Archive for November, 2004

The Original George W.

Sunday, November 28th, 2004

It has been a hard time for those of us who enjoy popularized histories and historical biographies.  Doris Kearns Goodwin, perhaps best known for Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream and No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and Stephen Ambrose author of, among many other volumes, Undaunted Courage and Citizen Soldiers were both caught in plagiarizing material.  Most likely these errors were the consequence of haste and sloppiness, rather than malice.  Much worst was the apparently deliberate historical fraud perpetrated by Michael Bellesiles who ended up resigning from Emory University for his misdeeds.  Bellesiles wrote Arming America which won Columbia University’s Bancroft’s Prize for History.  Columbia University’s Trustees later voted to rescind the prize after Bellesiles’s scholarly crime became clear.  On the basis of irreproducible evidence, Bellesiles argued that in colonial America ownership was far less ubiquitous as previously supposed. It was not lost on the cultural elites that such a result could effect our perceptions of the original understanding of the Second Amendment’s guarantee of the “right of the people to keep and bear arms.”  The original credulity of the Bancroft Committee and academia as a whole towards Bellesiles’s book is a testament to its rhetorical convenience to those for whom the Second Amendment is an inconvenient nuisance.

In between the careless errors of Kearns and Ambrose and the malicious ones of Bellesiles falls the deceitfulness of Joseph Ellis.  Ellis was caught by the Boston Globe in a series of self-aggrandizing lies told to his friends, colleagues, and students.  Ellis really spent his military career lecturing at West Point, but he told others not only that he was in Vietnam, but that he was a platoon leader in the storied 101st Airborne Division.  Ellis also claimed that he served on the staff of General William Westmoreland, the American Commander in Vietnam, giving him extraordinary credibility when teaching a course on that era at Mount Holyoke College.  Again, people were credulous about Ellis’s Vietnam claims because Ellis was anti-war in outlook.  The anti-war sentiments of a Vietnam War hero had greater claim to moral authority. For his sins, Ellis was suspended without pay for one year from his endowed chair at Mount Holyoke

And yet, Ellis is a wonderfully gifted writer, who won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for his book the Founding Brothers: The American Revolutionary Generation.  There is a legitimate argument that Ellis is one of the most knowledgeable historians of the Revolutionary War Era. Despite these credentials and gifts, it is difficult to read Ellis’s new book, His Excellency, about George Washington, without nagging doubts caused by Ellis’s personal mendacity.  Fortunately, Ellis used the opportunity of this new book to return to historical scholarship.

His Excellency, is short (less than 300 pages) and does not pretend to be a comprehensive documentation of the events of Washington’s life and career.  Rather, Ellis tries to see beyond the marble bust vision we all have of and attempts to understand the motivations and outlook of George Washington the person.  Ellis does his readers a favor and resists the modern temptation to devote much time to Washington’s early infatuation with Sally Fairfax.  Instead, Ellis endeavors to understand the apparent contradiction in Washington’s personality.  How does one resolve the dilemma of a Washington having sufficient ambition to acquire a sizable estate at Mount Vernon, to successfully lead a rag-tag army against the most powerful empire of the time, and to become president of a fledging nation; while at the same time resisting the inevitable temptation to become an American Napoleon?

Ellis makes the case that Washington’s ambitions were indeed an important and even a transcendent motivation.  However, Washington’s unique quality was his realization that the approbation of history, rather than the more fleeting admiration of contemporaries, was the higher ambition.  There were at least four important instances when Washington eschewed acquisition of personal power and responded to the greater ambition of the respect of posterity.

  1. The successful effort by Washington at Newburgh to thwart a cabal of senior officers from leading the Continental Army to Philadelphia to compel the Continental Congress to pay the troops established the principle of civilian control over the military.
  2. Washington retired to Mount Vernon after his military victory over the British in the War of Independence and avoided the rise of an American Napoleon at the cost of democratic rule.
  3. The fact that Washington set a precedent by only serving two terms re-enforced popular sovereignty.  This precedent lasted until this century, broken by the four terms of Franklin Roosevelt.  This precedent is now formalized in the Twenty-Second Amendement to the Constitution.
  4. In Washington’s will, he distributed his wealth evenly among his heirs.  This guaranteed the dissipation of accumulated wealth and prevented the rise of a Washington family dynasty.  Washington’s legacy was political and institutional not familial.

Washington did not so much resist the temptations of power, but embraced the greater ambition of fathering a nation, a republic.

Ellis described Washington as the “rarest of men: a supremely realistic visionary, a prudent prophet… His genius was his judgment.”  It was most certainly not Ellis’s intention, given his personal Left-ward political leanings, but Ellis evokes a direct, but implicit comparison with the most recent George W. — George W. Bush.  Of course, the analogy like all analogies is imperfect, yet Ellis nonetheless finds the source of Washington’s abilities in his single-minded clarity.  Ellis was describing Washington, but he could just as well have been writing of Bush, when he observed that his unfailing judgment “did not emanate from books or from formal education.”  Rather, “Washington’s powers of judgment derived in part from the fact that his mind was uncluttered with sophisticated preconceptions.”  It is not so much that Washington, in Ellis estimation, or Bush now, is an anti-intellectual know-nothing; but rather they both recognize that clarity and firmness is many times more important than nuance.  For the wise, details are important in developing and implementing decisions, but they can be debilitating when they contribute to confusion rather than clarity or provide excuse for desultory inaction.  Read His Excellency, and understand both George W’s.

ACLU War on the Boy Scouts

Sunday, November 21st, 2004

It is the sort of community project that is so common around the United States that it does not merit the attention of the news, but it remains extraordinary nonetheless. Like many Boy Scout troops around the country, one in Ellicott City Maryland finds itself concerned about former scouts who are now serving overseas in life-threatening situations. The threats in Iraq are certainly more immediate for those who helped raise the young adults who are now serving there.

This particular Maryland troop organized to send a 30-pound box of food, toiletries and other items to one of its Eagle Scouts now in Iraq. One thing that an Eagle Scout learns is service to others, so this overseas Eagle Scout wrote about his concern for his fellow soldiers. So not only did this troop manage to send their own Eagle Scout a box from home, but a total of ten boxes, 320 pounds all told, to Iraq. The entire project was conceived and executed in four days.

However, the real gift of these boxes it not tangible. It is not the cans of tuna or packages of crackers or cookies or coffee or CDs or DVDs or magazines that are important, it is the love and support expressed by taking the time and effort to assemble and send the boxes that is the greatest gift. Each box also contained holiday cards created by scouts addressed to the individual soldiers. It is these thoughtful messages that will nourish and sustain the soldiers long after the last cookie in the last box is consumed.

During the same week, it appears that the Department of Defense is capitulating to the demands of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and is no longer permitting military installations to sponsor Boy Scout troops. The egregious offense for which the Boy Scouts of America is being banished is the scout promise:

“…to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.”

The ACLU sees an implicit and rigidly enforced theocracy when parents bring their children to scout troops sponsored by military bases. When others look at the Boy Scouts, they see adults helping to guide honorable young men. While the ACLU fears the mention of God in public spaces, others see an authoritarian effort to strip voluntary spirituality from the public square. While the ACLU sees forced religiosity, others see the ACLU trying to deny their right of voluntary association and an attempt to impose their own imperial secularity.

The crux of the ACLU’s argument is that the sponsorship of Boy Scouts is an implicit and unconstitutional endorsement of the idea of a higher being by a government entity. The logical extension of his argument would make the government posting of the Declaration of Independence — you remember the document that speaks of “self-evident” rights endowed by a “Creator” — an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.

The scouts have always been open to all religions. There is no question of endorsement of a particular sect or belief. However, if the government does not allow the sponsorship by volunteers at military bases, it is implicitly endorsing a world view that denies the existence of a God. If allowing sponsorship by military bases of a nonsectarian organization that encourages members to seek God in their own way is an endorsement of spirituality, then specifically denying the sponsorship endorses the alternative view, that there is no higher being to which we have an obligation.

In truth, the sponsorship of groups by military organizations, whether they are the Boy Scouts or the Boys and Girls Club (who make no specific reference to a higher being), does not constitute a religious “establishment” as prohibited by the First Amendement to the Constitution. This sponsorship represents only an attempt, by volunteers, to help the community and children. If the Pentagon excluded the sponsorship of youth groups unless they mentioned God in their oath, then the ACLU might have a case.

There is irony in the decision to deny sponsorship by the military of Boy Scouts troops for not being sufficiently inclusive, when the scouts where racially integrated long before the military. There is also a deeper irony is the fact that former Boy Scouts are fighting in Iraq against real theocratically-motivated oppression, while some at home are fighting against an organization that helped instill in these soldiers a deep respect for religious tolerance.

In the last election, there was a significant portion of the voters who expressed a concern about “moral values.” For some on the Left, “moral values” is code language for particular issues like abortion rights or same-sex “marriage.” This is far too narrow a view. “Moral issues” is also an umbrella term that includes the assault on community values and community organizations by intolerant legal bullies like the ACLU. If the Democratic leadership desires have a meaningful dialogue with those for whom moral issues are important, they need to refrain from allying themselves with bullying legal organizations like the ACLU and refrain from supporting an infinitely malleable legal jurisprudence that empowers such bullies. This is particularly true for litigious bullies who scare the Defense Department into a decision that hurts boys and young men.

Baseball Patience in Politics

Sunday, November 14th, 2004

“And I have a feeling that it [the bin Laden tape] could tilt the election a bit. In fact, I’m a little inclined to think that Karl Rove, the political manager at the White House, who is a very clever man, he probably set up bin Laden to this thing.” — Walter Cronkite on Larry King Live, October 29, 2004.

Bill Moyers: …I think if Kerry were to win this in a — in a tight race, I think there would be an effort to mount a coup, quite frankly. I mean just like…
Bill Moyers: I — I mean that the — the right wing is not going to accept it.
Joe Klein: Except for the fact that they don’t control – they don’t control the military, they don’t control the intelligence community. What they control is Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and, you know, one side of the table on Crossfire.
— Exchange on the Charlie Rose Show, November 2, 2004.

“But the big problem the country now has, which is going to produce a serious discussion of secession over the next 20 years, is that the segment of the country that pays for the federal government is now being governed by the people who don’t pay for the federal government… Ninety percent of the red states are welfare client states of the federal government.” — Lawrence O’Donnell on the McLaughlin Group, November 5, 2004.

Despite a thrilling World Series where the Boston Red Sox managed to become the champions of baseball after an 86-year hiatus, baseball has garnered a decreasing share of the national attention.  Though attendance has grown steadily over the years, there is now so much more competition for spectator and fan devotion.  Not only are football and baseball at both the collegiate and professional levels popular, but NASCAR racing draws more fans each year than professional baseball, football, and basketball combined.  With all due respect to these other diversions, it is a shame that the ethos of baseball has receded in the national psyche.  The loss has made it more difficult the pass on the civic virtues necessary in a democratic society based on liberty constrained by personal discipline.

In baseball, even the best teams loose a third of their games, while the worst teams win a third.  As the baseball player, manager, and philosopher, Casey Stengel observed, “…that’s baseball.  Rags to riches one day and riches to rags the next.”  Baseball teaches a patience that would be salutary if it returned to American politics — a patience to think of the long-term, for there will be many wins and losses on the way.  In a power-balanced republic like the United States that oscillates fairly regularly between moderately Conservative and Liberal parties, there is little reason to be excessively morose and down-heartened at an election loss. There is, therefore, little reason for angry the recriminations and vitriol that seems to have spewed from supposedly responsible people on the Left after loosing the recent presidential election.  Sure, Democrats seems to have lost a little footing, but their political ailments are not terminal.  It is a time for regrouping, re-examination, and retrenchment.  It ought not to be an excuse to lash indiscriminately out in uncontrolled fury.

Examples of this frenzied behavior include remarkable assertions by ostensibly responsible spokesmen on the Left.  PBS’s Bill Moyers seems to believe that a coup by the Right was a serious possibility and Walter Cronkite, at one time perhaps the most trusted man in America, irresponsibly suggested that Presidential political advisor Karl Rove may be conspiring with terrorist Osama bin Laden to influence US elections. If perhaps these people had a little more baseball-like political patience and maturity, they would be less likely to explode like marauding football linebacker irrationally into the breach.

Perhaps the most disappointing example of the loss of all proportion is the tongue-in-cheek, but perhaps purposely divisive, suggestion that there are two radically different “red” and “blue” Americas. These colors correspond to the conventional coloring of states by their electoral votes for president. The Democrats seems to have a lock on the northeast and the west coasts, while Republicans control much of Middle America.  The suggestion is further made that perhaps these two Americas should go their separate ways.  Apparently, some in the blue states are so angry they want to take their ball and leave.

Now it is one thing to note differences among regions of the country and quite another to grumble like Lawrence O’Donnell that the “red” states are somehow wrongly dictating to the “blue” states, who O’Donnell claims, are disproportionately paying federal taxes.  The “red” states appear, in O’Donnell’s view, to be the pushy freeloaders. O’Donnell claims, “…the federal government is now being governed by the people who don’t pay for the federal government.”

It is impossible to believe that even O’Donnell really accepts the implications of the line of reasoning he is so casually and thoughtlessly pursuing.  It is not the blue states, but rather the affluent in both red and blue states who pay a disproportionate share of federal taxes.  Is O’Donnell really trying to make the ethical case that in a democratic society those that contribute less financially ought to have less say in the election outcomes?  Should the rich be given more votes, since they pay more taxes?  This latter possibility would not bode well for Democrats.   According to the much maligned exit polls (now fully tabulated), Bush won a majority of votes from people having incomes over $50,000 per year, and almost half (49%) of voters with incomes between $30,000 and $50,000 voted for Bush.  It is only among people with incomes below $30,000 that Kerry won a clear majority.

Do those who are a drain on the federal treasury deserve less of a vote?  Should the retired on social security or the poor claiming some federal assistance be less enfranchised by virtue of the fact that at the moment they may be received more benefits than the taxes they pay?  Should families with school age children who consume government education dollars be give less of a vote than childless couples who are subsidizing neighboring families?

O’Donnell would reject these notions and that is what makes his exacerbation of divisions between red and blue states so reckless.  O’Donnell really knows better, but appears to be allowing his political disappointment to triumph over his reason.

It would be pleasant to indulge ourselves in the amiable view that the angry response to Bush’s election is just the temporary cry of the deeply wounded Left, and that this wound will soon heal or at least scar over and cease oozing ugly rhetoric.  Instead, it may be the case that the Left feels itself so out of touch with the rest of society that it has lost all hope of an electoral victories in the future.  Their current over reaction to the election and their willingness to insult the intelligence and motivations of the voters they may wish to solicit a few years hence may go a long way insuring that this assessment by the Left becomes true.

The Boston Red Sox waited through 86 agonizing years to finally win a World Series.  Democrats have only to wait four more years for an opportunity for a possible presidential victory.  Those on the Left will need to remember that there is always be another election season and the sooner they use the off season to re-tool their political teams rather than whining about the past, the sooner they will achieve electoral success.

Moral Values in the 2004 Election

Friday, November 5th, 2004

The exit polls made election night excessively cruel and especially so for supporters of presidential candidate Senator John Kerry.  Early in the afternoon, exit polls suggested that Kerry would be a big winner. The stock market plummeted on the news and Kerry supporters were giddy in anticipation.  Some were already planning strategies for running against Senator John McCain in 2008. Bush supporters were gloomy, until about 7:00 p.m. when the actual election returns started to trickle in.  When the exit polls were finally tabulated using data for the entire day, they began to approach the actual election returns, but the damage was already done.  Kerry supporters were forced to suffer an even more frustrating loss than they would have endured had the exit polls not been so initially misleading.

While exit polls may not be the best real-time predictor of election outcomes, they did offer an interesting post-election insight into the motivation and demographics of voters.  Exit polls clearly showed an increase in voting by Evangelical Christians and that the issue of “moral values” played a more important role in voters’ minds than most observers had anticipated before the election.  However, to many the term “moral values” is code-language for only a pro-life position or for the notion that the definition of marriage ought not to be extended to same sex partners.  While it is true that these issues are important, the thesis here is the moral values that defined this election were substantially broader.  Many of those who were citing “moral values” as an issue were also reacting to vitriolic rhetoric and mean-spirited campaign of the Democrats and others on the Left.  The thesis here is that Americans were also rejecting the tone and tenor of the campaign.

Consider the following incendiary rhetoric by major players in the Democratic Party:

  • Senator Edward Kennedy claimed that the War in Iraq was a “fraud” that was “made up in Texas.”
  • Governor Howard Dean said,  “John Ashcroft is not a patriot” and  lent credence to the notion Bush may have know about the 9/11 attacks in advance.
  • General Wesley Clark ran for the Democratic nomination suggesting that as far as Christianity goes “there’s only one party that lives that faith in America, and that’s our party, the Democratic Party.”
  • Vice-President Al Gore shouted to a partisan crowd that Bush “betrayed us.”
  • Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe asserted that President Bush went AWOL while in the Texas National Guard.

At the same time, propagandist Michael Moore produced the movie Fahrenheit 9/11 about which the Left-leaning Christopher Hitchens colorfully averred that “to describe this film as dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote those terms to the level of respectability. To describe this film as a piece of crap would be to run the risk of a discourse that would never again rise above the excremental.”  While there is always extreme rhetoric by partisans on both sides, the fact that Michael Moore’s movie was embraced and even believed by otherwise reasonable human beings is a measure of the deep irrational antipathy on the Left for Bush.  In this election, America rejected this antipathy in voting for Bush, much like they rejected Republican antipathy for former President Bill Clinton.

Now many of my Liberal friends will reject the notion that the electorate was reacting against the spiteful anti-Bush rhetoric.  After all, they will assert, one could point out intemperate statements made by some on the Right.   However, you do not generally find such statements made by Republican Party leadership, nor did Republicans never come close to matching the same enormous investment or negative advertising by “527” groups.  The fact that most people who voted for Bush voted positively for Bush, while about half of the Kerry supporters were simply voting against Bush is an empirical reflection of the pervasive negativity in the Democratic presidential campaign.  It is hard to find Republicans who hate Kerry, while it is unfortunately much too easy to find Democrats who hate Bush.

Apparently, the election did little to smooth over differences and this anti-Bush antipathy on the Left will likely continue to encumber their political agenda.  Paul Krugman, columnist for the New York Times, vomited up his angry bile the day after the election charging that Bush is “a radical — the leader of a coalition that deeply dislikes America.” However, fellow travelers on the Left reveal those who are really angry with Americans.  Normally thoughtful and polite columnist E. J. Dionne in the Washington Post could not help but write, “We are alarmed that so many of our fellow citizens could look the other way and not hold Bush accountable…”  Jane Smiley in Slate worries that Americans may not really be up to this Democracy thing. For Smiley, “The election results reflect the decision of the right wing to cultivate and exploit ignorance in the citizenry.”  One is not likely to garner votes in the future, if you do not respect voters.

Even if they are able to tone done their angry rhetoric, it will be difficult for those on the Left to deal with their deficiency on the issue of “moral values.”  Some of the Left mistakenly believe that “moral values” is only a phrase used to hide bigotry and intolerance. When seriously confronted with the “moral values” issue, others on the Left defensively argue that the minimum wage or health care and other “social justice” issues represent moral values. They are correct that there is a moral component to these issues. However, the Left has lost the vocabulary and the temperament to deal with moral values.  Values imply judgments about right and wrong, and many on the Left have given up the notion that any ideas of right and wrong can be imposed by government.  After throwing the armaments of moral authority and the ability to speak of moral obligations into the bushes, it is not difficult to retrieve them in service of traditional Liberal causes.

Ever attuned to the public mood, former President Bill Clinton did not rush off to blame the American people or to insult their intelligence.  Instead, he is trying to push the Democratic Party back towards the middle of the political spectrum.  He astutely observed that “If we let people believe that our party doesn’t believe in faith and family, that’s our fault.” Unfortunately, for the Democrats too many in their constituency long ago grew ambivalent about both faith and family and during this election cycle added mean-spiritedness to their public character.