The trial of Lewis Libby began on January 16, 2007. The former chief of staff to then–Vice President Dick Cheney was facing a five-count indictment for obstruction of justice, making false statements, and perjury regarding a Bush-administration leak of a CIA operative’s identity. For 90 minutes, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald made the case that Valerie Plame’s real name had been “known only to a small circle of intelligence professionals” because she had been a covert operative. Under U.S. law, the outing of any such operative is a felony. Fitzgerald claimed her name had been leaked by Libby to New York Times reporter Judith Miller. Why? To punish her husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, for publishing an explosive 2003 op-ed that had done great damage to the Bush administration.
Fitzgerald said that Libby, known as Scooter, had lied to him during the investigation of the leak to throw “sand…in his eyes.” His purpose in the trial was to make the jury see the lies and get at the truth, because, as Fitzgerald had said in an earlier statement, “the truth is the engine of our judicial system.”
It is now clear that nearly everything Fitzgerald said about Libby’s role in the Plame case was false—and that it was Fitzgerald, not Libby, who had compromised the truth and the judicial process. The proof comes in Miller’s The Story: A Reporter’s Journey, a memoir released in April. Miller, who would serve as a key witness in the Libby trial, reveals how Fitzgerald deliberately withheld evidence from her and from Libby’s lawyers that would have made a guilty verdict all but impossible—effectively charging that Fitzgerald framed Libby in a blatant act of prosecutorial misconduct.
Her story provides new weight to evidence that has accumulated over the course of a decade—evidence that the charges against Libby were a fraud, the trial a travesty, and the entire episode a tragedy for the United States and perhaps for Iraq.
In fact, the full story of the Scooter Libby case demolishes two powerful myths that have motivated the left since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and that helped to elect Barack Obama president in 2008.
The first myth is that the main justification for George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq (Saddam Hussein’s WMD programs) was a lie—a lie confirmed by Joseph Wilson’s exposure of false claims that Hussein had been pursuing yellowcake uranium in Niger. The administration’s supposed response to Wilson’s claims had been the pursuit of revenge against Wilson by exposing his wife’s covert identity. But as we now know, Libby did not “out” Plame. He was essentially convicted of a crime he didn’t commit—a crime, as Miller’s book reveals, Fitzgerald knew he hadn’t committed but had held as a sword of Damocles over Libby’s head in relentless pursuit of a criminal charge of Libby’s boss, the vice president of the United States.
The second myth is that the Bush administration had had no plan for fixing the deteriorating security situation in Iraq when the war did not end after the ouster of Saddam Hussein in April 2003. In fact, some in the Bush administration had a very clear strategy for dealing with post-invasion Iraq, and Libby was one of the strongest voices among them. The harrying of Libby by the media, and then by prosecutor Fitzgerald, took out an important voice in the internal debate. One can make a strong argument that it wasn’t the despised neocons or Dick Cheney whose policies triggered disaster in Iraq but rather the acts and policies of Secretary of State Colin Powell and the State Department—including Powell’s chief deputy, the man who really leaked Plame’s identity, Richard Armitage. Armitage kept mum while Fitzgerald prosecuted Scooter Libby for what Fitzgerald knew Armitage had done—and knew even before the Fitzgerald investigation began.
For months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration had presented evidence of WMDs in Iraq, culminating in Colin Powell’s dramatic speech at the United Nations on February 5, 2003, five weeks before the war began. But after the fall of Saddam, American forces failed to turn up evidence of the WMD stockpiles. Articles began appearing in the press suggesting that the Bush administration had known the WMD evidence had been flimsy but had pressed the case anyway.
In mid-June, Cheney received a call from a reporter regarding a story in the Washington Post. The story cited an unnamed U.S. ambassador who had been sent by the CIA in February 2002 on a mission to Niger to find out whether Saddam had been trying to obtain yellowcake uranium, and who had discovered the dictator had not done so. Nonetheless, nine months later, President Bush had asserted the opposite in his 2003 State of the Union speech when he said that “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
The story was of particular concern to Cheney, because the unnamed ambassador claimed Cheney had requested the trip, had therefore presumably known about the negative findings, and had allowed the 16 words about uranium to appear in the State of the Union. Cheney had requested no such mission. But he had known about Saddam’s pursuit of nuclear weapons for decades, most notoriously when he built a nuclear reactor for producing plutonium that was destroyed by Israeli warplanes in 1981. When Cheney was serving as Defense Secretary on the eve of Desert Storm in 1990, the Israelis had briefed him on Saddam’s ongoing program, and after the war in 1991, the International Atomic Energy Agency had declared that Saddam had been only one year away from a bomb. (Israel concluded it had been closer to six months.)
Indeed, Saddam had acquired yellowcake uranium, two hundred tons of it, back in the ’90s—but that materiel was under lock and key and subject to IAEA annual inspection. The relevant question was whether Saddam had, in the years since, illicitly sought yellowcake from Niger, one of the world’s major sources. A 2002 Defense Intelligence Agency report indicated he had, and that report drew support both from the CIA and from British intelligence. The fact that the CIA had dispatched a mission to Niger on the matter, hadn’t informed the White House, and that its author was now falsely claiming he had been sent at the behest of the White House, led Cheney to get on the horn to CIA director George Tenet.
“What the hell is going on, George?” Cheney wanted to know, according to Cheney’s own memoir, In My Time. Tenet admitted that neither he nor his deputy John McLaughlin had known of the trip. He did pass on one interesting tidbit: The unnamed ambassador’s wife was part of the interagency unit that had dispatched the ambassador to Niger.
On July 6, 2003, the anonymous source finally decided to publish an op-ed in the New York Times under his own name, Joseph C. Wilson IV. There Wilson again asserted he had been sent on the Niger mission at Cheney’s request; that Cheney and the CIA must have known Wilson had found no evidence of Saddam trying to obtain uranium; and that this proved the administration had deliberately twisted intelligence in order to justify going to war.
Wilson’s column, and his subsequent appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation, set off a media firestorm. President Bush (encouraged by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice) decided to approve the issuance of an apology for the 16 words in the State of the Union speech that had mentioned Saddam’s recent search for uranium. He did so even though British intelligence was standing by its report—and a parliamentary review committee later concluded that the president’s words in the State of Union had been “well founded.”
There was another, more fundamental problem with Wilson’s column: The report Wilson himself had delivered to the CIA in 2002 actually contradicted the claims in his own op-ed. It had shown that there had indeed been a meeting in 1999 between the Niger government and Saddam’s representatives. The Iraqis had expressed interest in “expanding commercial contacts” with Niger—which, since Niger’s principal export was uranium, could only have meant yellowcake. Wilson had told reporters the opposite, and he had written the opposite.
Even more strikingly, one of those who knew the Wilson op-ed had distorted his own report was Wilson’s wife. A report by the 2004 Senate Intelligence Committee shows Plame was involved in her husband’s selection and had read his report—and therefore must have known it contradicted what he was telling the media.
On July 11, 2003, the National Security Council had the CIA’s Tenet issue a statement saying that neither the CIA nor Vice President Cheney had sent Wilson to Niger and that Wilson’s own report undermined his column’s claims. Libby manned the phones to alert reporters to Tenet’s statement. He spoke to Matthew Cooper of Time, Miller of the New York Times, and several other journalists. These phone calls would haunt him later. Libby did not know that dozens of people in newsrooms around the country had already received the electronic transmission of a column by the investigative reporter Robert Novak that would blast the Wilson story into the media stratosphere. (Its contents were not public because it was set to run on July 14 and was “embargoed,” meaning it and its contents were not to be made public before publication. Such an embargo would not exist today in the age of Twitter, but it did then, and it held.)
Entitled “Mission to Niger,” the Novak column revealed that Wilson’s trip to Niger had been at the behest of his wife, Valerie Plame, “an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction.” Though he did not say so in the column, Novak had received that insider information from Undersecretary of State Richard Armitage in a call Armitage had placed to Novak. Novak then phoned CIA spokesman Bill Harlow, who confirmed it.
What were Armitage’s reasons for planting the story with Novak? One can only speculate. He may have wanted to use the information to deflect potential criticisms of his boss Colin Powell’s claims about WMDs at the United Nations (i.e., Powell didn’t know and couldn’t have reflected the findings of the report because this mission had been a CIA operation and had been kept from him). But if Armitage’s reasons for leaking Plame’s name were understandable, even if they might have been technically a violation of the law, his reasons for remaining silent while another man was hounded for it were anything but honorable—as we shall see.
Libby hadn’t been taken aback by Novak’s account. White House aide Karl Rove had mentioned the Plame-Wilson connection to Libby on July 11, and it had come up the following day when Libby was on the phone with Tim Russert of NBC. It was Russert who brought up Plame, her CIA identity, and the Wilson mission. This had “surprised” Libby, as he later told FBI interrogators, because didn’t think the information was widely known. (He did not know Novak’s column had been sitting there in newsroom computers for any enterprising journalist to read.)
Russert and Libby would later disagree on what was said in that phone call, with Russert contradicting himself on the witness stand. But the implications became clear when the Nation’s David Corn published a story a few days later arguing that the leaking of Plame’s identity as a CIA operative might have been a crime.
If so, it was a crime many had been committing in the previous month. Armitage did it twice, first to Novak (just like the CIA’s Harlow) and then to a Washington Post reporter on July 12. So did Karl Rove, who confirmed the fact first to Novak before mentioning it to Time’s Matt Cooper. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer mentioned it twice as well, first to a small circle of reporters on the presidential plane on July 11, then on the phone to a Washington Post reporter.
In fact, almost the only administration official talking to the press about the Wilson matter who hadn’t volunteered information about Plame, or confirmed her CIA employment, was Scooter Libby.
Still, when the CIA recommended a criminal referral in the Plame case later in the month, the speculation in the media was that since Cheney and Libby had been in the forefront of refuting Wilson’s column, they would be the targets of the case.
As it happens, that referral was remarkably routine. As John Rizzo, then acting CIA general counsel, wrote in his 2014 book Company Man, 400 such referrals are filed every year in response to possible criminal violations involving classified information. Rizzo said he had expected the Justice Department “to do little or nothing” regarding the disclosure of Plame’s job because “there was no evidence indicating that any CIA source or operation—or Plame herself—was placed in jeopardy.” According to Rizzo, “she was so obscure that I didn’t ever recall hearing her name, much less meeting her.”
Besides, “dozens if not hundreds of people knew she was an Agency employee.” Indeed, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell said on the air she had known it (a statement she later retracted when questioned on Don Imus’s show). To Rizzo, the idea that passing on a known fact could be construed as a serious criminal leak seemed absurd. “The crimes-reporting process had never been so trivialized and distorted like that in all my years at the CIA,” he wrote in Company Man.
But this routine referral involved a White House on the cusp of a presidential-election year, and so the story deepened and darkened for those with an axe to grind. For to hear anti-Bush partisans like Corn talk, it was not merely that the White House had supposedly lied about Niger and yellowcake—but that White House officials had deliberately placed a covert operative of the United States government in grave personal danger as retaliation because her husband had revealed a dangerous truth. That was how Andrea Mitchell framed the story when she broke the news of the criminal referral on September 26. Plame had been outed, she reported, “in retaliation against the woman’s husband, a former ambassador who publicly criticized President Bush’s since-discredited claim that Iraq had sought weapons-grade uranium from Africa.” Mitchell’s account was patently inaccurate, for the claim was not “discredited” (despite the White House’s disawoval); it was backed by reasonable collateral from other intelligence agencies, as British intelligence and the bipartisan Robb-Silberman commission later concluded.
Intense media speculation about the culprit had already narrowed to two names: Karl Rove and Scooter Libby. The person who actually had leaked Plame’s name, Richard Armitage, was nowhere near the suspect list.
Four days later, on September 30, 2003, the Justice Department announced it was launching a formal investigation of the Plame leak. Three months after that, the Justice Department announced the appointment of Patrick Fitzgerald, then U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, as special prosecutor. This was done to avoid the charge that the Bush administration could not fairly investigate those in its highest echelons.
Deputy Attorney General James Comey reportedly told Fitzgerald, “Follow this anywhere it goes.” In the end, Fitzgerald would take it where he wanted to go regardless of the facts.
But there was a profound oddity here. Fitzgerald began his work already knowing who had promulgated the leak, for Armitage had confessed as much to the FBI in October. “I may be the guy who caused this whole thing,” he reportedly told a State Department official.
But Fitzgerald declined to prosecute Armitage. Indeed, he told Armitage to keep his mouth shut. He didn’t prosecute Bruce Harlow or Fleischer either. He was after bigger fish. If he could catch either Rove or Libby lying to his investigators or making misstatements that could be portrayed as perjurious, he might be able to get them to turn on their bosses and “expose” a conspiracy reaching up to the president and vice president to punish Wilson by outing Plame.
This was a classic prosecutor ploy in cases involving the Mafia or other RICO-style investigations. It was a new and disturbing way to proceed against men with spotless, even distinguished, public records.
But with the media firestorm about the Plame story and the war in Iraq, Fitzgerald felt free to press ahead. Throughout the 2004 election cycle, the White House and Office of the Vice President were locked in a routine of reviewing and providing thousands of documents to the FBI, Justice Department, and then Fitzgerald; providing hours of sworn depositions in front of investigators; and long bouts of grand-jury testimony for both Rove and Libby. With the violence in Iraq growing and the occupation strategy flailing, with WMD investigator David Kay’s January 2004 report to Congress on the absence of stockpiles seeming to confirm Wilson’s claims that the administration had twisted intelligence about Saddam’s WMDs, and with Democrats who had supported the war now arguing that “Bush lied and people died,” Fitzgerald’s investigation had taken on a new importance. Its very existence was a way to portray the Bush policy in Iraq as not only the result of incompetence, but deliberate wrongdoing.
As 2004 bled into 2005, the investigation’s primary focus became Libby (ironically so, since between Libby and Rove, Libby was by far the less involved). It became clear to Libby’s team that Cheney’s was the scalp he really wanted when they were approached in October 2005 by Fitzgerald with an offer: “Unless you can deliver someone higher up—the vice president,” Fitzgerald told Libby lawyer Joe Tate, according to Miller’s account in The Story, “I’m going forth with the indictment.”
Libby refused. He knew Cheney wasn’t responsible for the leak, any more than he was. Fitzgerald then went ahead and indicted him in October 2005—not for leaking Plame’s name but on the charge that in the course of an almost-two year investigation he had lied to FBI investigators about three conversations in 2003.
One was the July 11 conversation with NBC’s Tim Russert, which—as Fitzgerald himself asserted—had had nothing to do with Valerie Plame. The second was a conversation with Time’s Cooper in which Cooper stated that Libby had confirmed Plame’s CIA employment. Cooper’s own notes, however, contradicted him, and the jury rejected his claim. The third was a July 12 conversation with the Times’s Miller—a charge the judge eventually tossed out himself.
The four-month trial and Libby’s eventual conviction would turn not on any physical evidence or proof, but on what the Hoover Institution’s Peter Berkowitz has called “a contest of recollections.” Libby eventually lost that. But this was a contest Fitzgerald had won from the start—with Judith Miller as his unwitting tool.
The full story of how Fitzgerald did so hinges on notes taken by Miller during a conversation with Libby on June 23, 2003. That conversation was about her experience watching the search for WMDs in Iraq. It had had nothing to do with Valerie Plame and had taken place more than a week before Wilson’s column appeared in the New York Times. That conversation, however, had already drawn Fitzgerald’s hostile attention, as her notes that day contained multiple references to Valerie Plame from various official sources—other sources, as it happened, than Libby.
Fitzgerald demanded the names of her sources. Citing her promises of confidentiality to them, Miller refused. Libby waived his confidentiality agreement, knowing their conversation was never about Plame and therefore irrelevant to the hunt for the leaker. She was found guilty of contempt and sent to jail, where she served 85 days. It was only after Fitzgerald agreed to limit his questions to Libby, and Libby reiterated his earlier waiver, that Miller agreed to testify.
At last, Fitzgerald got his chance to make her say what he wanted to hear. As Miller relates in The Story, Fitzgerald eagerly pounced on a single line in her notes on the Libby conversation where she had written in parentheses: “Wife Worked at Bureau?”
Fitzgerald asked: “Did Bureau mean FBI?” Miller told Fitzgerald she had no recollection of what her note, taken down two years earlier, really meant. Under Fitzgerald’s prodding, Miller came to believe that the reference to “Bureau” had to have meant the CIA. During Fitzgerald’s direct examination during the Libby trial, she said as much on the witness stand.
Here’s the problem with this: No knowledgeable government official like Libby, and indeed few people with any real knowledge of Washington, would use the term “the Bureau” to refer to the CIA. “The Bureau” is the FBI, just as “the Pentagon” is the Defense Department.
But this detail became crucial to Fitzgerald’s case against Scooter Libby, the accused leaker. For if Libby had discussed someone’s wife working at the CIA on June 23, Fitzgerald told the jury, then Libby had to have lied to FBI agents when they interviewed him as part of Fitzgerald’s investigation. Libby had described himself as being “surprised” when Tim Russert told him two weeks later that Plame had been instrumental in sending Wilson to Niger or at least that she had worked at the CIA (Libby couldn’t remember which).
“You don’t get surprised on Thursday,” Fitzgerald scornfully said in his final summary, “by something you’re giving out on Monday and Tuesday.”
In response, Libby’s lawyers pointed out that Russert had actually changed his testimony about their conversation. In his initial FBI interrogation, Russert had said he may indeed have discussed Plame with Libby on the 11th or 12th but couldn’t remember. But at trial, Russert said they couldn’t have discussed Plame at all, since Russert had only learned of her from reading Novak’s column on the 14th. Russert died a year later, and never explained the discrepancy; he may have said what he said at trial because if he had been the one to tell Libby, he would have violated the law protecting a covert operative’s identity.
In the end, the jury of 11 Democrats and one Green Party member chose to believe Fitzgerald’s assertion that Libby had lied about the Russert conversation. At Libby’s sentencing hearing, Fitzgerald urged the judge to impose harsh punishment “to make a clear statement that truth matters, and matters above all else in the judicial system.”
In light of what we know now, these words are especially appalling. Truth was the last thing Fitzgerald wanted to get at. The jurors had been right to be suspicious, for there was indeed something nefarious afoot—but on Fitzgerald’s part, not Libby’s.
As Miller has now revealed, Fitzgerald knew all along what the word Bureau had meant in her June 23 notes. It had been a reference to Plame’s earlier cover with the State Department when she was overseas. The CIA isn’t divided into bureaus; the State Department is.
Neither Miller nor Libby had known at the time that Plame had ever been under cover at State. Fitzgerald did know, however, when he deposed Miller; he had Plame’s entire job history in his files. But he deliberately withheld that information from Miller and from Libby’s lawyers. Instead, he encouraged Miller to believe the word Bureau had referred to Plame’s current CIA employment, and that the information had to have come from none other than Scooter Libby—even though she had had no clear memory of her conversation with Libby.
Only years later, after reading in Plame’s 2008 memoirs about her State Department cover, did Miller realize the truth. As she relates in The Story, she then remembered she had spoken to many State Department people before she had spoken to Libby. Moreover, if Libby had then known Plame was in fact a CIA employee, “he would not have used the word Bureau to describe where Plame had worked.” This piece of information had to have been something she had learned from someone else and had meant to ask Libby about, but which she may never have raised.
“A terrible thought struck me,” she writes. “Contrary to my testimony, had someone else told me that Plame worked at the State Department?…My heart sank. What if my testimony about events four years earlier had been wrong?…Had I helped to convict an innocent man?”
The inescapable conclusion is that she had—with the help of a prosecutor intent on gaining a conviction regardless of the truth. “I could have made good use of that,” Libby’s lawyer wistfully said when Miller told him of Plame’s State Department employment. Indeed he could have, which is why Fitzgerald made sure Libby’s team never got any information about Plame’s employment history. Fitzgerald had claimed it was irrelevant (and the judge in the case, Reggie Walton, had backed him up).
Without Miller’s testimony, Fitzgerald had had virtually no case. Other than Matt Cooper, the other reporters Fitzgerald had called to the stand—including Russert—testified that Libby had never discussed Plame with them. And the testimony of the government officials called on to prove Libby must have known about Plame’s CIA employment before July 11 had fallen apart.
But with Miller’s (unknowingly false) testimony, it became suddenly believable that Libby had been dissembling when he had claimed to be “surprised” by his conversation with Russert. Certainly the jury believed it and so found him guilty.
For Libby himself, his wrongful conviction was a personal tragedy. He lost his job and was disbarred, paid a $250,000 fine, and was nearly sent to jail until President Bush commuted his sentence at the last moment.
Further, the framing of Scooter Libby seemed to confirm the idea that “Bush lied and people died,” and that the entire justification of the war had been flawed, deliberately so. Fitzgerald himself contributed to that impression in his closing statement, declaring that there was “a cloud over the vice president,” thus implying that Cheney himself was an unindicted co-conspirator in the Plame leak case. He also suggested there was “a cloud over the White House as to what happened.”
Democrats were quick to seize on the implications. “The testimony unmistakably revealed—at the highest levels of the Bush administration—a callous disregard in handling sensitive national-security information,” proclaimed then–Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, “and a disposition to smear critics of the war in Iraq.”
But it was Cheney who was being smeared and Libby who had been callously railroaded.
Then–Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid felt it necessary to also weigh in. “It’s about time someone in the Bush administration has been held accountable for the campaign to manipulate intelligence and discredit war critics,” he said. Additionally the trial “revealed deeper truths about Vice President Cheney’s role in this sordid affair.” Yet the lies would stick, and a myth about the Iraq war was born: of manipulated intelligence, of lies about WMDs, of a former ambassador whistle-blower smeared, and his CIA employee outed as punishment.
The tragedy for the nation, however, extended even further. For the false charges against Scooter Libby may have had a deleterious effect on the debate over how to win in Iraq.
The Plame-Wilson scandal unfolded during the crucial summer after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, when everyone from the White House to GIs on the ground in Baghdad realized something had gone wrong with the U.S. strategy and that something needed to be done to fix it.
This would be the other myth about the decision to go to war with Iraq in April 2003, besides “Bush lied and people died”—that there was no planning for the aftermath, especially the possibility of a Sunni insurgency. That was not true. What follows is an account of Libby’s role in the run-up to and the aftermath of the initial invasion of Iraq in March 2003, taken from Michael Gordon and General Bernard Trainor’s authoritative account of the lead-up to the Iraq war, Cobra II (2006), Douglas Feith’s War and Decision (2008), Dick Cheney’s In My Time (2011), and conversations with Libby himself.
In January 2002, after decades-long worries about Saddam Hussein’s WMD programs had taken on new urgency in the shadow of 9/11, a debate began within the George W. Bush administration on whether and how to pull the trigger on the regime change Bill Clinton had endorsed six years earlier. A flurry of interagency meetings resulted, and Scooter Libby was a key participant.
As former deputy undersecretary of defense for the first president Bush, Libby was no stranger to military or strategic planning. In the new administration’s run-up-to-war councils, Libby was one of the advocates for getting some Iraqi voices involved in planning a post-Saddam Iraq. He pointed out that in 1999, Clinton had organized a conference of Iraqi exiles to discuss future Iraq democracy. Libby’s concern was that without Iraqis leading from the front, especially representatives of Iraq’s Shia majority, any post-Saddam regime would be seen as lacking credibility.
It was a view widely shared in the Pentagon. Key figures in the Defense Department such as Feith and Paul Wolfowitz expressed a strong belief that power should be handed over to Iraqis as soon as Saddam was gone, just as had been done in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. The Pentagon civilians and Libby were also insistent that the new Iraqi government be buttressed by a new 300,000 strong post-Saddam Iraqi army that would be used to keep the peace in case of any disorder—or get to work rebuilding the country if everything passed smoothly.
Across the river at the State Department, Colin Powell and Richard Armitage had had a very different plan. They envisaged a two-year American occupation of Iraq modeled on the occupations of Germany and Japan after World War II, with minimal Iraqi involvement until the U.S. government felt it was ready to hand over power to a responsible government.
To Rumsfeld and his team, as well as Libby representing the vice president, this seemed a formula for trouble. Later, Wolfowitz would urge the creation of an Iraqi provisional government before any invasion took place, but Powell and Armitage opposed that plan because they had bad relations with and deep suspicions of the leading exile leader, Ahmad Chalabi. State finally agreed to hold a meeting with Iraqi exile groups in April 2002 to discuss postwar plans, but the meeting didn’t take place until December—by which time the train of war was fully in motion.
But an American occupation without Iraqi participation wasn’t all that worried Libby in 2002. The previous fall he had read Cruelty and Silence, a book about the 1991 Iraqi Shia uprising by the Iraqi exile Samir Al-Khalil. It described how, during an uprising of Shia Iraqis following the liberation of Kuwait in 2001, Saddam and his Baath Party passed out arms from caches in hospitals, schools, mosques, and virtually every public building in Iraq to loyalist Sunnis to wage a massive campaign of urban guerrilla warfare in case the United States invaded to support the Shia. As far as anyone knew, those weapons caches still existed. In January 2003, Libby began arguing that Saddam might do it again in response to a U.S. attack.
He was not alone. During a war-games exercise prior to the Iraq invasion, a retired colonel named Gary Anderson had found that the only way Saddam could win was by launching an urban-based insurgency. Even as U.S. forces were advancing on Baghdad in April 2003, Anderson wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post warning that Saddam seemed to be doing just that with his auxiliary fedayeen forces, who were attacking U.S. troops and convoys with RPGs and machine-guns from the back of Toyota trucks. The Anderson op-ed raised concerns among Wolfowitz, Libby, Cheney, and others. But since the Pentagon planners assumed they would have a 300,000-man Iraqi army and an Iraqi government in place ready to deal with an insurgency if and when it broke out, they were not unduly alarmed.
Here, they proved to be tragically wrong. On March 13, 2003, a week before the invasion, President Bush weighed in with a fateful decision. He had put off endorsing the Pentagon’s plan for Iraq, as well as State’s, for fear his decision would shift the public debate from WMDs to regime change. Now at the last minute he unveiled a compromise, with a post-Saddam Iraq run by an American-led Coalition Provisional Authority that would hand the country over to an Iraqi-staffed Iraqi Interim Authority (IIA) “as soon as possible.” That interim authority would then pave the way for a new constitution and elected government. At the same time, he endorsed keeping an Iraq army of 300,000 in place in case of trouble.
The new plan generated confusion and friction, especially in the chaotic aftermath of the war (the CIA’s earlier prediction that Iraqi police would help the victors maintain order proved false). General Jay Garner, the first head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, told Iraqis that the handover to them would be almost immediate, a matter of months. His successor in early May, the State Department’s L. Paul Bremer, interpreted “as soon as possible” to mean at least two years, an approach Colin Powell fully supported. Bremer aide Walter Slocombe told Libby and others on June 3 that instead of the 300,000-man army in place Bush had agreed to, the new Iraqi forces would number less than 12,000 in the first year of the occupation. (Bremer and Slocombe had already ordered the old Iraqi army disbanded on May 23, throwing 400,000 Iraqi soldiers on the streets without pay.)
Libby was stunned by the change. “Who approved this number?” he asked Slocombe. No answer was forthcoming from either Slocombe or the Department of Defense.
Libby raised the issue of the inadequate size of the planned new Iraqi army at an NSC gathering of sub-Cabinet officials in mid-June. Libby argued that the real issue should be not how many Iraqi soldiers could be conveniently trained in a year, as Slocombe and others insisted, but how many would be needed to hold the country together now in the face of growing violence. Above all, he added, it was time to think about a strategy that would win the peace as effectively as the military had won the war. As Libby describes it, the response was a “resounding silence.”
June passed into July. Bremer’s relations with the Iraqis appointed to the IIA deteriorated. Terrorist bombings were now a daily occurrence, including one at the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad that killed the UN’s chief envoy and effectively ended the UN role in the rebuilding process. On July 7, 2003, General John Abizaid took over as head of America’s military forces in the region and announced that America was facing a guerrilla war.
Events in Iraq, however, were being overtaken by what was happening in Washington.
For the day before Abizaid took over CENTCOM, Joe Wilson’s New York Times column appeared. Libby recounts that he and Cheney held a meeting with Pentagon officials on July 11 to ask again that they reconsider the Slocombe plan. Given his experience at the Pentagon, Libby argued that what was needed in Iraq was a strategy for winning followed by an assessment of what size and type of forces were needed to carry out the victory strategy. This was effectively the opposite of what Bremer and Slocombe were doing.
Later that month, Libby was urging the vice president to push for a crash program to train hundreds of thousands of Iraqi soldiers to fight the escalating insurgency. (Bremer and Slocombe wanted Iraqis trained to deal with external threats only, leaving the terrorists to U.S. forces.) “Let’s have a WW2 effort,” Libby said, “to mobilize and get ahead of this thing.”
It wasn’t to be. The Pentagon’s generals were reluctant to get more deeply involved in Iraq; Abizaid and others still hoped the counterterrorism strategy they were employing would make the problem go away—presumably by killing terrorists faster than groups like the Baathists and al-Qaeda could recruit them. That turned out to be a horrible error. And by this point, only weeks after Wilson’s op-ed ran, Libby was already becoming enmeshed in efforts to deal with the gathering storm over yellowcake and then Valerie Plame—with his presence and effectiveness in presidential war councils proportionately diminished.
By the fall, the opportunities to reverse the course of occupation were slipping by, and Libby was finding himself at the center of a full-scale FBI investigation. He made one last stab at affecting policy by urging the defense analyst Gary Schmitt to pen an op-ed urging a change of strategy. It appeared on October 26, 2003, in the Washington Post under the title, “The Right Fight Now: Counterinsurgency, Not Caution, Is the Answer in Iraq.” It, too, went unheeded. Two months later, Patrick Fitzgerald was unleashed, and Libby’s hopes of effecting change faded to nothing.
In 2004, Paul Wolfowitz was one of those who still held out hope that a change was possible. In January he set out for Baghdad with Gary Anderson to get Bremer and his team to understand how and why the counterterrorism strategy was failing, in vain. Wolfowitz later told Judith Miller that Libby had been his “principal ally” in the early debate over conduct of the war, and that Libby’s “strong voice” was badly missed during the Fitzgerald-Plame furor. Wolfowitz believes that if the analysis Libby had been urging on the Pentagon in their July 11 meeting had been undertaken, it might “have led to a new strategy,” Miller writes, “and to the formation of Iraqi security forces capable of countering the insurgency years before” the change in strategy known as “the surge,” which stabilized Iraq beginning in 2007.
General Jack Keane, a principal architect of the surge, agrees. He told Miller that Libby was one of the first White House officials to realize the war might be lost if the Sunni insurgency wasn’t halted early. “Until he was distracted and ultimately taken by the investigation,” Keane stated, Libby had pushed hard for a fresh look at the failing counterterrorism strategy. “Without Scooter’s early efforts,” he adds, “I’m not sure the White House would have admitted failure and changed the military strategy” later on—particularly in the teeth of determined State Department opposition.
Cheney is equally emphatic in defending the role of his former chief of staff in the strategy debate. “It took enormous courage to walk into a crowded interagency meeting and say you are all wrong,” he said in 2013. The Plame investigation “distracted and undermined” his chief of staff’s effectiveness long before he was forced by his indictment to resign in December 2005.
Libby himself raises a slightly different point. If Libby had taken Fitzgerald’s offer and lied about his boss’s involvement in the Plame leak, Libby speculates, then Cheney, a major supporter of the later 2007 surge, would almost certainly have been forced to resign—and there likely would have been no surge at all.
The final irony is this: From 2003 to 2006, Bush’s war was effectively Colin Powell’s war—and therefore Dick Armitage’s as well. They had been the principal architects of the occupation, and when it began to fail and as voices like Libby’s were raised in doubt, the furor over Valerie Plame and the subsequent investigation into the leak of her name took out one of their key opponents. And they knew it.
On October 11, 2003, when the media witch hunt in the Plame case was at its height, there was a Cabinet meeting at the White House. When reporters were invited in to ask Bush a question about the investigation, Bush said he wanted anyone in his government who knew who had leaked Plame’s name to speak up. Sitting a couple of chairs away was Richard Armitage, the man who had done it. Sitting beside the president was Colin Powell, to whom Armitage had confessed days earlier.
They said nothing—and kept silent for three long years. By the time Armitage admitted publicly that he had been the leaker in September 2006, Patrick Fitzgerald’s monstrously successful and spectacularly dishonest war on Scooter Libby’s job, reputation, finances, and legal innocence was well on its way to its morally depraved triumph.
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The Smearing of Scooter Libby
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Exactly one week later, a Star Wars cantina of the American extremist right featuring everyone from David Duke to a white-nationalist Twitter personality named “Baked Alaska” gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue honoring the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. A video promoting the gathering railed against “the international Jewish system, the capitalist system, and the forces of globalism.” Amid sporadic street battles between far-right and “antifa” (anti-fascist) activists, a neo-Nazi drove a car into a crowd of peaceful counterprotestors, killing a 32-year-old woman.
Here, in the time span of just seven days, was the dual nature of contemporary American anti-Semitism laid bare. The most glaring difference between these two displays of hate lies not so much in their substance—both adhere to similar conspiracy theories articulating nefarious, world-altering Jewish power—but rather their self-characterization. The animosity expressed toward Jews in Charlottesville was open and unambiguous, with demonstrators proudly confessing their hatred in the familiar language of Nazis and European fascists.
The socialists in Chicago, meanwhile, though calling for a literal second Holocaust on the shores of the Mediterranean, would fervently and indignantly deny they are anti-Semitic. On the contrary, they claim the mantle of “anti-fascism” and insist that this identity naturally makes them allies of the Jewish people. As for those Jews who might oppose their often violent tactics, they are at best bystanders to fascism, at worst collaborators in “white supremacy.”
So, whereas white nationalists explicitly embrace a tribalism that excludes Jews regardless of their skin color, the progressives of the DSA and the broader “woke” community conceive of themselves as universalists—though their universalism is one that conspicuously excludes the national longings of Jews and Jews alone. And whereas the extreme right-wingers are sincere in their anti-Semitism, the socialists who called for the elimination of Israel are just as sincere in their belief that they are not anti-Semitic, even though anti-Semitism is the inevitable consequence of their rhetoric and worldview.
The sheer bluntness of far-right anti-Semitism makes it easier to identify and stigmatize as beyond the pale; individuals like David Duke and the hosts of the “Daily Shoah” podcast make no pretense of residing within the mainstream of American political debate. But the humanist appeals of the far left, whose every libel against the Jewish state is paired with a righteous invocation of “justice” for the Palestinian people, invariably trigger repetitive and esoteric debates over whether this or that article, allusion, allegory, statement, policy, or political initiative is anti-Semitic or just critical of Israel. What this difference in self-definition means is that there is rarely, if ever, any argument about the substantive nature of right-wing anti-Semitism (despicable, reprehensible, wicked, choose your adjective), while the very existence of left-wing anti-Semitism is widely doubted and almost always indignantly denied by those accused of practicing it.T o be sure, these recent manifestations of anti-Semitism occur on the left and right extremes. And statistics tell a rather comforting story about the state of anti-Semitism in America. Since the Anti-Defamation League began tracking it in 1979, anti-Jewish hate crime is at an historic low; indeed, it has been declining since a recent peak of 1,554 incidents in 2006. America, for the most part, remains a very philo-Semitic country, one of the safest, most welcoming countries for Jews on earth. A recent Pew poll found Jews to be the most admired religious group in the United States.1 If American Jews have anything to dread, it’s less anti-Semitism than the loss of Jewish peoplehood through assimilation, that is being “loved to death” by Gentiles.2 Few American Jews can say that anti-Semitism has a seriously deleterious impact on their life, that it has denied them educational or employment opportunities, or that they fear for the physical safety of themselves or their families because of their Jewish identity.
The question is whether the extremes are beginning to move in on the center. In the past year alone, the DSA’s rolls tripled from 8,000 to 25,000 dues-paying members, who have established a conspicuous presence on social media reaching far beyond what their relatively miniscule numbers attest. The DSA has been the subject of widespread media coverage, ranging from the curious to the adulatory. The white supremacists, meanwhile, found themselves understandably heartened by the strange difficulty President Donald Trump had in disavowing them. He claimed, in fact, that there had been some “very fine people” among their ranks. “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville,” tweeted David Duke, while the white-nationalist Richard Spencer said, “I’m proud of him for speaking the truth.”
Indeed, among the more troubling aspects of our highly troubling political predicament—and one that, from a Jewish perspective, provokes not a small amount of angst—is that so many ideas, individuals, and movements that could once reliably be categorized as “extreme,” in the literal sense of articulating the views of a very small minority, are no longer so easily dismissed. The DSA is part of a much broader revival of the socialist idea in America, as exemplified by the growing readership of journals like Jacobin and Current Affairs, the popularity of the leftist Chapo Trap House podcast, and the insurgent presidential campaign of self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders—who, according to a Harvard-Harris poll, is now the most popular politician in the United States. Since 2015, the average age of a DSA member dropped from 64 to 30, and a 2016 Harvard poll found a majority of Millennials do not support capitalism.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party of Donald Trump offers “nativism and culture war wedges without the Reaganomics,” according to Nicholas Grossman, a lecturer in political science at the University of Illinois. A party that was once reliably internationalist and assertive against Russian aggression now supports a president who often preaches isolationism and never has even a mildly critical thing to say about the KGB thug ruling over the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
Like ripping the bandage off an ugly and oozing wound, Trump’s presidential campaign unleashed a bevy of unpleasant social forces that at the very least have an indirect bearing on Jewish welfare. The most unpleasant of those forces has been the so-called alternative right, or “alt-right,” a highly race-conscious political movement whose adherents are divided on the “JQ” (Jewish Question). Throughout last year’s campaign, Jewish journalists (this author included) were hit with a barrage of luridly anti-Semitic Twitter messages from self-described members of the alt-right. The tamer missives instructed us to leave America for Israel, others superimposed our faces onto the bodies of concentration camp victims.3
I do not believe Donald Trump is himself an anti-Semite, if only because anti-Semitism is mainly a preoccupation—as distinct from a prejudice—and Trump is too narcissistic to indulge any preoccupation other than himself. And there is no evidence to suggest that he subscribes to the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories favored by his alt-right supporters. But his casual resort to populism, nativism, and conspiracy theory creates a narrative environment highly favorable to anti-Semites.
Nativism, of which Trump was an early and active practitioner, is never good for the Jews, no matter how affluent or comfortable they may be and notwithstanding whether they are even the target of its particular wrath. Racial divisions, which by any measure have grown significantly worse in the year since Trump was elected, hurt all Americans, obviously, but they have a distinct impact on Jews, who are left in a precarious position as racial identities calcify. Not only are the newly emboldened white supremacists of the alt-right invariably anti-Semites, but in the increasingly racialist taxonomy of the progressive left—which more and more mainstream liberals are beginning to parrot—Jews are considered possessors of “white privilege” and, thus, members of the class to be divested of its “power” once the revolution comes. In the racially stratified society that both extremes envision, Jews lose out, simultaneously perceived (by the far right) as wily allies and manipulators of ethnic minorities in a plot to mongrelize America and (by the far left) as opportunistic “Zionists” ingratiating themselves with a racist and exploitative “white” establishment that keeps minorities down.T his politics is bad for all Americans, and Jewish Americans in particular. More and more, one sees the racialized language of the American left being applied to the Middle East conflict, wherein Israel (which is, in point of fact, one of the most racially diverse countries in the world) is referred to as a “white supremacist” state no different from that of apartheid South Africa. In a book just published by MIT Press, ornamented with a forward by Cornel West and entitled “Whites, Jews, and Us,” a French-Algerian political activist named Houria Bouteldja asks, “What can we offer white people in exchange for their decline and for the wars that will ensue?” Drawing the Jews into her race war, Bouteldja, according to the book’s jacket copy, “challenges widespread assumptions among the left in the United States and Europe—that anti-Semitism plays any role in Arab–Israeli conflicts, for example, or that philo-Semitism doesn’t in itself embody an oppressive position.” Jew-hatred is virtuous, and appreciation of the Jews is racism.
Few political activists of late have done more to racialize the Arab–Israeli conflict—and, through insidious extension of the American racial hierarchy, designate American Jews as oppressors—than the Brooklyn-born Arab activist Linda Sarsour. An organizer of the Women’s March, Sarsour has seamlessly insinuated herself into a variety of high-profile progressive campaigns, a somewhat incongruent position given her reactionary views on topics like women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. (“10 weeks of PAID maternity leave in Saudi Arabia,” she tweets. “Yes PAID. And ur worrying about women driving. Puts us to shame.”) Sarsour, who is of Palestinian descent, claims that one cannot simultaneously be a feminist and a Zionist, when it is the exact opposite that is true: No genuine believer in female equality can deny the right of Israel to exist. The Jewish state respects the rights of women more than do any of its neighbors. In an April 2017 interview, Sarsour said that she had become a high-school teacher for the purpose of “inspiring young people of color like me.” Just three months earlier, however, in a video for Vox, Sarsour confessed, “When I wasn’t wearing hijab I was just some ordinary white girl from New York City.” The donning of Muslim garb, then, confers a racial caste of “color,” which in turn confers virtue, which in turn confers a claim on political power.
This attempt to describe the Israeli–Arab conflict in American racial vernacular marks Jews as white (a perverse mirror of Nazi biological racism) and thus implicates them as beneficiaries of “structural racism,” “white privilege,” and the whole litany of benefits afforded to white people at birth in the form of—to use Ta-Nehisi Coates’s abstruse phrase—the “glowing amulet” of “whiteness.” “It’s time to admit that Arthur Balfour was a white supremacist and an anti-Semite,” reads the headline of a recent piece in—where else? —the Forward, incriminating Jewish nationalism as uniquely perfidious by dint of the fact that, like most men of his time, a (non-Jewish) British official who endorsed the Zionist idea a century ago held views that would today be considered racist. Reading figures like Bouteldja and Sarsour brings to mind the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner’s observation that “the racialization of the world has to be the most unexpected result of the antidiscrimination battle of the last half-century; it has ensured that the battle continuously re-creates the curse from which it is trying to break free.”
If Jews are white, and if white people—as a group—enjoy tangible and enduring advantages over everyone else, then this racially essentialist rhetoric ends up with Jews accused of abetting white supremacy, if not being white supremacists themselves. This is one of the overlooked ways in which the term “white supremacy” has become devoid of meaning in the age of Donald Trump, with everyone and everything from David Duke to James Comey to the American Civil Liberties Union accused of upholding it. Take the case of Ben Shapiro, the Jewish conservative polemicist. At the start of the school year, Shapiro was scheduled to give a talk at UC Berkeley, his alma matter. In advance, various left-wing groups put out a call for protest in which they labeled Shapiro—an Orthodox Jew—a “fascist thug” and “white supremacist.” An inconvenient fact ignored by Shapiro’s detractors is that, according to the ADL, he was the top target of online abuse from actual white supremacists during the 2016 presidential election. (Berkeley ultimately had to spend $600,000 protecting the event from leftist rioters.)
A more pernicious form of this discourse is practiced by left-wing writers who, insincerely claiming to have the interests of Jews at heart, scold them and their communal organizations for not doing enough in the fight against anti-Semitism. Criticizing Jews for not fully signing up with the “Resistance” (which in form and function is fast becoming the 21st-century version of the interwar Popular Front), they then slyly indict Jews for being complicit in not only their own victimization but that of the entire country at the hands of Donald Trump. The first and foremost practitioner of this bullying and rather artful form of anti-Semitism is Jeet Heer, a Canadian comic-book critic who has achieved some repute on the American left due to his frenetic Twitter activity and availability when the New Republic needed to replace its staff that had quit en masse in 2014. Last year, when Heer came across a video of a Donald Trump supporter chanting “JEW-S-A” at a rally, he declared on Twitter: “We really need to see more comment from official Jewish groups like ADL on way Trump campaign has energized anti-Semitism.”
But of course “Jewish groups” have had plenty to say about the anti-Semitism expressed by some Trump supporters—too much, in the view of their critics. Just two weeks earlier, the ADL had released a report analyzing over 2 million anti-Semitic tweets targeting Jewish journalists over the previous year. This wasn’t the first time the ADL raised its voice against Trump and the alt-right movement he emboldened, nor would it be the last. Indeed, two minutes’ worth of Googling would have shown Heer that his pronouncements about organizational Jewish apathy were wholly without foundation.4
It’s tempting to dismiss Heer’s observation as mere “concern trolling,” a form of Internet discourse characterized by insincere expressions of worry. But what he did was nastier. Immediately presented with evidence for the inaccuracy of his claims, he sneered back with a bit of wisdom from the Jewish sage Hillel the Elder, yet cast as mild threat: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” In other words: How can you Jews expect anyone to care about your kind if you don’t sufficiently oppose—as arbitrarily judged by moi, Jeet Heer—Donald Trump?
If this sort of critique were coming from a Jewish donor upset that his preferred organization wasn’t doing enough to combat anti-Semitism, or a Gentile with a proven record of concern for Jewish causes, it wouldn’t have turned the stomach. What made Heer’s interjection revolting is that, to put it mildly, he’s not exactly known for being sympathetic toward the Jewish plight. In 2015, Heer put his name to a petition calling upon an international comic-book festival to drop the Israeli company SodaStream as a co-sponsor because the Jewish state is “built on the mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinian communities and sustained through racism and discrimination.” Heer’s name appeared alongside that of Carlos Latuff, a Brazilian cartoonist who won second place in the Iranian government’s 2006 International Holocaust Cartoon Competition. For his writings on Israel, Heer has been praised as being “very good on the conflict” by none other than Philip Weiss, proprietor of the anti-Semitic hate site Mondoweiss.
In light of this track record, Heer’s newfound concern about anti-Semitism appeared rather dubious. Indeed, the bizarre way in which he expressed this concern—as, ultimately, a critique not of anti-Semitism per se but of the country’s foremost Jewish civil-rights organization—suggests he cares about anti-Semitism insofar as its existence can be used as a weapon to beat his political adversaries. And since the incorrigibly Zionist American Jewish establishment ranks high on that list (just below that of Donald Trump and his supporters), Heer found a way to blame it for anti-Semitism. And what does that tell you? It tells you that—presented with a 16-second video of a man chanting “JEW-S-A” at a Donald Trump rally—Heer’s first impulse was to condemn not the anti-Semite but the Jews.
Heer isn’t the only leftist (or New Republic writer) to assume this rhetorical cudgel. In a piece entitled “The Dismal Failure of Jewish Groups to Confront Trump,” one Stephen Lurie attacked the ADL for advising its members to stay away from the Charlottesville “Unite the Right Rally” and let police handle any provocations from neo-Nazis. “We do not have a Jewish organizational home for the fight against fascism,” he quotes a far-left Jewish activist, who apparently thinks that we live in the Weimar Republic and not a stable democracy in which law-enforcement officers and not the balaclava-wearing thugs of antifa maintain the peace. Like Jewish Communists of yore, Lurie wants to bully Jews into abandoning liberalism for the extreme left, under the pretext that mainstream organizations just won’t cut it in the fight against “white supremacy.” Indeed, Lurie writes, some “Jewish institutions and power players…have defended and enabled white supremacy.” The main group he fingers with this outrageous slander is the Republican Jewish Coalition, the implication being that this explicitly partisan Republican organization’s discrete support for the Republican president “enables white supremacy.”
It is impossible to imagine Heer, Lurie, or other progressive writers similarly taking the NAACP to task for its perceived lack of concern about racism, or castigating the Human Rights Campaign for insufficiently combating homophobia. No, it is only the cowardice of Jews that is condemned—condemned for supposedly ignoring a form of bigotry that, when expressed on the left, these writers themselves ignore or even defend. The logical gymnastics of these two New Republic writers is what happens when, at base, one fundamentally resents Jews: You end up blaming them for anti-Semitism. Blaming Jews for not sufficiently caring enough about anti-Semitism is emotionally the same as claiming that Jews are to blame for anti-Semitism. Both signal an envy and resentment of Jews predicated upon a belief that they have some kind of authority that the claimant doesn’t and therefore needs to undermine.T his past election, one could not help but notice how the media seemingly discovered anti-Semitism when it emanated from the right, and then only when its targets were Jews on the left. It was enough to make one ask where they had been when left-wing anti-Semitism had been a more serious and pervasive problem. From at least 1996 (the year Pat Buchanan made his last serious attempt at securing the GOP presidential nomination) to 2016 (when the Republican presidential nominee did more to earn the support of white supremacists and neo-Nazis than any of his predecessors), anti-Semitism was primarily a preserve of the American left. In that two-decade period—spanning the collapse of the Oslo Accords and rise of the Second Intifada to the rancorous debate over the Iraq War and obsession with “neocons” to the presidency of Barack Obama and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—anti-Israel attitudes and anti-Semitic conspiracy made unprecedented inroads into respectable precincts of the American academy, the liberal intelligentsia, and the Democratic Party.
The main form that left-wing anti-Semitism takes in the United States today is unhinged obsession with the wrongs, real or perceived, of the state of Israel, and the belief that its Jewish supporters in the United States exercise a nefarious control over the levers of American foreign policy. In this respect, contemporary left-wing anti-Semitism is not altogether different from that of the far right, though it usually lacks the biological component deeming Jews a distinct and inferior race. (Consider the left-wing anti-Semite’s eagerness to identify and promote Jewish “dissidents” who can attest to their co-religionists’ craftiness and deceit.) The unholy synergy of left and right anti-Semitism was recently epitomized by former CIA agent and liberal stalwart Valerie Plame’s hearty endorsement, on Twitter, of an article written for an extreme right-wing website by a fellow former CIA officer named Philip Giraldi: “America’s Jews Are Driving America’s Wars.” Plame eventually apologized for sharing the article with her 50,000 followers, but not before insisting that “many neocon hawks are Jewish” and that “just FYI, I am of Jewish descent.”
The main fora in which left-wing anti-Semitism appears is academia. According to the ADL, anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses doubled from 2014 to 2015, the latest year that data are available. Writing in National Affairs, Ruth Wisse observes that “not since the war in Vietnam has there been a campus crusade as dynamic as the movement of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel.” Every academic year, a seeming surfeit of controversies erupt on campuses across the country involving the harassment of pro-Israel students and organizations, the disruption of events involving Israeli speakers (even ones who identify as left-wing), and blatantly anti-Semitic outbursts by professors and student activists. There was the Oberlin professor of rhetoric, Joy Karega, who posted statements on social media claiming that Israel had created ISIS and had orchestrated the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. There is the Rutgers associate professor of women’s and gender studies, Jasbir Puar, who popularized the ludicrous term “pinkwashing” to defame Israel’s LGBT acceptance as a massive conspiracy to obscure its oppression of Palestinians. Her latest book, The Right to Maim, academically peer-reviewed and published by Duke University Press, attacks Israel for sparing the lives of Palestinian civilians, accusing its military of “shooting to maim rather than to kill” so that it may keep “Palestinian populations as perpetually debilitated, and yet alive, in order to control them.”
One could go on and on about such affronts not only to Jews and supporters of Israel but to common sense, basic justice, and anyone who believes in the prudent use of taxpayer dollars. That several organizations exist solely for the purpose of monitoring anti-Israel and anti-Semitic agitation on American campuses attests to the prolificacy of the problem. But it’s unclear just how reflective these isolated examples of the college experience really are. A 2017 Stanford study purporting to examine the issue interviewed 66 Jewish students at five California campuses noted for “being particularly fertile for anti-Semitism and for having an active presence of student groups critical of Israel and Zionism.” It concluded that “contrary to widely shared impressions, we found a picture of campus life that is neither threatening nor alarmist…students reported feeling comfortable on their campuses, and, more specifically, comfortable as Jews on their campuses.” To the extent that Jewish students do feel pressured, the report attempted to spread the blame around, indicting pro-Israel activists alongside those agitating against it. “[Survey respondents] fear that entering political debate, especially when they feel the social pressures of both Jewish and non-Jewish activist communities, will carry social costs that they are unwilling to bear.”
Yet by its own admission, the report “only engaged students who were either unengaged or minimally engaged in organized Jewish life on their campuses.” Researchers made a study of anti-Semitism, then, by interviewing the Jews least likely to experience it. “Most people don’t really think I’m Jewish because I look very Latina…it doesn’t come up in conversation,” one such student said in an interview. Ultimately, the report revealed more about the attitudes of unengaged (and, thus, uninformed) Jews than about the state of anti-Semitism on college campuses. That may certainly be useful in its own right as a means of understanding how unaffiliated Jews view debates over Israel, but it is not an accurate marker of developments on college campuses more broadly.
A more extensive 2016 Brandeis study of Jewish students at 50 schools found 34 percent agreed at least “somewhat” that their campus has a hostile environment toward Israel. Yet the variation was wide; at some schools, only 3 percent agreed, while at others, 70 percent did. Only 15 percent reported a hostile environment towards Jews. Anti-Semitism was found to be more prevalent at public universities than private ones, with the determinative factor being the presence of a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter on campus. Important context often lost in conversations about campus anti-Semitism, and reassuring to those concerned about it, is that it is simply not the most important issue roiling higher education. “At most schools,” the report found, “fewer than 10 percent of Jewish students listed issues pertaining to either Jews or Israel as among the most pressing on campus.”F or generations, American Jews have depended on anti-Semitism’s remaining within a moral quarantine, a cordon sanitaire, and America has reliably kept this societal virus contained. While there are no major signs that this barricade is breaking down in the immediate future, there are worrying indications on the political horizon.
Surveying the situation at the international level, the declining global position of the United States—both in terms of its hard military and economic power relative to rising challengers and its position as a credible beacon of liberal democratic values—does not portend well for Jews, American or otherwise. American leadership of the free world, has, in addition to ensuring Israel’s security, underwritten the postwar liberal world order. And it is the constituent members of that order, the liberal democratic states, that have served as the best guarantor of the Jews’ life and safety over their 6,000-year history. Were America’s global leadership role to diminish or evaporate, it would not only facilitate the rise of authoritarian states like Iran and terrorist movements such as al-Qaeda, committed to the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews, but inexorably lead to a worldwide rollback of liberal democracy, an outcome that would inevitably redound to the detriment of Jews.
Domestically, political polarization and the collapse of public trust in every American institution save the military are demolishing what little confidence Americans have left in their system and governing elites, not to mention preparing the ground for some ominous political scenarios. Widely cited survey data reveal that the percentage of American Millennials who believe it “essential” to live in a liberal democracy hovers at just over 25 percent. If Trump is impeached or loses the next election, a good 40 percent of the country will be outraged and susceptible to belief in a stab-in-the-back theory accounting for his defeat. Whom will they blame? Perhaps the “neoconservatives,” who disproportionately make up the ranks of Trump’s harshest critics on the right?
Ultimately, the degree to which anti-Semitism becomes a problem in America hinges on the strength of the antibodies within the country’s communal DNA to protect its pluralistic and liberal values. But even if this resistance to tribalism and the cult of personality is strong, it may not be enough to abate the rise of an intellectual and societal disease that, throughout history, thrives upon economic distress, xenophobia, political uncertainty, ethnic chauvinism, conspiracy theory, and weakening democratic norms.
1 Somewhat paradoxically, according to FBI crime statistics, the majority of religiously based hate crimes target Jews, more than double the amount targeting Muslims. This indicates more the commitment of the country’s relatively small number of hard-core anti-Semites than pervasive anti-Semitism.
4 The ADL has had to maintain a delicate balancing act in the age of Trump, coming under fire by many conservative Jews for a perceived partisan tilt against the right. This makes Heer’s complaint all the more ignorant — and unhelpful.
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Review of 'The Once and Future Liberal' By Mark Lilla
Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, tells us that “the story of how a successful liberal politics of solidarity became a failed pseudo-politics of identity is not a simple one.” And about this, he’s right. Lilla quotes from the feminist authors of the 1977 Combahee River Collective Manifesto: “The most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.” Feminists looked to instantiate the “radical” and electrifying phrase which insisted that “the personal is political.” The phrase, argues Lilla, was generally seen in “a somewhat Marxist fashion to mean that everything that seems personal is in fact political.”
The upshot was fragmentation. White feminists were deemed racist by black feminists—and both were found wanting by lesbians, who also had black and white contingents. “What all these groups wanted,” explains Lilla, “was more than social justice and an end to the [Vietnam] war. They also wanted there to be no space between what they felt inside and what they saw and did in the world.” He goes on: “The more obsessed with personal identity liberals become, the less willing they become to engage in reasoned political debate.” In the end, those on the left came to a realization: “You can win a debate by claiming the greatest degree of victimization and thus the greatest outrage at being subjected to questioning.”
But Lilla’s insights into the emotional underpinnings of political correctness are undercut by an inadequate, almost bizarre sense of history. He appears to be referring to the 1970s when, zigzagging through history, he writes that “no recognition of personal or group identity was coming from the Democratic Party, which at the time was dominated by racist Dixiecrats and white union officials of questionable rectitude.”
What is he talking about? Is Lilla referring to the Democratic Party of Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern? Is he referring obliquely to George Wallace? If so, why is Wallace never mentioned? Lilla seems not to know that it was the 1972 McGovern Democratic Convention that introduced minority seating to be set aside for blacks and women.
At only 140 pages, this is a short book. But even so, Lilla could have devoted a few pages to Frankfurt ideologist Herbert Marcuse and his influence on the left. In the 1960s, Marcuse argued that leftists and liberals were entitled to restrain centrist and conservative speech on the grounds that the universities had to act as a counterweight to society at large. But this was not just rhetoric; in the campus disruption of the early 1970s at schools such as Yale, Cornell, and Amherst, Marcuse’s ideals were pushed to the fore.
If Lilla’s argument comes off as flaccid, perhaps that’s because the aim of The Once and Future Liberal is more practical than principled. “The only way” to protect our rights, he tells the reader, “is to elect liberal Democratic governors and state legislators who’ll appoint liberal state attorneys.” According to Lilla, “the paradox of identity liberalism” is that it undercuts “the things it professes to want,” namely political power. He insists, rightly, that politics has to be about persuasion but then contradicts himself in arguing that “politics is about seizing power to defend the truth.” In other words, Lilla wants a better path to total victory.
Given what Lilla, descending into hysteria, describes as “the Republican rage for destruction,” liberals and Democrats have to win elections lest the civil rights of blacks, women, and gays are rolled back. As proof of the ever-looming danger, he notes that when the “crisis of the mid-1970s threatened…the country turned not against corporations and banks, but against liberalism.” Yet he gives no hint of the trail of liberal failures that led to the crisis of the mid-’70s. You’d never know reading Lilla, for example, that the Black Power movement intensified racial hostilities that were then further exacerbated by affirmative action and busing. And you’d have no idea that, at considerable cost, the poverty programs of the Great Society failed to bring poorer African Americans into the economic mainstream. Nor does Lilla deal with the devotion to Keynesianism that produced inflation without economic growth during the Carter presidency.
Despite his discursive ambling through the recent history of American political life, Lilla has a one-word explanation for identity politics: Reaganism. “Identity,” he writes, is “Reaganism for lefties.” What’s crucial in combating Reaganism, he argues, is to concentrate on our “shared political” status as citizens. “Citizenship is a crucial weapon in the battle against Reaganite dogma because it brings home that fact that we are part of a legitimate common enterprise.” But then he asserts that the “American right uses the term citizenship today as a means of exclusion.” The passage might lead the reader to think that Lilla would take up the question of immigration and borders. But he doesn’t, and the closing passages of the book dribble off into characteristic zigzags. Lilla tells us that “Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity” but then goes on, without evidence, to assert the accuracy of the Black Lives Matter claim that African-Americans have been singled out for police mistreatment.
It would be nice to argue that The Once and Future Liberal is a near miss, a book that might have had enduring importance if only it went that extra step. But Lilla’s passing insights on the perils of a politically correct identity politics drown in the rhetoric of conventional bromides that fill most of the pages of this disappointing book.
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n Athens several years ago, I had dinner with a man running for the national parliament. I asked him whether he thought he had a shot at winning. He was sure of victory, he told me. “I have hired a very famous political consultant from Washington,” he said. “He is the man who elected Reagan. Expensive. But the best.”
The political genius he then described was a minor political flunky I had met in Washington long ago, a more-or-less anonymous member of the Republican National Committee before he faded from view at the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term. Mutual acquaintances told me he still lived in a nice neighborhood in Northern Virginia, but they never could figure out what the hell he did to earn his money. (This is a recurring mystery throughout the capital.) I had to come to Greece to find the answer.
It is one of the dark arts of Washington, this practice of American political hacks traveling to faraway lands and suckering foreign politicians into paying vast sums for splashy, state-of-the-art, essentially worthless “services.” And it’s perfectly legal. Paul Manafort, who briefly managed Donald Trump’s campaign last summer, was known as a pioneer of the globe-trotting racket. If he hadn’t, as it were, veered out of his gutter into the slightly higher lane of U.S. presidential politics, he likely could have hoovered cash from the patch pockets of clueless clients from Ouagadougou to Zagreb for the rest of his natural life and nobody in Washington would have noticed.
But he veered, and now he and a colleague find themselves indicted by Robert Mueller, the Inspector Javert of the Russian-collusion scandal. When those indictments landed, they instantly set in motion the familiar scramble. Trump fans announced that the indictments were proof that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians—or, in the crisp, emphatic phrasing of a tweet by the world’s Number One Trump Fan, Donald Trump: “NO COLLUSION!!!!” The Russian-scandal fetishists in the press corps replied in chorus: It’s still early! Javert required more time, and so will Mueller, and so will they.
A good Washington scandal requires a few essential elements. One is a superabundance of information. From these data points, conspiracy-minded reporters can begin to trace associations, warranted or not, and from the associations, they can infer motives and objectives with which, stretched together, they can limn a full-blown conspiracy theory. The Manafort indictment released a flood of new information, and at once reporters were pawing for nuggets that might eventually form a compelling case for collusion.
They failed to find any because Manafort’s indictment, in essence, involved his efforts to launder his profits from his international political work, not his work for the Trump campaign. Fortunately for the obsessives, another element is required for a good scandal: a colorful cast. The various Clinton scandals brought us Asian money-launderers and ChiCom bankers, along with an entire Faulkner-novel’s worth of bumpkins, sharpies, and backwoods swindlers, plus that intern in the thong. Watergate, the mother lode of Washington scandals, featured a host of implausible characters, from the central-casting villain G. Gordon Liddy to Sam Ervin, a lifelong segregationist and racist who became a hero to liberals everywhere.
Here, at last, is one area where the Russian scandal has begun to show promise. Manafort and his business partner seem too banal to hold the interest of anyone but a scandal obsessive. Beneath the pile of paper Mueller dumped on them, however, another creature could be seen peeking out shyly. This would be the diminutive figure of George Papadopoulos. An unpaid campaign adviser to Trump, Papadopoulos pled guilty to lying to the FBI about the timing of his conversations with Russian agents. He is quickly becoming the stuff of legend.
Papadopoulos is an exemplar of a type long known to American politics. He is the nebbish bedazzled by the big time—achingly ambitious, though lacking the skill, or the cunning, to climb the greasy pole. So he remains at the periphery of the action, ever eager to serve. Papadopoulos’s résumé, for a man under 30, is impressively padded. He said he served as the U.S. representative to the Model United Nations in 2012, though nobody recalls seeing him there. He boasted of a four-year career at the Hudson Institute, though in fact he spent one year there as an unpaid intern and three doing contract research for one of Hudson’s scholars. On his LinkedIn page, he listed himself as a keynote speaker at a Greek American conference in 2008, but in fact he participated only in a panel discussion. The real keynoter was Michael Dukakis.
With this hunger for achievement, real or imagined, Papadopoulos could not let a presidential campaign go by without climbing aboard. In late 2015, he somehow attached himself to Ben Carson’s campaign. He was never paid and lasted four months. His presence went largely unnoticed. “If there was any work product, I never saw it,” Carson’s campaign manager told Time. The deputy campaign manager couldn’t even recall his name. Then suddenly, in April 2016, Papadopoulos appeared on a list of “foreign-policy advisers” to Donald Trump—and, according to Mueller’s court filings, resolved to make his mark by acting as a liaison between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.
While Mueller tells the story of Papadopoulos’s adventures in the dry, Joe Friday prose of a legal document, it could easily be the script for a Peter Sellers movie from the Cold War era. The young man’s résumé is enough to impress the campaign’s impressionable officials as they scavenge for foreign-policy advisers: “Hey, Corey! This dude was in the Model United Nations!”
Papadopoulus (played by Sellers) sets about his mission. A few weeks after signing on to the campaign, he travels to Europe, where he meets a mysterious “Professor” (Peter Ustinov). “Initially the Professor seemed uninterested in Papadopoulos,” says Mueller’s indictment. A likely story! Yet when Papadopoulus lets drop that he’s an adviser to Trump, the Professor suddenly “appeared to take great interest” in him. They arrange a meeting in London to which the Professor invites a “female Russian national” (Elke Sommer). Without much effort, the femme fatale convinces Papadopoulus that she is Vladimir Putin’s niece. (“I weel tell z’American I em niece of Great Leader! Zat idjut belief ennytink!”) Over the next several months our hero sends many emails to campaign officials and to the Professor, trying to arrange a meeting between them. As far we know from the indictment, nothing came of his mighty efforts.
And there matters lay until January 2017, when the FBI came calling. Agents asked Papadopoulos about his interactions with the Russians. Even though he must have known that hundreds of his emails on the subject would soon be available to the FBI, he lied and told the agents that the contacts had occurred many months before he joined the campaign. History will record Papadopoulos as the man who forgot that emails carry dates on them. After the FBI interview, according to the indictment, he tried to destroy evidence with the same competence he has brought to his other endeavors. He closed his Facebook account, on which several communications with the Russians had taken place. He threw out his old cellphone. (That should do it!) After that, he began wearing a blindfold, on the theory that if he couldn’t see the FBI, the FBI couldn’t see him.
I made that last one up, obviously. For now, the great hope of scandal hobbyists is that Papadopoulus was wearing a wire between the time he secretly pled guilty and the time his plea was made public. This would have allowed him to gather all kinds of incriminating dirt in conversations with former colleagues. And the dirt is there, all right, as the Manafort indictment proves. Unfortunately for our scandal fetishists, so far none of it shows what their hearts most desire: active collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
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An affair to remember
All this changed with the release in 1967 of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Mike Nichols’s The Graduate. These two films, made in nouveau European style, treated familiar subjects—a pair of Depression-era bank robbers and a college graduate in search of a place in the adult world—in an unmistakably modern manner. Both films were commercial successes that catapulted their makers and stars into the top echelon of what came to be known as “the new Hollywood.”
Bonnie and Clyde inaugurated a new era in which violence on screen simultaneously became bloodier and more aestheticized, and it has had enduring impact as a result. But it was The Graduate that altered the direction of American moviemaking with its specific appeal to younger and hipper moviegoers who had turned their backs on more traditional cinematic fare. When it opened in New York in December, the movie critic Hollis Alpert reported with bemusement that young people were lining up in below-freezing weather to see it, and that they showed no signs of being dismayed by the cold: “It was as though they all knew they were going to see something good, something made for them.”
The Graduate, whose aimless post-collegiate title character is seduced by the glamorous but neurotic wife of his father’s business partner, is part of the common stock of American reference. Now, a half-century later, it has become the subject of a book-length study, Beverly Gray’s Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation.1 As is so often the case with pop-culture books, Seduced by Mrs. Robinson is almost as much about its self-absorbed Baby Boomer author (“The Graduate taught me to dance to the beat of my own drums”) as its subject. It has the further disadvantage of following in the footsteps of Mark Harris’s magisterial Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008), in which the film is placed in the context of Hollywood’s mid-’60s cultural flux. But Gray’s book offers us a chance to revisit this seminal motion picture and consider just why it was that The Graduate spoke to Baby Boomers in a distinctively personal way.T he Graduate began life in 1963 as a novella of the same name by Charles Webb, a California-born writer who saw his book not as a comic novel but as a serious artistic statement about America’s increasingly disaffected youth. It found its way into the hands of a producer named Lawrence Turman who saw The Graduate as an opportunity to make the cinematic equivalent of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Turman optioned the book, then sent it to Mike Nichols, who in 1963 was still best known for his comic partnership with Elaine May but had just made his directorial debut with the original Broadway production of Barefoot in the Park.
Both men saw that The Graduate posed a problem to anyone seeking to put it on the screen. In Turman’s words, “In the book the character of Benjamin Braddock is sort of a whiny pain in the fanny [whom] you want to shake or spank.” To this end, they turned to Buck Henry, who had co-created the popular TV comedy Get Smart with Mel Brooks, to write a screenplay that would retain much of Webb’s dryly witty dialogue (“I think you’re the most attractive of all my parents’ friends”) while making Benjamin less priggish.
Nichols’s first major act was casting Dustin Hoffman, an obscure New York stage actor pushing 30, for the title role. No one but Nichols seems to have thought him suitable in any way. Not only was Hoffman short and nondescript-looking, but he was unmistakably Jewish, whereas Benjamin is supposedly the scion of a newly monied WASP family from southern California. Nevertheless, Nichols decided he wanted “a short, dark, Jewish, anomalous presence, which is how I experience myself,” in order to underline Benjamin’s alienation from the world of his parents.
Nichols filled the other roles in equally unexpected ways. He hired the Oscar winner Anne Bancroft, only six years Hoffman’s senior, to play the unbalanced temptress who lures Benjamin into her bed, then responds with volcanic rage when he falls in love with her beautiful daughter Elaine. He and Henry also steered clear of on-screen references to the campus protests that had only recently started to convulse America. Instead, he set The Graduate in a timeless upper-middle-class milieu inhabited by people more interested in social climbing than self-actualization—the same milieu from which Benjamin is so alienated that he is reduced to near-speechlessness whenever his family and their friends ask him what he plans to do now that he has graduated.
The film’s only explicit allusion to its cultural moment is the use on the soundtrack of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” the painfully earnest anthem of youthful angst that is for all intents and purposes the theme song of The Graduate. Nevertheless, Henry’s screenplay leaves little doubt that the film was in every way a work of its time and place. As he later explained to Mark Harris, it is a study of “the disaffection of young people for an environment that they don’t seem to be in sync with.…Nobody had made a film specifically about that.”
This aspect of The Graduate is made explicit in a speech by Benjamin that has no direct counterpart in the novel: “It’s like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean, no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”
The Graduate was Nichols’s second film, following his wildly successful movie version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Albee’s play was a snarling critique of the American dream, which he believed to be a snare and a delusion. The Graduate had the same skeptical view of postwar America, but its pessimism was played for laughs. When Benjamin is assured by a businessman in the opening scene that the secret to success in America is “plastics,” we are meant to laugh contemptuously at the smugness of so blinkered a view of life. Moreover, the contempt is as real as the laughter: The Graduate has it both ways. For the same reason, the farcical quality of the climactic scene (in which Benjamin breaks up Elaine’s marriage to a handsome young WASP and carts her off to an unknown fate) is played without musical underscoring, a signal that what Benjamin is doing is really no laughing matter.
The youth-oriented message of The Graduate came through loud and clear to its intended audience, which paid no heed to the mixed reviews from middle-aged reviewers unable to grasp what Nichols and Henry were up to. Not so Roger Ebert, the newly appointed 25-year-old movie critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, who called The Graduate “the funniest American comedy of the year…because it has a point of view. That is to say, it is against something.”
Even more revealing was the response of David Brinkley, then the co-anchor of NBC’s nightly newscast, who dismissed The Graduate as “frantic nonsense” but added that his college-age son and his classmates “liked it because it said about the parents and others what they would have said about us if they had made the movie—that we are self-centered and materialistic, that we are licentious and deeply hypocritical about it, that we try to make them into walking advertisements for our own affluence.”
A year after the release of The Graduate, a film-industry report cited in Pictures at a Revolution revealed that “48 percent of all movie tickets in America were now being sold to filmgoers under the age of 24.” A very high percentage of those tickets were to The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. At long last, Hollywood had figured out what the Baby Boomers wanted to see.A nd how does The Graduate look a half-century later? To begin with, it now appears to have been Mike Nichols’s creative “road not taken.” In later years, Nichols became less an auteur than a Hollywood director who thought like a Broadway director, choosing vehicles of solid middlebrow-liberal appeal and serving them faithfully without imposing a strong creative vision of his own. In The Graduate, by contrast, he revealed himself to be powerfully aware of the same European filmmaking trends that shaped Bonnie and Clyde. Within a naturalistic framework, he deployed non-naturalistic “new wave” cinematographic techniques with prodigious assurance—and he was willing to end The Graduate on an ambiguous note instead of wrapping it up neatly and pleasingly, letting the camera linger on the unsure faces of Hoffman and Ross as they ride off into an unsettling future.
It is this ambiguity, coupled with Nichols’s prescient decision not to allow The Graduate to become a literal portrayal of American campus life in the troubled mid-’60s, that has kept the film fresh. But The Graduate is fresh in a very particular way: It is a young person’s movie, the tale of a boy-man terrified by the prospect of growing up to be like his parents. Therein lay the source of its appeal to young audiences. The Graduate showed them what they, too, feared most, and hinted at a possible escape route.
In the words of Beverly Gray, who saw The Graduate when it first came out in 1967: “The Graduate appeared in movie houses just as we young Americans were discovering how badly we wanted to distance ourselves from the world of our parents….That polite young high achiever, those loving but smothering parents, those comfortable but slightly bland surroundings: They combined to form an only slightly exaggerated version of my own cozy West L.A. world.”
Yet to watch The Graduate today—especially if you first saw it when much younger—is also to be struck by the extreme unattractiveness of its central character. Hoffman plays Benjamin not as the comically ineffectual nebbish of Jewish tradition but as a near-catatonic robot who speaks by turns in a flat monotone and a frightened nasal whine. It is impossible to understand why Mrs. Robinson would want to go to bed with such a mousy creature, much less why Elaine would run off with him—an impression that has lately acquired an overlay of retrospective irony in the wake of accusations that Hoffman has sexually harassed female colleagues on more than one occasion. Precisely because Benjamin is so unlikable, it is harder for modern-day viewers to identify with him in the same way as did Gray and her fellow Boomers. To watch a Graduate-influenced film like Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming (1995), a poignant romantic comedy about a group of Gen-X college graduates who deliberately choose not to get on with their lives, is to see a closely similar dilemma dramatized in an infinitely more “relatable” way, one in which the crippling anxiety of the principal characters is presented as both understandable and pitiable, thus making it funnier.
Be that as it may, The Graduate is a still-vivid snapshot of a turning point in American cultural history. Before Benjamin Braddock, American films typically portrayed men who were not overgrown, smooth-faced children but full-grown adults, sometimes misguided but incontestably mature. After him, permanent immaturity became the default position of Hollywood-style masculinity.
For this reason, it will be interesting to see what the Millennials, so many of whom demand to be shielded from the “triggering” realities of adult life, make of The Graduate if and when they come to view it. I have a feeling that it will speak to a fair number of them far more persuasively than it did to those of us who—unlike Benjamin Braddock—longed when young to climb the high hill of adulthood and see for ourselves what awaited us on the far side.
1 Algonquin, 278 pages
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“I think that’s best left to states and locales to decide,” DeVos replied. “If the underlying question is . . .”
Murphy interrupted. “You can’t say definitively today that guns shouldn’t be in schools?”
“Well, I will refer back to Senator Enzi and the school that he was talking about in Wapiti, Wyoming, I think probably there, I would imagine that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”
Murphy continued his line of questioning unfazed. “If President Trump moves forward with his plan to ban gun-free school zones, will you support that proposal?”
“I will support what the president-elect does,” DeVos replied. “But, senator, if the question is around gun violence and the results of that, please know that my heart bleeds and is broken for those families that have lost any individual due to gun violence.”
Because all this happened several million outrage cycles ago, you may have forgotten what happened next. Rather than mention DeVos’s sympathy for the victims of gun violence, or her support for federalism, or even her deference to the president, the media elite fixated on her hypothetical aside about grizzly bears.
“Betsy DeVos Cites Grizzly Bears During Guns-in-Schools Debate,” read the NBC News headline. “Citing grizzlies, education nominee says states should determine school gun policies,” reported CNN. “Sorry, Betsy DeVos,” read a headline at the Atlantic, “Guns Aren’t a Bear Necessity in Schools.”
DeVos never said that they were, of course. Nor did she “cite” the bear threat in any definitive way. What she did was decline the opportunity to make a blanket judgment about guns and schools because, in a continent-spanning nation of more than 300 million people, one standard might not apply to every circumstance.
After all, there might be—there are—cases when guns are necessary for security. Earlier this year, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed into law a bill authorizing some retired police officers to carry firearms while working as school guards. McAuliffe is a Democrat.
In her answer to Murphy, DeVos referred to a private meeting with Senator Enzi, who had told her of a school in Wyoming that has a fence to keep away grizzly bears. And maybe, she reasoned aloud, the school might have a gun on the premises in case the fence doesn’t work.
As it turns out, the school in Wapiti is gun-free. But we know that only because the Washington Post treated DeVos’s offhand remark as though it were the equivalent of Alexander Butterfield’s revealing the existence of the secret White House tapes. “Betsy DeVos said there’s probably a gun at a Wyoming school to ward off grizzlies,” read the Post headline. “There isn’t.” Oh, snap!
The article, like the one by NBC News, ended with a snarky tweet. The Post quoted user “Adam B.,” who wrote, “‘We need guns in schools because of grizzly bears.’ You know what else stops bears? Doors.” Clever.
And telling. It becomes more difficult every day to distinguish between once-storied journalistic institutions and the jabbering of anonymous egg-avatar Twitter accounts. The eagerness with which the press misinterprets and misconstrues Trump officials is something to behold. The “context” the best and brightest in media are always eager to provide us suddenly goes poof when the opportunity arises to mock, impugn, or castigate the president and his crew. This tendency is especially pronounced when the alleged gaffe fits neatly into a prefabricated media stereotype: that DeVos is unqualified, say, or that Rick Perry is, well, Rick Perry.
On November 2, the secretary of energy appeared at an event sponsored by Axios.com and NBC News. He described a recent trip to Africa:
It’s going to take fossil fuels to push power out to those villages in Africa, where a young girl told me to my face, “One of the reasons that electricity is so important to me is not only because I won’t have to try to read by the light of a fire, and have those fumes literally killing people, but also from the standpoint of sexual assault.” When the lights are on, when you have light, it shines the righteousness, if you will, on those types of acts. So from the standpoint of how you really affect people’s lives, fossil fuels is going to play a role in that.
This heartfelt story of the impact of electrification on rural communities was immediately distorted into a metaphor for Republican ignorance and cruelty.
“Energy Secretary Rick Perry Just Made a Bizarre Claim About Sexual Assault and Fossil Fuels,” read the Buzzfeed headline. “Energy Secretary Rick Perry Says Fossil Fuels Can Prevent Sexual Assault,” read the headline from NBC News. “Rick Perry Says the Best Way to Prevent Rape Is Oil, Glorious Oil,” said the Daily Beast.
“Oh, that Rick Perry,” wrote Gail Collins in a New York Times column. “Whenever the word ‘oil’ is mentioned, Perry responds like a dog on the scent of a hamburger.” You will note that the word “oil” is not mentioned at all in Perry’s remarks.
You will note, too, that what Perry said was entirely commonsensical. While the precise relation between public lighting and public safety is unknown, who can doubt that brightly lit areas feel safer than dark ones—and that, as things stand today, cities and towns are most likely to be powered by fossil fuels? “The value of bright street lights for dispirited gray areas rises from the reassurance they offer to some people who need to go out on the sidewalk, or would like to, but lacking the good light would not do so,” wrote Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “Thus the lights induce these people to contribute their own eyes to the upkeep of the street.” But c’mon, what did Jane Jacobs know?
No member of the Trump administration so rankles the press as the president himself. On the November morning I began this column, I awoke to outrage that President Trump had supposedly violated diplomatic protocol while visiting Japan and its prime minister, Shinzo Abe. “President Trump feeds fish, winds up pouring entire box of food into koi pond,” read the CNN headline. An article on CBSNews.com headlined “Trump empties box of fish food into Japanese koi pond” began: “President Donald Trump’s visit to Japan briefly took a turn from formal to fishy.” A Bloomberg reporter traveling with the president tweeted, “Trump and Abe spooning fish food into a pond. (Toward the end, @potus decided to just dump the whole box in for the fish).”
Except that’s not what Trump “decided.” In fact, Trump had done exactly what Abe had done a few seconds before. That fact was buried in write-ups of the viral video of Trump and the fish. “President Trump was criticized for throwing an entire box of fish food into a koi pond during his visit to Japan,” read a Tweet from the New York Daily News, linking to a report on phony criticism Trump received because of erroneous reporting from outlets like the News.
There’s an endless, circular, Möbius-strip-like quality to all this nonsense. Journalists are so eager to catch the president and his subordinates doing wrong that they routinely traduce the very canons of journalism they are supposed to hold dear. Partisan and personal animus, laziness, cynicism, and the oversharing culture of social media are a toxic mix. The press in 2017 is a lot like those Japanese koi fish: frenzied, overstimulated, and utterly mindless.
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Review of 'Lessons in Hope' By George Weigel
Standing before the eternal flame, a frail John Paul shed silent tears for 6 million victims, including some of his own childhood friends from Krakow. Then, after reciting verses from Psalm 31, he began: “In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel an extreme need for silence. … Silence, because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah.” Parkinson’s disease strained his voice, but it was clear that the pope’s irrepressible humanity and spiritual strength had once more stood him in good stead.
George Weigel watched the address from NBC’s Jerusalem studios, where he was providing live analysis for the network. As he recalls in Lessons in Hope, his touching and insightful memoir of his time as the pope’s biographer, “Our newsroom felt the impact of those words, spoken with the weight of history bearing down on John Paul and all who heard him: normally a place of bedlam, the newsroom fell completely silent.” The pope, he writes, had “invited the world to look, hard, at the stuff of its redemption.”
Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, published his biography of John Paul in two volumes, Witness to Hope (1999) and The End and the Beginning (2010). His new book completes a John Paul triptych, and it paints a more informal, behind-the-scenes portrait. Readers, Catholic and otherwise, will finish the book feeling almost as though they knew the 264th successor of Peter. Lessons in Hope is also full of clerical gossip. Yet Weigel never loses sight of his main purpose: to illuminate the character and mind of the “emblematic figure of the second half of the twentieth century.”
The book’s most important contribution comes in its restatement of John Paul’s profound political thought at a time when it is sorely needed. Throughout, Weigel reminds us of the pope’s defense of the freedom of conscience; his emphasis on culture as the primary engine of history; and his strong support for democracy and the free economy.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the pope continued to promote these ideas in such encyclicals as Centesimus Annus. The 1991 document reiterated the Church’s opposition to socialist regimes that reduce man to “a molecule within the social organism” and trample his right to earn “a living through his own initiative.” Centesimus Annus also took aim at welfare states for usurping the role of civil society and draining “human energies.” The pope went on to explain the benefits, material and moral, of free enterprise within a democratic, rule-of-law framework.
Yet a libertarian manifesto Centesimus Annus was not. It took note of free societies’ tendency to breed spiritual poverty, materialism, and social incohesion, which in turn could lead to soft totalitarianism. John Paul called on state, civil society, and people of God to supply the “robust public moral culture” (in Weigel’s words) that would curb these excesses and ensure that free-market democracies are ordered to the common good.
When Weigel emerged as America’s preeminent interpreter of John Paul, in the 1980s and ’90s, these ideas were ascendant among Catholic thinkers. In addition to Weigel, proponents included the philosopher Michael Novak and Father Richard John Neuhaus of First Things magazine (both now dead). These were faithful Catholics (in Neuhaus’s case, a relatively late convert) nevertheless at peace with the free society, especially the American model. They had many qualms with secular modernity, to be sure. But with them, there was no question that free societies and markets are preferable to unfree ones.
How things have changed. Today all the energy in those Catholic intellectual circles is generated by writers and thinkers who see modernity as beyond redemption and freedom itself as the problem. For them, the main question is no longer how to correct the free society’s course (by shoring up moral foundations, through evangelization, etc.). That ship has sailed or perhaps sunk, according to this view. The challenges now are to protect the Church against progressivism’s blows and to see beyond the free society as a political horizon.
Certainly the trends that worried John Paul in Centesimus Annus have accelerated since the encyclical was issued. “The claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life” has become even more hegemonic than it was in 1991. “Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it” increasingly get treated as ideological lepers. And with the weakening of transcendent truths, ideas are “easily manipulated for reasons of power.”
Thus a once-orthodox believer finds himself or herself compelled to proclaim that there is no biological basis to gender; that men can menstruate and become pregnant; that there are dozens of family forms, all as valuable and deserving of recognition as the conjugal union of a man and a woman; and that speaking of the West’s Judeo-Christian patrimony is tantamount to espousing white supremacy. John Paul’s warnings read like a description of the present.
The new illiberal Catholics—a label many of these thinkers embrace—argue that these developments aren’t a distortion of the idea of the free society but represent its very essence. This is a mistake. Basic to the free society is the freedom of conscience, a principle enshrined in democratic constitutions across the West and, I might add, in the Catholic Church’s post–Vatican II magisterium. Under John Paul, religious liberty became Rome’s watchword in the fight against Communist totalitarianism, and today it is the Church’s best weapon against the encroachments of secular progressivism. The battle is far from lost, moreover. There is pushback in the courts, at the ballot box, and online. Sometimes it takes demagogic forms that should discomfit people of faith. Then again, there is a reason such pushback is called “reaction.”
A bigger challenge for Catholics prepared to part ways with the free society as an ideal is this: What should Christian politics stand for in the 21st century? Setting aside dreams of reuniting throne and altar and similar nostalgia, the most cogent answer offered by Catholic illiberalism is that the Church should be agnostic with respect to regimes. As Harvard’s Adrian Vermeule has recently written, Christians should be ready to jettison all “ultimate allegiances,” including to the Constitution, while allying with any party or regime when necessary.
What at first glance looks like an uncompromising Christian politics—cunning, tactical, and committed to nothing but the interests of the Church—is actually a rather passive vision. For a Christianity that is “radically flexible” in politics is one that doesn’t transform modernity from within. In practice, it could easily look like the Vatican Ostpolitik diplomacy that sought to appease Moscow before John Paul was elected.
Karol Wojtya discarded Ostpolitik as soon as he took the Petrine office. Instead, he preached freedom and democracy—and meant it. Already as archbishop of Krakow under Communism, he had created free spaces where religious and nonreligious dissidents could engage in dialogue. As pope, he expressed genuine admiration for the classically liberal and decidedly secular Vaclav Havel. He hailed the U.S. Constitution as the source of “ordered freedom.” And when, in 1987, the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet asked him why he kept fussing about democracy, seeing as “one system of government is as good as another,” the pope responded: No, “the people have a right to their liberties, even if they make mistakes in exercising them.”
The most heroic and politically effective Christian figure of the 20th century, in other words, didn’t follow the path of radical flexibility. His Polish experience had taught him that there are differences between regimes—that some are bound to uphold conscience and human dignity, even if they sometimes fall short of these commitments, while others trample rights by design. The very worst of the latter kind could even whisk one’s boyhood friends away to extermination camps. There could be no radical Christian flexibility after the Holocaust.