Perhaps the Secret Service picked up some bad habits protecting John Edwards back in 2004.
For months, the Obama campaign and its media militia harped on the story that Mitt Romney once put the family dog Seamus in a carrier atop the station wagon for a vacation road trip. New York Times columnist Gail Collins mentioned Seamus in every Romney-related column, and David Axelrod recently tweeted a photo of Obama and Bo riding together in a presidential limo: “How loving owners transport their dogs.” Then Jim Treacher of the website the Daily Caller posted this paragraph from Dreams from My Father, Obama’s first memoir, recalling his Indonesian childhood: “With Lolo [his stepfather] . . . I was introduced to dog meat (tough), snake meat (tougher), and roasted grasshopper (crunchy).” Dreams was written as a postmodern account of racial displacement and resolution, but by 2008 it had become the gospel of Barack Multiculti: born in Hawaii, raised in Indonesia, schooled at Harvard and the Chicago projects, searching for his Kenyan roots . . . The dog treats were a detail of his multifaceted worldliness. How times have changed. The Romney campaign leapt on it: A senior adviser re-tweeted Axelrod’s unctuous tableau with the tag, “In hindsight, a chilling photo.” The blogosphere sprayed one-liners like shrapnel: How does Obama get Bo to roll over? With a rotisserie. Congrats to Romney and Right/Net jokesters for counterpunching. And condolences to the president, who ran as the savior of the world, but has found, after three years–plus of funk and failure, that all his attitudes and empty rhetoric are coming back to bite him.
Montana’s Democratic governor, Brian Schweitzer, in an interview that touched on the Hispanic vote, said that Mitt Romney could not talk about the Mexican origins of his father George because “then he’d have to talk about his family coming from a polygamy commune.” Women, he added, “are not great fans of polygamy. . . . I am not alleging by any stretch that Romney is a polygamist . . . but [and why give up a good smear?] his father was born into [a] polygamy commune.” Miles Park Romney, Mitt’s great-grandfather, went to Mexico, where he had plural wives. But his son Gaskell and grandson George each had one wife, as does Mitt. So the polygamy, of which women are not fond, ended three generations ago. Would women be less fond of Barack Obama, whose father, Barack Obama Sr., and grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, were both polygamists? In fact women are smart enough to judge candidates on their own accomplishments, which makes them a lot smarter than Governor Schweitzer.
Secret Service agents doing advance work for the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, were holding an after-hours summit of their own when one of them quarreled with a Colombian prostitute about her fee. She complained to the cops (prostitution is legal in parts of Colombia) and the whole affair went public. Consorting with prostitutes compromises security: If prostitution is the oldest profession, honey traps are the oldest ruse; agent-hookers might also filch codes or itineraries. Being caught compromises the entire agency. President Obama and every successor will be less secure because the Secret Service’s aura of sleek, slightly sinister omnicompetence is dimmed. And whatever happened to revulsion, and to human sympathy? Prostitution is a lousy way to make a living. Does the Secret Service have to support it?
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative group that works on state-level reforms, has become the Left’s latest fascination: Call it New Koch. The group has been under assault by left-wing activists, Democratic politicians, and now possibly the IRS, with the result that many noodle-spined business members — Coke, Kraft, and Procter & Gamble among them — have abandoned the organization. This is part of the manufactured controversy over the Trayvon Martin case, which the Left is using as a cudgel against state laws empowering individuals to act in self-defense. It is not clear that these laws even apply in the Martin case — the authors of Florida’s “stand your ground” law have argued that the law does not protect the shooter — but it is a fact that ALEC has been a force, along with the National Rifle Association, in advocating such legislation, which is beneficial when prudently constructed and applied. In late April, left-wing activists filed a complaint with the IRS seeking the revocation of ALEC’s tax-exempt status and the imposition of financial penalties. ALEC is an organization that does good work (it is pressing to relieve the good people of Maine of their state income tax), and while Coke and Kraft are under no special obligation to stick their necks out for good works, conservatives should always keep in mind that, contra the Left’s version, big business can be a fickle ally.
One need not support formal term limits to recognize the existence of informal ones, and the tightening polls in the Indiana Senate Republican primary suggest that voters there may be starting to think Senator Richard Lugar has been in Washington long enough. Lugar’s challenger, Richard Mourdock, likes to describe himself as “capable, competent, and conservative,” and it is an apt description. Mourdock is a popular two-term treasurer in Indiana, and has impressed the grassroots enough to secure endorsements from a number of tea-party groups. Like so many who have seen the light, Mourdock became a conservative in the age of Reagan; he is a successful oil geologist whose growing interest in thinkers such as Milton Friedman led him to run for office. As treasurer, Mourdock has shown himself to be both fiscally prudent and possessed of a certain fighting spirit, most prominently when he sued (unsuccessfully) to recover $6 million the state’s pension funds had lost in the Obama administration’s auto bailouts. Lugar is a decent man who has in the past been more reliable than not on a number of conservative issues. Arlen Specter he is not. But we can do better. Mourdock strikes us as someone who would not cast votes, as Lugar did, to confirm Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, nor co-sponsor the DREAM Act, support the auto bailouts, or oppose the Vitter amendment to limit taxpayer-funded abortion, as Lugar did and does. For these reasons we support him in the Indiana Republican primary. We think he will make a strong candidate and a fine senator. After Lugar’s long career in Washington, Hoosiers deserve new blood, and Lugar deserves a happy retirement and a gold watch. We’d be happy to spring for one.
John Edwards, the Dorian Gray of the Democratic party, is one of the most loathsome characters in American politics, corrupt himself and a source of corruption in others, a preening, moralizing fraud who went so far as to have a staffer claim paternity of the illegitimate child he fathered with a campaign contractor. If being a louse were a crime, John Edwards would hang for it. But he is instead facing a questionable prosecution on campaign-finance grounds, which is odd: The payments that Edwards’s supporters made to his mistress and to the alleged father of her child were not campaign contributions — no campaign money was involved, and no campaign expenses were met. Keeping one’s mistress is not a campaign expense: Even if he had not been seeking higher office, Edwards and his supporters would have wanted to keep her pacified. Edwards and his friends may be guilty of a number of things — tax evasion and fraud are possibilities — but it is a stretch to prosecute him under campaign-finance laws. Because they empower incumbents to set the rules under which they are challenged, such laws are inherently problematic, and prosecutions under them must be handled with great care. John Edwards is a grotesque, but that is no warrant for a capricious prosecution.
After calling for a third party, Jon Huntsman was disinvited from a Republican fundraiser. He said, “This is what they do in China on Party matters if you talk off-script.” China is a one-party dictatorship with a gulag (laogai). If you “talk off-script,” they do worse things to you than withdraw an invitation to a fundraiser. In fact, the CCP doesn’t need fundraisers. But perhaps Huntsman is auditioning to be a blogger at Salon.
Newark mayor Cory Booker insisted that he was just doing “what most neighbors would do” when he rescued one of his constituents from a burning building next door to his home. On the night of April 12, the 6-foot 4-inch, 250-pound former Stanford tight end overruled his security detail’s attempt to restrain him and rushed into a flame-engulfed apartment, where he pulled a woman from her bed and carried her to safety. The mayor received treatment for smoke inhalation and second-degree burns on his hand, but immediately assured his million-plus Twitter followers that his “injuries were relatively minor” and thanked “Det. Alex Rodriguez who helped get all of the people out of the house.” At a press conference the next day he expressed his gratitude to God, and described feeling “terror” rather than “bravery.” Urban politics being what it is, we expect Booker’s next primary opponent to accuse him of putting a woman out on the street.
The irrepressible Vice President Biden described Senator Al Franken (D.F.L., SNL) as “one of the leading legal scholars.” Soon afterwards, Biden’s overworked handlers explained that what the veep really meant was “. . . in the U.S. Senate,” but that seems unlikely, since 55 senators have law degrees and Franken isn’t one of them. In any case, since Franken thinks “judges are nothing like umpires,” one struggles to devise a parallel example of inadequate qualifications: Chuck Schumer as an expert on farming; Arlen Specter as an etiquette adviser; Ted Kennedy as a driving instructor. Then again, Joe Biden is vice president.
We do not know exactly what transpired between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. We do know that the incident began when Zimmerman chased after Martin upon finding the 17-year-old “real suspicious,” that Martin was unarmed, and that after a physical altercation Martin wound up with a bullet in his chest — facts that, taken together, could constitute a good reason to put the case before a jury. But in charging Zimmerman with second-degree murder, as opposed to a lesser charge such as manslaughter, the prosecution has overreached, likely in response to the heated public outcry the case has inspired. In Florida, this charge requires “a depraved mind regardless of human life”; the state’s jury instructions interpret this to mean a person acted “from ill will, hatred, spite, or an evil intent.” The prosecution’s affidavit fails to provide evidence that Zimmerman acted out of such a motivation — and in fact, the wound on the back of his head indicates that Zimmerman may have been losing the fight, and likely acted out of fear. Simple fear does not justify killing in Florida — one must reasonably fear death or serious bodily harm, and must not have been acting illegally when the attack took place — but it does not justify a charge of second-degree murder, either.
The Catholic bishops released a statement on religious liberty that suggests they are beginning to understand the seriousness of the Obama administration’s threat to it. Commendably, the bishops explain that they seek no “accommodation” on the administration’s command that nearly all employers, including religious universities and hospitals, offer their employees coverage for contraception, sterilization, and abortion drugs. They want this requirement repealed. With admirable clarity, they say they will not obey an unjust law. They will urge bishops and priests to make the case for religious freedom, particularly during two weeks this summer and on the Solemnity of Christ the King. The latter date falls after Election Day, however, at which point the bishops’ influence on this issue will be practically nonexistent if Obama has been reelected. We know that many of them fear being accused of a Republican partisanship they surely do not feel. If they are to win this battle — one that even a left-wing cardinal recently said should draw “all the energies the Catholic community can muster” — they will have to get over it.
The New Age of Anxiety
Taxmageddon is coming. This grim prophecy refers to the scheduled termination of a wide array of tax policies at the end of this year. The list is staggering. It includes the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts, the end of the payroll-tax holiday, and the start of the new health-care surtax and the Medicare payroll-tax increase. On top of all of that, Congress will likely hit the debt limit again around the end of the year.
While few observers expect Congress to do nothing, uncertainty about taxes and fiscal policy is likely to skyrocket by the end of the year. This heightened uncertainty is cause for significant pessimism about the second half of 2012.
Economists have long known that uncertainty can have large negative effects on economic activity. If a business does not know what its tax rates will be next year, it will have a hard time getting excited about a big expansion.
While uncertainty in principle is likely harmful, there has been very little hard evidence on the matter, until recently. A recent path-breaking paper, by Stanford economists Scott R. Baker and Nicholas Bloom along with University of Chicago economist Steve Davis, fills that gap. The authors compile a unique index of policy uncertainty, which draws on news coverage of uncertainty in policy decisions, the number of federal-tax-code provisions set to expire, and the disagreement among forecasters about economic variables one year in the future. They use this index to estimate the impact of policy uncertainty on the economy, finding massive negative effects.
The nearby chart shows their index of policy uncertainty from 1985 to 2012.
In general, policy uncertainty has been higher on average since the beginning of the millennium than it was in the previous 15 years. As expected, the major spikes include the 9/11 attack, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the onset of the financial crisis. As even a casual observer would expect, uncertainty has become a much bigger problem under President Obama. The most recent and highest increase occurred in August 2011, reflecting the uncertainty surrounding the debt limit, the work of the supercommittee, and the credit-rating downgrade by S&P.
The authors document the negative effect of uncertainty on the economy in their paper. Their results imply that a 112-point rise in their policy-uncertainty index, which occurred between 2006 and 2011, would reduce real GDP by 3.2 percent and employment by 2.3 million jobs. The uncertainty effects would be especially focused on private investment, as business decision-makers wait for clarity before beginning new projects.
The dramatic spike last summer, the authors argue, is likely a key explanation for the slower economic growth that was posted then. That fact is especially chilling as we look ahead.
Taxmageddon will put far more policies on the table. The debt limit will be in play, but so will everything else. Even though the uncertainty index has been steadily dropping in the past couple of months, it is all but inevitable that it will increase sharply as the debate surrounding the tax cuts heats up. When it does, uncertainty will likely break the all-time record set last year, which could easily take a percentage point or two off of top-line GDP growth.
Taxmageddon is the result of the extreme shortsightedness of President Obama and the Democrats, who extended current tax policies for only two years back in 2010. The latest research suggests that the economy will suffer severely this year for that shortsightedness.
As gas prices have soared in recent months, toward and in some cases beyond $4 a gallon, the president has resumed his annual Speculation Springtime. And not only does he insist on blaming Wall Street market-makers, he has also made proposals to rein in commodity speculators by increasing margin requirements and devoting more resources to enforcing trading laws. The president has many dubious policies, but this one is among the least defensible. Whatever his other follies — Obamacare, the stimulus, green-energy loans, cap-and-trade — there were economists or scientists he could find to justify them. He has nothing but sophistry in this fight. Oil markets, like other commodities, have become significantly more financialized over the past decade, but even the most liberal economists agree that there is no evidence to suggest that this has led to higher prices or greater volatility. Supply and demand, and expectations of these, as always, determine prices. But only a reckless speculator would expect the president to act on this insight.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is worried that a threatened increase in corporate taxes may “dampen enthusiasm” among investors. He has further expressed concern that businesses need a more predictable tax environment and need to be made to feel that capital is welcome. Unfortunately, Geithner shared these insights in the process of lecturing India’s finance minister, rather than his own boss.
Speaking at the Summit of the Americas in Colombia, President Obama referred to the Falkland Islands as “the Maldives.” He meant to say “Malvinas,” which would have been a sop to the Argentinians, who so call those islands. Britain’s Telegraph said, “Barack Obama made an uncharacteristic error, more akin to those of his predecessor George W Bush.” Three points: 1) Obama’s error was maybe not so uncharacteristic (the “Austrian” language, 57 states, “corpseman,” etc.); 2) Bush, contrary to myth, did not make many errors of that nature; and 3) a U.S. president should watch the “Malvinas” talk anyway, and stand with our ally Britain, whose claim on the Falklands is perfectly legitimate.
Nancy Pelosi and congressional Democrats, frustrated by the fact that the Bill of Rights interferes with their desire to muzzle their political opponents, have proposed a “People’s Rights Amendment” that would effectively repeal the First Amendment. If this amendment were to be enacted, the cardinal rights protected by the First Amendment — free speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances — would be redefined and reduced to the point of unrecognizability. The amendment would hold that the rights protected by the Constitution are enjoyed only by individuals acting individually; individuals acting in collaboration with others would be stripped of those rights. All political expression more complex than standing on a soapbox in the public square would come under federal control. As would journalism: Thomas Friedman might be protected by the First Amendment, but the New York Times Company, being a corporation, would not. The First Amendment has served Americans well — something that cannot be said of Nancy Pelosi.
The Los Angeles Times in mid-April published photos taken in Afghanistan in 2010 showing U.S. troops posing with the corpses and severed body parts of Taliban suicide bombers. The Times ran the photos over strong objections from Pentagon officials who feared they would be used to incite violence against American soldiers. The Times editor defended the decision as fulfilling the paper’s “obligation to readers to report vigorously and impartially on all aspects of the American mission in Afghanistan.” He also pointed out that the photos had been submitted by a solider concerned that “dysfunction in discipline and a breakdown in leadership [had] compromised the safety of the troops.” But it’s not at all clear how publication of the photos, two years after the incident, helped to inform the public or restore troop discipline any more than a written account would have done. As Defense Secretary Leon Panetta pointed out, “lives have been lost as the result of the publication of similar photos.” In judging this controversy, keep in mind that the Times could have conveyed the information without the sensational photos; what it is defending here is not the public’s right to know but its own right to publicity.
In early April, 49 former NASA scientists and astronauts co-signed a strongly worded letter to NASA chief Charles Bolden Jr. that deplored the agency’s tendency to ignore empirical evidence when discussing global warming; warned that its “advocacy of an extreme position, prior to a thorough study of the possible overwhelming impact of natural climate drivers, is inappropriate”; and expressed fear that such actions might lead to “damage to the exemplary reputation of NASA, NASA’s current or former scientists and employees, and even the reputation of science itself.” Given that among the signers was Harrison Schmitt — a Harvard geologist, a onetime U.S. senator, and the last man to see the spherical Earth from the moon — one wonders whether Al Gore now regrets claiming in 2008 that “those people” skeptical of catastrophic global warming “are in such a tiny, tiny minority now with their point of view” that “they’re almost like the ones who still believe that the moon landing was staged in a movie lot in Arizona and those who believe the earth is flat.”
Incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy won only 27.1 percent of the vote in France’s presidential election, second to Socialist François Hollande at 28.5 percent. They will meet in a runoff on May 6. Marine Le Pen of the National Front finished third, with 18.2 percent — the highest her right-wing party has ever polled. Communists, Greens, and Trotskyites will back Hollande in the runoff, and backers of centrist François Bayrou will split evenly. National Front support might yet save Sarkozy, but he will struggle to get it. Party leaders want him to fail so that they become the dominant right-of-center force, while National Front voters want someone who will address issues long ignored by establishment parties throughout Europe — unhappiness with economic dictation from Brussels, and alarm over unchecked immigration. Sarkozy channeled populist energy when he won office in 2007, but governed in the name of the status quo. It is hard to run as a rebel twice in a row, especially when you have to rebel against yourself.
The Obama administration’s desire for diplomatic engagement is more ill-suited to the People’s Republic of North Korea than to any other nation on earth. The hermit kingdom’s recently launched missile reached a height of 93 miles during a one-minute flight, before falling apart and splashing into the Yellow Sea. The president’s North Korea policy has suffered roughly the same fate. The launch evinces the naïveté of an administration that considered Kim Jong Un’s ascension an opening for negotiation, in February promising food aid in exchange for a nuclear freeze. Obama has withdrawn that offer, but should also reinstate the financial sanctions on Pyongyang’s privileged class that began to pay dividends under President Bush (before he himself abandoned them). Only hard-nosed policies, not engagement, will ever alter the Communist nation’s sad trajectory.
The Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik is on trial for killing 77 people in Oslo last July. His are the unsmiling face and dead eyes of the true loner. Sometimes he raises the right arm in a Nazi salute, sometimes he shakes a balled fist like a Communist. He portrays himself as hero and victim, saving the country by destroying it. Most of those he shot were teenagers, and they deserved to die, he plainly believes, because their multiculturalism opens the way to betrayal of their country. Allusions to Serbia, to Liberia, and to a supposed English order of Knights Templar reveal an imagination fictionalizing reality into an inner landscape of figments. Norway makes a religion of social democracy, and people in the court have no idea how to respond to Breivik’s view of the world. As though mutually equal, the lawyers shake his hand. He has demanded to be released or hanged, knowing that neither outcome is possible. His maximum prison term is 21 years, which suggests that he is not the only one who has gone mad.
Leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are doing what they can to suppress the scandal of Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai. This pair had privilege and protection that evidently let them do as they liked. Bo’s father had been one of the eight close companions of Mao on the Long March that brought them to power, and Gu’s father was a general who fought the Japanese. In public, Bo presented himself as an orthodox Maoist, and his reward was to become a star member of the Politburo and the party boss in Chongqing. Privately he sent his son to Oxford and Harvard, which provided an education solely in how to be a playboy and drive fancy cars. Real trouble began when Neil Heywood, an upper-crust but probably none-too-scrupulous British businessman, was found dead in a Chongqing hotel. He was 41 and in good health. No autopsy was carried out; the body was immediately cremated. The police chief of Chongqing informed Bo that he suspected Gu of poisoning Hayward; the chief then fled to the nearby American consulate only to be denied asylum. Whether Gu and Hayward were lovers or caught in money-laundering that went wrong is not yet clear. Bo has been sacked from the Politburo and his position in Chongqing. He and his wife and the police chief are all in custody, invisible and unheard.
For anti-Israeli activists participating in a “fly-in” at Ben Gurion Airport, the government of Israel prepared a remarkable letter. “Dear activist,” it began. “We appreciate your choosing to make Israel the object of your humanitarian concerns. We know there were many other worthy choices.” For example, they could have gone to Syria, where the dictatorship is slaughtering thousands of citizens. They could have gone to Iran, whose dictatorship is crushing dissent and spreading terrorism throughout the world. They could have gone to Gaza, “where terror organizations commit a double war crime by firing rockets at civilians and hiding behind civilians.” But no: “You chose to protest against Israel, the Middle East’s sole democracy, where women are equal, the press criticizes the government, human rights organizations can operate freely, religious freedom is protected for all and minorities do not live in fear.” So the activists can now add cutting official sarcasm to their list of injustices to be protested.
Thanks to the Middle East Media Research Institute, which monitors Middle Eastern television stations and preserves notable broadcasts on its website, a video from Iranian state television surfaced in April. It showed three left-wing American professors and three American religious-conspiracy theorists discussing Occupy Wall Street on a panel hosted by authorities in Tehran. The group, which had traveled to Iran to discuss the movement for an obviously delighted Iranian government, compared OWS to the Arab Spring and claimed “that [Occupy] Wall Street is fighting the monster of the day,” namely “global Zionism.” Press TV, the Iranian government’s propaganda station, ended the broadcast by noting the “costly wars, labor standards, housing policy, government corruption, income gap, and the undue influence of corporations” that had led to the protests and hoped gleefully that “in the long run it can lead to the collapse of the government.” We are unsure whether to be more or less worried about Iran now that we see where it gets its intelligence about America.
Britain has had many military foes in its long history and, in April, London’s National Army Museum set out to discover whom the British considered the most outstanding among them. The answer, by some margin, was George Washington, who won almost half of both the 8,000 votes cast in the online poll and the 70 votes cast at the museum’s special event. Washington edged out his fellow contenders because he managed something that runners-up Michael Collins, Napoleon Bonaparte, Erwin Rommel, and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk did not — he comprehensively beat the might of the British Empire, and he did so despite facing a significantly larger and better-trained force. Of these five men, Washington most significantly altered the world map. Indeed, historian Stephen Brumwell describes the American Revolutionary War as “the worst defeat for the British Empire ever.” This is most probably true; but it is not for this alone that Washington deserves his approbation: A reeling George III famously said that if Washington returned to his farm after winning independence, “he will be the greatest man in the world.” Two centuries later, it seems his countrymen agree.
A new set of rules governing European hairdressers will ban them from wearing jewelry (deemed unhygienic for some reason), require “ergonomic furniture” in the workplace, and mandate non-slip soles on footwear and the use of elbow-length gloves when shampooing. Moreover, to “prevent emotional collapses,” care-burdened Figaros (who, judging from the regulations, must give more haircuts than a European sovereign-debt issuer) must be given time during the workday for “social dialogue,” though ordering hairdressers to gossip seems about as necessary as ordering ballplayers to scratch themselves. While these rules were initially reported as proposed EU regulations, in fact they are something less sweeping, but perhaps more menacing. The rules were agreed upon by EU Coiffure (an industry group representing salon operators) and UNI Europa Hair & Beauty (a union representing employees), and at present they govern only shops whose owners are EU Coiffure members (which excludes many in Britain, for example). But since both groups are official “social partners” of the EU, it seems inevitable that the regulations will eventually acquire the force of law. It is the EU method at work: A few representatives from remote, undemocratic bodies get together and micromanage everyone’s life; lather, rinse, and repeat.
The European Union is not renowned for a commitment to the truth, but its apparatchiks hit a new low in April when they took a break from ignoring various impending catastrophes to announce the creation of a $65 million “European identity” museum. Among the museum’s exhibits will be a memorial to World War II — or rather, as it will be described, the “European Civil War.” Such rechristening is part of the ongoing attempt to foist a single European “identity” and, in turn, a single federal government on a continent that isn’t interested and is wholly unsuited to union. But this — and the small matter of the Pacific theater — aside, “civil war” is an odd characterization of the most global conflict in history. And Europe was hardly unified before its alleged “civil war.” But European elites wish the people to pretend that they are all as one and, what’s more, always have been except for some unfortunate episodes.
A Yankee fan we know calls Boston’s Fenway Park the Joe Biden of stadiums: a cranky eccentric that came to be venerated simply by sticking around long enough. A less biased comparison would be to Milton Friedman, a lonely prophet for many years, whose ideas have since become mainstream. After a 1920s–30s vogue for Brobdingnagian ballparks, and a 1960s–70s plague of symmetrical multipurpose stadiums with the personality of Velveeta, the trend today is strongly toward smaller baseball-only fields full of idiosyncrasies and odd angles and hand-operated scoreboards — just like Fenway. Even the faux-pastoral descriptor “Park” has come back into fashion. Through all these ups and downs, Fenway has endured with remarkably little change, and it has just celebrated its 100th birthday with a game against the Yankees (who else?) that ended in a loss (what else?). Fenway Park’s endurance shows that if you stand athwart history long enough, sometimes history comes around to your side.
Critics say contemporary art is becoming a commodity, but can art be a commode? In Martinsburg, W. Va., a planned statue of the city’s founder was canceled for lack of funds, so a local artist responded by topping the vacant pedestal with a toilet (“with the lid up,” an assiduous reporter noted). The purpose, he explained, was to show “how the arts can make Martinsburg a greater place to live, work and visit,” though exactly how a toilet on a platform might contribute to achieving this goal remains unclear. (Admittedly, the location, at the intersection of King and Queen Streets, was the perfect place for a throne.) To be sure, Marcel Duchamp once transformed a urinal into art, but to make that work, you have to be Duchamp — or else live in New York City, whose shock-craving bourgeoisie has long considered restroom fixtures to be aesthetic objects: A few years ago, art and architecture critics enthused over the new pay toilets in Madison Square Park. In down-to-earth Martinsburg, by contrast, the toilet was swiftly removed, and unimpressed authorities gave the artist a citation for illegal “deposit of garbage, rubbish, junk, etc.” We can think of a few contemporary artists who would risk falling afoul of this ordinance if they ever found themselves in Martinsburg.
Ernest Hemingway, Mad Men, the Nixon White House: A style of post-war macho bluster found its final form in the Watergate tapes. One of the main blusterers was Charles Colson, counsel to the president from 1969 to 1973. “When I complained to Colson,” wrote Nixon in his memoirs, “I felt confident that something would be done. I was rarely disappointed.” After Colson was charged with approving the break-in of Daniel Ellsberg’s office, a friend gave him a copy of Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis, and read aloud a passage saying that pride “is the complete anti-God state of mind.” From standing at the right hand of a president, he fell before the King of Kings — who took him, just as He said He would. Colson’s time in jail opened his eyes to the suffering of other convicted criminals, and he devoted himself to Prison Fellowship Ministries, which now has programs in 1,300 prisons nationwide. In Christian theology, election refers to God’s saving grace: “I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit.” Colson won the election of his life. Dead at 80. R.I.P.
Rock music and television, even after the swift rise of other genres and media in recent years, remain a massive presence in American culture. Indeed, they sometimes seem joined at the hip, the one serving as the soundtrack of the other. So it’s useful to be reminded, by the passing of broadcasting legend Dick Clark, that there was a time when the two existed but kept a certain distance from each other. With his American Bandstand show, which premiered in 1957, Clark brought rock into the TV-household mainstream. And “mainstream” is the mot juste: The music genre that prided itself on rebellion was made part of the clean-cut culture of the Fifties. When a lot of material is poured into a mainstream, the character not just of the material, but of the mainstream itself, changes. With his modest mien of boyish innocence, Dick Clark probably never imagined himself a culturally transformational figure, but he does indeed have a serious claim on that title. He joins the recently deceased Don Cornelius — the Soul Train host who did a similar cultural service in mainstreaming soul music — in the choir invisible: an ensemble that performs in, and celebrates, all musical genres. Dead at 82, R.I.P.
Gabriel Tepelea was one of the select intellectuals who saved the honor of his native Romania by setting an example of moral consistency. Between the wars he joined the center-right Peasant party, whose platform was the defense of private property. Freethinking members of such a party could not survive the rule after 1945 of local Communists and the Red Army of occupation. Tepelea was one of hundreds of thousands arrested. He survived six years in the gulag. An academic in the Ceauşescu era, he published a score of books that kept alive Romanian culture. After the fall of Communism, the wheel came full circle when he became deputy leader of the revived Peasant party and a parliamentarian for ten years. At the age of 95, he has died. R.I.P.
Hilary Rosen, a Democratic lobbyist and talking head, complained about Mitt Romney’s comment that his wife tells him the top election issue for the women who talk to her is the economy. Ann Romney, Rosen said, “has actually never worked a day in her life.” This attack on the candidate’s spouse and on housewives generally earned rebukes from Obama associates and, finally, a half-hearted apology from Rosen herself. The administration’s storyline of a Republican “war on women” had to be dropped, at least temporarily. Mrs. Romney aptly called Rosen’s comment a “gift” to her husband’s campaign.
But some gifts are valuable only if they are correctly used. To win a series of tactical victories in controversies like this one could still amount to a strategic loss. The Obama campaign cannot run on the president’s record, since his major legislative achievements are unpopular. It cannot run on the state of the country, which the public considers deeply unsatisfactory. It cannot win a choice-of-visions campaign because most people prefer a smaller government to a bigger one. We can therefore expect repeated attempts to distract the electorate from the fundamental questions before it: The war on women. How Romney transported his dog in 1983. His tax returns.
Romney would be doing a triple disservice to the country if he allowed the campaign to proceed on these lines. First, because the country deserves a more serious discussion of the stakes of the election. Second, because this sort of campaign would make it more likely that the worse alternative prevailed. Third, because an electoral victory achieved on these terms would reduce President Romney’s ability to make accomplishments on the scale the country requires.
The alternative campaign strategy is to stick to the basics: Obama’s policies are not working; they will not work, because Obama misunderstands the limits of government and the genius of our country; and there is a better way. On that last point, Romney can be more specific than Obama was about his agenda in 2008 without getting bogged down in details. To some extent, Romney already has offered such specifics and begun to draw the appropriate contrast.
Obama’s economic agenda consists of raising taxes, particularly on investment, while allowing spending on entitlements to grow so much faster that debt levels rise with no end in sight. The Romney alternative is to rein in the growth of entitlements to keep taxes at their historical levels, and to reform the tax code so that revenues can be raised at the lowest possible cost to the economy. Obama would direct subsidies to companies and industries he considers promising. Romney should reject that policy as a certain path to corruption and failure, and instead allow the market to identify tomorrow’s rising economic sectors within the context of an impartial rule of law that only government can provide. Obama would dramatically expand the federal government’s management of health care in the illusory hope of finding efficiencies. The Romney alternative should be to remove obstacles in the way of small businesses and individuals who seek health insurance.
Reporters recently overheard Romney telling some donors about some policies he was considering, including shutting down the Department of Housing and Urban Development and eliminating the tax breaks for state and local taxes and for mortgages on second homes. Important steps both, but footnotes to what a presidential campaign should be about. Romney needs to take the campaign to a higher level, so that the public may start to see him as more presidential than our current president.