HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

November 5, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


What Counts In Political Reporting

On Hardball, Chris Matthews played Rudy Giuliani's latest radio ad from New Hampshire with its bogus comparisons of prostate cancer cure rates in the United States and England, and then led a discussion about it with his evening panel. They went on about the piece for nearly ten minutes and neither Chris nor his panelists showed the slightest interest in its truthfulness. They were concerned only with how well it would play with the electorate.

It struck me as a perfect example of what political reporting has become in the United States. In Matthews-world, the truth is irrelevant. It counts for nothing. There is no responsibility, whatsoever, to report on lies told during campaigns. The only thing that matters is whether they work. And there appears to be no inkling among TV pundits that blatant lies might influence the effectiveness of what's said.

Could it be that they dismiss truth so cavalierly because they can't imagine anyone's caring about it? And could that be a reflection of their own stance on accuracy in political debate? It strikes me as a peculiar world but, then, since I don't live in it, I can't say what the norms are.


National Moodiness

There's considerable talk now about how distrust of government generated by the behavior of the Bush administration will cripple us in the future. There really are enemies out there, say the critics, and if we let the Bush record cause us to disbelieve in them, we'll be making ourselves vulnerable. Richard Cohen has a column to this effect in today's Washington Post.

This is almost completely hogwash. Yes, there are enemies. A nation always has people who are opposed to its policies. But a distrust of government so complete we're likely to let foreign enemies run over us is not what we need to fear.

Cohen moans that many people now think of Bush as the enemy while ignoring the genuine threat. That's because, if you care about civil liberties and the maintenance of a democratic republic, Bush, and people who think as he does, are the threat. No foreign powers are as dangerous as they are.

If you tick off the list of frequently cited foreign enemies -- al Qaeda, the misty force referred to as Islamofascism, Iran, North Korea (who lately has been fading as a boogeyman), terrorism (whatever it may be), there is not the power among them, individually or collectively, to undermine the structures of American life. Only we can do that by turning power over to people who care nothing for the Constitution and everything for their own privileges and ideological ego-gratification.

We have plenty of weapons to monitor and thwart foreign enemies. And distrust of government is not going to disarm them. But it might wake us up to what has been happening inside our own borders. And if that's the case, the more distrust the better.


Phony Charges

I am not a hundred percent fan of Hillary Clinton. I would like more evidence that she understands the difference between a democratic republic and militarist empire and I wish I could believe more firmly that she prefers the former. I think her vote on Iran's terrorism was a mistake. Nothing can justify giving George Bush more power to launch military attacks. I would like to see her simply stand up for something without diving into a complex, poll-based, analysis before she speaks. All that said, I will certainly vote for her if she becomes the Democratic nominee. And if the contest is between her and Rudy Giuliani, and she wins, I will be immensely relieved.

What bothers me about the current Democratic campaign for the presidential nomination is not serious criticism of Senator Clinton but the spate of silly charges that continue to be brought up against her. If she wants to say she's a Yankees fan, that's okay with me. And I don't care how long she has been one, although evidence seems to indicate that it has been longer than her critics are willing to allow.

If she chooses to give her cat to a friend, that's her decision. As far as we know the cat is not being abused, and given the Clintons' hectic schedules is probably being looked after more carefully than if it were still living at their house.

These are foolish charges, but the champion nonsense in the flood of Hillary criticisms is the notion that she is evil for continuing to be married to her husband. What possible right can anyone have for saying a person can't be married to whomever she chooses, and for whatever reason? I don't know anything about the Clintons' personal relationship. I don't know how much affection they feel for one another. I do know this; it's none of my business. I can think of nothing more snide and vulgar than sniffing around in other people's marriages and then issuing proclamations are about which partner should do what. If we choose our presidents on such a basis, we really do deserve whatever we get, regardless of how bad it is.


Sympathies

I suppose my heart is unnaturally hard, but I can't work up profound empathy for those poor little boys who could face legal difficulties if the torture they committed in the past is now declared illegal. They are the persons Michael Mukasey hints he is sheltering by refusing to descend to clear definition.

What happened to those steely-eyed tough guys who are willing to throw themselves on their swords for the protection and honor of their country?

Some say that if Mukasey pronounced practices which happen to be torture actually to be torture, the charges might even approach the president. Now, wouldn't that be awful! We can't have the president embarrassed just to wipe out behavior that now paints the nation as a legal dungeon and causes us to be condemned all over the world. That wouldn't be imperial.

Perhaps the way to resolve the whole issue is for Dick Cheney to step forward, as the real man he is, and announce that not only is torture of every sort approved by the constitution but that it has been ordained by God as the principal tool of this, the most Christian of nations. That should settle it. At least, it would make for some headlines.

Snowflake Boy

I used to work for a college president who sent me about twenty memoranda every day. One I got two or three times a week asked simply, "John, what's up?" To each of these I was supposed to respond in detail.

I was reminded of him while reading about Donald Rumsfeld's habit of sending short notes, called "snowflakes" throughout the Pentagon. The one I found most intriguing was his suggestion that the war on terror ought to be renamed the "worldwide insurgency." He seems to have had in mind an uprising against guys like himself, which, to his way of thinking, was clearly criminal.

It's pretty easy to see why he didn't cotton to "war on terror" since the practice of snowflakes, as he used them, is a terrorist device. It's designed to spread terror throughout an organization. If you've been visited by a fistful of snowflakes on a given day you go home at night saying to yourself, "The Secretary is always looking at me." That, indeed, is the idea.

The head of one organization where I sojourned, briefly, would say repeatedly to all the employees, "The only thought I want in your heads is, what does he want me to be doing, right now."

This is the version of "leadership" which prevails in much of American organizational life. And when it takes over the government, it leads to what we have observed over the past six years. We can all hope that Mr. Rumsfeld is retired from public service forever. But his type remains with us, and, therefore, we need to keep the terror alert setting at a fairly high level.


Mistake

I regret that Senators Feinstein and Schumer have decided to vote for the Mukasey nomination to be attorney general. His refusal to affirm the truth of torture is reason enough to keep him out of office. But George Bush's behavior since his nominee ran into trouble, is an even more important justification for denying him confirmation.

The president has threatened not to have an attorney general if he doesn't get his way with respect to Mukasey. And what the president has insisted upon is not only that Mukasey be confirmed but that he not answer specific questions about the nature of torture. Petulant action of that sort shouldn't be allowed to cow the senate. Yet, there can be no doubt that confirmation of this nomination is yet one more instance of the Senate lying down in the face of  a temper tantrum by the president. If all George Bush needs to become complete dictator is to throw a hissy fit, then we know where liberty is in the nation.

Schumer and Feinstein can assure us all they wish that, in office, Mukasey will exercise independent judgment. But his testimony so far offers us little hope. They are surrendering to the president with respect to issues far more important than whether the Bush administration has an official attorney general during its final months in office. And we can be sure that the lesson won't be lost on this White House or those in the future. Presidential dictatorship is not what the Constitution is supposed to support. But if the Senate continues to fail in its duty, that's what we're going to get.


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