Ever since the basketball star Charles Barkley admitted in a press conference that he had not read his own just-published…
by Dan Quayle.
HarperCollins-Zondervan. 402 pp. $25.00.
Ever since the basketball star Charles Barkley admitted in a press conference that he had not read his own just-published autobiography, reviewers have been well-advised to approach celebrity memoirs with care. How thoroughly, nowadays, can you judge a man by the book that bears his name? It is taken for granted that no politician (or athlete, or actor, or businessman) would suffer the indignity of staring at a blank computer screen, sweating out the inspiration to tell his own story with sufficient eloquence and candor. No, the self-respecting memoirist today hires a professional to become inspired for him.
This much is assumed, and generally goes unremarked. How closely the resulting book reflects its subject is a dicier question. Are the tone and mood the subject’s or the ghostwriter’s? Who thought up the funny lines; how genuine is the ardor; are the tears his or a crocodile’s? And to whose sloppiness do we ascribe the inevitable solecisms and typos and errors of fact? Through these deep waters the judicious reviewer moves cautiously, and particularly so in the case of former Vice President Dan Quayle, whose own memoir has just been published.
No other political figure in our time has been treated with such salivary disdain. It began in the presidential campaign of 1988, when, after having labored eight years as a dutiful, principled U.S. Senator, Quayle was transformed overnight by his own unease and a predatory press corps into a kind of icon in reverse, a coast-to-coast gag, a brand name the merest mention of which could trigger laughter from any audience anywhere. Four years later, during the 1992 campaign, things had gotten so bad that Republican speakers out on the hustings were instructed, as a matter of policy, not to mention Quayle’s name, even to partisan crowds; it was thought that the inevitable snickers would undermine the speaker’s effectiveness.
The publication of Standing Firm is therefore the opening salvo in Dan Quayle’s personal Inchon—his calculated attempt to reclaim his reputation and reintroduce himself to an electorate that he hopes will deem him presidential by 1996. This is a heavy burden to place on a celebrity memoir—which makes it doubly unpleasant to report that Dan Quayle has written, or authorized to be written in his name, a bad book.
There is no reason to overstate the case: as a politician’s memoir, Standing Firm is no worse than most examples of the genre. Sentences parse, the grammar is good, ideas follow one another in the appropriate sequence. The hand of the professional (unidentified) is shown in the way each chapter ends with a foreshadowing of the next. But if it is no worse, Standing Firm is also no better than others of its kind. In that sense, the book is roughly analogous to Quayle himself: an average fellow of moderate gifts, whose every deficiency is painfully enlarged by the unique circumstances in which he finds himself.
There is a great deal of Dan Quayle in Standing Firm (I do not mean this ironically). Even at the height of his national ridicule, one could see in him the self-assurance, even cockiness, of the natural pol—a great American type that is merely an older version of the Big Man on Campus. When the abuse hit him like a hurricane, he soldiered on with the air of a man who could not quite believe that people could be so stupid as to think him stupid.
In his book, he is still unembarrassed by his vanity. “Throughout my life I’ve loved beating the odds,” he (or whoever) writes. “I switched elementary schools five times. Whenever I arrived at a new one, the teacher would put me in the last row, which was reserved for the slow kids. Within a matter of weeks I’d made it to the front of the room.” He tells us that as he was being considered for George Bush’s running mate, he daydreamed of the glorious headlines that would inevitably follow. Later, he reminds us how good a campaigner he is. And so on. In these passages, and the many others like them, his insouciance is almost charming.
But insouciance can quickly shade into indiscretion. While Standing Firm is free of the comical slips of the tongue for which he became famous, one gets the idea nevertheless that Quayle is not always aware of what he is saying. To take an example: Presidents and Vice Presidents routinely give trinkets—tie clasps, key chains, cuff links, all stamped with the presidential seal—to visitors who come to pay homage; the supplicants prize the stuff ever after as mementos of their brush with greatness. Does Quayle really want to tell us that he used to refer to such trinkets as “chum,” fish bait?
Similarly, Quayle writes of his efforts to fire Richard Truly, the director of NASA, who by the Vice President’s account had been a disaster: “I thanked him for his service and told him that we wanted to find an ambassadorship for him.” Now, paying off incompetent officials with foreign postings is a time-honored practice, but the payers rarely confess to it. Actually, they never confess to it. From Quayle, the admission is not so much refreshing as unnerving.
Since this book’s publication in May, much has been made of Quayle’s feline swipes at his Republican rivals. And they are titillating, at least as Washingtonians measure titillation. But there is also no denying the churlishness that creeps in, especially when Quayle turns from rivals to colleagues. Thus, he writes with great ambivalence about William Kristol, his chief of staff, freely acknowledging Kristol’s political savvy while never passing up a chance to mention his reputation in Washington as a leaker. And the digs at Kristol are as nothing compared with the swipes at Quayle’s press secretary, the otherwise anonymous Dave Beckwith, who handled the thorniest job in the administration with wit, ingenuity, and (as we now see) thankless loyalty. In fact, with one obvious exception, none of Quayle’s fellow Republicans enjoys the petting and cooing Quayle reserves for . . . Ted Kennedy: “A guy’s guy, loud and fun-loving, but he also loves children and is very attentive to them.”
The obvious exception is George Bush, but the Bush of Standing Firm—loyal, compassionate, resolute—is utterly one-dimensional. Surely, the relationship between Bush and Quayle was more complicated than that. The fiercely conservative Quayle, as Vice President, argued against most of the President’s signature domestic initiatives, which were models of Republican me-tooism: the Clean Air Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Civil Rights Act, the budget deal of 1990. Regarding Bush, Quayle’s discretion is at last set firmly in place; there must be much here that is left unsaid.
In the end, the cumulative impression of Standing Firm is one of numbing irrelevance. Quayle’s analysis of the Bush administration’s ultimate failure is conservative boilerplate, familiar to any reader of op-ed columns. And does anyone any longer care about the intricacies of Richard Darman’s relationship with John Sununu? There are several long stretches of wheel-spinning as Quayle ruminates over his bad press. “Do you know,” he asks, “how many favorable stories it takes to overcome one zinger by Johnny Carson?” Too many, is the unsurprising answer, and Quayle proceeds to relate in great detail his efforts to undermine the media’s bizarre obsession with his famous gaffes. So great was the media’s obsession, in fact, that Quayle cannot stop thinking about it.
Several pundits have said that the Vice President should have resisted the pleasures of a conventional score-settling memoir and produced instead a treatise on the great policy questions of the age, as direct evidence of his gravitas. Had Quayle written such a book, of course, most of these same pundits would have ignored or lambasted it—yet another instance of the kind of double bind Quayle is forever faced with. As it turns out, he wants both to settle old scores and to be taken seriously, and unfortunately he seems unable to distinguish between the two. This makes it hard to take him seriously.
Dan Quayle was a good Senator, an exemplar of the conservative Hoosiers who sent him to Washington by large majorities. He was also a superior Vice President: loyal, tireless, politically astute, a voice for principle in an ideologically flaccid administration. Standing Firm asks us, by implication, to think of him now as something more—a potential President. Even though this book has become a big best-seller, few readers, I suspect, will respond as Quayle hopes.
In mitigation, his partisans—for there are such—will say that the press’s opprobrium was simply too great for him to overcome. A few months ago it would have been easier to agree with this assessment, when Quayle’s greatest obstacle was the media-manufactured caricature of a man irretrievably out of his depth. With Standing Firm, his greatest obstacle has become the suspicion that the press, amazingly, had it right the first time.
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Standing Firm, by Dan Quayle
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Not a departure but a partial return to the norm.
President Trump’s address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday stuck to the core themes that have defined his foreign policy since he took office. The ideological cocktail was two or three parts John Bolton, one part Steve Bannon. From his national-security adviser, Trump absorbs the traditional GOP hawkishness and sovereigntism that forms the cocktail’s base. Meanwhile, distinct traces remain of the ex-Breitbart chief’s harder-edged populist nationalism. Call that the modifier.
The main elements of the cocktail blend smoothly in some areas but not in others. Boltonians are wary of liberal, transnational institutions that seek to restrain U.S. power, and they aren’t shy about sidestepping or blowing past those institutions when national interest demand it. Bannonites detest the transnationalist dream even more intensely, though their hatred extends to mutual defense treaties and trade agreements that GOP foreign policy has historically welcomed.
Both camps, moreover, claim to have shed the illusions that they think got Washington into trouble after 9/11. They don’t believe that all of human history tends toward liberal democracy. “We are this,” they say to non-Western civilizations, “and you are that. You needn’t become like us, but don’t try to remake us in your image, either.” The Boltonians might pay some lip service to Reaganite ideals here and there, but as Bolton famously wrote in these pages: “Praise democracy, pass the ammunition.”
That’s where the similarities end. The Bannonites don’t share the Boltonian threat assessment: Vladimir Putin’s encroachments into Eastern Europe don’t exercise them, and they positively welcome Bashar Assad’s role in Syria. Boltonism favors expansion, Bannonism prefers retrenchment, if not isolation. Boltonism in its various iterations is the default worldview of the key national-security principals; not just Bolton himself but also the likes of Nikki Haley and Mike Pompeo. Bannonism is where I suspect the president’s own instincts lie.
It is hard to assess fully how these tensions are playing out in American foreign policy in the age of Trump. But one intellectual temptation to guard against is the tendency to view every move and every piece of rhetoric as a crazy Trumpian violation of the Eternal and Immutable Laws of American Strategy. In the main, Trump’s foreign policy appears alarming and discontinuous only to those who forget how far Barack Obama departed from mainstream, bipartisan foreign-policy traditions.
Bashing or withdrawing from UNESCO and the Human Rights Council because anti-Semitic, anti-Western “jackals” have taken these bodies hostage? That’s straight out of the Reagan-Bush-Daniel Patrick Moynihan playbook.
Ditto for rejecting the universal jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court because it would mean ceding American sovereignty to “an unelected, unaccountable, global bureaucracy,” as Trump put it Tuesday. Successive American administrations, including President Bill Clinton’s at various points, have opposed the creation of a world court that could be used by the “jackals” and their transnationalist allies to legally harass U.S. policymakers and soldiers alike.
Nor was there anything uniquely Trumpian, or uniquely sinister, about the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Legislation enacted by Congress more than two decades ago had required the State Department to recognize Jerusalem and move the American Embassy, and as the president noted in his speech, peace is “is advanced, not harmed, by acknowledging the obvious facts.” The move also reinforces the sovereigntist idea that a nation’s decision about the location of its embassy is not open to scrutiny by foreign busybodies.
Nor, finally, does praising imperfect but valuable allies somehow take Trump beyond the pale of respectable American policy. Trump’s support for Riyadh, Warsaw, and Jerusalem is a course correction. For years under Obama, Washington neglected these powers in favor of the likes of Tehran.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t some wild elements to Trump’s foreign policy. For those who came of age in the shadow of certain postwar certainties, it will never be easy to hear the commander in chief threaten tariffs against various rivals and partners from the podium at Turtle Bay. And if Obama disrespected allies with his policies, Trump does so with his rhetorical outbursts against allied leaders, especially in Western Europe, and his bizarre refusal to directly criticize Vladimir Putin.
That’s that irrepressible Bannonite modifier in the cocktail, though the color and flavoring are all Trump’s own.
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A blow for sanity.
At some point earlier this year, America’s sources inside the Kremlin went dark. U.S. officials who spoke to the New York Times about their dangerous new blindness said they didn’t believe that their formerly reliable sources had been neutralized. Instead, their spies went into hiding amid a newly aggressive counter-espionage campaign from Moscow. The Times sources offered a variety of theories to explain what could have spooked their assets, but the most disturbing among them was the fact that the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee had exposed a Kremlin-connected FBI and CIA source as part of a campaign of unprecedented disclosures regarding America’s intelligence gathering process.
The disclosure that compromised a U.S. informant is only one in a seemingly endless cascade of classified information that Republicans claim must be revealed to the public if we are ever going to get to the bottom of the sprawling conspiracy that was put together to prevent Donald Trump from becoming president. The president’s allies in Congress have appealed to previously unused methods to reveal confidential House Intelligence Committee memos and even highly secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants, but none of it has satisfied Donald Trump or his defenders. There is always another document to release.
Last week, President Trump publicly ordered his Justice Department to declassify the redacted portions of a FISA warrant targeting Trump campaign advisor Carter Page, related FBI interviews, and text message sent by former FBI Director James Comey. These documents were supposedly related to the special counsel’s investigation into his campaign, even though he confessed that he had “not reviewed them.” Of the investigation, the president said, “This is a witch hunt.” The move satisfied many in Congress who insist that the president’s own Justice Department is persecuting him, but Trump confessed that he had ordered the declassification at the behest of his ardent supporters in conservative media such as Lou Dobbs and Jeanine Pirro.
Trump’s order triggered a brief review of the most sensitive aspects of the intelligence he was prepared to declassify, and it seems that this information was sensitive enough that Trump’s advisers were able to convince him of the need to reverse course. And so, he did. On Friday, Trump announced that he would not allow the release of documents that “could have a negative impact on the Russia probe” and would jeopardize American relations with its key allies. And though he reserved the right to disclose these documents in the future, they would not be forthcoming anytime soon.
Trump’s allies in Congress were crestfallen. Three members told Fox News Channel’s Catherine Herridge that they were “blindsided” and “demoralized” by Trump’s about-face, but the president made a sober and rational decision. Not only has the withholding of these documents avoided the appearance of interference with Robert Mueller’s probe, but the president has also preserved America’s intelligence-sharing relationship with what he described as “two very good allies” that objected to the declassification.
Trump’s defenders in Congress who are inclined to flog the “deep-state” conspiracy theory should not be so disconsolate. According to ABC News’ sources, the documents Trump was prepared to disclose—just like documents before them—contained no smoking gun. Their sources insist that the documents and communications at issue would not have confirmed the suspicion among some observers that the FBI’s probe into the Trump campaign was based on the intelligence provided by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele. Instead, they would have confirmed that the investigation into Trump’s campaign began well before the FBI’s receipt of the “Steele dossier.” And when these disclosures failed to satisfy those who are most invested in nursing Trump’s persecution complex, there would be demands for more declassifications and more disclosures.
Conservatives with a healthy mistrust of federal agencies and the prevailing political culture within them may scoff at skeptics who are not eager to see U.S. intelligence documents sloppily released to the public. There are, after all, valid questions about the FISA Court’s oversight and the extent to which Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights are protected in counter-intelligence investigations that long predate Carter Page’s travails. But the interagency process and the oversight of appropriate redactions are designed to protect American intelligence assets and the assets of U.S. allies. It is all intended to preserve the integrity of U.S. sources and the methods they use to keep Americans safe.
If the Democratic Party was demanding these unprecedented disclosures with no regard for the geopolitical fallout and national-security risks they could incur, Republicans, you could be certain, would be raising hell. And they would be absolutely right to do so.
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RIP Paulina Płaksej.
It’s only Monday evening, which means Americans face another full week of political and cultural squalor. For an antidote, consider Paulina Płaksej, who died Sunday, aged 93. Our former COMMENTARY colleague Daniella Greenbaum broke news of Płaksej’s death on Twitter, which alerted me (and many others) to her inspiring life and that of her family, Polish Catholics who fed, hid, and rescued Jews during the Holocaust.
Zachariasz and Bronisława Płaksej, Paulina’s parents, moved from Lviv, Ukraine, to Kałusz before the outbreak of the war. There, Zachariasz worked as an accountant at a local mine and developed warm relations with the area’s Jews. Toward the end of 1941, when the Nazis forced the Jews of Kałusz into a newly created ghetto with an eye toward their extermination, Zachariasz and his family “acted as couriers, smuggling notes in and out of the ghetto,” according to the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous. Soon, assisting persecuted Jews became the family’s main business.
It helped that they resided on the outskirts of town. As Paulina later recounted, “we lived in seclusion and not in the center of the town, so it was very convenient for us. We were surrounded by gardens, orchards, the river was flowing nearby, and there was a slaughterhouse not far away. The Germans rarely visited this place, so our life was peaceful…” Even before the creation of the ghetto, Jewish children would stop by the Płaksej home for a bowl of hot soup and a brief respite from the cruelty of daily life under occupation.
Her father, Paulina recalled, “was a very religious person, and he believed that you should always help a man, your fellow creature, as our religion has it. The Jewish victim was not simply a Jew, but your fellow, a human being, wasn’t he?”
The Płaksejs took extraordinary risks to that end, creating an underground pipeline from the Kałusz ghetto to safety for Jews targeted for liquidation:
The first family to escape [the ghetto] was Sara, Solomon, and their son, Imek. They temporarily hid at Paulina’s house. When it became too dangerous for them to stay there, Zacharias found a safer place for them to hide. He brought Sara, Solomon, and Imek to a trusted friend who was already hiding Jews in a bunker beneath his barn. Later, another Jewish woman, Rozia, escaped from the ghetto and sought out the Plaksej family. They also brought her to the farmer’s bunker. Paulina regularly brought whatever food and supplies were needed. Sara, Solomon, Imek, and Rozia, along with thirteen other Jews, stayed in this bunker for over a year. To this day, the identity of the farmer is not known.
In 1944 Miriam, another inhabitant of the ghetto, learned that the Germans planned to liquidate the ghetto and deport or murder the inhabitants. Miriam asked Zacharias to save her two-year-old daughter, Maja. Zacharias contacted Miriam’s former maid and arranged for her to come rescue Maja. The maid brought a horse and cart, and the Jewish police helped smuggle the little girl out of the ghetto. The maid told her neighbors that this little girl was her daughter who had just returned from living with her grandparents.
Miriam was in one of the last groups of Jews to be deported to Auschwitz. As her group was marched to the train, Miriam quickly took off her armband and joined the crowds in the street. She went straight to the Plaksej house asking for help. They hid her in their wardrobe for a number of months. Zacharias obtained forged papers for her and took her to another village where she would not be recognized as a Jew. There she was picked up as a Pole and sent to a German farm as a forced laborer. After the war, she returned to the maid’s house, picked up her daughter, and reunited with her husband. Due to the efforts of Paulina and her family, all of the Jews they helped survived the war.
The State of Israel in 1987 recognized Paulina and her parents as Righteous Among the Nations. May we never forget these stories, and may we all strive to follow in their footsteps, even and especially amid our contemporary squalor.
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Podcast: Kavanaugh and Rosenstein.
Can you take what we say about the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh seriously considering we’re conservatives and he’s a conservative? Are we defending him because we are genuinely discomfited by how insubstantial the allegations against him are, or are we doing so because we agree with him ideologically? We explore this on today’s podcast. Give a listen.