Word and Image of Vermont

Clear Choice
January 31, 2008

Steve Benin, writing today for the Washington Monthly, says now that John McCain is the likely Republican candidate, the Clinton and Obama campaigns will have to concentrate on which of them can best defeat him in November. Benin is right about that but it also needs to be said that the arguments the two Democrats are putting forward at the moment will have to be sharply modified to make a strong enough case against McCain. That's because winning the presidency is not so much about being appealing as it is about beating someone else.

Have we already forgotten 2004? John Kerry's policies were more pleasing to the American electorate than George Bush's were, but that didn't matter after Bush beat Kerry into the ground. When the American people vote, for the most part they're voting about who won.

What those who want a Democrat in the White House should be examining is who is most likely to do to McCain what Bush did to Kerry. I'm not suggesting the Democrat should use the same tactics Bush did. I am suggesting the truth can hit just as hard as a lie if it's wielded correctly. That's what Kerry never managed to do-- make the truth his weapon. Remember, he was asked once during a televised debate if he was accusing Bush of using lies to lead the country to war. All he had to do was say yes, and the presidency would have been his. But he didn't have the fortitude to do it.

The Democrats can't afford to have a candidate this year who won't seize such a moment. Who is likely to grasp it and who is likely to back off is the prime question Democrats should seek to have answered before they pick their candidate. I don't think McCain will be beaten unless he can be convincingly presented as a militarist who will lead the country towards perpetual war and into the kind of economy that accompanies perpetual war. Making that case won't be easy. McCain will try at every turn to paint himself as a patriot and his opponent as someone who doesn't really believe in America. And there are lots of Americans who are saps for that mode of appeal. He'll get at least 45% of the vote for that reason alone.

The Democrat has to persuade 55% that McCain's country will be a nasty place for their children and grandchildren to inhabit. To accomplish that he or she has to show that though McCain himself may not be nasty, his vision for the future is nasty. It's not enough to say that he's merely mistaken. The Democratic candidate doesn't have to be dishonest or insulting, but he or she does have to be sharp and does have to be willing to go for the kill. Whether it is Clinton or Obama who can do that more effectively remains to be seen. But I hope the answer will emerge clearly before the nomination is settled.

January 31, 2008

All in all, I'm sorry that John Edwards concluded that he had to get out of the presidential race. I don't think his leaving will substantially benefit either of the two remaining campaigns. His followers will probably split fairly evenly between Clinton and Obama. But both of them will be able now to slide away from features of the debate that are important for strengthening our democracy. And whichever of them goes on to the general election will be less able than he or she would have been had there been a necessity to keep on taking Edwards's message into account.

We have not yet reached the stage in this country where a major politician dares to speak frankly about the depredations of what increasing numbers outside the United States call criminal capitalism. The leaders of the military corporate security state have been generally successful in equating freedom with the ability to shove people into poverty in order to make vast amounts of money quickly. American politicians don't dare to point out fully what has been going on for the past several decades, and at an accelerated rate during the Bush administration. But John Edwards was willing to hint at it more openly than any other politician with a national audience. That's doubtless why his campaign never really had a chance of success. Even so, he did manage to get some thoughts into public discourse that heretofore have been squelched by the charge of radicalism. And if we're going develop decent politics in America those ideas have to continue to move into the mainstream.

It would be pleasant to think that John Edwards would be offered a prominent place in either a Clinton or an Obama administration. But I don't expect it. Neither Clinton nor Obama is likely to be that bold. But I guess there's no harm in hoping, and so I hope that John Edwards will continue to appear regularly in news reports for years to come.

Democratic Fuzziness
January 29, 2008

In the American Prospect on January 24th, Matt Yglesias had one of the most discouraging columns I've seen over the past several months. He points out that neither of the two Democratic candidates is speaking about foreign policy in a way that can effectively counter John McCain's super-patriotism.

Hillary Clinton, he says, has allowed herself to drift far too close to the Republican mantra that we should use military force everywhere all the time. And Barack Obama won't allow himself to say anything and continually retreats to yet more imprecise abstractions in an attempt to avoid the issue. Trouble is, it's not going to be avoidable once a Democrat has to face a Republican candidate.

Yglesias does offer some hope. Clinton, he says, is actually an open-minded, intelligent person who's capable of taking good advice, once she's out of campaign mode. And Obama may well have sharper thoughts about foreign policy which he's now hiding because they will bring him into conflict with the yahoo community whom he continues to think he can court with sweet words of unity.

I would add to Yglesias's analysis that a great many Democrats are now so twitter pated about the thought of falling in love with a candidate they are giving no thought to how the Republican entry can be defeated in the general election. They have forgotten that in a campaign in order to win it's you have to beat somebody.

The sad truth is that the Democrats are weak on foreign policy because their main candidates don't have one -- or at least don't have one that can be enunciated. They are terrified by the thought that a majority of Americans have become militarists and that if a Democrat says anything to oppose the new form of corporate/militaristic imperialism he or she will be swept away by a flood of flag-waving. They are right to see it as a serious difficulty. But the problem won't be solved by running away from it. Nor will it be solved by adopting Republican goals but arguing that Democrats can pursue them more skillfully.

The issue comes down to power and how it is exercised in the world. The Democrats have to show that the more we have used military power, the more our actual power has declined. We are now a far weaker nation than we were before George Bush began to launch invasions in the Middle East. It would take boldness to explain this to the American people, but it's the kind of boldness which, if pursued intelligently, could lead to victory. But at the moment we don't see either Clinton or Obama stepping up to the challenge. And that hesitancy could be marching us towards a bleak November.

Political Tone
January 27, 2008

On Book TV, I watched a panel discussion from twelve days ago at a synagogue in Washington, sponsored by the New Republic. The topic was presidential politics and the candidates who might have a chance of being elected.

The panel, made up of writers for the magazine, presented itself as ever so bright, far more prescient than the candidates themselves. They may have been right about that. The six people who talked all appeared fairly intelligent -- articulate, knowledgeable to an extent, willing to look a certain distance behind the scenes. Yet not a one of them expressed any interest in the underlying forces of human existence that politics ought to help us, at least to some extent, confront. It's as though ideas of that sort never visit their brains.

I suppose if Leon Wieseltier, one of the panelists, ever read these remarks, he would dissent vigorously from my observation, at least with respect to himself. He described himself as a national security voter and said he's concerned with a president's grasp of the entire international situation far more than he is with whether someone was right about the invasion of Iraq, or with a single vote to empower the president to make war. It was a good point, but he didn't leave me convinced that his notion of grasping the situation is anything other than a conventional, rather worn-out matter of taking into account the power aspirations of other nations. He's worried about China, and India, and whether their growth in power will diminish ours. He left me with no confidence that he has thought carefully about what power actually is and how it might affect my life here on Liberty Street in Montpelier. The way in which nationalism, and various group identities, interact with economics and the ability to reside in the upper financial regions was removed from anything he said. He symbolizes for me a semblance of sophistication without the substance.

He was, by far, the most obnoxious of the panelists -- endearingly obnoxious in a way. The others were younger and more engaging. Yet, they all radiated a sense of superiority immune to imagining how complex human aspiration is. Their take on Mike Huckabee and the people who support him was so supercilious it was astounding. It was not only that Christian right-wingers are wrong -- which in truth they are -- but that they're so wrong they don't deserve to be considered part of the same species the denizens of the New Republic are. The fury generated by that kind of arrogance has made George Bush president of the United States for the past seven years. I think we could well do without it.

Watching the New Republic panel -- attractive as they were -- I was constantly reminded of the old saying that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. If this is the best American journalism can produce, we aren't going to get from our writers on public affairs anything close to what we need.

Debate Points
January 26, 2008

I've seen quite a few clips from the Republican debate in Florida on Wednesday night, and almost every one of them featured John McCain announcing that Hillary Clinton said recently she wants to fly the white flag of surrender in Iraq.

I was somewhat surprised. I keep up with the news fairly carefully and I had seen no reports of when or where Hillary said that. You'd think a statement so dramatic would get quite a bit of coverage, with camera shots showing Senator Clinton proclaiming, "I want to fly the white flag of surrender." But ubiquitous as the media are, they appear to have failed to capture that record.

Shocking as it may seem, I've begun to suspect that Hillary may not have said she wants to fly the white flag of surrender, that John McCain may have put words in her mouth she never uttered. If that were the case, what would it mean?

Two possibilities rise up pretty quickly, one that he was lying and the other that he was merely being silly. I find myself gravitating toward the latter. And why? Because he was in a setting where pure silliness is expected, you might even say, demanded. What's a poor guy to do? He wants the votes of silly people so he has to say silly things. We can't blame him for that, can we?

I have a brain weakness such that I find watching Republican debates almost unendurable. The flood of silliness makes my head feel creepy and I generally escape before the thing is over. Rudy Giuliani telling us that the way to generate high tax revenues is to get rid of almost all taxes, Mitt Romney suggesting that running the country is just like running the Olympic games, Mike Huckabee saying that probably the weapons of mass destruction were there, we just haven't found them yet -- they generate a wave of silliness so massive I fear it might erase my consciousness were I to let it all wash over me.

I confess, I often run away.

A Frenzy
January 26, 2008

As we all know, it's not unheard of for the news media collectively to lose their minds, and we are now in the midst of one of those occasions, a journalistic frenzy that is sweeping up some of the normally sane people who report on public events.

I'm referring of course to the flood of commentary accusing Bill and Hillary Clinton of using crude racism against the Obama campaign. Just this morning in the New York Times, for example, Bob Herbert, one of the best balanced commentators we've had recently, associated the Clintons with a vile piece of internet blather without showing any connection between them and the person who posted it. In fact, he wrote his entire column accusing the Clintons of making racist appeals without citing a single thing either of them has said.

The delusionary feature of this campaign is the notion that the Clinton's control -- totally -- every word that comes from the mouths not only of people who are supporting Hillary's campaign, but even from the mouths of Republicans who have made insinuations about Obama. It's a kind of back-handed compliment, I guess. If the Clintons had that kind of power there would be no occasion for a campaign. They would simply exercise mind-control over everybody in the nation.

Part of this arises from the media's slavering desire to inject race into the campaign. They see it as a juicy topic and they can't resist exploiting it. But in this case, it seems to be something more even than that.

Even the Clintons' response to Obamba's comments about Ronald Reagan -- which, by the way, were essentially positive about the Republican hero, conflating his ideas with a readiness of the American people to take them up -- have, somehow, been made into a racist assault. If the Clinton campaign ought not to challenge Obama on something of that nature, they shouldn't challenge him about anything. And that, in effect, is what the frenzy at the moment is proclaiming.

Come to think of it, that really is racist.

Buying Votes
January 25, 2008

In 2006, in Vermont, we had a candidate for the Senate, who resembles Mitt Romney so closely it's uncanny. His name was Rich Tarrant and he was described in the New York Times Magazine as being "a well-barbered, Bentley-driving Republican businessman." Since Tarrant had made a lot of money, he advertised himself as a person who knew how the economy works and who could, therefore, fix Vermont up. He spent millions of his own money running against Bernie Sanders, a guy who doesn't mind calling himself a Socialist and who never made much money at all. Tarrant got about a third of the vote and Bernie got two-thirds.

This tells us pretty clearly that if most of America was like Vermont, Romney would never get within sniffing distance of the presidency. You can't buy votes in Vermont. But now we're being told that Florida is as different from Vermont in that respect as it is meteorologically. Presumably because Romney has lots of money to spend on TV ads and the other Republican candidates are running short, he's likely to win the primary in the Sunshine State next week. Already the polls tell us he's edging ahead of John McCain.

Florida is widely -- and accurately -- seen as a mess politically and there's no better evidence for it than the power of TV ads there to affect voting patterns. No messages are more distorted and manipulative than those put on television by political candidates. It's pathetic that anyone would make his or her decision about whom to for on the basis of watching them. Yet, that's evidently what's about to happen. Or, at least, Mitt Romney is betting millions that it will.

January 24, 2008

Media figures are ridiculing Bill Clinton for saying that journalists are concerned mainly with squabbles among the campaigns and seldom raise any questions about the candidates' positions on substantial issues. They can ridicule all they like. The former president is perfectly right about that. And it was a good thing for him to say so.

You can listen to the cable news programs for weeks -- Hardball,  for example -- and never hear a word about where a candidate stands on maintaining eight hundred foreign military bases, or how he or she would influence the policies of the IMF or the World Bank, or how the appropriate level of military spending can be maintained, or what the United States should do about its remaining arsenal of ten thousand nuclear weapons, or whether a larger percentage of our electricity should be generated by nuclear power, or what the actual legal provisions for launching a war are, or whether the president should have the power, without consultation, to destroy another country, or several countries, by using nuclear weapons, or on and on and on. It is inconceivable to imagine Chris Matthews ever bringing up such issues. But let Senator Clinton say that it required an alliance between Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson to bring about civil rights for black people in America, and Chris will spend weeks debating whether this was a racial slur designed to denigrate Barack Obama.

It's clear that journalists are not serving us well now. But exactly how they are failing is less clear in the minds of the people. If Mr. Clinton can bring some attention to that problem it will be a benefit regardless of what the pundits opine about it.

Corporate Ailment
January 24, 2008

In my local newspaper, I came on a statement by an IBM spokesman, explaining that a pay cut recently imposed on more than seven thousand workers wouldn't really reduce their income because the overtime they work will make up for it. But the whole point of a lawsuit initiated by the workers was to get paid for overtime, so they would make more money. They won the suit so now IBM is responding by cutting their base rate and claiming that they're not really being hurt. This comes at a time when IBM is making record profits.

The IBM statement is strong evidence for a mental disorder that's running amok among the ranks of corporate leaders. It's called criminal insanity. If it were hurting only those who have it, the condition would be sad enough. But in truth it leaks out to afflict our entire society.

This social neurosis convinces those who work in the upper ranks of corporate management that there exists some unseen power, somewhere, which justifies their gaining one hundred, two hundred, four hundred times the amount they pay their workers, that is, the people who actually produce the goods and services on which corporate wealth is based.

Anyone who doesn't understand that this is a disease is infected by the disease himself. It's the duty of all the rest of us to help those in the grip of this horror recover from it. They, of course, will claim that they're not sick. But that's the sickness.

The first step would be to elect public officials who will stop using public funds to make these people even sicker than they are already. It's inhumane for us to keep on doing it to them, especially since our only excuse is lazy-mindedness.

What kind of humanity do we have, anyway?

Presidential Function
January 22, 2008

In the New Yorker which arrived in my mailbox this afternoon, George Packer proposes to tell me about the kind of work we can expect from the two leading Democratic presidential candidates. That's what he proposes, but in actuality more than eighty-percent of the piece is about Hillary Clinton. She is, he says, smart, well-informed, knowledgeable about how the government actually works, and dedicated to accomplishing her goals. But, despite those virtues, she's missing what it takes to be the president. You know why? She's not inspirational.

Why a president needs to be inspirational Packer doesn't quite get around to saying. He went to one of Obama's final campaign appearances in New Hampshire at the old opera house in Lebanon, and came away inspired. Here's how he describes the aftermath: "Within minutes I couldn't recall a single thing he had said, and the speech dissolved into pure feeling, which stayed with me for days."

So, there you have it. Packer is telling us that what we need and want from a president is pure feeling.

Maybe that's what George wants, and maybe that's what lots of other people want. But it's not what I want. I want a president who can make the government work for the benefit of most of the people, and stop it from being little more than a tool in the hands of the wealthy. I'm not saying that Obama can't do that. But if he can, you certainly don't learn about it from George Packer.

I'm not interested in being inspired by the government. I want rather to be served by it. I want my tax dollars to be used for intelligent action. If I can see that happen then I'll take care of inspiration myself. And since I'm on this point I guess I had better go ahead and say there's something a bit creepy about looking to government for inspiration. If you go back to Packer's statement about the opera house experience, you can come away with the message that we don't need to care what a candidate says, and maybe we don't even need to care what he does, just so long as he makes us feel good.

I confess; I don't get that.

The Media's Campaign
January 22, 2008

The media, and in particular television commentators, have been exaggerating wildly the arguments between the Clinton and Obama campaigns, calling them harsh, nasty, and over-the-top. That's because the media care mainly about the horse-race aspects of the presidential selection process, and anything they can do to make the race seem more dramatic they will.

Both Clinton and Obama should be more attentive to the media's proclivities than they seem at the moment to be. As far as getting votes is concerned, what they say to one another in debates is far less significant than how the media portray it. Getting caught up in angry squabbles with candidates from their own party is not, over the long run, of benefit to either of them.

They should be concentrating on the Republicans and the Republican record. How they comment about George Bush will be more than sufficient to distinguish them from one another. If I were a leading strategist for either campaign I would immediately convene a meeting to discuss the implications of Jay Rosen's recent article, "The Beast Without A Brain: Why Horse-Race Journalism Works For Journalists and Fails Us."

Rosen points out that journalists generally fail to ask questions that might help the electorate make rational choices among the candidates. He's certainly right about that. But given the failure of the media to ask the right questions, why might not a campaign seize that role for itself? The most powerful query a candidate could raise is, why, really, did the Bush administration decide to use U.S. military force to invade and occupy Iraq? The campaign that pushed that question intelligently enough to spread understanding among the electorate would run away with both the nomination and the election. And once the media saw what was happening, they would jump on board and begin asking serious questions themselves. At that point, the campaign would be using the media instead of, as each is now, being used by them.

It's a great opportunity. But I doubt any of the campaigns has either the courage or the imagination to grasp it.

The Nature of Ideas
January 20, 2008

Once again, the imprecise use of language in politics has launched a flurry of misunderstanding.

Barack Obama announced that the Republicans have been the party of ideas over the past fifteen years. Hillary Clinton says that's not the way she remembers it and then lists a series of ideas put forward by Republicans which she considers to have been harmful.

Defenders of Obama rush to argue that he didn't say the Republican ideas were good, just that they were ideas. And so we go.

It would be useful to know just what Obama had in mind when he made his remarks. He gave the impression that he was praising the Republicans, and especially, Ronald Reagan, for having ideas. Was that a ploy to win some Republican support in the general election? Or was it just absent-minded musing? And what does he think about the ideas the Republicans had, anyway?

If we had the sort of political discussion we should, all that would have been clarified at the moment because all those questions would have been asked. But our political classes don't want to clarify; they want to obfuscate and hope that they can do it in a way to create vaguely favorable impressions.

I suspect the tactic is wearing out and beginning to rebound against those who use it -- that is to say, almost all politicians. The public has rewarded them for it over so long a period that they've having a very hard time weaning themselves from creative obfuscation. They can't imagine that anyone will actually try to look behind the words they use.

I don't think the change will require politicians to become masters of elocution. But it might force them to say more clearly what they mean. And if it did that would be a good thing.

American Memory
January 18, 2008

It remains to be seen whether Barack Obama's implicit comparing of himself to Ronald Reagan, as a man in line with the mood of the country, will have influence on the campaign for the Democratic nomination.  Lawrence O'Donnell, speaking on television last night said it won't because the nation no longer remembers Reagan as a person who pursued particular policies but, rather, simply as a hallowed figure of the past. So no political damage can be done to anyone by being associated with him.

Reagan has been out of office for nineteen years now, and I suppose that does make him ancient history for some people. American memory is notoriously short. I suspect, though, that there are events which stick in people's minds and won't go away.

I know that for me, the central image of the Reagan administration is the village of El Mozote in northern El Salvador. There, on December 11, 1981, a unit of the Salvadoran Army, the Atlacatl Battalion, armed with up-to-date American weapons, slaughtered about nine hundred civilians, most of them women and children, not because of anything they had done, but simply to set an example for the rest of the country.

Throughout the remaining years of the Reagan administration, the government continued to deny that a massacre on that scale had occurred, even though the evidence for it was incontrovertible. A few months after the killings, Elliott Abrams told a Senate Committee that reports of hundreds of deaths were not credible. At that time, Mr. Abrams was the Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs.

To get a sense of what went on in El Mozote that day, we can turn to a little boy of the village, who was seven years old at the time and was rounded up by soldiers during a house to house search:

We found maybe fifteen kids and then they took us all to the playing field. On the way, I heard
shooting and I saw some dead bodies, maybe five old people. There were maybe thirty children.
The soldiers were putting ropes on the trees. I was seven years old, and I didn't really understand
what was happening until I saw one of the soldiers take a kid he had been carrying -- the kid was
maybe three years old -- throw him in the air, and stab him with a bayonet. They slit some of the
kids' throats, and many they hanged from the tree. All of us were crying now, but we were their
prisoners -- there was nothing we could do. The soldiers kept telling us, 'You are guerrillas and this
is justice. This is justice.' Finally, there were only three of us left. I watched them hang my brother.
He was two years old. I could see I was going to be killed soon, and I thought it would be better
to die running, so I ran. I slipped through the soldiers and dived into the bushes. They fired into the
bushes, but none of their bullets hit me.

The little brother who was hanged would have been about twenty years old now. Does it require too much American attention to remember back to when he was murdered?

Maybe Obama doesn't know or care about any of this. But there are some who do.  If I were one of his advisors, I would caution him about linking himself with the sensibilities of Reagan and his administration.

Common Ground
January 17, 2008

I've noticed that political commentators are seriously confused lately about the nature of compromise. Dennis Ross, for example, former Middle Eastern envoy, speaking on the web site bigthink, says that Republicans and Democrats ought to be able to find common ground where big national issues are involved. He mentioned as instances, climate control, Iraq and medical care.

But how can common ground be found if it doesn't exist?

There may be some possibility with respect to climate, now that a few Republican leaders are beginning to admit that air pollution is affecting the weather in a way detrimental to humans. But I see no common ground on Iraq or medical care. That's because in these cases the goals of Democrats and Republicans are different from one another. If you spend time examining positions of the two sides, you can't find much overlap.

Ross's plea is based on the old bromide that both Democrats and Republicans want what's good for the country; they just don't agree on the methods to acquire it. But that's nonsense. Sure, they both want what's good for the country in their own definition of good. But these are two separate definitions.

There's no sense in pretending that what the average Republican sees as a good country is what I see. I know it's not because I've talked to a lot of Republicans about it. They don't want the America I want, and it's for sure I don't want the America they want.

I wonder what Mr. Ross would have to say about that.

Prosperity, Republican Style
January 16, 2008

In his column in the Washington Post today, Michael Gerson, the former Bush speechwriter, makes one of the most revealing comments I've seen in years. Here it is:

It is often recounted, in fits of prosperous self-hatred, that America has only 5 percent of the world
population while consuming 30 percent of global resources. But this comparison is misunderstood.
The rest of the world has been underconsuming, because too many have lived in poverty. That is
now changing as Asia buys oil and cars and air conditioners -- and we should want it to change.

You see, if all the people of the world were as piggish as the wealthy classes in America, then we wouldn't have such a bothersome statistic. We need to get others up to our levels of consumption. If that were to happen, of course, the world would probably be unlivable because of pollution, but that's not a truth that can penetrate Gerson's Republican brain.

Though his prescriptions are fatuous you could at least give Gerson credit for simplistic goodheartedness, that is if you could believe he really means what he says. The trouble is, the kind of development Gerson and his cronies have pushed doesn't end up benefiting the "too many who have lived in poverty." Between 1989 and 1997, for example, Russia, through vigorous economic "reform" went from having no millionaires to the munificence of possessing seventeen billionaires. During the same period, the number of people living in poverty in Russia increased from two million to seventy-four million. In eight years, by a process of unregulated market capitalism plus selling off the resources of the state, the exact process Republicans in America have promoted, more than seventy million people in Russia were plunged into poverty.

This is no secret. Listen to Wayne Merry, who was the chief political analyst in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow while the process was unfolding:

The U.S. Government chose the economic over the political. We chose the freeing of prices,
privatization of industry, and the creation of a really unfettered, unregulated capitalism, and
essentially hoped that rule of law, civil society, and representative democracy would develop
somehow automatically as a result.... Unfortunately, the choice was to ignore popular will and
to press on with the policy.

The policy in this case, of course, meant supporting  Boris Yeltsin as he launched an assault on the Russian parliament, killed five hundred people, locked up another seventeen hundred, and burned down the building where parliament met, which up till then had been the symbol of growing popular rule in Russia. The day after this mayhem, the Washington Post ran a headline  proclaiming, "Victory Seen For Democracy."  Some democracy!

Are we supposed to believe that Gerson doesn't know about any of this? Is there any genuine evidence that the people he has loyally served care a whit about poor people around the world? The masses can regale themselves watching tales of the rich and famous on their TVs. What more could people want? What more could the poor have a right to want?

A Way Forward
January 16, 2008

Here's a suggestion for political candidates on how to answer questions like, "What is your greatest weakness?"

Lean back in your chair, look thoughtful for at least two seconds, and then say, in a mild tone, "You know, after observing the political process for a number of years, I've decided not to answer utterly silly questions. Maybe that's not a good political ploy, but, in the midst of this process, one does have to guard against becoming violently nauseous. I'll tell you what: why don't you put that question about me to my opponents. Then we can all sit back and smile while they answer"

I wonder what David Brooks would say to that answer.

January 15, 2008

I just came on a wonderful statement from Douglas Feith, former neo-con maven in the Defense Department: "We understood that if you did something as big as replacing Saddam, then there are going to be all kinds of consequences, many of which you can't possibly anticipate. Something good may come, something negative might come out."

There you have the Bush foreign policy in a nutshell: kill a half-million people, spend a trillion dollars, and who knows? Something good might come from it. It's kind of like driving your car off a cliff because, after all, you might land in a fluffy stack of thousand dollar bills.

The American people seem to be deciding -- at an agonizingly slow rate -- that they want something a bit more likely than the success of Bush-like gambles. But the past seven years have got most Americans so out of the habit of thinking about how their country can relate to the rest of the world in a positive way that they're pretty much at sea about it right now.

We can hope that the coming presidential campaign will help to clear the public's mind. But at the moment it's merely a hope. There's not a lot of evidence that it's going to happen.

An Iconic Tale
January 15, 2008

Amy Waldman's story about the "Jena Six" in the current Atlantic is enough to produce anguish in anyone who cares about America -- or, for that matter, the human race.

Her account concentrates on two figures, both of them sunk so deep in confident ignorance it's difficult to imagine how they could ever escape.

Mychal Bell, high-school football star, is a kid with problems in controlling his temper, problems made worse by his belief that his performance on the football field would get him out of any scrape.

J. Reed Walters, the LaSalle Parish district attorney, believes the Second Coming is almost upon us and believes also that his behavior in the case of the Jena Six was "absolutely 100 percent correct." He charged Mychal Bell, as an adult, with attempted murder for a fight Bell had with a fellow student. Bell is black and the student he knocked out is white.

As you work your way through the article, it's hard to decide which of the two main figures is most stupid. You can summon some sympathy for Bell. He grew up poor, without the presence of a father, in a town that is clearly racist, even though it can't face that truth about itself. Even so, his behavior was pretty much out of rational control as he approached adulthood. He clearly needed strong, sensible adult guidance. He got it to some degree from his football coach. But that was mainly about the game, and not so much about life.

It's harder to excuse Walters because of his arrogant self-assurance about his own virtue. But, then, I guess you could say he was shaped by his surroundings as much as Bell was.

The question that rises in the mind as one reads the article is how either of them could ever learn anything. You might imagine a situation in which Bell could be taught. After all, he's only seventeen years old. But the chances of his finding the right situation are remote. Walters comes across as hopeless. His brain is so impregnated with righteous bigotry, it's difficult to see what might affect it.

Our political candidates are forever telling us we can, here in America, do whatever we want. All right! I wish one of them would tell me what can be done so that Mychal Bell and J. Reed Walters would both become sensible, decent persons. All long as the United States is inhabited by people such as they have been, I can't perceive the bright future the politicians bray about.

Right Wing Thinking
January 13, 2008

What passes for traditional conservatism nowadays is the belief that "government" is a single thing, with divided abilities. It's totally inept, and perhaps evil as well, whenever it tries to help people. But if it picks up a gun and starts killing people, or, at least, begins to throw them in jail, it becomes perfectly good.

The right wing doesn't have to offer evidence for this assessment. It is proved by definition. Government is such and such, that's all there is to it.

If you actually were to pay attention to all the things done through public funding, you would clearly find a mixed bag -- some things quite positive and others not very good at all. If you were to respond to this concoction in a rational way you would try to eliminate the bad things and enhance the good in accordance with some defensible concept of public health. But the right wing will have none of that. They want politics by definition and they want to be able to say what things are, regardless of evidence. A hospital, for example, funded by the public is bad, whereas as a hospital operated for profit is good, even if the cure rate in the former far exceeds the cure rate in the latter.

You can see this philosophy on exhibit in all the Republican presidential debates, perhaps most purely in the remarks coming from Fred Thompson. The reason he appears lazy to some people is that he doesn't have to think. There's no requirement, as far as he's concerned, to observe reality and describe it. He knows what reality is by definition.

There is probably some explanation for all modes of thought. If I knew the cause of right-wing thinking, I'd tell you what it is. But I don't. It's puzzling to me. And the more I listen to it and pay attention to it, the more puzzled I become. I've heard it said that it's just a matter of adhering to custom. But it's hard for me to see how, custom, in and of itself, would always require people to refuse to see what's in front of their faces. Something else has to be involved, and though I admit to having a few suspicions, I can't say I know what it is.

January 11, 2008

Lately I've been trying to comprehend why anybody should wish, or expect, to be inspired by a politician and, I confess, I can't do it. We need to step back and remind ourselves of what politicians do. They are operatives in a stew of competing petty interests, where the best outcome can be no more than mundane life on a decent level. Political activity can help to construct a social matrix that doesn't crush the human spirit. It is not a means to lift us up to the finest things. Consequently, what we should seek in politicians is reasonable intelligence and generally humane intentions.

Throughout history, the most inspiring politicians are those who have led their countries to victory in wars that killed millions and destroyed property beyond counting. Uninspiring politicians were much more likely to find ways not to have wars.

Political inspiration is generally based on empty abstractions that manipulators can cram with anything they want. Consider, for example, George Bush and his reputation as one who wishes to spread democracy around the world. Consider the total amount of garbage that has been put forward in the name of the American dream. Consider how many people were slaughtered for the sake of Manifest Destiny. Consider the body-and-mind-crippling greed that marches under the banner of American enterprise.

Perhaps the main reason that I'm tending (so far just tending) to support Hillary Clinton is that there's not much inspiring about her. She strikes me as an intelligent woman who will work to make things incrementally better for most citizens by the time she leaves public office. And that's all I want in a president.

If a politician can keep people from starving in the streets, and keep those streets well-paved, if he or she can make it more likely that desperately sick people can receive good medical care, if under his or her leadership we spend more of our funds in promoting scientific understanding and learning, and less on killing people, then I figure I'm getting pretty good service. I'll take care of being inspired by myself.

Presidential Powers
January 11, 2008

Here's my message to those who continue to suggest, hint, and insinuate that Hillary Clinton's emotional moment on Monday before the New Hampshire primary was scripted: if you're right we should call off the election and install her in the White House immediately. She would be not only one of the country's best informed public officials but, also, beyond doubt, the world's greatest actress. And that's a combination that can't be beat.

I find myself wondering if I'm the only person on earth who actually listened to what was said during the Democratic debate on Saturday night. Did no one else notice that Hilary's answers were more substantial and better informed by the subtleties of state craft than her opponents' were? Her response to the question of whether to bomb Pakistan in order to kill Osama bin Laden made her rivals seem like little boys shouting insults from behind a fence. I'm assuming they knew they were playing to a yahoo audience and, therefore, did it on purpose. I certainly hope so because, after all, one of them might become the president. Still, it was nice to hear a mature answer that took account of the meaning of words, and, particularly of that spooky phrase, "actionable intelligence." I was left with the sense that Hillary might genuinely be able to make a distinction between actionable intelligence and intelligence of the ordinary sort. If we had a president who could do that it would constitute a revolution in American politics.

January 10, 2008

Politics is always teaching me something new and over the past few days it has taught me I don't know what crying is. I've watched the famous incident involving Hillary Clinton about a dozen times now and I've yet to see anything that I used to think was crying. She did exhibit some emotion, but I was such a dummy in the past I thought you could show emotion without crying. But since the entire political world has proclaimed that she cried, I must be wrong.

The problem for me is that it's only a half-lesson. I know I was wrong about crying, but I still don't know what it is. It doesn't involve tears; that's clear. But what does it involve?

Another puzzle for me is likability. I recognize it's a more subjective quality than crying, which I used to think was a fairly definite thing. Even so, I see that my sense of likability has been way, way off. I began to have an inkling of this four years ago when numerous political sages announced that anyone would rather go on a picnic with George Bush than with John Kerry. I wouldn't seek out a picnic experience with Kerry, but if I found myself in that situation, I think I could still eat. With Bush, I'm not so sure.

Now all political wisdom has arisen to announce that Barack Obama is more likable than Hillary Clinton. I think that Obama would probably be a pretty good president, but, for me, his likability is another thing. In my erstwhile stupidity I used to think that liking someone meant that you would enjoy his or her company. And I have to admit that if I were choosing a companion for an afternoon tea or coffee, I'd pick Hillary over Obama every time. With her, I could just talk and I wouldn't feel there was any requirement for worship, which for me would be a comfort.

All this goes to show me that I should never underestimate my capacity for misunderstanding.

Political Continuance
January 10, 2008

What do people mean when they say they're tired of partisanship? Do they actually have something in mind or are they simply repeating a hackneyed phrase as a substitute for thought?

Surely, they can't mean that political stances should be surrendered for the sake of affability. Am I supposed to give up the policies I believe in just to play kissy-face with right-wingers?

If all the critics are seeking is courtesy, why don't they say so? Disagreements can usually be discussed in a courteous manner, and when they are all parties are better off for it. But that doesn't mean that partisanship has gone away.

I suspect what they have vaguely in mind is that beneath superficial and egotistical disagreements there is a bedrock of goodness where all could stand, in affability and brotherhood, were they to dig themselves down to it. I wish that were the case but I fear it is not. There are deep differences among people arising from their character.

Political parties reflect those basic differences. These are not natural differences and, so, they are capable of being modified by experience. But the world is so organized that most people can't undergo a fundamental change of heart. Obviously, there are some who have drifted into the wrong party because they misunderstand themselves. But most are probably where they should be. Mr. Jefferson was wrong when he said, "We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists." Mr. Obama is wrong when he says we are one people (unless he means it in a way that has nothing to do with resolving differences).

Put me and Bill O'Reilly in the same room for a hundred years. We might learn to get on, and we might even develop a kind of affection for one another, but we would not come to agree about the makeup of a good society.

Partisanship is with us. Saying we're tired of it is like saying we're tired of gravity. We would do well, instead of complaining about it, to learn to live with it as gracefully as possible.

What Counts
January 9, 2008

I don't think any other political event ever made me as happy as Hillary Clinton's win in New Hampshire yesterday. In fact, the degree of pleasure surprised me and left me asking, why?

As I mull it over, I see there were two main reasons. First, I believe in knowledge; I believe in it deeply. Only truth and love surpass it in my mind and in my feelings. For years it has frustrated me to realize how little knowledge is valued in American politics. It's almost as though it doesn't count for anything.  On Saturday night in Manchester, Hillary Clinton showed that she knows more about the problems of the American state and has thought about them more carefully than her two principal opponents. They may surpass her in soaring rhetoric and in passionate expression. But they don't know as much as she does, and, with me, how much you know is a pretty good measure of how much you care. There is, of course, such a thing as dead knowledge, pedantic knowledge , which doesn't result in anything healthy. But it's not genuine because it is not infused with either thought or feeling. As best I can tell, Hillary Clinton's knowledge is the real thing.

Second, I don't want to do anything to reward the smear machine that has been dumping on her for almost two decades. To say that she has been treated unfairly would be one of greatest understatements of history. It doesn't matter what she does; the people who hate her will twist it to make it into something vile. I've not been notable as a great feminist spokesman, but I do have enough sense to recognize that much of this venom flows from the view her haters have of her as an uppity woman. And what does that mean? Simply that she cares enough to know and wants to use what she knows. I am glad for events that teach these bigots that women have every right to take part in public affairs. The snideness will roll forward, of course. Maureen Dowd, whom I generally respect, spewed it forth this morning in the New York Times.  And don't expect Chris Matthews to stop his pathetic innuendoes. Actually, Hillary should be grateful to him. Reaction to his nastiness probably played a part in her New Hampshire victory.

I don't mean by any of this that I think Hillary Clinton is without fault. Her votes on Bush's war resolutions were mistakes and I hope the campaign will continue to force on her the realization of how big those mistakes were. I hope also that it will move her away from what has been her husband's uncritical response to anything labeled "global." But we can see in her remarks last night that such a movement has already begun. In Obama and Edwards she has able opponents. I was glad to see her acknowledge them in her victory speech. I think that all three Democratic candidates will help to sharpen and move the thinking of their opponents. That's how campaigns are supposed to work.

There is much to like and respect in both Edwards and Obama. But right now Hillary Clinton strikes me as having the greatest promise among the three to be a fine president. And it remains for me a glorious thing that in New Hampshire yesterday a spate of fairness broke out.

January 9, 2008

Here is David Brooks first point about the New Hampshire primary:

Republicans voted in nearly the same numbers as Democrats. In Iowa, Democratic interest swamped
Republican interest. In New Hampshire, the Democrats had an edge, but it was not huge.

Here are the approximate number of votes for the top four contenders in each party: Democrats, 278,000; Republicans, 210, 000. Some edge! If that were to turn out to be the ratio of Democratic to Republican voters in the general election, the Democrats would win by 14%, a landslide of gigantic proportions.

This is the sort of analysis you can generally expect from David Brooks, -- vague insinuations that things are always, no matter what the issue, more or less favoring Republicans. There has been some talk that he's so fed up with the stupidity of the Bush administration that he might come over to the other side. Maybe. But I don't expect it.

Perceptions Domestic and Foreign
January 8, 2008

Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly posted a chart on his web site today showing that the people of Pakistan see the U.S. military presence in Asia as the biggest threat to their nation, even more serious than Pakistan's differences with India. Drum appeared to be surprised by this, but he shouldn't have been.

It is almost impossible to exaggerate the unease people outside the United States feel over the number of American military bases outside our borders. There are almost eight hundred. Isn't it entirely understandable that such a military presence throughout the world would be troubling? Yet in the United States among the political classes there is virtually no discussion of this problem.

John McCain says he thinks it's fine if American troops stay in Iraq for a thousand years, as long as they're not being killed there. He is evidently unconscious of the image we present by wanting to post our troops all over the globe. And his deadness to the issue seems to be shared by most Americans. If it were seen as a problem, why wouldn't it be debated?

Americans seem incapable of imagining the feelings of other people. This is, by far, our most serious diplomatic difficulty. By demonstrating in nearly everything we say or do (or fail to do) that we have no concern for what others think, we present ourselves to the world as an immense danger. If they think we don't really regard them as human beings, how could they possibly have any reason to trust us? How could they not fear us?

Just think what the reaction would be if Mexico worked out a deal with Russia to station a combat division of the Russian Army just south of the Rio Grande. This country would go bonkers. Yet we expect other countries to accept similar postings from us without even thinking about them.

It's not a reasonable expectation.

New Target
January 7, 2008

This is a note to those who are supporting Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton simply because you think he will be a less divisive candidate. You are severely naive about the nature of the right-wing smear machine.

Sure, they have been spewing their vitriol mainly at Hillary Clinton up till now. It's an old habit and they enjoy it. But let Obama become the nominee of the Democratic Party and you'll see how quickly they can reset their sights.

Right now about 10% of Americans think Obama is a Muslim. By November, if he's the nominee, that figure will be at 20%.

You think racism is a dead issue in American politics? Then you don't know how the Republican Party gets its literature out -- non-traceable, of course -- in small town filling stations in the South.

There is nothing too nasty for the right-wing to use. They will fill every medium they can discover with lies on top of lies.

These are not reasons not to support Obama if you like his positions and believe he can be effective in advancing them. We probably are at a juncture when the right-wing machine can be defeated. But, it won't be any harder to beat with Clinton as the nominee than it would with Obama.

So pick your candidate because of whom you most respect, and don't think you can divert the right-wingers by choosing somebody that won't set them in motion.

They'll be in motion. I can guarantee you that.

Presidential Pizzaz
January 6, 2008

On Face the Nation this morning, Dean Reynolds, the CBS correspondent assigned to the Obama campaign, said that the candidate turns a political event into entertainment. Reynolds is right and that's why I'm less enthusiastic about Obama than I once was. I have never liked mob phenomena in politics. It's all right at rock concerts and football games, but it's not healthy political behavior.

This not to say that I won't support Obama strongly should he get the Democratic nomination. I will. But I am worried about a swelling that can easily transform itself into arrogance.

I was interesting in watching the immediate response this morning to the debate in Manchester last night. On almost every substantive interchange with Obama, Hillary Clinton made stronger, more thoughtful, points than he did. As far as I can tell nobody cares. Obama has star power. She does not. Who cares what she, or he, actually thinks about government action?

I'm not arguing that Obama is simply a bubble. But no man is immune to getting carried away with himself, and that disease can be seen lately, flickering at the edges of Obama's famous smile.

The simple truth is that the world cannot be turned around over night. We can blather all we wish about how the old era is passing away and a new era is dawning, but this magical passing, riding on the smile of a movie-star-like politician, is not going to banish all the forces that have led the nation to disgrace over the past twenty years. They still exist and they still want what they have always wanted. Hillary is right. Diminishing their influence will take hard work, and knowledge, and political skill -- skill very different from the ability to make a crowd go gaga.

As Senators Clinton's fortunes appear to be waning I find myself growing more respectful of her, and liking her better too.

Actual Versus Ostensible
January 5, 2008

Pascal says, "We must keep our thought secret, and judge everything by it, while talking like the people."

I hope that's what's in the mind of Senator Obama when he makes his stirring speeches. Does he choose his words to rouse the hearts of those who can't think, or does he think he's actually saying something? The latter would be horrible, for him as well as for us.

It has rapidly become conventional wisdom that his remarks after the victory in Iowa were one of the grandest political utterances of the past half-century. Mark Shields and David Brooks affirmed its status on The News Hour last night. So, it must be so.

Pascal also says something else that's pertinent to this situation -- that people should comply with folly not because they respect it but because God has decreed subjection to folly as the appropriate punishment for men.

It would be a grand thing to see Barack Obama  and Mike Huckabee discuss the truth of that thought. But, then, that wouldn't be talking like the people, would it?

Obaman Rhetoric
January 4, 2008

Within minutes of the conclusion of Barack Obama's victory speech in Iowa, TV pundits were pronouncing it to be both heroic and inspiring. Perhaps they're right. I'm not capable of knowing about such things.

When I hear someone speak I'm not so much concerned with being inspired as with understanding what he said. And Obama's words left me in a condition of not knowing. Perhaps, as the campaign continues, he will fill his words with meaning. I hope so.

When Obama says we are one America, not a divided America, what, exactly, does he have in mind? What does it mean to be one America? I really don't know.

It can't mean that all Americans believe in the same things or value the same things because that's demonstrably untrue.

When Obama says he's going to bring us together, what will be the result of it. How are we going to be "together?" And what will we do when we are?

I'm not sure I want an America of togetherness, just for the sake of togetherness. I would like to see an America in which a majority can be won over to reasonable policies and humane goals. But that would never do away with politics. And doing away with politics seems almost to be what Obama is promising. When we're all together, then we won't be Republicans, and Democrats, and Independents any more, will we? What's the need of political identity when we're all together?

At the same time Obama talks about togetherness he talks also about how he's not going to allow monied lobbyists to direct the country. Are they not too Americans? Are they not going to be brought together with the rest of us? Are certain groups going to be excluded from the great togetherness? And if they are, won't that mean that we're still divided?

These are all big puzzles, and Obama is going to have to explain them if he's going to carry forward to a decent government which genuinely rises above what we've had recently. It remains to be seen whether he can find words to do that.

Political Meaning
January 3, 2008

Here on the day of the Iowa caucuses, before any results are in, seems a good time to reflect on the meaning of the word, "politics."

If your thoughts come mainly from the media, you could easily assume that politics is no more than a contest among egomaniacs to gain and hold public office. All that counts is the skill of their trickery and propaganda. I have met people who think that's indeed the case, that nothing is at stake other than who gets to appear on television, and ride around in government cars and planes for four years or so. It might be nice if that were true; but it's not.

Politics is the art of using government to achieve certain ends. That being so, the most important feature of a politician is his, or her, ends. What is it that he, or she, wants government to bring about? Perhaps the chief weakness of most political operatives is they have no clear distinction in mind between means and ends. They often confuse the two, or, maybe what's worse, never get round to ends because, even after they are elected, means are all they can think about.

When we say that a politician has certain "policies," it's tempting to put these in first place and forget that they are simply the machinery of means. That's not to say that they aren't important. They are. But unless they are judged by the ends they promote, they can be nothing other than empty spinning.

If we take, for example, the policy of strengthening America's military might, we have to face the truth that this cannot be an end. What is it to be strengthened for? What sort of world is it intended to bring about? Politicians are fond of bromides. They say things such as "military strength promotes peace." But, generally, they have little idea of what they mean by peace, and almost never do they offer evidence that military strength promotes it. Coming from the mouths of most politicians, military strength is a policy that simply floats in space, tied to nothing, and, therefore, potentially usable for anything.

Even a policy as seemingly transparent as universal health care has to measure up to the test of ends. It's not enough for any U. S. citizen to be able to walk into existing medical facilities and get what's offered there. That would be an improvement over what we have now, but it would still leave the questions of what needs to be offered and how can we move our whole health system towards offering what will best promote genuine health.

What we should ask about health systems needs to be asked also about educational systems, and transportation systems, and economic systems, and diplomatic systems, and so on. What are their genuine ends?

Obviously, no single mind can answer all these questions. But a single mind can recognize that they require answers, and a single mind can have a feeling for the processes that can bring answers to the fore. These are the actions of a political artist. These are the abilities we should be looking for when we place people in positions of public power.

In 2008, when we examine the people who actually have a chance to inhabit the White House starting in 2009, we should rank them in the order of their ability to understand the true political arts and to apply them to ends we believe are worthy.  Establishing that order confidently in our minds is easy in some cases, not so easy in others. Hillary Clinton, for example, is obviously superior to Mitt Romney in thinking about political ends. That's because he has no political ends other than the elevation of Mitt Romney; he would as soon do it one way as another. But is Hillary superior to John Edwards? That's a harder question.

It would be a grand thing if the American people would begin seriously to question their candidates about the ends they intend to pursue. If the electorate did that, by November of this year we would have a different definition of politics. And there could scarcely be any reform greater than that.

January 3, 2008

According to Adam Liptak in today's New York Times, the principal debate about the death penalty in America has descended to the question of how best to kill a person without hurting him. This shows that I'm seriously confused. I thought the purpose of state killing was to hurt someone. Yes, say proponents, but we want to inflict the ultimate hurt without a scintilla of physical pain. This shows that we are humane.

Maybe it's not nice to inform advocates of what they're really doing, but to take a helpless person into a tiny room, strap him on a table, and kill him in cold blood, is not humane. You may like the idea of doing it because you want revenge, or because you choose to believe fallacious notions of crime prevention, or just because you enjoy seeing certain persons die, but you can't have those pleasures and be humane at the same time. They don't go together.

I try to imagine the vision of this country that rises up in the mind of an intelligent non-American, when he considers that the main debate in the United States about state killing is not how to stop it but rather what's the best way to kill people so that watching them die doesn't make us uncomfortable.

I saw that vision modeled on the face of a Belgian once at a conference in Yorkshire when he asked me how it can be that Americans still like the idea of state killing. As I tried, haltingly, to explain, the expression that came over him is indescribable. It's imprinted in my mind, but I can't tell you what it was. Nouns like disgust, nausea, incredulity, loathing, revulsion don't begin to get at it.

I suppose we can keep on loving legalized killing as much as we want, but it would be interesting to see what would happen if American citizens began to acquire even the smallest knowledge of what this indulgence is costing us.

Stomach Turning
January 2, 2008

It's nauseating that we have created in this country a political atmosphere in which candidates feel driven to make obnoxious appeals. That says something about them but even more about us. I guess you could argue that politics is always nauseating and if you did you would have a point. Still, in any ongoing activity, there are peaks and valleys and it seems to me that with respect to politics, right now we're way down in one of the low places.

I haven't seen the famous squelched ad produced by the Huckabee campaign attacking Mitt Romney. But if I can believe reporters who have seen it, it includes a criticism of Romney for not presiding over executions while he was governor of Massachusetts. That must mean that there are people in the Huckabee campaign who believe the country has a significant number of voters who would hold it against a state official for not trying to get the state to kill people. Do you suppose that's true?

Let's accept for a moment that it is. Do current candidates throw out supplications to such people? The answer is clearly, yes. No matter how vile a potential voter's sentiments might be, most candidates will try to get his vote, if not with direct statements of approval, then with coded language and winks and nods.

It would be an heroic act if a leading campaigner would summon the gumption to acknowledge that all Americans are not wonderful, and that those who want disgusting behavior from the government should take their support elsewhere. The finest message a candidate could deliver right now would be, "If you want this don't vote for me."

I doubt it's one you will see laid out very much before next November.

January 1, 2008

In his first column of the new year, David Brooks offers us a fairly convincing analysis of why Mitt Romney cannot win the presidency. He doesn't, however, explain why it would be a disaster if Romney, by some chance, were to win. That's because Brooks declines to discuss the creep factor.

It's not fair to use the adjective "creepy" about a presidential candidate unless you push beyond the truth that he makes the skin crawl. What can be said about Mitt Romney that's more reasonable than that the sight of him produces a feeling of a vast vacuum? Brooks may be alluding to that quality with his title, "Road to Nowhere." But nowhere with respect to Romney is not mere defeat for his party; it's literally nowhere.

It's an ironical aspect of the human condition that some people serve best as a model of who not to be. I can think of no public figure who does that better than Romney. Compared to him, Britney Spears is a deep well of human meaning. He shows us the utter nullity of being successful in a purely conventional way. He's rich. He's handsome (so people say). He knows how to run things. He has never done anything bad. His family is a model for all families everywhere.

Now, I must admit, that all this is based on the image Mr. Romney has chosen to project of himself. I have no way of knowing the real person. He may be as riven with neuroses as Dostoyevsky's man in the basement. I hope, for his sake, he is. To wish that anybody would actually be the public Mitt Romney would be unsurpassably cruel.

Still, we have to confront the Mitt Romney he has given us. The newspaper in Concord called him a phony simply because he changes his positions after calculating how best to gain advantage. That's not a particularly attractive habit but it doesn't get at the essence of Romney's emptiness. If he were no more than a perfect opportunist he might still have some traits to warm the heart. Instead, he impresses us as a robot who has been programmed to play a human.

One might ask, what's wrong with that? After what we've had, wouldn't we be better off with a consistent program? My answer is no. That's because a program will use the factors built into it to decide what to do. And then, it'll do it, regardless of the consequences. There's no hesitancy in a program, no doubt. If a program decided that the world would be better off with half the current human population and that hydrogen bombs are the best way to achieve that result -- and, after all, a somewhat rational argument can be made to that effect -- it would get to work on the task right away.

In emptiness, there are no limits. That's the truth which frightens me when I think of Mitt Romney.

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