Commentary Magazine


Topic: Thomas Jefferson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Race, Reparations, and the Idea of America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jefferson’s Lesson for Conservatives

Yesterday, timed almost perfectly with the unlawful extension of the ObamaCare employer-mandate delay, President Obama was touring Monticello with the visiting French president when he joked about breaking protocol there. “That’s the good thing as a President, I can do whatever I want,” he said according to the pool report. I’m never sure anymore if this sort of thing is really a gaffe, or if the president is just trolling conservatives. Either way, it got the requisite attention.

One of the comments was to note the irony of Obama making such imperious boasts at the home of a president who feared just such a display of lawless executive whim. At Hot Air, Ed Morrissey, for example, said: “That’s precisely the opposite of the example set by Jefferson, at least in terms of the presidency. Too bad Obama hasn’t learned that lesson yet.” And of course I agree … mostly. The truth is, Jefferson actually has something in common with Obama in this regard. Both found their presidencies weighed down by public disapproval. But Jefferson, of course, respected it–and in the end, like many things Jefferson set his mind to, took it a bit overboard.

But first he flexed more executive power than he’s remembered for. In 1807, when American ships were being abused on the open seas, Jefferson believed he had two options: go to war, or keep the traders in harbor. He opted for the second. His proposed trade embargo was an astoundingly bad idea, though it received congressional approval. But Jefferson was showing signs that his everyday personality was ill-suited to the presidency. Richard Brookhiser notes that:

There was a too-good-for-this-world streak in Jefferson’s character that showed itself in many ways, from his mountaintop house, to his dislike of face-to-face argument, to his pride, which also found expression in the embargo.

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Yesterday, timed almost perfectly with the unlawful extension of the ObamaCare employer-mandate delay, President Obama was touring Monticello with the visiting French president when he joked about breaking protocol there. “That’s the good thing as a President, I can do whatever I want,” he said according to the pool report. I’m never sure anymore if this sort of thing is really a gaffe, or if the president is just trolling conservatives. Either way, it got the requisite attention.

One of the comments was to note the irony of Obama making such imperious boasts at the home of a president who feared just such a display of lawless executive whim. At Hot Air, Ed Morrissey, for example, said: “That’s precisely the opposite of the example set by Jefferson, at least in terms of the presidency. Too bad Obama hasn’t learned that lesson yet.” And of course I agree … mostly. The truth is, Jefferson actually has something in common with Obama in this regard. Both found their presidencies weighed down by public disapproval. But Jefferson, of course, respected it–and in the end, like many things Jefferson set his mind to, took it a bit overboard.

But first he flexed more executive power than he’s remembered for. In 1807, when American ships were being abused on the open seas, Jefferson believed he had two options: go to war, or keep the traders in harbor. He opted for the second. His proposed trade embargo was an astoundingly bad idea, though it received congressional approval. But Jefferson was showing signs that his everyday personality was ill-suited to the presidency. Richard Brookhiser notes that:

There was a too-good-for-this-world streak in Jefferson’s character that showed itself in many ways, from his mountaintop house, to his dislike of face-to-face argument, to his pride, which also found expression in the embargo.

Jefferson’s secretary of state, James Madison, had much to do with the embargo policy. Madison thought American exceptionalism (though of course he didn’t use the term) would assert itself, and the American people would win this game of economic chicken. They did not. The two ignored a prescient warning from Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin that “Governmental prohibitions do always more mischief than had been calculated.” (Gallatin would be better remembered today, perhaps, had the Congress not blocked his nomination to be Madison’s secretary of state later on.)

But even more important, Gallatin cautioned that the difficulty of enforcing the embargo would force Jefferson to make a choice: “Congress must either vest the executive with the most arbitrary powers … or give it up altogether.” Gallatin had correctly predicted the course of the policy. Its failure took a toll on Jefferson. Brookhiser writes: “But the effort tore him up. Was he appalled by the means he had been driven to use? The party of liberty and light government was behaving more odiously than the Federalists had a decade earlier” by restricting free trade where the Federalists restricted free speech.

In any case, it sickened Jefferson, and he quite literally gave up on the presidency. He didn’t leave office–that might have been more of a scandal, but less of a constitutional offense than the course he chose, which was to simply have Madison, his unelected secretary of state, act as de facto president for the remainder of his last year in office. Madison was duly elected in the next election, but Jefferson’s actions risked undermining the system he helped create, and it was an insult to popular democracy.

The comparison between Jefferson and Obama can only be taken so far without becoming ludicrous. When Jefferson “gave up” on the process he bowed out quietly. When Obama did so, he simply discarded the process and did what he wanted. Hence, Obama’s “joke” isn’t really a joke except to the extent to which it’s on us. Nonetheless, there are a couple of lessons. One is that Madison eventually went to war, but did so from a position of greater weakness, lower public morale, and with a less prepared military. An instinct to avoid war is laudable, but in Jefferson and Madison’s case it resulted in rolling back economic freedom and nearly strangling the young nation’s economy. History has vindicated Gallatin, while also cruelly neglecting him.

The other lesson is one about the temptations of power. Jefferson turned out to be quite stubborn; his preferred policy could only be carried out by crossing his own principles, and that’s what he did. This is not to take away from Jefferson’s legacy, but to point out that Jefferson was a critic of John Adams’s crackdown on liberty when he was out of power, and ended up curbing freedom when his turn came.

Conservatives are noting that Obama is setting a disturbing precedent–but it’s one Democrats seemingly approve of. Thus it could be used in any number of ways by the next Republican president. Conservatives should resist the temptation to follow the left’s precedent the next time they have the chance. The extent of Obama’s lawlessness is the exception, and it should remain that way.

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Jefferson Lives

When John Marshall became chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1801, notes the historian James F. Simon, the high court “could not, in fact, claim parity with the executive or legislative branch of the federal government in either prestige or power.” He sought to rectify that, first and foremost by thwarting the desire of new President Thomas Jefferson to devolve more power to the states. Marshall would thereby increase the high court’s influence and standing while creating a larger pool of executive power from which to claim an equal slice.

Jefferson, for his part, didn’t believe a government had to be powerful to be strong: “I believe this, on the contrary, the strongest government on earth,” he declared. The two would battle for years over the question, and there is no doubt that Marshall largely succeeded in amplifying the power of the court while protecting executive power in the process. What was so intriguing about this particular conflict was that an American president was trying to reject the expansion of his own prerogative.

The struggle between the high court and the executive branch we are much more familiar with is the reverse: presidents demand ever more power and discretion and the court seeks to rein them in. But that also means that without Jeffersonian presidents, the role of the court in curtailing presidential ambition is that much more essential. Which is why this week’s judicial activity has been heartening. On Monday, the Supreme Court heard opening arguments in National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning, a case centered on the president’s power to make recess appointments, and the justices appeared skeptical of the Obama administration’s case. Which is as it should be.

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When John Marshall became chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1801, notes the historian James F. Simon, the high court “could not, in fact, claim parity with the executive or legislative branch of the federal government in either prestige or power.” He sought to rectify that, first and foremost by thwarting the desire of new President Thomas Jefferson to devolve more power to the states. Marshall would thereby increase the high court’s influence and standing while creating a larger pool of executive power from which to claim an equal slice.

Jefferson, for his part, didn’t believe a government had to be powerful to be strong: “I believe this, on the contrary, the strongest government on earth,” he declared. The two would battle for years over the question, and there is no doubt that Marshall largely succeeded in amplifying the power of the court while protecting executive power in the process. What was so intriguing about this particular conflict was that an American president was trying to reject the expansion of his own prerogative.

The struggle between the high court and the executive branch we are much more familiar with is the reverse: presidents demand ever more power and discretion and the court seeks to rein them in. But that also means that without Jeffersonian presidents, the role of the court in curtailing presidential ambition is that much more essential. Which is why this week’s judicial activity has been heartening. On Monday, the Supreme Court heard opening arguments in National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning, a case centered on the president’s power to make recess appointments, and the justices appeared skeptical of the Obama administration’s case. Which is as it should be.

The Constitution provides the president the authority to make recess appointments to positions that would otherwise require Senate confirmation. But the Senate actually has to be in recess for that. President Obama decided the Senate was in recess even when it was not so he could get his appointments through. It was preposterously unconstitutional, and openly contemptuous of both the plain meaning of the Constitution and the English language. The idea that the president can decide when the Senate is in recess is risible, bordering on loony. (The president was an instructor in constitutional law, by the way, which is a blistering indictment of American elite education.)

The Supreme Court justices are far from issuing their ruling, of course, but their skepticism was cause for optimism from those who understand at least the basics of constitutional law.

The other case this week that deserves attention concerns what is known as “net neutrality”: the principle holding that Internet traffic must be treated equally by service providers regardless of its source. In 2010, fulfilling an Obama campaign pledge, the FCC codified that principle into law, intending to prevent a “tiered” Internet in which those who pay up–like video streaming services, for example–can have their content delivered faster than others.

Advocates of net neutrality fret that a tiered Internet privileges large companies like Google over upstart competitors, and will thus crowd out competition. Verizon challenged the FCC rule, arguing it amounted to statutory overreach. Yesterday, a D.C. appeals court panel agreed:

Deciding a lawsuit brought by Verizon, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down the rules. The court said the FCC saddled broadband providers with the same sorts of obligations as traditional “common carrier” telecommunications services, such as landline phone systems, even though the commission had explicitly decided not to classify broadband as a telecom service.

“Given that the Commission has chosen to classify broadband providers in a manner that exempts them from treatment as common carriers, the Communications Act expressly prohibits the commission from nonetheless regulating them as such,” Judge David Tatel wrote for the court.

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Jonathan Adler explains that the judges’ decision was more about process than policy:

The court held 2-1 that that FCC has the authority to regulate broadband providers, and that such regulation may govern broadband providers’ handling of internet traffic.  Despite this holding, the FCC did not prevail because the court also concluded (unanimously) that the FCC’s specific regulations here were unlawful because the FCC sought to regulate broadband internet providers as common carriers.  This victory for Verizon and the other petitioners may be short-lived, however, as the majority opinion suggests alternative steps the FCC could take to effectuate a “net neutrality” policy without exceeding its statutory constraints.

As in the case of the recess appointments (or, more accurately, Obama’s “recess” appointments), there are two separate issues at play. There is the question of the wisdom of the policy: should the president get to make appointments that would otherwise be rejected by the Senate, and should Internet service providers be prevented from favoring those willing and able to pay for special treatment?

Then there is the question of authority: who gets to decide when the Senate is in recess, and does the FCC have the power to treat Internet service providers as if they were telephone companies? The question of policy may be more interesting than the question of process, but it is far less significant in its implications for the system of American government. This week the courts seemed inclined to agree. Jefferson lives–for now.

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Why Virginia Matters (Besides the Obvious)

Republicans looking for a silver lining in last week’s Virginia elections got some bad news today: it looks like the Democratic candidate for attorney general, Mark Herring, will eke out a victory by less than 200 votes, enabling the Democrats to sweep Election Day’s major contests in that state. The current margin of victory allows the Republican candidate, Mark Obenshain, to request a recount, which the state will pay for since the margin is less than one half of one percent, according to Time.

Though obviously not as significant as the governor’s race, the attorney general gets a head start on running for governor, since Virginia governors are limited to one term. This is especially true for an attorney general when his party does not also hold the governorship of the state, since it gives him an advantage in wrangling for the party’s gubernatorial nomination in the following election. The office can also offer an attorney general a way to gain national name recognition and experience, as Ken Cuccinelli did with his role in the states’ legal charge against ObamaCare.

So it would have been a consolation prize worth having for Republicans in Virginia. Additionally, the GOP is confronting what Reid Wilson calls a “changed electorate” that enabled Terry McAuliffe to win. McAuliffe can only serve one term, so Virginians just have to make sure he doesn’t do anything crazy in that time, like sell the state at a “Clinton 2016” fundraiser or some such. But after McAuliffe leaves office, Republicans will still have to face this “changed electorate,” and do so with the momentum pulling the state into the Democrats’ column. And that changed electorate is in part about turnout–an area the Democrats excelled in during President Obama’s reelection and which the Romney campaign flubbed badly. Wilson explains:

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Republicans looking for a silver lining in last week’s Virginia elections got some bad news today: it looks like the Democratic candidate for attorney general, Mark Herring, will eke out a victory by less than 200 votes, enabling the Democrats to sweep Election Day’s major contests in that state. The current margin of victory allows the Republican candidate, Mark Obenshain, to request a recount, which the state will pay for since the margin is less than one half of one percent, according to Time.

Though obviously not as significant as the governor’s race, the attorney general gets a head start on running for governor, since Virginia governors are limited to one term. This is especially true for an attorney general when his party does not also hold the governorship of the state, since it gives him an advantage in wrangling for the party’s gubernatorial nomination in the following election. The office can also offer an attorney general a way to gain national name recognition and experience, as Ken Cuccinelli did with his role in the states’ legal charge against ObamaCare.

So it would have been a consolation prize worth having for Republicans in Virginia. Additionally, the GOP is confronting what Reid Wilson calls a “changed electorate” that enabled Terry McAuliffe to win. McAuliffe can only serve one term, so Virginians just have to make sure he doesn’t do anything crazy in that time, like sell the state at a “Clinton 2016” fundraiser or some such. But after McAuliffe leaves office, Republicans will still have to face this “changed electorate,” and do so with the momentum pulling the state into the Democrats’ column. And that changed electorate is in part about turnout–an area the Democrats excelled in during President Obama’s reelection and which the Romney campaign flubbed badly. Wilson explains:

The McAuliffe campaign had to invest heavily in digital media, Mook said, because many of the voters most likely to back the Democrat were part of groups that vote at lower rates — particularly younger voters and minorities. …

The gamble on turning out McAuliffe-friendly voters paid off: Exit polls showed the 2013 electorate was 72 percent white and 20 percent African American. Those two groups made up 78 percent and 16 percent, respectively, in 2009. Cuccinelli won white voters by a 56 percent to 36 percent margin, while McAuliffe won among blacks with 90 percent of the vote.

Younger voters, between the ages of 18 and 29, made up 13 percent of the electorate, three points higher than in 2009. Those voters gave McAuliffe a 45 percent to 40 percent edge; in 2009, younger voters chose Republican McDonnell by a 10-point margin.

So Virginia matters for all the obvious reasons: it used to be a red state; it may be a leading indicator of Republican struggles in swing states; it’s evidence the Democrats still have a superior ground game; etc. But it also matters for another reason, one that is both quantifiable and symbolic: the northern Virginia suburbs.

First, the quantifiable: as the Washington Post reports, population increases in the northern Virginia, blue-leaning counties hurt the Cuccinelli campaign in ways that portend trouble ahead for the Republicans. In three of those counties, for example, the Post explains that McAuliffe either matched, slightly exceeded, or slightly underperformed the voting percentages accrued there by Tim Kaine, the last Democrat to win the governorship eight years ago. Yet basically matching Kaine’s percentages in Fairfax, Prince William, and Loudoun counties still gave McAuliffe an extra 6,400, 7,000, and 300 or so votes respectively.

Northern Virginia is home to a sizable population of federal workers and where, according to the Hill, nearly one-third of the economy depends on the federal government. According to some estimates, there are 65,000 federal employees living in northern Virginia and 110,000 federal workers who work there. So the politics of Virginia are clearly influenced by the growth of government and people dependent on it.

And that gets to the symbolic aspect of this. The trend is understandable, but it is also an inversion of the benefits of the famous deal Thomas Jefferson and James Madison struck with Alexander Hamilton to locate the capital on the Potomac in return for the federal assumption of state debts (and a favorable accounting of such as far as Virginia was concerned). Their intentions, of course, are difficult to know. But the practical effect of locating the capital on the Potomac was to inaugurate a capital that was modest and humble, not imposing and imperialistic. As Joseph J. Ellis writes in Founding Brothers, in its early years it would easily assuage anyone’s concern about the powers of the new federal government: “It symbolized the victory of diffusion over consolidation.”

Skeptics of the federal government and the Hamilton deal wanted Madison and Jefferson to oppose it on the grounds that the debt assumption was akin to conquest by a foreign power–this new federal Leviathan, from which the states could be forgiven for contemplating secession. Ellis continues:

Jefferson and Madison claimed to share their apprehensions and their political principles, but not their secessionist impulses. Their strategy was different. They would not abandon the government, but capture it. Like the new capital, it would become an extension of Virginia, or at least the Virginia vision of what the American Revolution meant and the American republic was therefore meant to be.

The trend that carried McAuliffe to victory, and threatens to concretize in Virginia, is the opposite effect. It is the looming capture of Virginia by the federal government and the capital, and making Virginia an extension of the vision of the American republic according to the federal bureaucrat. Jefferson soon regretted the deal and his role in it, and nothing since then would likely change his mind.

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Madison’s Moment

He may not have a grand monument like Thomas Jefferson; the pop culture revival of John Adams; a name synonymous with courage and heroism like George Washington; or the institutional legacy of Alexander Hamilton. But James Madison has still managed to work his way back into the daily experience of Washington D.C.’s political conversation. Madison–constitutional framer, secretary of state, president–is being invoked furiously by both Republicans and Democrats because of his consistent advocacy for the separation of powers that produces compromise and gridlock by design.

Unfortunately for Madison (though he might not find it unfortunate at all), he is being invoked for his culpability in the recent government shutdown. From the Washington Post to National Review to the Washington Examiner to even the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, there is striking agreement that if you’re looking for someone to blame for the recent polarization in Washington, the culprit of choice is Madison.

That’s the good news–sort of–because whether or not you think Madison should be praised for his conception of the separation of powers (and he most certainly should), it is at least accurate to credit him with being a driving force behind the system. The bad news is that some of those who come to praise Madison do so based on a misreading of history that Madison would scarcely recognize. There has been much hyperbole aimed at conservatives from liberals who believe that the government shutdown was unprecedented–this view, keep in mind, relies on the idea that the history of the world began with Barack Obama’s election in 2008–and as such was the manifestation of a malevolent world view on the part of Republicans in Congress. Here is the opening paragraph from John Judis’s cover story in the New Republic:

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He may not have a grand monument like Thomas Jefferson; the pop culture revival of John Adams; a name synonymous with courage and heroism like George Washington; or the institutional legacy of Alexander Hamilton. But James Madison has still managed to work his way back into the daily experience of Washington D.C.’s political conversation. Madison–constitutional framer, secretary of state, president–is being invoked furiously by both Republicans and Democrats because of his consistent advocacy for the separation of powers that produces compromise and gridlock by design.

Unfortunately for Madison (though he might not find it unfortunate at all), he is being invoked for his culpability in the recent government shutdown. From the Washington Post to National Review to the Washington Examiner to even the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, there is striking agreement that if you’re looking for someone to blame for the recent polarization in Washington, the culprit of choice is Madison.

That’s the good news–sort of–because whether or not you think Madison should be praised for his conception of the separation of powers (and he most certainly should), it is at least accurate to credit him with being a driving force behind the system. The bad news is that some of those who come to praise Madison do so based on a misreading of history that Madison would scarcely recognize. There has been much hyperbole aimed at conservatives from liberals who believe that the government shutdown was unprecedented–this view, keep in mind, relies on the idea that the history of the world began with Barack Obama’s election in 2008–and as such was the manifestation of a malevolent world view on the part of Republicans in Congress. Here is the opening paragraph from John Judis’s cover story in the New Republic:

In the Federalist Papers, James Madison promised that a large republic with a representative government would avoid the “instability, injustice and confusion” that had plagued many nations in Europe. In a representative government, he reasoned, disruptive factions would be unable to gain sufficient power to dissolve the social contract. The people’s representatives would not necessarily be paragons of virtue, but they would be less likely to succumb to “local prejudices and schemes of injustice.” In the 225 intervening years, Madison has been proven correct, with two great exceptions. One was the Civil War. The other was the 16-day government shutdown of October 2013.

Madison would, of course, be appalled. He was, after all, president during the War of 1812. That war would split the nation so profoundly as to be dubbed, variously, a civil war all its own and a second war of independence. And as for succumbing to “local prejudices and schemes of injustice,” the war’s political polarization would crest with the Hartford Convention of 1814 at which Federalists from New England would either threaten secession openly or implicitly. They had already, as Richard Brookhiser notes, been “smuggling supplies to the British army in Canada.” Shy of secession, they made noises about striking a separate peace with the British.

The “or else” tacked on to these threats was a list of constitutional amendments the conventioneers wanted adopted, among them restrictions on presidential eligibility aimed specifically at curbing the electoral success of the sons of Virginia. For those who think Republicans engineered the 2013 shutdown because they could not win elections fair and square and therefore contrived to take the country “hostage,” one wonders what they would make of such personalities as Gouverneur Morris (“Unquestionably it is civil war. And what of it?”) and Timothy Pickering.

But of course Madison was far from blameless. One clever flourish of the conventioneers was in writing that “in cases of deliberate, dangerous and palpable infractions of the constitution” it is appropriate for “a state to interpose its authority” with the federal government. This language echoed nearly word for word a section of the Virginia Resolution of 1798, which was written by Madison himself. (Madison’s authorship was not yet publicly revealed, but as it was promulgated by his party in his home state, his affiliation with and approval of its ideas were widely assumed.)

The Virginia Resolution, in turn, along with Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolution, was a protest against the Alien and Sedition Acts which were put in place by the Federalists and used by President John Adams (and an enabling Supreme Court) to silence domestic criticism and stack the deck electorally against the Republicans. Madison talked Jefferson out of pushing secession in response to the Acts, but he would no doubt scoff at the idea that the government shutdown of 2013 was an unprecedented manifestation (aside from the Civil War) of partisan polarization, disrupting a history of harmony that he would not recognize.

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Congress Debates the First Amendment

This morning, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (Congressman Darrell Issa’s committee) hosted a panel of religious leaders, representing the Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, Orthodox Judaism, and a Baptist seminary, to discuss the ongoing struggle over inclusion of contraceptive options in insurance provisions by religious institutions. (It was the first panel this morning.)

Predictably fiery, the discussion sincerely engaged with the realities of the First Amendment in an America governed by a bloated and increasingly overbearing federal government. One particular issue, which echoed the general concern from the Democratic bench (which was invariably supportive of the Department of Health and Human Services policy) and spoke to the fundamental disagreements, was raised by Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-NY). Read More

This morning, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (Congressman Darrell Issa’s committee) hosted a panel of religious leaders, representing the Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, Orthodox Judaism, and a Baptist seminary, to discuss the ongoing struggle over inclusion of contraceptive options in insurance provisions by religious institutions. (It was the first panel this morning.)

Predictably fiery, the discussion sincerely engaged with the realities of the First Amendment in an America governed by a bloated and increasingly overbearing federal government. One particular issue, which echoed the general concern from the Democratic bench (which was invariably supportive of the Department of Health and Human Services policy) and spoke to the fundamental disagreements, was raised by Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-NY).

Rep. Towns said he would have liked to see women on the panel, because, he claimed, it would have provided interesting dialogue. Presumably, the insinuation was that female clergy or religious women would have a different (more liberal) take on the matter — especially, one infers, on women’s rights and women’s health.

First, this is irrelevant. A doctrinal or ritual disagreement between two members of a faith does not diminish the First Amendment claims of either. Just because religions may internally disagree does not matter: these are individual rights of conscience, not institutional rights of operation.

For some reason, it was felt that raising the writings of Thomas Jefferson would somehow provide a defense of the administration’s actions. Yet not only does his widely misunderstood Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, which speaks of a ‘‘wall of separation between church and state,’’ hardly support a policy which imposes the state on the church, but the composition that made Jefferson prouder was his Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. That Statute says: ‘‘That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical…[and] and infringement of natural right,’’ a statement which speaks directly to the current controversy.

The specious arguments by Democrats – the video is available for viewing – truly betrayed a total misunderstanding of religious faith.

Secondly, this is instructive. The more the federal government expands, the more it will encounter these thorny scenarios, and inevitably the federal government will begin to define the very parameters of a faith, and therefore what grievances can fall under the First Amendment. And, as was noted by several congressmen and panelists, this issue extends beyond religious institutions — as it is, after all, about individual liberty — to private employers who harbor religious convictions. They have the same religious freedoms to act as their consciences see fit, including in the realm of health insurance provision.

The general lesson here is that the federal government should be kept as far from such scenarios as possible, because the larger it grows, the more it will inevitably impinge on the liberties — religious and otherwise — it is intended to protect.

Sitting on the panel, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, a frequent contributor to COMMENTARY, indeed observed that the federal government, on this path, will be forced to side with one side over another, whereas in fact religious organizations should be free to define what the tenets of their faith are, and that the federal government should listen rather than impose itself.

By the way, Chairman Issa noted that Towns had had the opportunity to recommend a panelist. Towns’ recommendation was a man.

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Forget Mixed Seating. How About the President Just Mailing It In?

In the wake of President Obama’s call for more civility in the wake of the tragedy in Arizona, some in his party are seeking a symbolic effort to play down partisanship during one of the Capitol’s annual displays of partisanship: the State of the Union speech. Democratic Senator Mark Udall of Colorado has called for mixed seating during the event. The Democratic leaders like it, and Republicans, who are leery of being portrayed as insufficiently sensitive or overly partisan, are not opposing the plan.

Is there anything wrong with the idea? Not really. The tradition of having Democrats sit on one side of the Chamber and Republicans on the other is based on the way Congress operates when it is in a normal session. Congressional seating patterns, not to mention the existence of organized political parties, are nowhere to be found in the Constitution.

However, it is not clear that mixed seating will achieve the avowed purpose of those advocating this measure, which is to avoid the sophomoric displays of partisanship that have become a regular feature of State of the Union speeches. While representatives and senators from both parties stand and applaud, as they should, during the president’s entrance, once the speech starts, the two sides morph into a congressional version of a college football game, where the supporters of the two teams divide the stadium and engage in organized cheers. It doesn’t matter which party holds the White House or Congress. Every year, the president can count on raucous cheers and standing ovations from his fellow party members in the chamber while members of the other party ostentatiously stay seated and silent.

Will mixed seating prevent a recurrence of this nonsense? The answer here is probably not. When the president speaks a line that is designed to appeal to the sensibilities of his own party — for example, one urging Congress not to repeal his health-care program — most Democrats are likely to stand and cheer while Republicans will remain seated (and need to restrain themselves from muttering their disapproval, which would lead to accusations of bad manners, such as those aimed at Justice Samuel Alito, who silently voiced his disapproval at a presidential barb aimed at the Supreme Court last year). The odds are, Democrats will get up and applaud and Republicans will not at certain points in the speech. And they will do so even if they have not clumped together by party. Read More

In the wake of President Obama’s call for more civility in the wake of the tragedy in Arizona, some in his party are seeking a symbolic effort to play down partisanship during one of the Capitol’s annual displays of partisanship: the State of the Union speech. Democratic Senator Mark Udall of Colorado has called for mixed seating during the event. The Democratic leaders like it, and Republicans, who are leery of being portrayed as insufficiently sensitive or overly partisan, are not opposing the plan.

Is there anything wrong with the idea? Not really. The tradition of having Democrats sit on one side of the Chamber and Republicans on the other is based on the way Congress operates when it is in a normal session. Congressional seating patterns, not to mention the existence of organized political parties, are nowhere to be found in the Constitution.

However, it is not clear that mixed seating will achieve the avowed purpose of those advocating this measure, which is to avoid the sophomoric displays of partisanship that have become a regular feature of State of the Union speeches. While representatives and senators from both parties stand and applaud, as they should, during the president’s entrance, once the speech starts, the two sides morph into a congressional version of a college football game, where the supporters of the two teams divide the stadium and engage in organized cheers. It doesn’t matter which party holds the White House or Congress. Every year, the president can count on raucous cheers and standing ovations from his fellow party members in the chamber while members of the other party ostentatiously stay seated and silent.

Will mixed seating prevent a recurrence of this nonsense? The answer here is probably not. When the president speaks a line that is designed to appeal to the sensibilities of his own party — for example, one urging Congress not to repeal his health-care program — most Democrats are likely to stand and cheer while Republicans will remain seated (and need to restrain themselves from muttering their disapproval, which would lead to accusations of bad manners, such as those aimed at Justice Samuel Alito, who silently voiced his disapproval at a presidential barb aimed at the Supreme Court last year). The odds are, Democrats will get up and applaud and Republicans will not at certain points in the speech. And they will do so even if they have not clumped together by party.

An even better suggestion than mixed seating would be to do away with this televised extravaganza altogether. While the Constitution does mandate that the president report to the Congress annually on the state of the union, it does not say he needs to go there and speak to them in person on national TV. Until the 20th century, the practice (initiated by Thomas Jefferson, who thought the speech that his two predecessors had delivered was too reminiscent of the British monarch’s annual speech from the throne) was for the president to write his report and then have it delivered via messenger to the Congress, where the Clerk of the House publicly read it. Woodrow Wilson revived the practice of delivering it in person; and as first radio and then television entered into the question, it became a highly choreographed ritual that served as a valuable PR tool for every president.

The point is, if ending the obnoxious partisanship and pointless rituals of the occasion is the goal, the president can write and then deliver his speech from the Oval Office, something that would satisfy his constitutional obligation without forcing the nation to endure a pointless spectacle. While I am sure that no president will take up this suggestion, doing so will not only end the partisanship that nobody likes but might also encourage presidents to stick to serious policy points and avoid the smarmy feel-good touches (such as singling out praiseworthy citizens who have been invited to sit in the gallery) that have made the speech an even lengthier and more boring ordeal that it needs to be.

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Saving Private Pelosi: Nancy’s Spielberg Makeovers

The Washington Post reported today that film director Steven Spielberg may soon be serving as a consultant to former Speaker Nancy Pelosi as she attempts to “rebrand” House Democrats after a historic defeat in which they lost 61 seats to the Republicans. Though Spielberg’s spokesperson attempted to throw cold water on this item, as the Post noted, it was a “classic non-denial denial.”

Spielberg is well known to be a loyal Democrat who has in the past helped raise money and promote the candidacies of Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. But the idea that the famed moviemaker can pull something out of his hat — other, that is, than some more Hollywood cash — to change America’s mind about one of the least-liked political figures of the day may be asking a bit too much. Though Spielberg is not unfamiliar with epic disasters, such as his famous flop 1941, attempting to “rebrand” a shrill, unlikeable ideologue like Pelosi is a daunting task.

What advice could Spielberg offer to Pelosi? Changing the public’s mind about a woman whose unpopularity was a greater factor in this year’s GOP victory than the virtues of her opponents will require Spielberg to tap deep into his archive of film hits. In the hope of providing some insight into the machinations of this liberal brain trust, here are some possible previews of Spielberg-inspired TV commercials and short films that will air in the future in battleground states:

Saving Private Blue Dog: A picked squad of Democratic House members led by Pelosi venture deep into a Red State in order to extricate a beleaguered member from a GOP-dominated district, climaxing with the wounded Speaker urging the lost Democrat to “earn this” as she expires.

E.T.: The Sequel: The famous cuddly alien is about to be waterboarded by Republicans but is rescued by Pelosi, who makes off with him on her bicycle as the two discuss immigration reform.

Close Encounters with Democrats: A random group of Americans find themselves inexplicably drawn to gather at the Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming to attend an indoctrination session with Pelosi about supporting ObamaCare.

Raiders of the Lost Democrat: Pelosi leads a multi-continental search for the lost copy of the Bill of Rights. After being captured by Dick Cheney and his band of evil Republicans, Pelosi witnesses the opening of the ark, which contains what is believed to be the artifact. Cheney and the GOPniks melt, but when Pelosi reads the artifact, it turns out to be merely a memo from Rahm Emanuel about earmarks.

Jaws V: The Democrats’ Revenge: Pelosi attempts to save the population of a beach community endangered by a ruthlessly pro-business Republican town council in cahoots with a shark believed to be responsible for an oil spill. Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Richard Dreyfuss (as himself) take to the sea to catch the shark. Pelosi and Dreyfuss swim to shore after the battle, determined to make peace in the Middle East.

Jurassic Park: The Lost World of Politicians: An attempt to clone famous Democrats of the past at a theme park goes tragically wrong as the reincarnated Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Woodrow Wilson attempt to reimpose Jim Crow on an unwilling America. Pelosi is forced to join forces with Republicans as they bring back Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt to counter the Dem icons. The conclusion is a sermon on bipartisanship.

Happy holidays to readers of all persuasions and parties!

The Washington Post reported today that film director Steven Spielberg may soon be serving as a consultant to former Speaker Nancy Pelosi as she attempts to “rebrand” House Democrats after a historic defeat in which they lost 61 seats to the Republicans. Though Spielberg’s spokesperson attempted to throw cold water on this item, as the Post noted, it was a “classic non-denial denial.”

Spielberg is well known to be a loyal Democrat who has in the past helped raise money and promote the candidacies of Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. But the idea that the famed moviemaker can pull something out of his hat — other, that is, than some more Hollywood cash — to change America’s mind about one of the least-liked political figures of the day may be asking a bit too much. Though Spielberg is not unfamiliar with epic disasters, such as his famous flop 1941, attempting to “rebrand” a shrill, unlikeable ideologue like Pelosi is a daunting task.

What advice could Spielberg offer to Pelosi? Changing the public’s mind about a woman whose unpopularity was a greater factor in this year’s GOP victory than the virtues of her opponents will require Spielberg to tap deep into his archive of film hits. In the hope of providing some insight into the machinations of this liberal brain trust, here are some possible previews of Spielberg-inspired TV commercials and short films that will air in the future in battleground states:

Saving Private Blue Dog: A picked squad of Democratic House members led by Pelosi venture deep into a Red State in order to extricate a beleaguered member from a GOP-dominated district, climaxing with the wounded Speaker urging the lost Democrat to “earn this” as she expires.

E.T.: The Sequel: The famous cuddly alien is about to be waterboarded by Republicans but is rescued by Pelosi, who makes off with him on her bicycle as the two discuss immigration reform.

Close Encounters with Democrats: A random group of Americans find themselves inexplicably drawn to gather at the Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming to attend an indoctrination session with Pelosi about supporting ObamaCare.

Raiders of the Lost Democrat: Pelosi leads a multi-continental search for the lost copy of the Bill of Rights. After being captured by Dick Cheney and his band of evil Republicans, Pelosi witnesses the opening of the ark, which contains what is believed to be the artifact. Cheney and the GOPniks melt, but when Pelosi reads the artifact, it turns out to be merely a memo from Rahm Emanuel about earmarks.

Jaws V: The Democrats’ Revenge: Pelosi attempts to save the population of a beach community endangered by a ruthlessly pro-business Republican town council in cahoots with a shark believed to be responsible for an oil spill. Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Richard Dreyfuss (as himself) take to the sea to catch the shark. Pelosi and Dreyfuss swim to shore after the battle, determined to make peace in the Middle East.

Jurassic Park: The Lost World of Politicians: An attempt to clone famous Democrats of the past at a theme park goes tragically wrong as the reincarnated Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Woodrow Wilson attempt to reimpose Jim Crow on an unwilling America. Pelosi is forced to join forces with Republicans as they bring back Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt to counter the Dem icons. The conclusion is a sermon on bipartisanship.

Happy holidays to readers of all persuasions and parties!

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Is President Obama the New Woodrow Wilson?

Jen referred this morning to David Brooks’s column, in which he advises the President to change his ways after the midterm election, especially if it turns out to be as disastrous for Democrats as nearly everyone expects. And this means changing his politics, just as Bill Clinton did after the 1994 midterm:

Obama needs to redefine his identity. Bill Clinton gave himself a New Democrat label. Obama has never categorized himself so clearly. This ambiguity was useful in 2008 when people could project whatever they wanted onto him. But it has been harmful since. Obama came to be defined by his emergency responses to the fiscal crisis — by the things he had to do, not by the things he wanted to do. Then he got defined as an orthodox, big government liberal who lacks deep roots in American culture.

Unlike Clinton, who doesn’t have an ideological bone in his body, I’m not sure Obama has the capacity to do that. I’ve just finished reading Louis Auchincloss’s mini-biography of Woodrow Wilson (part of the “Penguin Lives” series), and I was struck by the similarities between the country’s first liberal president and the man who might be its last (I know, I know, ever the optimist).

Wilson was, at heart, an academic, the author of several books, (including Congressional Government, still in print after 125 years). He thought and acted like a professor even after he entered politics. Wilson always took it for granted, for instance, that he was the smartest guy in the room and acted accordingly. Does that sound familiar? Wilson was a remarkably powerful orator. (It was he who revived the custom of delivering the State of the Union message in person, a custom that had been dropped by Thomas Jefferson, a poor and most reluctant public speaker.)

Both men had very short public careers before the White House. Wilson’s only pre-presidential office was two years as Governor of New Jersey. And Wilson thought he had a pipeline to God, which allowed him to divine what was best for the world and gave him a moral obligation to give it to the world whether the world wanted it or not. This last tendency, evident even when he was president of Princeton University, became more pronounced with age as a series of debilitating strokes (the first at age 40) increasingly rigidified his personality.

Both Wilson and Obama were the subjects of remarkable public adulation, and both won the Nobel Peace Prize for their aspirations rather than their accomplishments. In Wilson’s case, at least, it only increased his sense of being God’s instrument on earth. Although the Republicans had won majorities just before Armistice Day in November 1918, in both houses of Congress — and the Senate’s consent by a two-thirds majority would be necessary to ratify any treaty — Wilson shut them out of any say in the treaty he went to Paris to negotiate with the other victorious powers. Obama, of course, shut the Republicans out of any say in both the stimulus bill and ObamaCare.

The result was disastrous for Wilson’s dream of world peace. So obsessed was he with creating a League of Nations that he was willing to surrender on almost everything else enunciated in his Fourteen Points to get it. Clemenceau and Lloyd George, shrewd and ruthless negotiators, played him like a fiddle. The result was the Treaty of Versailles, perhaps the most catastrophic work of diplomacy in world history, which produced a smoldering resentment in Germany at its harshness, a resentment exploited by Adolf Hitler.

When Wilson returned home, he flatly refused to compromise with the Republicans in the Senate and embarked on a speaking tour to build public pressure to force the treaty and the League through. The result was another stroke that left him incapacitated. The treaty was defeated 55-39, and when the Republicans tried to add a “reservation” that was essentially trivial but would have resulted in ratification, Wilson would have none of it. If he could not have the treaty, word for word, that he had negotiated, then he preferred nothing. He asked Democratic senators to vote against the amended treaty, and they did so. As a result, the United States did not join the League, which was hopelessly ineffective without the world’s greatest power, and what Wilson had hoped would be eternal peace became a 20-year truce.

President Obama, so far as I know, is in the best of health, but will he be any more able to deal with a changed political reality and work with Republicans? I hope so, but even this incorrigible optimist is not too confident of that.

Jen referred this morning to David Brooks’s column, in which he advises the President to change his ways after the midterm election, especially if it turns out to be as disastrous for Democrats as nearly everyone expects. And this means changing his politics, just as Bill Clinton did after the 1994 midterm:

Obama needs to redefine his identity. Bill Clinton gave himself a New Democrat label. Obama has never categorized himself so clearly. This ambiguity was useful in 2008 when people could project whatever they wanted onto him. But it has been harmful since. Obama came to be defined by his emergency responses to the fiscal crisis — by the things he had to do, not by the things he wanted to do. Then he got defined as an orthodox, big government liberal who lacks deep roots in American culture.

Unlike Clinton, who doesn’t have an ideological bone in his body, I’m not sure Obama has the capacity to do that. I’ve just finished reading Louis Auchincloss’s mini-biography of Woodrow Wilson (part of the “Penguin Lives” series), and I was struck by the similarities between the country’s first liberal president and the man who might be its last (I know, I know, ever the optimist).

Wilson was, at heart, an academic, the author of several books, (including Congressional Government, still in print after 125 years). He thought and acted like a professor even after he entered politics. Wilson always took it for granted, for instance, that he was the smartest guy in the room and acted accordingly. Does that sound familiar? Wilson was a remarkably powerful orator. (It was he who revived the custom of delivering the State of the Union message in person, a custom that had been dropped by Thomas Jefferson, a poor and most reluctant public speaker.)

Both men had very short public careers before the White House. Wilson’s only pre-presidential office was two years as Governor of New Jersey. And Wilson thought he had a pipeline to God, which allowed him to divine what was best for the world and gave him a moral obligation to give it to the world whether the world wanted it or not. This last tendency, evident even when he was president of Princeton University, became more pronounced with age as a series of debilitating strokes (the first at age 40) increasingly rigidified his personality.

Both Wilson and Obama were the subjects of remarkable public adulation, and both won the Nobel Peace Prize for their aspirations rather than their accomplishments. In Wilson’s case, at least, it only increased his sense of being God’s instrument on earth. Although the Republicans had won majorities just before Armistice Day in November 1918, in both houses of Congress — and the Senate’s consent by a two-thirds majority would be necessary to ratify any treaty — Wilson shut them out of any say in the treaty he went to Paris to negotiate with the other victorious powers. Obama, of course, shut the Republicans out of any say in both the stimulus bill and ObamaCare.

The result was disastrous for Wilson’s dream of world peace. So obsessed was he with creating a League of Nations that he was willing to surrender on almost everything else enunciated in his Fourteen Points to get it. Clemenceau and Lloyd George, shrewd and ruthless negotiators, played him like a fiddle. The result was the Treaty of Versailles, perhaps the most catastrophic work of diplomacy in world history, which produced a smoldering resentment in Germany at its harshness, a resentment exploited by Adolf Hitler.

When Wilson returned home, he flatly refused to compromise with the Republicans in the Senate and embarked on a speaking tour to build public pressure to force the treaty and the League through. The result was another stroke that left him incapacitated. The treaty was defeated 55-39, and when the Republicans tried to add a “reservation” that was essentially trivial but would have resulted in ratification, Wilson would have none of it. If he could not have the treaty, word for word, that he had negotiated, then he preferred nothing. He asked Democratic senators to vote against the amended treaty, and they did so. As a result, the United States did not join the League, which was hopelessly ineffective without the world’s greatest power, and what Wilson had hoped would be eternal peace became a 20-year truce.

President Obama, so far as I know, is in the best of health, but will he be any more able to deal with a changed political reality and work with Republicans? I hope so, but even this incorrigible optimist is not too confident of that.

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Some Historical Perspective on Negative Campaigning

Every election, it seems, political commentators and reporters suggest that the most recent election we’re in is “the nastiest, most negative election season of all time.” You have to be largely clueless about American history to argue such things — as this short video by Reason.tv highlights. The truth is that angry, fractious elections and political bickering have characterized American politics since the country’s founding.

Consider, for example, the first real political campaign in American history, between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1800. According to Professor Kerwin Swint, author of Mudslingers, “it reached a level of personal animosity that almost tore apart the young republic, and has rarely been equaled in two hundred years of presidential politics.” One pro-Adams newspaper predicted that if Jefferson were elected, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

The 1872 election between Ulysses S. Grant and Horace Greeley was a race the New York Sun said deteriorated into “a shower of mud.” One pamphlet circulated by Greeley’s supporters called the Grant Administration the “crowning point of governmental wickedness” and accused Grant of bringing forth a “burning lava of seething corruption, a foul despotism….”

Or consider the 1884 race between Grover Cleveland and James Blaine. Cleveland was accused of fathering a child out of wedlock, which led Blaine supporters to chant what became a national slogan: “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?” (After Cleveland won the election, his supporters answered: “Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!”). The Reverend Samuel Burchard, a Presbyterian minister, spoke at a gathering of pro-Blaine clergy in New York City just days before the election: “We are Republicans, and don’t propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been Rum, Romanism, and Rebellions.” Accusations of Blaine’s corruption, as well as charges of his own sexual scandals, also dominated the debate. At campaign rallies, Democrats chanted, “Blaine! Blaine! James G. Blaine! The continental liar from the state of Maine!”

And despite the deep differences that exist between political figures today, we do not settle our differences the way Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr did, by duels at 10 paces with flintlock pistols. Heated exchanges are endemic to politics and what we are seeing today, while often not edifying, is not outside the norm of American history.

Like most people, I wish our debates were less trivial, more spirited, and more serious and contained fewer ad hominem attacks. We should have a clash of views about substantively important matters, such as what the proper role and purpose of the state should be in our lives. “Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords,” is how Theodore Roosevelt put it. We should therefore hope for serious, honest, reasoned arguments.

Abraham Lincoln is a unique figure in American history, and there is a danger in measuring the quality of our arguments by the quality of his. But there is a lot to be said for holding him up as the ideal. And if you read the words of Lincoln, you will find him constantly making his case in a compelling and philosophically serious way. That is what is most notable about his debates with Stephen Douglas. The burden was on Lincoln to show why Douglas’s advocacy for “popular sovereignty” was incompatible with self-government and the moral meaning of the Declaration of Independence — which is precisely what Lincoln did. If you read the transcripts of the debates, there was plenty of “negative” campaigning going on. But it is long forgotten, because the quality of the debate was so good and the stakes so high. The lesson for us is to aim high, not low, when it comes to the caliber of arguments we make to the public.

Politics is about important matters, and we should bring to it seriousness of purpose. But we should also bring to it a sense of history.

Every election, it seems, political commentators and reporters suggest that the most recent election we’re in is “the nastiest, most negative election season of all time.” You have to be largely clueless about American history to argue such things — as this short video by Reason.tv highlights. The truth is that angry, fractious elections and political bickering have characterized American politics since the country’s founding.

Consider, for example, the first real political campaign in American history, between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1800. According to Professor Kerwin Swint, author of Mudslingers, “it reached a level of personal animosity that almost tore apart the young republic, and has rarely been equaled in two hundred years of presidential politics.” One pro-Adams newspaper predicted that if Jefferson were elected, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

The 1872 election between Ulysses S. Grant and Horace Greeley was a race the New York Sun said deteriorated into “a shower of mud.” One pamphlet circulated by Greeley’s supporters called the Grant Administration the “crowning point of governmental wickedness” and accused Grant of bringing forth a “burning lava of seething corruption, a foul despotism….”

Or consider the 1884 race between Grover Cleveland and James Blaine. Cleveland was accused of fathering a child out of wedlock, which led Blaine supporters to chant what became a national slogan: “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?” (After Cleveland won the election, his supporters answered: “Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!”). The Reverend Samuel Burchard, a Presbyterian minister, spoke at a gathering of pro-Blaine clergy in New York City just days before the election: “We are Republicans, and don’t propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been Rum, Romanism, and Rebellions.” Accusations of Blaine’s corruption, as well as charges of his own sexual scandals, also dominated the debate. At campaign rallies, Democrats chanted, “Blaine! Blaine! James G. Blaine! The continental liar from the state of Maine!”

And despite the deep differences that exist between political figures today, we do not settle our differences the way Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr did, by duels at 10 paces with flintlock pistols. Heated exchanges are endemic to politics and what we are seeing today, while often not edifying, is not outside the norm of American history.

Like most people, I wish our debates were less trivial, more spirited, and more serious and contained fewer ad hominem attacks. We should have a clash of views about substantively important matters, such as what the proper role and purpose of the state should be in our lives. “Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords,” is how Theodore Roosevelt put it. We should therefore hope for serious, honest, reasoned arguments.

Abraham Lincoln is a unique figure in American history, and there is a danger in measuring the quality of our arguments by the quality of his. But there is a lot to be said for holding him up as the ideal. And if you read the words of Lincoln, you will find him constantly making his case in a compelling and philosophically serious way. That is what is most notable about his debates with Stephen Douglas. The burden was on Lincoln to show why Douglas’s advocacy for “popular sovereignty” was incompatible with self-government and the moral meaning of the Declaration of Independence — which is precisely what Lincoln did. If you read the transcripts of the debates, there was plenty of “negative” campaigning going on. But it is long forgotten, because the quality of the debate was so good and the stakes so high. The lesson for us is to aim high, not low, when it comes to the caliber of arguments we make to the public.

Politics is about important matters, and we should bring to it seriousness of purpose. But we should also bring to it a sense of history.

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Weeding Out Extremism from the Tea Party

Matt Drudge links to a story in which, according to the Dallas Morning News, Republican congressional candidate Stephen Broden, a first-time candidate who is supported by the Tea Party Express and is challenging Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson in Texas’s 30th Congressional District, said he would not rule out a violent overthrow of the government if elections did not produce a change in leadership.

According to the report, in an exchange during a TV interview, Broden, a South Dallas pastor, was asked if violence would be an option in 2010, if the composition of the government remained unchanged by the elections. “The option is on the table,” Broden said. “I don’t think that we should remove anything from the table as it relates to our liberties and our freedoms. However, it is not the first option.”

Now, like almost every other person in America, I have never before heard of Stephen Broden. But you can bet that MSNBC, other media outlets, and the Democratic Party are going to do everything they can to turn Mr. Broden into a household name, to make him a symbol of the Tea Party movement.

Jonathan Neerman, head of the Dallas County Republican Party, said he’s never heard Broden advocate violence against the government.

“It is a disappointing, isolated incident,” Neerman said. He said he plans to discuss the matter with Broden’s campaign. And Ken Emanuelson, a Broden supporter and leading Tea Party organizer in Dallas, said he did not disagree with the “philosophical point” that people had the right to resist a tyrannical government. But, he said, “Do I see our government today anywhere close to that point? No, I don’t.”

I have news for Messrs. Neerman and Emanuelson: what Broden said is far worse than “disappointing” — and in this context, conceding him a “philosophical point” is quite unwise.

To say that a violent uprising is “on the table” is reckless. These remarks deserve to be condemned on their own terms. And it’s also important not to play into the caricature of the Tea Party movement created by its opponents — that the movement, at its core, is fringy, irresponsible, and has some latent sympathy with calls to revolution and political violence.

It doesn’t help, of course, that Nevada’s GOP Senate candidate (and Tea Party choice) Sharron Angle has said this:

Our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason, and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. In fact, Thomas Jefferson said it’s good for a country to have a revolution every 20 years. I hope that’s not where we’re going, but you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies.

The Tea Party movement is a powerful, energetic, spontaneous, and widespread civic response to Obamaism. It will be seen, I believe, as a positive force in American politics, one that can help to limit the size, scope, and reach of government in our lives – and, more specifically, one that can help us deal with our entitlement crisis. But movements like these almost inevitably draw in supporters and candidates who take a justifiable impulse and channel it in exactly the wrong direction. That can’t always be helped. But what leaders and allies of the Tea Party movement can do is make it clear that incendiary rhetoric and misplaced historical analogies don’t have a place or a part in a responsible political movement.

The ballot is stronger than the bullet, Lincoln said, and we may thank heaven that, for Americans, this choice has long since been made. Those who wish to revisit this choice are temerarious and possibly pernicious. Those who care for and about the Tea Party movement might consider saying so.

Matt Drudge links to a story in which, according to the Dallas Morning News, Republican congressional candidate Stephen Broden, a first-time candidate who is supported by the Tea Party Express and is challenging Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson in Texas’s 30th Congressional District, said he would not rule out a violent overthrow of the government if elections did not produce a change in leadership.

According to the report, in an exchange during a TV interview, Broden, a South Dallas pastor, was asked if violence would be an option in 2010, if the composition of the government remained unchanged by the elections. “The option is on the table,” Broden said. “I don’t think that we should remove anything from the table as it relates to our liberties and our freedoms. However, it is not the first option.”

Now, like almost every other person in America, I have never before heard of Stephen Broden. But you can bet that MSNBC, other media outlets, and the Democratic Party are going to do everything they can to turn Mr. Broden into a household name, to make him a symbol of the Tea Party movement.

Jonathan Neerman, head of the Dallas County Republican Party, said he’s never heard Broden advocate violence against the government.

“It is a disappointing, isolated incident,” Neerman said. He said he plans to discuss the matter with Broden’s campaign. And Ken Emanuelson, a Broden supporter and leading Tea Party organizer in Dallas, said he did not disagree with the “philosophical point” that people had the right to resist a tyrannical government. But, he said, “Do I see our government today anywhere close to that point? No, I don’t.”

I have news for Messrs. Neerman and Emanuelson: what Broden said is far worse than “disappointing” — and in this context, conceding him a “philosophical point” is quite unwise.

To say that a violent uprising is “on the table” is reckless. These remarks deserve to be condemned on their own terms. And it’s also important not to play into the caricature of the Tea Party movement created by its opponents — that the movement, at its core, is fringy, irresponsible, and has some latent sympathy with calls to revolution and political violence.

It doesn’t help, of course, that Nevada’s GOP Senate candidate (and Tea Party choice) Sharron Angle has said this:

Our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason, and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. In fact, Thomas Jefferson said it’s good for a country to have a revolution every 20 years. I hope that’s not where we’re going, but you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies.

The Tea Party movement is a powerful, energetic, spontaneous, and widespread civic response to Obamaism. It will be seen, I believe, as a positive force in American politics, one that can help to limit the size, scope, and reach of government in our lives – and, more specifically, one that can help us deal with our entitlement crisis. But movements like these almost inevitably draw in supporters and candidates who take a justifiable impulse and channel it in exactly the wrong direction. That can’t always be helped. But what leaders and allies of the Tea Party movement can do is make it clear that incendiary rhetoric and misplaced historical analogies don’t have a place or a part in a responsible political movement.

The ballot is stronger than the bullet, Lincoln said, and we may thank heaven that, for Americans, this choice has long since been made. Those who wish to revisit this choice are temerarious and possibly pernicious. Those who care for and about the Tea Party movement might consider saying so.

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Cohen on Hamas: OK, They’re Islamic Fascists

Richard Cohen discovers Hamas really is a gang of Islamic fascists:

Gaza is a mean and brutal place with a totalitarian government steeped in a cult of violence and death. This hardly means that the government does not have a measure of popular support and did not, as some of the activists naively point out, come to power by democratic means. So did the Nazis.

Cohen reads up on the subject only to discover — why, yes! — these are Jew-haters:

The term “Islamic fascism” gets thrown around a lot. I initially recoiled from it because I prefer to reserve fascism for fascists. The term is too loosely employed — New York City cops were called fascists by Vietnam-era peace demonstrators — but Paul Berman, in his new book “The Flight of the Intellectuals,” makes a solid case that it can, with justice, be applied to Hamas. … Berman traces Hamas’s intellectual pedigree to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, whose founder, Hassan al-Banna, greatly admired Hitler, and to Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who spent much of World War II in Germany cozying up to Hitler, organizing a Muslim SS unit and, on occasion, remonstrating with the Nazis for not killing enough Jews. … The successor to both Banna and Husseini was Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), an Egyptian intellectual of uncontested importance whose influence can be found in the writing of the Hamas charter. Qutb was an indefatigable author (more than 20 books, some written while in an Egyptian prison where he was tortured), but the article that should interest the pro-Hamas activists the most is called “Our Struggle with the Jews.” It is a shocking and repellent work of anti-Semitism that, among other things, says the “Jews will be satisfied only with the destruction” of Islam. Qutb cites that hoary anti-Semitic forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” for substantiation — suggesting that his status as an intellectual is somewhat due to heroic grade inflation.

Cohen adds that the flotilla’s “so-called” activists are “useful idiots” (actually, a significant share of them were with the Islamic fascists, but at least he is getting the gist). He sums up:

Now is the time, I suppose, to say that Israel is not exactly perfect either. It continues to overreact, uses too much force and has often trampled on the rights of Palestinians. Still, Israel is Thomas Jefferson’s idea of heaven compared with Gaza, which could serve as a seaside Club Med for Jew-haters. One country is consonant with the Enlightenment; the other is a dark place of religious intolerance where the firmest principles of anti-Semitism — not anti-Zionism or pro-Palestinianism — are embedded in the Hamas charter.

It’s mind-boggling that all this is apparently news to him, and to many on the left. But it does raise the question: other than by vanquishing Hamas and like-minded Islamic fascists (as the Allies defeated Hitler), how is there to be “peace”?

Richard Cohen discovers Hamas really is a gang of Islamic fascists:

Gaza is a mean and brutal place with a totalitarian government steeped in a cult of violence and death. This hardly means that the government does not have a measure of popular support and did not, as some of the activists naively point out, come to power by democratic means. So did the Nazis.

Cohen reads up on the subject only to discover — why, yes! — these are Jew-haters:

The term “Islamic fascism” gets thrown around a lot. I initially recoiled from it because I prefer to reserve fascism for fascists. The term is too loosely employed — New York City cops were called fascists by Vietnam-era peace demonstrators — but Paul Berman, in his new book “The Flight of the Intellectuals,” makes a solid case that it can, with justice, be applied to Hamas. … Berman traces Hamas’s intellectual pedigree to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, whose founder, Hassan al-Banna, greatly admired Hitler, and to Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who spent much of World War II in Germany cozying up to Hitler, organizing a Muslim SS unit and, on occasion, remonstrating with the Nazis for not killing enough Jews. … The successor to both Banna and Husseini was Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), an Egyptian intellectual of uncontested importance whose influence can be found in the writing of the Hamas charter. Qutb was an indefatigable author (more than 20 books, some written while in an Egyptian prison where he was tortured), but the article that should interest the pro-Hamas activists the most is called “Our Struggle with the Jews.” It is a shocking and repellent work of anti-Semitism that, among other things, says the “Jews will be satisfied only with the destruction” of Islam. Qutb cites that hoary anti-Semitic forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” for substantiation — suggesting that his status as an intellectual is somewhat due to heroic grade inflation.

Cohen adds that the flotilla’s “so-called” activists are “useful idiots” (actually, a significant share of them were with the Islamic fascists, but at least he is getting the gist). He sums up:

Now is the time, I suppose, to say that Israel is not exactly perfect either. It continues to overreact, uses too much force and has often trampled on the rights of Palestinians. Still, Israel is Thomas Jefferson’s idea of heaven compared with Gaza, which could serve as a seaside Club Med for Jew-haters. One country is consonant with the Enlightenment; the other is a dark place of religious intolerance where the firmest principles of anti-Semitism — not anti-Zionism or pro-Palestinianism — are embedded in the Hamas charter.

It’s mind-boggling that all this is apparently news to him, and to many on the left. But it does raise the question: other than by vanquishing Hamas and like-minded Islamic fascists (as the Allies defeated Hitler), how is there to be “peace”?

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Rand Paul’s Foreign Policy

Rand Paul has tried to dial back the extreme isolationist rhetoric expressed by his father, Ron Paul, who once suggested that 9/11 was our fault for provoking al-Qaeda. For instance, the junior Paul, who is now the GOP Senate candidate in Kentucky, says that he’s against a “wholesale withdrawal” from Afghanistan or Iraq (as opposed to a partial pullout?) and that he’s in favor of winning wars once we get into them. Moreover, he favors keeping Guantanamo open and trying terrorists in military tribunals.

But his victory is still bad news for Republicans who believe in a strong and active foreign policy. All you have to do is look at his website to see that he holds a quirky — and untenable — view of a “Fortress America.” He writes, “I believe our greatest national security threat is our lack of security at the border,” a threat that he proposes to address by imposing “a moratorium on Visas from about ten rogue nations or anybody that has traveled to those nations.” This may sound like a seductive solution, but it will not keep us safe, because numerous terrorists (like the would-be Times Square bomber) already have U.S. citizenship or citizenship from non-rogue states such as the United Kingdom. By closing our doors to “rogue nation” citizens (which nations qualify? he doesn’t say), he spurns our best counter-radicalization tool — the ability to educate foreign students in the United States.

The rest of his bare-bones foreign-policy statements consists of red herrings, such as his demand “that we fight only under U.S. Commander and not the UN” — as if UN command of U.S. forces were a big issue. Only in the Paul household, I suspect. And maybe the Pat Buchanan household too. Rand Paul really goes deep into isolationist territory with his views on “sovereignty”:

The Founding Fathers warned us that foreign alliances sacrifice our independence as a nation. In Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address, he asserted that America should have “peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none.” Yet today, America is often subservient to foreign bodies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, World Trade Organization (WTO), and the United Nations (UN). …

Rand Paul proposes that America can engage the world in free trade, develop lucrative commercial relationships with other nations, and defend its national interests without funding or joining international organizations. The U.S. Government must answer only to the Constitution and the citizens protected by it.

I suppose some on the right would join him in denouncing the UN, but what about the IMF, World Bank, and WTO? Generally I think most conservatives are Hamiltonian (one of the Founding Fathers whom Paul doesn’t mention) and believe that we gain from such trade and economic arrangements, which, yes, restrict sovereignty to some small degree but in the process immeasurably benefit the United States by curtailing tariffs and other obstacles to economic growth. There is ample room to criticize and improve the UN, IMF, World Bank, WTO, and other organizations, but Paul’s suggestion that we not fund or join any international organizations suggests that he is advocating a fringe foreign-policy outlook — one I hope is not representative of the Tea Party movement as a whole.

Rand Paul has tried to dial back the extreme isolationist rhetoric expressed by his father, Ron Paul, who once suggested that 9/11 was our fault for provoking al-Qaeda. For instance, the junior Paul, who is now the GOP Senate candidate in Kentucky, says that he’s against a “wholesale withdrawal” from Afghanistan or Iraq (as opposed to a partial pullout?) and that he’s in favor of winning wars once we get into them. Moreover, he favors keeping Guantanamo open and trying terrorists in military tribunals.

But his victory is still bad news for Republicans who believe in a strong and active foreign policy. All you have to do is look at his website to see that he holds a quirky — and untenable — view of a “Fortress America.” He writes, “I believe our greatest national security threat is our lack of security at the border,” a threat that he proposes to address by imposing “a moratorium on Visas from about ten rogue nations or anybody that has traveled to those nations.” This may sound like a seductive solution, but it will not keep us safe, because numerous terrorists (like the would-be Times Square bomber) already have U.S. citizenship or citizenship from non-rogue states such as the United Kingdom. By closing our doors to “rogue nation” citizens (which nations qualify? he doesn’t say), he spurns our best counter-radicalization tool — the ability to educate foreign students in the United States.

The rest of his bare-bones foreign-policy statements consists of red herrings, such as his demand “that we fight only under U.S. Commander and not the UN” — as if UN command of U.S. forces were a big issue. Only in the Paul household, I suspect. And maybe the Pat Buchanan household too. Rand Paul really goes deep into isolationist territory with his views on “sovereignty”:

The Founding Fathers warned us that foreign alliances sacrifice our independence as a nation. In Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address, he asserted that America should have “peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none.” Yet today, America is often subservient to foreign bodies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, World Trade Organization (WTO), and the United Nations (UN). …

Rand Paul proposes that America can engage the world in free trade, develop lucrative commercial relationships with other nations, and defend its national interests without funding or joining international organizations. The U.S. Government must answer only to the Constitution and the citizens protected by it.

I suppose some on the right would join him in denouncing the UN, but what about the IMF, World Bank, and WTO? Generally I think most conservatives are Hamiltonian (one of the Founding Fathers whom Paul doesn’t mention) and believe that we gain from such trade and economic arrangements, which, yes, restrict sovereignty to some small degree but in the process immeasurably benefit the United States by curtailing tariffs and other obstacles to economic growth. There is ample room to criticize and improve the UN, IMF, World Bank, WTO, and other organizations, but Paul’s suggestion that we not fund or join any international organizations suggests that he is advocating a fringe foreign-policy outlook — one I hope is not representative of the Tea Party movement as a whole.

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The Centuries-Old Bond Between America and the Jews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Friends of Jeremiah Wright

The Nation magazine claims 181,070 subscribers, a substantially high number for a political publication, a number that might actually make it the most popular publication of its kind in the United States. (National Review claims 166,000.) In comparison, the center-left New Republic (by which I am employed), has around 60,000 subscribers. Whatever its views, The Nation is not some obscure, fringe journal.

Why does this matter? Well, let’s take a look at the controversy surrounding Jeremiah Wright. By Monday afternoon, most liberal pundits and prominent Obama supporters who had yet to denounce Wright finally came out and did so, if not because they disagree vehemently with what he has to say, then at least because they understand the damage he could potentially inflict on their man’s chances of becoming president.

Most, but not all. John McCormack of The Weekly Standard was at the National Press Club Monday morning when Wright delivered the speech that history will judge to be the death knell of Barack Obama’s political fortunes. He reported the following tidbit, which I’m surprised hasn’t received more attention:

Again and again, Wright was not held to account for his own disputed claims, such as his contention that in his post 9/11 sermon he was merely quoting the ambassador from Iraq that “America’s chickens are coming home to roost.” To be fair, most of those in the press gallery didn’t openly applaud Wright during his speech–as did Christopher Hayes of the Nation and Nadia Charters of Al-Arabiya TV, who were both sitting (appropriately) to the left of me.

What did the Washington bureau chief of The Nation find in Wright’s tirade that merited applause? The spirited defense of Louis Farrakhan? The reiteration of the dangerous canard that the American government invented HIV to kill black people? Perhaps it was the selfish and historically illiterate conflation of the African-American religious tradition with paranoid and conspiratorial racism? Mr. Hayes is joined in his praise of Rev. Wright by his colleague John Nichols, who compares Wright to Thomas Jefferson.

With conventional wisdom now firmly in the anti-Wright camp, a charitable observer might acknowledge that The Nation’s enthusiasm for this paranoid hate-monger demonstrates a bit of political cojones. But that’s the most, I think, that can be said in its defense.

The Nation magazine claims 181,070 subscribers, a substantially high number for a political publication, a number that might actually make it the most popular publication of its kind in the United States. (National Review claims 166,000.) In comparison, the center-left New Republic (by which I am employed), has around 60,000 subscribers. Whatever its views, The Nation is not some obscure, fringe journal.

Why does this matter? Well, let’s take a look at the controversy surrounding Jeremiah Wright. By Monday afternoon, most liberal pundits and prominent Obama supporters who had yet to denounce Wright finally came out and did so, if not because they disagree vehemently with what he has to say, then at least because they understand the damage he could potentially inflict on their man’s chances of becoming president.

Most, but not all. John McCormack of The Weekly Standard was at the National Press Club Monday morning when Wright delivered the speech that history will judge to be the death knell of Barack Obama’s political fortunes. He reported the following tidbit, which I’m surprised hasn’t received more attention:

Again and again, Wright was not held to account for his own disputed claims, such as his contention that in his post 9/11 sermon he was merely quoting the ambassador from Iraq that “America’s chickens are coming home to roost.” To be fair, most of those in the press gallery didn’t openly applaud Wright during his speech–as did Christopher Hayes of the Nation and Nadia Charters of Al-Arabiya TV, who were both sitting (appropriately) to the left of me.

What did the Washington bureau chief of The Nation find in Wright’s tirade that merited applause? The spirited defense of Louis Farrakhan? The reiteration of the dangerous canard that the American government invented HIV to kill black people? Perhaps it was the selfish and historically illiterate conflation of the African-American religious tradition with paranoid and conspiratorial racism? Mr. Hayes is joined in his praise of Rev. Wright by his colleague John Nichols, who compares Wright to Thomas Jefferson.

With conventional wisdom now firmly in the anti-Wright camp, a charitable observer might acknowledge that The Nation’s enthusiasm for this paranoid hate-monger demonstrates a bit of political cojones. But that’s the most, I think, that can be said in its defense.

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Is Jimmy Carter in Violation of the Logan Act?

The Logan Act was enacted in 1799. It states in full:

Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.

This section shall not abridge the right of a citizen to apply, himself or his agent, to any foreign government or the agents thereof for redress of any injury which he may have sustained from such government or any of its agents or subjects.

The origins of this law lie in the activities of Dr. George Logan, a Quaker pacifist doctor who tried to lessen tensions between the French Revolutionary government in Paris and the Federalists then leading the nascent American Republic, who tilted towards Britain. Logan traveled to France with an approving letter signed by Thomas Jefferson, and was accepted by the French government as a legitimate representative of the United States. Then-President John Adams condemned Logan for his rogue diplomacy, and decried the “temerity and impertinence of individuals affecting to interfere in public affairs between France and the United States.” One can only wonder what Adams would think of Jimmy Carter, who has brazenly announced his intention to meet with Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Damascus later this week.

Perhaps it is in light of the Logan Act that White House Press Secretary Dana Perino emphasized, “The president believes that if president Carter wants to go, that he is doing so in his own private capacity, as a private citizen, he is not representing the United States.” It is all well and good for the White House to distance itself from the behavior of Jimmy Carter, but there is a limit to how far any American government can go in condemning the actions of a former president. The station of ex-president carries a diplomatic heft, and no one has used it with more inelegance and opportunism than Jimmy Carter, whose sabotage of American foreign policy has not been limited to Republican presidents (see Bill Clinton and North Korea). By calling on the United States to include Hamas in peace talks, and by meeting with the leader of said terrorist group in the capital of a country with which the United States does not even maintain diplomatic relations, Carter undermines a crucial plank in America’s Middle East policy.

Last year, Robert F. Turner argued that Nancy Pelosi had violated the Logan Act when she traveled to Syria against the wishes of the State Department and met with President Basher Assad. He wrote at the time:

Ms. Pelosi’s trip was not authorized, and Syria is one of the world’s leading sponsors of international terrorism. It has almost certainly been involved in numerous attacks that have claimed the lives of American military personnel from Beirut to Baghdad.

The U.S. is in the midst of two wars authorized by Congress. For Ms. Pelosi to flout the Constitution in these circumstances is not only shortsighted; it may well be a felony, as the Logan Act has been part of our criminal law for more than two centuries. Perhaps it is time to enforce the law.

The circumstances surrounding Carter’s visit are no less egregious, in fact, Carter’s freelance diplomacy is arguably worse. Hamas, unlike Syria, is not a country — an entity with territorial integrity, recognized by the international community as the legitimate authority of a nation-state — but a terrorist group. I’m no lawyer, but it appears that a strong case can be made that Jimmy Carter has been in constant violation of a federal statute ever since he left the White House.

The Logan Act was enacted in 1799. It states in full:

Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.

This section shall not abridge the right of a citizen to apply, himself or his agent, to any foreign government or the agents thereof for redress of any injury which he may have sustained from such government or any of its agents or subjects.

The origins of this law lie in the activities of Dr. George Logan, a Quaker pacifist doctor who tried to lessen tensions between the French Revolutionary government in Paris and the Federalists then leading the nascent American Republic, who tilted towards Britain. Logan traveled to France with an approving letter signed by Thomas Jefferson, and was accepted by the French government as a legitimate representative of the United States. Then-President John Adams condemned Logan for his rogue diplomacy, and decried the “temerity and impertinence of individuals affecting to interfere in public affairs between France and the United States.” One can only wonder what Adams would think of Jimmy Carter, who has brazenly announced his intention to meet with Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Damascus later this week.

Perhaps it is in light of the Logan Act that White House Press Secretary Dana Perino emphasized, “The president believes that if president Carter wants to go, that he is doing so in his own private capacity, as a private citizen, he is not representing the United States.” It is all well and good for the White House to distance itself from the behavior of Jimmy Carter, but there is a limit to how far any American government can go in condemning the actions of a former president. The station of ex-president carries a diplomatic heft, and no one has used it with more inelegance and opportunism than Jimmy Carter, whose sabotage of American foreign policy has not been limited to Republican presidents (see Bill Clinton and North Korea). By calling on the United States to include Hamas in peace talks, and by meeting with the leader of said terrorist group in the capital of a country with which the United States does not even maintain diplomatic relations, Carter undermines a crucial plank in America’s Middle East policy.

Last year, Robert F. Turner argued that Nancy Pelosi had violated the Logan Act when she traveled to Syria against the wishes of the State Department and met with President Basher Assad. He wrote at the time:

Ms. Pelosi’s trip was not authorized, and Syria is one of the world’s leading sponsors of international terrorism. It has almost certainly been involved in numerous attacks that have claimed the lives of American military personnel from Beirut to Baghdad.

The U.S. is in the midst of two wars authorized by Congress. For Ms. Pelosi to flout the Constitution in these circumstances is not only shortsighted; it may well be a felony, as the Logan Act has been part of our criminal law for more than two centuries. Perhaps it is time to enforce the law.

The circumstances surrounding Carter’s visit are no less egregious, in fact, Carter’s freelance diplomacy is arguably worse. Hamas, unlike Syria, is not a country — an entity with territorial integrity, recognized by the international community as the legitimate authority of a nation-state — but a terrorist group. I’m no lawyer, but it appears that a strong case can be made that Jimmy Carter has been in constant violation of a federal statute ever since he left the White House.

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The Adams Family

I’ll leave judgments about the historical veracity of HBO’s new miniseries, John Adams, to those with some expertise in the field (at least one historian seems to think it’s not perfect, but not bad either). The real question is: Is it worth watching? And judging from the two episodes that aired this week, the series is (slightly) less than the sum of its parts. The good news, however, is that the parts are generally excellent.

Strong performances anchor the series. Paul Giamatti plays the title character, a lumpy, bald Boston lawyer who finds his way to greatness after successfully defending the British soldiers involved in the Boston massacre. Giamatti is characteristically frumpy here, but he lends Adams an interesting blend of arrogance and anxiety as well. He’s a patriot, yes, concerned for his country, but also about his own family, life, and legacy. It’s a showcase for Giamatti, but Tom Wilkinson (as Ben Franklin), Laura Linney (as Abigail Adams), David Morse (as George Washington) and Stephane Dillane (as Thomas Jefferson) also make quite the impression as well.

Meanwhile, from the costumes to the extravagant sets, everything on the production side is superb, but the standout element is the photography, which looks positively stunning in HD. Director of Photography Tak Fujimoto is a longtime Hollywood hand (I first recall noticing his work in 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs), and his visual trademarks are evident in nearly every scene.

He’s got two main modes behind the lens—the participant and the voyeur. The first mode is primarily used in the larger setpieces, most notably in the series’ opening sequence, which depicts the Boston Massacre; a handheld camera follows Adams as he stumbles through the streets and into the bloody scene, running side-by-side with the man as if his partner. It puts viewers inside the scene, makes them part of it. The more intimate scenes, mostly between Adams and his wife Abigail, are typically shot in low light, and often from another room, or behind an object. The effect is of peering in on history from the outside, watching an American founder from the outside.

The series’ weaknesses come mostly in the script by Kirk Ellis, which, at least at this point, has failed to bring the many other fine elements together. There are many strong moments, especially between John and Abigail (a nighttime monologue in which Adams, laying next to his silent wife, thinks through his dilemma—and those of the country—is particularly touching). But too many scenes feel overly scripted, as if the characters were simply spouting miniature editorials. I have no doubt they were eloquent men, but surely they stumbled once in a while? And in both of the inaugural episodes, there is far too much reliance on courtroom-style drama, as the series would really rather be Law & Order: American Revolution. Still, it’s by far the best thing on TV right now, and anyone with even a passing interest in the subject would do well to check it out.

I’ll leave judgments about the historical veracity of HBO’s new miniseries, John Adams, to those with some expertise in the field (at least one historian seems to think it’s not perfect, but not bad either). The real question is: Is it worth watching? And judging from the two episodes that aired this week, the series is (slightly) less than the sum of its parts. The good news, however, is that the parts are generally excellent.

Strong performances anchor the series. Paul Giamatti plays the title character, a lumpy, bald Boston lawyer who finds his way to greatness after successfully defending the British soldiers involved in the Boston massacre. Giamatti is characteristically frumpy here, but he lends Adams an interesting blend of arrogance and anxiety as well. He’s a patriot, yes, concerned for his country, but also about his own family, life, and legacy. It’s a showcase for Giamatti, but Tom Wilkinson (as Ben Franklin), Laura Linney (as Abigail Adams), David Morse (as George Washington) and Stephane Dillane (as Thomas Jefferson) also make quite the impression as well.

Meanwhile, from the costumes to the extravagant sets, everything on the production side is superb, but the standout element is the photography, which looks positively stunning in HD. Director of Photography Tak Fujimoto is a longtime Hollywood hand (I first recall noticing his work in 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs), and his visual trademarks are evident in nearly every scene.

He’s got two main modes behind the lens—the participant and the voyeur. The first mode is primarily used in the larger setpieces, most notably in the series’ opening sequence, which depicts the Boston Massacre; a handheld camera follows Adams as he stumbles through the streets and into the bloody scene, running side-by-side with the man as if his partner. It puts viewers inside the scene, makes them part of it. The more intimate scenes, mostly between Adams and his wife Abigail, are typically shot in low light, and often from another room, or behind an object. The effect is of peering in on history from the outside, watching an American founder from the outside.

The series’ weaknesses come mostly in the script by Kirk Ellis, which, at least at this point, has failed to bring the many other fine elements together. There are many strong moments, especially between John and Abigail (a nighttime monologue in which Adams, laying next to his silent wife, thinks through his dilemma—and those of the country—is particularly touching). But too many scenes feel overly scripted, as if the characters were simply spouting miniature editorials. I have no doubt they were eloquent men, but surely they stumbled once in a while? And in both of the inaugural episodes, there is far too much reliance on courtroom-style drama, as the series would really rather be Law & Order: American Revolution. Still, it’s by far the best thing on TV right now, and anyone with even a passing interest in the subject would do well to check it out.

Read Less

Obama the Uniter?

It’s getting mighty ugly mighty fast in the Democratic race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Yesterday Howard Wolfson, in response to the Obama campaign pushing for the release of Clinton’s tax returns, said, “I for one do not believe that imitating Ken Starr is the way to win a Democratic primary election for President.” For those who inhabit HillaryLand, to be compared to Ken Starr is slightly worse than to be compared to Charles Manson or Lucifer.

Returning serve, yesterday we learned that Samantha Power, one of Obama’s senior foreign policy advisers, apologized for describing Hillary Clinton as a “monster” during an interview with a Scottish newspaper. She added this: “You just look at her and think: ergh . . . The amount of deceit she has put forward is really unattractive.”

Welcome to a race against the Clintons, where the politics of hope quickly gives way to top aides calling her a “monster” and of being deceitful.

One might have some sympathy for Obama. After all, he is by all accounts a decent man who is running against a ruthless political operation. Obama’s problem, though, is that he has portrayed himself as a figure who will unify America, who will “turn the page” on the ugliness of the last decade, and who will not use negative attacks against his opponents. That is an admirable sentiment, and it has an appeal. But what do you do if your opponent has promised, publicly, to “throw the kitchen sink” at you? How long can you ignore the attacks? At what point do you shift from simply taking punches to throwing them? And when do you make the character of an opponent like Hillary Clinton an issue?

The young Illinois senator is learning what every major political figure eventually does: politics is a contact sport, not a garden party, and it has been since the founding of this Republic. Consider, for example, the first real political campaign in American history, between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1800. It is regarded by scholars as among the nastiest campaigns in American history. According to one expert, “it reached a level of personal animosity that almost tore apart the young republic, and has rarely been equaled in two hundred years of presidential politics.” One pro-Adams newspaper predicted that if Jefferson were elected, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

These words shouldn’t be held up as a model for political discourse. Politics, after all, should be at its core a debate about issues and political ideology and the future of the country. Politicians should be judged by the manner in which they, and their aides, conduct themselves. There are tough things that are appropriate to say–and lines you should not cross over.

At the same time, it’s not surprising that in a fiercely contested race which might well decide who will become leader of the most important nation on earth, passions get stoked, harsh words get thrown about, and nasty things are said. High-mindedness can easily give way to a hyper-aggressive effort to set the record straight. And simply to assume, as Obama apparently did, that he would swoop in and magically do away with the “old politics” and the old divisions was both arrogant and naïve.

It turns out being a unifying figure in American politics isn’t as easy as Obama thought. Right now he can’t even unify his own party. And just think: the pounding has only begun. It’s five weeks until the Pennsylvania primary and five months until the Democratic convention. At this pace, Obama and Clinton may match Jefferson and Adams in their level of civility and good manners.

Somewhere, John McCain must be smiling.

It’s getting mighty ugly mighty fast in the Democratic race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Yesterday Howard Wolfson, in response to the Obama campaign pushing for the release of Clinton’s tax returns, said, “I for one do not believe that imitating Ken Starr is the way to win a Democratic primary election for President.” For those who inhabit HillaryLand, to be compared to Ken Starr is slightly worse than to be compared to Charles Manson or Lucifer.

Returning serve, yesterday we learned that Samantha Power, one of Obama’s senior foreign policy advisers, apologized for describing Hillary Clinton as a “monster” during an interview with a Scottish newspaper. She added this: “You just look at her and think: ergh . . . The amount of deceit she has put forward is really unattractive.”

Welcome to a race against the Clintons, where the politics of hope quickly gives way to top aides calling her a “monster” and of being deceitful.

One might have some sympathy for Obama. After all, he is by all accounts a decent man who is running against a ruthless political operation. Obama’s problem, though, is that he has portrayed himself as a figure who will unify America, who will “turn the page” on the ugliness of the last decade, and who will not use negative attacks against his opponents. That is an admirable sentiment, and it has an appeal. But what do you do if your opponent has promised, publicly, to “throw the kitchen sink” at you? How long can you ignore the attacks? At what point do you shift from simply taking punches to throwing them? And when do you make the character of an opponent like Hillary Clinton an issue?

The young Illinois senator is learning what every major political figure eventually does: politics is a contact sport, not a garden party, and it has been since the founding of this Republic. Consider, for example, the first real political campaign in American history, between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1800. It is regarded by scholars as among the nastiest campaigns in American history. According to one expert, “it reached a level of personal animosity that almost tore apart the young republic, and has rarely been equaled in two hundred years of presidential politics.” One pro-Adams newspaper predicted that if Jefferson were elected, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

These words shouldn’t be held up as a model for political discourse. Politics, after all, should be at its core a debate about issues and political ideology and the future of the country. Politicians should be judged by the manner in which they, and their aides, conduct themselves. There are tough things that are appropriate to say–and lines you should not cross over.

At the same time, it’s not surprising that in a fiercely contested race which might well decide who will become leader of the most important nation on earth, passions get stoked, harsh words get thrown about, and nasty things are said. High-mindedness can easily give way to a hyper-aggressive effort to set the record straight. And simply to assume, as Obama apparently did, that he would swoop in and magically do away with the “old politics” and the old divisions was both arrogant and naïve.

It turns out being a unifying figure in American politics isn’t as easy as Obama thought. Right now he can’t even unify his own party. And just think: the pounding has only begun. It’s five weeks until the Pennsylvania primary and five months until the Democratic convention. At this pace, Obama and Clinton may match Jefferson and Adams in their level of civility and good manners.

Somewhere, John McCain must be smiling.

Read Less

John Ledyard

Soon 2007 will draw to a close, and with it the much-fêted fiftieth anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I’ve had all year to ponder it, but I’m no closer to understanding what the fuss is about. Could it really hurt to temper the praise by pointing out some of the book’s deficiencies? The reverential overtones of this title couldn’t be more appropriate; many fans treat the book as though it were some kind of religious text. But the real puzzle isn’t why people, many of them young people, love Kerouac. It’s why they don’t prefer the vastly more entertaining adventures of—to name a few—Richard Henry Dana, Herman Melville, or Mark Twain (or, if I may jump the pond, Eric Newby or Patrick Leigh Fermor) . . .

. . . or John Ledyard (1751–1789), the quintessential Dartmouth Man. The College’s Alma Mater boasts of the alumni that “’round the girdled earth they roam,” and the line might as well have been written with Ledyard in mind. Unable to pay his tuition, he chopped down a tree, made a dugout canoe, and escaped on the Connecticut River—which puts Kerouac’s automotive antics in perspective, I think. He later sailed on Captain Cook’s third voyage, which he chronicled in his Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage. The travelogue has the dual distinction of being the first American book to describe Hawaii and the first American book to be protected by copyright.

This year saw a renewed interest in Ledyard, with the publication of two books: Bill Gifford’s Ledyard: In Search of the First American Explorer and Edward G. Gray’s The Making of John Ledyard: Empire and Ambition in the Life of an Early American Traveler. Arts & Letters Daily has linked to an excerpt from the latter:

The list of famous individuals he came into contact with during his short life comes straight out of the indexes of history: Captain James Cook, on whose last voyage he sailed as a lowly marine; Robert Morris, financier of the American Revolution and Ledyard’s one-time employer; John Paul Jones, with whom he struck up an acquaintance and tried to raise funding for an ambitious expedition to the northwest coast of America; Ben Franklin, whom he met in Paris during Franklin’s last days as American ambassador there; Thomas Jefferson, Franklin’s successor, whom Ledyard also met in Paris. The list goes on, but it seems just as well to stop here. For it was in Paris that Ledyard enjoyed his first great social success, when he was accepted into the famous expatriate circle surrounding Thomas Jefferson.

Read the whole thing here. You might be inspired to retrace his steps.

Soon 2007 will draw to a close, and with it the much-fêted fiftieth anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I’ve had all year to ponder it, but I’m no closer to understanding what the fuss is about. Could it really hurt to temper the praise by pointing out some of the book’s deficiencies? The reverential overtones of this title couldn’t be more appropriate; many fans treat the book as though it were some kind of religious text. But the real puzzle isn’t why people, many of them young people, love Kerouac. It’s why they don’t prefer the vastly more entertaining adventures of—to name a few—Richard Henry Dana, Herman Melville, or Mark Twain (or, if I may jump the pond, Eric Newby or Patrick Leigh Fermor) . . .

. . . or John Ledyard (1751–1789), the quintessential Dartmouth Man. The College’s Alma Mater boasts of the alumni that “’round the girdled earth they roam,” and the line might as well have been written with Ledyard in mind. Unable to pay his tuition, he chopped down a tree, made a dugout canoe, and escaped on the Connecticut River—which puts Kerouac’s automotive antics in perspective, I think. He later sailed on Captain Cook’s third voyage, which he chronicled in his Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage. The travelogue has the dual distinction of being the first American book to describe Hawaii and the first American book to be protected by copyright.

This year saw a renewed interest in Ledyard, with the publication of two books: Bill Gifford’s Ledyard: In Search of the First American Explorer and Edward G. Gray’s The Making of John Ledyard: Empire and Ambition in the Life of an Early American Traveler. Arts & Letters Daily has linked to an excerpt from the latter:

The list of famous individuals he came into contact with during his short life comes straight out of the indexes of history: Captain James Cook, on whose last voyage he sailed as a lowly marine; Robert Morris, financier of the American Revolution and Ledyard’s one-time employer; John Paul Jones, with whom he struck up an acquaintance and tried to raise funding for an ambitious expedition to the northwest coast of America; Ben Franklin, whom he met in Paris during Franklin’s last days as American ambassador there; Thomas Jefferson, Franklin’s successor, whom Ledyard also met in Paris. The list goes on, but it seems just as well to stop here. For it was in Paris that Ledyard enjoyed his first great social success, when he was accepted into the famous expatriate circle surrounding Thomas Jefferson.

Read the whole thing here. You might be inspired to retrace his steps.

Read Less




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