Archives for September, 2009

You Don’t Have to Be a Czar, Baby, to Be in My Show

Hop_CzarRaging against “czars” seems all but obligatory these days for movement conservatives. The proliferation of Obama administration czars means “a giant expansion of presidential power,” warns Karl Rove, former domestic policy czar for the Bush administration–which I suppose proves once again that the capacity for embarassment is a career liability in this town.

Conservatives ought to be concerned about the growth of executive power. But as I argue in my Washington Examiner column this week, “czars” are pretty far down any serious list of executive-power concerns:

conservatives’ current bout of czar mania elevates symbolism over substance. All the focus on a scary moniker for certain executive officials misses the real problem: Unconstitutional delegation of power to the executive branch. Whether those illegitimate powers are exercised by unconfirmed presidential advisers or the president himself is quite beside the point….

Often, czars are mere figureheads, appointed to signal concern over the latest hot-button issue. As one presidential scholar puts it, “when in doubt, create a czar.”

True, it’s problematic that some of these appointees aren’t vetted by the Senate, and that presidents claim czars don’t have to answer to Congress — as when the Bush administration asserted in 2002 that executive privilege shielded then-homeland security czar Tom Ridge from testifying on the Hill.

But as the Washington Independent’s Dave Weigel has pointed out, many of the “czars” who appear on the conservative target list already have to be confirmed by the Senate. Others don’t, but when Obama is hell-bent on taking over the health care sector — one-sixth of the U.S. economy — it’s bizarre to agonize over the allegedly unchecked power exercised by the likes of the AIDS and urban affairs czars.

Similarly, while it’s great to see a nutter like Van Jones denied a federal salary, few of those cheering Jones’ defenestration can coherently explain what the green jobs czar actually does, or the threat he was supposed to represent.

What, was Jones going to give 9/11 “Truthers” and black nationalists jobs weatherizing homes? Will we stop wasting money on such projects now that he’s gone?

More here.

(C/P Cato@Liberty)

Posted on Sep 22, 2009 in Domestic Policy, Executive Power | 10 Comments

The 9/12 Protest

ABC Here’s my Washington Examiner column for this week, on the 9/12 March on Washington:

If you’ve been fed a steady media diet of MSNBC over the last few months, though, you could be excused for fearing a Pennsylvania Avenue takeover by a rabble of pitchfork-wielding cranks and extras from “Deliverance.” But the crowd — “in excess of 75,000 people,” according to a D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services spokesman — was made up of orderly, pleasant, middle-class Americans from all across the country.

In my two hours at the protest, I didn’t see a single “Birther” sign, and spied only one racially insensitive caricature. “Many of the signs,” the liberal Center for American Progress alleges on its blog, “attacked President Obama using explicit racial and ethnic smears” — a claim that’s simply false.

It used to irk liberals no end when conservatives crashed peace marches, snapped pictures of the nuttiest signs, and used them to condemn all Iraq war opponents as troop-hating traitors. That didn’t stop CAP’ers from trying the same tactic, to little avail.

The gallery of “racist, radical portrayals” they posted after spending hours looking at tens of thousands of signs contains few that fit the bill. (If an “Obamunism” placard featuring the president in a Che beret gives you the vapors, you’re probably too delicate to watch cable news without prescription tranquilizers.)

Here are a couple of pictures I snapped from the protest.


That’s what John Galt looks like, in case you ever wondered.


More important, what would he drive?


It’s sad when people conscript helpless animals into political protests.

Posted on Sep 15, 2009 in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Good News: 9/11 Didn’t “Change Everything”

On the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and DC, things are going much better than most of us dared hope in the initial aftermath of that horrible day. We’re still a secure, prosperous, and relatively free country, and the fear-poisoned atmosphere that governed American politics for years after 9/11 has thankfully receded.

Not everyone’s thankful, however. Boisterous cable gabber Glenn Beck laments the return to normalcy. The website for Beck’s “9/12 Project” waxes nostalgic for the day after the worst terrorist attack in American history, a time when “We were united as Americans, standing together to protect the greatest nation ever created.” Beck’s purpose with the Project? “We want to get everyone thinking like it is September 12th, 2001 again.”

My God: why in the world would anyone want that? Yes, 9/12 brought moving displays of patriotism and a comforting sense of national unity, but that hardly made up for the fear, rage and sorrow that dominated the national mood and at times clouded our vision.

But Beck’s not alone in seeing a bright side to national tragedy. 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.”

One of the things that got Brooks giddy was liberals’ newfound bellicosity. That same week, liberal hawk George Packer wrote:

What I dread now is a return to the normality we’re all supposed to seek: instead of public memorials, private consumption; instead of lines to give blood, restaurant lines….”The only thing needed,” William James wrote in ”The Moral Equivalent of War,” ”is to inflame the civic temper as past history has inflamed the military temper.” I’ve lived through this state, and I like it.

There’s something perverse, if not obscene, in “dreading” the idea that Americans might someday get back to enjoying their own lives. “Private consumption!” “Restaurant lines!” The horror! The horror!

Like Brooks’s National Greatness Conservatives, a good many progressives thought 9/11’s 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.” Both camps seemed to think American life was purposeless without a warrior president who could bring us together to fulfill our national destiny.

That’s why prominent figures on the Right and the Left condemned George W. Bush’s post-9/11 advice to “Enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” As Jeremy Lott notes, “in his laugh riot of a presidential bid,” Joe Biden repeatedly condemned Bush for telling people to “fly and go to the mall!” A little over a year ago, asked to identify “the greatest moral failure of America” John McCain referenced Bush’s comments when he answered that it was our failure sufficiently to devote ourselves “to causes greater than our self interest.”

True, Bush’s term “destination spots” is a little redundant; but otherwise, for once, he said exactly the right thing. And of all the many things to condemn in his post-9/11 leadership, it’s beyond bizarre to lament Bush’s failure to demand more sacrifices from Americans at home: taxes, national service, perhaps scrap-metal drives and War on Terror bond rallies?

National unity has a dark side. What unity we enjoyed after 9/11 gave rise to unhealthy levels of trust in government, which in turn enabled a radical expansion of executive power and facilitated our entry into a disastrous, unnecessary war.

In his Inaugural Address, Barack Obama condemned those “who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans.” “Their memories are short,” he said, “for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage.”

Riffing off of Obama’s remarks, Will Wilkinson wrote:

Can you recall the scale of our recent ambitions? The United States would invade Iraq, refashion it as a democracy and forever transform the Middle East. Remember when President Bush committed the United States to “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world”? That is ambitious scale.

Not only have some of us forgotten “what this country has already done … when imagination is joined to a common purpose,” it’s as if some of us are trying to erase the memory of our complicity in the last eight years—to forget that in the face of a crisis we did transcend our stale differences and cut the president a blank check that paid for disaster. How can we not question the scale of our leaders’ ambitions? How short would our memories have to be?

Oddly, even Glenn Beck seems to agree, after a fashion. The 9/12 Project credo celebrates the fact that “the day after America was attacked, we were not obsessed with Red States, Blue States, or political parties.” And yet Beck has called on “9/12’ers” to participate in tomorrow’s anti-Obama “tea party” in DC.

On the anniversary of 9/11 what’s clear is that, despite the cliche, September 11th didn’t “change everything.” In the wake of the attacks, various pundits proclaimed “the end of the age of irony” and the dawning of a new era of national unity in the service of government crusades at home and abroad. Eight years later, Americans go about their lives, waiting on restaurant lines, visiting our “great destination spots,” enjoying themselves free from fear–with our patriotism undiminished for all that. And when we turn to politics, we’re still contentious, fractious, wonderfully irreverent toward politicians, and increasingly skeptical toward their grand plans. In other words, post-9/11 America looks a lot like pre-9/11 America. That’s something to be thankful for on the anniversary of a grim day.

(cross-posted at Cato@Liberty)

Posted on Sep 11, 2009 in Conservatism, Executive Power, Foreign Policy and Defense, Human Nature, Liberalism | 9 Comments

The Pedagogy of Collectivism

200px-Pledge_salue “I don’t want our schools turned over to some socialist movement,” says Brett Curtis, a parent from Pearland, Texas who told the New York Times he’d keep his kids home today during Barack Obama’s speech to schoolchildren nationwide.

Me either! Like I said in the piece linked below, I found the whole ritual pretty cultish and grotesque. But I’m weird. I think the same thing about the Pledge of Allegiance. From a piece I wrote a few years back:

From its inception, in 1892, the Pledge has been a slavish ritual of devotion to the state, wholly inappropriate for a free people. It was written by Francis Bellamy, a Christian Socialist pushed out of his post as a Baptist minister for delivering pulpit-pounding sermons on such topics as “Jesus the Socialist.” Bellamy was devoted to the ideas of his more-famous cousin Edward Bellamy, author of the 1888 utopian novel Looking Backward. Looking Backward describes the future United States as a regimented worker’s paradise where everyone has equal incomes, and men are drafted into the country’s “industrial army” at the age of 21, serving in the jobs assigned them by the state. Bellamy’s novel was extremely popular, selling more copies than other any 19th century American novel except Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Bellamy’s book inspired a movement of “Nationalist Clubs,” whose members campaigned for a government takeover of the economy. A few years before he wrote the Pledge of Allegiance, Francis Bellamy became a founding member of Boston’s first Nationalist Club.

After leaving the pulpit, Francis Bellamy decided to advance his authoritarian ideas through the public schools. Bellamy wrote the Pledge of Allegiance for Youth’s Companion, a popular children’s magazine. With the aid of the National Education Association, Bellamy and the editors of Youth’s Companion got the Pledge adopted as part of the National Public School Celebration on Columbus Day 1892.

Bellamy’s recommended ritual for honoring the flag had students all but goosestepping their way through the Pledge: “At a signal from the Principal the pupils, in ordered ranks, hands to the side, face the Flag. Another signal is given; every pupil gives the Flag the military salute–right hand lifted, palm downward, to a line with the forehead and close to it… At the words, ‘to my Flag,’ the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, towards the Flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation; whereupon all hands immediately drop to the side.” After the rise of Nazism, this form of salute was thought to be in poor taste, to say the least, and replaced with today’s hand-on-heart gesture.

How many anti-socialist, tea-partying patriots go the whole nine and oppose the Pledge, I wonder?

Posted on Sep 8, 2009 in Conservatism, Cult of the Presidency | 7 Comments

Hey, Mr. President, Leave Those Kids Alone!

Here’s this week’s DC Examiner column, on Barack Obama’s speech to the kids. Excerpt:

Is the president’s speech part of a sinister plan to create a socialist Obama Youth movement? Hardly. The transcript, released yesterday, reveals a pretty standard homily to educational excellence, and there’s no evidence it was ever supposed to be anything else. Even so, there’s something grotesquely collectivist about the idea of the president addressing a captive audience of 50 million schoolchildren, hectoring them to turn off the X-Box and hit the books….

The lesson plans Obama Department of Education officials came up with after several meetings with the White House make it clear that federal education bureaucrats should be kept as far away from children as possible.

One of the plans envisioned teachers making kindergartners write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president. After parents rightly recoiled from that recommendation, the DOE tried to throw it down the memory hole, deleting it from their Web site.

Given some of the cultish questions that survived DOE’s hasty revision, however, concerned parents can be pardoned a few overheated references to Kim Il-Sung:

How will [President Obama] inspire us?”

What is President Obama inspiring you to do?

Why is it important that we listen to the president and other elected officials?

These are question-begging questions, especially if you’re one of those sensible Americans of all ages who aren’t particularly inspired by President Obama, and who aren’t convinced that listening raptly to elected officials is the best possible use of your time.

Posted on Sep 8, 2009 in Cult of the Presidency | 148 Comments

More Examiner Columns


…here are the rest:

5. “The Right Can Do Better than Romney”: arguing that the current front-runner for the GOP nomination, the horrible and boring former Massachusetts governor, shouldn’t be the conservative standard-bearer:

With his square jaw and flawless salt-and-pepper hair, Romney certainly looks presidential: Like a character actor playing the president in a superhero movie — or, less charitably, like a creature genetically engineered and grown in a vat for the sole purpose of securing the nation’s highest office.

There’s more to the presidency than looking the part, however. Conservatives ought to take a good look at the Romney record and ask themselves whether a man of such flexible convictions is the best they can do.

6. “The Era of Big-Government Initiatives Is Over”: putting Obama’s health-care difficulties in the context of 40 years of declining trust in government–a wonderful thing, despite what responsible opinionmakers tell you–and explaining why I think another New Deal or Great Society is improbable in this day and age:

Who could have predicted that the summer of 2009 would be such a tough time to be a liberal? Seven months ago, President Barack Obama took office with a 79 percent approval rating — the highest in three decades.

The Kennedy-esque cult of personality that surrounded the new president led many conservatives and libertarians to fear he’d be able to work his will in Congress, dramatically increasing the size of government.

Yet, cap and trade has dropped off this year’s legislative agenda and today Obama’s signature initiative — national health care — remains stalled, growing more unpopular by the minute.

[T]he resurgence of public skepticism toward federal power is good news for those of us who support limited, constitutional government….

Obama bears much of the blame for his current political woes, having pushed an overly ambitious agenda that the public seems reluctant to accept. But he’s also the victim of trends that long predated his presidency.

7. “Abolish the DHS!” a case for getting rid of the obnoxious and useless Homeland Security department. Embarassingly, I got the location of DHS’s new HQ wrong. Also, more people than I would have thought were mystified by the reference to “Spinal Tap” and the phrase “dog’s breakfast”:

The Homeland Security Advisory System is a case in point. Even before Ridge’s revelation, two separate studies showed that Bush received a boost to his approval ratings with each escalation of the terror threat level. The warning has been raised above yellow (“elevated”) 16 times, but it’s never been lowered to blue or green, the bottom rungs on DHS’s Ladder of Fear. Yet, with Spinal Tap logic (“this goes to 11!”) the department insists on keeping all five levels.

[T]he department has done little to provide genuine security and much to encourage a pernicious politics of fear.

The department itself is a dog’s breakfast of 22 federal agencies brought together in the hope of providing better coordination on a common mission. But turf battles left key antiterror agencies like the FBI out of the reorganization, and DHS finished last or next to last on every measure of employee morale in a 2006 Office of Personnel Management study.

The truth, as analyst Jeffrey Rosen points out, is that DHS is ‘an institutional money pit that has more to do with symbols than substance.”

8. “Afghanistan: Obama’s Vietnam”: last Tuesday’s column. Unfortunately, the same day, some other guy made the same argument and stole all the attention:

there’s another aspect of the LBJ parallel that deserves more attention. That’s liberals’ temperamental affinity for nation-building, which may help explain why Obama is doubling down on a bad bet.

Historian and Vietnam veteran Walter McDougall calls Vietnam the “Great Society War,” one shaped by liberals’ conviction that no social problem is too difficult for a determined and well-meaning government to fix.

As McDougall tells it, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara “put more than a hundred sociologists, ethnologists, and psychologists to work ‘modeling’ South Vietnamese society and seeking data sufficient ‘to describe it quantitatively and simulate its behavior on a computer.” “Dammit,” LBJ exclaimed to an aide in 1966, “We’ve got to see that the South Vietnamese government wins the battle… of crops and hearts and caring.”

True, Obama admits that we can’t “rebuild Afghanistan into a Jeffersonian democracy.” But the administration’s vision for Afghanistan is quixotic enough nonetheless…

Posted on Sep 4, 2009 in Asides, Cult of the Presidency | 9 Comments

Recent Examiner Columns


And since I last updated the blog, I’ve written eight columns for the DC Examiner. Here are the first four; I’ll put the others up tomorrow:

1. “Sarah’s Swan Song”: prompted by Palin’s resignation, it argued that “Conservatives undermine their movement when they fetishize inarticulateness as ‘plain speaking'” and take disinterest in national affairs or foreign policy–the stuff of the presidency–to be qualifications for the office:

William F. Buckley had a point when he said he’d “rather be ruled by the first 500 people in the Boston phonebook than the faculty at Harvard.” But you can take that point too far–and conservatives have.

Their logic seems to go something like this: Jimmy Carter was smart, and a bad president; Reagan went to Eureka College and the intelligentsia sneered at him, yet he was a good president. Liberal elitists sneer at Bush and Palin, too, therefore they’d make marvelous presidents.

But unlike either Bush or Palin, Reagan was fiercely interested in ideas. Anyone who’s looked at “Reagan in His Own Hand,” the volume that reproduces his handwritten 1970s radio speeches, knows how sharp and skilled our 40th president was as a writer and thinker. And it must be said that none of Reagan’s speeches featured as many screaming ALLCAPS and exclamation marks as Palin’s Friday speech, which included lines like, “LIFE is about choices!”

2. “The Statist Generation”: reading about the “Millenials” made me oddly proud to be a cynical Gen X’er. Musically, we have very little to apologize for (Grunge was pretty awesome), and politically, what’s coming is far worse:

Kids today are a credulous bunch. The 2007 Pew Political Values survey revealed “a generation gap in cynicism.” Where 62 percent of Americans overall view the federal government as wasteful and inefficient, just 42 percent of young people agree.

No wonder, then, that GenNext responds to President Obama’s call for “public service,” roughly translated as “a federal paycheck.”

Here, they differ dramatically from their skeptical “Generation X” predecessors. A 1999 survey asked Gen X college seniors to name their ideal employers; they “filled the entire list with for-profit businesses like Microsoft and Cisco.” What a difference a generation makes. In the same poll today, Gen Y prefers the State Department, Teach for America, and the Peace Corps. That’s a problem for a country built on the entrepreneurial spirit.

Get off my goddamn lawn.

3. “Staying Sane as President”: at least, I think that’s what I called it originally.

Silent Cal couldn’t have imagined the atmosphere of celebrity adoration that envelops today’s chief: “OMG! Obama swatted a fly! So cool! He went to Ray’s Hell Burger! Just like any normal person with a massive Secret Service detail!” How long could any of us remain “grounded” in an environment where we’re constantly treated like a god?

Cornell University psychologist Robert Millman argues that many celebrities suffer from “acquired situational narcissism.” As Millman explains, otherwise emotionally healthy people often develop delusions of grandeur after they strike it big in Hollywood. When “a celebrity walks into a room,” Millman writes, “everyone looks at him: he’s a prince.” After a while, what happens is our star “gets so used to everyone looking at him, that he stops looking back at them.”

Celebrity pathology is harmless fun when we scan Us Weekly in the checkout line. But if the president loses his grip, there’s rather more at stake.

Past presidents, drunk on adulation and tormented by responsibilities no movie star faces, have indeed lost their grip. In an Oval Office meeting in 1967, asked by a reporter why America was in Vietnam, President Lyndon Johnson unzipped his fly, wagged the presidential member at his questioner and exclaimed, “This is why!”

4. “If Troops Are Deployed at Home, We Need to Have Solid Oversight.” Actually, I don’t think troops should be deployed at home for domestic security purposes even if there is solid oversight:

if you’re inclined to thank God for small favors, there’s this at least: Obama has yet to propose turning the U.S. military against American citizens. Last week, The New York Times revealed that the Bush administration seriously considered doing just that.

According to former administration officials, at a top-level meeting in 2002, then-vice president Dick Cheney and his allies lobbied hard for sending U.S. troops onto the streets of a Buffalo, N.Y., suburb to kick down doors and kill or capture a group of terrorist suspects, the so-called Lackawanna Six.

Posted on Sep 3, 2009 in Asides, Cult of the Presidency | 6 Comments

Intermittent Blogging Resumes

cult-poster I haven’t updated this blog in almost two months, so I guess it’s time. Here are some Cult-related items since last I blogged:

In the July 23 issue of the Economist, “Lexington” devoted his column to Cult of the Presidency. Here’s the first paragraph:

IN JANUARY 2007 Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas, said he was running for president to revive “our national soul”. He was not alone in taking an expansive view of presidential responsibilities. With the exception of Ron Paul, all the serious candidates waxed grandiloquent about their aims. John McCain said he modelled himself on Teddy Roosevelt, a man who “nourished the soul of a great nation”. Hillary Clinton lamented that America had no goals, and offered to supply some. And let us not forget the man they all sought to replace, George Bush, who promised, among other things, to “rid the world of evil”. Appalled by such hubris, a libertarian scholar called Gene Healy wrote “The Cult of the Presidency”, a book decrying the unrealistic expectations Americans have of their presidents. The book was written while Barack Obama’s career was still on the launch pad, yet it describes with uncanny prescience the atmosphere that allowed him to soar.

That was neat. That it happened when I was on vacation half a world away in Bali made it all the sweeter. For a while, I thought about getting a T-shirt made with “Ask Me About My Uncanny Prescience” across the chest, but I decided that would be pompous.

Also, my ability to predict how things would go politically has always been pathetic. Back in 1995, I told anyone who would listen that Phil Gramm would be our next president. Oddly, it turned out that America really didn’t want to elect a surly bald guy who once tried to finance soft-core porn movies.

But maybe I’m getting better at this prediction thing. Back in the early days of the Obama administration, when most limited-government types were doing an imitation of Bill Paxton’s character from Aliens, I argued that Obama’s then-stratospheric popularity was ephemeral, and that he was likely to end up as unpopular as Jimmy Carter. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but, uh, beep beep.

Here’s a nice Cult mention from Ross Douthat’s column in the New York Times last week. Alex Massie gave the book some kind words in the Spectator as well.

Posted on Sep 3, 2009 in Asides, Cult of the Presidency | 8 Comments