Politics & Policy

A Toxic Mailbag, a Killer Election, a Rich Lady’s Tax Bill, and More

I write on Saturday, so if something big happens on Sunday, forgive me. I’d like to touch on the third debate, briefly–specifically, my reaction piece on that affair. The reaction to the reaction was interesting. I got hundreds of e-mails, many of them from the Left. (Must have landed on a few unfriendly sites.) A great many said, “You’re a Bush hack, what a partisan, what rose-colored glasses, what boosterism,” and worse. Funny, when I wrote about the first debate, and said that Bush had laid an egg while Kerry performed impressively, these same people–certainly this type of person–said, “Thank you for your objectivity, thank you for your dispassion, thank you for seeing things clearly, even though you love Bush,” and so on.

One day, I’m a model of fair-mindedness; the next, I’m a crude Republican mouthpiece. Oh, well. In each instance–and after the second debate as well, and after the vice-presidential debate–I simply wrote what I thought. I may have been full of it; but I wrote what I thought.

Another genre of letter was, “You thought Bush won that third debate? Are you crazy? Look at the polls, man, and see how wrong you are.” Ah, but I wasn’t looking at the polls–I was registering what I thought. What others think is their own business. And I’m allowed to think that what they think is nuts.

I oppose the majority in a number of areas–don’t get me started, please! (Actually, much of my Impromptus-izing is devoted to that opposition.)

After my third-debate column, I received a lot of complimentary mail, as always–I am grateful for it; I’m only sorry that I can’t read or reply to it all–but I’d like to give you a sample of another type. As you read this, please bear in mind that the Left is the party of love, decency, and compassion. That’s what you were taught, as I was, isn’t it?

the views expressed in [your] article are clearly those of a backwards thinking overweight white anglo-saxon fundamentalist. bush continues to demonstrate his inability to form a single grammatically correct sentence during the tenure of his presidency.

“don’t you love the way bush talks?” that is a quote from you. no, I and most other educated Americans are deeply offended by the fact that the leader of our country is so incapable of exhibiting any grasp of the english language. however, as I read through your column, I understand your empathy for him. you have a similarly poor sense of timing, style and, lets face it, class.

keep sitting in front of your tv wearing your boxer shorts and allowing your swollen belly to drape itself over the rest of the couch–waving your American flag and thumping your bible. keep thinking that you’re right. go to church on Sunday and think that jesus is going to come get all of us awful liberals. as your kids snort lines of cocaine . . . just like your best buddy george bush did. just like his kids do.

moral hypocrisy always catches up with those who propagate it for too long . . .

can you hear me laughing at you from here? everyone else is too. its too bad you will never write for a real publication. I get the joke. I think a lot of others would enjoy it too.

sleep well and don’t worry! jesus is going to save you.

These are our brethren, ladies and gentlemen. Our countrymen. Sometimes, going through my mailbag, I have the sensation of being back in college! Plus ça change . . .

‐I’m going to give you a further taste of mail. I have seen Team America, and written about it for the next issue of National Review. (I hope you’re subscribing. You are subscribing, aren’t you?) I would like to emphasize one point here, however.

In this movie, terrorists blow up the Panama Canal, resulting in horrendous carnage. Then Alec Baldwin is depicted, telling Team America–the anti-terror warriors–that it’s all their fault, that blood is on their hands.

This is unfair, of course–unfair to Baldwin–or at least I think it is. (I haven’t kept up with his political pronouncements.) But I have no doubt that such a mindset exists. Why? Well, consider the evidence of this letter, which I received right after terrorists in Iraq killed about 30 kids:

The blood of these innocents is on the hands of those slime-balls, Bush and Cheney, and, Mr. Nordlinger, on your hands for supporting them. I hope their ripped-apart, bloody bodies float on your mind each night when you go to bed, because they should if there’s any justice.

That was from a friendly reader out of Harmar, Pa. And I got more, folks–lots more–but you want to get on with things.

‐Is Bush going down? That’s the question. He may well be. You know, from previous columns, that I’m not exactly gaga over the American electorate. And I find myself fighting off memories of 1992. In recent days, I’ve heard it said–repeatedly–that people are lying to pollsters. Uh-oh: That’s traditionally the last thing you hear before a Republican goes down. I heard it in ‘92. Frankly, I think I said it in ‘92.

In that year, I could not accept that The American People would overthrow President Bush–a hero from the Greatest Generation, a decent, public-spirited man–for the governor of Arkansas, a philandering, lying, pot-smoking, draft-dodging, self-adoring Child of the Sixties. I was probably the last person in the country to accept that Bush would lose. I’m not sure I could believe it that Tuesday afternoon.

So I have a can’t-fool-me-again attitude. Which may be misleading.

On the Bush campaign in 2000, we thought that we were going to win New Jersey–even New Jersey! Bush made at least one late campaign stop there. Hell, if you were going to win New Jersey–or were even competitive in it–you just had to win the country. Then, on Election Day, it became clear real early that we were going down, hard, in New Jersey. And windpipes began to narrow.

I’m just a little spooked hearing this year that the Bush-Cheney ticket will win New Jersey–even though 9/11 is supposed to have “changed everything,” or at least two or three things.

And the Democratic criticism is valid: that we’re starting to sound a little desperate on the campaign trail. Any day, I expect to hear, “My dog Millie knows more about foreign policy than these two Bozos.” Hey, is Ozone Man in the race this year? (I happen to like well-placed ridicule; I suppose that most Americans do not, however.)

‐So, what can Bush do? What can he do in the days remaining? You hear that two weeks–or pick your time period–is “a lifetime in American politics.” This is one of those untrue clichés. Two weeks is hardly anything. There is virtually nothing you can do to change the dynamics.

I think, however, that the White House has to get Governor Schwarzenegger out of his chair in Sacramento. I know he doesn’t want to campaign; he’s Mr. California, Mr. Distance, Mr. Independent. Well, tough. His party needs him, the country needs him, the world needs him. (Forgive the melodrama; I happen to regard it as true.) Promise him the moon. Promise him all the socialism that Washington can afford in a second term. But get him out of his chair–get him to Nevada, to Minnesota, to Ohio, to New Hampshire, to wherever one more gust might help.

That is one concrete recommendation.

Also this: Remind the public of 9/11, which now seems so long ago. I mean, three years in the American psyche is an eternity. We haven’t suffered an equivalent atrocity in that time, so perhaps people are a little complacent. What has it taken to keep this country safe? What sort of leader will it take to maintain this record, to lessen the threat?

If Bush and Cheney say this, the media will scream bloody murder: McCarthyism, McCarthyism! Fear-mongering, fear-mongering! Let them. It is not so much fear-mongering as realism. Let the people (try to) think through the media’s din. Suffer whatever consequences Dan Rather has to mete out.

(By the way, remember when Dan Rather was supposed to have “fallen”? I think people have already forgotten that episode. I think he’s in the clear. Most people didn’t even get Bush’s joke in the third debate.)

The stakes are impossibly, painfully high.

‐I have mentioned the American psyche. Here is something strange, although this might apply to the human psyche, forgetting any national one: When a candidate is down in the polls, his supporters are demoralized, and his vote is suppressed. When a candidate is up, his supporters are energized, and they flock to the polls in droves.

Isn’t that a little backward? Shouldn’t supporters of the man who is down rally to him, making sure they get to the polls, maximizing their votes? And shouldn’t supporters of the man who is up have to be prodded, lest they consider themselves unnecessary?

I guess people like to vote for a winner (meaning, a top vote-getter). Weird.

‐If the president loses–and I’m not saying he will; “time will tell”–Republican and conservative commentators will spend days, weeks, months, and years saying that the campaign screwed up. I will disagree: The campaign will not have screwed up; it will have been the choice of the American people. The people have a right to be wrong, you know. Thems the breaks, in a democracy. The people get what they deserve–although you might feel sorry for the minority. The American people chose Clinton twice, over perfectly decent World War II vets, whatever their flaws. They gave Al Gore more votes. They . . .

But you know my spiel already.

‐Talk about familiar: The Democratic party is claiming–falsely–that Republicans are disenfranchising black voters. This is on autopilot; the charge is made–falsely–every two years. It is even more predictable than, “They’re going to take your Social Security away.” I have been writing about this ever since I began in journalism; others have been writing about it for a lot longer.

Janet Reno–the top law-enforcement officer in the land–says, “Republicans are breaking the law. We’re going to prosecute.” Oh? Then the election occurs, and Justice does nothing. Reno says, “Never mind”–because it was just a lie to begin with.

Playing with race, America’s sorest spot, isn’t just a dirty trick–it leaves lasting societal damage. I’d like to share with you something I wrote four years ago, about Bob Shrum, who’s now running the Kerry campaign. I’m sorry for not giving you new material–but nothing changes, certainly where the Democrats and race are concerned.

The 1998 gubernatorial election in Maryland pitted the Republican Ellen Sauerbrey against the Democrat Parris Glendening. The race was neck and neck until the final days of the campaign, when Glendening and Shrum played the race card. Really, that is understating it: They lit that card and proceeded to torch the landscape. As a state legislator, Sauerbrey had voted against minority set-asides and a “hate crimes” bill. She had also opposed a measure–deviously labeled a “civil-rights act”–that had to do with sexual-harassment suits, and that was ultimately quashed by the Democratic state senate. Reaching his lowest, Shrum unleashed an ad that smeared Sauerbrey as a racist, with a “shameful record on civil rights.” (Just to be sure, he also blanketed black communities with a flier that did the same.)

A good portion of the state was aghast. Several black Democrats, including Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke, rose to Sauerbrey’s defense. Schmoke told the press pointedly that he knew the “difference between a political conservative and a racist.” He made clear that he did not regard the Shrum spot as “truth-in-advertising.” Schmoke refused to make an ad for Glendening that faulted Sauerbrey on civil-rights grounds. Even The New Republic balked, editorializing against the “dishonorable” practice of “race-baiting.” It also noted that a “short-run gain to the governor may come at some cost to the racial atmosphere in his state.”

The ad, however, worked its terrible magic. It apparently frightened black Marylanders, boosting their turnout and putting Glendening over the top. According to Campaigns & Elections magazine, this was the “Most Brutally Effective Attack Spot” of the year.

Today, Ellen Sauerbrey warns that the Bush campaign [of 2000] had better be prepared for more of the same. Shrum, she says, “has no scruples about distorting the record to try to scare African-American voters. This is a nasty man, without a conscience, who will drag someone through the mud and use the most divisive political issues he can think of.” Look, she continues: “If you attack people on something like their environmental record, after the election, you haven’t done any lasting harm. But when you divide and polarize communities on the basis of race, I think it has long-term and very nasty effects.”

It’s tiring to keep pointing this out. But not unimportant.

‐In recent weeks, James Wolcott has been exceptionally nasty about us–us: conservatives, Republicans, National Review in particular–but I won’t attempt a complete examination now. I’d like to make just one comment, on something he has in the current Vanity Fair.

“Women confide that they have . . . well, un-defense-policy-like thoughts about the secretary of defense,” wrote Jay Nordlinger on National Review Online in December 2001. The press parroted this pillow talk. “Here was Rumsfeld,” marveled Midge Decter in her musky-scented mash note, Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait, “quite suddenly being designated by the media ‘a virtual rock star’ (CNN), a ‘babe magnet’ (Fox), and ‘the new hunk of homefront airtime’ (The Wall Street Journal). Even the president would join the chorus, teasingly addressing his secretary of defense as ‘Rumstud.’”

A more temperate view of Rumsfeld can be found in James Mann’s authoritative Rise of the Vulcans, which meticulously tracks . . .

But hang on, hang on: Is there anything that Midge or I said that wasn’t true? We were noting a phenomenon that plainly existed. To be sure, we both liked Rumsfeld–still do. But is there a scintilla of falsity in what we wrote? Does it matter?

It ought to.

‐Friends, cast your gaze on those noble Europeans, the people whose respect John Kerry and most of the American establishment crave:

Hussein’s government killed an estimated 300,000 people, most of them Shi’ite Muslims or ethnic Kurds, rights groups say. The Iraqi government has identified about 40 mass graves, but until now none has been scientifically exhumed–in part because European forensic teams won’t collect evidence that might be used to win death penalty convictions.

In order to prove Iraqi leaders guilty of genocide or crimes against humanity, the tribunal must show orders linking the regime to actual atrocities, like the grave in Hatra.

Ordinarily I dislike the phrase “That says it all.” But it comes to me now.

(The above news snippet was from the Boston Globe.)

‐Speaking of the death penalty: I’ve never seen Jon Stewart on television, but I see him praised constantly, and I noted something he said, from National Journal: “Does [President Bush] believe in spanking? He believes in executing the retarded. Of course he believes in spanking.”

We did have a president who executed the retarded–when he was governor of Arkansas, running for president. Trying to prove his conservative credentials. The retarded man’s name was Ricky Ray Rector. He set aside his dessert from his last meal–a slice of pecan pie–for later.

I’m pretty sure Jon Stewart doesn’t know this. I’m also pretty sure he doesn’t care.

‐So, John Edwards is making fun of George W. Bush for having been a cheerleader in school, while he, Macho John, was on the football field.

This falls in the category of Can you imagine if a Republican said (or did) that?

Course, the Democrats have always teased Trent Lott in this way too. And don’t forget: That Tom DeLay owned an insect-extermination business is the most hilarious thing in the history of the world.

I have always wished these Democrats houses full of termites. Starting with Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s.

‐Look, I’m not one to have class resentment–have always been free of that–but didn’t Teresa Heinz Kerry pay kind of a small percentage in taxes? I mean, compared with your own percentage? Geez.

‐Back to Edwards for a moment. I admit I’m ultra-sensitive to media bias (even while others are dull about it)–but didn’t the senator’s “Under us, the crippled will stand up and walk” sermon get awfully little play?

‐Some scribbles for your spare time, assuming you’re lucky enough to have any. For the piece I wrote in 2001 on the late Rodney Dangerfield, please go here. (How I loved him.) For a review of the Philadelphia Orchestra concert that opened Carnegie Hall’s season, please go here. For a review of the Beaux Arts Trio, please go here. For the pianist Mikhail Pletnev, here. For New York City Opera’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, here. For a finale on the CD series Great Conductors of the 20th Century, here.

There’s loads more, as usual, but that oughta hold you.

‐Finally, I’d like to inform readers in the Cambridge, Mass. area that I’ll be speaking at Harvard Law School on Thursday, at 4:00, in Griswold Hall, Room 110. I expect to say nothing about Griswold v. Connecticut, or anything else law-schooly. But there’ll be a fair amount of storytelling.

See you.

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