‐ Lincoln, on the other hand, did not have Shakira.
‐ There is so much patriotism on the left, anno Obama, that they might now own more flags than Che shirts. Patriotism should not be the sport of partisanship. Obama himself, a careful student of his own life, is mindful of the opportunities he has enjoyed, and we join him and his followers in their gratitude to the country that extended them. Their enthusiasm is our challenge. To win again, we cannot simply wave the flag; we must advance better policies and principles, and make more compelling arguments. We have some of them, and will have to fashion others.
‐ Barack Obama wants Timothy Geithner to administer the Treasury. That means, among other things, overseeing the IRS. Byron York’s just-the-facts report for SMALLCAPSNational Review Online summarizes why Geithner should be rejected: “What senators learned at the gathering was not only that Geithner had failed to pay self-employment taxes during his time at the International Monetary Fund. They learned that the IMF had repeatedly informed Geithner, as it had all its employees, of his obligation to pay that tax. They learned that Geithner signed documents saying he would pay the tax. And they learned that Geithner accepted IMF reimbursement for Social Security and Medicare taxes that he had not, in fact, paid. . . . In addition to his payment of the unpaid self-employment taxes, Geithner also had to pay $5,566 to cover other shortfalls in his tax payments, for a total of $48,268 in back taxes and interest.” An administration with messianic pretensions is vulnerable to the venial. Obama claims to prize competence above all, but the exchequer will not be well served by the elevation of a man with Geithner’s cavalier attitude toward financial obligations. On economic issues Obama has access to a deep talent pool. Republicans should encourage him to go fishing for a more credible Treasury secretary.
‐ If Eric Holder were a Republican, his nomination to be attorney general, and even more so his confirmation, would be inconceivable. As Clinton’s deputy attorney general, he was a central figure in the disgraceful pardon of Marc Rich, one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives, who evaded arrest for racketeering, tax evasion, and trading with the enemy (Iran) for two decades. Currying favor with Rich’s lawyer, Jack Quinn, who was well positioned to advance Holder’s hope to become attorney general in a Gore administration, Holder tried to pressure prosecutors into negotiating with the fugitive’s representatives. When that proved unsuccessful, Holder ran roughshod over his department’s protocols and shielded Clinton from prosecutors’ strenuous objections to a pardon, which Holder recommended. Moreover, Holder pushed through Clinton’s 1999 commutations for several terrorists whose Puerto Rican separatist organizations had carried out over 130 bombings in the United States. Riding the wave of good will toward Obama, Holder will likely be confirmed. He is a terrible choice.
‐ The Obama campaign’s anti-war critique of Bush security policy was doctrinaire. The Obama administration — due as much to good fortune as to pragmatism — is signaling more flexibility. Bush’s successful troop surge in Iraq paved the way for the gradual reduction of forces that Obama has approved, rather than the hasty pullout he once called for — and he is wisely keeping on Robert Gates, Bush’s defense secretary. On Guantanamo Bay, he now acknowledges that the once-promised immediate closure is not possible because the once-promised trials for detainees would be impractical. There are, Obama has discovered, people who mean the United States great harm but cannot be convicted under our rigorous civilian-court standards, so Gitmo must remain open until Congress enacts new rules for detaining enemy combatants. On surveillance, Senator Obama eventually voted for the reforms he derided during the primary campaign; as president, he now stands to benefit from the debunking of the Democrats’ “domestic spying” smear against Bush — a specialized federal court having reaffirmed the president’s power to authorize national-security surveillance without court warrants. Perhaps Democrats will take security more seriously now that they’re accountable for it.
‐ Left-wingers such as House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers demand a special commission to investigate Bush’s “crimes.” Obama, however, now grasps that such circuses would dent his carefully crafted “unifier” image and have a chilling effect on intelligence officers. So he vaporously talks down investigations while leaving the prosecution door slightly ajar for “blatant” crimes, lest his base revolt. Speaker Pelosi echoes this script. Let’s hope the Democrats prove capable of distinguishing between crimes and disagreements with their party’s platform.
‐ The next secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, told her fellow senators that she was all for “smart power.” Right, then — we thought there was something wrong when Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice embraced “stupid power.” If smart power means the patient deal, the well-distributed subvention, the compelling message, and the clever feint, then every successful empire uses it. But smart power, in common parlance, is often the nostrum of those leery of exercising plain old power, or force. If that notion gets abroad, not all the smarts in the world will make friends secure or enemies anxious. If Mrs. Clinton believes such talk, she may be one of the weaker members of Obama’s team of rivals.
‐ The media did not pay much attention to Joe Biden during the 2008 presidential campaign, in part because they were too busy with Sarah Palin: Did she censor books in her local public library? (No.) But Biden has a rich history, including of braggadocio. He has boasted of his IQ, academic standing, and other things (not accurately). And he recently said, “I’m the most experienced vice president since anybody.” Oh, really? Take just two recent vice presidents: Cheney and Bush. Cheney had been a presidential chief of staff, a House member, a House leader, a defense secretary, and a CEO. Bush had been a House member, a party chairman, envoy to the U.N., envoy to China, and CIA director. The point is not to run a contest — but rather to say, What is it in Joe Biden that makes him say self-aggrandizing and false things? Bill Clinton once said he was the first president ever to know anything about agriculture. (Several presidents had actually been farmers.) This is a disease for which there is apparently no cure.
‐ Some employees are simply irreplaceable. Take Michelle Obama, for example. The University of Chicago Medical Center hired her in 2002 to run “programs for community relations, neighborhood outreach, volunteer recruitment, staff diversity, and minority contracting.” In 2005 the hospital raised her salary from $120,000 to $317,000 — nearly twice what her husband made as a U.S. senator. Oh, did we mention that he had just become a U.S. senator? He sure had. Requested a $1 million earmark for the UC Medical Center, in fact. Way to network, Michelle! But now that Mrs. Obama has resigned, the hospital says her position will remain unfilled. How can that be, if the work she did was vital enough to be worth $317,000? We can think of only one explanation: Roland Burris’s wife wasn’t interested.
‐ NR argued that, while the Senate may have had the right to reject the appointment of Roland Burris to Barack Obama’s vacated seat, it would be unwise to do so, the corruption of the process inhering in the appointer, Governor Blagojevich, not the appointee. There was never any question that the Senate would take our advice — not for our reasons, but out of sheer racial panic. Once a black man was put forward for a seat that another black man had held, even senatorial pride could not stand against him. And even though the former black senator left his seat because the nation gave him another one in the Oval Office, the tableau of black victimhood is still our pietà. Post-racial America: still late for its debut.
#page# ‐ Democratic Washington is consumed by the alleged need to pass a “stimulus bill” that would keep consumption strong in the short run. When the federal government has attempted such fine-tuning of the economy before, it has most often failed. Congress seems likely to throw money at infrastructure without much regard for bang-for-the-buck, since its object is simply to get money out the door (or, more crassly, to reward key Democratic constituencies). Even if you buy President Obama’s numbers, the result would be $275,000 of federal spending for each job saved or created. Meanwhile Obama has given no indication that he will lift a finger to stop tax rates from bouncing up in 2011. We are stumbling toward a milder version of the policy mix of the late 1960s and 1970s: loose money and high taxes. So it is encouraging, if only slightly, to see the Republican Study Committee, a group of conservatives in the House, get behind a package that might actually promote long-term growth. They want to cut taxes on investment — including not only the type of investment that yields capital gains for business, as important as that is, but the investment that middle-class parents make in their children. The RSC is not getting much attention right now, but this is how constructive policy change happens: after the alternatives are tried.
‐ The current financial disorder results in no small part from political monkeying with the credit markets. Obama offers as an antidote more political monkeying with the credit markets. He intends to twist the arms of bankers who have accepted bailout funds, insisting that they lend more aggressively than they might otherwise be inclined to do. “We don’t want them to sit on any money that they get from taxpayers,” says Obama’s right hand, David Axelrod. Some people never learn: Overaggressive real-estate lending and excessive risk-taking were the original problems, no? With the government leaning on a damaged banking sector to take on yet more risk, the bailout game has become a trillion-dollar pie-eating contest in which the prize is another pie.
My Fellow Ideologues
‘What is required,” proclaimed Barack Obama in his pre-inaugural address in Philadelphia, “is a new declaration of independence, not just in our nation, but in our own lives — from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry — an appeal not to our easy instincts but to our better angels.”
What’s a poor ideologue like me to make of that?
Now before I go on, I need to clarify something about what I mean when I say I’m an ideologue. It’s true, there’s a venerable tradition in conservatism that doesn’t like ideology. H. Stuart Hughes’s famous aphorism “Conservatism is the negation of ideology” earned applause from no less than Russell Kirk. But Kirk was talking about such poisons of the mind as Jacobinism, Bolshevism, fascism. What Barack Obama seems to have in mind is nothing more than disagreement.
Remember his famous comment that small-town folks bitterly cling to their sky god and boom sticks because of the lack of jobs (and of the progressive economic policies that would supposedly create them)? The press usually downplayed the rest of the quote. He went on to say that the same people might also cling to “antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Now whatever your positions on trade or immigration, it’s hard to see why they should be chalked up to bitterness and bigotry simply because they differ from President Obama’s.
As a matter of political strategy, Obama is trying to preempt any criticism by casting it as intellectually illegitimate. For instance, at a much-discussed press conference on the economy, then-President-elect Obama cast himself as an open-minded pragmatist. He said that he’s receptive to new ideas no matter the source, Republican, Democrat, conservative, liberal. But he also insisted that the one thing we all know is: “Only government” can fix the mess we’re in.
Some of this is conventional politics, particularly Democratic politics. All presidents like to claim they represent the reasonable center, and cast their opponents as sectarian, or worse. Franklin Roosevelt was a champion of this sort of thing, describing his critics as puppets of the plutocracy. Harry Truman accused Thomas Dewey of being a patsy for a Hitlerite cabal. LBJ said that Goldwater was an apostle of “hate.” Richard Nixon claimed to speak for the silent majority, not the damned hippies. Bill Clinton linked his critics to the Oklahoma City bombers. In many respects, Obama’s rhetoric is more respectful and inclusive than that of his predecessors.
But one senses in Obama that he also believes this stuff at, dare I say it, an ideological level. And that’s the point. The “end of ideology” has always been an ideological siren song for planners, an intellectual utopia for liberals desperate to cut short inconvenient debates. Its tune is a prelude to the chorus that pines for a “New Politics” and even “New Men.” It assumes that people like Obama know all they need to know about how to run a country and now it’s just a matter of logistics and organization; that, as John F. Kennedy put it, “most of the problems . . . that we now face, are technical problems, are administrative problems.” Or, as Michael Dukakis put it in 1988, the issue is competence, not ideology.
The quest for a post-ideological world is not only fool’s gold; it bespeaks a mindset that is ultimately inimical to the spirit of democracy. The desire for an end to ideology is really the desire for total victory over your opponents. There will always be ideological disagreement because people’s values, aims, and principles will always differ. And if saying so marks me an ideologue, so be it.
‐ A number of erstwhile supporters of the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program have expressed their dissatisfaction with the way the initial $350 billion has been spent. Count us among them. The bailout was hard to swallow in the weeks following the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent cessation of nearly all commercial lending, but we found persuasive the argument of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Fed chairman Ben Bernanke that an immediate and massive government intervention was needed to stave off a total financial collapse. The passage of the TARP signaled that the U.S. government stood behind the banks, and the acute crisis of confidence appears to have passed. The problem is that somewhere along the way, the TARP became a kind of blank-check authority for the Bush administration, which misused it to bail out the auto companies. This comes close to an unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority to the executive branch, and now that Congress has released the second $350 billion, that concentrated power lies in Obama’s hands.
‐ Robert Rubin, dean of the Goldman Sachs Democrats, is resigning from the board of Citigroup. Rubin served President Clinton as Treasury secretary and is at the center of a group of influential Democrats who dominated economic policy during the 1990s and who are set to do the same under Obama. Let us hope they provide better returns to the government than Rubin managed at Citigroup, which pocketed a $300 billion government handout after suffering gargantuan losses on ill-advised subprime-mortgage investments. Still bleeding, Citigroup was forced to sell its brokerage business, Smith Barney, to raise cash. For his achievements, Rubin was paid some $115 million — something to keep in mind when the Obama administration, stocked with Rubin acolytes (Geithner, Summers, Orszag) starts prattling about excessive executive pay.
‐ On May 9, 2001, President Bush unveiled his first set of nominees to the federal appellate bench. Among them were Barrington Parker and Roger Gregory, both former Clinton appointees. These nominations were a rare gesture of bipartisanship in judicial politics, but instead of reciprocating, Democrats prevented the Senate from even taking an up-or-down vote on many of Bush’s judges. Eight years later, President Obama talks a good game about post-partisanship and “transcending” traditional politics. If he wants his deeds to live up to his words, he should renominate Peter Keisler, a co-founder of the Federalist Society, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Other good choices can be found for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, where all of Bush’s nominees — Robert Conrad, Rod Rosenstein, Steve Matthews, Glen Conrad — have won praise from both sides of the aisle. As a senator, Obama exhibited a conspicuous lack of bipartisan initiative, voting against confirmation of both John Roberts and Samuel Alito, and even voting to filibuster the latter. Including a few Bush picks among his early nominees would demonstrate Obama’s good faith and correct an injustice that has diminished the presidency and our constitutional order.
‐ Barack Obama went to a dinner with conservative columnists at George Will’s house. By all accounts charming and well-informed, Obama wanted to make a gesture toward the civil discourse he talks about so often. Good for him.
‐ Democrat Charlie Rangel wants to bring back the draft. His chances of success are only slightly better than they were in 2004, when the House defeated his bill by a vote of 404–2. He is raising the issue in order to disseminate once again the canard that the poor are bearing a disproportionate share of the nation’s war-fighting burden. In fact, a 2005 Heritage Foundation study found that the opposite is the case. In 1999, 18 percent of military enlistees came from the poorest quintile of the population. In 2003, that number dropped to 15 percent. By contrast, the percentage of enlistees from the richest quintile rose from 19 percent to 22 percent over the same period. Nor do minorities wind up as cannon fodder on the front lines. Blacks and Hispanics make up 27 percent of the population, but 20 percent of the military dead in Iraq to date. We would send Rangel the statistics, but we’re not sure which apartment to mail them to.
‐ A law passed in a panic over tainted toys from China now threatens to put thousands of small American vendors out of business. The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act requires all toys and clothes sold to children in the U.S. to be tested by third parties for lead and other chemicals. This isn’t a big problem for large chains like Mattel, but for people like Michael Secore and Cecilia Leibovitz, who make toys and sell them from their home in Vermont, the new regulations are prohibitively expensive. The act is a case study in unintended consequences: Congress aimed for Beijing and hit Montpelier.
‐ Should a municipal utility district in Austin have to ask the U.S. attorney general before it moves a polling place across the street? The Voting Rights Act has been interpreted to answer yes. Because Texas was found to engage in discriminatory practices in 1975 — by not supplying election materials in Spanish — the whole state is a “covered jurisdiction” that has to get “pre-clearance” from Washington before it changes even the most trivial of its election practices. When Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006, it declared that the rules would stay in effect for another 25 years. Getting out from under the rules is theoretically possible, but the procedure is onerous. The Supreme Court has agreed to consider a constitutional challenge to the law brought by that utility district. Constitutional or not, the law is certainly senseless. Most liberals these days believe that felons should regain the right to vote after serving their time. The covered states have served enough time to regain the right to set their own election procedures.
‐ The weather doesn’t always cooperate with the plans of human beings, but thankfully, it has agreed to work with the U.S. political timetable. Within a week of Barack Obama’s inauguration, climatologist Jim Hansen announced that the U.S. had “only four years left” to save the world from global warming. After that, it would be too late. In his scientific opinion.
‐ Events in Gaza have been explaining to the locals that messing with Israel is costly. The lesson is painful, and may well become more painful if it is not properly learned. The surprise is that Israel waited so long to take action against the Islamist extremists of Hamas who proclaim their intention to destroy it. As soon as Hamas took power in Gaza, this test of strength was sure to happen. But this is much more than an issue of Israel versus Palestinians. Willy-nilly, Israel has been caught up in the far larger and more significant dispute between secular Muslims and Islamist extremists, a dispute that has been the cause of much bloodshed ever since the Iranian revolution of 1979. Sponsoring Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza, the Iranians have established two Islamist bastions on the Mediterranean. This onward march of Iran prompts Arab regimes to recognize that they have interests in common with Israel. For all their Islamist credentials, the Saudis have at times criticized Hamas openly. The editor of al-Gumhouriyya, the Egyptian government daily, has written a series of articles with a title that President Bush himself might have devised: “Hamas, Damascus, Iran — the New Axis of Evil.” Israelis, at least, are well aware that it is that axis they are now fighting.
#page# ‐ For decades now, Jimmy Carter has been a purveyor of PLO propaganda. Indeed, he has been a writer of that propaganda: He ghosted speeches for Arafat (as confirmed by the historian Douglas Brinkley, in an admiring book about Carter). But now Carter has become a purveyor of Hamas propaganda, which is arguably a step farther. In an op-ed for the Washington Post, he said that “Israel launched an attack in Gaza to destroy a defensive tunnel being dug by Hamas inside the wall that encloses Gaza.” A defensive tunnel. Some in Israel pronounced themselves shocked. We might well imagine that some in Hamas were shocked, too: that a former American president — and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize — should adopt and spread their flimsiest and most brazen lies.
‐ People in Arab countries and even Iran have participated only on a very limited scale in demonstrations against Israeli action in Gaza. Palestinians in Jordan and Israel, and on the West Bank, seem to recognize that Hamas is ruining their national cause, and they stay at home. Not so in Europe. Inciting and exaggerating, the media are urging Hamas supporters to be plain Jew-haters. The BBC and the liberal papers smear Israel steadily. Some sort of prize must go to the French state-owned TV network France-2, which put out a film of dead Palestinians, supposedly recent victims of an Israeli air raid. In fact these people had been killed four years ago when Hamas itself accidentally exploded a truck in Gaza. Synagogues have been fire-bombed in Brussels, London, Toulouse, and Helsingborg in Sweden. Jews have been assaulted in Denmark, Britain, and France. The British police are warning Jews to review security procedures, and apparently Islamist extremists have a hit list of prominent Jews to attack. In Amsterdam, there has been a crowd chanting “Hamas, Hamas! Jews to the gas!” Apparently incapable of fulfillment, the Palestinian cause instead has brought the past back with a vengeance.
‐ Hitler and Churchill were both competent painters, though both showed a marked aversion to the human form, preferring still lifes and landscapes. Here comes a new national leader eager to fill a canvas: Vladimir Putin, prime minister (and president “behind the curtain”) of Russia. At a charity auction in St. Petersburg, a painting by Putin fetched over $1 million. Putin’s subject was a starry, snowy night sky, seen through the window of a traditional peasant’s hut. “With remarkable economy,” observed a British art critic, “he contrasts the warmth, light, and gaiety of the interior with the cold and darkness beyond.” Just two days after the celebrity-art auction, human-rights journalist Stanislav Markelov was shot dead in a Moscow street by persons unknown, after having made a mighty nuisance of himself to the Russian authorities. A female journalist with Mr. Markelov was also killed — the 15th journalist to be murdered by unknown strangers since Putin took power. The prime minister’s artistic inspirations notwithstanding, the Markelov killing fortifies the suspicion that, in Mr. Putin’s case, the place of cold and darkness may be located within.
‐ Russia exports huge quantities of natural gas through pipelines in Ukraine and then onward to many countries in Europe. In the depth of a cold winter, the Kremlin decided to cut supplies. This brutal step has led to deaths, factory closures, loss of productivity, and a general dismay about Russian intentions. Ostensibly, technicalities about pricing and transit fees were the cause of the spat. On top of that, the Ukrainian currency has more or less collapsed and the International Monetary Fund is in the process of doing the customary bailout. At the end of a miserable fortnight, the two countries signed an agreement to restore gas to the shivering customers. In reality, the Russia of Vladimir Putin was demonstrating that it holds the whip hand over Ukraine, and could even bring it to its knees. The huge Ukrainian network of pipes earns $3 billion annually, and Russia, in its refreshed dreams of empire, aims to get control of this.
#page# ‐ The Chinese government has announced that March 28 will henceforth be celebrated as Serf Liberation Day in Tibet, commemorating the day in 1959 when China took full control of Tibet, sweeping away the evils of the old clerico-feudal order and bringing all the blessings of Communism and Mao Tse-tung Thought to the long-suffering Tibetan peasantry. Not all those old evils were invented by Chinese propagandists. But it has been the common opinion of mankind down the ages that native rulers, whatever abuses they might inflict, are to be preferred to foreign occupiers, whatever benefits they might bring (and the Chinese have brought precious few). The Greek poet in Byron’s Don Juan, living under Turkish rule around 1790, looks back wistfully to a predecessor in the golden age of 500 B.C.: “He served — but served Polycrates – / A tyrant; but our masters then / Were still, at least, our countrymen . . .” Tibetans have lived for half a century under masters who are not their countrymen. They are second-class citizens in a nation once their own, their culture marked for extinction. Serf Liberation Day will not assuage the injustice of that.
‐ The Associated Press tells us: “A court in central China has sentenced a woman to death for hiring someone to strangle her 9-year-old son so she could have another child with her new husband without violating population laws. . . . Li initially received a death sentence suspended for two years because she had suffered from depression after having two abortions due to the rules against her bearing another child. . . . Such sentences are often commuted to life in prison. But the higher court found that her depression was not directly related to her crime.” There is no excuse for this woman’s murder of her child. But she lives in a sensationally brutal society.
‐ In France, Pres. Nicolas Sarkozy proposed some school reforms. This did not go down well with teachers, some of whom let their feelings be known when Sarkozy arrived in Saint-Lô for a speech. As the Associated Press put it, they “hurled shoes and other objects at police,” who then had to respond with tear gas. The teachers hurled shoes? Oh, yes. Where in the world did they get that idea? And is that not exactly the kind of teacher you would want to educate your child: one who threw shoes at police?
‐ Recent reports indicate that 40 al-Qaeda members have died of the plague. On one level, it’s great news when Mother Nature does our job for us. On another, it is a sobering reminder — like the fact that Gitmo detainees’ health tends to improve — of the sheer primitiveness of our enemies’ lives.
‐ G. K. Chesterton thought Rudyard Kipling, for all his bellicosity, best understood the arts of peace: the work of the administrator and the engineer that keeps the world going, and that is often heroic because life and death depend on its successful execution. Kipling himself could not have made this point more clearly than did the events of a recent day in the life of Chesley Sullenberger III, US Airways pilot. At the start of a routine flight from New York City to Charlotte, N.C., an act of nature intervened: Canada geese collided with the engines. Air-traffic control told Sullenberger to head for Teterboro airport in northern New Jersey. Calculating that he would not make it, he decided to land in the Hudson River instead. He brought his tons of aircraft down as smoothly as may be, and, when the plane began to fill with water, walked up and down the aisle to make sure that every passenger had gotten off safely (they had). Well done, sir. Well done indeed.
#page# ‐ Andrew Roberts, the British historian, was rung up by an “American lady” who wanted him to appear on her radio program. (The term “American lady” is his.) She was setting up a debate: Was George W. Bush the worst president in American history, or only the worst president in modern American history? Which side was Mr. Roberts inclined to take? The historian responded that he regarded Bush as a good president — which seemed to “dumbfound” the lady, and “wreck my chances of appearing on her show.” We should say. A nice illustration of the media and George W. Bush, at the end of his two terms.
‐ The movie Notorious, a life of the rapper known as the Notorious B.I.G., opened to some acclaim — also one shooting and four stabbings, at last count. As the poet said, “You’re nobody ’til somebody kills you.”
‐ PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has opened a campaign against fishing — or, in animal-rights Newspeak, against “the hunting of sea kittens.” By rebranding our piscine pals “sea kittens,” you see, the PETA people hope to make the killing and eating of them unacceptable. As their website asks: “Who could possibly want to put a hook through a sea kitten?” Why, anyone who enjoys a well-prepared sole meunière, surely. And where will this lunacy stop? Consider, for example, Canada geese, whose waste products are rapidly making America’s parks uninhabitable, and one flock of which brought down that plane. Should we refer to these loathsome fowl as “sky bunnies”?
‐ Jim Boulet Jr. was a hero of the culture wars: As executive director of English First for more than two decades, he defended our common language against the relentless assaults of multiculturalism. He battled bilingual education, foreign-language ballots, and Puerto Rican statehood — always with a good cheer that his allies did their best to share. He was a prayerful and generous man, known among his friends for gift-giving and other acts of kindness. On January 16, at the age of 50, cancer took him. R.I.P.
‐ It’s always something stupid that people remember you for. Ricardo Montalban appeared in hundreds of movies and television shows in a career that began before Pearl Harbor, yet to members of the age cohort that is now running America, he is best remembered for extolling the Chrysler Cordoba’s “soft Corinthian leather.” Here at National Review, Montalban made a deeper impression — as a longtime subscriber, a thoughtful conservative, and a friend of the magazine. Our publisher, Jack Fowler, recalls a National Review Institute dinner “where, nobly perturbed, he stood up and hushed the chattering crowd because Bill Bennett was speaking. Just the hint of the wrath of Khan was enough to bring instant silence.” Cheesy commercials aside, Ricardo Montalban will be remembered as a perfect gentleman, courtly and patient with fans and strangers alike; as a devout Catholic; and as one of a tiny handful of performers who, when the situation required it, could actually out-overact William Shatner. Dead at 88. R.I.P.
The New Old Thing
President Obama’s task in his inaugural address was to unify the country behind his leadership, so he did not give a partisan speech. He made several nods to post-partisanship, as when he pledged to get past “stale political arguments” and “worn-out dogmas” — pledges that both of his predecessors also made.
But Obama does not consider the dogmas of liberalism worn out, as his speech made clear. From the financial crisis he draws the lesson that “the market can spin out of control” when it is not kept under the “watchful eye” of government. One need not deny that government has a vital regulatory role to recognize ideology masquerading as thought.
The new president is also a man enthralled by his own novelty: We are to start taking care of our poor, and the poor of the world, and respecting our constitutional ideals. He matches contemporary liberalism’s self-regard with his own.
His congressional majorities are strong, but his ambition will tax them. He is placing a large and expensive bet on a stimulus plan that seems highly unlikely to work as advertised: Even Washington may not be capable of spending money quite as quickly as Obama wants. Then, having put the economy back on track toward growth, he intends to tackle climate change by limiting carbon emissions and to further federalize health care. At some point he says he will also tackle the insolvency of our entitlement programs. These vast tasks conflict with one another, and not only in terms of time management; and Obama’s history of leading a large organization begins and ends with his presidential campaign.
Nor does this list exhaust Obama’s goals. He also wants to defeat our enemies and keep us safe, to retain the applause of the world, to raise taxes, to win reelection, to appoint liberal judges, and to strengthen our alliances. Conservatives should hope that he succeeds in some respects and fails in others.
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, R.I.P.
Richard John Neuhaus, who died on January 8, was the most influential Catholic and Christian theologian and writer in America during the second half of the 20th century. His influence can be compared to that of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, with one important distinction: Fulton Sheen exercised his sway over the public directly, through his radio and television sermons. Father Neuhaus did so less directly, through his books and articles, through his editorship of a very important magazine devoted to religion and politics, through his friendship with Pope John Paul II, and through his impact on other theologians both in the Catholic church and in other Christian congregations. Partly for those reasons, however, Neuhaus’s influence is likely to be the deeper, longer-lasting, and more extensive one.
Neuhaus began his adult life as a Canadian, a left-winger, and a Lutheran. He never lost his love for his country of birth — he spent six weeks of every year vacationing, reading, and reflecting in the Quebec countryside — his respect for a liberalism shaped by charity, or his admiration for the Lutheran tradition. He became nonetheless an American, a conservative, and a Catholic. And from these three conversions he forged for himself a distinctive religious identity that was conservative and generous, traditional and open, charitable and — yes — combative.
Neuhaus was a superb, natural controversialist. In the magazine he founded and edited, First Things, he commented on the overlapping topics of religion, culture, and politics in long, thoughtful articles and short, brilliant squibs. His wit was a vehicle for important truths, and some of his epigrams have entered the language.
Thus: For the New York Times, “the only good Catholic is a bad Catholic.”
Or: “Whenever orthodoxy becomes optional, it will sooner or later be proscribed.”
Neuhaus never shrank from what he considered a necessary fight — even one with friends — when the issue was important enough. He abandoned his original allies on the left over Roe v. Wade. He later devoted a special issue of First Things to an attack on judicial supremacy that questioned whether an American political regime that tolerated mass abortions was a legitimate one. That formulation divided the Right and led to the Left’s invention of the term “theocons” to demonize him and the Christian conservatives. To the end of his life Neuhaus continued to fight passionately for the thousands of innocents we kill annually.
But fighting and controversy, though necessary to the propagation of religious truth in our age, were secondary themes in Neuhaus’s life. His achievements were essentially creative. He was a natural organizer who did not stop at reshaping his own religious identity. Along with Michael Novak, George Weigel, and others, he established First Things and made it the focus for an intellectually respectable resistance to the theological liberalism of the 1960s in Judaism and all Christian denominations. That achieved, he worked successfully to bring together Catholics and evangelicals — traditionally not the friendliest of fellow-Christians — in a new, unified political constituency for the life issues and other concerns of traditional believers. He reshaped that old-time religion.
Without Richard John Neuhaus, Christian conservatives would have been politically much weaker and intellectually far less formidable.
Much more could be written about his influence on Christianity in America and worldwide. But we at National Review also knew Richard as a valued colleague — our religion editor for many years — and a dear friend. Most of us have enjoyed dinners with him that would begin with a strong Beefeater martini and end with equally strong draughts of laughter. Some of us sought his pastoral advice and benefited from his wisdom. That he was just a few streets away in New York was itself a source of consolation.
We feel sorrow at his passing, but mainly for ourselves. He has gone to the Savior he served so well and faithfully. R.I.P.