Impromptus

‘They like to send our kids to war,’ &c.

Soldiers from the Third U.S. Infantry Regiment (the Old Guard) place U.S. flags at headstones, Arlington National Cemetery, May 23, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)
On populist politics, new normals, an Auschwitz survivor, and more

‘We don’t want boots on the ground,” said Sean Hannity. “The president has made it clear that he’s not putting boots on the ground. Might need a few more intelligence people to protect very specific areas. I know the Washington swamp creatures, they like to send our kids to war.”

“Washington swamp creatures”? Who are they? Government officials you don’t like? And the ones you do like are not swamp creatures?

That issue aside: It is an old charge — that some people just like to send “kids” off to war to die. I used to hear it from the Left, constantly; some years ago, I started to hear it from the Right with almost equal frequency, and with the same nastiness.

I brought up the issue — war-lust — with Donald Rumsfeld, when he was secretary of defense. (Actually, he was secretary of defense twice: under Ford and then under George W. Bush. I’m talking about the second stint.) I said, “People are always saying that you like war. That you get your kicks from it. What do you have to say to that?”

He said that he and his wife, Joyce, were visiting men at Walter Reed Hospital who had had their faces seared off. And no, dammit, he didn’t like war.

In my 2012 history of the Nobel Peace Prize — Peace, They Say — I discuss the terms “anti-war” and “pro-war.” They are problematic. We are all anti-war, not pro-war. No one is pro-war except for psychopaths (of whom the world has more than a few). Often, however, we debate the national interest and whether war is necessary.

If I had my way, we would have no military at all. No police forces. No locks on doors. But the world dictates otherwise.

• Talking with Sean Hannity, Nikki Haley said this: “The only ones mourning the loss of Soleimani are our Democrat leadership and Democrat presidential candidates.” She liked her statement so much, she tweeted it around.

She’s running, for sure (in 2024, that is). She is “right where she needs to be.” That is an old expression in politics: to be “where you need to be.” Finger on the pulse, finger in the air, checking the wind. Which way is it blowing today? This year? This cycle?

Haley is even using “Democrat” as an adjective, in fine populist style. (In the 1976 vice-presidential debate, Bob Dole inveighed against “Democrat wars”!) If the public is in the mood for yahoo-ism, that’s what Haley will give them.

She is a canny, canny politician. Flexible as all get-out, like that other South Carolina pol, Lindsey Graham. No doubt she will succeed, or keep succeeding. But what a rotten business politics is, sometimes. I have often defended politics, citing its noble aspect. But really, what a rotten business.

• I will quote an Associated Press report out of Tehran: “A stampede broke out Tuesday at Soleimani’s funeral, and at least 56 people were killed and more than 200 were injured as thousands thronged the procession, Iranian news reports said.” Like you, perhaps, I thought of Stalin and the throngs that mourned him. A lot of people died. An exact count is impossible to ascertain, probably — but more than a hundred.

You know who else died the same day as Stalin, right? (March 5, 1953.) Prokofiev. As legend has it, there were no flowers left for the great composer’s funeral. They were all — each bloom — devoted to Stalin.

• I would like to make a point about White House staffers and the “new normal.” I was reading about Kellyanne Conway on Monday, and she put me in mind of Peter Navarro.

Kellyanne is senior counselor to the president, and Navarro is his trade guy (or anti-trade guy).

So, first, Kellyanne. Defending the president’s policy on Iran, she took a shot at another president — Carter. “Talk about a weak president,” she said. She also said, “I wish him the best now, but he was a very weak president when it came to that.” By “that,” she meant the American hostages seized in Tehran in November 1979.

“They took our hostages and they released them as soon as President Reagan took office, of course,” said Kellyanne.

I repeated that line for many years. All of us conservatives did. So fearful was the Ayatollah of a real president — Reagan — that he released the hostages as soon as our guy was sworn in.

But you have to face the reality: A few years later, our guy traded arms for hostages. He was a lot more “flexible” than most people thought. They blasted him for being rigid: heartless, callous. He was letting our hostages rot in their cells! He refused to lift a finger to help them, adhering to some stubborn, ridiculous principle. Then, when it was revealed that he had engaged in some wheeling and dealing, he was blasted for violating principle!

Anyway, I have had much to say about Iran-contra in the past and am on a different point now: the way White House staffers talk. What if some Democratic staffer, down the road, dumps on Donald Trump? How will Republicans like that?

Before turning to Peter Navarro, I’d like to go back to Jimmy Carter for a moment. In 2018, Stuart Eizenstat published his memoir of the Carter presidency. Mike Potemra asked me to review it. (Mike was National Review’s literary editor.) I balked — said I was Carter’d out. “But if you really want me to review it, I will,” I said. He did. So I did.

It is a very interesting book. It gives you a strong sense of what it’s like to be president — particularly to be faced by excruciating, thankless situations. It also gives you a sense of humility, I think.

Here is a paragraph from my review:

Reading about Iran, no one could envy Carter’s position: how to deal with the Shah, how to deal with the revolution, how to deal with the hostage crisis. It is sobering to put oneself in the president’s shoes. It is not always comfortable to be where the buck stops. (Carter had President Truman’s old sign — borrowed from the Truman Library — on his desk: “The Buck Stops Here.”) The rescue operation, popularly known as “Desert One,” was a riot of bad luck. Hearing about the result, Hamilton Jordan, Carter’s chief of staff, “rushed into the president’s bathroom and threw up.”

And now, Peter Navarro. In 2018, he went on Fox and said, “There’s a special place in hell for any foreign leader that engages in bad-faith diplomacy with President Donald J. Trump and then tries to stab him in the back on the way out the door. And that’s what bad-faith Justin Trudeau did with that stunt press conference.”

(If you want to know the history, you can look it up. And what recent history it is!)

I thought it was remarkable that a White House staffer should talk that way on television about a head of state or government. And Canada is arguably our closest ally.

Navarro later apologized — but clearly, norms have been smashed. And most people, or many people, celebrate this norm-smashing. To hell with norms! Hail the new day! Well, maybe. But some of those norms probably existed for a reason. Bryce Harlow doesn’t live here anymore, I realize. But this new day of ours — is it a better day? The conservative in me is skeptical.

More and more, I feel like a dinosaur. (“You are!” my critics tell me.) I smile at the memory of my late friend — Bill Buckley’s very good friend — Evan Galbraith. He worked at Morgan Stanley, where the “veteran” bankers were assigned their own wing. Van told me, “They call it ‘Jurassic Park.’”

• For a week or two, the phrase “wine cave” was on the lips of political America. Craig and Kathryn Walt Hall had hosted a meet-and-greet for Pete Buttigieg, one of the Democrats running for president. They hosted it at their winery — in their wine cave.

Cue spooky music.

For an hour, Buttigieg answered questions about health care, Afghanistan, and the rest. An attendee has written about the event, here.

In the Democratic debate on December 19, Elizabeth Warren pounced. In time-dishonored populist style, she let loose the phrase “wine cave” and said that this den of iniquity was “full of crystals,” too: yes, a Swarovski chandelier. “Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States,” she said.

Uh-huh. What danger is there of that? Voters will pick the nominees and the president, as they have long done (for better or worse).

Another candidate, Andrew Yang, had to get in on the action too. Candidates should not have to “shake the money tree in the wine cave,” he said.

Ooh, wine cave. Oogity-boogity.

The Halls — the cave-dwellers — are longtime Democratic donors and liberals in good standing. At least they have been until now. “I’m just a pawn here,” Mr. Hall told the New York Times.

Let me quote a bit from that story:

Mr. Hall, 69, made much of his fortune in the real estate industry and said he started a business at 18 with $4,000 from his savings account. Ms. Hall, a lawyer and businesswoman, served as the United States ambassador to Austria under President Bill Clinton after donating to his re-election campaign. Her family has worked in the wine industry since the 1970s.

Ambassador to Austria? She may have picked up the chandelier there — Swarovski is a famous Austrian company.

Here is my favorite part of the story:

Mr. Hall said that during the debate, Ms. Hall turned to him and jokingly said she might go buy something for herself instead of contributing to another political campaign.

I think she should — a hundred more Swarovski chandeliers, as far as I’m concerned. Populism is often a low, dirty kind of politics: playing on people’s envy, stoking their grievances — giving them new ones. Unfortunately, it often succeeds.

• Jack Garfein was a man of the theater: a director, acting teacher, and so on. He has died at 89, and his obituary in the Times is here. A couple of people helped him out at a critical time. (Pardon the understatement.) One of those people was his mother; the other was an old man who was a stranger to him. The place was Auschwitz.

Later he recalled the prisoners being divided into two lines: one for men and boys 16 and older, one for women and children. Although he was only 13, his mother shoved him into the men’s line. At the time he took that as rejection, but in hindsight he realized it was her way of saving him.

In the line, another unexpected turn helped him survive. The infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele himself was reviewing the male prisoners. After young Jakob gave his age as 16, a skeptical pause hung in the air until the stranger next to him in line, an old man, said Mr. Garfein was his apprentice and both were master mosaic artists. That got them sent to the forced-labor group rather than to the gas chamber.

“This god came down in the guise of an old man,” Mr. Garfein said in “A Journey Back,” a 2010 documentary about his return to Auschwitz, “because I never saw that old man again.”

All of Garfein’s family was murdered. Because Jack, or Jakob, survived, we know about his mother and that great old man.

• Thanks so much for joining me, ladies and gentlemen. I’ll see you soon. Here’s a concert review, for the road — the New York Philharmonic and Jeffrey Kahane. Later on.

If you’d like to receive Impromptus by e-mail — links to new columns — write to jnordlinger@nationalreview.com.

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