Santorum said he disagreed with the “absolute separation” between church and state outlined by [President] Kennedy in a 1960 speech.

Santorum said reading the speech made him want to “throw up.”

“I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” he said. “The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country.”

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On the eve before the Michigan primary, with polls showing Rick Santorum’s emphasis on social issues is hurting him with voters, this is what the candidate chose to say on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos”:

Asked Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” how his faith fits in with his ideas about governing, Santorum said he disagreed with the “absolute separation” between church and state outlined by [President] Kennedy in a 1960 speech.

Santorum said reading the speech made him want to “throw up.”

“I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” he said. “The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country.”

At the Washington Examiner, Conn Carroll rightly points out:

Rick Santorum should be talking about his economic agenda today. He has an op-ed titled, “My Economic Freedom Agenda,” in today’s Wall Street Journal laying out a perfectly conservative 10-point plan. But nobody is going to be talking about it.

Instead, people will be talking about Santorum’s appearance on ABC News‘ ”ThisWeek,” where host George Stephanopoulos asked Santorum if he stood by comments he made just last October criticizing President Kennedy’s speech on religion on politics. In that College of Saint Mary Magdalen speech, Santorum said of Kennedy’s speech, “Earlier in my political career, I had the opportunity to read the speech, and I almost threw up. You should read the speech.”

If you’ve never heard Kennedy’s speech, take Santorum’s advice and read it over. It may make Santorum “want to throw up,” but it’s actually a compelling defense of religious liberty. In fact, the speech provides a blueprint for what Santorum should be saying to steer the race away from religious issues and back to the serious concerns of our day: the deficit, a nuclear Iran and unemployment.

As Carroll notes, if only Santorum would use a line like this from Kennedy the next time he’s asked about his views on birth control:

“While the so-called religious issue is necessarily and properly the chief topic here tonight, I want to emphasize from the outset that we have far more critical issues to face in the 1960 election…These are the real issues which should decide this campaign. And they are not religious issues — for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers.”

Moreover, Kennedy’s views on the separation of church and state are uncontroversial. He didn’t deny religion played a major role in shaping our country, or that issues of conscience are often decided on religious lines. But he does reject the notion that the leadership of one religion (in his case, Catholicism) should be able to control the president’s actions:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

If Santorum opposes this, as he told Stephanopoulos, he needs to be more specific about what he’s disputing. Does he believe the U.S. president should take orders from the leaders of his religion? Does he believe the president should make decisions based on the rulings of religious bodies, rather than his own personal conscience? This is something voters need to know before pulling the lever for Santorum.

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Rick Santorum, Culture Warrior

Rick Santorum has been given the gift of using vivid language to make his points. For example, at a Tea Party event in Troy, Michigan, Santorum said, “President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob!” He described the purpose of college as “indoctrination.” Santorum added, “Oh, I understand why [Obama] wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.”

If going after the current Democratic president wasn’t enough, Santorum decided to take on an iconic one from a half-century ago. In describing his reaction to John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, Santorum repeated a statement he made in the past. Kennedy’s speech, Santorum said, made him want to “throw up.”

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Rick Santorum has been given the gift of using vivid language to make his points. For example, at a Tea Party event in Troy, Michigan, Santorum said, “President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob!” He described the purpose of college as “indoctrination.” Santorum added, “Oh, I understand why [Obama] wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.”

If going after the current Democratic president wasn’t enough, Santorum decided to take on an iconic one from a half-century ago. In describing his reaction to John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, Santorum repeated a statement he made in the past. Kennedy’s speech, Santorum said, made him want to “throw up.”

In the last several days, Santorum has also asserted that Mitt Romney is “in bed with Barack Obama on destroying these vital mediating institutions of our society by starving them of money from the very people that keep these organizations alive and well in our society.”

The connecting thread to this rhetoric is intemperance. Even arguments that have a germ of truth to them — such as college is not for everybody – is framed in language that is immoderate and wildly overstated. And why Santorum would double down on his fight with JFK rather than easily pivoting out of it tells you quite a lot. (Ronald Reagan, during his presidency, had nothing but praise for Kennedy.)

Senator Santorum is a smart and experienced man; he doesn’t need to resort to rhetoric that simply reinforces the impression he’s a deeply polarizing and strident figure. He seems to be reflexively drawn to these fights, much like Pat Buchanan was. The effect of this is to put people, even those somewhat sympathetic to Santorum’s views, on edge.

There are a lot of ways for Republicans to run against Barack Obama; coming off as anti-college and anti-Kennedy isn’t one of them.

 

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President Kennedy’s Inaugural Address

Today is the 50th anniversary of the most memorable and most quoted inaugural address of the 20th century. On this day in 1961, 43-year-old John F. Kennedy was sworn in as president.

The actual drafting of Kennedy’s speech did not get under way until the week before it was due. According to Theodore Sorenson, the president’s speechwriter, Kennedy was worried that his farewell speech to Massachusetts, in an address to the state legislature, had pre-empted some of his best material.

In reading early drafts of the inaugural address, Kennedy suggested dropping references to domestic matters altogether and toned down the partisanship, saying it sounded too much like the campaign. He also wanted it to be the shortest inaugural address in the 20th century. “It’s more effective that way,” Kennedy said, “and I don’t want people to think I’m a windbag.”

The speech itself is exquisite: eloquent and stirring; compact; beautifully balanced; filled with vivid, memorable lines; an address that perfectly captured the spirit of the postwar generation in politics.

In putting America’s struggle within a larger context, Kennedy, early in the speech, articulated its philosophical underpinning: “For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago,” JFK said. “The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe — the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”

I was not yet born when Kennedy delivered his address. But as a young man in college in the 1980s, I would journey to the University of Washington’s Suzzallo Library and listen to the speech so often that I eventually memorized every word. Like so many other people of my generation and from an earlier generation, the Kennedy presidency — and the Kennedy rhetoric – deepened my interest in both politics and the power and importance of words.

Do yourself a favor today and set aside a few minutes to read one of the most beautifully crafted speeches in American history.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the most memorable and most quoted inaugural address of the 20th century. On this day in 1961, 43-year-old John F. Kennedy was sworn in as president.

The actual drafting of Kennedy’s speech did not get under way until the week before it was due. According to Theodore Sorenson, the president’s speechwriter, Kennedy was worried that his farewell speech to Massachusetts, in an address to the state legislature, had pre-empted some of his best material.

In reading early drafts of the inaugural address, Kennedy suggested dropping references to domestic matters altogether and toned down the partisanship, saying it sounded too much like the campaign. He also wanted it to be the shortest inaugural address in the 20th century. “It’s more effective that way,” Kennedy said, “and I don’t want people to think I’m a windbag.”

The speech itself is exquisite: eloquent and stirring; compact; beautifully balanced; filled with vivid, memorable lines; an address that perfectly captured the spirit of the postwar generation in politics.

In putting America’s struggle within a larger context, Kennedy, early in the speech, articulated its philosophical underpinning: “For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago,” JFK said. “The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe — the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”

I was not yet born when Kennedy delivered his address. But as a young man in college in the 1980s, I would journey to the University of Washington’s Suzzallo Library and listen to the speech so often that I eventually memorized every word. Like so many other people of my generation and from an earlier generation, the Kennedy presidency — and the Kennedy rhetoric – deepened my interest in both politics and the power and importance of words.

Do yourself a favor today and set aside a few minutes to read one of the most beautifully crafted speeches in American history.

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MSNBC’s Selective History

Courtesy of Newsbusters, MSNBC is airing a promo for President Obama’s forthcoming State of the Union. It features video from previous State of the Union speeches. The presidents you see and hear from are, in order, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.

Following the clips, you read these words: “America Always Believes in a Better Future.”

So who might be missing from this pantheon? Try Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush, just for starters. Perhaps at MSNBC, those Republicans are viewed as an obstacle to a better future.

The slogan “Lean Forward” might be better understood as “Lean Left.” And in MSNBC’s case, Very Left.

Courtesy of Newsbusters, MSNBC is airing a promo for President Obama’s forthcoming State of the Union. It features video from previous State of the Union speeches. The presidents you see and hear from are, in order, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.

Following the clips, you read these words: “America Always Believes in a Better Future.”

So who might be missing from this pantheon? Try Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush, just for starters. Perhaps at MSNBC, those Republicans are viewed as an obstacle to a better future.

The slogan “Lean Forward” might be better understood as “Lean Left.” And in MSNBC’s case, Very Left.

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Not So Fast with the “1962” Allusions

The news that Iran is shipping Shahab and Scud missiles to Venezuela has the blogosphere going full throttle, and for good reason. The introduction of medium-range ballistic missiles in Latin America will mark a threshold of dangerous destabilization for the region. Iran’s current crop of operational missiles can’t hit U.S. territory from Venezuela, but they can hit Colombia, Panama, Honduras, and Mexico, among others. With Iran successfully testing longer-range missiles, it’s only a matter of time before Iranian missiles launched from Venezuela could hit the U.S.

Of equal concern, moreover, is the mere presence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Latin America. Hezbollah is already there in growing numbers, operating freely in Brazil and Venezuela and often detected along narcotics-trafficking routes all the way to the U.S. border with Mexico. Earlier hints that Iran’s paramilitary Qods force has already deployed to Venezuela are now the harbinger of a greater and more complex threat.

American commentators are quick to point out the obvious similarities of the “Venezuelan Missile Crisis” to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. Their complaint is understandable: the Obama administration doesn’t seem to be acting vigorously — or even paying attention — as John F. Kennedy did. But the truth is that we shouldn’t long for a Kennedy-style resolution to the missile incursion of 2010. The record of Kennedy’s actions during the crisis shows that he bargained the Soviet missiles out of Cuba by agreeing to remove American missiles from Turkey.

Kennedy admirers have been at pains to minimize this aspect of the deal and depict it as a collateral, low-cost gesture. It was certainly presented in that light in the 2000 movie Thirteen Days. As summarized at the above link, however, the actual significance of the quid pro quo was sufficient to cause editors and historians to excise references to it in the early accounts of the missile crisis. Making such a deal didn’t reflect well on Kennedy’s public profile. It could not do so: the missiles removed from Turkey were a key element of the NATO defense posture in 1962, and Kennedy’s agreement to remove them was made without NATO consultation. The question about the missiles was not whether they were “obsolete” — they were liquid-fueled, and the U.S. was transitioning to a solid-fueled missile force — but whether the alliance was depending on them at the time. And the answer to that question was yes.

The Iran-Venezuela situation of today is more complex; as it unfolds, its features will increasingly diverge from the profile of the 1962 crisis. Today’s impending crisis involves much more of Latin America. We should address it on its own terms. I don’t wish for a Kennedy-esque approach from President Obama. I’m apprehensive about what he would be prepared to trade away in missile negotiations with Iran.

The news that Iran is shipping Shahab and Scud missiles to Venezuela has the blogosphere going full throttle, and for good reason. The introduction of medium-range ballistic missiles in Latin America will mark a threshold of dangerous destabilization for the region. Iran’s current crop of operational missiles can’t hit U.S. territory from Venezuela, but they can hit Colombia, Panama, Honduras, and Mexico, among others. With Iran successfully testing longer-range missiles, it’s only a matter of time before Iranian missiles launched from Venezuela could hit the U.S.

Of equal concern, moreover, is the mere presence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Latin America. Hezbollah is already there in growing numbers, operating freely in Brazil and Venezuela and often detected along narcotics-trafficking routes all the way to the U.S. border with Mexico. Earlier hints that Iran’s paramilitary Qods force has already deployed to Venezuela are now the harbinger of a greater and more complex threat.

American commentators are quick to point out the obvious similarities of the “Venezuelan Missile Crisis” to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. Their complaint is understandable: the Obama administration doesn’t seem to be acting vigorously — or even paying attention — as John F. Kennedy did. But the truth is that we shouldn’t long for a Kennedy-style resolution to the missile incursion of 2010. The record of Kennedy’s actions during the crisis shows that he bargained the Soviet missiles out of Cuba by agreeing to remove American missiles from Turkey.

Kennedy admirers have been at pains to minimize this aspect of the deal and depict it as a collateral, low-cost gesture. It was certainly presented in that light in the 2000 movie Thirteen Days. As summarized at the above link, however, the actual significance of the quid pro quo was sufficient to cause editors and historians to excise references to it in the early accounts of the missile crisis. Making such a deal didn’t reflect well on Kennedy’s public profile. It could not do so: the missiles removed from Turkey were a key element of the NATO defense posture in 1962, and Kennedy’s agreement to remove them was made without NATO consultation. The question about the missiles was not whether they were “obsolete” — they were liquid-fueled, and the U.S. was transitioning to a solid-fueled missile force — but whether the alliance was depending on them at the time. And the answer to that question was yes.

The Iran-Venezuela situation of today is more complex; as it unfolds, its features will increasingly diverge from the profile of the 1962 crisis. Today’s impending crisis involves much more of Latin America. We should address it on its own terms. I don’t wish for a Kennedy-esque approach from President Obama. I’m apprehensive about what he would be prepared to trade away in missile negotiations with Iran.

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Some Thoughts About Last Night’s Speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It’s Not About Climate Change; It’s About National Security

That this particular climate bill is dead may indeed be good news. But it’s definitely not good news that Congress is doing nothing serious about energy at all — not because of global warming (about which I share my colleagues’ skepticism) but because of national security: the global addiction to fossil fuels finances all of America’s worst enemies.

Republicans shouldn’t need reminding that Iran’s natural-gas wealth funds both its drive for nuclear weapons and numerous terrorist organizations; that Saudi Arabia’s oil riches fund madrassas worldwide that indoctrinate young men in radical Islamism and produce people like the 9/11 bombers; that Hugo Chavez uses Venezuela’s oil wealth to undermine American interests in Latin America; that Russia (Obama’s “reset” notwithstanding) uses its oil and gas wealth to thwart American interests worldwide. This is not a minor problem.

Clearly, that doesn’t mean Republicans have to accept Democrats’ ideas on how to solve it; there was indeed much to dislike in the now-defunct bill. But that doesn’t excuse Republicans’ failure to offer any ideas of their own beyond “drill, baby, drill.” More drilling would help the problem in the short term by lowering oil and gas prices and thus reducing our enemies’ revenues (and also helping the economy). But it’s not a long-term solution.

It’s true that no viable alternatives to fossil fuels currently exist. But that’s no reason not to at least put money into R&D aimed at trying to develop one. America has never hesitated to devote large-scale funding to R&D it deems vital to national security; the Manhattan Project and the moon shot are cases in point. Granted, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were Democrats. But do Republicans really want to argue that only Democrats are willing to invest in critical national-security R&D?

Moreover, while Republicans are obviously right that raising the price of a vital production input during a deep recession is a terrible idea, Democrats are right that both a carbon tax and (to a lesser extent) cap-and-trade are at least market-based solutions. Neither forces energy consumers to do anything in particular; they let consumers decide for themselves whether to conserve, invest in alternative technology, or live with the higher price. So if creative Republicans can’t devise a better idea, they might want to seriously consider these once the economy recovers.

Democrats have clearly handled the issue stupidly. Rather than vainly trying to persuade Republicans (and the public) to believe in global warming, they should have been trying to paint Republicans into a corner over national security. Instead, the only Democrat I’ve heard consistently making the security argument is Thomas Friedman (here, for instance), and even he treats it as secondary to the “real” issue of global warming.

But Democratic stupidity is no excuse for Republican stupidity. There’s no way to combat any terrorist movement without going after its funding sources, and fossil-fuel revenues are the lifeblood of radical Islamism — and of many other anti-American autocrats, like Chavez and Vladimir Putin. Ignoring the problem of fossil-fuel dependency won’t make it go away; it will only make America weaker.

That this particular climate bill is dead may indeed be good news. But it’s definitely not good news that Congress is doing nothing serious about energy at all — not because of global warming (about which I share my colleagues’ skepticism) but because of national security: the global addiction to fossil fuels finances all of America’s worst enemies.

Republicans shouldn’t need reminding that Iran’s natural-gas wealth funds both its drive for nuclear weapons and numerous terrorist organizations; that Saudi Arabia’s oil riches fund madrassas worldwide that indoctrinate young men in radical Islamism and produce people like the 9/11 bombers; that Hugo Chavez uses Venezuela’s oil wealth to undermine American interests in Latin America; that Russia (Obama’s “reset” notwithstanding) uses its oil and gas wealth to thwart American interests worldwide. This is not a minor problem.

Clearly, that doesn’t mean Republicans have to accept Democrats’ ideas on how to solve it; there was indeed much to dislike in the now-defunct bill. But that doesn’t excuse Republicans’ failure to offer any ideas of their own beyond “drill, baby, drill.” More drilling would help the problem in the short term by lowering oil and gas prices and thus reducing our enemies’ revenues (and also helping the economy). But it’s not a long-term solution.

It’s true that no viable alternatives to fossil fuels currently exist. But that’s no reason not to at least put money into R&D aimed at trying to develop one. America has never hesitated to devote large-scale funding to R&D it deems vital to national security; the Manhattan Project and the moon shot are cases in point. Granted, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were Democrats. But do Republicans really want to argue that only Democrats are willing to invest in critical national-security R&D?

Moreover, while Republicans are obviously right that raising the price of a vital production input during a deep recession is a terrible idea, Democrats are right that both a carbon tax and (to a lesser extent) cap-and-trade are at least market-based solutions. Neither forces energy consumers to do anything in particular; they let consumers decide for themselves whether to conserve, invest in alternative technology, or live with the higher price. So if creative Republicans can’t devise a better idea, they might want to seriously consider these once the economy recovers.

Democrats have clearly handled the issue stupidly. Rather than vainly trying to persuade Republicans (and the public) to believe in global warming, they should have been trying to paint Republicans into a corner over national security. Instead, the only Democrat I’ve heard consistently making the security argument is Thomas Friedman (here, for instance), and even he treats it as secondary to the “real” issue of global warming.

But Democratic stupidity is no excuse for Republican stupidity. There’s no way to combat any terrorist movement without going after its funding sources, and fossil-fuel revenues are the lifeblood of radical Islamism — and of many other anti-American autocrats, like Chavez and Vladimir Putin. Ignoring the problem of fossil-fuel dependency won’t make it go away; it will only make America weaker.

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Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way in Afghanistan

Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger, sometime consultant to General McChrystal, and a Middle East expert who blogs as “Abu Muqawama,” joins in the general hand-wringing over the state of Afghanistan. He says it’s “probably true” that the “United States and its allies have vital interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” but like much of the commentariat, he is growing pessimistic about our chances of safeguarding those interests. He renounces his previous belief that the “United States and its allies will devote the time, money, and troops to execute a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.” He now writes that this is “probably false”:

For a variety of reasons — some good, some less good, some having to do with massive oil spills that didn’t exist in 2009 and a financial crisis that didn’t exist in 2007 — the United States and its allies will likely not provide the resources necessary for a long-term counterinsurgency effort. They might have in 2003. But in 2009? In retrospect, it was always going to be unlikely, and I think I personally overestimated U.S. and allied resources available (including but not limited to political will).

I agree with him that the political will to prevail appears to be waning. But I think it’s bizarre that he treats “political will” as a fixed, exogenous factor like the weather or the terrain. Hurricane Katrina did not make impossible the success of the surge in Iraq; so too the BP oil spill does not make impossible the success of the ongoing surge in Afghanistan. The question is whether President Obama will have the will to see this through as President Bush did in the face of much greater public opposition.

All it would take would be a speech from the president saying something like this: ”I was wrong about trying to set a timeline for American withdrawal. I wanted to inject fresh vigor into our military and diplomatic efforts. But I now realize that my talk about starting to pull American troops out next summer has been misinterpreted; it has caused some in the region to doubt our resolve. So let me be clear. We will stay as long as necessary to defeat the cruel evil of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and associated extremists. I now pledge that, to paraphrase another young Democratic president, we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty in Afghanistan.”

Boom. With a few gutsy words like that, President Obama could instantly change assumptions about our willpower. That’s all it would take, because in all likelihood the Democratic Party would fall in behind him — or at least not challenge him too aggressively. Republicans, for their part, would enthusiastically support him as they have whenever he has increased our commitment to Afghanistan.

I admit that this is unlikely to happen (particularly the last line from John F. Kennedy, a very different kind of Democrat!), but it’s hardly impossible given that Obama has already done full or partial flip-flops on other issues, such as civil trials for terrorists and the closing of Gitmo. We have the resources (money, manpower) to prevail in Afghanistan — just as we had the resources to prevail in Iraq. The question is whether President Obama will commit those resources and give our commanders the time needed to make effective use of them.

That remains to be determined, but I would caution Andrew and others about suggesting that the necessary willpower simply doesn’t exist and can’t be manufactured. That can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger, sometime consultant to General McChrystal, and a Middle East expert who blogs as “Abu Muqawama,” joins in the general hand-wringing over the state of Afghanistan. He says it’s “probably true” that the “United States and its allies have vital interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” but like much of the commentariat, he is growing pessimistic about our chances of safeguarding those interests. He renounces his previous belief that the “United States and its allies will devote the time, money, and troops to execute a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.” He now writes that this is “probably false”:

For a variety of reasons — some good, some less good, some having to do with massive oil spills that didn’t exist in 2009 and a financial crisis that didn’t exist in 2007 — the United States and its allies will likely not provide the resources necessary for a long-term counterinsurgency effort. They might have in 2003. But in 2009? In retrospect, it was always going to be unlikely, and I think I personally overestimated U.S. and allied resources available (including but not limited to political will).

I agree with him that the political will to prevail appears to be waning. But I think it’s bizarre that he treats “political will” as a fixed, exogenous factor like the weather or the terrain. Hurricane Katrina did not make impossible the success of the surge in Iraq; so too the BP oil spill does not make impossible the success of the ongoing surge in Afghanistan. The question is whether President Obama will have the will to see this through as President Bush did in the face of much greater public opposition.

All it would take would be a speech from the president saying something like this: ”I was wrong about trying to set a timeline for American withdrawal. I wanted to inject fresh vigor into our military and diplomatic efforts. But I now realize that my talk about starting to pull American troops out next summer has been misinterpreted; it has caused some in the region to doubt our resolve. So let me be clear. We will stay as long as necessary to defeat the cruel evil of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and associated extremists. I now pledge that, to paraphrase another young Democratic president, we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty in Afghanistan.”

Boom. With a few gutsy words like that, President Obama could instantly change assumptions about our willpower. That’s all it would take, because in all likelihood the Democratic Party would fall in behind him — or at least not challenge him too aggressively. Republicans, for their part, would enthusiastically support him as they have whenever he has increased our commitment to Afghanistan.

I admit that this is unlikely to happen (particularly the last line from John F. Kennedy, a very different kind of Democrat!), but it’s hardly impossible given that Obama has already done full or partial flip-flops on other issues, such as civil trials for terrorists and the closing of Gitmo. We have the resources (money, manpower) to prevail in Afghanistan — just as we had the resources to prevail in Iraq. The question is whether President Obama will commit those resources and give our commanders the time needed to make effective use of them.

That remains to be determined, but I would caution Andrew and others about suggesting that the necessary willpower simply doesn’t exist and can’t be manufactured. That can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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Nancy Pelosi Has a Point — Kind Of

Over the weekend, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was asked, “What do you say to your members, when it does come to the House to vote on this, who are in real fear of losing their seats in November if they support you now?” Her response was:

Well first of all our members — every one of them — wants health care. I think everybody wants affordable health care for all Americans. They know that this will take courage. It took courage to pass Social Security. It took courage to pass Medicare. And many of the same forces that were at work decades ago are at work again against this bill. But the American people need it, why are we here? We’re not here just to self perpetuate our service in Congress. We’re here to do the job for the American people.

In this one instance, Ms. Pelosi has a point. Kind of.

The Speaker touched on one of the important debates in American political history, which is what the role of legislators is. Is it to reflect the views of their constituents, rather like a seismograph? Or, as Edmund Burke put it when speaking about constituents, “Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinions high respect; their business unremitted attention.” But in the end, a legislator owes them something more: his “judgment.” He should not be guided by merely “local purposes” or “local prejudices.” Parliament, Burke insisted, was a “deliberative assembly.” (For an excellent discussion of this matter, see George Will’s book Restoration, and especially the chapter “From Bristol to Cobb County.”)

I place myself in the latter camp, more now than ever — in part based on my own experience in the White House, when President Bush was advocating a new counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq that was unpopular with the political class, with Congress, and with the American public. He proceeded anyway; and the results were stunningly successful. If the surge had failed — if Bush had pulled back, or listened to key Republicans, or decided that his job was to mirror public sentiment — America would have been dealt a terrible geopolitical and moral defeat. What George W. Bush did was right – and it was also politically courageous.

The acid test on these matters is always the wisdom of the act itself. Insisting on political courage from Members of Congress on behalf of a legislative monstrosity would be unwise, whereas insisting on political courage from Members of Congress on behalf of a piece of legislation that advances the common good would be commendable. Since I consider ObamaCare to fit in the former category, I naturally believe what Nancy Pelosi is asking her caucus to do is politically insane. Why issue political death warrants to your allies in behalf of a terrible idea? But her broader point, which is that self-perpetuation in Congress is should not be the lawmaker’s primary concern, strikes me as quite right — and since she believes that nationalization of health care is in the public interest, her argument is understandable. I don’t for a minute, though, pretend that what she is asking of others (and not of herself) is easy. As John F. Kennedy (or perhaps Theodore Sorensen) wrote in Profiles in Courage,

Where else, in a non-totalitarian country, but in the political profession is the individual expected to sacrifice all — including his own career — for the national good? In private life, as in industry, we expect the individual to advance his own enlightened self-interest — within the limitations of the law — in order to achieve over-all progress. But in public life we expect individuals to sacrifice their private interests to permit the national good to progress.

In no other occupation but politics is it expected that a man will sacrifice honors, prestige, and his chosen career on a single issue.

Nancy Pelosi is asking many House Democrats to sacrifice honors, prestige, and their chosen career in behalf of a single issue: ObamaCare. I don’t think they will do it; and in fact they would be very wise to turn down her invitation. To go down in flames for a plan that is both noxious and unpopular is not the political epitaph most lawmakers want. But if Ms. Pelosi has her way, it’s an epitaph more than a few Democrats will end up with.

Over the weekend, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was asked, “What do you say to your members, when it does come to the House to vote on this, who are in real fear of losing their seats in November if they support you now?” Her response was:

Well first of all our members — every one of them — wants health care. I think everybody wants affordable health care for all Americans. They know that this will take courage. It took courage to pass Social Security. It took courage to pass Medicare. And many of the same forces that were at work decades ago are at work again against this bill. But the American people need it, why are we here? We’re not here just to self perpetuate our service in Congress. We’re here to do the job for the American people.

In this one instance, Ms. Pelosi has a point. Kind of.

The Speaker touched on one of the important debates in American political history, which is what the role of legislators is. Is it to reflect the views of their constituents, rather like a seismograph? Or, as Edmund Burke put it when speaking about constituents, “Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinions high respect; their business unremitted attention.” But in the end, a legislator owes them something more: his “judgment.” He should not be guided by merely “local purposes” or “local prejudices.” Parliament, Burke insisted, was a “deliberative assembly.” (For an excellent discussion of this matter, see George Will’s book Restoration, and especially the chapter “From Bristol to Cobb County.”)

I place myself in the latter camp, more now than ever — in part based on my own experience in the White House, when President Bush was advocating a new counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq that was unpopular with the political class, with Congress, and with the American public. He proceeded anyway; and the results were stunningly successful. If the surge had failed — if Bush had pulled back, or listened to key Republicans, or decided that his job was to mirror public sentiment — America would have been dealt a terrible geopolitical and moral defeat. What George W. Bush did was right – and it was also politically courageous.

The acid test on these matters is always the wisdom of the act itself. Insisting on political courage from Members of Congress on behalf of a legislative monstrosity would be unwise, whereas insisting on political courage from Members of Congress on behalf of a piece of legislation that advances the common good would be commendable. Since I consider ObamaCare to fit in the former category, I naturally believe what Nancy Pelosi is asking her caucus to do is politically insane. Why issue political death warrants to your allies in behalf of a terrible idea? But her broader point, which is that self-perpetuation in Congress is should not be the lawmaker’s primary concern, strikes me as quite right — and since she believes that nationalization of health care is in the public interest, her argument is understandable. I don’t for a minute, though, pretend that what she is asking of others (and not of herself) is easy. As John F. Kennedy (or perhaps Theodore Sorensen) wrote in Profiles in Courage,

Where else, in a non-totalitarian country, but in the political profession is the individual expected to sacrifice all — including his own career — for the national good? In private life, as in industry, we expect the individual to advance his own enlightened self-interest — within the limitations of the law — in order to achieve over-all progress. But in public life we expect individuals to sacrifice their private interests to permit the national good to progress.

In no other occupation but politics is it expected that a man will sacrifice honors, prestige, and his chosen career on a single issue.

Nancy Pelosi is asking many House Democrats to sacrifice honors, prestige, and their chosen career in behalf of a single issue: ObamaCare. I don’t think they will do it; and in fact they would be very wise to turn down her invitation. To go down in flames for a plan that is both noxious and unpopular is not the political epitaph most lawmakers want. But if Ms. Pelosi has her way, it’s an epitaph more than a few Democrats will end up with.

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