Commentary Magazine


Topic: the New York Observer

Thanks, but I’d Rather Not

Not surprisingly, they aren’t lining up around the block to take the job — as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, that is:

There don’t appear to be any real good options to replace Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. In fact, a whole slate of potential chairmen have already said no, while not one senator has publicly expressed interest.

Joining the list of senators saying no this weekend was Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the former two-term chairman of the DSCC who guided his party to a 13-seat gain and a (temporarily) filibuster-proof majority in 2009. Schumer’s name had been floated in the week since the 2010 election, but he told the New York Observer on Sunday that he’s not doing it.

“I have been asked by Leader Reid and many of my colleagues, and I’ve said I think I can better serve our country, our state, and our party by focusing on issues and getting us to refocus on the middle class,” Schumer said.

Schumer, of course, might still benefit personally from some more Democratic losses in 2012, which could push the Democrats into the minority and finally dislodge Harry Reid. There certainly will be opportunities, with Senate seats in West Virginia, Virginia, Florida, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and even Wisconsin up for grabs.

That leaves such luminaries as “Sens. Patty Murray (Wash.), Michael Bennet (Colo.), Barbara Mikulski (Md.), Ron Wyden (Ore.), Kay Hagan (N.C.), Frank Lautenberg (N.J.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Jack Reed (R.I.) and freshman Chris Coons (Del.)” available for the job. Do any of these seem formidable? Some are barely presentable as the face of the Democratic Party.

But we shouldn’t get too hung up on who gets the white elephant on this one. It wasn’t Bob Menendez who lost the Democrats six seats. It was Obama and Harry Reid — plus an unemployment rate of over 9 percent. The GOP shouldn’t be faulted for calculating that those same factors — and the luck of the draw (only 10 GOP seats are up in 2012) — give them a very good shot at winning the Senate in a couple of years. So who can blame Democratic senators for ducking the call of duty on this one?

Not surprisingly, they aren’t lining up around the block to take the job — as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, that is:

There don’t appear to be any real good options to replace Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. In fact, a whole slate of potential chairmen have already said no, while not one senator has publicly expressed interest.

Joining the list of senators saying no this weekend was Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the former two-term chairman of the DSCC who guided his party to a 13-seat gain and a (temporarily) filibuster-proof majority in 2009. Schumer’s name had been floated in the week since the 2010 election, but he told the New York Observer on Sunday that he’s not doing it.

“I have been asked by Leader Reid and many of my colleagues, and I’ve said I think I can better serve our country, our state, and our party by focusing on issues and getting us to refocus on the middle class,” Schumer said.

Schumer, of course, might still benefit personally from some more Democratic losses in 2012, which could push the Democrats into the minority and finally dislodge Harry Reid. There certainly will be opportunities, with Senate seats in West Virginia, Virginia, Florida, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and even Wisconsin up for grabs.

That leaves such luminaries as “Sens. Patty Murray (Wash.), Michael Bennet (Colo.), Barbara Mikulski (Md.), Ron Wyden (Ore.), Kay Hagan (N.C.), Frank Lautenberg (N.J.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Jack Reed (R.I.) and freshman Chris Coons (Del.)” available for the job. Do any of these seem formidable? Some are barely presentable as the face of the Democratic Party.

But we shouldn’t get too hung up on who gets the white elephant on this one. It wasn’t Bob Menendez who lost the Democrats six seats. It was Obama and Harry Reid — plus an unemployment rate of over 9 percent. The GOP shouldn’t be faulted for calculating that those same factors — and the luck of the draw (only 10 GOP seats are up in 2012) — give them a very good shot at winning the Senate in a couple of years. So who can blame Democratic senators for ducking the call of duty on this one?

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New York’s Silk-Stocking District

Carolyn Maloney has been the congresswoman from New York’s Upper East Side since 1993. (The district now includes a chunk of Queens, as well.) Known as the silk-stocking district, it was once as safely Republican as could be found in New York, and it still has more Republicans than anywhere else in solid-blue Manhattan. But it has been safely Democratic now for quite a while. It still is, but Maloney has had to spend more money this year than in her last three elections combined — a good example of how the Democrats have been forced to use resources just to hold their own.

Last night, she had the last of three debates with her Republican opponent, Ryan Brumberg. The fact that an incumbent facing a relatively unknown opponent felt that she had to agree to three debates is itself a sign of perceived weakness. And as the New York Observer reports, Brumberg held his own and even got off a nice piece of political theater:

Perhaps the most memorable moment of the debate occurred during the Q&A portion, when an audience member asked Maloney how she could justify supporting the health care reform bill, which the audience member called “an abomination.”

“I am proud to have been a part of that,” Maloney responded.

“Every single President has tried to get health coverage for the 33 million Americans who are uninsured.”

About half the audience applauded loudly, with a few shouts of “Yeah!” peppered in.

Then a member of audience shouted, “Nobody read it!”

“I read it,” Maloney quickly shot back. “It was read and discussed for at least three to six days before the caucus.”

For his rebuttal, Brumberg dragged a large white cardboard box from beneath the debate table. He pulled stacks and stacks of paper out of the box and placed them onto the table. The stack stood two to three feet tall. It was the health-care reform bill.

“I tried to read it,” he said. “It’s not a quick read — I’ll let that stand for itself.”

From the same box, he picked up two packets of paper, each about the thickness of a college essay. They were the Social Security bill and the Civil Rights Act, he said. Then he pulled a small booklet from his breast pocket.

“The Constitution,” he said.

Real Clear Politics regards the seat as safe. But while a recent poll had Maloney ahead by 20 points, she was below 50 percent, usually a sign of trouble for an incumbent, especially one who has been in for almost two decades.

So if Brumberg wins or even comes close in NY 14, it would be as clear a sign in the political world as the precipitate withdrawal of the sea from the shore is in the physical world: a tsunami is coming.

Carolyn Maloney has been the congresswoman from New York’s Upper East Side since 1993. (The district now includes a chunk of Queens, as well.) Known as the silk-stocking district, it was once as safely Republican as could be found in New York, and it still has more Republicans than anywhere else in solid-blue Manhattan. But it has been safely Democratic now for quite a while. It still is, but Maloney has had to spend more money this year than in her last three elections combined — a good example of how the Democrats have been forced to use resources just to hold their own.

Last night, she had the last of three debates with her Republican opponent, Ryan Brumberg. The fact that an incumbent facing a relatively unknown opponent felt that she had to agree to three debates is itself a sign of perceived weakness. And as the New York Observer reports, Brumberg held his own and even got off a nice piece of political theater:

Perhaps the most memorable moment of the debate occurred during the Q&A portion, when an audience member asked Maloney how she could justify supporting the health care reform bill, which the audience member called “an abomination.”

“I am proud to have been a part of that,” Maloney responded.

“Every single President has tried to get health coverage for the 33 million Americans who are uninsured.”

About half the audience applauded loudly, with a few shouts of “Yeah!” peppered in.

Then a member of audience shouted, “Nobody read it!”

“I read it,” Maloney quickly shot back. “It was read and discussed for at least three to six days before the caucus.”

For his rebuttal, Brumberg dragged a large white cardboard box from beneath the debate table. He pulled stacks and stacks of paper out of the box and placed them onto the table. The stack stood two to three feet tall. It was the health-care reform bill.

“I tried to read it,” he said. “It’s not a quick read — I’ll let that stand for itself.”

From the same box, he picked up two packets of paper, each about the thickness of a college essay. They were the Social Security bill and the Civil Rights Act, he said. Then he pulled a small booklet from his breast pocket.

“The Constitution,” he said.

Real Clear Politics regards the seat as safe. But while a recent poll had Maloney ahead by 20 points, she was below 50 percent, usually a sign of trouble for an incumbent, especially one who has been in for almost two decades.

So if Brumberg wins or even comes close in NY 14, it would be as clear a sign in the political world as the precipitate withdrawal of the sea from the shore is in the physical world: a tsunami is coming.

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Hillary’s Wright Moment

Given the mostly positive response that Barack Obama’s speech on race in America has received in the media, it looks as though Obama will be able to put the anti-American and racist comments of his preacher, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, behind him. While Obama’s handling of this controversy provides yet another example of his impressive political skills, the very fact that he had to address Wright’s comments at all always seemed rather unfair. After all, of the two Democrats still contending for the presidency, Obama is the only candidate not to make incendiary comments in a black church.

Indeed, recall Hillary’s speech during a Martin Luther King Day ceremony at a Harlem church in 2006: Hillary declared, “When you look at the way the House of Representatives has been run, it has been run like a plantation. And you know what I’m talking about!” At the moment this statement was made, the audience fell virtually silent, while public outrage ensued. Yet in contrast to Obama’s apology for comments he didn’t make, Hillary refused to apologize for her actual race-baiting, saying, “I’ve said that before, and I believe it is an accurate description of the kind of top-down way that the House of Representatives is run that denies meaningful debate.”

Of course, the media’s failure to mention Hillary’s own abuse of the pulpit isn’t the first time that she has been given a pass for blatant race-baiting as a strategy for courting the African-American vote. At a debate hosted by Howard University in June 2007, Hillary said, “If HIV-AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country.” Despite the disturbingly conspiratorial nature of this statement, The New York Times’ Bob Herbert applauded it; the New York Observer cast it as a debate highlight; National Journal called it “inspired”; and it otherwise received minimal coverage.

In short, when will Hillary Clinton’s racially infused rhetoric receive the same scrutiny to which Obama’s associates have been subjected?

Given the mostly positive response that Barack Obama’s speech on race in America has received in the media, it looks as though Obama will be able to put the anti-American and racist comments of his preacher, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, behind him. While Obama’s handling of this controversy provides yet another example of his impressive political skills, the very fact that he had to address Wright’s comments at all always seemed rather unfair. After all, of the two Democrats still contending for the presidency, Obama is the only candidate not to make incendiary comments in a black church.

Indeed, recall Hillary’s speech during a Martin Luther King Day ceremony at a Harlem church in 2006: Hillary declared, “When you look at the way the House of Representatives has been run, it has been run like a plantation. And you know what I’m talking about!” At the moment this statement was made, the audience fell virtually silent, while public outrage ensued. Yet in contrast to Obama’s apology for comments he didn’t make, Hillary refused to apologize for her actual race-baiting, saying, “I’ve said that before, and I believe it is an accurate description of the kind of top-down way that the House of Representatives is run that denies meaningful debate.”

Of course, the media’s failure to mention Hillary’s own abuse of the pulpit isn’t the first time that she has been given a pass for blatant race-baiting as a strategy for courting the African-American vote. At a debate hosted by Howard University in June 2007, Hillary said, “If HIV-AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country.” Despite the disturbingly conspiratorial nature of this statement, The New York Times’ Bob Herbert applauded it; the New York Observer cast it as a debate highlight; National Journal called it “inspired”; and it otherwise received minimal coverage.

In short, when will Hillary Clinton’s racially infused rhetoric receive the same scrutiny to which Obama’s associates have been subjected?

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Oprah Winfrey Endorses…

Does anybody read the New York Observer anymore? I actually didn’t know it was still published, having tuned out when Hilton Kramer retired his front page art column a few years back. But the salmon-colored sheet drew my attention this week with a candidate for the most inane cover story ever: underwear.

Spanx is a girdle-like undergarment that makes the woman who pulls it on appear five to ten pounds slimmer. Even youthful, svelte ladies are addicted to the “power panty,” as the Observer alerts us. I knew the paper’s mission was to cover every nuance of what people are wearing in Manhattan, but this week’s article hits a new low. A wad of filler, its sole objective seems to be displaying a cutesy cartoon of Spanx-sporters Oprah Winfrey and Gwyneth Paltrow in their skivvies.

This drivel proves the obsolescence of a society rag like the NYO in the age of Gawker and other online social diaries.

Does anybody read the New York Observer anymore? I actually didn’t know it was still published, having tuned out when Hilton Kramer retired his front page art column a few years back. But the salmon-colored sheet drew my attention this week with a candidate for the most inane cover story ever: underwear.

Spanx is a girdle-like undergarment that makes the woman who pulls it on appear five to ten pounds slimmer. Even youthful, svelte ladies are addicted to the “power panty,” as the Observer alerts us. I knew the paper’s mission was to cover every nuance of what people are wearing in Manhattan, but this week’s article hits a new low. A wad of filler, its sole objective seems to be displaying a cutesy cartoon of Spanx-sporters Oprah Winfrey and Gwyneth Paltrow in their skivvies.

This drivel proves the obsolescence of a society rag like the NYO in the age of Gawker and other online social diaries.

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Muschamp the Maverick

It was only appropriate that the recent obituary for Herbert Muschamp, architecture critic of the New York Times from 1992 to 2004, was written by his successor, Nicolai Ouroussoff. This is one case, however, where the deceased ought to have written his own obituary—for Ouroussoff’s sober and respectful notice manages to present all the facts of Muschamp’s career but none of the truth. Missing is the sense of the outrageous, at times bordering on hysteria, which characterized Muschamp’s style, both literary and personal, and which ultimately cost him his perch at the Times.

Muschamp’s downfall goes unmentioned in Ouroussoff’s article, which only hints genteelly about his “quirky and, some argued, self-indulgent voice.” It has nothing to say about his disastrous attempt to insert himself into the rebuilding of New York’s Ground Zero as a kind of architectural impresario, as was shown in a 2004 essay in the New York Observer by Clay Risen. As long as Muschamp merely hobnobbed at night with the architects he praised by day, bemused readers could forgive his naughtiness. But once he started playing the roles of both critic and player, he committed the journalistic equivalent of a war crime: to act as a combatant while claiming the privileges of a neutral observer. In the end, as the Washington Post obituary recognized, he “had been corrupted by the power he wielded.”

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It was only appropriate that the recent obituary for Herbert Muschamp, architecture critic of the New York Times from 1992 to 2004, was written by his successor, Nicolai Ouroussoff. This is one case, however, where the deceased ought to have written his own obituary—for Ouroussoff’s sober and respectful notice manages to present all the facts of Muschamp’s career but none of the truth. Missing is the sense of the outrageous, at times bordering on hysteria, which characterized Muschamp’s style, both literary and personal, and which ultimately cost him his perch at the Times.

Muschamp’s downfall goes unmentioned in Ouroussoff’s article, which only hints genteelly about his “quirky and, some argued, self-indulgent voice.” It has nothing to say about his disastrous attempt to insert himself into the rebuilding of New York’s Ground Zero as a kind of architectural impresario, as was shown in a 2004 essay in the New York Observer by Clay Risen. As long as Muschamp merely hobnobbed at night with the architects he praised by day, bemused readers could forgive his naughtiness. But once he started playing the roles of both critic and player, he committed the journalistic equivalent of a war crime: to act as a combatant while claiming the privileges of a neutral observer. In the end, as the Washington Post obituary recognized, he “had been corrupted by the power he wielded.”

Writing in Commentary several years ago, I pondered what it was that distinguished Muschamp’s criticism from that of his peers. Unlike them, he had little patience for the technical or programmatic features of building, such as its

paths of circulation, nuances of siting, or the countless small details of profiles, joints, moldings, reveals, revetments, corners, and all the other members that form the living face of a building. Most of his reviews were devoted instead to putting into words how a building made him feel. And to this task he brought his own signature style, bombarding the reader with allusions to pop culture, especially movies. What Muschamp seems to have discovered was that, by drenching his reviews in pop references, he could attract the sort of audience that did not normally attend to architecture.

In retrospect, one can see that Muschamp’s fall has impoverished the state of architecture criticism. Most architecture critics are the voice of respectable establishment opinion: one thinks of Benjamin Forgey at the Washington Post, Paul Goldberger at the New Yorker, and Robert Campbell at the Boston Globe. Ouroussoff, it is now clear, falls into the same camp. It is not likely that their circle of readers is terribly large, outside of design professionals or those with civic curiosity. It is a pity that there seems to be no room for such an immensely entertaining, if sadly self-destructive, maverick like Muschamp.

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Lugar on the Surge

Senator Richard Lugar is winning encomia from all the predictable quarters—e.g., Joe Conason in the New York Observer—for his supposed wisdom and independence in declaring the surge a failure before it has barely begun.

Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declared in a widely covered speech that he doesn’t think “that the current ‘surge’ strategy will succeed in the way originally envisioned by the President” and that we should therefore “downsize the U.S. military’s role in Iraq.” Interestingly, Lugar does “not doubt the assessments of military commanders that there has been some progress in security” as a result of the surge. He just doesn’t think that the surge will succeed in the long run because “three factors—the political fragmentation in Iraq, the growing stress on our military, and the constraints of our own domestic political process—are converging to make it almost impossible for the United States to engineer a stable, multi-sectarian government in Iraq in a reasonable time frame.”

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Senator Richard Lugar is winning encomia from all the predictable quarters—e.g., Joe Conason in the New York Observer—for his supposed wisdom and independence in declaring the surge a failure before it has barely begun.

Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declared in a widely covered speech that he doesn’t think “that the current ‘surge’ strategy will succeed in the way originally envisioned by the President” and that we should therefore “downsize the U.S. military’s role in Iraq.” Interestingly, Lugar does “not doubt the assessments of military commanders that there has been some progress in security” as a result of the surge. He just doesn’t think that the surge will succeed in the long run because “three factors—the political fragmentation in Iraq, the growing stress on our military, and the constraints of our own domestic political process—are converging to make it almost impossible for the United States to engineer a stable, multi-sectarian government in Iraq in a reasonable time frame.”

But of those three factors it is the last that is clearly the biggest impediment to success. Yes, Iraqi politicians are at loggerheads over difficult issues; so are Senator Lugar and his colleagues. The whole surge strategy rests on the notion that improving the security climate will improve the political climate in Iraq. Since the attempts to improve the security situation have only just started—the final surge forces only recently arrived in Iraq—it is too soon to write off the chances of political progress. And, yes, there is “growing stress on our military,” but reenlistment rates remain strong, and, based on current projections, the army and Marine Corps can continue the surge until at least next April. (Longer if more National Guard and Reserve forces are mobilized.) Lugar seems to be asking for the surge to be called off not for these reasons, but because he doubts that any progress on the ground can be made fast enough to keep up with “the timetable imposed by our own domestic political process.”

Fair point, but that’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Democrats are certainly eager to cut off funding for the war effort. But they are unlikely to succeed in the face of united GOP opposition, given that Republicans not only control the White House, but also maintain substantial minorities in both houses of Congress. If Republicans keep their nerve, there is a good chance that, as happened recently, they can win a showdown with Democrats over war-funding.

But if leading Republicans like Richard Lugar write off the surge prematurely, they are likely to set off a bidding war over troop withdrawals—a bidding war that Republicans cannot win and one for which they are likely to get scant credit from the electorate, given that troop withdrawals will almost certainly make the situation in Iraq even worse than it is today. The few undeniable signs of progress—e.g., the great improvements made recently in Anbar province—are likely to disappear if American forces start heading for the exits. That, in turn, will make it harder politically to keep even a minimal force in Iraq to continue missions—such as chasing al Qaeda and training the Iraqi Security Forces—which most Republican and Democratic leaders agree are still necessary.

It may well be that the surge won’t, in fact, work. But General David Petraeus and the 160,000 troops who are putting their lives on the line under his command deserve at least a decent chance to succeed without having the carpet pulled out from under them on Capitol Hill. Especially by Republicans.

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Talk of the Town

Is Seymour Hersh credible? Is the New Yorker?

Haaretz has a story by Emmanuel Sivan today taking apart an article Hersh wrote for the New Yorker some months ago with a fantastical—and false—claim that the U.S. was funneling money to the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, even though we allegedly knew some of it was going to the al-Qaeda affiliated Palestinian group Fatah al-Islam. The New Yorker article in question, Sivan notes, appeared two months before fighting erupted between Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese army.

Lebanese reporters, tracking down Hersh’s source for this sensational finding, found it to be Robert Fisk, another journalist with a less than impeccable record, who in turn had heard it from yet another questionable source. “Thus are reports about the Middle East generated,” sardonically writes Sivan.

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Is Seymour Hersh credible? Is the New Yorker?

Haaretz has a story by Emmanuel Sivan today taking apart an article Hersh wrote for the New Yorker some months ago with a fantastical—and false—claim that the U.S. was funneling money to the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, even though we allegedly knew some of it was going to the al-Qaeda affiliated Palestinian group Fatah al-Islam. The New Yorker article in question, Sivan notes, appeared two months before fighting erupted between Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese army.

Lebanese reporters, tracking down Hersh’s source for this sensational finding, found it to be Robert Fisk, another journalist with a less than impeccable record, who in turn had heard it from yet another questionable source. “Thus are reports about the Middle East generated,” sardonically writes Sivan.

This episode brings to mind the New Yorker piece that Nicholas Lemann, Dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, wrote back in January in which he brazenly pawned off the falsehood that it was the White House that sent Ambassador Joseph Wilson to Niger in February of 2002 to investigate claims that the country had shipped yellowcake uranium to Iraq. Of course, it was not the White House, but Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, a CIA officer in the agency’s counter-proliferation division, who suggested that her husband undertake the mission. The White House did not learn about Wilson’s mission to Niger until after his return.

Did the New Yorker publish a correction? Not yet. And I am not holding my breath.

Then, of course, there are other allegations leveled by the New Yorker’s national-security correspondent that have not checked out. As was first reported by the New York Observer, and as I noted in the December 2004 issue of COMMENTARY, Seymour Hersh, on the lecture circuit, has offered up gory details of U.S. atrocities in Iraq. Quoting one of his anonymous “sources,” a soldier in the field, Hersh informed one audience that

orders came down from the generals in Baghdad: we want to clear the village, like in Samarra. And, as [the soldier] told the story, another platoon from his company came and executed all the guards, as his people were screaming, “Stop!” And he said they just shot them one by one. He went nuts, and his soldiers went nuts. . . . And the company captain said, “No, you don’t understand. That’s a kill. We got 36 insurgents.”

Without a doubt, a massacre so reminiscent of My Lai was a sensational allegation. Without a doubt, it was almost certainly false, a fabrication cavalierly pawned off by Hersh as fact. An army of foreign journalists in Iraq, not exactly diffident when it comes to exposing American abuses, has thus far failed to unearth a single corroborating bit of evidence for this “atrocity,” and the U.S. military has no reports from the field attesting to an incident even faintly resembling it. Is this a journalist whose views, let alone whose facts, are to be trusted on anything?

The New Yorker’s fact-checking department is world renowned. The New Yorker’s fiction department is also world renowned. But one wonders, when it comes to stories bashing the Bush administration and/or the United States: have the two departments merged?

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Lieberman’s Vision

It seems to be about 40 years too late for Joseph Lieberman to run for President as a Democrat, the 1960′s being the last time that hawks were dominant within the party’s ranks. But there is time yet for him to become Vice President or Secretary of State under a Republican President. (One or the other would seem a sure thing if his good friend John McCain wins the White House.) He certainly deserves nothing less for his consistent willingness to say and do the right thing on national security matters, regardless of which way the political winds are blowing.

He has, most notably, remained a stalwart supporter of the war effort in Iraq in the face of its increasing unpopularity among the public at large and among almost all of his Democratic colleagues on Capitol Hill. (Joshua Muravchik has already reported on the great speech Lieberman gave in Prague laying out the stakes in Iraq and the broader Middle East.) Not only does Lieberman want to take the war to the jihadists in Iraq, but he is also breaking the great taboo in Washington by proposing to take the war to their sponsors in Iran.

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It seems to be about 40 years too late for Joseph Lieberman to run for President as a Democrat, the 1960′s being the last time that hawks were dominant within the party’s ranks. But there is time yet for him to become Vice President or Secretary of State under a Republican President. (One or the other would seem a sure thing if his good friend John McCain wins the White House.) He certainly deserves nothing less for his consistent willingness to say and do the right thing on national security matters, regardless of which way the political winds are blowing.

He has, most notably, remained a stalwart supporter of the war effort in Iraq in the face of its increasing unpopularity among the public at large and among almost all of his Democratic colleagues on Capitol Hill. (Joshua Muravchik has already reported on the great speech Lieberman gave in Prague laying out the stakes in Iraq and the broader Middle East.) Not only does Lieberman want to take the war to the jihadists in Iraq, but he is also breaking the great taboo in Washington by proposing to take the war to their sponsors in Iran.

The consensus view in the capital seems to be that while Iran makes war by proxy on the U.S., we are supposed to make nice with Iran. That was the recommendation of the Iraq Study Group. But Iran continues to flaunt the can’t-we-all-get-along approach through shipping potent mines and rockets to anti-American fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan, refusing to end its nuclear-weapons program, and its recent seizure of innocent Iranian-Americans as purported spies, among other offenses. The Bush administration reacts largely with rhetorical bluster, backed up by some sanctions and the movement of aircraft carriers into the Persian Gulf.

Lieberman quite rightly points out that our pressure has been insufficient to make Iran change its behavior and that stronger medicine may be in order. On CBS’s Face the Nation this past Sunday, he declared:

I think we’ve got to be prepared to take aggressive military action against the Iranians to stop them from killing Americans in Iraq. And to me that would include a strike into—over the border into Iran where I—we have good evidence that they have a base at which they are training these people coming back into Iraq to kill our soldiers. . . . They can’t believe that they have immunity for training and equipping people to come in and kill Americans. It’s just—we cannot let them get away with it. If we do, they’ll take that as a sign of weakness on our part, and we will pay for it in Iraq and throughout the region, and ultimately right here at home.

This has earned Lieberman yet more rebukes, such as this bombastic article in the New York Observer, entitled “Lieberman’s Iranian War Fantasy.” In prose that almost parodies State Department thinking, the author, Niall Stanage, concludes: “Dialogue and diplomacy do not make for especially magnetic rallying calls. But they are a much more sensible idea than the dangerous chimera of a short sharp shock to Iran proposed by Mr. Lieberman.”

Stanage is right that the idea of using force against Iran—given its potentially serious repercussions—needs more careful study. But it is his own call for “dialogue and diplomacy” with mullahs who plainly reject both that is the “fantasy” here. Lieberman is willing to face up to the unpleasant reality of the Middle East today, while most of Washington prefers to look the other way as Iran makes war on us.

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Bookshelf

• Most American playgoers of my generation only know John Osborne through the excellent films of Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer directed by Tony Richardson a half-century ago. Though the original Angry Young Man enjoyed a brief American vogue—Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer were produced simultaneously on Broadway in 1958—no play by Osborne has been seen on the Great White Way since 1969. I wouldn’t be greatly surprised if the much-praised Old Vic revival of The Entertainer makes it to New York sooner or later, Anglophilia being what it is, but I very much doubt that Osborne’s plays will ever take root in this country, for what (mostly) made him angry was the British class system, about which normal Americans know little and care less. A novelist can overcome that obstacle if he’s sufficiently clever and has other interesting things to say—Kingsley Amis did it—but only the very greatest of playwrights can contrive to embed in a two-hour-long play sufficient background information to make so fundamentally impenetrable a subject intelligible to those who know nothing about it going in. Osborne had his moments, but he wasn’t that good, not even in The Entertainer.

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• Most American playgoers of my generation only know John Osborne through the excellent films of Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer directed by Tony Richardson a half-century ago. Though the original Angry Young Man enjoyed a brief American vogue—Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer were produced simultaneously on Broadway in 1958—no play by Osborne has been seen on the Great White Way since 1969. I wouldn’t be greatly surprised if the much-praised Old Vic revival of The Entertainer makes it to New York sooner or later, Anglophilia being what it is, but I very much doubt that Osborne’s plays will ever take root in this country, for what (mostly) made him angry was the British class system, about which normal Americans know little and care less. A novelist can overcome that obstacle if he’s sufficiently clever and has other interesting things to say—Kingsley Amis did it—but only the very greatest of playwrights can contrive to embed in a two-hour-long play sufficient background information to make so fundamentally impenetrable a subject intelligible to those who know nothing about it going in. Osborne had his moments, but he wasn’t that good, not even in The Entertainer.

John Heilpern, an expatriate Brit who reviews theater for the New York Observer, has now written an authorized biography, John Osborne: The Many Lives of the Angry Young Man (Knopf, 527 pp., $35), in which he endeavors mightily to prove that Osborne is not only worth remembering but worth performing. I’m not quite sure he succeeds, though his book is lively and readable (if not especially well organized). What he does succeed in doing is leaving the reader in no possible doubt that Osborne was a monstrously difficult man whose gifts, at least in the second half of his life, weren’t impressive enough to justify his bad behavior. Be forewarned, too, that John Osborne wasn’t written for an American audience, meaning that those who don’t already know a pretty fair amount about postwar England are likely to find certain parts of the narrative to be tough sledding. If you’re interested in Osborne, though, you’ll certainly find it worthwhile.

• Clive James, like John Osborne, is not nearly so well known in the United States as in England, and his latest book, Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts (W.W. Norton, 876 pp., $35), is unlikely to change that, partly because it is all but impossible to describe succinctly and partly because James himself is peculiarly resistant to pigeonholing. Not only is he a liberal who despises ideology in all its myriad forms and has a pitch-perfect ear for left-wing humbug—a combination of traits increasingly hard to find on either side of the Atlantic—but he is a spectacularly well-read cultural journalist who writes with witty flair about the most serious of ideas, which makes him an oddity in a po-faced world dominated by pop culture.

As for Cultural Amnesia, it’s a fat volume of short essays about a hundred or so people, most of them 20th-century artists and writers of various kinds. Each essay is a commentary on a well-chosen quotation from its subject, and the essays are arranged alphabetically. The overarching theme of the book is the fate of humanism in what James describes as “an age of extermination, an epoch of the abattoir,” meaning that many of its subjects either ran afoul of Hitler and Stalin or sucked up to them. Most of them are present for obvious reasons, though a few are ringers (I never did figure out why James thought Tony Curtis and Zinka Milanov belonged in a book about the likes of Jean Cocteau, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Stefan Zweig) and several others are unlikely to be familiar to the average reader (I readily admit to never having previously heard of Egon Friedell or Alfred Polgar, though reading Cultural Amnesia made me want to know much more about them).

All this is part of the deliberately eccentric, wonderfully unpredictable charm of Cultural Amnesia, which is a cross between a philosophical dictionary and a bedside book for eggheads. Most of it is full of good hard common sense: I can’t imagine better short discussions of such widely varied figures as Raymond Aron, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Jean-Paul Sartre, to name only a few of the people in whom James takes an interest. He is especially good on bad guys, for he writes with a razor and has an uncanny knack for summing up a lifetime of intellectual vice in one or two devastating sentences: “In the long view of history, [Bertolt] Brecht’s fame as a creep will prevail, as it ought to. An unblushing apologist for organized frightfulness against the common people whose welfare he claimed to prize above his own, he was really no nicer than Sir Oswald Mosley, and a lot more dangerous.” I don’t know when I’ve read a more quotable book, or a more stimulating one.

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Bookshelf

• It’s been a long time between books for Hilton Kramer, whose last collection was published six years ago and who hasn’t brought out a volume of art criticism since 1985. The Triumph of Modernism: The Art World, 1985-2005 (Ivan R. Dee, 368 pp., $27.50) contains 55 essays and reviews, the most substantial of which are a series of pieces dealing with the history of and prospects for abstract art. In between these essays are sandwiched a goodly number of columns originally published in the New York Observer in which Kramer comments pithily on many of his favorite artists (Helen Frankenthaler, Alex Katz, Fairfield Porter) and some of his least favorite (Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol). Like Clement Greenberg before him, Kramer is a master of the short review, and it is a pleasure to see how he manages to say so much in so little space.

Kramer is best known for his unfavorable reviews, and in recent years he has spent an ever-increasing share of his time commenting on politics. As a result, too many younger readers are unaware that he is one of the best critical advocates we have. I saw several of the shows reviewed in The Triumph of Modernism when I was first starting to take a serious interest in art, and I vividly remember how reading what Kramer had to say about such critically undervalued modern painters as Porter, Arthur Dove, and Richard Diebenkorn helped give shape to my inchoate excitement. For all his gifts as a demolition man, it is this aspect of his work that continues to mean the most to me. Nothing is harder to write than a good review, and nobody writes better ones than Hilton Kramer.

• Rare is the scholar who can write intelligibly for a popular audience. Daniel J. Levitin, a rock musician and record producer turned neuroscientist, has mastered that priceless skill, and in This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (Dutton, 314 pp., $24.95) he summarizes with charm and flair the current state of research into the psychology of musical perception and cognition. Levitin believes that the human brain is biologically hardwired to find meaning in music, a conclusion sharply at odds with that of a growing number of evolutionary psychologists who have decided that it is a fundamentally meaningless form of what Steven Pinker calls “auditory cheesecake.” I expect you’ll be inclined to disagree with them after reading This Is Your Brain on Music, though, and not just because you want to. To be sure, Levitin’s style is so relentlessly breezy that it hardly seems possible that he could be a bona fide scientist, much less an important one. He is, though, and you can trust him to give you the lowdown on what happens inside your head when you listen to Mozart—or Stevie Wonder.

• It’s been a long time between books for Hilton Kramer, whose last collection was published six years ago and who hasn’t brought out a volume of art criticism since 1985. The Triumph of Modernism: The Art World, 1985-2005 (Ivan R. Dee, 368 pp., $27.50) contains 55 essays and reviews, the most substantial of which are a series of pieces dealing with the history of and prospects for abstract art. In between these essays are sandwiched a goodly number of columns originally published in the New York Observer in which Kramer comments pithily on many of his favorite artists (Helen Frankenthaler, Alex Katz, Fairfield Porter) and some of his least favorite (Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol). Like Clement Greenberg before him, Kramer is a master of the short review, and it is a pleasure to see how he manages to say so much in so little space.

Kramer is best known for his unfavorable reviews, and in recent years he has spent an ever-increasing share of his time commenting on politics. As a result, too many younger readers are unaware that he is one of the best critical advocates we have. I saw several of the shows reviewed in The Triumph of Modernism when I was first starting to take a serious interest in art, and I vividly remember how reading what Kramer had to say about such critically undervalued modern painters as Porter, Arthur Dove, and Richard Diebenkorn helped give shape to my inchoate excitement. For all his gifts as a demolition man, it is this aspect of his work that continues to mean the most to me. Nothing is harder to write than a good review, and nobody writes better ones than Hilton Kramer.

• Rare is the scholar who can write intelligibly for a popular audience. Daniel J. Levitin, a rock musician and record producer turned neuroscientist, has mastered that priceless skill, and in This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (Dutton, 314 pp., $24.95) he summarizes with charm and flair the current state of research into the psychology of musical perception and cognition. Levitin believes that the human brain is biologically hardwired to find meaning in music, a conclusion sharply at odds with that of a growing number of evolutionary psychologists who have decided that it is a fundamentally meaningless form of what Steven Pinker calls “auditory cheesecake.” I expect you’ll be inclined to disagree with them after reading This Is Your Brain on Music, though, and not just because you want to. To be sure, Levitin’s style is so relentlessly breezy that it hardly seems possible that he could be a bona fide scientist, much less an important one. He is, though, and you can trust him to give you the lowdown on what happens inside your head when you listen to Mozart—or Stevie Wonder.

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