Archives for September, 2008
Dieter: “Ve are Nihilists, Lebowski. Ve believe in nothing! Nothing!”
–Joel and Ethan Coen, “The Big Lebowski”
“And let us recognize above all the 228 who voted no — the authors of this revolt of the nihilists. They showed the world how much they detest their own leaders and the collected expertise of the Treasury and Fed.”
–David Brooks, “The Revolt of the Nihilists,” September 29, 2008
That’s David Brooks tearing his hair out yesterday over the failure of the bailout bill. It’s interesting that Brooks characterizes people who resist the idea of privatized profits and socialized loss as “nihilists.” If you’re not willing to let Brooks’ “new establishment” play with up to $700 billion in tax dollars, if you don’t offer up your wallet the moment an expert cries “crisis!”–why then, you must believe in nothing! Nothing at all!
Interesting, but maybe not all that surprising. Brooks is, after all, the architect of National Greatness Conservatism, the philosophy that says “American purpose can only find its voice in Washington.” Inside Washington: purpose, meaning, fulfillment–glory. Outside Washington: a vast and pitiless void. “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state,” as a prominent theorist of national greatness once put it.
I have a piece up on National Review Online today about Joe Biden’s sorry record on the Iraq War and what it means for the future of Congress’s (increasingly theoretical) power to declare war. The column’s hooked to tomorrow’s debate, but who knows if that’s going to happen.
How smart should a president be? William F. Buckley famously said he’d “rather be ruled by the first 500 people in the Boston phonebook than the faculty at Harvard University,” and there’s surely something to that, though the worst president in American history was a Princeton man.
Here’s an interesting graph comparing presidential success with presidential IQ. (Explanation here) (Hat tip: Marian Tupy).
It’s a fun conversation piece, but it doesn’t tell you much. First of all, all the conventional rankings dramatically downgrade “do-nothing” presidents, so the version of presidential greatness used is always going to overvalue drama, explosions, and ambitious plans to remake the country and the world. Note that here, once again, Warren G. Harding is the Rodney Dangerfield of presidents, ranked dead last despite his admirable record on separation of powers, size of government, and civil liberties.
Moreover, the IQ data is highly dubious, especially the farther back you go in history, where it appears to be based on presidential biographies and personal papers, rather than standardized tests from college or military service. When I first looked at the graph, I wondered how they’d concluded that JFK, who was basically the Irish mob version of A.J. Soprano, was smarter than John Adams and James Madison. It turns out, according to JFK biographer Thomas Reeves, that “Kennedy was actually given an IQ test before entering Choate. His score was 119,” much lower than what he’s assessed at here.
In any event, given the difficulties of assessing IQ from a distance of generations, and the contentious nature of presidential greatness, it’s hard to draw any firm conclusions about the relationship between intelligence and presidential “success.”
However, too many conservatives, it seems to me, are too quick to conclude that brains don’t matter much when we’re choosing a constitutional chief executive. The reasoning seems to be: Jimmy Carter was smart, and he was a bad president; Reagan went to Eureka College and the intelligentsia sneered at him, yet he was a good president. Therefore, we should count ourselves lucky if and when we get George W. Bush and Sarah Palin. This sells Reagan short (and Carter too?): Reagan wasn’t an intellectual, but he was interested in ideas, and anyone who’s tried to write opeds and has seen Reagan’s handwritten 1970s radio speeches, for example, knows that he was a sharp guy and a smart writer. His success certainly doesn’t mean that unremarkable intelligence and lack of intellectual curiousity are virtues when it comes to the office of the presidency.
But some come close to concluding that they are virtues. See, for example, Charles Murray in this Sunday’s New York Times magazine:
What do you think of Sarah Palin? I’m in love. Truly and deeply in love.
Why is the McCain clan so eager to advertise its anti-intellectualism? The last thing we need are more pointy-headed intellectuals running the government. Probably the smartest president we’ve had in terms of I.Q. in the last 50 years was Jimmy Carter, and I think he is the worst president of the last 50 years.
Yes, some presidents can be too smart for their own good (though I seriously doubt that was Carter’s problem). But that doesn’t mean that when selecting potential presidents we ought to seek out people who aren’t particularly bright. God, I never thought I’d say this, but maybe Charles Murray isn’t enough of an intellectual elitist.
Here I am from a conference at the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover from back in May. I uhhh gotta work on my uhhhs, but otherwise I think it comes across ok.
I’m answering questions over at LibraryThing, which, I recently learned, is run by an old friend from college.
And Matt Yglesias gave the book a nice shout-out last week. Thanks, Matt!
This week, the Washington Post ran two excerpts from Barton Gellman’s new book Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, which describes the fight over warrantless wiretapping in greater detail than we’ve had before. We still don’t know the precise reach of the original (pre-2004) program, nor do we have the classified legal analysis prepared by John Yoo. But Gellman’s account makes you wonder just how far the program and the legal theory went, given that it horrified men like Attorney General John Ashcroft, Deputy A.G. James Comey, and Office of Legal Counsel head Jack Goldsmith–all staunch conservatives who were perfectly comfortable with ambitious theories of executive power, all of whom (along with FBI Director Robert Mueller and sundry other top Justice officials) were ready to resign over the original warrantless wiretapping program. (Marty Lederman made a similar point last year, when Comey testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee).
Ashcroft’s record on civil liberties and executive power is fairly well known. And keep in mind who Goldsmith and Comey are. Goldsmith says plainly that he’s “not a civil libertarian,” and he got the OLC job on John Yoo’s recommendation. And as a US Attorney in New York, James Comey was quite comfortable with pushing the law to its limits and beyond. He prosecuted Martha Stewart for misleading federal investigators about behavior that wasn’t a crime, and he even seriously considered pursuing mail and wire fraud charges against disgraced reporter Jayson Blair for the hitherto unknown crime of making stuff up in the New York Times (Bill Kristol, beware). But the original program was a bridge too far even for them.
Gellman describes a “come to Jesus” meeting orchestrated by David Addington, Alberto Gonzales and Dick Cheney, to get the Justice Department to reauthorize the surveillance program:
Comey, Goldsmith and Philbin found the titans of the intelligence establishment lined up, a bunch of grave-faced analysts behind them for added mass. The spy chiefs brought no lawyers. The law was not the point. This meeting, described by officials with access to two sets of contemporaneous notes, was about telling Justice to set its qualms aside.
The staging had been arranged for maximum impact. Cheney sat at the head of Card’s rectangular table, pivoting left to face the acting attorney general. The two men were close enough to touch. Card sat grimly at Cheney’s right, directly across from Comey. There was plenty of eye contact all around.
This program, Cheney said, was vital. Turning it off would leave us blind. Hayden, the NSA chief, pitched in: Even if the program had yet to produce blockbuster results, it was the only real hope of discovering sleeper agents before they could act.
“How can you possibly be reversing course on something of this importance after all this time?” Cheney asked.
“I will accept for purposes of discussion that it is as valuable as you say it is,” Comey said. “That only makes this more painful. It doesn’t change the analysis. If I can’t find a lawful basis for something, your telling me you really, really need to do it doesn’t help me.”
“Others see it differently,” Cheney said.
There was only one of those, really. John Yoo had been out of the picture for nearly a year. It was all Addington.
“The analysis is flawed, in fact facially flawed,” Comey said. “No lawyer reading that could reasonably rely on it.”
Gonzales said nothing. Addington stood by the window, over Cheney’s shoulder. He had heard a bellyful.
“Well, I’m a lawyer and I did,” Addington said, glaring at Comey.
“No good lawyer,” Comey said.
Bonus Angler revelation: Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey suggests that Cheney lied to him to keep Armey from going all wobbly on the Iraq War vote:
The threat Cheney described went far beyond public statements that have been criticized for relying on “cherry-picked” intelligence of unknown reliability. There was no intelligence to support the vice president’s private assertions, Gellman reports.
Armey had spoken out against the coming war, and his opposition gave cover to Democrats who feared the political costs of appearing weak. Armey reversed his position after Cheney told him, he said, that the threat from Iraq was “more imminent than we want to portray to the public at large.”
Cheney said, according to Armey, that Iraq’s “ability to miniaturize weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear,” had been “substantially refined since the first Gulf War.”
Cheney linked that threat to Hussein’s alleged ties to Al Qaeda, Armey said, explaining “we now know they have the ability to develop these weapons in a very portable fashion, and they have a delivery system in their relationship with organizations such as Al Qaeda.”
“Did Dick Cheney . . . purposely tell me things he knew to be untrue?” Armey said. “I seriously feel that may be the case. . . . Had I known or believed then what I believe now, I would have publicly opposed [the war] resolution right to the bitter end.”
Comment of the day on this Hit and Run thread:
Doug | September 16, 2008, 11:42am | #
A guy walks into a bar and orders a drink. Then another. Then another. Eight drinks later he hits on the hot chick sporting the moose rifle and hockey skates and succeeds in taking her home for the night. Next morning he wakes up next to McCain.
Here’s the Wall Street Journal today with the story of how Great Libertarian Hope Sarah Palin fought to preserve a state-owned creamery (!) and installed one of her buddies as its head.
There’s a new poll out from the Associated Press and the National Constitution Center that shows “Americans strongly oppose giving the president more power at the expense of Congress or the courts, even to enhance national security or the economy.” Which is certainly good news, but it doesn’t mean there’s deep public support for de-imperializing the presidency. As the survey itself shows, only a minority of Americans thinks our current, gargantuan presidency is “too powerful.”
Which is one reason why there’s been very little debate over presidential power in campaign over the last few months (I know, because I’ve been looking fruitlessly for op-ed news hooks). Even after the Bush years, presidential power is not a pressing electoral issue.
Last December, Charlie Savage did the electorate a service by getting all the presidential candidates to go on the record with their views on executive power. (Here are McCain, Obama, and Biden’s answers.) But the voters don’t punish candidates who break these promises like they do presidents who break a “no new taxes” pledge. If the voters did, the candidates would have worried more about flip-flopping on the wiretapping question, but both McCain and Obama felt they could do it with little difficulty.
So sure, around 2/3s of the respondents to the AP/National Constitution Center poll oppose further expansions of executive power. But how people answer broad, abstract questions about governance is one thing; what they actually demand from potential presidents is another thing entirely. If the rhetoric of this presidential campaign is any indication, voters continue to respond to the idea of the president as a combination miracle-worker-cum-national parent.
In his acceptance speech, John McCain professed humility, only moments after a video montage that suggested God rescued him from a carrier-deck fire so he could be president someday. And, judging by Rudy Giuliani’s keynote address, McCain will bridge the Mommy Party/Daddy Party divide, becoming a all-purpose national parent: “And we can trust him to deal with anything, anything that nature throws our way, anything that terrorists do to us…. and we will be safe in his hands, and our children will be safe in his hands.” He’s got the whole world in his hands.
This expansive vision of presidential responsibility is incompatible with limited government. And so long as it prevails, we can’t take much comfort in the fact that Americans tell pollsters they’d like limits on presidential power.
More bad news here.
Tonight Barack Obama and John McCain will appear together in New York to “discuss in depth their views on service and civic engagement in the post-9/11″ in a primetime forum hosted by ServiceNation, “a dynamic new coalition of 110 organizations that has a collective reach of some 100 million Americans and is dedicated to strengthening our democracy and solving problems through civic engagement and service.”
According to their website, bethechangeinc.org, ServiceNation does not support mandatory national service. Their model is a dramatically expanded version of the subsidized volunteerism so popular on both sides of the political aisle.
Starting Inauguration Day 2009–and culminating on next year’s 9/11 anniversary, they’ll be pushing in their “advocacy campaign for national service legislation.” Among the proposals they favor: “Expanding service on college campuses. Placing 1 million Americans per year in full- and part-time stipended national service by 2020.” As the website states: “This policy agenda proposes meaningful opportunities for service at every key life stage, and for every socioeconomic group, from kindergarten through the post-retirement years.”
One wonders what sort of useful “service” five-year-olds can perform in between playtime and naptime, but the point, apparently, is that “these proposals will help instill a culture of service at an early age and provide opportunities for Americans to continue serving throughout their lifetimes.”
As tonight’s event demonstrates, both parties link the call for national service to the tragedy of September 11th. In a book that you’ll buy if you love your country, I write,
Many latter-day Progressives saw 9/11 as an historic opportunity to realize William James’s vision of universal national service. National crisis brought with it the opportunity for a new politics of meaning, a chance to redirect American life in accordance with “the common good.” War was a terrible thing, of course, but war could also be “a force that gives us meaning,” as New York Times foreign correspondent Chris Hedges put it in his 2002 book lamenting the romanticization of combat….
September 11th brought the grand crusade National Greatness Conservatives had [also] hungered for. Less than a month after people jumped from the World Trade Center’s north tower to avoid burning to death, David Brooks asked, “Does anybody but me feel upbeat, and guilty about it?” “I feel upbeat because the country seems to be a better place than it was a month ago,” Brooks explained, “I feel guilty about it because I should be feeling pain and horror and anger about the recent events. But there’s so much to cheer one up.”
Seven years later, some worry that the government hasn’t done enough to unite us all behind a great crusade. At last month’s Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency, Pastor Rick Warren asked both candidates “what do you think is the greatest moral failure of America?” McCain’s answer was especially interesting. Was it slavery? Indian removal? Japanese internment? Nope:
I think America’s greatest moral failure has been. Throughout our existence, perhaps we have not devoted ourselves to causes greater than our self-interest, although we’ve been at the best at it of everybody in the world.
McCain continued with a backhanded dig at President Bush’s post-9/11 advice to Americans to “Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida.” McCain told Warren:
I think after 9/11, my friends, instead of telling people to go shopping or take a trip, we should have told Americans to join the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, the military, expand our volunteers, expand what you’re doing — (APPLAUSE) — expand what you’re doing, expand the current missions that you are doing, that you are carrying out here in America and throughout the world, in Rwanda. And I hope we have a chance to talk about that later on.
In an October 2001 Washington Monthly article, McCain displayed what Matt Welch has called his “essentially militaristic conception of citizenship.” He 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.” But perhaps we can take heart in McCain’s grudging admission that “it is not currently politically practicable to revive the draft.”
In any event, it’s good that ServiceNation is encouraging people to help their neighbors out. But why does that effort have to culminate in federal legislation? All too many people, Left and Right, seem to buy into David Brooks’s notion that “ultimately, American purpose can only find its voice in Washington.” According to that mindset, if a barn-raising takes place without a federal subsidy, it’s like it hasn’t really happened at all.
Few of us will want to argue with noble sentiments like Obama’s (or was it God’s?) injunction to act as our “brother’s keeper” or McCain’s call to serve “a cause greater than our self interest.” But it’s hard to see how any of this is their–or the government’s–business.
Americans help each other out in myriad ways everyday without expecting a government paycheck or the seal of approval from a newly minted bureaucracy. But when Americans perform charitable works outside the state, it’s awfully hard for politicians to take credit for their service.
Claremont Institute fellow Michael M. Uhlmann has a dismissive review of The Cult of the Presidency in the current issue of National Review: “It’s Not Just the Executive,” September 15, 2008. (Here it is if you get NR Digital, otherwise it’s available in the print edition). It seems to me that the review largely consists of inaccurate characterizations, unsupported assertions, and non sequiturs. But I’m understandably biased, so check it out and judge for yourself.
Uhlmann writes that “The bulk of Healy’s book is devoted to various sins, offenses and negligences of the Bush administration.” That’s a bizarre statement, given that the book has nine chapters and an introduction, and only three of those chapters cover GWB’s tenure. In fact, the “bulk of the book” is devoted to demonstrating that, as I write in Chapter Two, “the problems of the modern presidency did not begin when George W. Bush emerged victorious from 2000’s seemingly interminable Battle of the Chads” and that–despite what some on the Left seem to believe–those problems will not vanish in January 2009 when he heads back to the ranch to cut brush.
The book is a history of the presidency’s transformation from the important, but constitutionally limited office the Framers designed to an extraconstitutional monstrosity charged with moving the masses and saving the world. But by beginning his review with a discussion of “unhinged” Bush critics, and mischaracterizing the book’s contents, Uhlmann has undoubtedly left NR readers with the impression that The Cult of the Presidency is yet another partisan screed against the current administration. Move along, nothing to see here.
That’s a shame, because conservatives could surely benefit from reexamining their decades-long affinity for strong presidencies. There’s nothing particularly conservative about investing vast unchecked power in the hands of whichever professional politician manages to claw his way to the top in a modern presidential contest. As Russell Kirk put it, “Knowing human nature for a mixture of good and evil, the conservative does not put his trust in mere benevolence. Constitutional restrictions, political checks and balances, adequate enforcement of the laws, the old intricate web of restraints upon will and appetite—these the conservative approves as instruments of freedom and order.” And if principled reasons aren’t good enough, the fact that Republicans, let alone conservative Republicans, are unlikely to dominate the electoral college in the coming decades ought–like the prospect of a hanging–to concentrate the mind somewhat.
Uhlmann is willing to concede that the Bush administration’s claims of uncheckable authority over the detention and treatment of terrorist suspects “entail arguable legal propositions.” Which is gracious of him. But he provides very little argument for his view that the Framers envisioned a president with anything like the powers the current president–or others before him–have claimed. What arguments he provides often consist of offering innocuous and uncontroversial historical claims about 18th-century Americans’ views of executive power–as if those claims establish that the modern presidency is the constitutional presidency. In each case, he falls a few premises short of a syllogism.
Yes, the Federalist suggests, as Uhlmann notes, that “legislative excess is the danger chiefly to be guarded against in a republic.” But that was so, as Madison explains in No. 48, because the government the Constitution envisioned would be fundamentally different from one in which “numerous and extensive prerogatives are placed in the hands of a hereditary monarch.” Legislative power was more to be feared precisely because under the American Constitution “the executive magistracy is carefully limited, both in the extent and the duration of its power.”
Yes, the Framers sought to avoid some of the mistakes made in some of “the state constitutions adopted between 1776 and 1787″ and to create a relatively vigorous and independent executive. But there’s quite a distance between that fact and the current administration’s claims that Congress cannot restrain the president from ordering torture and that the president has the power to permanently imprison American citizens without charges or legal process. (Uhlmann treats these issues at greater length in an extensive essay on presidential powers in a recent edition of the Claremont Review, in which, it seems to me, the verbiage-to-evidence ratio is also fairly high.)
Then there’s Uhlmann’s painfully obvious argument that “It’s Not Just the Executive” that’s a problem in our modern welfare-warfare state. Well, yes. It’s not clear who Uhlmann’s arguing with when he points out “the size and arbitrariness of government in general” are intertwined with concerns about a powerful presidency, and that the growth of presidential power would not have been possible without the collaboration of Congress and the judiciary. I make the same points repeatedly and at length throughout the book.
But the book focuses on the presidency because the president has become the focal point of Americans’ dangerously unrealistic expectations about what government can deliver, at home and abroad. As the political scientist Theodore Lowi explained (and as I discuss in the book), the post-New Deal state pledged itself to the constant delivery of goods and benefits, with the public looking most of all to the president to meet the key test of the new regime’s legitimacy: “service delivery.” The emerging “Second Republic of the United States” was one in which, as Lowi sums up, “the system of government had become an inverted pyramid, with everything coming to rest on a presidential pinpoint.”
So the presidency is important. It merits special attention, perhaps especially from conservatives, given their longstanding myopia about the dangers of presidential power. For too long the Right has been wedded to the odd proposition that next to the “Imperial Congress” and the “Imperial Judiciary”, the executive branch–the branch with guns–is the least dangerous branch. I’m glad that NR reviewed the book, and I didn’t expect an uncritical embrace of my perspective. But I would have preferred a serious discussion of the issues the book raises.
Okay, okay, I grudgingly like Sarah Palin. She’s not as good as the pick McCain offered in an offhand wisecrack the week before the announcement: “Mr. McCain, who had settled on his selection, was less than forthcoming here Thursday night when reporters shouted questions about his pick. ‘Wilford Brimley,’ he responded.” But she’s interesting, with some loveably cranky political affiliations in her past.
But I don’t vote based on likeability. Even for Wilford Brimley. And Palin’s appealling image changes nothing fundamental about what the modern GOP offers. A truth-in-advertising-style slogan might be: “Mindless bellicosity, gratuitous fearmongering, and phony promises to shrink government–now with extra spunkiness!” Yay: USA. USA. USA. I can’t believe that some otherwise sensible libertarians seem to be warming up to the ticket on reasons that privilege style over substance.
I have no intention of voting for anyone who could possibly win. But this seems to me a lot like the 1992 election, when most limited-government types were rightfully unconvinced that GHWB was the lesser of two evils. I don’t find Obama any more horrifying than Clinton from a limited-government perspective, and McCain is far worse than Bush the Elder. He’s a known quantity: a National Greatness Conservative who differs from GWB only in the intensity of his conviction that America must always be a crusader state loudly tromping about the world and breaking things. An alleged fiscal conservative who rabidly supports a $700 billion Bridge to Nowhere. A man who puts the First Amendment in scare quotes and has a long and detailed record of betraying limited-government conservatives. He’s your last, best hope? Auughhh, indeed.
I recently finished Jane Mayer’s excellent new book The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals. I thought I couldn’t read another thing about Addington, Yoo, and company, but Mayer’s book drew me in, and taught me a lot. There’s a lot I’d like to highlight from the book and blog about, but probably won’t have time to get to. But here’s an interesting detail she mentions in passing. You may recall this exchange between John Yoo and John Conyers when Yoo was called to testify before the House Judiciary Committee recently:
Conyers: Could the President order a suspect buried alive?
Yoo: Uh, Mr. Chairman, I don’t think I’ve ever given advice that the President could order someone buried alive. . .
Conyers: I didn’t ask you if you ever gave him advice. I asked you thought the President could order a suspect buried alive.
Yoo: Well Chairman, my view right now is that I don’t think a President . . . no American President would ever have to order that or feel it necessary to order that.
Conyers: I think we understand the games that are being played.
I took Conyers’ question to be (useful) hyperbole, intended to draw out the virtually limitless theory of presidential power Yoo’s perspective entails–much like Professor David Cassell’s earlier question to Yoo: “If the president deems that he’s got to torture somebody, including by crushing the testicles of the person’s child, there is no law that can stop him?” Yet in the course of discussing acting OLC head Dan Levin’s attempt to draft a replacement memo for Yoo’s repudiated August 2002 torture memo, Mayer writes:
“Levin refused, however to give the administration carte blanche. He had heard rumors that his predecessor, John Yoo, had orally approved especially questionable CIA practices, including the use of mind-altering drugs and mock-burials.” (Emphasis added).