In the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004, we heard this from Democrats, constantly: You have to have worn the uniform, in order to qualify as president. Moreover, you have to have gone to war, in order to qualify as president.
Why did the Democrats say this? Because their nominees were Al Gore and John Kerry, both of whom had been to Vietnam, for some months. And the Republican nominee was George W. Bush, who had merely flown fighter jets in the Guard.
We did not hear this line in 1992 or 1996. In those years, the Republican nominees were the first Bush and Bob Dole (war heroes both). And the Democratic nominee was Bill Clinton.
Do you remember the Democratic convention of 2004, in Boston? They practically made it look like a military event, with generals and admirals onstage, and everyone saluting. That’s how Kerry began his big speech: with a salute, and a line about reporting for duty.
Okay, my question: Will we hear the same talk from Democrats in 2008? Will they say that you have to have been to war, in order to qualify as president? The Democratic nominee will be either Obama or Hillary; and the Republican will be McCain.
Um, I don’t think so.
It was always a shabby line of attack, that particular one. And I hope that, in retrospect, those who used it will blush a little . . .
‐I’d like to share just one memory. In August 2004, I was on a television program opposite a Democratic strategist. She said, “Bush betrayed his country about why we went to war in Iraq, just like he betrayed them when he didn’t fight in Vietnam.” I wrote about that little episode in this Impromptus.
And didn’t much of the Left always lionize those who didn’t fight in Vietnam — as the real heroes and patriots?
What a weird campaign that was, the 2004, reflective of our times at large.
‐Reading the news out of Iraq the other day, I thought of Nuremberg: and you will too. The Associated Press reported,
“Iraq’s presidential council has endorsed the execution within a month of Saddam Hussein’s cousin, known as ‘Chemical Ali,’ for his role in the 1980s scorched-earth campaign against Kurds, officials said Friday. But it spared the life of two other officials amid Sunni protests that they were only following orders.”
Yes, an old, old story — and WFB wrote a novel on just this theme, by the way: Nuremberg: The Reckoning.
‐North Korea has been in the news lately, in part because the New York Philharmonic went there, to play a concert. I wrote about this event in the National Review of February 11. You may read that piece here.
In it, I canvass some people whose judgment I respect tremendously: Richard Pipes, Paul Hollander, John Bolton, Harry Wu, Armando Valladares, etc. Some of them were in favor of the visit (the concert took place on February 26); most were not. I came down against the visit: while recognizing the merits of the other side of the argument, and hoping I was wrong.
I also want to draw your attention to an op-ed piece published in the New York Times back in October. It is by Richard V. Allen, the onetime Reagan national-security adviser, and Chuck Downs, a North Korea specialist, among other things. You will find that piece here. And I wish to highlight one passage relating to music:
“During a party on Christmas in 1992, one of the regime’s former propaganda officers, Ji Hae-nam, made the mistake of singing a South Korean song. She was sentenced to three years in jail and, as she testified to the United States Congress after her escape, beaten so severely she could not get up for a month.”
Dick Allen and his friends are doing vital and necessary work. Their organization is the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, whose website is here. The group, and the site, shine a light on one of the earth’s most hideous corners. Maybe it is the most hideous of all.
It rightly bothers Allen et al. that North Korea is considered, by many, an “ordinary dictatorship.” As Dick said in a note to me, “It is much worse than that: It is a skilled and determined killer regime, every bit as determined and vicious as the Nazis were toward the ‘lower orders’ of humanity.” Prison camps, death camps — the whole, murderous, totalitarian picture.
It is some comfort that someone is paying attention.
The relation of the hard, or hard-ish, Left to the Democratic party is a tricky subject. Long has been. Mainstream Democratic politicians don’t want this Left to rain too hard on their parade. And yet they find it convenient to keep these folks happy — or at least not tick them off.
So, if you’re the Obama campaign, and you find out about this Che poster, what do you do? How do you think? I will take a stab at it:
We don’t want to offend all of our people who have a fondness for Che. But then there are those pesky Cuban Americans, so many of whom bitch about torture and murder and repression.
After a decent interval, the Obama campaign came out and said: This is not good. To have that Guevara image is not good.
Well, that was a relief. And you know what else isn’t good: the constant glorification of that Communist henchman and butcher throughout the Free World. And the alliance between the Guevara-ites and one of America’s two major parties.
Look, Guevara would have spat on participation in free elections — on the allowing of them. And what would the right-wing equivalent to this Houston episode be? A poster of Himmler in a McCain office? Maybe that is going too far. But the appearance of a Guevara poster in the campaign office of a presidential candidate is taken way, way too lightly.
‐Hang on, before we leave the subject of Che, have to tell you something priceless — or rather, “priceless.” A reader sent me a flier for a human-rights group on his campus. The group is Journalists for Human Rights. And whose image do they use, favorably? Of course: Che Guevara. Check it out. You can laugh or cry. I might vote for some mixture.
‐A word on the just-advertised book. A reader, who had requested an inscription, wrote to say, “I can report that your penmanship is much more legible than Mark Steyn’s.” Well, not always! I sometimes screw up the inscriptions so badly, I have to tear the page out, and go to another. But eventually I get it right — get it semi-legible!
‐I noted something I liked in a lottery story (here). A couple in Georgia won a $275 million prize — yes, $275 million. The husband is a 47-year-old iron worker. And asked what he would do, in this new, shocking phase of his life, he said, “Live happy.”
I loved that phrase: “Live happy.” And I hope they do.
‐Have you seen Sarko’s YouTube smash? You can eye it here. The French president is wading through a crowd, greeting people, shaking their hands. “Hello,” “Hello,” he is saying. Then he reaches a citoyen de la République who says, “Don’t touch me. You would soil me.” Whereupon Sarko utters the immortal phrase, “Get lost, you sorry loser.” (I am translating very, very mildly.) As he does so, he continues to wade through the crowd, laughing a little, at what has transpired.
I love it — can’t stop uttering the phrase. It’s the best thing that’s happened since King Juan Carlos said to Hugo Chávez, “Why don’t you shut up?” (“Por qué no te callas?”)
These are not refined phrases, no. But they are human, and they are not necessarily inapt. And they reflect the joy of politics — also the joy of living, you could even say.
You think George W. Bush enjoyed those lines? He is one of the beaux esprits who se rencontrent.
Okay, enough French . . .
‐Let me catch you up on some music reviews, if you care for them.
For a review of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by James Levine, go here.
For the Alban Berg Quartet, go here.
For Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes at the Metropolitan Opera, go here.
For the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Valery Gergiev, go here.
For the violinist Midori and some of her friends, go here.
For the Russian National Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, with Stephen Hough, piano soloist, go here.
For Bobby McFerrin, Edgar Meyer, and some others, go here.
For the pianist Christian Zacharias, go here.
And for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, conducted by James Levine, with the pianist Alfred Brendel and the soprano Deborah Voigt, soloists, go here.
Not enough? Okay, then, a couple of recordings for the gluttonous: For reviews of the pianist Simon Trpceski in Debussy and the soprano Karita Mattila in jazz standards, go here.
All of the above reviews were published in the New York Sun.
‐Some journals? My Davos journal — nine parts — appeared on this site from January 23 to February 5. My India journal — eight parts — appeared from February 19 to February 28. You will find those journals in my archive, which can be “accessed” (dread word) from the links on the top right of this column. (The appropriate link says “Author Archive.”)
And my notes on WFB are here.
‐Okay, that’s enough housekeeping, or updating, or whatever we call it. Enough self-reference, to be pointed about it. The current president’s grandmother used to say, “That’s enough of the great I am.” I’d like to finish with a note from Lou Cannon, the veteran political journalist and Reagan biographer:
I learned of WFB’s passing last night here in Lawrence, Kan., where Carl [son Carl, also a journalist] and I today will address the Dole Institute about our book. [Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy.] It really hit me.
Here’s a story: I was working on my first book in late 1967 or early 1968 in Sacramento, where I was the state-capitol correspondent for the San Jose Mercury-News. It was a dual biography of Ronald Reagan and the powerful Democratic House speaker Jesse Unruh, published in 1969 under the title “Ronnie and Jesse: A Political Odyssey.”
When I started work on the book I sent a letter to about 50 folks who I thought might know something about one or the other of my subjects. I was a young unknown reporter and most of folks I wrote didn’t even bother to reply. Those who did mostly sent form letters with no information I could use. There were two exceptions — the most radical and the most conservative of the folks I had written.
The radical was Carey McWilliams. The conservative was WFB, who didn’t know me from Adam but wrote me a thoughtful letter about Reagan and encouraged me to write the book. I have never forgotten this.
Years later, when I knew WFB slightly, I tried to thank him, and he waved me off, saying of course he would reply to a letter from a serious writer. But how did he know that about me? I know this sounds weird, but I feel that I have lost a friend.
Far from weird.