The Dems Get Excited
At last the Dems have found their issue for 2004: Bush’s jet landing on the carrier Abraham Lincoln! Yesterday was dominated by the issue: the day opened with New York Times columnist Paul Krugman warning that the landing was the first step on the way to the violent overthrow of the Republic – CNN chattered about it all afternoon – and there it was on the evening cable programs. Bill Press on MSNBC gave the longest and most coherent explanation of the Dem position that I heard, and it amounted basically to this: a helicopter landing in a business suit would have been OK; a jet landing in a flight suit is a colossal no-no.
Matthew Miller, himself a Democrat, gives the best reply in his latest syndicated column:
“Every so often you come across evidence that a political party is losing its mind. Something like that is happening to Democrats over President Bush’s fabulous ‘top gun’ photo-op aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln. It’s a case study in how Bush and Karl Rove have left so many Democrats undone.
“Rep. Henry Waxman of California has asked the General Accounting Office to provide a full accounting of the landing’s costs, since the event had “clear political overtones.” Sen. Robert Byrd, who, as longtime appropriations czar, is in no position to throw stones over dubious uses of taxpayer money, lashed out at Bush instead for ‘flamboyant showmanship,’ saying the White House had no business using the carrier ‘as an advertising backdrop’ for the president’s speech. Democratic staffers are working overtime to gin up media interest in the ‘scandal.’
“Let’s be clear. Yes, Bush manipulated the timing of the Iraqi showdown to suit his purposes in last year’s midterm elections. And yes, he’s now hoping to put America’s military success to his political advantage. But for all that, Bush’s decision to take out Saddam was the right thing to do. And as for the news that Bush is now trying to use the result to help himself — well, do we really have to trot out the old Casablanca line about being shocked to find there’s gambling going on here?
“For foes of Bush’s domestic agenda, like myself, the worst part of these Democratic attacks is how ineffective and tone deaf they are. The party’s most idiotic argument (it’s hard to find a gentler word that’s also accurate) is that in staging this event, Bush showed disrespect for the troops, because he delayed their return to their families by an extra day after a 10-month deployment. Isn’t it obvious even to Democrats that, if you took a vote of the sailors on board, they’d have unanimously hailed the idea of a visit from their commander in chief to deliver the thanks of a grateful nation? It’s a moment they’ll cherish for the rest of their lives and tell their grandchildren about. Democrats, inspired perhaps by the trial lawyers who bankroll the party, are acting as if these troops are good prospects for a class-action suit.
“The cost was puny anyway. Early Democratic salvos complained that the photo-op cost at least $100,000, as if we should be outraged. Reality check, please. Fifty million dollars for Kenneth Starr’s investigation was an outrage; $100,000 to land on deck and welcome troops returning from war is patriotic pageantry. Earth to Democrats: There is nothing wrong with a little patriotic pageantry. And the costs of presidential movements are always extraordinary. When a president changes where he eats a meal one afternoon, taxpayers probably drop $100,000. You know what? We give the head of the free world a budget for that.
“Democrats, of course, know this. Which helps explain why as I write this I’ve already received fresh e-mails from a Democratic press office raising the cost estimate for Top-Gun-Gate to $1 million. Bet they’ll get it to $10 million before week’s end.
“I know, I know — this is politics. GOP operatives routinely toted up the cost of Bill Clinton’s trips to New York City and the man-hours lost to Manhattan gridlock in the service of Hillary’s ambition. The right wing never tires of trotting out the size and cost of Clinton’s entourage when he traveled abroad. Both sides perennially engage in this irrelevant nitpicking — like so many other depressing aspects of public life, this seems to be a political law of nature.
“But this latest episode shows how demoralizing life in the minority must be. Henry Waxman is admired even by Republicans for having done more over his career to extend health coverage to poor and near-poor Americans than perhaps anyone in the country. Now look: Ten years after Newt Gingrich’s earthquake, poor Henry is sniping guerrilla-style over political sideshows. How depressing must that be? This is no time for Democrats to go bonkers over the small stuff. If this is what they consider smart politics, it’ll be a long wait until 2008.”
Let me add one more point – political figures who use military backdrops always do so at their own risk: think of Michael Dukakis in that tank in 1988. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time – but it sure did not turn out that way. Ditto if Bill Clinton had tried the jet landing on a carrier: what if the flight suit had made him look fat?
Bush took an image gamble – quite a big one really – and it worked only because America’s soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines like this president so much. Now to Paul Krugman, military popularity may be a big negative: after all, General Franco was popular with his military too. But to many other Americans, it’s interesting and important to know what the armed forces think of their commander-in-chief.
The New York Times is acknowledging today something that has been obvious from day one of the Baghdad museum heist story: the thefts at the museum were pretty obviously committed by the museum’s own staff. The scenes of disorder at the museum recorded by the television cameras on the first day were a screen for the real story – the objects were stolen by people with access to the museum’s vaults, with keys and codes to let themselves in, with knowledge of which objects were most valuable, and with the international connections to sell them. The museum leadership’s subsequent weeping and keening over the losses was a scene familiar to any reader of Agatha Christie: the prime suspect seeking to deflect suspicion.
NR readers might enjoy this piece of tomfoolery I wrote for the London Times after my British tour. The Times’ site makes it difficult to give the URL, so here’s the whole article:
May 06, 2003
Earthy, highly sexed, and not the Britain I expected
British bookstores are daunting places for a North American writer. In the prime spots near the cash register stand great piles of books with titles such as Why Do People Hate America?, Stupid White Men, and Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower. When the British public want to read about the United States, it seems, they want to read about a rapacious country governed by a moronic president — ominous news indeed for the author of a positive assessment of the George Bush presidency. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, customers are queueing up to buy coffee-table books about Cotswold cottages and defiantly unapologetic histories of the British Empire.
The simplest explanation of these transatlantic differences is that we love you — but you don’t love us back. I’m not sure, though, that this explanation quite gets to the truth of the matter. I very much doubt that it placates readers of Why Do People Hate America? to hear that Americans love Winston Churchill, the reconstructed Globe Theatre and English country houses.
And possibly they are right not to be placated. If the accusation against America is that Americans are too full of themselves to pay attention to anybody else, we hardly mitigate the offence by paying attention to a Britain that has ceased to exist — or maybe never existed in the first place. If Americans truly cared about Britain, surely they would want to understand Britain as it really is.
So when The Times invited me to comment on what I saw in the course of a British book tour, I eagerly accepted. After all, if North Americans could liberate themselves from their Merchant Ivory stereotypes of Britain, we’d be better positioned to urge British people to rise above the equally false images of America purveyed over here.
The first and most deeply held stereotype of Britain among Americans is that of the twitchy, embarrassed, repressed Englishman and the frosty, sexless Englishwoman, both of them crushing all authentic feeling under the deadly obligations of good manners: Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral, Polly Radlett of Love in a Cold Climate. The truth is, though, that you are more likely to meet these stereotypes in Boston than in Bolton.
In comparison to the reserved, laconic, decorous and relatively puritanical political culture of the US, British politicians are an amazingly unrestrained, uninhibited and chatty bunch. A Washingtonian arrived in Westminster tends to feel like an Edwardian missionary newly arrived on some lush tropical isle.
Compared with Edwina Currie, for example, Monica Lewinsky was a model of tact and decorum. Compared with George Galloway’s alleged half-million-dollar take, Whitewater looks like pitifully small beer. Compared with the howling and booing of the House of Commons, debates in the US Senate and even the House of Representatives read as if they could be chiselled in Latin on a marble wall. And compared to the late Alan Clark — well, we have nothing to compare to Alan Clark.
And all of this is considered perfectly normal, harmlessly entertaining! In fact, on the rare occasions when a British politician exercises some elementary self-discipline, the press and the public alike protest his “spin” and “manipulation.”
Nor do the politicians seem entirely unrepresentative of the country they serve. After reading the British press, one suddenly realises how much polite self-censorship North Americans engage in. A small example: a few days ago I saw in one of the British papers a heart-warming photograph of a serviceman returning from Iraq to meet for the first time his new baby. The caption explained that the serviceman’s “fiancée” had just given birth. Almost one-third of American babies are born out of wedlock — but it suddenly struck me that I had never seen a similar caption in an American paper. The photo editor would simply assume that the couple in the picture would not wish to publicise that their baby was born before they could get married — and so, out of ordinary courtesy, the editor would write a caption that sidestepped the relationship between the baby’s parents, like so: “Mom Betty Smith presents Sgt George Jones with the couple’s new baby, Jimmy, age three weeks.”
The British like to scoff at American political correctness, and indeed by British standards, American public life must seem choked by taboos: against smoking, against cursing, against ethnic jokes. By American standards, in turn, the British seem almost shockingly earthy. At lunch in a fancy restaurant, a friend watched as a British woman pulled her baby on to the lunch table and changed its diaper in full view. You will sometimes catch a glimpse of a drunken New Yorker urinating in a dark alley; Londoners unembarrassedly relieve themselves against the brightly lit walls of the Centre Point building and then zip themselves up to run and catch the bus.
American visitors to Britain used to be affronted or delighted (according to their own status and ideology) by the class-conscious traditionalism of the old island. Henry James complained that the United States had no established church, no court, no ancient universities, nothing for a novelist to sink his teeth into — and exulted that Great Britain had them all. But despite the wigs on the lawyers and the tailcoats on the doormen of the hotels on Park Lane, there’s much more institutional continuity in the United States than in modern Britain: we still have counties and juries, gallons and local militias, search warrants and autonomous local governments. Our Capitol is 30 years older than your Parliament buildings; the façade of the White House is more than 100 years older than the front of Buckingham Palace. As for the feudal spirit, you are much likelier to find it in the valet parking lots of Los Angeles than in any British doorman, no matter what absurd costume management has forced on him.
The young Henry Adams served in the US Embassy in London in the early 1860s, and complained in a letter home that the British refused to acquire any new friends after the age of 11. That was old Britain. Today, judging by what my twentysomething friends tell me, it’s probably easier to make friends in London than in New York City — and almost certainly much easier for young men in pursuit of young women to make, um, good friends. The old British obsession with privacy seems to have been transcended for good. On the trains and buses, they happily shout the most intimate sexual and medical details into their mobile phones for all to hear.
There are closed-circuit television cameras everywhere, and few seem to mind. The new congestion charge has been set up in such a way that it also functions to keep track of which motorists enter Central London at which hours. When I pointed out to the policy wonk who explained the system to me that it would have been no more trouble to enforce the charge while preserving the anonymity of the motorist (by, for example, selling motorists bar-coded stickers that could be scanned and debited by laser as the car passed by), he looked at me as if I were some pedant trying to enforce some ancient grammatical distinction. “Why bother?” he asked. If we ever want to try it in the US, I said, we’d better bother — we’d have red revolution on our hands otherwise.
Don’t misunderstand: I love Britain and I love the British — and I love them just the way they are: blunt, expressive, emotional, highly sexed, indifferent to rules and protocol. I love their informality of dress and their preoccupation with good food and fine wine. I only wish the British would overcome their prejudices and learn to value Americans as they are: polite, formal, stiff upper-lipped, sexually restrained, and imbued with the idealistic spirit of reform.
Perhaps we can’t interest you in phototributes to American country houses, although there are some very old and pretty ones. But could we at least prevail on you to consider the possibility that the United States is not a rogue state: it is just the you that you used to be. You’ve left much of that old self behind, of course, and for excellent reasons I am sure. But can’t you find it in yourself to pardon us for preserving the values and customs of older Britain across the ocean, just as we preserve your Gainsboroughs in the lush gardens of Pasadena and London Bridge in the deserts of Arizona? Or are you too angry at your own history to forgive us for continuing to live it?