Politics & Policy

Remembering Biscet, &c.

As you may have heard, George W. Bush gave Oscar Biscet the Presidential Medal of Freedom. That is, he will present it to him on Monday. Or rather: He will give it to him in absentia. Dr. Biscet is a political prisoner in Cuba.

I have been yelling about him ever since this column began, I believe — and that was in March 2001. (I think it was March.) He is one of the bravest and most inspired of the Cuban political prisoners. He is a physician, an “Afro-Cuban,” a follower of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King. If he were a prisoner of anyone but Castro — a Communist dictator — he’d be world-famous. If he were a South African, under apartheid, he’d be on the stamps of virtually every country in the world.

Let me continue in this vein: If he were a prisoner under a right-wing dictatorship, he’d be featured on 60 Minutes every week. He’d be on the cover of Time magazine every week. College campuses would hold sit-ins. Biscet’s face would adorn posters and T-shirts. Etc., etc.

You will find a website dedicated to him here.

In awarding this medal, President Bush — not for the first time — has shown huge brass ones. How many other presidents would have done this? I can’t think of any (save our boy, the 40th). And don’t hold your breath for a president in the future who will act this way.

As I said in a recent column, conservatives are down on President Bush, blaming him for everything under the sun, picking at him. Sure, he’s made mistakes. But he also has greatness in him. And this was a great act. In bestowing the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Oscar Biscet — an all-but-forgotten and all-but-helpless man in a Cuban dungeon — George Bush has done an incredibly large-hearted and important thing.

Do not think it’s merely symbolic: This award has rocketed through dissident circles, and nerved Cubans and their well-wishers everywhere.

‐President Bush also gave a Medal of Freedom to Ben Hooks. When I was coming of age, he was head of the NAACP, and he was on TV constantly, calling President Reagan a racist. It was Hooks, in fact, who turned me — hard — against the NAACP. He was notably unfair and mean. I’m sure he has done better things in his life. And it’s large-hearted of Bush to give him this award.

Of course, it’s nothing that a Democratic president wouldn’t do, right? I mean, give a Medal of Freedom to a man who repeatedly trashed a Democratic hero. Right? Right?

‐Was interested in this story, from the AP, titled “Some US Diplomats Angry Over Iraq Posts.” The lead sentence: “Several hundred U.S. diplomats vented anger and frustration Wednesday about the State Department’s decision to force foreign service officers to take jobs in Iraq, with some likening it to a ‘potential death sentence.’”

I can certainly understand these State Department employees. But I can also understand American needs in Iraq. A lot of people have a romantic view of the Foreign Service: You sit at Les Deux Magots in Paris, griping to your friends about Republicans back home who get elected. But, as we all know, sometimes life is terribly unromantic.

‐You may have read the story — circulated by Drudge — about the Columbia professor who had a swastika sprayed on her door. I was a little surprised by this: I didn’t know there was a professor at Columbia worthy of this kind of attack. I assumed they were all Said-ists, safe from swastikas daubed on doors.

Know this: Long after the cessation of death and taxes, there will be swastikas daubed, sprayed, or scrawled on doors. Of all viruses, it seems about the most dislodgeable.

And imagine yourself as Elizabeth Midlarsky, the professor whose door it was. You had family members killed in the Holocaust; you teach about the Holocaust; and one fine morning you come to work and find the swastika on your door — just as in the old days. Nice, huh? Terribly, terribly reassuring.

‐Department of Plus Ça Change: Naomi Campbell, the mega-hot model, used to go down to Havana to see and smooch with Castro. But, as we’ve noted before in this column, Hugo Chávez — the mini-Castro — is the new destination dictator. And Naomi, as we read in this article, now goes to him. Real sweet.

But why does she deny Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the pleasure of her company? Not anti-American enough?

‐Let’s have a little music. For a review of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, conducted by Yuri Temirkanov, with violinist Julia Fischer, soloist, go here. For a review of Mozart’s Magic Flute at the Metropolitan Opera, go here. For a review of the New York Philharmonic, under Christoph von Dohnányi, with violinist Nikolaj Znaider, soloist, go here. And for a review of the pianist Yefim Bronfman, playing with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, go here.

All reviews were published in the New York Sun.

Hey, didn’t I say it would be a little music?

‐The other day, something arrived in my inbox that made me barf. It was from a publisher — some publicity material — and I had scrolled down to get to the “unsubscribe” link. And I saw this: a logo with a pinetree and a winding road, and the words, “Please consider the environment before printing this email.”

As I said, barfola. This is a mad, mad age, my friends — an age of environmental lunacy.

‐But this was really pleasurable: Last week, I visited the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs, on the campus of Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio. Named after John Ashbrook, the conservative congressman who died in the early ’80s, the center is an inspiring place: an enclave of true learning. Students there get only the good stuff, really: the Greeks, the Romans, the Founders, Lincoln, and so on. No dross, no PC. This is a genuine liberal-arts education, at least where history and politics are concerned. It is a civic education (to use an old-fashioned phrase).

And there’s pretty much nothing else like it in the country. I consider Ashbrook a point of light. (You will recall that formulation from the first President Bush.) More pessimistically, it is the last ember from a great fire that has gone quiet — the fire that was American education, and Western education. It’s an Alice Walker, Howard Zinn, Heather Has Two Mommies world now. The Ashbrook people are sort of a remnant.

The center is run by Peter Schramm, a Hungarian-born, California-bred dynamo of an academic. He is both charismatic and scholarly — a bona fide liberal, meaning that he advocates pluralism, sound culture, and freedom. I guess you can sum it up in the word “civilization.”

When I met Ashbrook’s students — the “Ashbrook Scholars” — I was astonished to see that the men were in coats and ties. (And the women didn’t look so bad themselves.) My first words to them were, “You’re so well-dressed!” They were also well-informed, polite, and interesting. If I had kids of age, I would want to enroll them at Ashbrook. Hell, I’d like to enroll myself — could learn a thing or two.

The chairman of the board is my longtime friend — and NR’s longtime friend — Marv Krinsky. In years past, Frank Sinatra was known as the Chairman of the Board. Now it’s Marv — at least in northern Ohio.

And you should have been at the dinner the night before. It took place at the Spread Eagle Tavern and Inn, in Hanoverton, Ohio — well east of Ashland, not too far from the Pennsylvania border (or from the northern panhandle of West Virginia). Spread Eagle is like some American ideal. Outside the door, on this evening, were autumn leaves and pumpkins. The whole place looked like a parody of Americanness. Norman Rockwell would have blushed to paint it.

And inside the tavern? You might call it Republican heaven, almost a shrine. The place is decked out with political memorabilia, all from the Republican side (or almost all — there’s a signed photo of Jim Traficant). (Really.) (Long story.) Dave Johnson, whose family owns Spread Eagle, is a businessman — Summitville Tiles — and a political historian. At least I regard him as such. He gives a fascinating tour.

Do you know Mark Hanna — Marcus Alonzo Hanna, the great political op, William McKinley’s Karl Rove — was from this area? His picture hangs prominently on a wall.

Over the years, many of the GOP great and good have stopped by Spread Eagle. These include Vice Presidents Quayle and Cheney. Undoubtedly there will be more vice presidents — possibly presidents.

And Dave Johnson had assembled about 20 grand Ohioans for this dinner. Two of them were Bill and Alice Batchelder. He’s a longtime Ohio legislator, and I hope he will soon be the state’s speaker of the house. Alice is Judge Batchelder, of the U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit. They are a terrific couple — personable, friendly, smart as whips. Both are true Reaganauts, and they have many interesting stories to tell.

Let me share with you something Bill told me. Northern Ohio was a hotbed of abolition, and many of its men died in the Civil War. When Bill was a boy, he was taken to some political event, and an old-timer was urging the election of Republicans. He said, “Those who saved the Union should serve the Union.” I apologize to my southern readers — and to Democrats, come to that — but those words sent shivers down my spine.

Anyway, if you’re ever near Hanoverton, you must visit the Spread Eagle Tavern and Inn. Even if you’re not near, you may want to consider a pilgrimage. It is a beautiful place — a beautiful and unique place — in a beautiful part of the country. And the food happens to be first-rate.

Thanks for joining me today, guys, and have a great weekend.

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