Commentary Magazine


Topic: Marshall

Oh, Man, Not Another Sputnik Moment …

I keep a list of historical analogies — derived from years of grading papers — that tell me that the individual using them is (to be polite) more interested in rhetorical impact than historical accuracy. Before last night, the list began with “we need a Marshall Plan for X,” where X usually equals Africa or the Middle East, and ended with “the United States is a young country.” Both are fallacies: the Marshall Plan was a pump-priming program, not an effort to rebuild the infrastructure and remake the culture of half a continent; and while European settlement of North America is fairly recent, the U.S.’s political institutions have a longer continuous existence than those of any other country except, arguably, the United Kingdom.

Now, thanks to President Obama, I’ve got a third analogy to add to the list: “Sputnik moment.” To be fair, I should have added it years ago. The phrase, according to Google, has popped in and out of the news regularly over the past decade, with the president himself beginning to use it last June, in a speech in North Carolina. The analogy has the advantage of being an example of government spending — we now call it “investment,” I am told — that has not been utterly discredited by succeeding events. But that doesn’t make it correct.

First, as my colleague Jim Carafano pointed out back in September, Ike’s response to Sputnik’s launch wasn’t to pull out the checkbook. That was what the Gaither Report called for, but Eisenhower balked: as I noted recently, Ike was no softie on Communism, but he was also concerned by the threat to American liberties “posed not so much by big government as such, but by top-down direction of all kinds. Much of this originated in the federal government, but not at all it: there was also a risk of becoming ‘the captive of a scientific-technological elite.’ ” A striking phrase, especially in light of President Obama’s desire to expand government for the benefit of that elite.

Second, the launch of Sputnik marked a significant new national-security threat posed by a state with a hostile ideology, which we were already confronting around the world. If the USSR could orbit a satellite, it could launch a nuclear missile and vaporize an American city. If Sputnik had been orbited by, say, Britain, it would not have occasioned nearly as much angst. In other words, you can’t have a Sputnik moment absent a hostile superpower to provide the impetus for concern. I would not categorize the U.S.’s relationship with China or, certainly, India, as particularly similar to the one we had with the USSR — and the president went out of his way last night not to criticize foreign regimes (even ones like Iran, which are hostile and have, in fact, orbited a satellite). So where is the drive that will be necessary to sustain this “moment” going to come from? Certainly not from the White House. Read More

I keep a list of historical analogies — derived from years of grading papers — that tell me that the individual using them is (to be polite) more interested in rhetorical impact than historical accuracy. Before last night, the list began with “we need a Marshall Plan for X,” where X usually equals Africa or the Middle East, and ended with “the United States is a young country.” Both are fallacies: the Marshall Plan was a pump-priming program, not an effort to rebuild the infrastructure and remake the culture of half a continent; and while European settlement of North America is fairly recent, the U.S.’s political institutions have a longer continuous existence than those of any other country except, arguably, the United Kingdom.

Now, thanks to President Obama, I’ve got a third analogy to add to the list: “Sputnik moment.” To be fair, I should have added it years ago. The phrase, according to Google, has popped in and out of the news regularly over the past decade, with the president himself beginning to use it last June, in a speech in North Carolina. The analogy has the advantage of being an example of government spending — we now call it “investment,” I am told — that has not been utterly discredited by succeeding events. But that doesn’t make it correct.

First, as my colleague Jim Carafano pointed out back in September, Ike’s response to Sputnik’s launch wasn’t to pull out the checkbook. That was what the Gaither Report called for, but Eisenhower balked: as I noted recently, Ike was no softie on Communism, but he was also concerned by the threat to American liberties “posed not so much by big government as such, but by top-down direction of all kinds. Much of this originated in the federal government, but not at all it: there was also a risk of becoming ‘the captive of a scientific-technological elite.’ ” A striking phrase, especially in light of President Obama’s desire to expand government for the benefit of that elite.

Second, the launch of Sputnik marked a significant new national-security threat posed by a state with a hostile ideology, which we were already confronting around the world. If the USSR could orbit a satellite, it could launch a nuclear missile and vaporize an American city. If Sputnik had been orbited by, say, Britain, it would not have occasioned nearly as much angst. In other words, you can’t have a Sputnik moment absent a hostile superpower to provide the impetus for concern. I would not categorize the U.S.’s relationship with China or, certainly, India, as particularly similar to the one we had with the USSR — and the president went out of his way last night not to criticize foreign regimes (even ones like Iran, which are hostile and have, in fact, orbited a satellite). So where is the drive that will be necessary to sustain this “moment” going to come from? Certainly not from the White House.

Third, and most basically, I sometimes get the sense that the left doesn’t realize that 1890-2010 has already happened. A rule of life is that you can only do things for the first time once. We’ve tried the Progressive, administrative state, and have been trying it for years: its deficiencies are not going to be fixed by pretending in an “Ah ha!” moment that what we need is more administration. We’ve been trying Keynesianism almost continuously since the 1940s and even before the recession were at levels of government spending that Keynes experienced only during World War II: the idea that Keynes offers some sort of untried miracle cure is, to be nice about it, a fantasy. Since 1970, as Andrew Coulson points out, federal spending adjusted for inflation has increased by 190 percent, with no gains in reading, math, or science scores to show for it. None of these ideas are new. On the contrary: they are very, very old.

Leaving all this aside, I have to ask — does the proclamation of a new “Sputnik moment” work even as rhetoric? It certainly leaves me cold. The reason for that is, partly, because it’s not great history. But, more fundamentally, it’s because it’s so obviously instrumental. The president wants to look like he’s cutting the budget but also wants to spend more money. So he grabs at the NASA argument, the Sputnik analogy, the Internet analogy, and anything else that comes to hand. Rhetoric that’s shaped by this kind of desperation comes across as insincere. It might be more effective for the president to simply state his belief that we need to spend more money on education. He’d be wrong on the merits, but at least he wouldn’t be compounding the error with dubious grab-bag analogies.

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No Fifth Star for Petraeus … Yet

I am a fan and admirer of Pete Hegseth and Wade Zirkle, two distinguished combat veterans who have been the driving forces behind Vets for Freedom, an important organization (on whose advisory board I once served) that has done much to buttress home-front support for the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am all the more impressed by Hegseth for his willingness to volunteer to go to Afghanistan this year as a reservist, with no obligation to do so. Needless to say, I am also a great admirer of David Petraeus — our most successful general since Matthew Ridgway. But I cannot see the imperative of giving Petraeus a fifth star as suggested by Hegseth and Zirkle in this Wall Street Journal op-ed.

As I understand it, Eisenhower, Marshall, MacArthur, and the other great World War II commanders got five stars so they would not be outranked by British field marshals. (As I recall, FDR considered creating an American rank of “field marshal” but decided to call it “general of the army” because “Marshal Marshall” would have sounded silly.) That’s not a concern today, so it’s hard to see any practical reason to elevate Petraeus and easy to see many difficulties that would arise if the U.S. commander in Afghanistan were to outrank the Central Command commander, his nominal boss, and even the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Petraeus is already primus inter pares by virtue of his success in Iraq. Formally giving him another star would only make his life more difficult when he has to deal with his four-star counterparts.

However, I do think that when Petraeus is ready for retirement — something that I hope will not happen anytime soon — Congress should consider granting him another star if by that point he has turned around the war in Afghanistan as he did in Iraq. Heck, I’d even be in favor of reviving the old British custom of giving vast estates and pots of money to winning generals, though these days the Washington Speakers Bureau achieves the same result without government subsidy. So I do not absolutely oppose the Hegseth/Zirkle proposal; I just think it is premature.

I am a fan and admirer of Pete Hegseth and Wade Zirkle, two distinguished combat veterans who have been the driving forces behind Vets for Freedom, an important organization (on whose advisory board I once served) that has done much to buttress home-front support for the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am all the more impressed by Hegseth for his willingness to volunteer to go to Afghanistan this year as a reservist, with no obligation to do so. Needless to say, I am also a great admirer of David Petraeus — our most successful general since Matthew Ridgway. But I cannot see the imperative of giving Petraeus a fifth star as suggested by Hegseth and Zirkle in this Wall Street Journal op-ed.

As I understand it, Eisenhower, Marshall, MacArthur, and the other great World War II commanders got five stars so they would not be outranked by British field marshals. (As I recall, FDR considered creating an American rank of “field marshal” but decided to call it “general of the army” because “Marshal Marshall” would have sounded silly.) That’s not a concern today, so it’s hard to see any practical reason to elevate Petraeus and easy to see many difficulties that would arise if the U.S. commander in Afghanistan were to outrank the Central Command commander, his nominal boss, and even the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Petraeus is already primus inter pares by virtue of his success in Iraq. Formally giving him another star would only make his life more difficult when he has to deal with his four-star counterparts.

However, I do think that when Petraeus is ready for retirement — something that I hope will not happen anytime soon — Congress should consider granting him another star if by that point he has turned around the war in Afghanistan as he did in Iraq. Heck, I’d even be in favor of reviving the old British custom of giving vast estates and pots of money to winning generals, though these days the Washington Speakers Bureau achieves the same result without government subsidy. So I do not absolutely oppose the Hegseth/Zirkle proposal; I just think it is premature.

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The Harvard Law Review Must Be Aghast

In the ongoing debate over Obama’s attack on the Supreme Court, the president seems not to be faring all that well. Politico’s forum on the subject contains a range of criticisms. They fall into several categories.

First, it was arrogant and careless of Obama to call out the Supreme Court – and not get his facts right. Dan Perino observes: “Misrepresenting a complicated legal opinion is dicey — but doing so in a prime-time address to a nation where the authors of that opinion are in the front row leaves you rightly exposed to criticism.” The president and his minions have gotten used to their sheltered existence and being immune to criticism. You can almost hear them reassuring themselves, “It’s not like one of the justices is going to object!” Well, he did, and that’s what comes from assuming the president can be cavalier with the truth.

Second, it was rude to berate the Court in public, treating the justices as errant political functionaries rather than interpreters of the Constitution. Larry J. Sabato, hardly a fire-breathing conservative, makes some unfavorable comparisons:

Mr. Obama’s blunt attack on the Court’s ruling, with the members sitting in front of him, was no doubt stunning and unsettling to some, and it contradicted his frequent calls for bipartisanship and civility. It also reminded me of President Andrew Jackson’s remark that, “Chief Justice Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it.” Others may have remembered Massive Resistance and the disrespect shown to earlier Courts when they made unpopular rulings about race.

And third, Obama is playing with fire — and talking nonsense when he dares Congress to “respond” to a First Amendment ruling with legislation. This was not a statutory interpretation — as was the Equal Pay Act, which begat the Lilly Ledbetter legislation — that is amenable to a legislative fix. In such a case, the Court says, “We think the statute says X.” The Congress is then free to say, “No, we really meant Y, and here’s the amended law to make that explicit.” What sort of legislative response would there be to “The First Amendment does not permit limits on corporations and unions exercising core political speech”? Boston College law professor Richard Albert explains:

By emphatically urging Congress to pass a bill reversing what he views as the Supreme Court’s misguided judgment–”a bill that helps to right this wrong,” in the President’s own words–the President undermined two sacred institutions in American constitutional government: the separation of powers and judicial independence.

A University of Virginia Law School professor asks whether Obama is seriously entertaining the view that Congress should “challenge the Supreme Court’s ruling and its constitutional interpretive supremacy.” We don’t know, because Obama, one suspects, doesn’t take what he’s saying seriously. He’s simply inciting the mob.

In all this, one thing is rather clear: Obama has harmed himself. In playing fast and loose with the facts and the law, he has diminished not the Court but himself. He seems to prefer Huey Long to Lawrence Tribe as his role model. His elite university pals and media sycophants who marveled at his Harvard-honed intellect and supposed temperamental superiority must be shuddering.

In the ongoing debate over Obama’s attack on the Supreme Court, the president seems not to be faring all that well. Politico’s forum on the subject contains a range of criticisms. They fall into several categories.

First, it was arrogant and careless of Obama to call out the Supreme Court – and not get his facts right. Dan Perino observes: “Misrepresenting a complicated legal opinion is dicey — but doing so in a prime-time address to a nation where the authors of that opinion are in the front row leaves you rightly exposed to criticism.” The president and his minions have gotten used to their sheltered existence and being immune to criticism. You can almost hear them reassuring themselves, “It’s not like one of the justices is going to object!” Well, he did, and that’s what comes from assuming the president can be cavalier with the truth.

Second, it was rude to berate the Court in public, treating the justices as errant political functionaries rather than interpreters of the Constitution. Larry J. Sabato, hardly a fire-breathing conservative, makes some unfavorable comparisons:

Mr. Obama’s blunt attack on the Court’s ruling, with the members sitting in front of him, was no doubt stunning and unsettling to some, and it contradicted his frequent calls for bipartisanship and civility. It also reminded me of President Andrew Jackson’s remark that, “Chief Justice Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it.” Others may have remembered Massive Resistance and the disrespect shown to earlier Courts when they made unpopular rulings about race.

And third, Obama is playing with fire — and talking nonsense when he dares Congress to “respond” to a First Amendment ruling with legislation. This was not a statutory interpretation — as was the Equal Pay Act, which begat the Lilly Ledbetter legislation — that is amenable to a legislative fix. In such a case, the Court says, “We think the statute says X.” The Congress is then free to say, “No, we really meant Y, and here’s the amended law to make that explicit.” What sort of legislative response would there be to “The First Amendment does not permit limits on corporations and unions exercising core political speech”? Boston College law professor Richard Albert explains:

By emphatically urging Congress to pass a bill reversing what he views as the Supreme Court’s misguided judgment–”a bill that helps to right this wrong,” in the President’s own words–the President undermined two sacred institutions in American constitutional government: the separation of powers and judicial independence.

A University of Virginia Law School professor asks whether Obama is seriously entertaining the view that Congress should “challenge the Supreme Court’s ruling and its constitutional interpretive supremacy.” We don’t know, because Obama, one suspects, doesn’t take what he’s saying seriously. He’s simply inciting the mob.

In all this, one thing is rather clear: Obama has harmed himself. In playing fast and loose with the facts and the law, he has diminished not the Court but himself. He seems to prefer Huey Long to Lawrence Tribe as his role model. His elite university pals and media sycophants who marveled at his Harvard-honed intellect and supposed temperamental superiority must be shuddering.

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Nobel Speech

Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech could have been a whole lot worse. In fact, there is much for conservatives to crow about and much to drive the antiwar(s) Left up the wall. He did acknowledge the obvious:

And then there are the men and women around the world who have been jailed and beaten in the pursuit of justice; those who toil in humanitarian organizations to relieve suffering; the unrecognized millions whose quiet acts of courage and compassion inspire even the most hardened of cynics. I cannot argue with those who find these men and women – some known, some obscure to all but those they help — to be far more deserving of this honor than I.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the considerable controversy that your generous decision has generated. In part, this is because I am at the beginning, and not the end, of my labors on the world stage. Compared to some of the giants of history who have received this prize – Schweitzer and King; Marshall and Mandela – my accomplishments are slight.

But more important, the president gives perhaps his most robust defense yet of America’s role in the world and of his responsibilities as a wartime commander in chief. Moreover, he uses the E world — yes, evil. He explains:

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago – “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life’s work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak –nothing passive – nothing naïve – in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

This will stick in the craw of the Left, which found George Bush hopelessly daft and downright dangerous for identifying “evildoers” and an “axis of evil” and which vilified (and still does) the vast neocon conspiracy (or Manichean conspiracy, as Peter Beinart recently sneered) — namely, those who have made the case for robust wars against the forces of evil that threaten America and the West.

Now before we get too carried away, the speech is not without much unnecessary liberal angst and considerable evidence of Obama’s infatuation with multilateralism. (“But in a world in which threats are more diffuse, and missions more complex, America cannot act alone. This is true in Afghanistan.” We can’t act alone? What if others won’t act?) He insists on braying about his ill-conceived positions on the war on terror, and suggests that before his arrival, “torture” was permissible. (“That is why I prohibited torture. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed. And that is why I have reaffirmed America’s commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions.”)

He again gives a ludicrously limp warning to Iran and North Korea (“it is also incumbent upon all of us to insist that nations like Iran and North Korea do not game the system”). And his paean to human rights reveals that there are no limits to the Obami’s hypocrisy. “We will bear witness to the quiet dignity of reformers like Aung Sang Suu Kyi; to the bravery of Zimbabweans who cast their ballots in the face of beatings; to the hundreds of thousands who have marched silently through the streets of Iran.” Bearing witness apparently does not involve doing anything other than taking notes.

But this speech is perhaps the closest he has come to throwing the American antiwar Left under the bus. America will defend itself. There is evil in the world. And yes, we are at war with religious fanatics:

Most dangerously, we see it in the way that religion is used to justify the murder of innocents by those who have distorted and defiled the great religion of Islam, and who attacked my country from Afghanistan. These extremists are not the first to kill in the name of God; the cruelties of the Crusades are amply recorded. But they remind us that no Holy War can ever be a just war.

For if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for restraint – no need to spare the pregnant mother, or the medic, or even a person of one’s own faith. Such a warped view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace, but the purpose of faith – for the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

It is not at all what the netroot crowd that lifted him to the presidency had in mind. It seems that reality may be dawning, however dimly, on the White House.

Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech could have been a whole lot worse. In fact, there is much for conservatives to crow about and much to drive the antiwar(s) Left up the wall. He did acknowledge the obvious:

And then there are the men and women around the world who have been jailed and beaten in the pursuit of justice; those who toil in humanitarian organizations to relieve suffering; the unrecognized millions whose quiet acts of courage and compassion inspire even the most hardened of cynics. I cannot argue with those who find these men and women – some known, some obscure to all but those they help — to be far more deserving of this honor than I.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the considerable controversy that your generous decision has generated. In part, this is because I am at the beginning, and not the end, of my labors on the world stage. Compared to some of the giants of history who have received this prize – Schweitzer and King; Marshall and Mandela – my accomplishments are slight.

But more important, the president gives perhaps his most robust defense yet of America’s role in the world and of his responsibilities as a wartime commander in chief. Moreover, he uses the E world — yes, evil. He explains:

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago – “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life’s work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak –nothing passive – nothing naïve – in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

This will stick in the craw of the Left, which found George Bush hopelessly daft and downright dangerous for identifying “evildoers” and an “axis of evil” and which vilified (and still does) the vast neocon conspiracy (or Manichean conspiracy, as Peter Beinart recently sneered) — namely, those who have made the case for robust wars against the forces of evil that threaten America and the West.

Now before we get too carried away, the speech is not without much unnecessary liberal angst and considerable evidence of Obama’s infatuation with multilateralism. (“But in a world in which threats are more diffuse, and missions more complex, America cannot act alone. This is true in Afghanistan.” We can’t act alone? What if others won’t act?) He insists on braying about his ill-conceived positions on the war on terror, and suggests that before his arrival, “torture” was permissible. (“That is why I prohibited torture. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed. And that is why I have reaffirmed America’s commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions.”)

He again gives a ludicrously limp warning to Iran and North Korea (“it is also incumbent upon all of us to insist that nations like Iran and North Korea do not game the system”). And his paean to human rights reveals that there are no limits to the Obami’s hypocrisy. “We will bear witness to the quiet dignity of reformers like Aung Sang Suu Kyi; to the bravery of Zimbabweans who cast their ballots in the face of beatings; to the hundreds of thousands who have marched silently through the streets of Iran.” Bearing witness apparently does not involve doing anything other than taking notes.

But this speech is perhaps the closest he has come to throwing the American antiwar Left under the bus. America will defend itself. There is evil in the world. And yes, we are at war with religious fanatics:

Most dangerously, we see it in the way that religion is used to justify the murder of innocents by those who have distorted and defiled the great religion of Islam, and who attacked my country from Afghanistan. These extremists are not the first to kill in the name of God; the cruelties of the Crusades are amply recorded. But they remind us that no Holy War can ever be a just war.

For if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for restraint – no need to spare the pregnant mother, or the medic, or even a person of one’s own faith. Such a warped view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace, but the purpose of faith – for the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

It is not at all what the netroot crowd that lifted him to the presidency had in mind. It seems that reality may be dawning, however dimly, on the White House.

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Cynical Specter Runs to the Left on Afghanistan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hot Water

Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. What happens to it at 99,000 degrees?. That was the temperature of the water in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean after the United States tested a thermonuclear device there in 1954.

The expected yield was to be in the neighborhood of four to six megatons. In the event, the bomb was significantly more powerful: fifteen megatons. Forty-two species of coral never recovered from boiling at temperatures so high. Indeed, they were vaporized along with much of Bikini Atoll, the test site.

But National Geographic reports that an amazing recovery is under way:

It was awesome to see coral cover as high as 80 percent and large treelike branching formations with trunks 30 centimeters (11 inches) thick,” Zoe Richards of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies said in a statement.

Nonetheless, anyone who watches a video of the blast itself, available here, will understand that even if coral recovers nicely after half a century, it would be wise to keep these weapons out of the hands of Iranian ayatollahs.

Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. What happens to it at 99,000 degrees?. That was the temperature of the water in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean after the United States tested a thermonuclear device there in 1954.

The expected yield was to be in the neighborhood of four to six megatons. In the event, the bomb was significantly more powerful: fifteen megatons. Forty-two species of coral never recovered from boiling at temperatures so high. Indeed, they were vaporized along with much of Bikini Atoll, the test site.

But National Geographic reports that an amazing recovery is under way:

It was awesome to see coral cover as high as 80 percent and large treelike branching formations with trunks 30 centimeters (11 inches) thick,” Zoe Richards of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies said in a statement.

Nonetheless, anyone who watches a video of the blast itself, available here, will understand that even if coral recovers nicely after half a century, it would be wise to keep these weapons out of the hands of Iranian ayatollahs.

Read Less

In Defense of Don B.

Donald Barthelme is among those writers, like Kurt Vonnegut and (please, no laughter) Richard Brautigan, whom I found funny—sometimes brilliantly so—before coming to resent them as one-trick ponies, responsible, albeit indirectly, for much of the dross which passes for humor in today’s literature. Years ago, when McSweeney’s appeared on my radar in website form, I found it funny for a while before getting the sinking feeling that many of its contributors were just “doing” Barthelme, piggybacking on a beloved formula. The consistent deadpan, the jarring concatenation of allusions and non sequiturs, the compulsive goofiness: It was déjà vu. It was depressing.

James Wolcott’s brilliant essay on Barthelme articulates perfectly the pleasures and limitations of his fiction. Having read it, I’m prepared to admit that I’ve been too hard on Don B. and his acolytes (not that they care one way or the other). How could they have resisted the influence of what they so thoroughly enjoyed in Barthelme’s work? To hear Wolcott tell it, nobody could escape that pull:

Over the years, Barthelme’s antic break with the traditional tactful manner of the classic New Yorker story, where every stick of furniture and motivation was neatly, firmly in place, would expand into an entire wing of the magazine’s house style. His mastery of incongruity and curveball allusions helped liberate the whiz brains in the office and scramble the genetic code of the magazine’s humor and fiction irregulars: By the ’70s, the set-piece fictions and “casuals” of Ian Frazier, Veronica Geng, Mark Singer, Marshall Brickman, and George W. S. Trow abounded with absurdist dialogues, box scores, chess notations, chicken-scratch scribblings, send-ups of familiar minigenres (liner notes, movie blurbs, capsule reviews, wedding notices), multiple-choice quizzes, and mash-up satires . . . . They ran riot while Ann Beattie stood slightly off to the side, strumming her hair.

Today, I would hazard (I’ve always wanted to hazard), the track marks of Barthelme’s suave, subversive cunning are to be found less in postmod fiction—although David Foster Wallace’s dense foliage of footnotes suggests a Barthelmean undergrowth and George Saunders’s arcade surrealism has a runaway-nephew quality—than in the conscientiously oddball, studiedly offhand, hiply recherché, mock-anachronistic formalism of McSweeney’s, The Believer, The Crier, and related organs of articulate mumblecore.

I would say to those heirs apparent that my disdain, for what it’s worth, is a classic case of “I’m not mad at you—I’m just disappointed.” They haven’t done the difficult job of dynamiting their idols, our idols, and building something new and superior with the rubble. A few days ago, after reading a string of disappointing “comic novels,” I asked my friends to name the funniest books they’d ever read. The list is growing pretty long—I hope to share it one of these days—but not a single person named a Barthelme collection. Perhaps when the market is flooded with knockoffs, even the Louis Vuitton can start to look a bit phony.

Donald Barthelme is among those writers, like Kurt Vonnegut and (please, no laughter) Richard Brautigan, whom I found funny—sometimes brilliantly so—before coming to resent them as one-trick ponies, responsible, albeit indirectly, for much of the dross which passes for humor in today’s literature. Years ago, when McSweeney’s appeared on my radar in website form, I found it funny for a while before getting the sinking feeling that many of its contributors were just “doing” Barthelme, piggybacking on a beloved formula. The consistent deadpan, the jarring concatenation of allusions and non sequiturs, the compulsive goofiness: It was déjà vu. It was depressing.

James Wolcott’s brilliant essay on Barthelme articulates perfectly the pleasures and limitations of his fiction. Having read it, I’m prepared to admit that I’ve been too hard on Don B. and his acolytes (not that they care one way or the other). How could they have resisted the influence of what they so thoroughly enjoyed in Barthelme’s work? To hear Wolcott tell it, nobody could escape that pull:

Over the years, Barthelme’s antic break with the traditional tactful manner of the classic New Yorker story, where every stick of furniture and motivation was neatly, firmly in place, would expand into an entire wing of the magazine’s house style. His mastery of incongruity and curveball allusions helped liberate the whiz brains in the office and scramble the genetic code of the magazine’s humor and fiction irregulars: By the ’70s, the set-piece fictions and “casuals” of Ian Frazier, Veronica Geng, Mark Singer, Marshall Brickman, and George W. S. Trow abounded with absurdist dialogues, box scores, chess notations, chicken-scratch scribblings, send-ups of familiar minigenres (liner notes, movie blurbs, capsule reviews, wedding notices), multiple-choice quizzes, and mash-up satires . . . . They ran riot while Ann Beattie stood slightly off to the side, strumming her hair.

Today, I would hazard (I’ve always wanted to hazard), the track marks of Barthelme’s suave, subversive cunning are to be found less in postmod fiction—although David Foster Wallace’s dense foliage of footnotes suggests a Barthelmean undergrowth and George Saunders’s arcade surrealism has a runaway-nephew quality—than in the conscientiously oddball, studiedly offhand, hiply recherché, mock-anachronistic formalism of McSweeney’s, The Believer, The Crier, and related organs of articulate mumblecore.

I would say to those heirs apparent that my disdain, for what it’s worth, is a classic case of “I’m not mad at you—I’m just disappointed.” They haven’t done the difficult job of dynamiting their idols, our idols, and building something new and superior with the rubble. A few days ago, after reading a string of disappointing “comic novels,” I asked my friends to name the funniest books they’d ever read. The list is growing pretty long—I hope to share it one of these days—but not a single person named a Barthelme collection. Perhaps when the market is flooded with knockoffs, even the Louis Vuitton can start to look a bit phony.

Read Less




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