• The worst part about getting coal in your stocking isn’t the indignity; it’s the notice of violation from the EPA.
• President Trump’s longtime lawyer Michael Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison for several distinct baskets of crimes. One contained violations of campaign-finance laws. Cohen was the messenger between Trump and American Media Inc., publisher of the National Enquirer, which bought and killed former Playboy model Karen McDougal’s tale of a 2006-07 affair with Trump (conducted while Melania Trump was pregnant). Trump has denied the affair. Prosecutors described AMI’s $150,000 payment as an illegal corporate donation to the Trump campaign. Campaign-finance-law experts disagree about Trump’s legal vulnerability: If paying hush money to a mistress is something you might have done anyway, can it be strictly a campaign contribution? We will see what the courts make of that argument as the case unspools. The fact remains that everything legal is not always right. Donald Trump’s love life, and his penumbra of fixers, should be equally unsavory to any ordinarily moral person.
• A second, even more consequential Cohen crime was lying to Congress about the duration of Donald Trump’s plans to build a Moscow tower. The penthouse would reportedly have been given to Vladimir Putin himself; oligarchs would have paid top ruble to live beneath him. The tower was never built, and Cohen told Congress that discussion of it ceased in January 2016. But he now says the talk continued into June, when the primary season was all but over. What is disturbing here is not Cohen’s lie but Candidate Trump’s hedging against possible defeat with a Putin sweetheart deal. Trump’s business interest may partly explain his disheartening pro-Putin rhetoric. Words are not everything, but they are not nothing either. Trump’s words were terrible, and so, Cohen makes clear, were some of his motives.
• In a televised meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, President Trump said that he is willing to shut down the government — and take any heat for shutting it down — to get a border wall. To the Democrats, this was not much of a threat. Trump was saying that their choices were to give him his wall or watch him take responsibility for a shutdown. Why wouldn’t they take Option Two? As the actual lineup of forces in the Congress started to become clear to the administration, Trump’s aides started to back down for him. The wall is not much closer to being built than it was before Trump got elected.
• Having driven Attorney General Jeff Sessions out after two turbulent years, President Trump has hopefully found the credible hand needed to right the Justice Department ship. He has nominated William P. Barr, a former George H. W. Bush attorney general who is admired on both sides of the political aisle. Besides an intelligence background and top-level business experience, Barr has a savvy insider’s knowledge of the Justice Department’s procedures and traditions, having run its Office of Legal Counsel and served as deputy attorney general. On becoming AG, he supervised Robert Mueller, then Bush 41’s criminal-division chief. Barr and the now–special counsel have enjoyed mutual respect and a good working relationship. Fevered suggestions that Barr would surely advise Trump to fire Mueller are off base. He has not signaled hostility to Mueller’s investigation. He has said Mueller should have been more mindful that staffing his probe with partisan Democrats would hurt its public perception, and that Trump had grounds to fire FBI director James Comey. Both those things are true, and imply that Barr would assure Mueller can bring his investigation to a legitimate conclusion without political hype. Barr is a fine choice for a tough job and should be quickly confirmed.
• As interior secretary, Ryan Zinke was cast by environmentalists as a menace to necessary conservation measures who would cause the destruction of our public lands. His tenure was rather less apocalyptic. But that tenure is now coming to an end as Zinke resigns amid several sprawling investigations into his past real-estate deals and the misuse of public funds for his travel expenses. The weight of the evidence, so far, is that he was cavalier, at best, when it came to carrying out the obligations of a public servant. In some of these investigations, Zinke was cleared. In others, he wasn’t. The Justice Department continues to investigate a shady Montana land deal he struck that involved defense company Halliburton. Zinke carries the stench of misconduct on his way out the door, and we aren’t sad to see him go.
#*# The 95-year-old man looked like an injured raptor: no longer able to fly, but still in possession of his claws. He was hoisted out of his wheelchair, he flicked off the supporting hand under his left arm, then he saluted the flag-draped casket before him, bearing the body of the 94-year-old man. So Bob Dole paid his tribute to George H. W. Bush, veteran to veteran. The moment epitomized triumphing over grudges — Dole and Bush fought a bruising battle for the 1988 Republican presidential nomination, which Dole lost — and enduring old wounds: Dole saluted with his left arm, because his right is still almost entirely unusable, thanks to German machine-gun fire he sustained in 1945. At ease.
• At this rate, Jarndyce v. Jarndyce will be replaced in the Western canon as the go-to example of the court case that never ends by National Review, Inc. v. Michael E. Mann, which is now well into its seventh year as a live proposition and, alas, showing no end in sight. For those who have forgotten, this is the case in which Mann sued National Review for libel over a 270-word blog post criticizing his infamous “hockey stick” graph portraying global warming. That the D.C. Court of Appeals continues to drag its feet is extraordinary, especially given that at stake here is no less than the integrity of the First Amendment. It is extraordinary foremost because National Review’s case, which has been echoed and supported in amicus briefs by a veritable Who’s Who of America media organizations, is both straightforward and strong: that it is not, and it has never been, the government’s role to settle literary or scientific disputes. It is extraordinary, too, because National Review’s case is being heard under rules laid out by Washington, D.C.’s robust “anti-SLAPP” law, the explicit purpose of which is to make it more difficult to harass people and organizations with frivolous libel threats and thereby to protect a sturdy culture of free speech. How, we ask, can this be reconciled with a case such as ours, in which, among other inexplicable delays, the court has taken two years to add a single footnote to the records (and modify another)? That a slam-dunk case that is being examined under an expedited process should have yielded so many years of expensive and stressful radio static is a genuine national disgrace, and should be widely regarded as such. Justice rolls on like molasses.
• If you doubt that election fraud is real, consider the congressional race in North Carolina’s ninth district. The Republican, Mark Harris, beat Democrat Dan McCready by about 900 votes, with a crucial increment of his margin coming from absentee ballots in one county where a shady operator named McCrae Dowless worked in his behalf. At the very least, Dowless broke the law — he directly collected ballots from voters, which is prohibited in North Carolina. Worse, there’s a suggestion that he may not have turned in ballots from Democrats. The shenanigans taint the outcome enough to justify holding a new election and new primaries (Harris also benefited from the strangely proficient work of Dowless in his narrow primary victory). Absentee voting may be convenient, but it’s also fraught with the potential for abuse. Rules should accordingly be as rigorous as possible.
• In Wisconsin, Republicans scrambled to change election laws and reduce the governor’s and attorney general’s power before newly elected Democrats took office. Michigan Republicans made similar moves. Many of the changes were defensible, and there is bipartisan precedent across the country for such tactics. But government should not operate in this manner. There’s an aboveboard way to limit a governor’s power to seek waivers from federal programs, to pick one of the Wisconsin laws: Republicans could have said they would do it while campaigning in 2014, won election, and then enacted the legislation. Instead they waited until they lost and their legislation would not constrain them. Some of the legislation they enacted is trivial. Wisconsin’s AG will now be unable to withdraw from a lawsuit against Obamacare — a weak lawsuit; see editorial below — but the litigation would have proceeded without Wisconsin in any case. Both states’ parties have gotten a lot of negative publicity nationwide, and deserved it.
#*# Democrats in the New Jersey legislature tabled a proposal to reengineer how the state draws its legislative districts. The measure had produced an amazing coalition opposed to it: Republicans, many progressives, political scientists, newly elected Democratic governor Phil Murphy, even former Obama attorney general Eric Holder, who heads a group opposed to gerrymandering. The proposal would have required districts to be “competitive” — i.e., within five points of the statewide partisan average over the previous ten years, which means that no districts would lean Republican. Back to the redrawing board.
• Senator Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) has decided that she is not a “person of color” after all. Well: According to the experts at Benjamin Moore, “frosty pink” is, in fact, a color, but that isn’t what she means. What she means is that, in spite of her own former pronouncements, she is not a member of a minority group. She’s white — she’s Mitt Romney white. But that isn’t what she told employers such as the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard, which cited her purported Native American heritage — heritage she was boasting of as recently as October — when criticized for having too many white people on staff. She was for years listed in law directories as a member of a minority. Of course this is embarrassing for the senator and probable presidential aspirant. But this also points to a larger issue: Some of the main beneficiaries of diversity programs are well-connected middle-class white women and, to a lesser extent, the children of well-heeled African, Caribbean, and Latin American immigrant families. The value of these programs is not obvious: It is difficult to think of a less disadvantaged group of Americans than those who are under consideration for faculty positions at Harvard Law.
• Tablet magazine reported that, at the initial meeting of the activists who ended up helming the Women’s March over the last two years, two women asserted that Jewish people bore a collective responsibility for exploiting “black and brown people” and perhaps even leading the American slave trade. Later, the same women allegedly confronted one of the group’s Jewish leaders with comments such as “Your people hold all the wealth.” On Twitter, sociologist Gabriel Rossman made an apt allusion to Marx: Anti-Semitism turns out also to be the feminism of fools.
• So basta, then, the presidential dream of Michael Avenatti, the hotheaded lawyer for Stormy Daniels whose fame stopwatch reads approximately 14:45. Riding a wave of adulation from Democratic-party stalwarts last summer, he spoke at both a Chicago gathering of activists and a party fundraiser in Iowa as he promised to barnstorm through some 20 states. In December he reversed course, saying that at the request of his family he would not run. In between, his reputation fell apart faster than the claims of his second star client, Julie Swetnick, whose tall tale about Brett Kavanaugh’s supposed career as a teenage gang rapist tainted the Democratic campaign against him and paradoxically helped put the judge on the Supreme Court. In recent days, Avenatti was ordered to pay a former law partner $4.85 million, got evicted from his office in Newport Beach for non-payment of $213,000 in back rent, was arrested (though not formally charged) on suspicion of domestic violence, and was ordered to unload luxury watches and a Ferrari as part of a divorce settlement with his estranged wife. Meanwhile, Daniels (real name: Stephanie Clifford) complained that Avenatti had launched a defamation suit against Trump on her behalf without her permission — and lost the (frivolous) suit, obliging her to pay $300,000 in legal fees to Team Trump. Once dubbed “Hottie Avenatti” by female admirers, Avenatti these days looks more like the Better Call Saul of the Democratic party.
• The FIRST STEP Act has passed the Senate 87–12 and appears likely to become law. The bill makes worthwhile reforms to criminal sentencing and expands the federal prison system’s efforts to reduce recidivism. Its authors have worked with their critics to patch some problems as well. Most notably, they have expanded the list of offenses that make inmates ineligible for added “time credits.” However, some serious offenders could still be eligible if they somehow are considered a “low” or “minimal” risk to offend again and they participate in recidivism-reduction programs. Senator Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) proposed amendments to address some remaining worries; his opponents argued that they were written so broadly as to effectively gut the bill, and soundly defeated them. Congress should keep a close eye on how these reforms play out.
• The administration has rolled back another widely hated regulation instituted by Obama — Michelle Obama, that is, who, in keeping with the time-honored progressive mindset, decided that the best way of persuading children to eat their vegetables was to force them to. Among other things, the federal government’s school-lunch program (that sound you hear is James Madison snorting in derision), at Michelle’s behest, decreed that only whole grains could be served to students — thus banning such notorious child killers as biscuits, noodles, and tortillas — and only fat-free chocolate milk, not the merely low-fat variety. Now the Trump administration, without guidance from Melania, has lifted the restriction on chocolate milk and will allow half of the grain served by each school to be refined. Lesson: All the scientific studies in the world can’t make quinoa-zucchini salad taste good. If only the voting age could be lowered to ten, Trump would win in a landslide.
• A Florida panel investigating the Parkland shooting arrived at a controversial conclusion: Let teachers carry guns, so long as they go through extensive background checks and training. Many states already allow teachers to carry, and Florida itself adopted a law earlier this year allowing for the arming of non-teaching staff such as librarians. Armed teachers provide an extra layer of defense in the event of an emergency. This is a choice that should be allowed for school districts and not forced on them: In many areas of the country, parents are not comfortable with armed individuals in schools who have not formally become police officers or security guards. But in places where the local culture welcomes the idea, there is no reason for states to prohibit it.
• The news from General Motors is unwelcome: The automaker is discontinuing several passenger-car lines, shuttering five North American factories, and laying off thousands of workers. President Trump reacted with his habitual bluster, telling GM they had “better damn well open a new plant” in Ohio and boasting that he was “very tough” on the automaker’s CEO. That presidential posturing is unhelpful. Economic realities cannot be sneered out of existence. GM is a troubled company and has been for a long time: The bailout and bankruptcy restructuring that the firm went through a decade ago only delayed what was coming. GM makes a great deal of money with its very successful lines of pickup trucks and SUVs but earns relatively little from its passenger-car business, and so it has intelligently decided to mostly get out of the latter to concentrate on the former. The American car industry is booming, but not for Chevrolet: Mercedes, BMW, and Toyota, among others, are doing brisk business building cars, mostly far away from Detroit. Elon Musk’s biggest business problem is that he cannot build Tesla automobiles as fast as people want to buy them. Change and disruption can be painful, but they are a natural — and, though it is easy to forget, healthy — part of life in a free-market economy. Ask the good people at Studebaker.
• President Trump has made the Jamal Khashoggi killing the least mysterious whodunit of all time. Obviously, despite Trump’s stance that we can’t know what really happened, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing. In frustration, the Senate has voted to end American support for the Saudi war in Yemen and passed a resolution saying MBS was responsible for the killing. The former is a mistake, since it would end all our leverage over the Saudis in the conflict (and it’s important that Iran’s proxies don’t win the war), while the latter is an entirely reasonable and true statement. The administration is correct that we shouldn’t want to fundamentally disrupt our relationship with the Saudis over the murder, but if it appears to be covering for the regime’s crime, it is bound to create a reaction — and overreaction — here at home.
• If Prime Minister Theresa May had not deferred a vote on the agreement she had negotiated with the European Commission by which Britain was to withdraw from the European Union, we would have urged MPs to reject it. But May deferred a vote to January 14 — not because she recognized the agreement’s dangers but because she knew that it would be defeated by such a large majority in the House of Commons that her position as prime minister would likely be lost. She then survived a vote of confidence in the Conservative party by a 200–117 margin, and, days later, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called for a confidence vote he had floated as a political stunt. The result of all this is that May remains prime minister but has lost the support of more than one-third of all Tory MPs. The deal as constructed stands no chance in the House of Commons. May’s hope, apparently, is to persuade Brussels to qualify the provision requiring EU consent for British rescission of the agreement, but such a change would not suffice to make the agreement acceptable. Her leadership has proven a disaster for her government, the Tory party, and a sensible approach to Brexit.
• French president Emmanuel Macron is a Gallic Michael Bloomberg: an officeholder with a surprisingly antipolitical personality, some fine ideas (reforming the French welfare and regulatory state), and some lousy ones. It was one of the last, a carbon-punitive gas tax, that provoked nationwide demonstrations. Frenchmen in small cities and towns, who simply must drive to live, found the new levy insupportable in a stagnant economy, and donned yellow vests, the garb of motorists in distress, to protest. In Paris their ranks were swollen by casseurs, troublemakers who broke windows, torched cars, and chased and beat up cops. Everyone with a grievance — left, right, students, workers — piled on. Riots in the streets are an old French tradition, and a terrible one, mistaking license for self-rule. Macron backed off his gas tax. The situation remains fluid, as does Europe’s populist moment as a whole.
• It was eight o’clock at night when a terrorist pushed past security guards into the Christmas Market held every year in front of Strasbourg Cathedral. Opening fire, he killed five people and wounded 13, and hijacked a cab to escape. The authorities declared the highest state of emergency, with an all-night curfew for the city, including members of the European Parliament in session there. More than a thousand gendarmes and soldiers were mobilized, and eventually the terrorist was cornered and shot dead. Cherif Chakkat fit the model of an Islamist terrorist. Algerian in origin but born in Strasbourg, he had made no effort to integrate. Only 29 years old, he already had 27 convictions for robberies and drugs and had served prison sentences in Germany and France. Monitoring him, the usual professionals had failed to notice his support for the Islamic State. The failure to take obvious preventive steps against Chakkat and his like are not calming French emotions.
• In November, two months after China and the Holy See announced that they had agreed on a protocol for the joint appointment of Catholic bishops, yet another was disappeared — Peter Shao Zhumin, of Wenzhou, appointed by Pope Francis in 2016 but never recognized by Beijing. The government has been detaining and harassing bishops for years, with the evident aim of intimidating them. They haven’t been, but Rome has. In the name of Church unity, it has asked legitimate bishops to step aside in favor of those approved by Beijing but, up to now, not by the pope. Vatican diplomats, who had long been pursuing rapprochement with China, signed the deal as the Communist government was continuing to escalate religious persecution nationwide — in a movement reminiscent of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region have been interned in reeducation camps — and the crackdown on people of faith shows no signs of abating. In recent months the Chinese government demolished two Catholic shrines dedicated to Mary. Rome, which has been naïve, can learn from the fearlessness and tenacity of the underground Chinese Catholics whom it has betrayed.
• “Glory! Glory!” The crowd gathered in Sofiiska Square in Kiev exulted when President Petro Poroshenko announced the establishment of an autocephalous, or independent, Orthodox Church in Ukraine. The Moscow Patriarchate had long claimed ecclesiastic jurisdiction over all of Ukraine, where three branches of Eastern Orthodoxy coexisted, though in tension. In September, the ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the “first among equals” in the Eastern Orthodox world, formally rejected Moscow’s claims over Ukrainian territory. Other Orthodox leaders worldwide followed suit and recognized the newly formed incorporation of local churches into a single body independent of Moscow. No surprise, the Moscow Patriarchate, always hard to separate from Russian nationalism, objects. Its hostility to the new Orthodox body is of a piece with the geopolitical conflict between Ukraine and Russia. For their part, patriotic Ukrainians should resist the temptation to treat the new national church as merely a vehicle for a political or nationalist agenda. Godspeed to them.
• Here we go again. Another fortnight, another effort to drag, shame, and punish public figures for bad tweets. This shame session’s victims were Kevin Hart — who years ago tweeted bad jokes about what he would do if he found out his son was gay — and Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray, who tweeted the word “queer” at a friend when he was but 14 years old. Hart lost his gig hosting the Oscars. Murray was forced to apologize on the very day after he won college football’s highest award. It’s all so dreary. And there is no end in sight.
• Marc Lamont Hill has said terrible, anti-Semitic things. He has called for the destruction of the state of Israel. He has paid tribute to Louis Farrakhan. He has lamented Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile-defense system because it takes away Hamas’s “military leverage.” But he is of course still an American citizen and enjoys all of the protections of the First Amendment. That’s why Temple University was right not to take action to punish him for his speech. Temple, after all, is a public university bound by law to protect his free-speech rights. And that’s why it was wrong for outraged members of the public to call for Hill’s termination. The feeling of outrage itself, on the other hand, has our endorsement.
• Another academic-freedom spat involves one Noah Carl, a psychological researcher who has been offered a fellowship at the University of Cambridge. Hundreds of left-wing academics signed a vaguely worded letter calling his work “ethically suspect” and “methodologically flawed,” not to mention “racist pseudoscience.” Most of them aren’t too keen on fleshing out those criticisms, either, as Washington Post scribe Megan McArdle learned when she asked what exactly the problem was. Carl has waded into controversial waters: He has defended the study of race and IQ and analyzing whether opposition to immigrants of different nationalities correlates with the immigrant groups’ crime rates. Sometimes looking for the truth risks making us uncomfortable, but we should look even then. Carl has been proven guilty of nothing other than that, and has published his work in numerous peer-reviewed journals. Unless his critics can produce an accusation worth taking seriously, Cambridge should stand behind its offer.
• On the University of North Carolina campus there had long stood a statue of a Confederate soldier, nicknamed “Silent Sam.” In recent years the statue has inspired controversy, and in August it was toppled by protesters. But that wasn’t enough; TAs threatened to withhold their grades, and faculty members threatened not to teach, unless the statue’s remains were destroyed to prevent its repair and return to campus (they backed down but plan another strike if their demands are not met). There can be no doubting the bravery of Confederate soldiers or the injustice of what they were fighting for, and the difficulty of separating these two makes it hard to devise an appropriate monument. The UNC trustees are still trying; a proposed historical center to house the statue was turned down, and now, in true academic fashion, the matter has been referred to a committee. Meanwhile, UNC’s website provides a guide to the controversy, along with links to the history of slavery and the Civil War on the page of its website about Silent Sam. This, instead of threats and ultimatums, is how a complicated historical issue should be treated, especially at an institute of learning.
• WFB welcomed The Weekly Standard when it was born in 1995. “Come On In” was how he titled his editorial on the subject. He wanted to see conservatism proliferate in America and the world. And here was a new conservative magazine. For his part, William Kristol, the founder of the Standard, said, “We are all just bobbing along in his wake,” meaning WFB’s. (The statement was particularly apt, given WFB’s love of sailing.) WFB wrote for one of the Standard’s first issues. He reviewed a collection by Irving Kristol, Bill’s father. Over the next 23 years, the Standard published many other sterling writers too, including Andrew Ferguson, Matt Labash, and Jonathan V. Last. (When doing what we have just done, WFB would say, “Expressio unius est exclusio alterius,” which may be roughly translated, “If you name a few, you risk insulting the others,” which is certainly not our intent.) The Standard has now ceased operating, and conservatism is poorer, along with America itself. But we know that Standard people will shine on, and that we at NR should work all the harder and better.
• Sometimes the intelligent fail to notice the obvious, and then it becomes necessary for someone very intelligent to inform them. Such a task was performed in 1982 by Princeton political scientist Fred I. Greenstein. After studying the archives of the Eisenhower administration, he concluded, in his book The Hidden-Hand Presidency: Eisenhower as Leader, that the man who liberated Western Europe was in fact not what liberal academics (and some conservatives, e.g. WFB) thought him, a bland dunce, but a shrewd and willful manager of men, wearing a mask of bonhomie. The conservative critique of Ike is still arguable — shouldn’t leaders in a democracy lead from the front? — but after Greenstein it required modification. In his other work Greenstein examined all the presidents, comparing their character traits. Curious, thoughtful, not grinding axes: an ideal scholar. Dead at 88, R.I.P.
An Obamacare Distraction
We have opposed Obamacare — its expansion of Washington’s power over states and markets, its curtailments of freedom, its hiking of premiums — since before it was enacted. The law should never have passed, and the Supreme Court should have struck it down in 2012. Yet we deplore Judge Reed O’Connor’s new decision striking down the law. It will not lead to the replacement of Obamacare, as much as we desire that outcome. It will instead give Republicans another opportunity to dodge their responsibility to advance legislation toward that end.
It will not lead to the replacement of Obamacare because it is very likely to be overturned on appeal; and it is very likely to be overturned on appeal because it deserves to be.
The law Congress enacted in 2010 included a command that Americans buy health insurance that met congressional specifications. At the time, there was a broad consensus among health-care experts that without this “individual mandate,” the rest of Obamacare would cause health markets to unravel.
In 2012, the Supreme Court was asked to strike the law down because that command exceeded the legitimate powers of Congress. The Court agreed that Congress could not issue that command. But it said Congress could tax people for not buying health insurance; and so it said that the law should go forward as though Congress had done that.
By 2017, however, the old consensus about the necessity of the mandate to buy insurance had weakened substantially. As part of its 2017 tax-reform law, the Republican Congress, which had failed to replace Obamacare as a whole, set the tax at zero.
That’s where Judge O’Connor comes in. His ruling holds that the individual mandate can no longer be constitutionally justified as a tax now that it is set at zero, and that since Congress considered the mandate central to Obamacare when it enacted that law in 2010, the whole thing has to go. Neither half of this argument is valid.
There is, in the first place, no longer any individual mandate to justify. The Supreme Court in 2012 eliminated it as a legal requirement on individuals to buy insurance, and the Congress eliminated it as a tax in 2017. The government is no longer taking any unconstitutional action via this spectral, zero-dollar tax.
The deliberate decision by Congress to eliminate the tax without eliminating the rest of Obamacare, meanwhile, shows that Congress in 2017 no longer considered it essential to the law.
The Supreme Court has preserved Obamacare, as it has been implemented, even against meritorious legal challenges. It seems highly likely to preserve it against a much weaker one. Republican politicians have repeatedly counted on the courts to deliver them from Obamacare without their having to take any heat for abolishing its popular elements, to come up with workable alternatives, or to accommodate the interests of people who rely on the law while pleasing those who oppose it. O’Connor’s decision is giving them a new dodge: As it winds its way through the courts, they can continue telling the opponents of the law that victory is at hand, continue telling those who benefit from the law that they will protect them whatever happens, and — continue not working on health care.
But the courts will almost certainly not, as they should not, deliver Republicans from their duties.
George H. W. Bush, R.I.P.
Some moments define a man, a type, and an era. One such occurred when Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson addressed the 1942 graduating class of Phillips Andover Academy. Stimson was no stranger to power or to privilege. Before serving in FDR’s cabinet, he had been Herbert Hoover’s secretary of state and William Howard Taft’s secretary of war. He was an alumnus of Andover (and of Yale, and of Skull and Bones). From these heights he told the young men before him that, even though Pearl Harbor had been attacked only six months earlier, they should complete their educations before they enlisted. George H. W. Bush ignored him and reported for duty to train as a Navy pilot that August. His preppie handbook was his flight manual. So the WASPocracy intersected with the Greatest Generation.
Bush served in the Pacific (literally: on one of his missions he was shot down). After the war he, like Stimson, went to Yale, where he was tapped for Bones. But what illuminated him more than this John O’Hara catalogue of caste markers was that moment of youthful decision. No one who knew him, or even observed him honestly from afar, could doubt his devotion to duty, and to doing the right thing when it was presented in clear and urgent terms.
Two fruits of that devotion marked his presidency. He saw the Cold War through to its conclusion, as first the Berlin Wall and then the Soviet Union itself crumbled; and when Saddam Hussein one day simply ingested Kuwait, he assembled the necessary forces and drove the tyrant back. His rhetorical peak was a relatively minor moment. One of Saddam’s distractions, as the avenging army assembled, was to lob missiles at Israel. Helen Thomas, the doyenne of the White House press corps, asked Bush a slyly anti-Semitic question whose premise was that the Israelis would react excessively. Bush responded with incredulity and indignation: They were being attacked. Bull’s-eye.
It soon became fashionable to disdain the Gulf War, either because it left Saddam in power until the Iraq War toppled him, or because we should never have become embroiled in the Arab world in the first place. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, and its remedies. Should we despise the Revolution because we still fought the War of 1812?
Bush’s métier was politics, where the path of duty is often obscure, and chances to do the right thing must be made by one’s self. Bush was a competitor, keen to win, and he eventually won the biggest prize of all, but his upward path was wobbly. He left his northeastern roots to make his way in Texas, first as a Goldwaterite, then as a moderate Houstonian; next (running against Ronald Reagan) as a relatively fresh face, then as Reagan’s loyal veep. His conscientious performance of the last role enabled him to win the 1988 GOP nomination and the election, but wobbling resumed.
One emblematic problem was his rhetoric. The Helen Thomas moments did not come often. I had firsthand experience of it. When Bush ran for president in 1980, I profiled him for NR and rather unkindly wrote that he dropped pauses in his speeches like moving men leaving a piano on a landing of a staircase. If anyone in Bush World read that, they forgave it, because when Chris Buckley, his main vice-presidential speechwriter, suggested taking me on as an auxiliary for the 1982 off-year elections, I was taken. One of the vice president’s main jobs, since Nixon served Ike, has been to stump for candidates. My job for Bush was to write the stump speech and modify it as needed. (When Millicent Fenwick was the candidate of the moment, I cut the graf on abortion.) Bush’s habits had not improved. I sat in the back of one hall, watching him address a General Convention of the Episcopal Church (his church). This required a speech specially written for the occasion; Bush had suggested a few changes in Air Force Two on the way. Though he was hanging with his homies, he knew they were to his left; he wanted badly to make a strong case, and his earnestness counted for much. But, as he always did with a text, he went into improvised loop-the-loops, and I sat, thinking, You haven’t brought a verb, and now you won’t be able to find one . . .
The speaking style, I concluded, reflected his thinking style. Some of his policy positions were rock-solid, though for Bushian reasons. However much he might defer on the hustings to the Fenwicks of his party, he himself had become strongly pro-life. One of his sons had adopted children of his own. If their birth mothers had aborted them, Bush reasoned, he would miss them as grandkids.
But without some personal stake, or the impetus he had been given by the Axis or would get from Communism or Saddam, he could seem lost. At the 1988 convention that first nominated him to run for president, he had promised never to raise taxes, in a strident phrase that sounded cribbed from a Schwarzenegger movie: “Read my lips: No new taxes!” Then, as president, he raised them. Reagan, in similar circumstances as governor of California, had shown aw-shucks candor. Bush, badgered by reporters while jogging, retorted, “Read my hips!” Politicians who pay such scant regard to their own word that they cannot even trouble to break it gracefully are asking for comeuppance.
He spent his post-presidential years with Barbara and with his ever-growing family. He sky-dove and went on tsunami- and hurricane-relief missions assigned by his president son. He wrote, as he had all his political years, hundreds and hundreds of personal notes to his myriad acquaintances, who were either friends or made by his courtesy to consider themselves so.
Bush was by nature a captain, the ideal executor or second-in-command. Now he, like the kings, has departed. We find our presidents in stories by V. S. Naipaul, or Tom Wolfe. Dead at 94, R.I.P.
— Richard Brookhiser