Archive for March, 2002

Preserve – Protect – Defend the Constitution

Sunday, March 31st, 2002

George W. Bush is an unlikely president. Despite the fact that his father was President, for much of his life, any of George W.’s aspirations to become president were only very latent. By contrast, Senator Albert Gore groomed his son Al for the Presidency from the moment of the younger Gore’s birth. Though President Bill Clinton’s beginnings were far humbler, he seems to have absorbed his presidential ambitions from his mother’s milk.

By all conventional calculation, Al Gore should have won the last presidential election. Political scientists have tried to build models that predict presidential outcomes based on economic factors. Using at least one popular version of these models, Al Gore should have bowled over Bush with 56.2% of the vote.

One important reason for Gore’s historically unprecedented defeat was the country’s rejection of Clinton’s politics of duplicity. The economy was in excellent shape, but Clinton lacked moral seriousness. Vice-President Al Gore, who up until his association with Clinton was considered to be something of a boring Boy Scout, was burdened with the frivolousness of the President and none of the accomplishments of the Clinton Administration.

In short, Bush was elected as an adult who would rescue the country from the fraternity house ethics of the previous administration. Bush is not a policy wonk who focuses on the details of policy implementation. Bush is not a gifted speaker who can routinely mesmerize an audience. Bush’s one quality is authenticity. He is serious, with a few core principles he adheres too. This is precisely why Bush signing the campaign finance reform bill was so uncharacteristic and so disappointing.

A president takes a solemn oath. He vows, to the “best of his ability,” to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Before his election, Bush said in an interview that a campaign finance bill that prohibited certain types of speech is unconstitutional and he would veto it. Even while signing this bill, Bush acknowledged that portions maybe unconstitutional.

There are certainly political advantages for Bush to sign the campaign finance reform bill. If he refused to sign, Democrats would use it as a campaign issue, arguing that Republicans want to retain campaign contributions from corporations.

Since Democrats have been most vocal in favor of this campaign finance reform bill, it ironic the law will help Bush in his re-election campaign. Republicans are adept at raising “hard” money — money donated directly to the candidates as opposed to the party. The law raises the maximum personal hard-money donation from $1000 to $2000. If a candidate does not accept federal matching funds, then there is no limit on spending. It is likely that Bush in 2004 will be able raise far more than his Democratic counterpart even without matching funds. Couple this with the fact that a potential Democratic challenger will likely have had to fend off other Democratic aspirants to win the nomination, and Bush may have twice as much money to spend as his opponent.

It is perhaps not surprising that a bill written by incumbents, passed by incumbents, and signed by an incumbent president is advantageous to incumbents.

Compromise is part of politics. Presidents have to sometimes settle for half of what they want here, three-quarters of what they would prefer there. Rarely do presidents have the full wind of political support to their backs. They must constantly tack against the winds of opposition toward their goals. No one should expect or want a rigorous consistency from a politician. Nonetheless, there are issues on which no compromise should be accepted. A president has a solemn obligation to defend the Constitution. There can be no higher obligation. In this case, Bush failed to meet it and nobody very much cares. If an 80-plus-percent approval president will not use political capital to defend the Constitution, what will he use it for?

Fall from Grace

Saturday, March 23rd, 2002

Tt is especially depressing and disheartening when people of intelligence, quality, and substance make unaccountably foolish mistakes or serious errors in judgment. Those of us involved in more ordinary and less conspicuous pursuits have our values reinforced and validated when people of character live up to our common ideals. When respectable people are flawed, it, unfortunately, has the unwanted side effect of making it easier to excuse our own lapses. The responsibility incumbent on famous people is an insidious burden. It is with great sadness that we consider the sad lapses of three such people.

Stephen Ambrose is perhaps best know for his books about the World War II. Citizen Soldiers, Band of Brothers, and The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s over Germany are probably the most well known. Unlike many other historians of the war, Ambrose focuses his formidable narrative skills to describing the intelligence and heroism of the soldiers and airmen who actually fought in the war rather than on the strategies of generals. This has made him popular among veterans and the experience of the war more accessible to the lay reader.

Ambrose’s gifts are not limited to World War II. Ambrose used to take students on summer trips following the path of Lewis and Clark. The experience helps account for the insight and readability of the Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West.

Unfortunately in recent years, Ambrose may have rushed too quickly to push books into print. His book Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869 suffered from repetitiveness and just plain poor editing. Even worse, Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard reported that passages from The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s were almost verbatim excerpts from Wings of Morning, The Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down Over Germany in WWII by Thomas Childers. The borrowed passages were sentences long and not set off in quotations. Although Childers book was cited there was no indication that the questioned passages came from Childers.

Ambrose is apologetic. He writes on his web page that:

“Recently I have been criticized for improperly attributing other author’s writings in a few of my books. In each case, I footnoted the passage in question, but failed to put some words and sentences into quotation marks. I am sorry for those omissions, and will make relevant changes in all future editions of my books.”

One wonders whether Ambrose would have accepted a similar apology for a paper from graduate student.

Everyone’s favorite Liberal is Pulitzer Prizing winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin. Unlike many dour and grim-faced modern Liberals who whine and sulk about victimhood, Goodwin is a Roosevelt Liberal who wears a ready and happy smile. Her best and most acclaimed book is No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II,. It is a sympathetic treatment of Franklin Roosevelt and Goodwin’s obvious personal hero Eleanor Roosevelt. One could not imagine being around Goodwin without being infected by her smile. Goodwin’s good humor and Liberalism seem to sprout from a genuine concern about others.

Unfortunately, it now turns out that Goodwin has been, at best, very sloppy in her writing. In The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga, Goodwin borrowed so extensively from Lynn McTaggart’s Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times without appropriate attribution that Goodwin was obliged to destroy unsold copies of her book, reissue another corrected edition of the book, and reach a monetary settlement privately with McTaggart. The Guardian reports that Goodwin stepped down as a Pulitzer Prize judge in the wake of this controversy.

One wishes to be charitable. Under the axiom that it is best not to assume maliciousness when incompetence is a sufficient explanation, it is possible to forgive Ambrose and Goodwin for carelessness born of a pressure to publish what have proved to be monetarily rewarding books. Both have done much to reacquaint Americans with their history. However, what then can we say about Michael Bellesiles, the Pulitzer-prizing winning presidential historian famous for thoughtful and sophisticated commentary on PBS?

In 2000, Michael Bellesiles published Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. The book examines records of private estates and wills to make the claim the personal firearms were not a common possession during the Revolutionary War Era. This argument contradicts the assertion that the Founders instituted the Second Amendment to protect personal gun ownership. If personal gun ownership was uncommon, the argument goes, the Founders could not have possibly intended the Second Amendment to protect it.

Liberal groups were quick to seize on the import of Bellesiles’s thesis. Bellesiles’s book received supportive reviews. The New Republic loudly praised Bellesiles for his scholarship in disposing of the “influential mythic narrative composed by the contemporary right” of American self-reliance, liberty, and independence protected by a right to bear arms. The book won Bellesiles the Bancroft Prize for history writing.

Unfortunately, Bellesiles’s book does not appear to pass historical muster as a scholarly work. �Others have examined the same probate records he did and have found radically different results. Not only have others not been able to duplicate Bellesiles’s results Bellesiles can’t easily do so either. Apparently his data were collated on legal pads that have since been partially destroyed when, as Bellesiles explains, “the pipes in Emory University’s Bowden Hall burst and flooded the building. ” When confronted with inconsistencies in his book, Bellesiles’s explanations have changed so frequently that Princeton historian, Robert Churchill, lamented that, “Six years after Bellesiles published his findings, those of us engaged in the professional responsibility of evaluating his work are still guessing at the composition of his sample.” [8]

Representatives of Emory University, where Bellesiles is a professor of history, are examining the entire matter. National Review quotes an Emory faculty member as stating that, “A number of [us at Emory] think the questions that have been raised by critics whose motivations are not in any way political, are exceptionally serious.”

Perhaps Bellesiles will ultimately be able to explain his results or at the very least the water will become sufficiently muddied that Bellesiles will be spared further embarrassment. Whatever the truth is about historical levels of gun ownership is a truth that will have to be dealt with by both sides of the gun control issue. � The real disappointment has little to do with Bellesiles’s argument. Rather, the disappointment is that Bellesiles may have allowed passion for an argument to overwhelm fidelity to truth.

Historians should not be attorneys attempting to win a case. � Scholars are expected to not only draw conclusions from their research, but to point out potential weaknesses in their own arguments. �At this point, Bellesiles appears not to have lived up to these standards.


  1. AP Report, “Twice Told Tales: Goodwin Admits Improper Credits,” Washington Post, January 23, 2002.
  2. Barnes, Fred, “Copycat,” The Weekly Standard, January 14, 2002.
  3. Bellesiles’s web page at the Organization of American Histories.
  4. Burkeman, Oliver, “Plagiarism Row Topples Pulitzer Judge,” The Guardian, March 6, 2002.
  5. Crader, Bo, “Get Me Rewrite,” The Weekly Standard, February 26, 2002.
  6. Lears, Jackson, “The Shooting Game,” The New Republic, January 22, 2001.
  7. Ringle, Ken, “Stephen Ambrose and the Rights Of Passage,” The Washington Post, January 11, 2002
  8. Seckora, Melissa, “Disarming America, Part II: Why Won’t Michael Bellesiles Seriously Respond to His Critics?” National Review, November 26, 2001.
  9. Skinner, David, “The Historian Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” The Weekly Standard, February 15, 2002.
  10. Tschida, Ron, “Plagiarism Scandals Hurting History Profession,” MSNBC, February 22, 2002.

Vouchers and Anti-Catholic Bias

Sunday, March 17th, 2002

Sometimes there are cases that wind their way through the corridors of the judiciary to the steps of the Supreme Court with virtually no merit. One wonders whether the justices merely want to sharpen their judicial swords by slicing up particularly pathetic arguments. One such case, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, was argued February 20, 2002 before the Supreme Court. The case centers on the constitutionality of the use of vouchers in education. I suppose the judges had to accept the case since the Sixth District Court, in a split 2-1 decision, ruled that the Cleveland voucher program violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. To not accept the case would mean the ruling would stand, confusing First Amendment jurisprudence.

The Cleveland School System is experimenting with a program that grants vouchers or scholarships to economically disadvantaged students for use at alternative schools. For many, the vouchers represent the only real opportunity to escape a failed publicly-run school system. The most commonly chosen schools are Catholic schools.

On its very face, the Sixth District Court’s reasoning is inconsistent with other common state-aid and Federal-aid programs. The Sixth District Court argued unpersuasively that the use of vouchers at private schools somehow implied a state endorsement.

The notion does not even bear up to the giggle test. Governments provide resources under many programs that the recipients are free to use at a number of institutions, including religious ones, with no implied endorsement. As one wit had it, the use of food stamps to purchase cabbage does not imply a government endorsement of cabbage. A close analogy to state vouchers is Federal college aid to students. Students can use Federal aid to attend the University of Notre Dame, Georgetown, or any number of religiously affiliated institutions and these arrangements pass Constitutional muster. Other people use Medicare funds to pay for stays at religiously affiliated hospitals with no violation of the Establishment Clause.

Given these other programs, why is there so much concern about the constitutionality of vouchers going to younger students? Why is aid to primary and secondary students treated differently from similar aid to college students? Part of the problem is a misreading of history. There is a long legislative history, dating back to the 19th century, where states have specifically prohibited funds to primary and secondary sectarian schools. The argument is that an early, and therefore instructive, understanding of the First Amendment is that funds could only go to non-sectarian schools. Hence, such funds, are given additional scrutiny, even if the funds go directly to students.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty researched this history and found it to be far more clouded. The term “non-sectarian” in 19th century legislation did not mean “secular,” as one might use the term today. It really meant non-denominational Protestant. Public schools in the 19th century had no problems instructing in Protestant beliefs or using the King James Version of the Bible for moral education. The prohibition of funds to sectarian schools was not an effort to avoid violating the Establishment clause of the First Amendment. Indeed, in the 19th century the “Incorporation” doctrine did not exist and Constitutional First Amendment proscriptions did not apply to the states. Rather, efforts to prohibit funds to non-sectarian schools arose out of a Nativist belief that state funds should not be used to aid Catholic schools in any way.

No one argues that state funds should be used directly for religious instruction, but there is really no Constitutional prohibition preventing students using state-supplied scholarships or vouchers at schools that parents choose. One may argue that vouchers are or are not effective means to improve education, but they are Constitutional without question. In the 19th century, opposition to public funds following students to alternative schools was partially based on ugly anti-Catholic bias. One hopes that the current objections are borne out of honest mistakes and not similar anti-Catholic and perhaps anti-religious sentiment.

CBS Whistle Blower

Saturday, March 2nd, 2002

“It’s short of soap, so there are lice in the hospitals. It’s short of pantyhose, women’s legs go bare. It’s short of snowsuits, so babies stay home in the winter. Sometimes it is short of cigarettes so millions of people stop smoking, involuntarily. It drives everybody crazy. The problem isn’t communism; no one even talked about communism this week. The problem is shortages.” — John Chancellor of NBC speaking of the Soviet Union, August 21 1991, as cited by Bernard Goldberg in Bias.

The argument for ethnic and racial diversity in newsrooms is one that Liberals are familiar with and adept at explaining. Regardless of good intentions on the part of the dominant racial and ethnic group, the argument goes, different groups bring with them different life experiences and different perspectives on stories and on what stories deserve more or less attention. Setting aside for the moment the question as to whether race and ethnic origin are accurate metrics of perspective, the argument has saliency. One wonders, therefore, why newsrooms to not also make formal and concerted efforts to insure political and ideological diversity in newsrooms.

Assessing the extent of Liberal bias in the major national media is often clouded by :what is meant by, Liberal, Moderate, and Conservative. There is an understandable tendency for everyone to view themselves as balanced, moderate, and near the center of the political spectrum. The recent book Bias by long-time CBS correspondent Bernard Goldberg illustrates this tendency. After Goldberg had written an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal asserting that the national news programs were plagued by a Liberal bias, CBS’s Dan Rather expressed his chagrin to Goldberg that he had published his critique in the Conservative Wall Street Journal. Goldberg pointed out that Rather himself had published op-ed pieces in the New York Times. That was all right, according to Rather, because the New York Times is middle of the road. From Rather’s perspective, the New York Times swims in the middle of the political mainstream. This rather disturbing lack of circumspection and understanding of the American political scene on the part of Rather, goes a long way toward understanding why those in the major media do not believe they are burdened by bias.

During the Senate impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, Peter Jennings introduced the Senators who would decide the President’s fate. He was careful to identify for his audience Conservative Senators like Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, while Liberal Senators like Barbara Mikulski from Maryland were just Senators. From Jennings perspective Mikulski was mainstream and needed no special notation to inform viewers. While Jennings’s descriptions were accurate, they were misleading because they tended, not matter how inadvertently, to make Republicans appear at the far extreme.

Searches of news databases reveal similar systematic biases in identification. A Nexis search shows that during the Clinton years, critics of the President were referred to as “Clinton-haters” or “Clinton bashers” (subtly suggesting an anti-Clinton psychosis) far more than similar terms were applied to critics of President Ronald Reagan. (See: Milzcik, Eileen, “Nexis Search Finds Few Bush or Reagan,”, published September 1, 2001. ) This bias is even apparent in selection of news stories. During the Reagan years stories about the homeless (who were invariably portrayed as middle class people down on their luck as opposed to people with pathologies such as drug or alcohol addiction) appeared far more frequently than during the Clinton years, though the homeless problem did not abate or abate nearly as much as the coverage.

Any objective definition of the location of the political mainstream must be made with reference to the country as a whole. The middle of the political spectrum is clearly smack dab in the middle between Republicans and Democrats. In the last four presidential elections, the Democratic Party has won twice and Republicans have won twice. Though President Bush won the last election, it is clear the electorate was pretty much split down the middle. Republicans control the House of Representatives by a narrow margin and the Democrats control the Senate by virtue of a single Senator who changed his allegiance from the Republicans and became independent, aligned with the Democrats.

Do the political affiliations and ideological perspectives of the national media even approximate those of the nation as a whole? Not even close. As Goldberg points out:

  • In 1992, while 43%of the public cast their ballots for Clinton, 89% of journalists did.
  • Half of journalists identify themselves as Democrats, while only 4% are Republicans.
  • While 50% of journalists call themselves liberal, only 23% of the public does.
  • Half the country is pro-choice, while 82% of journalists are.

The Conservative viewpoint is radically underrepresented in national newsrooms. From the perspective of the newsroom, the news coverage does represent the mainstream perspective. However, their mainstream is a little meandering tributary far to the left of the national mainstream.

People are not stupid. They realize when the news is being presented from a perspective far different from theirs. When the three broadcast networks had a monopoly, the viewing public had little choice what to watch. However, the Liberal slant of the news gave rise to Conservative talk radio as a refuge for like-minded people further to the right of the national media. More recently, viewers have hemorrhaged from the broadcast news to cable channels and the Internet. This has contributed to the meteoric rise of the Fox News Channel. At one time the major three broadcast newscasts enjoyed 75% of the audience. This dominance evaporated to 43% by 2001. At this rate, it will become harder and harder to argue that the national broadcast media is Liberally biased. There will be less left of the national broadcast media to criticize.

And how have Goldberg’s former colleagues, colleagues how make a habit of seeking out whistle-blowers in other industries, reacted? Well, Goldberg no longer appeared on Dan Rather’s CBS Evening News after his op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal.

It is hard to characterize Goldberg a right-wing fanatic given that he is “pro-choice” on abortion rights, voted for George McGovern in 1972 and never voted for Ronald Reagan given two opportunities in the 1980’s. Nonetheless, he has been accused of having an “agenda.”

It is hard to impugn Goldberg’s journalistic credentials given that the has won seven emmys for his reporting. Nonetheless, critic Tom Shales of the Washington Post, answered the thesis in Bias by describing Goldberg has a “full-time addlepated windbag” and “a no talent hack” who “usually looked disheveled and bleary-eyed on the air.” Then, with out the slightest touch of irony, Shales accused Goldberg of “a laughably inept hate campaign [emphasis added].” Goldberg could not have made his point about the inability of media to be self-critical more eloquently than Shales inadvertantly did.