Politics & Policy

One nasty candidate, &c.

Richard Nixon used to say, not very nicely, but not very untruthfully, “You know Ted Kennedy is running for president when he starts slimming down.” Well, Mohamed ElBaradei is running for president of Egypt, for sure. Here is what he said the other day: “If Israel attacked Gaza, we would declare war against the Zionist regime.” (I am relying on this report.)

There’s the substance of what he said, yes. But note the language: “Zionist regime.” (Often, Mohamed, that’s “Zionist entity.”) Here is a man who worked in the U.N. system for 30 years. He shared the Nobel peace prize! He always said “Israel.” Now, as a national rabble-rouser, he’s saying “Zionist regime.”

But see how he hasn’t quite gotten the hang of it? He said “Israel” and “Zionist regime” in the same sentence. He’s still learning. He will stamp “Israel” out of his vocabulary soon . . .

‐Now that Arafat’s dead, is ElBaradei the most disgraceful Nobel peace laureate extant? On some days, yes. But he has stiff competition from Tutu, Carter, Rigoberta Menchú, and many lesser-known others. (Betty Williams comes to mind. She’s the woman who, in the last decade, couldn’t stop saying how much she wanted to kill President Bush. For instance, she said this to schoolchildren in Brisbane . . .)

‐When ElBaradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency won the Nobel peace prize in 2005, I wrote a piece for National Review called “How Low Can They Go?” (“they” being the Nobel committee). If you’d like to take this walk down Memory Lane, go here.

‐Back to Egypt for a moment. I’d like to note a few things from this story, a report from the Associated Press. Three passages, please:

1) “Most of the top officials of Mubarak’s regime are now being investigated on allegations of corruption and abuse of authority. Although Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and his close aides were prosecuted and many of them hanged after the U.S.-led invasion, legal moves against an ousted Arab leader without any foreign role in the proceeding has been unheard of in modern times.”

That’s very interesting. Of course, many, probably most, Arab leaders who are “ousted” are killed. Leaders in this region die in bed, or die more bloodily. That’s a point our David Pryce-Jones has made repeatedly. There are no proper mechanisms for rotation in office. The mechanism is: death.

2) “. . . an airport official at the Sharm el-Sheik airport said the sons have been transferred aboard a private jet to the Torah prison on the outskirts of Cairo, where other detained former regime figures are already in custody.”

I was rather startled by the name of the prison.

3) “Gamal [Mubarak] is also seen as the architect of Egypt’s privatization program and economic liberalization, which has brought in billions in foreign investment but has also widened the gap between rich and poor.”

I bet you’re thinking what I’m thinking: If the gap between rich and poor widened — does that mean the poor got richer, or less poor, too? This is a question unanswered by the report. It’s also a question almost always unthought of by . . . well, you know who by.

‐Is that English, exactly? I think so.

‐You may well have read about the subway bombing in Minsk, Belarus. An atrocity. Killed twelve people, wounded 200 others. In December, the country’s dictator, Aleksandr Lukashenko, cracked down horribly on the country. This was after he stole a presidential election. I did a three-part series on Belarus in January. If you’re interested, go here, here, and here.

So, who committed the subway atrocity? I had an e-mail exchange with a Belarusian I trust and think a lot of — a democracy and human-rights activist. She said, “It’s still just speculation, because none of us has any proof at the moment. My main concern is that this horrible incident will be used to intensify the repressions. It definitely will.”


‐Was reading a story headed “After 46 years, papal jewelry up for auction in NC.” That would be North Carolina. Two items once belonging to Paul VI will go up on eBay. These are a cross and a ring. Let me quote:

“This is new for me,” said jewelry store owner Alan Perry, who thinks the items might fetch $800,000 to $900,000 at auction. “That’s why we’re going to put it up on eBay. It’s only worth what someone’s willing to pay for it, and eBay might be a good measure to see if people are interested.”

Why am I bringing this news story to your attention? Well, it was such a relief to find someone who understands basic economics: “It’s only worth what someone’s willing to pay for it.”

Can this man maybe be a part-time professor somewhere, please?

This story on Obama, which I quoted in Tuesday’s Impromptus, also says this:

The president said he loves his life in the White House but doesn’t enjoy some of the ways of Washington, such as the “kabuki dance” among political partisans before serious policy discussions begin.

I have an essay in the current National Review, and it begins as follows:

In politics, as in clothes, there is fashion. And that includes fashion in political language. About 15 years ago, everybody in Washington started to say “kabuki dance.” I don’t know why — they just did. Every process or procedure or exercise was a “kabuki dance.” My impression is, that term is fading out a little. But it is still in frequent use. Last month, a writer for The Atlantic spoke of “the kabuki dance that is our justice system.” The term has even crept into the sports pages: “NFL Talks Were a Kabuki Dance,” read a headline, also from last month. 

What’s this essay about, specifically? It’s about the phrase “the right side of history,” and its companion, “the wrong side of history.” These phrases are in almost constant deployment now. I explore them, and criticize them — and deplore them. Kind of an interesting essay. Not because I’m so great, mind you — but because the topic is interesting.

‐I keep campaigning for my friend Ted Cruz, the former solicitor general of Texas, who is running for the Senate from that state. (“In that state”? Both, I guess.) My boy is doing damn well. He raised more than a million dollars in the first quarter. I quote from Cruz propaganda: “The campaign received more than 1,100 contributions from over 900 unique individuals in 122 Texas cities and 37 States. Seventy percent of the contributions were made online at www.tedcruz.org.”

Check him out, y’all. You’re going to love him. And if you think I’m obnoxious during his Senate run — wait till, someday, he runs for president . . .

‐I’d like to mention a new book — a book about puns: The Pun Also Rises — How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History and Made Wordplay More than Some Antics. The author is John Pollack, a homeboy — by which I mean, a kid from the neighborhood, back in Ann Arbor. His sister, a wonderful girl named Sarah, was a classmate of mine. Johnny (as we used to know him) grew up to be a Clinton speechwriter. (I mean, a speechwriter for the 42nd president, not for the woman who became a senator and then secretary of state.) He now lives here in New York, penning his books.

Like all self-respecting volumes, The Pun Also Rises has a website: here. I have not yet read the book, but it is at my bedside, and I look forward to some laughs and some learning . . .

‐A little music? Went to an unusual gala at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday night. Not the sort of thing I usually cover; not the sort of thing Carnegie Hall usually hosts. The hall is celebrating its 120th anniversary. And this was an evening honoring the non-classical side of the hall: the pop, the folk, the jazz, etc.

James Taylor was the emcee, or presiding presence. Sang a lot of songs. At the outset, when Taylor was strapping on his guitar — or whatever the appropriate phrase is — a man sitting near me said to his wife, “Wow.” He said it as though to say, “I can’t believe we’re lucky enough to be seeing and hearing this.” Kind of touching.

Bette Midler was there, strutting her stuff. In a tribute to Sophie Tucker, she sang “My Yiddishe Momme.” She sang it in jokiest style — but the song was still moving, at least as I heard it. I think Midler didn’t want it to be; but it was.

Steve Martin was another guest, another performer, playing the banjo and telling jokes. What a funny man — a genuinely funny man. He said that the bluegrass press had dubbed him “the Ambassador of the Five-String Banjo” (if I heard correctly). He then remarked, “The competition was between me and no one.”

Maybe that’s not very funny, as I write it. But it was very funny when he said it.

Harry Belafonte was in the audience, that handsome old red. And Barbara Cook sang a few songs. The voice may be reduced, but much remains: wiles, instincts, knowhow. One of her songs was “Nashville Nightingale,” a rarely heard Gershwin number. After she sang it, she talked a bit with the audience. I paraphrase:

“I often ask an audience whether they know who wrote that song. It’s such a wonderful song, but no one knows it. And they can never guess. Well, you here in New York would know. But they wouldn’t in, let’s say Burlington, Iowa.”

I’m not sure why it’s necessary to put down Burlington, Iowa. But people can’t help themselves. They just can’t help saying things like that. I’ve noticed it all my life. There’s this need to ingratiate, this need to be cool. Deeply human, I guess. Wish it weren’t.

‐In Tuesday’s Impromptus, I made some remarks about the television coverage of the Masters — the tournament that took place last weekend. I mentioned something I had mentioned before: the recent decision of much of the American golf commentariat to refer to the U.S. Open as the “U.S. Open” and the British Open as the “Open Championship,” or simply the “Open.”

You can understand why Brits would say “the Open,” and only that. It’s their open. The words sound perfectly natural out of Peter Alliss’s mouth. But why should Americans fall in?

The formal name of the British Open is, yes, the “Open Championship.” But there’s nothing in the world wrong with saying “British Open,” especially when you want to distinguish the tournament from the U.S. Open. Both tournaments are called “the Open,” when the context is clear. Otherwise, a modifier is probably in order.

In that column, I gave an example: When he holed out at Congressional, under sweltering heat, Ken Venturi, half dead, threw up his arms and said, “My God, I’ve won the Open.” He didn’t have to say “the U.S. Open.” A month later, Tony Lema won . . . what tournament? The British Open. (This was in the summer of 1964. Champagne Tony beat Nicklaus at St. Andrews by five shots.)

Today, some people are trying to tell you that it’s wrong, or uncouth, to say “British Open.” Don’t listen to them.

I received a note from my favorite golf historian, and one of my favorite people, David Normoyle. For several years, he was with the USGA, and now he’s an independent writer and consultant. David is both an American and a Cambridge man. He wrote a treatise on Bernard Darwin, the golf writer and golfer (and grandson of the scientist).

David sent me this wonderful clip from 1930. It starts out with a tune that sounds a lot like “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” It then tells of Bobby Jones’s victory in the Open at Hoylake. (Just FYI, no U.S. Open could be at Hoylake.) Beginning just after the minute mark, we see and hear a splendid representative of the British golf establishment present Jones with the claret jug. Twice, our splendid Brit refers to the tournament as the “British Open.”

And if it’s good enough for him . . .

David says, in essence, We know that the tournament is formally called the “Open Championship.” But there’s no need to correct anyone if he says “British Open.” People have been saying “British Open” for generations. To correct us is — well, incorrect, and annoying, to say the least.

He continues (and here I quote directly), “I’m happy to call the tournament the ‘Open Championship’ the week of the event itself. But not the other 51 weeks. And when the Brits and Euros stop calling the Masters the ‘U.S. Masters’ and the PGA Championship the ‘USPGA Championship,’ then maybe I’ll back down.”

Beautiful. Sorry about this longish column, Impromptus-ites, but my fingers wouldn’t stop. Thanks for joining me, and see you later.




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