Word and Image of Vermont
A few days ago I got an e-mail message from Senator Ted Kennedy. It said this: "The reckless abuses of power undertaken by George Bush and his right-wing allies are a clear and present danger to the nation and must be stopped. The arrogance and incompetence of the Administration have made our country weaker, undermined our reputation in the world, made the war on terrorism harder to win, and divided our country like few other times in our history."  Just regular political rhetoric, you say? Maybe. And, yet, it strikes me that when a U.S. senator charges  the president with "reckless abuses of power" thus presenting a "clear and present danger" to the nation, we've moved into a different kind of politics than was the case in, say, the Eisenhower era. Some argue that writing of this sort is the problem, that people should scale back on their denunciations and defer to political decorum. But what if decorum cannot address the issues? By retreating to it, don't we therefore aid and abet --- to descend to cliche myself -- the abuse of power? The press, mostly, likes to pretend that all politics is politics as usual. But I suspect the time has come to entertain the thought that we may be facing radical behavior and that politics as usual could be incapable of reining it in. Clearly, Mr. Kennedy has come to that conclusion.  (Posted, 10/31/05)

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On January 5, 1805, Napoleon wrote to one of his generals about a recent uprising in the perpetually troublesome department of Vendee: "The First Consul (referring to oneself in the third person is a sign of bothersome advice to come) believes that it would serve as a salutary example to burn down two or three large communes chosen among those whose conduct is worst. Experience has taught him that a spectacularly severe act is, in the conditions you are facing, the most humane method. Only weakness is inhuman." This was a classic example of rationalization, the sort that all non-psychotic power mongers resort to from time to time. Actually, Napoleon was only thirty years old then, so he didn't have a lot of experience to teach him anything. Perhaps for that reason we can partially excuse his reckless directive. But lately, here in the United States at least, campaigns of "shock and awe" and other such salutary examples haven't come from the minds of men barely past boyhood but from our most "seasoned" statesmen. I wonder what runs through the minds of George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, et al, when they reflect that they have killed tens of thousands of people. If they ever do reflect, I suspect it's something pretty much in the Napoleonic vein. But, somehow, I don't have it in my heart to excuse them as readily as I do their brash young counterpart of two centuries ago.  (Posted, 10/31/05)

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Another barrier to the Democrats' learning to stand on their own feet is the constant refrain that the Bush administration has "mismanaged" the war in Iraq. Birch Bayh just repeated it in his visit to New Hampshire to sound out his chances of getting the Democratic nomination. The point to made about Iraq is not mismanagement but a false publicity campaign allowing the invasion of another country which has led to bad results for the United States and the rest of the world. The American people don't care much about mismanagement. Most of them figure that's just a synonym for government operations. But they might be convinced to care about dishonest manipulation leading to vast expenditure, extensive destruction, and considerable loss of life. The reason the Democrats won't seize leadership on the issue is they want to have their cake and eat it too. They are scared witless by the thought that they might be charged with weakness in foreign policy. And people who are frightened by that thought actually are weak. If all the Democrats have to offer is the pathetic notion that they can manage Republican ventures better than the Republicans can themselves, they might as well give up their campaigning and stay at home.  (Posted, 10/31/05)

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The complaint that the Democratic leadership is slack-minded and weak was given a boost on Sunday morning by Harry Reid's appearance on ABC's This Week. Senator Reid may be the most accomplished whiner I've heard. Instead of announcing forthrightly what he must believe, that George Bush and the Republican Party are pursuing policies that are bad for the country, he uttered a series of  doleful squeaks about his sadness over seeing the president make inept decisions. Then he slipped to the most obnoxious soap-opera sentiment of all, proclaiming that Mr. Bush was his president too. If Mr. Bush is his president, then he ought to get out of the Democratic Party. And if he really does want to see the president make effective decisions, then he must want the Republican program to succeed. The nonsensical argument that whether we're Republicans or Democrats, we all want the same outcomes for the nation, and that our only quarrels have to do with methods, is nauseating. Somebody ought to tell Mr. Reid that real Democrats are hoping Mr. Bush will make such foolish decisions he will lose the support of even political ignoramuses. To want Mr. Bush to succeed is to want the Democrats to lose, and that I sometimes fear is what the Democratic leadership actually has in mind. (Posted, 10/30/05)

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During the early years of the Carter administration, Paul Wolfowitz, then an obscure middle-level official in the Defense Department, prepared a policy statement titled "Limited Contingency Study." The first sentence read: "We and our major industrialized allies have a vital and growing stake in the Persian Gulf region because of our need for Persian Gulf oil and because events in the Persian Gulf affect the Arab-Israeli conflict." There in a single statement from a quarter-century earlier is the reason for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The American people, because they have no attention span and don't know what forces are building within their own government, make themselves dupes for the scare tactics that have been used effectively by the Bush administration. Now, with the indictment of Scooter Libby, the whole miserable story of manipulation and falsehood may gain public attention. This is, in itself, an irony, because the "crimes" leading to the indictment have but slight relationship to the events that led us to the killing of more than a hundred thousand people -- of whom, in this country, we care about two thousand. It is not until the press discovers a way to sensationalize an event that a significant portion the public will pay attention to it. This is our principal political weakness and as long as it persists, there will be continued manipulation and killing. I suppose we can be glad that indictments are sensational, but their current place in our national debate is a sad comment on us. (Posted, 10/30/05)

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Scanning a review of Arthur Kahn's biography of Caesar, I came across a criticism which raises one of the more vexing problems of history. The reviewer castigated Kahn for being hard on the so-called "optimates," that is the leading members of the ancient aristocracy of Rome. Instead of being the selfish scoundrels painted by Kahn, they were, said the writer, simply men of their time who hadn't begun to consider modern notions of political equity. He seemed to believe that their mediocrity of mind excused actions which led to the deaths of thousands and the misery and oppression of many more. But did it? It's a question that has haunted me since I was young. And I still have no clear answer. I suppose one could say that the question is of no consequence. The optimates and their great opponent are long dead. What does it matter whether we blame them or not? I don't suppose it does matter to them. But for us, it affects the way we think about current behavior. If we let the optimates off because they couldn't imagine a different status for slaves and the lower orders, aren't we then obliged to extend the same forgiveness to modern oligarchs? After all, there's no reason to think that Cato and Cicero had less imaginative power than Dick Cheney or Karl Rove, men who operate now pretty fully within the optimate tradition. Maybe they also behave as they do because they can't think of anything else. But, it's not as if Cato, or Cicero, or Cheney, or Rove never heard contending ideas. The two former were challenged by Caesar and the latter by any competent newspaper they might happen to pick up. While it's true that extreme presentism is a flawed -- and obnoxious -- way to think about the past, it's also true that down the ages men who have severely oppressed others to preserve their own privileges have known what they were doing. If they didn't bother to think about the implications of their actions, might we, at least, portray them as morally lazy-minded? That may appear a untoward thought about men as ingenious as these four. But, it seems to me, there's some truth in it.  (Posted, 10/27/05)

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A recent tactic of right-wing apologists is to argue that most of the American people don't care about corruption in the federal government. David Brooks said recently on the ABC News program This Week that few people have ever heard of Karl Rove and even fewer are concerned about anything he has done. He has been echoed by many similar statements. All this is clearly false, but that's not the most significant thing about the charge. What needs to be explored is the implication in this eager insistence that real Americans -- those, you know, who don't live near to either coast -- are not interested in the actions of powerful government figures. I've commented before about the Bush administration's equating ignorance with virtue, and flattering empty-headedness as though it constituted a visceral wisdom. The argument seems to be that Americans don't need to learn anything because, being Americans, they know everything they need to know through a process of divine dispensation. It may be that the genuine division in American politics lies between those who want the people to be informed and to take an interest in government, and those who don't. It's not hard to infer the motives in either case, and it's also clear where the current governing alliance stands on the issue.  (Posted, 10/27/05)

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James Mann in Rise of the Vulcans, a study of the Bush War Cabinet, says that in recent American history, foreign policy cohorts have generally been associated with a particular form of institution. The so-called wise men of the Eisenhower era, figures like Allen and John Foster Dulles, had their background in Wall Street. The "best and the brightest" of the Kennedy years derived from prestigious eastern universities and particularly from Harvard. And now the Vulcans -- Rumsfeld, Cheney, Powell, Wolfowitz -- are mainly products of the Pentagon. This is not to say there is always agreement among the latter. They may not see eye-to-eye on how military power should be used. But they all do regard military force as not only the principal instrument of foreign policy but as the American identity in the world. In other words, military power, for them, is actually what makes America what it is and what it ought to be. This is an extraordinary perspective and one, I suspect, that most Americans don't fully grasp. One might say that America, from its beginnings, has been a bellicose nation. But it has not been, at least not until recently, thoroughly militaristic. I wish, before the country steps into total militarism, that more citizens would give thought to what it will mean for our future. If they saw clearly, they might like the prospect but, then, there's some possibility that they wouldn't.  (Posted, 10/26/05)

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In what strikes me as a fairly dramatic move, the editors of the Washington Post have accused the vice-president of the United States of being, in effect, a criminal. I don't know how else to read the editorial of October 26th, which says that Mr. Cheney has pushed decisions leading to hundreds of cases of abuse, torture, and homicide, all of which contravene the laws of the United States, and would, if Mr. Cheney could ever be caught outside the country, lead to prosecution by the International Criminal Court. I don't suppose we'll have a special prosecutor to look into this. It has become fairly common, of course, to hear the Bush administration spoken of as criminal gang. I hear talk of that sort almost every time I go out of my house. But it is merely private denunciation. It is another thing to have a leading American newspaper make similar charges publicly. I don't know how high we can ratchet political tensions in this country without something disastrous breaking out. And, maybe, we're not near that point yet. But I think feelings are growing as fierce as they were during the Vietnam War, and, heretofore, we've thought of those days as a terrible anomaly in our history.  (Posted, 10/26/05)

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Jeffrey Goldberg's article in the current New Yorker about the conflict between the "realists" of the first Bush administration and the "idealists" of this one has drawn widespread attention. It's a readable piece which tells quite a bit about the personalities involved, and, particularly, about Brent Scowcroft. But in implying that the genuine argument in American foreign policy lies between realists and idealists, Goldberg misses the mark. The problem with the present administration's foreign policy is not that it is impracticably idealist. It is rather that the president and his principal advisors have no sensible concept of how and when to use military power. They think that military force should be the main instrument of American foreign policy and should be used whenever their definition of victory can be achieved. They're relatively indifferent to the loss of life, so long as it doesn't have immediate domestic implications (i.e., so long as not many Americans are killed). And they discount almost completely the legacy of hatred that widespread killing leaves behind it. The Bush administration thinks it can negate the results of violent death by paying off the survivors after enough people have been slaughtered to eliminate resistance to American policies. This is the Bush formula for Iraq, and we see the results everyday on the news. The answer the administration puts forward to explain the news is that we haven't killed enough people yet. The latter is called "staying the course." Victory will occur when the country has been made sufficiently passive to allow American-style corporate development. This is Bush's definition of democracy. He and his advisors believe it can conquer the Middle East because the people there care more about making money than they do about anything else. Republicans have faith that extra money for Iraqis, achieved by serving American corporate interests, will wipe out the memory of the U.S. assault on the nation and the memory of the tens of thousands of deaths exacted by American military force. I suppose you can call this idealism, but if you do, you have a peculiar concept of words. If you'll consult your dictionary, I think you'll find "militaristic imperialism" to be more consistent with common meaning.  (Posted, 10/25/05)

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The big three Ivy League universities are not as devoted to merit as they claim, according to a new book by Jerome Karabel, titled The Chosen, which is reviewed interestingly by James Traub in Slate, October 24th. At as far as admissions are concerned, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton will always take in students who protect the institution from running out of money and from being attacked by powerful political forces. The state of freshman minds doesn't begin to compete with institutional security. I have no doubt this is true. Every organization I was ever a part of would rationalize and modify its so-called principles in order to protect itself, often even again phantom threats. There is no such thing as a courageous institution. This might be a sad commentary on our most prestigious citadels of learning were there any intelligent definition of merit for them to betray. But our society has none. Neither has any other society of history. There may be  be such a thing as merit with respect to particular skills. We can say, for example, that Barry Bonds is a meritorious baseball player. But the idea of merit for a human being, which is supposedly what the universities serve, is extremely cloudy. Whenever any group defines merit it, inevitably comes up with an abstraction of itself. Since our notion of merit does not descend from God but, rather, rises out of our own egotism, I don't suppose there's much harm in Harvard's being as hypocritical about it as anybody else.  (Posted, 10/24/05)

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The Daily News of New York reports that President Bush is increasingly in a snit, lashing out at aides and even making caustic remarks about Mr. Cheney. He blames everyone for his current woes other than himself. Bush partisans have always tried to portray him as imperturbable, indifferent to the comments of critics. Yet, that's not the image I get from watching him on television. He strikes me as a tightly wound man who may be able to appear genial as long as no controversy comes near but who's always on the verge of blowing up if he hears something he doesn't like. We don't talk as much about presidential temperament as we do about policy and character. But I suspect that temperament is more important than the latter two in the actual business of governing. It's clearly a major factor in a person's ability to learn. When one can listen to unpleasant truths  calmly, there's the possibility he can, even if grudgingly, alter his course. But an ill-tempered impatience will hear nothing it doesn't want to hear. And, consequently, it stays the course, no matter how foolish the course is. Mr. Bush appears to be a man who not only finds learning unpleasant but who seems incapable of it. Praising Harriet Miers as a person who will be just the same twenty years from now as she is today shows his valuation of learning. The president's stance might be a worthy trait if we lived in a world where nothing ever changes. But that doesn't seem to be the kind of world we have.  (Posted, 10/24/05)

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I wonder what percentage of Americans remember Scott Ritter, the U.N. weapons inspector, who was depicted as a loose cannon in 2002 for his strong denunciations of George Bush's war policy. It turns out that almost everything he said was true. I just saw him on Book TV, being interviewed by Seymour Hersh, and he impressed me as a sensible and knowledgeable man. He is convinced that weapons never had anything to do with the invasion of Iraq. It was always a matter of replacing Saddam, and it didn't much matter who took his place. Ritter also says that anyone who was paying attention should have known that in 2002 and, therefore, that any senator up for election in 2006 who voted for Bush's war resolution should be expelled from office. That would be the first step in saying to politicians that the people expect loyalty to the Constitution. Every day that U.S. troops remain in Iraq adds fuel to the insurgency, and though the results of our getting out will be bad, the results of our staying will be worse. Neither the press nor the people listened very carefully to Ritter three years ago, and I don't suppose many will listen carefully to him now. Too bad.  (Posted, 10/23/05)

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It's astounding what you can find out from watching a single evening of television. Last night, for example, I learned that both Scooter Libby and Karl Rove are sure to be executed (Al Franken),  that the only real crime in the whole mess is that we have a man running around in the upper ranks of our government whose name is "Scooter" (Dave Letterman), that Tom DeLay says MoveOn.org is selling a tee shirt with his mug shot on it, which MoveOn.org says it doesn't have, that the Syrian government is weak and flailing (David Ignatius), that it's entirely possible the government blew up the dikes in New Orleans in order to drive black people out (Spike Lee), that there's a direct line from the White House fax machine to the Fox News fax machine (Bill Mahr), that Judy Miller was putting stuff into the New York Times for  Dick Cheney (Ariana Huffington), and that Patrick Fitzgerald's investigations constitute a "criminalization of politics" (about a dozen guys from Fox). You can decide for yourself which of this is serious and which is not. But the thought it all puts into my head is that there's no longer any clear division between the serious and the absurd. The very item you might think is nuts could turn out to be true, and the report given in stentorian tones by a "respected" journalist could be utterly fanciful. What this means about democratic decision-making I'm not sure. But if choices are being made on the basis of what's being seen on TV, the notion of rational politics is out the window.  (Posted, 10/22/05)

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Griswold v. Connecticut, a Supreme Court Ruling from 1965, is in the news again because of a murky conversation between Arlen Specter and Harriet Miers. After their conversation, Specter said that Ms. Miers had embraced the decision. But just a bit later she called him up and said he had misunderstood her. The case struck down a silly and practically unenforceable Connecticut law of 1879, which made it a crime "for any person to use any drug, article, or instrument to prevent conception." The vote to invalidate the law was 7 to 2, but the members of the majority were not in agreement about why they were doing it. The majority decision by Justice Douglas spoke of implict but unenumerated rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights as a whole, the right to privacy being one of these. Conservatives have disliked the concept because they say it opens the door to bringing anything within the so-called penumbra of the Bill of Rights, thus leading to judicial legislation. Supporters of the ruling hold that without some such authority for judges they would be unable to rule sensibly about matters that have arisen since the Constitution was written. But there were some judges at the time who argued, in effect, that a law which has become absurd should not be enforced. That leaves open the question of absurdity, of course. Still, it's hard to imagine that anyone nowadays -- except an absolute kook-- would want the law reinstated. So, you would think that Ms. Miers would say about it what Senator Specter says  she did. But, I suppose, after the White House got in touch with her, any common sense thought she may have uttered, would have been viewed as in need of modification.  (Posted, 10/21/05)

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I dislike special prosecutors so much I confess I'm in danger of disliking them more than I do Karl Rove and Scooter Libby. And that's a lot of disliking. The latest version of this legal abomination is Patrick Fitzgerald, whom I heard described on a news show recently as being pious. God save us from pious prosecutors! Can anybody imagine anything worse? Much as I enjoy the discomfiture of Rove and Libby, and much as I recognize that both have done things so despicable they deserve to be driven out of society, I still don't like to see a prosecutor create the conditions for them to commit crimes and then to work as hard as he can to draw them into his trap. If Fitzgerald does issue indictments against either Rove or Libby, I'll feel a moments satisfaction. But it will be pretty quickly replaced by sadness over the way our legal system is corrupted by pious ambition.   (Posted, 10/21/05)

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Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post says that it won't matter, after Saddam's trial, if he's drawn and quartered, so long as the facts come out. I agree that it's important for the facts to come out -- as close to all of them as is possible -- but I think she's a bit cavalier about drawing and quartering. I wonder if she would be willing to observe the process, indifferently, of course? To watch a human being, any human being, dragged through the streets and then to see his body chopped into four pieces, and to view it with equanimity, if I did it, would say something about me, I wouldn't much want said. Somehow, her remark makes me wonder if Anne Applebaum has ever even been punched in the nose and tasted the blood dribbling down into her mouth. We sophisticates in the so-called first world, over our Chardonnay, don't mind much about the slaughter of other people, as long as we don't have to smell the odors that rise up from the process. If Saddam is drawn and quartered, I hope Ms. Applebaum will have the opportunity to stick her nose into the activity.   (Posted, 10/19/05)

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I have said this before, and maybe continuing to say it is like bashing my head against a stone wall. But I don't care. We will never have a coherent discussion of politics in this country until journalists stop describing politicians like George Bush and those who follow him as "conservatives." There's almost nothing conservative about them, as George Will has been pointing out in his columns recently -- unless, of course, one is willing to grant them the title simply on the basis of their catering to rich people. The flap over Harriet Miers may be bringing that truth more into public notice. But don't expect journalists to give up their erroneous terminology any time soon. Why do they persist in it? There is only one feasible answer -- pure intellectual incompetence. If you survey the journalists who get the most notice on television nowadays, how may of them convince you they have ever read a serious book? Chris Matthews? Larry King? Bill O'Reilly? Sean Hannity? Ted Kopel? Cokie Roberts? There are a few who seem to have thoughts in their heads -- Fareed Zakaria, Will himself, maybe Pat Buchanan (though I don't generally like what he does with his thoughts, at least they seem to be present). But they are only tiny islands of moderate linguistic responsibility in a sea of ignorance and opportunism. I'm all for getting bad people out of office, but I don't think it's going to do much good until we demand that the people who talk publicly about functions of office begin to use words that make sense.  (Posted, 10/18/05)

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The trial of Saddam Hussein is scheduled to begin tomorrow (October 19th) in Baghdad. It will violate most of the principles of justice we claim to support. That's the nature of trials of this sort. The reason they take place is that one side won, and subduing the former enemy is not enough for the winning side. The loser must be shown to be bad and he must suffer punishment that will, at least partially, slake the thirst for revenge of his opponents. In domestic trials, those desirous of revenge do not get to run the court -- at least not theoretically. If somebody is accused of sticking up a bank, the bank manager doesn't get to be the judge or to sit on the jury. But in show trials of this sort, that rule is set aside. The only valid purpose of a trial like this is showing actions that do need to be revealed. If the court does its job, what happened will be demonstrated to the world as clearly as possible. That would be done over the long run by scholars anyway. But a court case does it more quickly and with greater publicity. And there doubtless is some virtue in promptness and reach. Since, though, the actual purpose is to show, then the whole business needs to be shown, not only what the defendant did, but who he did it with and what the forces were that enabled him. You can be pretty sure the court will attempt to downplay the latter because some of the crimes alleged against Saddam were aided by former allies, including the government of the United States. There is only one valid principle by which to judge a trial of this sort: how much does it reach out towards the whole truth? I hope journalists will keep that principle in mind as they report on the proceedings.  (Posted, 10/18/05)

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The pattern of journalists over the past ten years in responding to all the talk of God in politics has been interesting. At first, they thought it just came from uneducated fanatics and could be laughed off. Then, when they saw that God-spouting politicians were actually gaining power, they backed off and allowed them to define the entire issue of religion. But now, gradually, journalists are realizing that the ability to define is the ability to control, and a few of them are venturing timidly into serious theology. We can see an example of the latter from James Carroll in the Boston Globe of October 17th. Mr. Carroll points out the strong and lasting component of religious thought which holds that God's principal characteristic, so far as humans are concerned, is his unknowability. If God is that which humans can't know -- about the universe and its nature -- then those who pronounce most confidently -- and arrogantly -- about God are, at best, heretics and probably closer to a form of atheist, in that they deny the existence of the true, unknowable God. Some believe that it would be better to avoid this kind of speculation, so far as public policy is concerned. But if it's being forced down the public's throat by those who are using it for their own purposes, there may be no alternative than to oppose them with a stronger and more mature theology than their own. At the very least, those who hold to the unfathomable mystery of God have to maintain some humility, which is probably the most truly religious attitude humans can summon.  (Posted, 10/17/05)

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"On what foundation stands the Warrior's Pride?" asks Samuel Johnson in The Vanity of Human Wishes, and then goes on to sketch the career of Charles XII of Sweden, who conducted one of the most brilliant military campaigns of European history against his northern neighbors but then failed in his attempt to conquer Russia and died a more or less defeated man who left his country less well off than when he began his campaigns. The results of war, Johnson suggests, can never satisfy the warrior. He will keep on until he thinks he has it all, and that is a thing he will never believe he has. Recent political leaders of the United States have been of the same mind Charles XII was, determined to use military force to lay all their problems to rest. We, of course, don't know what's going to happen in the near future to the United States, but I run into more and more citizens who are predicting a form of downfall. And I suspect when that idea gets planted in people's thoughts, it's hard to get it out. It's almost as though the maxim, "Pride goeth before  a fall" has been engraved on all our subconscious minds. And then, those who know a little history are aware of how often Charles's pattern has been repeated. Might it be that we're at one of those bench marks of history, where something that has heretofore been considered an ineradicable practice of humanity is passing over into universal condemnation? It happened to slavery in the 19th Century, and it pretty well happened to racism in the 20th. It's not that old practices go away completely but they lose the standing they once had among thoughtful people and become merely criminal activities. Could it happen in the 21st Century to the activities of the warrior's pride? Probably not. We might be several centuries from there and many nations may have to fall before we arrive. But, if humanity persists, that time will come. And think how much misery and ugliness would be prevented if somebody had the wit to bring it a century or so earlier than it would otherwise have occurred.  (Posted, 10/16/05)

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Every now and then, I see Dick Morris on The O'Reilly Factor, and he strikes me as, perhaps, the most obnoxious example of humanity I've ever observed. And the way O'Reilly plays him to make his own sleazy points is almost as vile as Morris is. Then, I invariably ask myself, how can it be that this man was actually an advisor to Bill Clinton? As I've read more about recent history, I've discovered that Clinton's aides were asking themselves the same thing. One of them reputedly said that fooling around with an intern was clearly not an impeachable offense but letting Morris into the White House certainly was. It seems to have been the case that, occasionally, Clinton felt the need to know just how low and filthy politics can get. So then he would call for Morris. David Halberstam in his book War In A Time of Peace says that Clinton's relationship with Morris was nothing less than weird. It would be interesting if a reporter could persuade Clinton to open up on why he consulted Morris. But I doubt very much that will happen. In any case, the Clinton-Morris collaboration is one of the strange episodes of modern history and one Clinton now probably regrets. At least, I hope he does.  (Posted, 10/15/05)

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The principal philosophies in Rome during the time of Julius Caesar -- roughly the first half of the first century B.C. -- were Epicureanism and Stoicism. But they didn't take the forms the modern mind associates with them. Epicureanism was the idea that all things are continuously in flux and that attempts to keep them from changing are folly. The best humans can do is guide the change productively. Stoicism was the belief -- verging on religion -- that a model from the past offers the most perfect social form humans can attain and, therefore, all good men will work to maintain it, and when necessary to restore it. Caesar was the leading public advocate of Epicureanism and Cato, the Younger, the champion of Stoicism. Though we may not give them the same names -- we tend to call our thought patterns liberalism and conservatism -- those ideas are still in contention in modern America. In fact, they have always been in opposition wherever politics take place because people who have little naturally want to get more and those who have scrambled to the top of the economic and social heap want to stay there and not have anyone else climbing up to prod or dislodge them. Hence we have Democrats, the Epicureans, and Republicans, the Stoics. We might be better off if we would admit that to ourselves and let the political struggle proceed along classical lines. But, now we can't because we have mass-media and public-relations. And they insist that everyone must claim to be for the good of all the people. There was some of that balderdash in Rome but it was less pronounced than it is among us. That's not to say that Roman politics were better than ours. They were certainly more bloody than we have the stomach for. Still, the human mind longs for honesty, and I wish, sometimes, that George Bush would go on TV and say, "Look, I don't care anything about poor people. What I want is to make sure that people in my own circle get richer and more secure. The rest of you can go wallow in your poverty." I would admire him more if he did that, but I don't expect I'll have to admire him for it anytime soon.  (Posted, 10/15/05)

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On Chris Matthews's Hardball, Robert Bork said that if Harriet Miers's nomination is wrecked by conservative criticism, the right-wing may as well forget about getting a more acceptable nominee from George Bush. He'll be so angry over the uprising he won't give the right-wing anything. I hope Judge Bork is right -- more about the anger than about a second nominee. It would be delicious to see the White House turn on figures like Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback. It might go down in history as the War to Monopolize Moralistic Arrogance. But the cracks in the Republican alliance offer more than simple pleasure to Democrats. They might at long last recognize that Republican strength is far from monolithic and that the fissures among culture warriors, greed mongers, and militaristic imperialists afford a chance to isolate each of these three pillars of the Republican ascendancy and show it up for what it is. And Democrats should remember that clear discrediting of any one of them will break Republican control of the House and Senate, and, probably, of the White House too. This could be an exciting time, if there were a Democratic Party with the courage to make use of it.  (Posted, 10/14/05)

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Cicero, who is now remembered chiefly as a great master of Latin rhetoric, was also quite a political trimmer. There was little he wouldn't do to play up to the wealthy classes in Rome, and a shibboleth he often employed was the notion that the prosperity of all citizens depended on enhancing and protecting the wealth of rich men. This was Reaganomics well before Reagan. I don't suppose it's surprising that a notion of this sort would persist down the ages, given the vested interests it serves. Yet, it is a bit bemusing that here in the opening years of the 21st Century, it can remain the central theme of one of our political parties without being criticized more vigorously than it is by people who know it's historically dubious. Creating a great gap in wealth between a small class of immensely rich people and everybody else does not generally enhance the well-being of the majority. About the only thing you can count on its enhancing is the sale of security fences. It's the type of proposition that ought to be up for vigorous examination in our schools. But what what do you want to bet that "No Child Left Behind" doesn't much care about that form of education?  (Posted, 10/12/05)

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Senator Dan Coats's statement in support of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court is being taken as an instance of hilarity in Washington political babble. Here's what the Indiana senator said, "'If great intellectual powerhouse is a qualification to be a member of the court and represent the American people and the wishes of the American people and to interpret the Constitution, then I think we have a court so skewed on the intellectual side that we may not be getting representation of America as a whole." In other words, stupid people deserve to be represented on the court also. Shades of Warren Harding! It's funny, yes. But it probably deserves to be taken more seriously than it has been. There's a considerable portion of the American political class who think that America's problem is sophistication. And Coats was simply voicing their sincere belief. Their notion is that people who don't think make better political decisions than people who do. And, certainly, people who don't think are likely to be more "unified" than those who do. We would do well to pay attention to the sentiment. It's more powerful than many of us imagine.  (Posted, 10/12/05)

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A guilty admiration for an intellectual foe marks an honorable mind, and that's what E. J. Dionne, Jr., admits to with respect to William F. Buckley in his column in the Washington Post. Like Dionne, I too have mixed feelings about Buckley. His enthusiasm for life is infectious and his sound ideas almost, but not quite, balance his perversions. Dionne says his most significant contribution to American political life is not his ideology -- thank goodness -- but his demonstration that ideas make a difference in history. Important developments don't come from petty politicians struggling for place and power. Rather they arise because a strain of thought wins the loyalty of enough people that petty politicians  jump into the stream, hoping to be carried to fortune. He's right about that, and right now the Democrats have no coherent stream of thought with the power to affect history. It's good to carp at the stupidity and selfishness of the Republicans. But carping by itself accomplishes little. The American people have shown over and again that they will follow bad ideas over no ideas at all. The Democratic Party is neutered now for two reasons. It can't think what it stands for, and it is terrified of Republican charges of weakness. And the solution to the two will have to come together. Without the courage of an idea, there will be no courage to brush aside empty Republican name-calling. Maybe the Democrats can right themselves. I'm not sure. But it's clear that reform will have to start with leaders unafraid to say that war mongering is not the path to national greatness. At the moment, we have no notable person who is saying that gracefully.  (Posted, 10/11/05)

In an interesting profile of Southern Baptist functionary Richard Land, Nina Easton of the Boston Globe says that to liberals he is the most confounding of the leaders of the religious right. And why is he confounding? Because he has earned academic degrees from reputable universities and because he seems to be comparatively well-read in secular literature. The liberal vision of a fundamentalist is someone who's ignorant, vulgar, and overtly bigoted. And certainly  the fundamentalist ranks provide liberals with plenty of examples. Land, though, who is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, can mix easily with Eastern secular intellectuals and match them in their knowledge of culture and current events. So how is it he can stand up for the denunciation of homosexuality, for aggressive military tactics based on moral superiority, for faith defined as believing things that aren't scientifically or historically credible, and for masculine domination of the family? In finding Land confusing, liberals are revealing their own set of biases. Primary among them is the notion that an institutional imprimatur is the surest mark of a person's intellectual character. Harvard graduates have open and inquiring minds, those with degrees from state colleges are flat-brained, the alumni of bible colleges are ignorant, and so on. None of this is so true that one can bank on it. The test of education is not credentials but, rather, state of mind. It's entirely possible to have diplomas from Princeton and Oxford, as Land proves, and still have a mind as closed as a granite slab. Truth is, a discouraging percentage of the output of such universities fall into that category. In the future, we're likely to have growing numbers of "well-educated" people whose goal will be to shut down thinking among the general population. The challenge for those who do cherish open debate will be to figure out how to confront these new style right-wingers and demonstrate exactly what it is they are promoting. We certainly can't rely any longer on narrow or provincial educational training as the reason for refuting them. (Posted, 10/10/05)

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Now we have reports that God, himself, told George Bush to invade Iraq. There has been, for a long time, a suspicion that God has closer relations with presidents and their like than he does with ordinary people going to work everyday.  For example, God has never told me to invade anybody. Thus is the notion promoted that God's relations are with nations more than they are with individuals. And this, in turn, pushes the idea that nationhood is what's really important. The people who inhabit nations are merely incidental. I guess there are a lot of people who believe that. It runs counter to the Constitution but, then, what did those 18th Century quasi-atheists know? Despite rhetoric to the contrary, nation-worship is the prime form of religion in the modern world and certainly in America. In the minds of many of our fellow citizens it is not God who tells the nations what to do but, rather, the nation that lets God know what he ought to be. Or maybe I'm being unfair. Maybe it's just that God and the nation are different faces of the same thing. Something like that is probably what Mr. Bush believes, though getting him to sort it out cogently is not a task I would advise you to take up.  (Posted, 10/8/05)

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Most people in public life take care to conceal what they really think, finding it safer to revel in boilerplate and cliche. They do it so consistently it leaves one wondering whether they think anything at all. And it's likely that many of them don't. Now and then, though, we get a comment that rings of sincerity and lets us know who and what we are really facing from people of a certain persuasion. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, gave us such a statement yesterday when he said of Mr. Bush's most recent nominee to the Supreme Court, "If she were to rule in ways that are contrary to the way the president would want her to rule, it would be a deep personal betrayal." I wonder if Mr. Land would have Ms. Miers phone up the White House during her deliberations to get the language to put into her decisions. This is getting on the team with a vengeance, But, I'm afraid, it actually does reflect how many of our fellow citizens think. The great irony, of course, is that Mr. Land heads a commission for religious 'liberty."  (Posted, 10/7/05)

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We have every right to wonder what the president's genuine motive is in threatening to veto a bill containing the amendment passed by the senate to forbid the torture of anyone in U. S. custody. You can be pretty sure that American security has nothing to do with it. One element, of course, is this administration's determination to beat back any limitation of the president's power. They have shown, over and over, that they do not view the president as a constitutional officer but rather as the commander in chief, not just of the armed forces but of the entire nation. Yet, I suspect there's something deeper and more Machiavellian in their stance. They want the American people to remain continually terrified, and the argument that they are facing such monsters as to demand the most extreme treatment, including torture -- which, of course, would be called something else -- is an essential part of that scheme. Only a fearful people will elect, or endure, a leader like George Bush. And his advisors know that as well as any of the rest of us do.  (Posted, 10/6/05)

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Though Iraq has not disappeared from the news, it's certainly not getting the attention it received just a short while ago. Is this just a case of the notorious American attention span? Is it that nothing can keep us interested for long, no matter how important it is? Are the media so desperate for ratings they have to find new stuff, even though the old stuff is not resolved? Among the diminishing number who do comment on Iraq there's gnashing of teeth over the prospect of its dividing into three nearly-autonomous regions, each with its own governing system and none of them being overly democratic. Everyone seems to find this a horror, but no one says why. If the Iraqis get what they want, shouldn't we be satisfied? The answer, clearly, is no. It has never been the intention of those who supported our Iraqi adventure that the Iraqis should simply get what they want. But, somehow, our attention span has never been extensive enough to sort out what we want from Iraq -- at least not in a public way. With the vote on the constitution coming up in only nine days, it's about time we started. (Posted, 10/6/05)

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George Will in the Washington Post says there's no good reason why Harriet Miers needs to be confirmed as the next Supreme Court Justice. The only reason given by George Bush for doing it is that we should trust him. And Wills points out that there's certainly no reason for doing that. In the first place, the president has little concept of what a supreme court justice does. This is a striking comment to come from a supposedly loyal conservative and Republican. It places beyond doubt what many have known for a long time. George Bush is not a serious student of government and cares little about it. He is incapable of learning what government does or what its limitations are. For him, it's just a plaything that allows him to strut. Strutting is a characteristic of most politicians but few make it their entire reason for involvement in government as Bush does. It's probably not possible for the general public to grasp just how limited and intellectually inept our president is. But, it seems that sufficient numbers are beginning to have suspicions that will make the next several years less auspicious for strutting than Bush's first term was.  (Posted, 10/5/05)

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In the Washington Monthly yesterday, Kevin Drum printed eleven hostile comments about the Miers nomination from right-wingers. My favorite came from Pat Buchanan: "What is depressing here is not what the nomination tells us of her, but what it tells us of the president who appointed her....In picking her, Bush ran from a fight. The conservative movement has been had - and not for the first time by a president by the name of Bush." It will be ironic if President Bush, who has worked to distance himself from the image of his father, will finally be seen, by his supporters no less, as, really, a chip off the old block. There would be something genuinely delicious in that.  (Posted, 10/4/05)

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Richard Cohen of the Washington Post scolded Democrats for making a big fuss over William Bennett's remark about aborting black babies, and, all in all, I think Cohen was right. Bennett is a fathead and, politically, it was a foolish thing to say. But it was within the boundaries of argumentative technique. It's not unheard of to say something ridiculous to show the nature of being ridiculous. And, that's what Bennett says he did. I believe him. There's certainly no evidence to indicate that Bennett favors aborting black babies. When people make a big thing about something that doesn't deserve it, it usually comes back to hurt them. Bennett is fully capable of fouling himself up. Democrats should hush up about him.   (Posted, 10/4/05)

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It appears that the first opposition to Bush's appointment of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court is going to come from right-wingers. David Frum, the president's former speech writer, says that this is an unforced error. There's no good reason to believe that Harriet Miers is either a legal conservative or is possessed of the spine of steel (or we might better say, the head of bone) required to carry out the right wing agenda. In other words, we don't know that she's extreme and there are plenty of jurists whose extremism has been demonstrated beyond question. There's a long-standing rule in politics that those who think they can manipulate crazy people for their own benefit often come to grief. I don't know if this nomination will get the crazies sufficiently agitated to rise up in mass against Bush. But if it did, there would be a wondrous justice in it.  (Posted, 10/3/05)

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I just saw General Abizaid on CBS's Face the Nation. I wonder sometimes why generals go on TV talk shows. Why not just send mannequins with implanted tapes? That's pretty much what top, bureaucratic generals are anyway. Abizaid talked of the necessity of political legitimacy in Iraq. But he didn't say a word about what legitimacy would require. The implication was that so long as there's something going on that the press will report as political then legitimacy is proceeding. Like all other generals I've seen on TV over the past three years, he projected a bland confidence thoroughly independent of the absurdity of his words. In his final comment, Bob Schieffer noted that the government's version of Iraq never seems consistent with the reports and pictures we get from the region. It was almost as though his remarks had been crafted to ridicule what his guest said a few minutes earlier, though it's clear that Schieffer wrote his piece well before he received Abizaid's testimony.  But, then, if he has minimal sense, Schieffer knew what Abizaid would say weeks before he heard it.   (Posted, 10/2/05)

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