Commentary Magazine


Topic: Sam Tanenhaus

Champions of Leviathan

I wanted to pick up on the Wall Street Journal op-ed you flagged, Jen, written by Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. According to Kohut, “By almost every conceivable measure, Americans are less positive and more critical of their government these days. There is a perfect storm of conditions associated with distrust of government — a dismal economy, an unhappy public, and epic discontent with Congress and elected officials.”

The Pew study is important and, for Democrats, alarming. Right now the pieces are in place for a massive, perhaps historic, Democratic loss in November. Beyond the mid-term elections, though, it’s worth noting just how badly liberalism itself is faring in the Age of Obama.

Mr. Obama’s election was supposed to usher in the greatest progressive period since FDR; it marked, we were told, a dramatic shift away from conservatism, which dominated national politics, more or less, for a quarter century (1980-2005). Sophisticated liberals like Sam Tanenhaus assured us that we were witnessing the “death of conservatism.” Others said we had entered a period of liberal dominance that would last for decades.

In fact, Democrats and liberals invested far too much ideological meaning in the 2008 election. This led them to overreach with their agenda, particularly (but not exclusively) on the fiscal side of things. Rather than take incremental steps to build up confidence in the government, Obama, Pelosi, and Reid pushed proposals that dramatically expanded the size, reach, and power of the state, especially on health care. The results have been the repudiation and discrediting of their agenda and of the liberal project more broadly.

So here is where things stand: At a time when confidence in government is at low ebb, the Democratic Party and modern liberalism have made themselves the proud champions of Leviathan. It will turn out, I think, to be a politically lethal mistake. And that, in turn, has presented the GOP as a party, and conservatism as a movement, with a tremendous opening. Depending on what they do with it, the New Progressive Era may end up lasting all of a year or so.

Call it one of the ironies of American history.

I wanted to pick up on the Wall Street Journal op-ed you flagged, Jen, written by Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. According to Kohut, “By almost every conceivable measure, Americans are less positive and more critical of their government these days. There is a perfect storm of conditions associated with distrust of government — a dismal economy, an unhappy public, and epic discontent with Congress and elected officials.”

The Pew study is important and, for Democrats, alarming. Right now the pieces are in place for a massive, perhaps historic, Democratic loss in November. Beyond the mid-term elections, though, it’s worth noting just how badly liberalism itself is faring in the Age of Obama.

Mr. Obama’s election was supposed to usher in the greatest progressive period since FDR; it marked, we were told, a dramatic shift away from conservatism, which dominated national politics, more or less, for a quarter century (1980-2005). Sophisticated liberals like Sam Tanenhaus assured us that we were witnessing the “death of conservatism.” Others said we had entered a period of liberal dominance that would last for decades.

In fact, Democrats and liberals invested far too much ideological meaning in the 2008 election. This led them to overreach with their agenda, particularly (but not exclusively) on the fiscal side of things. Rather than take incremental steps to build up confidence in the government, Obama, Pelosi, and Reid pushed proposals that dramatically expanded the size, reach, and power of the state, especially on health care. The results have been the repudiation and discrediting of their agenda and of the liberal project more broadly.

So here is where things stand: At a time when confidence in government is at low ebb, the Democratic Party and modern liberalism have made themselves the proud champions of Leviathan. It will turn out, I think, to be a politically lethal mistake. And that, in turn, has presented the GOP as a party, and conservatism as a movement, with a tremendous opening. Depending on what they do with it, the New Progressive Era may end up lasting all of a year or so.

Call it one of the ironies of American history.

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Republican Resurrection

Michael Barone is a person with extraordinary knowledge about politics. So his statement in the American Enterprise Institute’s blog, The American, caught my attention: “Recent polls tell me that the Democratic Party is in the worst shape I have seen during my 50 years of following politics closely.”

Barone devotes his article to looking back at the biggest GOP victory of the last 80 years – the off-year election of 1946, in which Republicans won 13 Senate seats and 55 seats in the House – and explores the similarities and differences today.

Speaking of today, Obama’s approval rating in the latest CBS poll is at an all-time low of 44 percent, a staggering 24 points below where it was just a year ago. When it comes to health care, the President’s approval rating is even lower: only 34 percent approved, while 55 percent said they disapproved.

Republicans now lead on the congressional generic ballot in both the Gallup survey (+3) and the Rasmussen survey (+9). Voters now trust Republicans more than Democrats on nine out of 10 key issues – including on health care, which is nearly unprecedented. Following the passage of the health care bill, 53 percent now say they trust Republicans on the issue of health care, versus 37 percent who place their trust in Democrats. And according to a Marist poll, since ObamaCare passed, 53 percent of those polled said their opinion of the president has not changed. But 29 percent said their opinion of Obama has gotten worse. And only 18 percent — fewer than two in 10 — said their opinion of Obama has gotten better. To add salt to the wound: among independents, Tea Partiers’ views are preferred to Obama’s by a 50 percent to 38 percent margin.

This erosion of support for the Democratic party in such a compressed period of time is unlike anything I can recall. Democrats continue to hope that things will turn around between now and the mid-term elections. But with every passing month, this wish appears fanciful. Democrats like Bill Clinton predicted Obama and his party’s approval ratings would jump in the aftermath ObamaCare’s passage; many of us said the opposite. So far, the opposite is happening. Nor is opposition to Obama and Democrats likely to recede much between now and November; in fact it may well intensify.

Early last year, the GOP was bloodied and on the ropes, and out came the epitaphs. Sam Tanenhaus wrote a book titled The Death of Conservatism. Democrats like James Carville were saying, “A Democratic majority is emerging, and it’s my hypothesis, one I share with a great many others, that this majority will guarantee the Democrats remain in power for the next 40 years.” Today, after 15 months of Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid, it looks like Democrats may fall around 38 years short of that prediction. And Mr. Tanenhaus might want to get used to the concept of resurrection. Because that is what is unfolding before our eyes.

The strong wind at the backs of Republicans will at some point shift; that is the nature of American politics. For now, though, everyone agrees that November will be bad for Democrats. The only question is just how bad. At this juncture, I would say: very bad.

Michael Barone is a person with extraordinary knowledge about politics. So his statement in the American Enterprise Institute’s blog, The American, caught my attention: “Recent polls tell me that the Democratic Party is in the worst shape I have seen during my 50 years of following politics closely.”

Barone devotes his article to looking back at the biggest GOP victory of the last 80 years – the off-year election of 1946, in which Republicans won 13 Senate seats and 55 seats in the House – and explores the similarities and differences today.

Speaking of today, Obama’s approval rating in the latest CBS poll is at an all-time low of 44 percent, a staggering 24 points below where it was just a year ago. When it comes to health care, the President’s approval rating is even lower: only 34 percent approved, while 55 percent said they disapproved.

Republicans now lead on the congressional generic ballot in both the Gallup survey (+3) and the Rasmussen survey (+9). Voters now trust Republicans more than Democrats on nine out of 10 key issues – including on health care, which is nearly unprecedented. Following the passage of the health care bill, 53 percent now say they trust Republicans on the issue of health care, versus 37 percent who place their trust in Democrats. And according to a Marist poll, since ObamaCare passed, 53 percent of those polled said their opinion of the president has not changed. But 29 percent said their opinion of Obama has gotten worse. And only 18 percent — fewer than two in 10 — said their opinion of Obama has gotten better. To add salt to the wound: among independents, Tea Partiers’ views are preferred to Obama’s by a 50 percent to 38 percent margin.

This erosion of support for the Democratic party in such a compressed period of time is unlike anything I can recall. Democrats continue to hope that things will turn around between now and the mid-term elections. But with every passing month, this wish appears fanciful. Democrats like Bill Clinton predicted Obama and his party’s approval ratings would jump in the aftermath ObamaCare’s passage; many of us said the opposite. So far, the opposite is happening. Nor is opposition to Obama and Democrats likely to recede much between now and November; in fact it may well intensify.

Early last year, the GOP was bloodied and on the ropes, and out came the epitaphs. Sam Tanenhaus wrote a book titled The Death of Conservatism. Democrats like James Carville were saying, “A Democratic majority is emerging, and it’s my hypothesis, one I share with a great many others, that this majority will guarantee the Democrats remain in power for the next 40 years.” Today, after 15 months of Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid, it looks like Democrats may fall around 38 years short of that prediction. And Mr. Tanenhaus might want to get used to the concept of resurrection. Because that is what is unfolding before our eyes.

The strong wind at the backs of Republicans will at some point shift; that is the nature of American politics. For now, though, everyone agrees that November will be bad for Democrats. The only question is just how bad. At this juncture, I would say: very bad.

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Comic Book Hate: a New Chapter in Anti-Israel Bias at the New York Times

The debate about the extent of the New York Times’ anti-Israel bias was revived this past weekend in the book-review treatment of Joe Sacco’s Footnotes From Gaza, a volume that purports to tell the story of massacres of innocent Palestinian Arabs in Gaza by evil Israelis in 1956 during the Sinai Campaign.

The review is notable for two reasons.

First is the fact that the review is a rave for what can only be described as a 418-page piece of anti-Israel propaganda. Masquerading as history, this graphic novel is a detailed compendium of slanders against Israeli forces engaged in a counteroffensive against Palestinian terrorists in Gaza, an area used as a base for murderous terror raids into Israel since the 1949 armistice. But that fact is ignored by the reviewer, who accepts the author’s single-minded obsession with placing all of the blame on the Jews for the fighting in Gaza at that time and for the entire duration of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The piece claims that it is a “bias against history” that has prevented the publication of more such accounts of Israeli brutality. Yet this book has nothing to do with a genuine search for historical truth and everything to do with anti-Israel bias. Indeed, the core accusation of Sacco’s book—that these incidents in 1956 “planted hatred” in Palestinian hearts against Israelis—is absurd.

The fighting in that year had been precipitated by Arab cross-border murder raids, whose brutality was rooted in anti-Jewish hatred and intolerance for the Jewish presence in the land, which long predated the events this cartoon purports to explain. The point of Sacco’s cartoons is not very different from more recent attempts to portray last year’s invasion of Gaza as aggression when, in fact, it was merely a response to missile attacks on Israel. But as with other such examples of “journalism” aimed at vilifying the Israelis, Sacco’s only goal is to paint Israeli self-defense as illegitimate and to portray the Palestinians as innocent victims whose agenda to destroy the Jewish state cannot be mentioned.

Sacco’s use of crude pictures to tell a one-sided story of Jewish evil will, no doubt, remind some readers of similarly crude anti-Semitic graphics employed by the Nazis. We need not linger on this obvious comparison to dismiss Footnotes from Gaza as the nastiest sort of polemic that sheds little light on either the origins of the current conflict or the nature of war. At a time when anti-Israel invective and Jew-hatred is on the rise around the world, the publication of works like this is far from unique. But when the Times’s prestigious Sunday Book Review not only treats books like Sacco’s as worthy of consideration but also lauds their use of cartoons as “highly informed and intelligent” and raves that “it is difficult to imagine how any other form of journalism could make these events so interesting,” it must be acknowledged that a tipping point has been reached.

The second important fact about this review is the choice of the reviewer: Patrick Cockburn, a virulent critic of Israel who has used his post as Middle East correspondent of Britain’s the Independent (as well as occasional pieces at CounterPunch, a leftist rag edited by his equally anti-Israel brother Alexander) to skewer every effort of Israel to defend itself and to delegitimize its people. You have to wonder what was going through the mind of Sam Tanenhaus, the Book Review editor, when he made such a choice. If his goal was to publish a sympathetic review of this vile book, then certainly Cockburn could be counted on because his writings about current Israeli efforts to stop Gaza-based terrorism have been as biased as Sacco’s book. But one would think that if the credibility of his section were his priority, Tanenhaus would have chosen a less obviously prejudiced reviewer.

That he felt free to choose a creature such as Cockburn to give a rave to this disgusting tract rather than selecting someone not already identified with hatred of Israel speaks volumes about the atmosphere at the Times. Based on the excellent biography that he penned of Whittaker Chambers, Tanenhaus himself has a reputation as a fine historian, though his most recent effort predicting the end of American conservatism was, as criticism of the Obama administration has mounted, obviously premature. But his championing of Sacco’s picture propaganda and his decision to allow Cockburn, of all people, to proclaim it a praiseworthy work of history, ought to debunk Tanenhaus’s claim to any distinction in either history or fair-minded journalism.

The debate about the extent of the New York Times’ anti-Israel bias was revived this past weekend in the book-review treatment of Joe Sacco’s Footnotes From Gaza, a volume that purports to tell the story of massacres of innocent Palestinian Arabs in Gaza by evil Israelis in 1956 during the Sinai Campaign.

The review is notable for two reasons.

First is the fact that the review is a rave for what can only be described as a 418-page piece of anti-Israel propaganda. Masquerading as history, this graphic novel is a detailed compendium of slanders against Israeli forces engaged in a counteroffensive against Palestinian terrorists in Gaza, an area used as a base for murderous terror raids into Israel since the 1949 armistice. But that fact is ignored by the reviewer, who accepts the author’s single-minded obsession with placing all of the blame on the Jews for the fighting in Gaza at that time and for the entire duration of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The piece claims that it is a “bias against history” that has prevented the publication of more such accounts of Israeli brutality. Yet this book has nothing to do with a genuine search for historical truth and everything to do with anti-Israel bias. Indeed, the core accusation of Sacco’s book—that these incidents in 1956 “planted hatred” in Palestinian hearts against Israelis—is absurd.

The fighting in that year had been precipitated by Arab cross-border murder raids, whose brutality was rooted in anti-Jewish hatred and intolerance for the Jewish presence in the land, which long predated the events this cartoon purports to explain. The point of Sacco’s cartoons is not very different from more recent attempts to portray last year’s invasion of Gaza as aggression when, in fact, it was merely a response to missile attacks on Israel. But as with other such examples of “journalism” aimed at vilifying the Israelis, Sacco’s only goal is to paint Israeli self-defense as illegitimate and to portray the Palestinians as innocent victims whose agenda to destroy the Jewish state cannot be mentioned.

Sacco’s use of crude pictures to tell a one-sided story of Jewish evil will, no doubt, remind some readers of similarly crude anti-Semitic graphics employed by the Nazis. We need not linger on this obvious comparison to dismiss Footnotes from Gaza as the nastiest sort of polemic that sheds little light on either the origins of the current conflict or the nature of war. At a time when anti-Israel invective and Jew-hatred is on the rise around the world, the publication of works like this is far from unique. But when the Times’s prestigious Sunday Book Review not only treats books like Sacco’s as worthy of consideration but also lauds their use of cartoons as “highly informed and intelligent” and raves that “it is difficult to imagine how any other form of journalism could make these events so interesting,” it must be acknowledged that a tipping point has been reached.

The second important fact about this review is the choice of the reviewer: Patrick Cockburn, a virulent critic of Israel who has used his post as Middle East correspondent of Britain’s the Independent (as well as occasional pieces at CounterPunch, a leftist rag edited by his equally anti-Israel brother Alexander) to skewer every effort of Israel to defend itself and to delegitimize its people. You have to wonder what was going through the mind of Sam Tanenhaus, the Book Review editor, when he made such a choice. If his goal was to publish a sympathetic review of this vile book, then certainly Cockburn could be counted on because his writings about current Israeli efforts to stop Gaza-based terrorism have been as biased as Sacco’s book. But one would think that if the credibility of his section were his priority, Tanenhaus would have chosen a less obviously prejudiced reviewer.

That he felt free to choose a creature such as Cockburn to give a rave to this disgusting tract rather than selecting someone not already identified with hatred of Israel speaks volumes about the atmosphere at the Times. Based on the excellent biography that he penned of Whittaker Chambers, Tanenhaus himself has a reputation as a fine historian, though his most recent effort predicting the end of American conservatism was, as criticism of the Obama administration has mounted, obviously premature. But his championing of Sacco’s picture propaganda and his decision to allow Cockburn, of all people, to proclaim it a praiseworthy work of history, ought to debunk Tanenhaus’s claim to any distinction in either history or fair-minded journalism.

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Thoughts From a Fellow Yalie

For what it’s worth, here’s my brief remembrance.

I first met William F. Buckley, Jr., as a freshman at Yale University. It was at the 125th anniversary celebration of the Yale Daily News (which Buckley had edited, stirring all manner of controversy) and I was sitting in a large hall listening to a panel of former Newsies riff on their college days. Buckley and his son, Christopher, sat next to me by sheer chance.

After the panel, I introduced myself to Buckley and we chatted briefly on the state of politics on campus. He gave me his email address and requested that we stay in touch (we would keep up a very informal and infrequent correspondence). Later that evening, I bumped into Buckley at the News building, where he was inspecting old black-and-white photos of previous editorial boards, including his own. He mentioned that his wife was unable to attend the celebratory banquet that evening and that he had an extra ticket for a seat at his table. Would I care to join him? As Joseph Lieberman–a former editor of the News himself–said today in remarks on the Senate floor, Buckley took a “warm, brotherly interest” in those working for the paper, but I never expected this sort of gratifying and flattering attention. Sadly, I was in a theatrical performance, and there was no understudy. But, I assured myself, there would be other such occasions in the future.

Sadly, there weren’t.  But a different sort of opportunity to become acquainted with Buckley arrived my sophomore year, in the form of a position as a research assistant to Sam Tanenhaus, the New York Times editor who is working on what will be the definitive biography of the godfather of American conservatism. Buckley had deposited hundreds upon hundreds of boxes of personal correspondence, press clippings, and his own written work at the library of his alma mater, a collection that he updated on a continual basis. My job was to research his 1965 run for mayor of New York City, one of the most entertaining political bouts in recent American history and the subject of this 2005 Times Magazine essay by Tanenhaus.

Through that experience, it became clear that Buckley was what most of us writing for political magazines hope to be: a change agent. While it’s wrong to suggest that the conservative movement would not have existed without him, it surely, without his influence, would not have been the force–judged by both intellectual and political heft–it eventually became. It might seem paradoxical that the most influential conservative writer of the 20th century (standing athwart history yelling “Stop”) would be a “change agent.” But that’s what he was.

For what it’s worth, here’s my brief remembrance.

I first met William F. Buckley, Jr., as a freshman at Yale University. It was at the 125th anniversary celebration of the Yale Daily News (which Buckley had edited, stirring all manner of controversy) and I was sitting in a large hall listening to a panel of former Newsies riff on their college days. Buckley and his son, Christopher, sat next to me by sheer chance.

After the panel, I introduced myself to Buckley and we chatted briefly on the state of politics on campus. He gave me his email address and requested that we stay in touch (we would keep up a very informal and infrequent correspondence). Later that evening, I bumped into Buckley at the News building, where he was inspecting old black-and-white photos of previous editorial boards, including his own. He mentioned that his wife was unable to attend the celebratory banquet that evening and that he had an extra ticket for a seat at his table. Would I care to join him? As Joseph Lieberman–a former editor of the News himself–said today in remarks on the Senate floor, Buckley took a “warm, brotherly interest” in those working for the paper, but I never expected this sort of gratifying and flattering attention. Sadly, I was in a theatrical performance, and there was no understudy. But, I assured myself, there would be other such occasions in the future.

Sadly, there weren’t.  But a different sort of opportunity to become acquainted with Buckley arrived my sophomore year, in the form of a position as a research assistant to Sam Tanenhaus, the New York Times editor who is working on what will be the definitive biography of the godfather of American conservatism. Buckley had deposited hundreds upon hundreds of boxes of personal correspondence, press clippings, and his own written work at the library of his alma mater, a collection that he updated on a continual basis. My job was to research his 1965 run for mayor of New York City, one of the most entertaining political bouts in recent American history and the subject of this 2005 Times Magazine essay by Tanenhaus.

Through that experience, it became clear that Buckley was what most of us writing for political magazines hope to be: a change agent. While it’s wrong to suggest that the conservative movement would not have existed without him, it surely, without his influence, would not have been the force–judged by both intellectual and political heft–it eventually became. It might seem paradoxical that the most influential conservative writer of the 20th century (standing athwart history yelling “Stop”) would be a “change agent.” But that’s what he was.

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Torture at the New York Times

Working at the New York Times would seem to be one of the most glamorous jobs imaginable, what with consorting with legendary editors, rendezvousing with anonymous sources, occasionally making headlines and history, and bathing 24/7 in a jacuzzi of prestige.

But that is only the appearance. The reality is something else. Because what the public does not know, but Timesmen know all too well, is that if one works at the Times, one has to contend with what are known to all, and dreaded by all, as the Internal Consultants.

The Internal Consultants are the brainchild of Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the newspaper’s publisher. Their exact number and composition are closely guarded secrets, but they enforce certain organizational norms, especially regarding the all-important indicator of diversity.

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Working at the New York Times would seem to be one of the most glamorous jobs imaginable, what with consorting with legendary editors, rendezvousing with anonymous sources, occasionally making headlines and history, and bathing 24/7 in a jacuzzi of prestige.

But that is only the appearance. The reality is something else. Because what the public does not know, but Timesmen know all too well, is that if one works at the Times, one has to contend with what are known to all, and dreaded by all, as the Internal Consultants.

The Internal Consultants are the brainchild of Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the newspaper’s publisher. Their exact number and composition are closely guarded secrets, but they enforce certain organizational norms, especially regarding the all-important indicator of diversity.

The latest step in their program came yesterday in the form of a memo to the staff. A Times booster—and no, it is not my good friend Sam Tanenhaus; I would not want undue suspicion to fall on him—provided it to contentions in the name of the public good.

It seems that Timesmen both in New York and elsewhere have been “invited” by the Internal Consultants to attend a Diversity Awareness Series. As its name suggests,

the Diversity Awareness Series was developed to provide a forum for our employees and leaders to learn about the many facets of diversity.

One particular session will feature Christine Quinn, speaker of the New York City Council, “the first woman and openly lesbian individual to hold this important post.”

Managers must also attend Diversity Study Groups, “co-facilitated” by the Internal Consultants, and which include a “Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes: Diversity & Empathy Development” and a “Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes: Diversity & Power” session. This particular series is said by the memo to be very “popular”—which is unsurprising because “attendance is required.” More details are available “by clicking on the Diversity button on the Intranet homepage.”

For anyone attempting to understand the coverage of issues of sex and race by our country’s newspaper of record, it is not enough—as in the old days when studying the Soviet newspapers Pravda and Izvestia—to be skilled at reading between the lines; one also has to understand the humiliations, indeed, the torture, to which its reporters and editors are subjected by the Internal Consultants in the name of political correctness.

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Sam Tanenhaus: Arsonist

The current issue of the New Republic contains a caustic exchange between me and Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the Sunday New York Times book review.

Tanenhaus had written an article in TNR about William F. Buckley, Jr., the broader conservative movement, and today’s war on terror. In an aside, he said that COMMENTARY had called for the prosecution of the editors of the New York Times for “treason.” He also characterized the NSA terrorist surveillance program—the highly classified counterterrorism program disclosed by his newspaper in December 2005—as a “domestic surveillance program.”

I wrote a letter pointing out that in my March 2006 COMMENTARY article about the affair, I never accused the editors of the Times of treason. I did not use the T-word at all—precisely because, whatever else they did, the Times’s editors had not committed that particular crime. Nor did I say they had committed espionage. What I argued was that they had violated a U.S. statute proscribing the publication of classified information pertaining to communications intelligence.

In my letter to TNR, I further pointed out that it was inexact to call the NSA program “domestic.” In fact it was international, tapping only those conversations or intercepting those emails that had crossed borders, and in which one party was a suspected al-Qaeda operative either in the United States or abroad.

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The current issue of the New Republic contains a caustic exchange between me and Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the Sunday New York Times book review.

Tanenhaus had written an article in TNR about William F. Buckley, Jr., the broader conservative movement, and today’s war on terror. In an aside, he said that COMMENTARY had called for the prosecution of the editors of the New York Times for “treason.” He also characterized the NSA terrorist surveillance program—the highly classified counterterrorism program disclosed by his newspaper in December 2005—as a “domestic surveillance program.”

I wrote a letter pointing out that in my March 2006 COMMENTARY article about the affair, I never accused the editors of the Times of treason. I did not use the T-word at all—precisely because, whatever else they did, the Times’s editors had not committed that particular crime. Nor did I say they had committed espionage. What I argued was that they had violated a U.S. statute proscribing the publication of classified information pertaining to communications intelligence.

In my letter to TNR, I further pointed out that it was inexact to call the NSA program “domestic.” In fact it was international, tapping only those conversations or intercepting those emails that had crossed borders, and in which one party was a suspected al-Qaeda operative either in the United States or abroad.

Summing up both of my objections to Tanenhaus’s article, I wrote: “To confuse an international surveillance program with a domestic one is to be as imprecise and inflammatory as to use the word ‘treason’ in describing a much less serious violation of the law.”

“Inflammatory” was the right word. For if in his initial article Tanenhaus was tending toward the incendiary, his response to my letter, now published in TNR, is a Molotov cocktail.

First he accuses me of propagating “nonsense.” Then he pours a bit of gasoline into the bottle, saying that the “charge of espionage implies a corollary charge of treason,” and that in distinguishing between the two I was employing a “mode of clarification” that is precisely like “one used a half-century ago by Joseph McCarthy.”

But I never said, to repeat, that editors at the Times committed either treason or espionage. Section 798 of Title 18, the provision at issue, is entitled “Disclosure of classified information” and it is very easy to understand. Even analysts who disagree with me about the desirability of prosecuting the Times—Morton Halperin, for example, of George Soros’s Open Society Institute—concur that the Times did indeed break this law.

As for his calling the NSA surveillance program “domestic,” Tanenhaus justifies this with a single citation from the December 16, 2005 Washington Post in which it was called “domestic spying”—as if that settled the matter. It doesn’t. And it doesn’t add a single fact to the discussion, except that someone at the Washington Post is also confused.

I have read a lot of Tanenhaus’s writings over the years in the Times, in Vanity Fair, in Slate, and even in COMMENTARY. I have never known him to break into a sweat or even get hot under the collar. For that matter, though he writes at great length about current events, I have never seen him stake out a genuinely controversial position on anything—attacks on safe targets like Pat Buchanan or Ann Coulter clearly do not count. His past reticence on matters of importance was always something of a mystery to me, although I have had my theories. Whatever explains that past reticence, his present act of minor intellectual arson in defense of his employer, in which he does not hesitate to toss in the name of Joseph McCarthy as tinder, offers an additional clue to the puzzle—about which, once again, I have my theories.

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Weekend Reading

Yesterday, NYU’s Center for the United States and the Cold War hosted a day-long conference on a subject long since thought closed: the historical significance of Alger Hiss (1904-1996). An architect of the Yalta Conference, leading figure in the founding of the United Nations, paragon of Rooseveltian liberalism, Hiss—as was charged by Whittaker Chambers in 1948 and as archival evidence released from the ex-Soviet Union in the late 1990’s would confirm—was also a dedicated spy for the Communists.

“Alger Hiss and History”—for such was the conference’s title—included a number of luminaries among its panelists. Victor Navasky, publisher emeritus of The Nation, was there, along with Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, and Hiss’s son Tony, who has made a career out of his attempts to rehabilitate his father, as well as scholars in related fields.

The one quality these varied figures have in common is an apparently ineradicable attachment to the idea that Hiss’s 1950 conviction for perjury and his identification as a Communist spy are not the truly important facts in the case. Rather, what matters are the origins and consequences of the Hiss trial. That trial, the argument runs, was the fruit of a sinister conspiracy to discredit New Deal liberalism at home and liberal multilateralism abroad, and its aftermath ushered in an age of rampant paranoia and government repression that, in the form of the Bush administration, continue to this day.

It’s hard to imagine how seriously even the most committed advocate of Hiss can pursue his cause now, in the face of the overwhelming evidence about who he was and what he did. Over the decades, COMMENTARY has published much material on the Hiss case and its implications; this weekend we offer a selection.

Hiss, Chambers, and the Age of Innocence
Leslie Fiedler

Was Alger Hiss Guilty?
Irving Younger

Hiss, Oswald, the KGB, and Us
Michael Ledeen

Alger Hiss: A Glimpse Behind the Mask
Eric Breindel

Hiss: Guilty as Charged
Sam Tanenhaus

Yesterday, NYU’s Center for the United States and the Cold War hosted a day-long conference on a subject long since thought closed: the historical significance of Alger Hiss (1904-1996). An architect of the Yalta Conference, leading figure in the founding of the United Nations, paragon of Rooseveltian liberalism, Hiss—as was charged by Whittaker Chambers in 1948 and as archival evidence released from the ex-Soviet Union in the late 1990’s would confirm—was also a dedicated spy for the Communists.

“Alger Hiss and History”—for such was the conference’s title—included a number of luminaries among its panelists. Victor Navasky, publisher emeritus of The Nation, was there, along with Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, and Hiss’s son Tony, who has made a career out of his attempts to rehabilitate his father, as well as scholars in related fields.

The one quality these varied figures have in common is an apparently ineradicable attachment to the idea that Hiss’s 1950 conviction for perjury and his identification as a Communist spy are not the truly important facts in the case. Rather, what matters are the origins and consequences of the Hiss trial. That trial, the argument runs, was the fruit of a sinister conspiracy to discredit New Deal liberalism at home and liberal multilateralism abroad, and its aftermath ushered in an age of rampant paranoia and government repression that, in the form of the Bush administration, continue to this day.

It’s hard to imagine how seriously even the most committed advocate of Hiss can pursue his cause now, in the face of the overwhelming evidence about who he was and what he did. Over the decades, COMMENTARY has published much material on the Hiss case and its implications; this weekend we offer a selection.

Hiss, Chambers, and the Age of Innocence
Leslie Fiedler

Was Alger Hiss Guilty?
Irving Younger

Hiss, Oswald, the KGB, and Us
Michael Ledeen

Alger Hiss: A Glimpse Behind the Mask
Eric Breindel

Hiss: Guilty as Charged
Sam Tanenhaus

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“Saul Bellow and the Bad Fish”

Ron Rosenbaum has a fascinating essay up at Slate on Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein—his last novel, a roman à clef centering on Bellow’s friendship with Allan Bloom at the University of Chicago, where they taught together. Rosenbaum admits to being a Bellow skeptic (something Sam Tanenhaus decidedly is not) but a lover of this particular novel, and speculates about the source of Ravelstein‘s great power. He suggests that it resides in an episode of food poisoning that nearly took Bellow’s life (and which appears in the novel). “The cigua toxin didn’t kill [Bellow],” Rosenbaum writes, “it made him, or made his work stronger, more vibrant and luminous, shimmering like Ravelstein’s golden sport coat or like the Caribbean waters that harbored the toxic seafood.”

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Ron Rosenbaum has a fascinating essay up at Slate on Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein—his last novel, a roman à clef centering on Bellow’s friendship with Allan Bloom at the University of Chicago, where they taught together. Rosenbaum admits to being a Bellow skeptic (something Sam Tanenhaus decidedly is not) but a lover of this particular novel, and speculates about the source of Ravelstein‘s great power. He suggests that it resides in an episode of food poisoning that nearly took Bellow’s life (and which appears in the novel). “The cigua toxin didn’t kill [Bellow],” Rosenbaum writes, “it made him, or made his work stronger, more vibrant and luminous, shimmering like Ravelstein’s golden sport coat or like the Caribbean waters that harbored the toxic seafood.”

It’s hard to imagine Bellow failing to find this implicit comparison to Adrian Leverkühn—the subject of Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus, a brilliant and radical composer spurred to incalculable heights of genius by syphilis—absolutely delightful. Rosenbaum continues in this Mannean vein:

It certainly seems to me that a number of American novelists could benefit from a cruise to the Western Caribbean of the sort Bellow took, and as many sumptuous seafood meals (red snapper and barracuda especially recommended) as necessary to raise the level of their art through a slightly less-than-lethal dose of cigua.

The whole essay is worth reading.

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