Magazine | September 8, 2014, Issue

The Week

(Roman Genn)

‐ Nixon and race riots in the news — the Left must be feeling nostalgic.

‐ President Obama won’t be boasting about, to use his terms, “restarting” the Iraq War, but that is what he has done. The Islamic State’s seizure of hundreds of square miles of territory in Iraq, execution of hundreds of civilians, displacement of hundreds of thousands of members of minority religious groups, and declaration of a caliphate finally forced his hand. In early August, Obama authorized U.S. air strikes against the Islamic State, dropped humanitarian aid in parts of Kurdistan that were in the most dire straits, and began aiding the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. The campaign has already expanded beyond what the president said would be a narrowly tailored humanitarian operation. But the president maintains that his goal is to support Kurdistan and the Iraqi central government and to protect Iraq’s religious minorities from eradication, not to defeat the Islamic State. Of course, truly accomplishing the former will have to involve doing the latter. We need a comprehensive strategy within Iraq and across the region. We should generously arm the Kurds, and pressure Iraqi politicians, who recently ousted the calamitous prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, to form an inclusive government. And we should identify and ally with Sunni tribes that are willing opponents of the Islamic State. President Obama’s operation has succeeded in destroying some Islamic State forces and helping the Kurds retake the crucial Mosul dam — so far, so good. But insufficient.

‐ Hillary Clinton gave an interview to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic in which she threw President Obama’s foreign policy under the proverbial bus. She regretted that we had allowed a vacuum to develop in Syria by not acting to build up a decent rebel force, took a more tough-minded position than the president on an array of Middle Eastern issues, and said a great power like the United States can’t make “don’t do stupid stuff” — the Obama team’s stated mantra — its organizing principle. As secretary of state, Clinton was genuinely more hawkish than Obama, but the calculation behind her remarks was shamelessly blatant: The world is in shambles, and the president’s ratings on foreign policy are atrocious. Hillary’s spokesman said she looked forward to “hugging it out” with the president when they saw each other during his Martha’s Vineyard vacation. Going forward, Clinton will have to walk a fine line between distancing herself from a failing president and not provoking his ire or that of the Democratic base. Early indications are that she will do it . . . clumsily.

‐ In 2008, a new class of Democratic senators was elected, promising to advance Barack Obama’s program to improve economic conditions for the middle class. Phil Gramm, a former senator himself and an economist, has run the numbers, and his report in the Wall Street Journal is brutal: If the so-called recovery had been even averagely robust, 14 million more people would be working than currently are. The real incomes of middle-class households have declined by thousands of dollars a year. In newly Democratic Colorado, incomes are down 13.5 percent; women’s incomes fell during the recession and then fell even further during the recovery; African Americans, among the most reliable Democratic voters, have seen their incomes reduced by a tenth — i.e., decimated; middle-class Hispanic households have seen their incomes reduced to levels not seen since Phil Gramm was a young House Democrat. And the poor are worse off, too: The incomes of the poorest fifth of Americans have declined every year since 2008. President Obama famously promised to “spread the wealth around,” Democrats cheered, and he followed through — the Washington suburbs now include the three wealthiest counties in the United States, and Bentley Motors has moved its U.S. headquarters to the capital area. Phil Gramm used to teach economics at Texas A&M; perhaps he could offer Democrats some remedial lessons.

‐ A report just issued by the Center for Responsive Politics reveals that of the 20 organizations that have made the most political donations in 2014, only three favor Republicans. Sixteen are considered “solidly Democrat/liberal,” and one, a trade organization, is considered “on the fence.” At the top of the list is ActBlue, a Democratic political-action committee that has contributed $30.2 million to Democrats so far in the 2013–14 election cycle. Close behind is Fahr LLC, which coordinates the political-advocacy donations of billionaire Tom Steyer and has given $20.3 million to liberal candidates and organizations in the cycle thus far. Of the top 20 organizations, eleven are trade unions. And among the largest donors, Koch Industries is nowhere to be found; it is No. 36. When the contributions to date of the top 20 organizations are added up, Republicans have received $18.5 million, compared with Democrats’ $129.3 million. A shame, all this money in politics. Right, Harry Reid?

‐ “The most transparent administration in history” has once again proven itself anything but. According to new records released by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Marilyn Tavenner, the chief of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), told an agency spokesperson to delete an e-mail exchange among CMS, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the White House that occurred during the first week of’s disastrous launch. MSNBC initially reported that Tavenner deleted e-mails “in order to stay below the agency’s Microsoft Outlook e-mail size limit,” but the new revelations suggest that Tavenner did not inadvertently err in her duty, per federal law, “to make and preserve records containing adequate and proper documentation” of her agency’s activities; she participated in a cover-up. Federal law permits up to three years in prison for anyone who “willfully and unlawfully conceals, removes, mutilates, obliterates, or destroys” public records. Will Tavenner face consequences? Sure. Just ask convicted felon Lois Lerner.

#page#‐ James Madison got it wrong: He thought that a strong central government would enable the country to act decisively, but it now does something close to the opposite. With an Ebola outbreak raging in Africa, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration continues to dawdle: More than a thousand were dead before it eased restrictions on Tekmira’s Ebola drug, while tight regulation has kept another promising treatment, ZMapp, in short supply. The ZMapp case is ugly: It did not go unnoticed in Africa that two white American aid workers were given the drug and survived, while the heroic Dr. Sheik Umar Khan of Sierra Leone, who contracted Ebola while fighting it, was left to die horribly. The use of experimental drugs in emergency situations is generally governed by “informed consent,” but Dr. Khan was never even given the option, and physicians were reluctant to recommend something that had not yet been officially approved. Fighting an epidemic is like fighting a forest fire — early containment is the best approach. Preventing the experimental use of potentially lifesaving drugs on the theory that people with Ebola might get sick is backward and dangerous; and in a world with cheap air travel and frictionless borders, there is no such thing as an isolated epidemic.

‐ One thing conservatives can agree on about America’s health-care system is that many of its major elements are broken: We have an overly subsidized employer-provided insurance market, two massive single-payer health-care systems (Medicare and Medicaid), and an overregulated, dysfunctional individual-insurance market. (We also have a miniature version of Britain’s National Health Service called the VA.) Avik Roy, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a frequent contributor to National Review, has presented a plan that attempts to address all of these issues in one fell swoop: essentially, by deregulating the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges and pushing Medicare and Medicaid enrollees into them. His plan differs from a range of existing conservative health-care proposals because it does not emphasize the repeal of the president’s health-care law. We are less sanguine than he about the potential of even deregulated exchanges to rescue the individual-insurance market. There is no substitute for repeal of Obamacare. But we welcome Roy’s plan as a thoughtful and ambitious effort to eliminate the enormous distortions that the government introduced to the health system even before Obamacare. Each time the president says Republicans don’t have an alternative to his mauling of our health-care system, the claim gets a little more dishonest.

‐ Vilifying the American Legislative Exchange Council, a.k.a. ALEC, has been a long-running project of the Left. It despises the bipartisan public–private coalition of state lawmakers, think tanks, and corporations that makes proposals to advance limited government, free markets, federalism, and individual liberty. In recent years, relentless left-wing attacks against ALEC have spooked some businesses. The result: diminished corporate involvement, and the perception that this vital conservative outfit was flagging. And it was. Until now: ALEC has just hired Lisa Nelson, our former NR colleague (and a former top official with Visa, AOL, GOPAC, and Newt Gingrich’s congressional staff), as its CEO. That’s an excellent decision: Widely respected on the right and on Capitol Hill, Nelson is not afraid to fight back, and is determined to show that corporate blackmail and intimidation can’t work (not any longer, anyway).

‐ Consider the remarkable fact that the United States has an $11 billion high-speed-rail system: no tracks, no trains, no tickets sold or passengers moved, but $11 billion appropriated nonetheless, enough money to fill a 747 hangar with $100 bills. As is typical of federal practice, a great sum was appropriated for high-speed rail, and then was spooned out on largely unrelated projects, fattening the feckless management of Amtrak and the contractors to whom it acts as a conduit of currency. Plans to bring the New York–Washington Acela up to Japanese speeds are budgeted — optimistically, if history is a guide — at $150 billion, a project that will take — further optimism — more than a quarter-century to complete, almost four times the period between John F. Kennedy’s proposal of a moon trip and Neil Armstrong’s boot prints. California’s daft plan to thread a bullet train through Fresno and Bakersfield has been in the works since the last time Jerry Brown was governor, back in the 1980s. (Slow trains are no better: New York’s Second Avenue subway, which has never carried a passenger, has been in the works since the Hoover administration.) There are 52 flights a day between Los Angeles and San Francisco, starting at $69. They take an hour and a quarter. It takes an hour and 16 minutes, and, if you buy far enough in advance, $78, to fly from New York to Washington, and there are myriad ground options. For what we’ve already spent on our phantom train, we could have flown every resident of New York City to Washington, first class, twice.

‐ Explaining on behalf of the publishing house Simon and Schuster why her imprint would not be picking up a tell-all book on the controversial American prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl, the senior editor of Atria Books lamented in August that she could not publish the account “without the Right using it to their ends.” “Conservatives,” Sarah Durand wrote in a letter obtained by six members of Berghdal’s platoon, “are all over Bergdahl and using it against Obama.” Durand worried that any book would inevitably “have to become a kind of ‘Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’” — a criticism that followed almost verbatim the White House’s own pushback against objections from within the military to its Bergdahl deal. One often gets an inkling that the press makes explicitly political editorial decisions. Rarely, however, is the motivation so brazenly conceded. The publisher’s slogan promises that the outfit will provide “a central living space open to the air and sky.” Time to add an asterisk.

#page#The Fringe Factor

Back in 2001, Michael Knox Beran penned a nice essay for National Review on the eternal plague of the fringers — denizens of what Teddy Roosevelt dubbed the “lunatic fringe” (hence “fringer,” rhyming with “ginger” or “injure”). Beran was writing amid a slew of anti-globalization “protests” (quotation marks are necessary whenever you spell riots that way). Beran:

A hundred years ago, in the midst of the pre–World War I economic boom, the prosperous nations confronted a similar collection of anarchists, nihilists, labor organizers, and self-styled revolutionaries, all of them insisting that contented citizenries in the West had gotten it wrong, that their prosperity was founded on the misery of others, that their notions of progress and freedom were a degrading illusion. Like the fringers who take to the streets in places like Davos, Prague, and Seattle today, the anarcho-fringe groups of the late 19th century had no real power; what power they possessed was mainly the power to make a nuisance of themselves. A century ago, fringers assassinated presidents and princesses; today, they disrupt meetings of financiers.

The thing about the lunatic fringe is that it is easy to dismiss, what with its fringeyness and all. “You’re just a lot of damn fools,” Republican kingmaker Mark Hanna snapped at fringers a century ago. “There won’t be any revolution.” But as Beran notes, when they managed to get organized the fringers put more than a few victories, even revolutionary ones, on the board.

They burrowed in at institutions, first establishing rat’s nests inside universities, foundations, and other institutions with weak immune systems when it comes to attacks on Western civilization. Not every faculty lounge is a fringer den, but damn near every one contains educated fools who will nod like bobbleheads when they hear fringer talk about American (or Israeli!) apartheid and fascism, and the need for revolution.

This is in part because, while there is on paper a clear distinction between liberalism and left-wing radicalism, the emotional boundaries are much blurrier. The liberal vital center isn’t nearly as vital as it tells itself in the mirror. We saw this most recently with the instantaneously fawning mainstream reaction to Occupy Wall Street (comparable to the equally instant hysteria about the tea parties) and we’re seeing it now in Ferguson, Mo., where every species of fringer is pouring in to foment trouble, incite riots, and do what he can to usher in a “Revolution — Nothing Less!” (at least according to one ill-fitting T-shirt on a pudgy bald white guy I spied in the background of a newspaper photo).

Many establishment liberals simply love the radicals who have the courage of liberal convictions. The amusing part is that the love is almost never requited. It’s a bit like that episode of Seinfeld when George Costanza became obsessed with a woman who loathed him:

George: Jerry . . . this woman hates me so much. I’m starting to like her.

Jerry: What?

George: She just dislikes me so much. It’s irresistible.

Still, one gets the sense that Barack Obama is a special case. As conservatives long ago pointed out (albeit with varying degrees of sobriety and paranoia), there was always ample reason to believe that not only Barack Obama’s heart, but also his mind, belonged to the fringers. That’s still a subject of hot debate on the right — and perhaps somewhat on the left as well. From what I can tell, Obama’s almost as much of a failure in the eyes of the far Left as he is in those of the Right. But the Left’s emotional attachment to the first black, community-organizer president combined with a reluctance to confirm right-wing critiques holds it back.

If I’m right, I’d bet the next president (particularly if she’s a Democrat) will have a liberating effect on the fringe, and we’ll see a lot more “protests” down the line.

#page#‐ Michael Bloomberg’s quest for an NRA scalp continues — as does his losing streak. In August, Bloomberg attempted to unseat Milwaukee County’s sheriff, David Clarke, an outspoken advocate of the right to keep and bear arms. Clarke had told the electorate in his city that the police are unable to protect everybody all the time and that citizens should exercise their “natural rights” and learn how to use firearms for their defense. Bloomberg poured $150,000 into the anti-Clarke fight, adding his cash to the $400,000 that a progressive PAC spent on negative television advertisements. The cause was taken up by a number of prominent local figures, including the city’s mayor, the Milwaukee county executive, and the area’s largest newspaper, the Journal-Sentinel. All for nought. Clarke won his Democratic primary by a margin of 52 to 48 percent, and will run unopposed in the general election. He has suggested that, when he has completed his term, he may run for mayor.

‐ Attorney General Eric Holder’s crusade against voter-ID laws has suffered another setback. In mid August, a federal judge refused to issue a preliminary injunction against North Carolina’s election-reform law, which — among other things — implements a voter-ID requirement, reduces early voting from 17 to ten days, and eliminates same-day registration. The 2013 law is the subject of a lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice, the NAACP, and others, who claim that it is racially discriminatory and in violation of multiple constitutional amendments and the Voting Rights Act. Judge Thomas Schroeder rejected the DOJ’s arguments, observing that most of the plaintiffs’ evidence of racial discrimination in North Carolina elections is a quarter-century old or older. In fact, the DOJ’s own experts admitted that blacks’ voter turnout in the state is on par with that of whites, and that blacks’ voter-registration rate is actually higher. Additionally, in the May 2014 primary election, black turnout soared 29.5 percent compared with the previous midterm primary election, in May 2010; white turnout increased only 13.7 percent. The plaintiffs, Judge Schroeder determined, failed to make “a clear showing that they are likely to succeed on the merits.” The lawsuit is still scheduled for trial in July 2015, so Holder’s hopes are not utterly dashed. But the likely winners of this battle are proponents of true election integrity in the Tar Heel State.

‐ New Jersey governor Chris Christie made a big bet on a casino in Atlantic City and lost. After putting $260 million in tax credits on the table, plus millions for worker training and infrastructure investments, the taxpayers of New Jersey are saddled with a white elephant: The casino, housed in the largest and most prominent building in Atlantic City, has gone into bankruptcy twice and will close its doors in September, putting some 3,100 people out of work. Governor Christie should have known better: Investors had been walking away from the project for years, with Morgan Stanley taking a loss of nearly $1 billion rather than moving forward as an investor and the Export-Import Bank of China considering and then rejecting an investment in the casino. Gambling has always been a rotten business, but with casinos springing up everywhere from rural New York to the suburbs of Philadelphia, Atlantic City’s former monopoly position for East Coast gambling has been steadily eroding. The next time a politician comes along talking about making “investments” for jobs and growth, remember that government is a terrible gambler and a worse investor. Leave it to government to turn gambling into a business where the house always loses.

‐ Earlier this summer, a California school district adopted a new textbook for its ninth-grade health classes — McGraw-Hill’s Your Health Today. Marketed toward college students, the book features sections on topics such as binge drinking, bondage, and sex toys. When parents in the Fremont Unified School District heard about the new required reading, many were upset by its explicit content — and over 2,500 signed a petition to remove it from classrooms. In mid August, the school-district board voted to shelve the book for the upcoming school year and work with the publisher on a more age-appropriate revision. Some administrators are unhappy about the decision, but it’s local politics at its best: Parents got angry and vocal, and instituted change. “We really want [students] to have a safe place to get facts about their bodies and how to handle things and how they need to be mature to deal with these things,” school-board president Lara Calvert-York told the San Francisco Chronicle, in defense of the textbook. But for 14-year-olds, a basic explanation of the birds and the bees should suffice.

‐ Politically and diplomatically, the Ukraine crisis seems to be gradually calming down. The Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministers met in Berlin and agreed in principle to allow a Russian “humanitarian” convoy to enter eastern Ukraine. Though there was no agreement on a cease-fire between “pro-Russian” separatists and Ukrainian forces, a major diplomatic push to end the conflict is planned. Europe and Russia would both like to deescalate a crisis that has led to sanctions that are weakening already stagnant economies on both sides. And Ukraine will need massive economic assistance from Europe, together with a compromise deal with Moscow on energy supplies, in order to give its feeble economy at least some chance of post-war recovery. Militarily, however, the conflict is ongoing. The number of civilians who have died has now passed the 2,000 mark. A few days before the foreign ministers met, a Russian armored column was seen crossing the border by two British journalists. According to the Ukrainian president, it was then largely destroyed. Insofar as the fog of war allows us to judge, Kiev seems close to establishing its control of eastern Ukraine. Its forces are now fighting inside one of the two remaining cities under separatist control and besieging the other. The separatists are retreating — and, in the case of their “leaders,” resigning, too. Diplomats will now argue for a compromise peace that allows Putin to call off his adventure without losing too much face. That is reasonable in itself — the conflict is damaging everyone, and its early solution would benefit all. But the terms of the compromise, while they will almost certainly involve some regional autonomy and some cultural protection for ethnic Russian Ukrainians, must neither dilute Kiev’s sovereignty over eastern Ukraine nor create conditions for future Kremlin meddling nor ratify the annexation of Crimea. If a settlement can be reached that respects those conditions, then the Ukraine crisis will have strengthened the West, underpinned the post–Cold War order in Europe, and set clear limits to Moscow’s neo-imperial ambitions.

#page#‐ From separate rooms of a Cairo ministry (Egyptian mediators acted as couriers), delegations from Israel and Hamas attempted to reach a lasting cease-fire. Since Hamas is committed to mobilization for future violence, Israel is treating the demilitarization of Gaza as a precondition. Also unconditionally, Hamas insists that the blockade of Gaza be lifted to allow free access for goods — importing duty-free weaponry, as one Israeli minister has put it. The proceedings reeked of exhaustion and mistrust. Mediating in the absence of easy solutions, the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has seen his chance. Threatened by Hamas’s Islamism and its militancy, his interests happen to coincide with Israel’s. Egypt keeps its common border with Gaza tightly blockaded and Hamas can do nothing about it. One unexpected consequence of this bout of fighting, then, is the enhancement of Sisi as a Middle East statesman.

‐ Breitbart News reported an interesting story out of Gaza. A group of Israeli soldiers entered a mosque, looking for weapons, explosives, and rockets. They encountered a female suicide bomber about to detonate herself and kill those around her. An Israeli soldier started reciting the Jewish prayer “Shema Yisrael”: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The suicide bomber hesitated and started trembling. This gave the soldiers a chance to grab her and disable the device. It turned out that the suicide bomber’s mother was “a Jew who had married a Palestinian in Israel and, after the wedding, was smuggled against her will into Gaza,” according to Breitbart report. “There she lived a life filled with abuse and humiliation, and was basically a captive.” In addition to this suicide bomber, or would-be suicide bomber, there were two small children in the mosque, and “an armored force went in and rescued” them. A prayer, and something in a woman’s conscience, had saved the day.

‐ What’s a prime minister to do when the country’s constitution specifies the number of terms he may serve and he has already served them? Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has the answer: become president. It’s simple enough. First of all, play the Muslim card. Then remove parliament’s right to vote for the president and give it instead to the Islamized electorate. Also see to it that the other candidates are nonentities. Oh, and make sure to have five times the spending power of these rivals and exclusive use of state-owned facilities — for instance, aircraft. Erdogan has been in power for twelve years, and now has extended his power for another five, and surely there will be five more beyond that. No wonder he’s referred to behind closed doors as the Sultan.

‐ Al Gore is suing Al Jazeera over the release of money related to its purchase of his Current TV channel last year. Al Jazeera America has been something less than a raging success, its average prime-time audience of 17,000 amounting to a rounding error of Fox News’s 1.7 million. As is often the case with Middle Eastern conflicts, the details are murky, and we wish that there were a way for both sides to lose.

‐ For as long as anyone can remember, the Gideons and other charitable groups have donated Bibles to the Navy. These Bibles have been placed in Navy lodges and hotels. Earlier this year, an atheist group in Wisconsin complained — and the Navy nervously ordered the removal of the Bibles from all lodge and hotel rooms. They were to be placed in Lost & Found bins. After a backlash, the Navy has ordered the Bibles back in the rooms, while the entire matter is under review. If the organized atheists get their way on these donated Bibles, lurking in drawers, they will move on to the next target: which will likely be chaplains. Our military has many problems, an excess of religion not among them.

‐ The Metropolitan Opera in New York has faced the same issues as the governments of Wisconsin, New Jersey, and elsewhere: How is the ship to keep sailing if labor unions are loaded with gravy? For many years, the Met’s orchestra, chorus, stagehands, etc., have had the cushiest deals around. The institution was going broke; something had to give. The unions said that management spent too much — not on them, of course, but on opera (new productions and the like). Management replied that, in these straitened times, everyone had to tighten his belt, even choristers who live like prima donnas (and demand like them). Management wanted the unions to take a 17 percent cut in pay and, most important, benefits. After negotiations, the unions accepted about 4 percent. The show(s) will go on. But the ship still faces treacherous waters. The essential question is, What does an opera company exist for? Opera and the public, or the enrichment of labor unions? If the unions want to get the most they can, fine. That is only human. But they could spare us their sanctimonious talk about “the art form.”

#page#‐ The idea of in loco parentis is too quaint for school. Which makes a story out of Ohio State University astounding. The director of OSU’s famous marching band was fired “after an investigation showed he knew about, but failed to stop, a sexualized band culture.” We are quoting an Associated Press report. The report gave some details of that “culture,” which we won’t repeat in this family magazine. The band director asked for his job back, but the chairman of the university’s board said, “We consider the matter closed and we are moving forward as a university.” The degradation of our culture may be irreversible, especially on campus. It makes this anachronistic action all the more thrilling.

‐ September 11, 2001, was the last time an American general was killed by an enemy of the United States, when Lieutenant General Timothy Maude was killed by al-Qaeda terrorists flying an airliner into the Pentagon. Until early this August, that is, when Major General Harold J. Greene was killed at the tail end of the operation that avenged the deaths of Maude and thousands of other Americans. At a base in Kabul, an Afghan soldier turned on American soldiers and his countrymen, killing Greene and wounding 17 others. Greene was quite literally involved in the cleanup operation in Afghanistan — as a logistics officer and deputy commanding officer of the U.S. transition operation there, he was overseeing one of the largest movements of military equipment and matériel in world history, as well as the training and equipping of the new Afghan security forces. Thanks to political decisions, the success of our Afghan endeavor is still in question, as the tragic circumstances of Greene’s death reflect. Even for generals, theirs not to reason why. Dead at 55. R.I.P.

‐ A group of Belgian students visited China in 1955. Pierre Ryckmans, later to be famous, was one of them. He got bitten hard by the China bug, becoming a Sinologist. In the 1960s, he saw the Cultural Revolution — and he wrote the truth about it, in shattering books. He wrote under the pen name Simon Leys, to avoid being banned from China. Other Sinologists were not pleased with his work. The myth of Mao, begun by Edgar Snow in the 1930s, was under threat. In his 1974 book Chinese Shadows, Ryckmans/Leys wrote, “Until 1966 Chinese politics did not loom large in my preoccupations, and I confidently extended to the Maoist regime the same sympathy I felt for all things Chinese, without giving it more specific thought. But the Cultural Revolution . . . forced me out of this comfortable ignorance.” Ryckmans hated Mao and Communism because he loved China and civilization. He lived and taught in Australia. He was a great scholar and intellectual, as not a few are. He was also a brave truth-teller, as too few are. He opened the eyes of many of us to China. He has now died at 78. R.I.P.

‐ Robin Williams took his own life in his Marin County home. His death set off a global outpouring of love and appreciation. He was not at a high point (his long-awaited return to series television in CBS’s The Crazy Ones had recently been canceled), but the mourning left no doubt that he meant a great deal to a great many people. Over a career that started in the 1970s, Williams was celebrated for his manic, rapid-fire improvisation — a thermonuclear version of the traditional comic’s neediness that was often just too much. But he was perfection itself when he delivered more or less straight performances in comic or dramatic roles, as in The World According to Garp or Moscow on the Hudson. Of course, he also did an accomplished impression of William F. Buckley Jr., first in a Saturday Night Live parody of Firing Line and later, to more lasting effect, in the Disney cartoon feature Aladdin. R.I.P.

‐ There was more, much more, to Lauren Bacall’s career than her first film, To Have and Have Not, and her third, The Big Sleep (we will say nothing of Confidential Agent, the second). There were the other movies, the stints on Broadway, and then the longest-running of all her performances, the Grande Dame, tough, caustic, funny, and difficult; perhaps formidable is the best word. She was the last of the dream factory’s best, a lioness splendid even in winter. There were her politics, of course, not exactly ours (“I’m a total Democrat. I’m anti Republican. . . . I’m a liberal”), but now’s not the time to dwell on that. Turn back instead to that first film, the movie for which Betty Joan Perske of Brooklyn changed her name, developed “The Look,” deepened her voice, and — gorgeous, self-confident (another performance), and sly — stole the screen in a way that it had rarely been stolen before (the script didn’t hurt). And she won the heart of her leading man, one Humphrey Bogart, too. In The Big Sleep, Bacall played a darker echo of that same persona, and sparkled dangerously with Bogie, lifted by a script that was more tone than narrative, and occasionally tipped over into genius. If what followed was never so good again, no matter: Lightning had struck twice. R.I.P.


No Justice, No Peace

Ferguson, Mo., has been the focus of a national psychodrama. Police officer Darrell Wilson shot dead 18-year-old Michael Brown in disputed circumstances in early August, and the town thereafter was roiled by nightly clashes between police and protestors.

There is much still we don’t know about the shooting. The police say Brown assaulted Wilson and tried to take his gun; eyewitnesses say Wilson shot Brown after he tried to surrender. But how to handle the conflict isn’t complicated: a full and fair investigation, followed by an indictment and trial, if the facts so warrant.

This is a tried-and-true process that requires time and care. The Left and the media have no patience for it. They have been braying for a rush to judgment, and excusing the self-indulgent and self-destructive mayhem that has punctuated the protests after dark. The ubiquitous cry of “no justice, no peace” has been inadvertently apt in Ferguson.

First, we were told that the overly militaristic posture of the police was provoking the protesters. We agree that, as a general matter, cops should look like cops, not combat troops, and federal programs to assist local police forces in attaining military-style equipment need to be reexamined. It was ridiculous and wrong for police snipers in Ferguson to sit atop armored vehicles training their weapons on protesters who hadn’t done anything wrong.

But people who will throw projectiles at police who are wearing uniforms and using vehicles they don’t like will find a reason to throw things at police no matter what. Sure enough, when the police were “demilitarized,” there was one night of calm before local businesses — shamefully unprotected by the police — were ransacked.

This bout of looting, we were told, was a reaction to the release by the police of surveillance video showing Michael Brown stealing cigars from a local convenience store and manhandling a clerk who tried to stop him. But the critics of the Ferguson police had been calling for “transparency,” and the video was certainly relevant, since it lent credence to the notion that Brown could have attacked Officer Wilson prior to the shooting.

In reaction to this lawlessness, the state’s inept governor, Jay Nixon, imposed a curfew — and there was more violence. Then, he lifted the curfew — and there was more violence. Whatever the official policy was in the first week or so after Brown’s death, the reaction was more violence, including firebombing businesses and shooting at police.

Needless to say, all of this is completely unjustifiable. Yet the Left and the media have strained to find ways to blame it on the police, who have left the peaceful protests during the day unmolested and attempted only to prevent further property damage and violent acts by a fringe late at night.

Ferguson is not Mississippi circa 1955, or the condemnation of American society that the hysterics want to make it out to be. Even if Wilson killed Brown in cold blood — the most extreme scenario — he still would be just one bad cop.

It is certainly true that there is a demographic mismatch between the population of Ferguson and its government. An influx of blacks leaving neighboring St. Louis since 1990 has made it a largely black town, while the city officialdom and the police force have stayed overwhelmingly white. This has created tensions and distrust that have their remedy at the ballot box, not in pointless disorder in the streets.

As for the Brown case, the process should be allowed to take its course. Alas, too many people are as uninterested in justice under our systems of laws as they are in peace.


Worse than Frivolous

Texas governor Rick Perry has been indicted on two felony charges and could, in theory, spend the rest of his life in prison — for the alleged crime of vetoing a piece of legislation.

The story is a sordid one: Travis County district attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, who is in charge of the state’s Public Integrity Unit, a governmental-ethics enforcer, was arrested for drunk driving. Video of her booking showed her abusing the jail staff, making threats, and engaging in the worst sort of “Do you know who I am?” political muscle-flexing. She was convicted and did 20-odd days in the pokey. Governor Perry came to the reasonable conclusion that a convicted criminal should not be in charge of the Public Integrity Unit and demanded her resignation. She refused, and Democrats rallied around her, keenly aware that if she were to depart, Governor Perry would appoint her successor. So the governor used the legal tool available to him and vetoed the funding for the Public Integrity Unit, and made it clear that he would keep doing so as long as Ms. Lehmberg was in charge.

This, Democratic prosecutors argued, was a criminal attempt to coerce an elected official and a misuse of government power. The irony in that argument is simply tremendous.

Travis County prosecutors have a history of mendacity. This is the same gang that destroyed Representative Tom DeLay’s political career using the inventive means of charging him with having broken a law that hadn’t even been passed at the time he was alleged to have broken it. That project ultimately ended in a scathing judicial rebuke, and DeLay was cleared of all charges. But convictions are not the point: Using the criminal-justice process to harass, defame, and bankrupt political enemies is the point. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison was given similar treatment, though she was not driven from office. In the end, prosecutors did not even bother to present a case against her — the only point was harassment.

Even liberal Democrats acknowledge that this stinks. David Axelrod called the indictment “sketchy,” and Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz likened the stratagem to the criminalization of political dissent seen under totalitarian regimes. Jonathan Chait of New York magazine called the gambit “ridiculous” and argued that it would establish a precedent of using criminal law to punish almost any imaginable political disagreement: “The theory behind the indictment is flexible enough that almost any kind of political conflict could be defined as a ‘misuse’ of power or ‘coercion’ of one’s opponents. To describe the indictment as ‘frivolous’ gives it far more credence than it deserves.”

Governor Perry is standing by his veto, and he is right to do so. The Public Integrity Unit should be dissolved, and every responsible officer associated with it should be sent into retirement.

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