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Regarding the news from Egypt, there’s nothing like a Middle East hostage crisis to remind us whom he reminds us of.

“I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich, they’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America, the 90, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.” So said Mitt Romney in a CNN interview. That first sentence — infelicitous for any presidential candidate, let alone one as wealthy as Romney — drew immediate attacks from both Democrats and Romney’s Republican rivals. The underlying thought is also problematic. Political leaders, especially conservative ones, should not settle for maintaining the safety net as the answer to poverty: They ought to be promoting opportunity, not dependence. If what Romney was trying to say was that the health of the middle class is especially important for the country’s future, then maybe that’s what he should have said.

Hot on the heels of his observation about the poor, Romney reiterated that he favors indexing the minimum wage to inflation. It is a bad idea for the same reason that the minimum wage itself is a bad idea: Price controls on labor put low-skilled people out of work, which has the particularly counterproductive effect of delaying young people’s entry into the work force or, in too many cases, preventing it altogether. Proponents of indexing the minimum wage argue that doing so would make the increases predictable and would spare Republicans the periodic fight over voting to raise it — a fight Republicans always lose. But there is nothing to stop Democrats from proposing further increases in the minimum wage after it is indexed, and indexing would eliminate the most desirable feature of the current arrangement: Inflation erodes the real value of the minimum wage over time, rendering it less destructive. The problem for Romney and the country is not minimum-wage jobs, but the subpar growth of the economy and median wages. The policy and politics of that discussion are both on Romney’s side, but he’ll never out-Democrat the Democrats on the minimum wage, and shouldn’t try.

President Obama is submitting a budget to Congress, and one wonders why he bothers: His last was rejected 97–0 by the Senate. The Senate may not know what it wants — the Democrat-controlled chamber hasn’t bothered to pass a budget in years — but it knows what it doesn’t want, and President Obama is pitching more of the same. The president’s budget proposes a number of tax increases on “the rich” — who used to be defined as those earning $250,000 or more, and then $200,000 or more, and now are down to $178,650 — with the top two income-tax rates going up and the top capital-gains rates doubled. These taxes are to be applied to additional education spending (evidence for the effectiveness of which remains nonexistent) and transportation, for all those shovel-ready jobs that the three-quarters-of-a-trillion-dollar stimulus missed. Meanwhile, the debt would continue to pile up. All of which would be troubling if the budget were a budget, but it is not: It is a class-warfare brief, an early salvo in the presidential contest in which the president plans to run against Wall Street, mightily assisted by his chief of staff, the Citigroup guy who replaced the J. P. Morgan guy who replaced the Wasserstein Perella guy.

The Susan G. Komen Foundation was clearly unprepared for the sheer scale and viciousness of the attacks unleashed upon it for its decision to disentangle itself from abortion mega-provider Planned Parenthood. Nor did Komen help its cause with a PR counteroffensive that was shifting, muddled, and weak. But we can see why Planned Parenthood acted as it did. Drawing attention to Planned Parenthood’s minimal connection to mammography helps brighten the line between women’s health and abortion, and by that virtue undermines the very argument Planned Parenthood’s supporters trot out whenever a source of funding is threatened: that any defunding will harm women. Planned Parenthood is a $1 billion–per–year enterprise, Komen’s annual disbursements approach $250 million. The discontinuing of some $600,000 in grants from the latter to the former would not mean a mass of women went unscreened. Nor, sadly, would it disrupt Planned Parenthood’s provision of abortion. Komen now says that Planned Parenthood will be eligible to apply for future grants. If it does not approve the applications, it should prepare itself for another onslaught.

Kathy Dahlkemper served in Congress for two years before being ejected in the 2010 election. A pro-life Catholic Democrat from Pennsylvania, she says she would never have voted for Obamacare had she known that the administration would use its authority under the law to force Catholic hospitals and colleges to provide contraceptive coverage. Had she and other pro-lifers voted against Obamacare — or insisted on amending it before its passage — Obama would not have had this legal authority in the first place. The vote in the House was tight, and it was supposedly pro-life Democrats, led by Bart Stupak of Michigan, who put the bill over the top. Stupak, too, is a former congressman, who decided not to run again after the Obamacare vote. A Republican succeeded him. But the law remains on the books. We would not be having to fight for the right to follow one’s conscience if these pols had developed and then exercised theirs.

Clint Eastwood, whilom Republican politician, ap­peared in a strange little Super Bowl commercial, “Half­time in America,” praising bailouts for Detroit’s sclerotic automakers and their ravening unions. Eastwood de­ployed his increasingly self-parodic growl to declare that “Motor City is fighting again” in a message sponsored by Chrysler, which is fighting for its corporate master, Fiat, the Italian corporation that owns nearly 60 percent of it. Chrysler received billions of dollars in federal bailout money, has few profitable lines, and manufactures many of its automobiles in Mexico. Worse, this is the sequel: Chrysler got a previous bailout in 1979. The best thing that can be said about Chrysler is that it is not GM, and that is not saying much. Even Mr. Eastwood’s considerable talents are insufficient to turn this flop into an inspiration.

In 2008, candidate Barack Obama pledged to accept federal matching funds, even though doing so would limit the private donations his campaign could collect. That decision lasted until it became clear that he would pile up much more cash by shunning the matching funds. At that point Obama explained that since his Republican opponent (who did accept matching funds) was getting so many donations, he had to abandon his principles to keep up. Now, four years later, the big issue is “super PACs” — fundraising committees that can back a candidate with virtually unlimited spending because they are officially separate from the campaign. Not long ago Obama railed against super PACs, calling them “a threat to our democracy” that would “open the floodgates for special interests.” But guess what? With the campaign upon him, he has rethought the matter, and now he directs well-heeled donors to a super PAC called Priorities USA (and lets it be known that he wouldn’t mind terribly if George Soros set up a pro-Obama super PAC of his own). But don’t worry: Campaign staff told a reporter that “his reversal was tactical and did not represent a change in principle with regard to Mr. Obama’s position on campaign-finance laws.” So that’s all right then.

The State of California recognized same-sex couples as marriages for all of 143 days in 2008, between the time the state supreme court invented the right to such recognition and the first opportunity voters had to reverse it. Now two liberal federal judges have ruled that the voters had no rational basis for taking away this recognition, especially since the state continues to provide interested same-sex couples with civil unions that include many of the legal benefits and duties of marriage. On the judges’ account, only irrational prejudice could explain this behavior. Take this reasoning seriously, and it means (a) that federal courts can make California resume according marital status to same-sex couples without having to force the entire country to follow suit, and (b) that states that want to reject same-sex marriage would be safer to reject civil unions too. But of course the judges’ logic is both weak and plastic. If removing legal recognition is bigotry, so is not awarding it in the first place; and a judge so inclined could easily treat a state’s failure to enact a civil-union law as evidence of its deep hostility to homosexuals. What is driving the results of the marriage cases is not legal reasoning. It is a sense of what the judges can get away with at any moment.

The Obama administration announced a change concerning the sale of civilian nuclear technologies to other countries. It used to be, the buying country had to agree not to manufacture its own nuclear fuel, and to make itself available for inspection. But now the administration says it will take a “case by case” approach. In the Christian Science Monitor, John Bolton au­thored an op-ed piece with Congressman Ed Markey, the veteran Massachusetts liberal. They decried this change by the administration, saying, “America will likely soon find itself in the inadvertent business of helping a multitude of countries pursue their deadly nuclear ambitions.” They favor a bill proposed by representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) and Howard Berman (D., Calif.), which would give Congress more power to quash unwise agreements. No amount of money to be made by our nuclear industry, said Bolton and Markey, would be worth the proliferation. Bolton and Ros-Lehtinen are right, of course; and though we gulp a bit to say it, Markey and Berman are too.

Telephone taxes have long been cited by conservatives as proof of eternal life here on earth, and in early February, evidence of another one surfaced. The “Universal Service Fund fee,” present on all monthly bills since 1997, is paying for a $1.6 billion federal program called Lifeline, in which all Amer­icans eligible to receive federal aid can apply to enroll. Lifeline pays for either a $30 cell phone or a landline installation, and then subsidizes the recipient’s monthly bill to the tune of $10 per month. The program has become increasingly popular in the last few years; so popular, in fact, that many people have registered multiple times. An FCC audit conducted in 2011 showed that up to 269,000 wireless subscribers had free phones and cell service from at least two carriers. And people who don’t qualify appear to like it, too. These abuses have caught the attention of Democratic senator Claire McCaskill, who has called for an investigation. The FCC will be hard pressed to do much about the abuse, however; until it was investigated, it had not con­sidered it necessary to build a database to keep track of its handouts. Congratulations, you are paying your neighbor’s telephone bill.

Claremont McKenna, a private residential liberal-arts college in southern California, regularly comes out in the top ten on various rankings of educational excellence, including the best-known and most-consulted ranking of all, that by U.S. News & World Report. Now we learn that CMC (as students and alumni refer to the college) has been misreporting the SAT scores of incoming students since 2005. Richard Vos, dean of admissions since 1987, resigned January 30, following circulation of an apologetic memo by college president Pamela Gann. Why would CMC do such a thing? The culprit seems to be affirmative action: President Gann has long been keen on improving “diversity” at the college, and 2005 was the year CMC began admitting inner-city students from Los Angeles on racial preferences. The lower-than-usual SAT scores of these students threatened the college’s rankings, reducing CMC’s appeal to prospective students. Improve “diversity” or maintain rankings? The only way to square the circle was to cheat. Moral of the story: Affirmative action is not only unfair, it is also corrupting. Solution: Since college education is widely regarded as an investment, why should not colleges’ reported statistics be subject to independent audit, as other investment vehicles’ are?

Even a fevered spy novelist might shy away from putting on paper the latest events in the Israel‒Iran conflict: Iranian scientists killed on their morning commutes by assassins on motorcycles; mysterious explosions destroying Iranian facilities; attempts on the lives of Israeli diplomats in foreign countries. The war between Iran and Israel that has been ongoing for decades is becoming more open, and may soon become more open still with an Israeli military strike on the Iranian nuclear program. The Israelis fear that the window for them to act on their own to forestall the program is closing, and they would rather not trust an American president to deal with what they consider an existential threat in 2013 or later. How much damage the Israelis could do to the Iranian program, and how the Iranians would respond, are both unknowable. It would be foolish for the Iranians to try to close the Strait of Hormuz or to attack our bases in the Persian Gulf — acts that would invite a devastating response from us. Their more likely recourse would be proxy war against Israel (waged by their client Hezbollah) and more international terrorism, although direct retaliation against Israel can’t be ruled out. Israel may understandably conclude that those are risks worth taking to prevent — for now — an Iranian regime already at war with it from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

TANSTAAFL, After All These Years

Conservatives have rightly worked themselves into a lather over President Obama’s pas de deux of statist effrontery. First came the HHS rule attempting to erase the religious-liberty exemption when religious liberty runs afoul of secular or progressive values, and then came his supposed “accommodation” of opponents of the new rule, which only made the situation worse. Under the accommodation, the government forces insurance companies to magically pay for “preventive services” without passing those costs on to consumers or taxpayers. It’s all, according to President Obama, “free.”

And this is my greatest frustration in the controversy. Before we can scavenge for the disgorged contents of this whole piñata — the trampling of religious liberty, the bureaucratic bullying, the folly of socialized medicine, Obama’s naked hypocrisy, his betrayal of liberal Catholics — there’s the basic, irreducible, fundamental issue: The man is treating us all like idiots.

Because it is a bedrock fact of human existence, never mind economics: There is no free anything. Everything costs time, energy, or matter.

I really thought this was a settled issue. Any sentence that begins “The government will provide for free . . .” is at best a half-truth, and more often a whole lie. It can be a half-truth if you’re saying that some people will get something “for free” with the caveat that someone else is paying for it. And that someone else is not “the government,” because the government doesn’t pay for anything. Taxpayers — either now or in the future — pay for it all. As Frédéric Bastiat once said, “Government is the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.”

“The free-lunch myth,” explained Milton Friedman, is “the belief that somehow or other, government can spend money at nobody’s expense.” You can’t print money to pay for things at no cost without making people poorer, and you can’t tax businesses to avoid paying for things with taxpayer money. Businesses are people, as both Friedman and Mitt Romney have rightly said. When you tax a business, you are taxing the owners, the employees, and the customers of the business. If you go to YouTube, you can type in “Milton Friedman Free Lunch” and he’ll explain it better than I can.

Obama’s “accommodation” is an insult to everyone. His basic assumption is that we’re all morons and won’t figure out that if there’s no such thing as a free lunch, there’s no such thing as free abortifacients and sterilizations. You could be in favor of taxpayer-funded castrations, and still be offended by Obama’s gamble that Americans are too dumb to understand what he’s saying.

Alas, many reporters covering this controversy are in fact just that dumb.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta caused a stir when he told reporters that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan would end in 2013, a year sooner than proposed under the administration’s avowed strategy. Panetta later hedged the remark, saying 2013 would in­stead mark a transition from a “combat role” to a “training, advise, and assist” role, but the comments remain disturbing. It seems that no one in this increasingly antsy administration is talking about the enemy, except to express eagerness to negotiate with it; and no one is talking about strategy, beyond a strategy for getting out quickly. There is no strategically justifiable reason to be having this conversation now, or for skipping lightly over the matter of planning for real success by, dare we say it, defeating the enemies that remain, including the Haqqani Network. With spring comes the beginning of the Afghan “fighting season” and a sharp esca­lation of violence. A wiser policy would focus on using these months to attrit the enemy wherever he is foolish enough to meet us, and to clear him from his redoubts along the porous Pakistani border. Then, the winter of 2012–13 would present an opportunity to pause and assess our mission and its prospects. But, alas, there is a presidential election between now and then.

Night has descended on Egypt, and its rulers are doing what such rulers often do: They’re blaming foreigners for their country’s troubles. Egypt has arrested some 45 foreigners associated with pro-democracy organizations. About 20 of them are Amer­ican, including Sam LaHood, the son of the transportation secretary. Imagine that: A government is essentially holding hostage the son of a cabinet official in the government of its most important ally. The generals are issuing statements such as, “We face conspiracies hatched against the homeland, whose goal is to undermine the institutions of the Egyptian state and whose aim is to topple the state itself so that chaos reigns and destruction spreads.” By all accounts, the Egyptian public is lapping it up. But the United States must not let this situation stand. If Egypt can snatch and try NGO workers, without consequences, dictators all over the world will know that they can do the same. And they will. America has leverage over Egypt, and should suspend or cut military aid until all is resolved to our satisfaction. Wobbliness is dangerous.

In the face of popular protest, Syrian president Bashar Assad deliberately chose repression. The consequences are catching up with him and his dictatorship. In the desperate attempt to regain control, the Syrian army is operating outside moral and human constraints. Tanks and artillery regularly shell larger towns such as Homs and Deraa, and patrolling soldiers massacre the inhabitants of villages or drive them into exile. Utilities are cut off and anyone out in the street in search of food is likely to be shot. The figure given of 6,000 dead is certainly too low. Bashar claims that he is fighting “armed terrorists,” but the population can recognize sectarian conflict when they see it. Assad and the ruling elite are Alawites or heterodox Shiites, a minority forcing their supremacy on the Sunni majority. Sectarian fighting has already begun in neighboring Lebanon, and real armed terrorists from al-Qaeda in Iraq are crossing into Syria. The Arab League is afraid that interference will make matters worse. In the U.N., Russia and China vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning the violence. Either Alawites must do a lot more killing or they will have to pay for Assad’s crimes. The Israeli chief of staff was serious when he said that Israel should prepare to receive Alawites coming to seek refuge in the country. In the absence of any effective Western policy, the steady degradation of Syria is ever more ominous.

Somali-Dutch dissident Ayaan Hirsi Ali calls it “Christophobia,” the motive for a “rising genocide . . . coursing through Muslim-majority nations from one end of the globe to the other.” In an essay for News­week, she laid out the case: years-long slaughter in Sudan, not ended by South Sudan’s independence (wretched Christians still remain in the parent country); the Boko Haram cult in Nigeria, responsible for burning hundreds of churches; the Maspero massacre in Cairo last October, in which Egyptian security forces killed two dozen Copts; the ethnic cleansing of Christians from post-Saddam Iraq; Saudi Arabia’s prison-like confinement of its million Christian guest workers, who are forbidden to pray, even in private. The indignities and pogroms are not centrally planned or coordinated, says Ali, but are “a spontaneous expression of anti-Christian animus by Muslims that transcends cultures, regions, and ethnicities.” The built-in militancy of a warrior faith is encouraged by fundamentalist preaching (often financed by petrodollars) and the political agendas of tyrants and aspiring tyrants. What to do? Maybe aid and trade can be used as leverage, says Ali. But she mostly wants us to “get our priorities straight.” “Cartoons, films, and writings” that grieve Muslims in the West “are one thing; knives, guns, and grenades are something else.”

A young Saudi recently addressed the Prophet Mohammed on Twitter. “I have loved things about you and I have hated things about you and there is a lot I don’t understand about you. I will not pray for you,” wrote 23-year-old Hamza Kashgari just before the anniversary of the prophet’s birth in early February. Such musings were met with an immediate outpouring of fury and denunciation: A Facebook group entitled “The Saudi People Demand the Execution of Hamza Kashgari” quickly garnered 20,000 members, and a series of powerful clerics called for him to be punished for apostasy under sharia law (a YouTube video of an alternately weeping and wrathful Sheikh Nasser al-Omar making this de­mand went viral). The Saudi king complied and issued a warrant for Kashgari’s arrest. Seeking asylum, Kashgari attempted to flee to New Zealand by way of Malaysia, where officials promptly detained and extradited him, explaining that their country could not act as a safe haven for “terrorists and those who are wanted by their countries of origin.” He now awaits trial and possible execution in Saudi Arabia. Anyone anticipating a “Facebook Revo­lu­tion” there will have a long time to wait.

Zhu Yufu is one of those Chinese democrats who just won’t give up. A founder of the China Democratic Party, he was imprisoned from 1999 to 2006. Once out, he continued to appeal for democracy, and was sentenced to two more years. Out once more, he would not shut up, publishing a poem that ends, “China belongs to everyone. / Of your own will / It’s time to choose what China shall be.” You can’t talk like that in “the People’s Re­pub­lic,” and Zhu has been sentenced to seven more years. His son said, “My father is nearly 60 years old and in poor health — putting him in jail for seven years is too inhumane, too cruel.” If China ever democratizes, names like Zhu’s will be celebrated. If it doesn’t, they should be celebrated nonetheless.

Who is to guard the guards themselves, asked the Roman poet Juvenal, no doubt having in mind some busybody in his day like the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón nowadays. He’s been a world-beater in judicial activism, above all a pioneer in exploiting the growing doctrine of universal jurisdiction that has extended so much practice in the law courts into a branch of left-wing politics. Among others, he has targeted the Chilean head of state General Augusto Pinochet, Osama bin Laden, Nazis, former Franco supporters, and Basques, and in 2009 he tried to indict American officials for alleged abuses at Guantanamo. In Spain he’s had to answer accusations ranging from the illegal ordering of wiretaps in a corruption case to accepting payments for a course sponsored by a bank in return for dropping an investigation into the head of that bank. Spain’s Supreme Court found that in the wiretap case he was guilty of abusing his judicial powers, and has suspended him from the legal profession for eleven years. This means that he’ll be 67 by the time he can resume promoting himself in the courts and the newspapers.

The Russians, like other people, have national pride, and national pride is a powerful thing. For the past many years, Russian pride has been wounded, on a number of fronts. Amer­i­cans adopt children from Russia, as they do from China and from Third World countries. The Russian foreign ministry has now asked the leaders in the Kremlin to suspend adoptions by Americans, because of an “incessant string of crimes” committed against the Russian-born kids by their adoptive parents. This smells much more like wounded pride than like genuine concern. And the losers, of course, will be Russian orphans.

The library at Tsinghua University, a prestigious science-oriented institution in Peking, installed a website equipped with advanced artificial intelligence to help library users search for material. Named Xiaotu (“Little Chart”), the gadget was designed to learn as it went along, storing common requests for future reference. Alas, the students of Peking are as high-spirited and irreverent as students elsewhere, and some of the things Xiaotu learned from them have turned out to be . . . inappropriate. To the query “May I touch you, Xiaotu?” it returns the reply: “Sure, but there’s a 20-yuan extra charge.” University authorities deactivated poor Xiaotu over the current Lunar New Year break. They promise to have it back in service, purged of all impropriety, in time for the coming semester.

A group of scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, citing the perils of obesity, have called for sugar to be regulated like tobacco or alcohol, with age limits, licensing of sellers, restrictions on vending machines, and a punitively high tax. One researcher calls sugar “the biggest public-health crisis in the history of the world” — though evidently it can be fixed by adding a quarter to the price of a Hershey bar and making it as hard for teenagers to buy one as it is to get into an R-rated movie. Will financial disincentives work with sugar? After all, what’s more expensive than dentistry? Plus we already have an extensive system of subsidies, trade barriers, and price supports that make sugar more expensive in the U.S. than just about anywhere else. And, most important, whatever happened to parents? Yet such questions make no sense to people who accept the nanny state’s governing axiom: If it exists, it must be regulated.

John F. Kennedy (Hyan­nisport, Harvard) famously said of Rich­ard Nixon (Yorba Linda, Whittier) that he had “no class.” But no class comes in many flavors, as the memoirs of Mimi Alford attest. Alford (née Beardsley) was a 19-year-old White House intern when Kennedy se­duced her, inaugurating a year-and-a-half-long affair. JFK’s goatishness has been so well known for so long that it is by now part of his profile, like TR’s grin or Lincoln’s melancholy. Alford adds a few details, which would be as tedious to recount as they were disgusting to learn. What she illuminates is the willingness of the typical paramour. She did not feel she was betraying Jackie — “I was merely occupying the president’s time when his wife was away.” She was foolish, star-struck, proud of her access — and therefore accessible. Mistresses and cavaliers have surrounded despots of both sexes throughout history. Republican institutions do not eliminate them — only republicanism of the spirit can do that.

At Shippensburg University in central Pennsylvania, students can now get the “morning after” pill from a vending machine. You slip in $25, and there it is. The cigarette machine has virtually disappeared from public life. A society demonstrates its values in many ways, including by the contents of its vending machines.

In California, a judge briefly entertained, then dismissed, a claim that SeaWorld was required to release its five performing orcas (killer whales) under the 13th Amendment. Yes, you read that right: the amendment that abolished slavery. Lawyers from an animal-rights group maintained that keeping orcas in captivity was equivalent to enslaving them; the legal reasoning behind this assertion basically boiled down to saying that orcas are cute. Yet suppose the orcas had won, and been released into the waiting flippers of their brethren in the sea. The problem is that orcas are nasty pieces of work (the word “killer” should have been a giveaway): They congregate in menacing gangs, steal fishermen’s catches, and, worst of all, slaughter and eat other charismatic megafauna, such as seals, walruses, other whales, and even penguins. So if they did get sprung from SeaWorld by a clever cetacean-rights lawyer, and were endowed with legal status equivalent to that of a human, they would soon be back in prison on a murder rap.

Almost seven years ago, the NCAA went on the warpath against colleges and universities with sports teams named for American Indians, threatening sanctions against those that failed to win the blessings of local tribes. The University of North Dakota received the backing of the Spirit Lake Sioux, who said they were honored that UND teams are known as the Fighting Sioux. But another tribe, the Standing Rock Sioux, did not act, so the NCAA demanded that UND’s Fighting Sioux fight no more forever (to borrow the famous line from Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce). As the university prepared to surrender, however, citizens mounted a resistance movement. It looks like voters will consider forcing the school to keep the name, in a June ballot initiative. Success will resolve nothing — the NCAA will continue its politically correct manipulations — but it will signal that the fighting spirit of the Sioux remains alive and well.

April 15 this year marks a striking milestone in the history of U.S. military aviation: the 60th anniversary of the first B-52 flight. That was a test flight: The B-52 did not enter service with the Air Force until February 1955. Astonishing to report, the B-52 is still in service. Grandchildren of the first B-52 flight crews may be flying B-52s today (much modified, of course). Still more astonishing, on current plans the mighty Strato­fortress will remain in service until “at least 2020” — quite possibly into the 2040s, close to a century on from that first test flight. We record the B-52’s upcoming diamond jubilee with pride and wonder, and offer heartfelt thanks to all who de­signed, built, and maintained this magnificent machine, and to all who have served, and all who still serve, in her.

Some great artists (Horace, Jane Austen, T. S. Eliot) describe reality; others (Shakespeare, Cervantes, Melville) enlarge it. Their characters are like new continents or planets annexed to our imagination. Charles Dickens (b. February 7, 1812) was the second kind of artist. G. K. Chesterton, an intelligent fan, observed that, though “he did not always manage to make his characters men . . . he always managed, at the least, to make them gods. . . . He stamped his foot, and armies came out of the earth.” George Orwell, another admirer, was reduced to sputtering a long list of characters’ names, followed by exclamation points (“Skimpole! Joe Gargery! Pecksniff!”). His reputation, once rock-star huge — like some rock stars, he killed himself by overperforming — is now semi-submerged. A Christmas Carol marches on, and A Tale of Two Cities is thrust at schoolchildren. But every once in a while, someone resurrects one of his contraptions — e.g., Nicholas Nickleby, staged in 1980 — and finds pure gold. He died in 1870, but he is as alive as the man next to you on the bus.

Sam Vaughan, in his many years at Doubleday and other publishing houses, edited an array of writers, from Dwight Eisenhower to Fannie Flagg (Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café). He is dearest to this magazine for his long editorial relationship with WFB. Sam it was who suggested that the pundit and public intellectual try his hand at fiction, and so Blackford Oakes was born. Before academics became enamored of hypothetical history, WFB, using Blackford as a prism, limned a parallel Cold War, recounting what happened, and what might have happened. Sam also published Take Five, the masterpiece of D. Keith Mano, who wrote NR’s “Gimlet Eye” column in the Seventies and Eighties; if you want a look at Gotham in those grim, crazy years, look no further than Take Five. In a business increasingly given over to mergers and the bottom line, Sam was both a gracious colleague and a sensitive craftsman. Dead at 83. R.I.P.

Two deaths marked a sea change in black culture and pop culture generally. Don Cornelius created Soul Train, a TV show featuring black music and dance, in 1970, and hosted it for 23 years. Looking back on old episodes in the Valhalla of YouTube, one is struck by how innocent it all seems — the simple production values, the young (under- and un-)paid performers, the high spirits. Whitney Houston burst far beyond the bounds of black music in 1985, with a tessitura as big as North America. For a number of years, she and her pipes ruled pop music. There was a lot of money to be made from this music; it got spent on lavish PR, blitzkrieg tours, and videos of increasing sheen and unreality. The stars, some of them, also spent it on truckloads of drugs. Houston, after years of indulgence, died of an overdose on the eve of the Grammy Awards, age 48. Cornelius had preceded her, a suicide at age 75. R.I.P.

Santorum’s Turn

At the moment, Rick Santorum appears to be overtak­ing Newt Gingrich as the principal challenger to Mitt Romney. Santorum has won more contests than Gin­grich (who has won only one), has more delegates, and leads him in the polls. In at least one poll, he also leads Romney. It isn’t yet a Romney–Santorum contest, but it could be headed that way.

We hope so. Gingrich’s verbal and intellectual talents should make him a resource for any future Republican president. But it would be a grave mistake for the party to make someone with such poor judgment and persistent unpopularity its presidential nominee. It is not clear whether Gingrich remains in the race because he still believes he could become president next year or because he wants to avenge his wounded pride: an ambiguity that suggests the problem with him as a leader. When he led Santorum in the polls, he urged the Pennsylvanian to leave the race. On his own arguments, the proper course for him now would be to endorse Santorum and exit. We offer him no such advice, but note that the rationale for his candidacy is disappearing.

Santorum has been conducting himself rather impressively in his moments of triumph and avoiding characteristic temptations. He is doing his best to keep the press from dismissing him as merely a “social-issues candidate.” His recent remark that losing his Senate seat in 2006 taught him the importance of hu­mil­i­ty suggests an appealing self-awareness. And he has rightly identified the declining stability of middle-class families as a threat to the American experiment, even if his proposed solutions are poorly designed. But sensible policies, important as they are, are not the immediate challenge for his candidacy. Proving he can run a national campaign is.

Romney remains the undramatic figure at the center of the primaries’ drama. Lack of enthusiasm for him has set it all in motion. Romney is trying to win the nomination by pulverizing his rivals. His hope is that enthusiasm will follow when he takes on Obama in the summer and fall. But his attacks on Santorum have been lame, perhaps because they are patently insincere. (Does anyone believe that Romney truly thinks poorly of Santorum’s votes to raise the debt ceiling?)

Romney is a transactional politician rather than a charis­matic one. Maybe he should make the most of it: Tell conservatives what they will get out of a Romney presidency. Entitlements brought under budgetary control. A more market-oriented health-care system. Judges who know their place in the constitutional architecture. Fannie and Freddie extinguished. The defense budget protected. Tax reform, and tax relief for families. In some cases making this case will require that Romney commit to more detailed proposals than he has thus far; in others that he do more to emphasize things he has already said. But emphasis and repetition are not trivial in presidential campaigns. So far Romney has been running mostly on his biography: Republicans are supposed to vote for him because he is a family man and shrewd businessman. And Republicans, even the many who are well disposed to him, have been saying as loud as they can: It isn’t enough.

Compromising Conscience

The Obama administration remains intent on forcing almost all employers, including religious charities, to provide their employees insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization, and abortion drugs. Its initial proposal drew intense bipartisan opposition, with even many liberal Catholics appalled at such an obvious attack on religious freedom. President Obama then announced that he would follow up the proposed regulation with another one. Instead of forcing religious charities to purchase insurance that includes this coverage, he would force them to provide insurance and force insurers to include the objectionable coverage in it. The companies will notify the employees that they may take advantage of this coverage at no charge to them.

This modification, obviously, changes nothing of moral substance. Employers would still be forced to pay for something they consider immoral. But liberal Catholics got what they ap­par­ent­ly wanted: a lightly disguised attack on religious liberty rather than an overt one. Confirming the cosmetic nature of the change is that churches, narrowly defined, will still be exempt from any of the requirements: If the new arrangement does not intrude on conscience, why should they be?

The president has no legal authority to impose this mandate. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act forbids it even if the First Amendment does not. If the Obamacare legislation grants Obama this authority, however, then it must follow that the president also has the authority to require almost all employers, including religious employers, to cover surgical abortions. This mandate, along with the future mandates that Obamacare could create, are good reasons to repeal the legislation. They are also good reasons for the Catholic bishops to reconsider the support they have too often given to government activism. Even if it were possible to design a federally supervised health-care system that promoted the common good, in the contemporary context any such system would inevitably be deployed to aid progressives in their cultural battles.

Apologists for the administration have said that 98 percent of Catholic women have used contraception. The statistic is an exaggeration; its invocation is both despicable and self-undermining. Despicable, because the fact that many people avail themselves of contraception cannot possibly establish that those who wish to avoid paying for it should be forced to do so; self-undermining, because the statistic highlights the truth that contraception is easily accessible in our country and requires no extraordinary federal support.

These apologists have also resorted to sophistry. People have no right, they say, to refuse to fund activities they consider immoral for religious reasons. Many people objected to the Iraq War but still had to pay taxes for it. That would be a fine objection to starting a war if governments could leave decisions over war and peace to individuals. They cannot. But the federal government can leave employers free to offer insurance without coverage for contraception, sterilization, and abortion drugs. It can leave employees who value such coverage from their employers free to choose their employment accordingly. That is what it has done from the beginning of the country to this very day, with no calamitous effects. There is no good reason to end this freedom.

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