Archives for April, 2008
I really like Portland–it’s the perfect-sized city, the surroundings are beautiful, and so are a lot of the buildings. I’m staying in this super-cool hotel built in 1911 that has a “film classics” motif. Lana Turner is on my keycard. The light-rail is awesome since I didn’t have to pay for it (a guy I met last night called it something like “a multibillion dollar choo-choo for hipsters.”) But unless I’m walking all the wrong places, the city really seems to have a dearth of street-level retail. I don’t know what the explanation for that is. There are plenty of liberal cities with bustling commerce. But you go whole blocks downtown here where there’s nothing to buy. Gripped by man’s primal need for a New York Times, I walked for about 40 minutes this morning before I found a place that had it.
Tomorrow I hit the anti-Portland: Phoenix, for an event at the Goldwater Institute.
Just arrived in Portland. Had a pang of guilt while enjoying the ride in from the airport on the spiffy light-rail system. I’ll have to denounce myself at the next meeting of the Individualist Collective.
Also, I’ll be speaking tonight, for the America’s Future Foundation–at an Irish Pub. I’m so happy to type those words. But I’m not singing any Goddamned Unicorn song.
Tomorrow, I’ll be speaking at an event sponsored by the good folks at the Cascade Policy Institute.
Today I’m leaving a very fine conference put together by the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover, featuring a host of presidential scholars and, uh, me. Line of the day yesterday “I’m probably the only guy in the entire world who has a ‘Warren G. Harding’ Google News Alert,” and no, I didn’t say it. It’s supposed to be on C-Span, though I don’t know when.
An “author’s excerpt” from Cult is in today’s Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (scroll down).
In the American Interest, John Mueller continues to talk sense about the age of terror:
[T]errorism and the attendant “war” thereon have become fully embedded in the public consciousness, with the effect that politicians and bureaucrats have become as wary of appearing soft on terrorism as they are about appearing soft on drugs, or as they once were about appearing soft on Communism.
Key to this dynamic is that the public apparently continues to remain unimpressed by several inconvenient facts. One such fact is that there have been no al-Qaeda attacks whatsoever in the United States since 2001. A second is that no true al-Qaeda cell (or scarcely anybody who might even be deemed to have a “connection” to the diabolical group) has been unearthed in this country. A third is that the homegrown “plotters” who have been apprehended, while perhaps potentially somewhat dangerous at least in a few cases, have mostly been either flaky or almost absurdly incompetent.
On that last point, see Monday’s Washington Post on the “Liberty City Seven” trial(s):
The Miami case revolved around a part-time contractor who gathered a loose band of men in a rented room in a downscale neighborhood known as Liberty City. The group, distantly affiliated with the Moorish Science Temple religion, talked about Muhammad, Jesus, Confucius and Buddha, and also practiced martial arts.
Its leader, Narseal Batiste, told his Yemenese grocer in October 2005 that he wanted to conduct jihad to overthrow the U.S. government. The grocer, an FBI informant who himself had a criminal record, told the bureau. The FBI then employed a second informant, this one an Arab from overseas who depicted himself as a representative of Osama bin Laden.
Batiste confided, somewhat fantastically, that he wanted to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago, which would then fall into a nearby prison, freeing Muslim prisoners who would become the core of his Moorish army. With them, he would establish his own country.
Sounds like a plan!
Man, this is a great city. Among other things, it has a real Chinatown, not like D.C.’s half-assed, two-block version with a Fuddruckers, a Ruby Tuesday’s, and a Hooters complete with a sign in Chinese characters (reading “Owl Restaurant,” apparently).
If you grew up in Hawaii, wouldn’t you assume everyone who lives in Western Pennsylvania was bitter? Hell, I kinda think that, and I grew up in New Jersey. The whole incident reminds me of a terrific book review by Andrew Ferguson that almost–almost–made me want to read Dreams from My Father:
As a teenager he befriends Ray, another African-American boy who vents his authentic black rage between classes at their prep school, as the ocean breezes stir the towering palms overhead. This black rage was “the thing that Ray and I never could seem to agree on . . .
“Our rage at the white world needed no object, he seemed to be telling me, no independent confirmation; it could be switched on and off at our pleasure. Sometimes . . . I would question his judgment, if not his sincerity. We weren’t living in the Jim Crow South, I would remind him. We weren’t consigned to some heatless housing project in Harlem or the Bronx. We were in goddamned Hawaii.”
I’m off to promote the book in Philadelphia. I’ll be speaking at UPenn tonight, where just a couple of weeks ago Hillary Clinton gave a speech in which she said “We need a president who is ready on Day 1 to be commander in chief of our economy.” Jawohl, mein president!
That reminds me, I’m just getting used to WordPress, and I inadvertently deleted a comment downblog that accused me of a Godwin’s Law violation. To the commenter: sorry about that, and please post it again if you’d like.
Sunday’s NYT has an article by Sam Tanenhaus, that mentions Norman Mailer’s 1969 bid for mayor of NYC. It’s one of my favorite political campaigns ever. I just finished Managing Mailer, an account of the race written by his campaign manager. Mailer was my kind of Purple American: “I am running to the Left and the Right of every man in this race…. I am running on everything from Black Power to Irish self-righteousness.” The campaign had the best slogan in history: “No More Bullshit,” and a candidate who was full of it and endearingly so.
Mailer and Breslin’s platform was a sort of three-bong-hit Jeffersonianism. As Time magazine described at the time:
His candidacy is improbable; yet in the course of his campaign Mailer has put forward some provocative ideas. Many merely peck at the periphery of urban problems, frequently with a large mea sure of hyperbole…. He… suggests that Coney Island be turned into a Las Vegas East, with legalized gambling that would add sizably to the tax revenues. Most of all, however, Mailer has based his campaign on two ideas: that New York City should become a separate 51st state, and that the city ought to be divided into many relatively autonomous neighborhoods.
Neighborhood Power. On the financial side, Mailer argues that the city pays $14 billion in income taxes to Washington and Albany — but gets back only $3 billion. If the city were a separate state,* it would get to keep a greater proportion of the tax money it exports. What is more, it would be freed from legislative control by the present state government, which is often hostile to city demands. At the same time, says Mailer, if he is elected in November, “a small miracle would have happened. At that moment the city would have declared that it had lost faith in the old ways of solving political problems and that it wished to embark on a new conception of politics.” Then, says Mailer, there would be delegated “some real power to the neighborhoods.” …. Early in his campaign, blithely exaggerating to dramatize his point, Mailer proclaimed: “We’ll have compulsory free love in those neighborhoods that vote for it, and compulsory attendance at church on Sunday in those that vote for that.”
The campaign was replete with wacked-out ideas: “a monthly ‘Sweet Sunday,’ when every form of mechanical transportation — including elevators — would be halted,” “a World Series of stickball to be held in the deserted Wall Street district on weekends,” and “a zoo in every neighborhood.” But it sure beat the smoking bans and goo-goo liberalism of Bloomberg.
Fun fact: Guess who was the only candidate for City Council that Mailer’s running mate, Jimmy Breslin, finished ahead of? Answer: Charlie Rangel.
There are many reasons to hate John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The fact that the Camelot myth has grown up around a man who routinely abused his power to wiretap his political enemies and bring the United States closer to global thermonuclear war than it’s ever been, all the while sharing a mistress with the mob boss of Chicago and ingesting more drugs than Keith Moon, ought to be enough to dispel any romantic illusions about the sort of men who rise to the presidency. He was the child of an Irish mafia don, the equivalent of A.J. Soprano with nuclear weapons.
But all the same, the guy had a sense of humor. He knew it was all a game, and he didn’t take himself as seriously as his acolytes. As Richard Reeves describes in President Kennedy: Profile of Power, after a campaign-trail speech promising the moon to an audience of farmers at the South Dakota State Fair, JFK turned to an aide and commented, “Well that’s over. Fuck the farmers after November.”
At some level, he knew he was a crook and a fraud, and he always had a wink in his eye about it. The problem with today’s crooks and frauds is that they truly believe they’re our saviors. They believe their own bullshit, which JFK never really did.
John McCain courted controversy recently with a new campaign slogan that some saw as a thinly veiled attack on Barack Obama’s eclectic background and upbringing. I don’t know if that interpretation is right, but McCain’s new tagline sounds like something out of Team America or Steven Colbert: “The American President Americans Have Been Waiting For” (And So Can You!).
Less ridiculous, and perhaps more unsettling, are McCain’s repeated appeals to “a cause greater than self-interest,” and his attacks on “cynicism,” which, as a determined cynic, I take very personally.
In his speeches, McCain periodically sneers at American opulence and suggests that leaving Americans alone to pursue their own visions of happiness is a narrow and ignoble goal for government. As I point out in my new book (buy it, for the love of God!) that’s a common sentiment among the American intelligentsia, and one that’s been used repeatedly to concentrate power in the executive branch:
Like intellectuals the world over, many American pundits and scholars, right and left, view bourgeois contentment with disdain. Normal people appear to like “normalcy,” Warren Harding’s term for peace and prosperity, just fine. But all too many professional thinkers look out upon 300 million people living their lives by their own design and see something impermissibly hollow in the spectacle.
McCain’s campaign speeches reflect that theme. Here he is in a recent speech at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, telling his audience that if you “sacrifice for a cause greater than yourself, [you'll] invest your life with the eminence of that cause, your self-respect assured.” Here he is on his campaign webpage, insisting that “each and every one of us has a duty to serve a cause greater than our own self-interest.”
I’m not a Randian, so I’m not inclined to condemn this stuff as whim-worshipping altruism. In the abstract, I agree with the statement that when you turn away from your own self-interest, narrowly construed, and adopt a higher purpose than your own pleasure (which purpose need not, and ought not, have anything to do with service to the state), “your self-respect [will be] assured.” But why is any of this McCain’s business? The president is supposed to be a limited constitutional officer, not a national life coach-cum-self-help guru.
Making the case for “a cause greater” in the Naval Academy speech, McCain declared that
when healthy skepticism sours into corrosive cynicism our expectations of our government become reduced to the delivery of services. And to some people the expectations of liberty are reduced to the right to choose among competing brands of designer coffee.
Oh my, not “designer coffee”! The reflexive contempt for peace and prosperity McCain displays here is the essence of National Greatness Conservatism, and, as Matt Welch has pointed out in Myth of a Maverick, his devastating critique of the Arizona senator, John McCain is to National Greatness Conservatism as Barry Goldwater was to conservatism proper: the electoral standard bearer for the philosophy.
In his book, Welch quotes a May 1999 commencement address McCain gave at Johns Hopkins University, warning that America was threatened by a “pervasive public cynicism” toward government “as dangerous in its way as war and depression have been in the past.” In the same speech McCain mused, “With every new Dow Jones record, something gnaws at my conscience that we should not be lulled into unfeeling contentment.” (There’s a bright side to our current economic woes I guess: McCain’s conscience is spared that old gnawing feeling.)
McCain’s sometime ideological guru and op-ed page cheerleader, David Brooks, expresses similar themes in his writings. Even in Bobos in Paradise, Brooks’s foray into “comic sociology,” he warns darkly of “the temptations that accompany affluence.” “The fear is that America will decline not because it overstretches, but because it enervates as its leading citizens decide that the pleasures of an oversized kitchen are more satisfying than the conflicts and challenges of patriotic service.” (As a young man, Brooks served abroad with the Wall Street Journal Europe.)
Designer coffee, oversized kitchens, Belgian beer, and iPods–you might embrace such things because they make life more pleasant, but as Brooks and McCain point out, that’s precisely the problem. These products of prosperity are the lures that plague us, the temptations that make us soft and weak, that keep us from true National Greatness.
What can we Bobos do to make ourselves tougher, to save ourselves from the wonderful distractions capitalism continually creates? John McCain provided an answer in a little-noticed article in the Washington Monthly, written shortly after 9/11. In it, McCain called for a quasi-militarized domestic national service corps as a way to address a “spiritual crisis in our national culture.” What Senator McCain envisioned was, well, rather creepy–a sort of jackbooted Politics of Meaning.
McCain praised City Year, an AmeriCorps initiative operating in 13 cities: “City Year members wear uniforms, work in teams, learn public speaking skills, and gather together for daily calisthenics, often in highly public places such as in front of city hall.” He also endorsed the National Civilian Community Corps, “a service program consciously structured along military lines,” in which enrollees “not only wear uniforms and work in teams… but actually live together in barracks on former military bases.” McCain calls for expanding these two initiatives and “spread[ing] their group-cohesion techniques to other AmeriCorps programs.”
“Group cohesion” and calisthenics in front of city hall reflect a version of patriotism, to be sure, albeit one that seems more North Korean than American. But all in all, the article provides further evidence of Welch’s claim that McCain has an essentially “militaristic conception of citizenship.”
Some have compared McCain to JFK, and there’s something to that comparison. But Milton Friedman said everything that needs to be said about the notion that service to the state ought to be the lodestar of presidential politics. In Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman wrote that neither half of JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” “expresses a relation between the citizen and his government that is worthy of the ideals of free men in a free society.” As Friedman put it:
To the free man, the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them. He is proud of a common heritage and loyal to common traditions. But he regards government as a means, an instrumentality, neither a grantor of favors and gifts, nor a master or god to be blindly worshipped and served. He recognizes no national goal except as it is the consensus of the goals that the citizens severally serve. He recognizes no national purpose except as it is the consensus of the purposes for which the citizens severally strive.
All of which gives us another reason to admire Milton Friedman: before National Greatness Conservatism was invented, Friedman was against it.
Now here’s a book I’m looking forward to (and may review): The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush by Elvin T. Lim.
The title might suggest an anti-Bush screed, but having read some of Lim’s work on presidential rhetoric, I have no doubt it’s sober and scholarly. Though it’s probably dryly amusing as well, as suggested by this article, which touches on some of themes in the new book. In the article, Lim writes:
Thus, whereas William Henry Harrison likened liberty to “the sovereign balm for every injury which our institutions may receive” in his inaugural address, George Bush simply likened it to a kite: “Freedom is like a beautiful kite that can go higher and higher with the breeze,” he proclaimed.
Here’s a description of the new book:
How is it that contemporary presidents talk so much and yet say so little, as H. L. Mencken once described, like “dogs barking idiotically through endless nights?” In The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, Elvin Lim tackles this puzzle and argues forcefully that it is because we have been too preoccupied in our search for a “Great Communicator,” and have failed to take presidents to task for what they communicate to us.
To alert us to the gradual rot of presidential rhetoric, Lim examines two centuries of presidential speeches to demonstrate the relentless and ever-increasing simplification of presidential rhetoric. If these trends persist, Lim projects that the State of the Union addresses in the next century could actually read at the fifth-grade level. Through a series of interviews with former presidential speechwriters, he shows that the anti-intellectual stance was a deliberate choice rather than a reflection of presidents’ intellectual limitations. Only the smart, he suggests, know how to “dumb down.”
Because anti-intellectual rhetoric impedes, rather than facilitates communication and deliberation, Lim warns that we must do something to recondition a political culture so easily seduced by smooth-operating anti-intellectual presidents. Sharply written and incisively argued, The Anti-Intellectual Presidency sheds new light on the murky depths of presidential utterances and its consequences for American democracy.
Of course, Mencken also said:
As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their hearts desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.
The Baltimore Evening Sun, July 26, 1920
…I’ve got a post on that voodoo that Yoo do so well.
After a half-year hiatus, I’ve relaunched my blog (with a spiffy redesign by Jerry Brito). One of the reasons for the relaunch is that I have a new book to promote, The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power, or, as I sometimes like to call it, “The Futility of Hope.” The official release date is May 1, but I got hard copies last week, and, after I got over being afraid to look at it for fear that “Presidency” would be misspelled on the cover, it was a great feeling (it’s my first book).
They say that when you’re writing a book, you should have a two-sentence answer at the ready in case people ask you what it’s about while you’re on the elevator. For a long time, mine was “it’s about the presidency. I’m against it.”
A somewhat longer and less flip answer is that when I started researching a couple of years ago, what I had in mind was a book about the post-9/11 Imperial Presidency. But the focus soon became much broader than that. The conventional narrative, which blames a cabal of neocons for the recent growth of executive power, seemed incomplete to me, however much I enjoy cursing neocons.
I realized early on that the story wasn’t that simple. George Bush, after all, is hardly the first president to centralize power in the face of a crisis or to take a messianic view of the presidential role: he stands on the shoulders of liberal giants in that regard. I started to think about the sorts of presidents our scholars and talking heads worship: activists and warriors almost to a man. I started to notice how current candidates talk about the job they’re applying for. Barack Obama told voters in South Carolina last fall that the president could “create a Kingdom here on earth.” John McCain holds out the execrable Teddy Roosevelt as a model because he “nourished the soul of a great nation,” as if soul-nourishing is part of the president’s job. And I started to wonder if maybe we’re getting the presidency we deserve.
The basic idea behind Cult is that Americans ask far too much of the presidency—and that’s a dangerous thing. From the academy, to pop culture, to the voting booth, Americans seem to believe that it’s the president’s role to teach your children well, protect your job, democratize the world, and save you from hurricanes. The public expects the president to be a superhero–and, apologies to Stan Lee, with great responsibility comes great power. That dynamic will continue to operate long after George W. Bush heads back to the branch to cut brush–and so long as it does, the Imperial Presidency will be a permanent fixture in American life.
The Constitution’s Framers never thought of the president as our national guardian angel. They thought of him as a constitutional officer with an important but limited job. Relimiting the presidency thus requires far more than throwing the bum out, or even passing a package of legislative reforms designed to cabin the president’s discretion. It requires recapturing the Framers’ vision–changing how we look at the presidency and what we ask of the office.
Is that possible? Beats me. But I hope that Cult makes a convincing case that it’s necessary.
Meanwhile, I’ll be using this blog to comment on the horror and hilarity of our current presidential race, the view of the office that’s on display, and what it all might mean for the future of the presidency. I hope you’ll keep stopping by.
It turns out I had another blogiversary while this site was on hiatus. I’ve missed blogging a bit during my near six-month break. But my feeling about the enterprise as a whole remains what it was two years ago in this post. Excerpt:
Have you ever spent an hour or so reading through your own archives? It’s like being trapped in a very tiny room being hectored by your clone. You don’t look like you think you look, sound like you think you sound. The effect is probably something like the dysphoria Nixon experienced when he had to read through the transcripts of his Oval Office tapes: “[expletive deleted]: is that really me?” And the thing is, I’m generally ok with what I write, in small doses. I wonder how some other people can keep it together after doing this exercise or surfing through some of the vast sea of crap out there.
My father once told the story of a colleague who had a recurring dream. He’s swimming through what seems like an endless sea of crap for what seems like hours, when he encounters another swimmer. “Crap! It’s all crap!” the first swimmer exclaims. “Ah, it’s not so bad,” replies the second swimmer, “every now and then, you get a raisin!”
And so, chin up, we swim on and on against the current. For the raisins.
The New York Times reports that some months ago, a GOP political consultant had his lawyers inform the FBI about rumors of Eliot Spitzer’s trysts with high-priced hookers. I don’t care about that, but this detail about the consultant really leapt out at me:
Mr. Stone, who has referred to politics as “performance art,” is a longtime Republican consultant known for hardball politics and a cloak-and-dagger sensibility. He started out as a teenager in the campaign of Richard M. Nixon, and has a tattoo of the former president’s head on his back.