‐ We have too much rspect for the office to take the easy shot.
‐ Republican David Jolly’s victory over Democrat Alex Sink in the special election to fill Florida-13, the House seat left vacant by the death of 82-year-old Bill Young, produced an immortal lede: “Young wasn’t, Sink did, and Jolly is” (congrats to James Taranto). It also produced panic among Democrats. Young was a Republican, but his district trends purple — Barack Obama carried it in 2012. Sink, an almost-successful gubernatorial candidate, had a big war chest; Jolly was a tyro and a lobbyist. But Jolly had an issue: “She supports Obamacare. I don’t.” Smart Dems see the problem. “[We] should not try to spin this loss” (Paul Begala). “This is a screaming siren” (David Plouffe). November is still a long way off, but the Democrats’ great policy accomplishment of the last six years is a dud, which grows dudlier and dudlier as Americans get to know it better. No wonder Democrats have a sinking feeling.
‐ Never mind that Paul Ryan is correct about the corrosive effect of long-term welfare dependency, or that his remarks about unemployment and inner-city culture are based in documentable fact, or that his views on the relationship between single-mother households and poverty are fortified by virtually unanimous social-science scholarship; the gentleman from Wisconsin has said that which must not be said, and therefore must be ritually denounced, as hard-hearted, as a crypto-racist, as whatever the moment calls for. Mr. Ryan’s real offense — which cannot be forgiven by the likes of the New York Times and MSNBC — is to draw attention to the fact that whatever our massive welfare apparatus is intended to do in theory, what it does in fact is provide financial incentives that encourage poor people to make decisions that are self-destructive in the long term in exchange for short-term relief. A visit to a Detroit public school or a Bronx housing project would arouse in the curious mind some contemplation about who is in fact looking after the best interests of the poor: the architects of the catastrophe visible in our inner cities, or men such as Paul Ryan looking to reform their work?
‐ The disappearance of MH 370, the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 that vanished, reportedly over the Gulf of Thailand, then over the Malacca Straits, raised obvious mysteries, but also familiar scenarios: the errors and defensive crouching of all governments in crisis, not just Third World ones; the explosion of speculation and fantasy to fill the void of unknowing (CNN is a major perpetrator here); the pain and helplessness of ordinary people, in this case the families of the missing. After the first few days, attention focused on the two pilots. If they were jihadists or suicidal, no evidence had appeared at press time; it is possible they were trying to cope with an in-flight accident. May all the innocents, presumably dead, rest in peace.
‐ In a WebMD interview, President Obama admitted that, under Obamacare, “the average person . . . might end up having to switch doctors.” Five years ago he promised that no such thing would happen: “No matter how we reform health care, we will keep this promise: If you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor. Period” (speech to the AMA, June 2009, and repeated, in so many words, in other venues). If Obama knew in 2009 what he now says in 2014, then he lied. If he did not know that the insurance cancellations and the misbegotten cost controls in the bill would force many patients to have to scramble for other doctors, then he was remarkably incurious. In either case, his main motivation was to win the policy victory — national health care — that had eluded Bill Clinton. It would come at a cost in freedom, money, and health to millions of average persons, but that was a small price to pay for becoming a figurine on the Left’s Mount Rushmore.
‐ Another week, another passel of changes to Obamacare, whether the law gave HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius authority to make them or not. Americans who saw their plans canceled due to the Affordable Care Act’s new mandates will now be able to renew their plans through 2016, pushing a possible spate of bad headlines and rate shock this fall off into the future. If they don’t want to renew their plans, that’s okay too: They’re now eligible for a hardship exemption from the individual mandate. The federal high-risk pool created by the law to cover especially sick and costly customers until the exchanges were up and running was scheduled to close in December, but has been extended through April. The administration has tweaked the terms of “risk corridors,” which guarantee that insurers can’t lose more than a certain amount of money on their Obamacare customers, to make them even more generous. One thing hasn’t changed: The shape-shifting law is resiliently unpopular across the country, and especially in some red states where senators who voted for it are trying to win reelection. The secretary shall not have the power to do much about that, no matter how hard she tries.
‐ Darrell Issa has become Democrats’ enemy no. 1. Why? The House Oversight Committee forced disgraced former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner once again to plead the Fifth before his panel. That means Issa’s committee can find her in contempt of Congress, and House speaker John Boehner has indicated he would advance the issue to the full House. This has produced a series of embarrassing displays from House Democrats, who have shown they will do anything to stop Republicans from holding those responsible for discriminating against tea-party groups to account. First there was Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings, who demanded to speak after Issa adjourned the hearing at which Lerner appeared. Issa declined his request and cut his microphone. Cummings exhibited his typical professionalism. “I am a member of the United States Congress of America! I am tired of this!” he screamed over the din. Then there was the Congressional Black Caucus, which called Issa’s behavior “an affront to the expectations of the American people” and demanded that Boehner strip Issa of his chairmanship. Issa had apologized to Cummings, but that wasn’t enough for House Democrats, who went on to propose a resolution demanding that Issa come to the House floor and deliver a public apology to his colleague. As Dan Kildee (D., Mich.) introduced the measure, his fellow Democrats gathered on the House floor holding up iPads bearing pictures of Issa requesting that committee staffers cut Cummings’s mic. That resolution failed too. But Democrats have succeeded in distracting from the issue at hand. Lois Lerner has obstructed the work of Congress and it is she who should be held to account on the House floor.
#page#‐ To be fair, if you followed any of us around with a camera all day long, you could capture all sorts of amusing slips. Everybody makes mistakes, and the few who don’t can’t be trusted. Moreover, focusing so intently on trivial gaffes creates a tit-for-tat “gotcha” political culture, which impedes serious discussion of the critical issues that . . . Aw, to hell with it. President Obama — super-genius political strategist, graduate of two of the nation’s finest universities, and by general acclaim the smartest man in any room he deigns to enter — recently spelled “respect” as R-S-P-E-C-T — in front of Aretha Franklin, no less. Dan Quayle has a spare E if you need one, Mr. President . . .
‐ President Obama has proposed new overtime regulations, which would raise the wage ceiling, currently $455 a week, below which workers cannot be exempted from overtime. Employers have many ways to respond to such a regulation – for instance, by replacing a 40-hour employee with two 20-hour employees. Anthony Barkume of the Bureau of Labor Statistics argues that the evidence suggests that employers will most likely reduce base wages to offset additional overtime costs, resulting in no net gain for workers. President Obama can offer workers symbolism, but so far he has not been able to offer them robust economic growth, which is where additional jobs and higher wages come from.
‐ In a surprising rebuke to President Obama, seven Senate Democrats joined Republicans to vote against his choice of Debo Adegbile to serve as assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Justice Department. What seemed to turn the stomach of even some Democrats was Adegbile’s championing of the cause of Mumia Abu Jamal, the confessed killer of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. NPR’s Morning Edition began its report on the vote by noting that “a handful of southern Democrats” had allied with Republicans to kill the nomination. Those “southern Democrats” included Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Bob Casey (Pa.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Chris Coons (Del.), and John Walsh (Mont.). When Jonah Goldberg pointed out that these were “not exactly Sons of the Confederacy,” an NPR host responded that the script had been written as “Senate Democrats . . .” but that “southern” had been read on air in error. The mistake couldn’t have made much difference to NPR’s audience: They know that the president’s opponents, no matter where they hail from, must be Sons of the Confederacy at heart.
‐ One of the Democrats’ special political challenges is that they must indulge their environmental activists, who represent a minority tendency but a great deal of money. Indeed, a California hedge-fund billionaire has promised to put up $100 million to help elect new climate warriors to office, and that got Democrats to talking, and talking, and talking, staging an all-night festival of personal anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. The Democrats’ climate strategy is one part cowardice and one part unseemliness: They will talk a great deal about the alleged climate crisis, but even the casual observer will note that they give no indication of doing anything so radical as, say, introducing a bill, because climate bills do not in fact have enough support in Congress, members of neither party being eager to cripple the economy as a gesture of solidarity with Mother Gaia. The unseemly part is the focus of Harry Reid et al. on the political activism of two private citizens, Charles and David Koch, who have been made into the Emmanuel Goldstein of the 2014 midterms. Elected officials with no legislative agenda running against private citizens with no official power: As it turns out, it is easy being green.
‐ The close ties between the Center for American Progress, an ostensibly nonpartisan nonprofit, and the Obama administration have long been plain: Its founder, former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, rejoined the White House this year as an adviser to Obama, and it has served as both a launching pad and a landing place for a handful of Obama staffers. In March, Zaid Jilani, a former writer for the outfit’s blog, ThinkProgress, compared his experience to that of journalists at Russia Today, a television network funded by Putin’s government. Jilani said in a blog post that ThinkProgress writers were prevented from taking a stand against Obama’s policy in Afghanistan. After he published a post critical of the president’s foreign policy, “calls from the White House started pouring in,” and Jilani and his colleagues were “berated for . . . creating daylight between us and Obama.” ThinkProgress’s statement of principles claims that it is “editorially independent” and “committed to accuracy.” One of those — at least — would seem to need revising.
#page#Whom Are You Calling a Coward?
Eric Holder once called the United States of America a “nation of cowards” when it comes to the issue of race. “Certain subjects are off-limits and . . . to explore them risks at best embarrassment and at worst the questioning of one’s character,” he told his department’s employees at an event celebrating Black History Month.
I would like to think he sent a nice card to Paul Ryan.
If you haven’t heard, Paul Ryan is coming out with an anti-poverty agenda that focuses on the value of work. The labor-force-participation rate is the worst it’s been since 1978 (for men in their 30s, Greece is actually doing better than the U.S.). For workers in the bottom half of the economy, the recession never ended. The War on Poverty 50 years on hasn’t changed the poverty rate (though, in fairness, the poverty rate is a fairly bogus statistic used to justify the anti-poverty bureaucracy’s existence). Intergenerational poverty, particularly in African-American communities, is especially acute. If you don’t believe me, pick up a copy of The Nation or The New Republic almost at random and you’ll see that liberals routinely acknowledge this point. You could even read some of Barack Obama’s speeches, including his recent remarks explaining his new “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, which is aimed solely at young black and Hispanic men.
The reasons for these problems are complex. But some of them have to do with culture. Family breakdown — a product of cultural forces, if you think about it for a nanosecond — has a powerful correlation with economic immobility and poverty. I almost feel stupid having to rehash any of this, because no remotely informed person denies these facts — at least in private conversations.
But say such things in public — and make the mistake of being a Republican — and boom, you are a racist. Paul Ryan said on Bill Bennett’s radio show that there are, “in our inner cities in particular, . . . generations of men not even thinking about working.”
The transmission belt between left-wing websites and MSNBC gargoyles whirred into overdrive. It was all dog-whistle racism! ThinkProgress — a name that should be studied for succinct false advertising — announced that Ryan “blam[ed] poverty on lazy ‘inner city’ men.” With all of the intellectual generosity he could muster, Paul Krugman wrote:
Just to be clear, there’s no evidence that Mr. Ryan is personally a racist, and his dog-whistle may not even have been deliberate. But it doesn’t matter. He said what he said because that’s the kind of thing conservatives say to each other all the time. And why do they say such things? Because American conservatism is still, after all these years, largely driven by claims that liberals are taking away your hard-earned money and giving it to Those People.
Indeed, race is the Rosetta Stone that makes sense of many otherwise incomprehensible aspects of U.S. politics.
Ah yes, the unintended racism of wanting to find jobs for black people so they can get out of poverty. The ornate idiocy of it all is almost a thing of beauty. Essentially, conservatives are racist because they don’t want to help poor black people, and they are racist if they want to help poor black people. The only way not to be racist is to endorse the policies that have done so little to help poor black people.
The cruelty of it all is eclipsed only by the hypocrisy of it. The very same liberals who bleat about the burning need for a national conversation on race are not just willing but eager to denounce the racism of anyone who enters that conversation, no matter how tangentially and no matter how sincerely. And when conservatives fail to take the bait, they are denounced as heartless cowards. To paraphrase Will Rogers, calls to join in a national conversation on race amount to saying “Nice doggy” until liberals can find a rock.
#page#‐ The environmental-damages suit against Chevron in Ecuador has always been questionable at best, but a blistering opinion from U.S. District Court judge Lewis Kaplan confirms what many had long suspected: This was not a legal proceeding, but a criminal conspiracy aimed at extortion to the tune of many billions of dollars. Ruling under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), Judge Kaplan found that the plaintiffs in the case, led by the noted attorney Steven Donziger, used “corrupt means” to procure a $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron, and that those means included falsifying evidence, coercing judges, bribing “independent” expert witnesses, ghostwriting those “independent” experts’ reports to the court, bribing the Ecuadorian judge in the case, and subsequently lying to U.S. legal authorities in an attempt to cover up their misdeeds. The anti-Chevron roster includes a Who’s Who of environmentalists, high-profile Democrats, lawyers, and financial interests, among them figures close to New York governor Andrew Cuomo. Those plaintiffs were showered with support from Greenpeace USA and the Sierra Club, and their representatives were given generous space in Politico and the Huffington Post to press their case. Kaplan’s ruling has rendered the Ecuador verdict uncollectable in the United States, but Chevron will still face efforts to collect these ill-gotten gains in practically every country where it operates. The ruling makes it clear that what happened was not an ill-founded lawsuit but a crime. Perhaps the Department of Justice could be bothered to take note.
‐ In late March, the Obama administration quietly announced a new initiative: America would give up its control of the Internet. Why? So that, in the terse approximation of the Department of Commerce, “stakeholders across the global Internet community” might step into the breach. To the untrained ear, this does not sound too dire. The Web is a wildly decentralized network of computers, servers, and commercial services that are run and maintained so well by businesses, citizens, and civil society that one might ask why it needs “controlling” at all. In the main, the answer is that it does not — except at its root, where the most basic of questions need answering — questions such as “Where is the website for National Review located?”; “How does e-mail work in practice?”; and “What number does another computer use if it wishes to locate my iPhone?” As one might imagine, the capacity for these questions to be answered with censorship is rife, and yet the combination of a California nonprofit and the light touch of the Commerce Department have hitherto ensured that the principles of the First Amendment have been available worldwide. Now the system will be subordinated to the amorphous ideals of “global participation” and “democracy,” which in practice means subject to the machinations of international bodies and foreign states. An unforced error.
‐ The College Board’s decision to make the SAT less rigorous was hardly surprising. It was not the first such revision and will not be the last. Not everything about the change was bad: Eliminating the essay section is no loss, since it essentially measured one’s ability to write like a low-level bureaucrat. More dismaying is the removal of advanced math; a basic understanding of mathematical concepts grows ever more important, so students should be encouraged to take that one extra class. Worst of all, the test will contain fewer uncommon words. What would William F. Buckley Jr. think? The changes will make the SAT easier, as intended, but they won’t solve the fundamental problem: However the test is written, some ethnic, economic, and gender groups will score better than others, which to the liberal mind means the test is flawed by definition. The increasing prominence of high-scoring Asian students only exacerbates this “problem.” The original SAT was designed, in part, to give students from immigrant families a chance to compete in college admissions. Now it’s increasingly designed to prevent them from competing.
‐ In early March, the West Virginia legislature passed, by wide margins, the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act: The final vote was 83–15 in the house of delegates and 29–5 in the senate. If Governor Earl Ray Tomblin signs the bill, West Virginia will become the first Democratic-controlled state to ban abortions later than 20 weeks after conception. Over the past few years, 20-week abortion bans have garnered broad political support: Fifty-six percent of Americans prefer that period to the more commonly observed 24-week ban, and the House of Representatives passed a federal Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act last summer, with Senator Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) now leading the effort to secure its passage in the Senate. We hope Governor Tomblin signs the bill, and that other blue states follow suit.
‐ El Salvador has had another presidential election, and the country is left in a perilous spot. Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a leftist of the guerrilla army–turned–political party FMLN, has won with 50.11 percent of the vote; his conservative opponent received 49.89 percent. The conservative challenged the result, alleging fraud. But the result will stand. Sánchez Cerén was a rebel commander in the civil war, and is the first such man to rise to the presidency. His comrades in Nicaragua, Venezuela, Bolivia, and elsewhere have all used their elections — their initial elections — to subvert democracy, making sure there is never again a free and fair election. If Sánchez Cerén chooses not to follow this path, it will be well-nigh a miracle. Democratic gains in Central America, and Latin America more broadly, were very hard won. Painfully, bloodily won. We learn the redundant lesson that no gain is permanent.
‐ If one elects to host a flagship television show with the title “Free Speech,” it is perhaps best not to be obvious when one shuts down debate. But this, alas, is precisely what the British Broadcasting Corporation was caught doing in March. After Britain’s “first and only gay Muslim drag queen” asked the panel, “When will it be right to be Muslim and gay?” host Rick Edwards stepped in and explained that the question had been ruled out at the behest of his hosts, the Birmingham Central Mosque. “We were going to debate that question,” Edwards explained, “but today after speaking to the mosque they have expressed deep concerns with having this discussion here.” The show then moved on, much to the irritation of the audience. Free Speech advertises itself with all sorts of inclusivity buzzwords and slogans. Its website boasts that it is “the show which makes your voice heard in the national conversation.” If the BBC is to escape investigation under the British Trade Descriptions Act of 1968, it might consider adding “. . . unless you have something uncomfortable to say.”
#page#‐ Naturally, Oliver Stone has made another film celebrating Hugo Chávez. Naturally, the Venezuelan government required all networks to run it on the anniversary of Chávez’s death. It’s hard to imagine a tribute more in keeping with the Chávez spirit.
‐ Joseph Fan Zhongliang, whom Pope John Paul II made bishop of Shanghai in 2000, spent his episcopacy under house arrest in his apartment. He was baptized into the Church at age 14, in 1932, and entered the Jesuit order at age 20. After the Communists rose to power, he spent 20 years in the laogai for the crime of persisting in his belief that authority in matters of his faith resided in Rome, not Beijing, which in 1957 invented the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association in an attempt to establish a national Catholic Church independent of the Holy See. Bishop Fan died on March 16, at 95. The government forbade a funeral Mass to be said for him at the cathedral. The last state-approved bishop of Shanghai was approved by Rome as well but has been missing since July 2012, when, to loud applause at his ordination ceremony, he renounced his association with the CPCA. To its frustration, the Chinese government lacks the faculty to confer Holy Orders, though it continues to demonstrate its talent for raising faithful Catholic priests to the status of international heroes.
‐ The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has initiated disciplinary proceedings against a group of scofflaw cable channels. The channels’ names — AOV Adult Movie Channel, AOV XXX Action Clips, and AOV Maleflixxx — make clear what kind of entertainment they carry, but the CR-tTC’s complaint has nothing to do with the subject matter. Instead they are charged with violating two rules: one that requires them to show at least 35 percent Canadian content, and one that requires 90 percent of each channel’s offerings to be closed-captioned. We can’t help feeling that the commission has overreached. After all, as our FCC can tell you, a broadcast regulator’s most important job is to try to impose racial and gender quotas on newsroom staff.
‐ The Romeike family is considered a crime family in their native Germany, and their offense is homeschooling. After seeing the German state seize the children of other would-be homeschool families — and forbid them, in contravention of German and European law, to move with their families to homeschool-friendly jurisdictions such as France — the Romeikes had sought and obtained refugee status in the United States, until the Obama administration succeeded in having that status overturned. Faced with the possibility of deportation and the rending of their family, the Romeikes took their case to the public, and the administration has relented in its preferred way, which is to say with an ad hoc suspension of legal processes. The Romeikes’ deportation is now on “indefinite deferred status,” meaning that they will be permitted to stay in the United States — right up until the second the federal government changes its mind, a worrisome position given the arbitrary habits of the Obama administration. The episode reflects poorly on Germany, which remains positively Bismarckian in its approach to schooling, as well as on the herky-jerky system under which such cases are adjudicated in the United States.
‐ Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to give the commencement address at Rutgers University. Some faculty — many faculty — don’t like this. They have voted to condemn the selection of Rice and to urge the rescission of her invitation to speak. So far, the administration is holding firm. In other circumstances, the Left might ask, “Why do Rutgers professors hate trailblazing black women?”
‐ On a sunny March day at the University of California, Santa Barbara, a dozen students from the nearby Thomas Aquinas College conducted a pro-life demonstration, passing out pamphlets next to large pictures of aborted fetuses. Soon, a pack of students led by feminist-studies professor Mireille Miller-Young (who specializes in black cultural studies, pornography, and sex work) began chanting “Tear down this sign” before the professor took one of the pro-life signs and walked away with several students. Thrin Short, a young woman participating in the demonstration, followed the burglars, and when she attempted to retrieve the sign was assaulted by Miller-Young, receiving scratches on both of her arms. The sign was later found destroyed. As Short was in pursuit, the professor shouted at her, “I may be a thief, but you are a terrorist.” Terrorists generally don’t engage in peaceful demonstrations. Terrorists tend to quash dissent and attack peaceful people, two activities this feminist-studies professor seems inclined toward.
‐ In April, the Stanford Anscombe Society, a student organization named after British analytic philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe that “promotes discussion regarding the roles of family, marriage, and sexual integrity” among Stanford University students, will host a conference entitled “Communicating Values: Marriage, Family, and the Media.” Recently, the society requested funding for the event at a Stanford Graduate Student Council meeting and was denied it. Why? Because, according to some offended students, the view that marriage is between a man and a woman could be considered “hate speech,” and the “negative event” could “threaten the safety of campus for the queer population.” There may be hate speech against LGBT students on Stanford’s campus; espousing a view of traditional marriage does not constitute it. The conference will go on, with outside funding, but we’re reminded of another term that’s been completely stripped of meaning at the American university: tolerance.
‐ When a fire alarm went off at Como Park High School in St. Paul, Minn., Kayona Hagen-Tietz was swimming in the school’s pool. Since her clothes were locked in a locker, she hurried out of the building and into the five-degrees-below-zero cold. Letting her back into the building, even to stand just inside the doorway, was out of the question; the fire code forbids it. Someone suggested that she could sit in one of the teachers’ cars until they got the all-clear, but that, too, was unthinkable; a district policy prohibits students from entering a teacher’s vehicle. So her fellow students wrapped her up as best they could and crowded around to shield her from the cold. After ten minutes, a teacher finally secured official permission to let Kayona sit in her car; she got through the ordeal with a minor case of frostbite in her feet. Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath; he knew that you sometimes have to give the rules a rest. The bureaucrats in St. Paul are more Pharisaical.
#page#‐ MSNBC president Phil Griffin brought on the network’s newest host, Ronan Farrow — a precocious 26-year-old who graduated from Yale Law School and is a Rhodes scholar to boot — in the hope that he would draw young viewers to MSNBC. As it turns out, Farrow, the celebrity son of either Woody Allen or Frank Sinatra, is drawing fewer viewers even than Andrea Mitchell, the host he replaced in the 1:00 p.m. time slot. His largest audience is among adults 50 and older. That makes perfect sense: Farrow was groomed from an early age by aging liberal elites and learned how to strike a perfect pitch for them. It may make for a successful career, but not for compelling television.
‐ Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, the author of a bestselling book urging women to “lean in” to their careers, has launched a celebrity-backed campaign to “ban bossy.” We need to “get rid of” the word, according to Sandberg, because girls are discouraged from pursuing leadership roles by the fear that they will be perceived as bossy. One prominent counterexample to this thesis is Sandberg herself, who despite being labeled a bossy girl in her youth went on to become chief operating officer of a Fortune 500 company. There’s no reason to think that girls today are any more cowed by the specter of what she calls “the other b word”: Millennial women are already beginning to eclipse their male peers in academia and in the work force. Her call to affirm all girls as nascent “leaders” is also misguided. American education already fetishizes leadership too much. Most girls — and boys — will not grow up to be leaders, and this isn’t a bad thing. Sandberg should stick to bossing her employees.
‐ Joe McGinniss was involved in several ethical broils of the sort that journalists love to chew over: He bought a house next door to Sarah Palin, one of his subjects, the better to spy on her; he befriended, then condemned, murderer Jeffrey MacDonald, thereby earning the ire of Janet Malcolm (he got that one right). He shot to fame with The Selling of the President 1968, his exposé of Richard Nixon’s media operation. The book was hilarious, a delight — and an exposé only to those who knew nothing of American history. Presidential candidates sell images of themselves — and this was news? After I Like Ike, FDR and his airbrushed polio, TR and his he-man antics, Lincoln the rail-splitter, the log-cabin/hard-cider campaign, Old Hickory? Every generation must relearn the truth; future generations will have a pleasant time of it when they consult McGinniss’s youthful tour de force. Dead at 71. R.I.P.
‐ Anthony Wedgwood Benn was Britain’s most outstanding champagne socialist. Born into a titled family and married to an American heiress, he passed himself off as proletarian Tony Benn. During his 50 years as a member of Parliament, he struck a familiar pose as a radical, microphone in one hand, a cup of tea in the other, usually speechifying that now was the moment when the powerless could and should take power. A cabinet minister in the enfeebled days of the Labour prime ministers Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, Benn was pushing for a Soviet-style economy with nationalization of the commanding heights, and nuclear disarmament to boot. Benn’s defeatism had the contrary effect of turning the electorate in favor of Mrs. Thatcher and renewal. His persistent trading on privilege came to be humored, and on leaving politics he wrote his own epitaph, “I’m harmless now.” Dead at 88. R.I.P.
‐ In our darker moods, conservatives speak of cultural liberalism as a miasma, seeping into our thoughts we don’t quite know how. But sometimes you can point your finger and say, That’s how. Justin Kaplan was a prize-winning biographer — Mark Twain, Whitman — who edited the 16th edition (1992) of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Kaplan was guided by a prejudice — he despised Ronald Reagan. Nor was it a secret prejudice — “I’m not going to disguise the fact that I despise Ronald Reagan,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. As a result, Reagan, the great communicator, got only three entries, none of them consequential (compare JFK with 28, and Jimmy Carter with six). Kaplan’s ideology skewed other entries — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn appeared eight times, but only once criticizing Communism. Kaplan’s tenure belongs in a political Bartlett’s as a reminder that the great sins of ideological commissars are sins of omission. Dead at 88. R.I.P.
Putin’s Perilous Overreach
Vladimir Putin’s speech confirming what everyone already knew — that Russia would annex Crimea — was written up immediately afterwards by the media (and by former Western ambassadors to Moscow) as both a fait accompli in relation to Crimea and a Russian foreign-policy victory in general. It was certainly a bold, skillful, and effective performance.
Putin stressed NATO’s Kosovo intervention as a legal precedent for Russia’s military and constitutional takeover of a province of a neighboring state. That was a shrewd choice since, as conservative specialists in international law such as Jeremy Rabkin warned at the time, our actions in Kosovo involved a violation of the basic legal tenet of non-intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign state, one that might return to haunt us. (The Iraq war had much greater legal justification in numerous U.N. resolutions, which is presumably why Putin largely skirted it.) Putin’s argument will therefore undercut Western governments that oppose the annexation of Crimea on international-law grounds.
He underlined the historic relationship between Russia and Crimea — namely, that until the 1950s Crimea was a part of Russia. That argument will appeal to those Western companies, notably in German industry, that value their economic ties with Russia and would prefer not to risk them for what may look like — in Putin’s words — righting a historical wrong.
He promised that annexing Crimea was his last territorial demand in Ukraine. That will suggest to diplomats everywhere that if they agree to let Crimea be annexed (doubtless after some face-saving agreement on details that changes nothing important), they can relax and return to the status quo ante. What remains of Ukraine can then become the basis of a new compromise that would insist on something like a “unity” government, including pro-Russian parties — if we want to preserve our earlier illusions.
And overall Putin had some shrewdly reassuring words for almost everyone who might object to the swallowing of Crimea. He set out to sedate Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians, Western investors, NATO, even American conservatives who might be comforted by his warm historical references to Christianity.
So is the crisis over? Not quite.
Almost every reassuring passage in Putin’s speech was contradicted by another passage. His promise to respect Ukrainian sovereignty, for instance, was balanced by his claim of a right to protect ethnic Russians wherever they are under threat. Since his intelligence services are at present fomenting ethnic conflict in eastern Ukrainian cities, that reduces the value of his assurances to slightly below that of the Russian ruble.
Putin’s clever manipulation of the Kosovo precedent ignores the fact that his annexation of Crimea breaks Russia’s own pledge in the Budapest Declaration to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. That does more than reduce the value of Russian promises — it emphasizes the awkward fact that Russia under Putin is a lawless state run by its own security services.
Above all, Putin is still behind where he was five months ago, when he began pressing his puppet, President Viktor Yanukovych, to withdraw Ukraine from its proposed relationship with the European Union. Then, Ukraine was not only part of Russia’s zone of influence; it was intended by Putin to become much closer to Moscow, to the point of joining his own Eurasian Union. Today Ukraine is outside Russia’s zone of influence altogether; and as long as Crimea is annexed and occupied, it will remain outside. That in turn will ensure that Belarus, Kazakhstan, and other post-Soviet nations will be reluctant to join the proposed union too. Unless Putin is content to abandon his grand design to revive Comecon, the former “Soviet bloc,” in post-Soviet form — and in the present heady, nationalistic mood of Moscow, that seems unlikely — he will be looking for new opportunities to expand its potential membership.
For all these reasons, Crimea is not the end of a crisis but the midpoint of one that began with the occupation of parts of Georgia in 2008. The difference is that the West now realizes the nature of the Putin regime. Even if it fails to agree on serious sanctions, therefore, it will gradually move to reduce its reliance on undependable Russian energy. Which means that the future crises Putin sends us will occur against a background of Russia’s greater economic weakness.