Tag Archives: George Packer

The End? Part II: Speech, Speech, Speech!

Max Fisher at The Atlantic with an early round up.

Marc Ambinder:

President Obama has asked the television networks for 15 minutes tonight, and he’s going to pack quite a bit of messaging into that short period of time. Why do we need a speech marking the end of the combat mission in Iraq? It’s because we’re going to need, according to Obama, to understand the future of the war in Afghanistan and the interconnectedness of foreign and domestic policy in a way that reflects what Obama was able to do in Iraq.

What did he do? He set a time-frame and stuck to it. Iraq will now begin to fend for itself. He promised during his presidential campaign that he would end the Iraq war “responsibly.” He will note tonight that his administration managed to withdraw 100,000 troops from Iraq “responsibly.” He will portray this as a major milestone in his presidency.

We forget how integral Sen. Barack Obama’s decision to oppose the Iraq war was to his own political awakening, and how many contortions Hillary Clinton had to untwist in order to justify her own support for the war authority, and how, by the day of the general election, given the success of the surge (or the success of JSOC’s counterterrorism efforts), Iraq was no longer a central voting issue. Voters seemed to exorcise that demon in 2006, when they voted Democrats into Congress.

A large chunk of the speech will be taken up by the president’s careful description of the sacrifices that a million U.S. soldiers and diplomats have made by their service in Iraq, and how 4,400 Americans did not come home.

Then, a pivot point: the Iraq drawdown has allowed the president to refocus attention on the threat from Al Qaeda worldwide, and he will mention that the terrorist network is degraded, albeit still capable of waging terrorist attacks and intending to do so.

He will note that the government will be able to reap a bit of a post-Iraq transition dividend, allowing the administration to invest more in job creation, health care, and education here at home. (Subtly, the point: Obama wouldn’t have gone into Iraq, so we wouldn’t have had to spend as much as we did.) It’s time, he will say, to build our own nation.

Kevin Drum:

Since it’s a slow news day, let’s mull this over. First take: can you imagine anything that would piss off the liberal base more than acknowledging that the surge worked? You’d be able to hear the steam coming out of lefty ears from sea to shining sea. Second take: Even if he decided to do it anyway, would it be worthwhile? If he wants to be honest, Obama would have to at least mention all those other factors that Ambinder mentions, namely that the reduction in violence in 2007 was quite clearly the result of 4 S’s: Surge, Sadr ceasefire, Sectarian cleansing, and Sunni Awakening. But is this too much to talk about? And would it seem churlish to acknowledge the surge and then immediately try to take some of the credit away from it?

Third take: Forget it. Not only would mentioning the surge piss off liberals, but it would also imply some kind of “victory” in Iraq, and surely Obama can’t be dimwitted enough to come within a light year of claiming that, can he? Of course not. Not with sporadic violence back in the news and Iraqi leaders still stalemated on forming a government five months after the March elections.

So I’ll predict no direct mention of the surge. And since I’m usually wrong about this kind of stuff, I suppose you should try to lay down some money right away on Obama mentioning the surge tonight. But I still don’t think he’ll do it.

David Corn at Politics Daily:

Why is Barack Obama giving a speech on Iraq?

To mark the end of U.S. combat missions in the nation George W. Bush invaded over seven years ago, the president on Tuesday night will deliver a high-profile address from the Oval Office. Speeches from the Oval Office are usually reserved for the most pressing and profound matters of a presidency. And this partial end of the Iraq war — the United States will still have 50,000 troops stationed there — is a significant event. It demonstrates that Obama has kept a serious campaign promise: to end this war.

But with the economy foundering — many of the recent stats are discouraging — most Americans are probably not yearning above all for a report on Iraq and likely will not be all that impressed with Obama’s promise-keeping on this front. The main issue remains jobs, especially as the congressional elections approach.

Summer is essentially done. It’s back-to-school and back-to-work time for many of us. But on Obama’s first days after his Martha Vineyard’s vacation, he’s devoting (at least in public) more time and energy to foreign policy matters than the flagging economy. Worried Democrats must be livid. (Most House Democrats are still campaigning in their districts and are not yet back in Washington to gripe about their president.)

Wars are the most significant stuff of a presidency. There’s not enough media attention devoted to the Afghanistan war. But politically there’s little or no payoff for an Iraq war address. Obama can’t brag, “Mission accomplished.” (In fact, on Monday, press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama would not be using those words.) He can’t declare victory. He can only declare a murky end to a murky war. That’s not going to rally the Democrats’ base or win over independents. It was not mandatory for Obama to deliver such a high-profile speech. Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Baghdad to commemorate this milestone. The administration has conducted other events regarding the end of combat operations. It’s been duly noted.

David Frum at FrumForum:

Just guessing, but here’s why:

The president’s biggest political problem is the disillusionment of his liberal voters. Contra Fox News, they do not see a liberal president doing liberal things. They see a consensus president rescuing Wall Street. The job situation remains dismal, the administration is deporting illegal immigrants, and where are the gays in the military?

What Obama needs to do between now and November is pound home the message: I have kept faith with my voters on their big concerns, healthcare and the Iraq war. Now those voters must keep faith with me.

Ronald Reagan could count on a cadre of conservatives to defend his actions against any and all critics. A friend once teased Bill Rusher, then publisher of National Review: “Whenever Reagan does something awful, you defend it on one of two grounds: either that Reagan had no choice, or that the full wisdom of his action will be disclosed to lesser mortals in God’s good time.” According to legend, Rusher answered, “May I point out that the two positions are not necessarily incompatible?”

Nobody seems willing to do for Obama what Rusher did for Reagan. So Obama must do the job himself. Tonight’s speech is part of that job. Message: I ended George Bush’s war. Vote Democratic.

The trouble is: This message seems unlikely to work in the way Democrats need. Obama’s speech is much more likely to alienate marginal voters than to galvanize alienated liberals, and for this reason:

Obama’s liberal voters will not abide any whiff of triumphalism in the president’s speech. For them, Iraq was at best a disaster, at worst a colonialist war crime. (Elsewhere on the Politics Daily site, David Corn’s colleague Jill Lawrence specifies what she’d like to hear the president say: “Never again.”)

But most Americans want and expect triumphs. “Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser.” So said George Patton on the eve of D-Day, and he was right. And if President Obama declines to declare himself a winner, guess what alternative remains? Exactly.

Democracy In America at The Economist:

8:20: All in all, a nice speech by Mr Obama, in my opinion. Hit most of the right notes.

8:19: Agreed, though “they are the steel in the ship of our state” was a little much.

8:19: Call me a shallow booster, but that part about troops coming home, from the predawn dark to the excerpt below, was great prose. Just beautiful. Very affecting.

8:18: “Who fought in a faraway place for people they never knew”—that’s some beautiful iambic hexameter right there.

8:18: This turned into a rather moving tribute to the troops.

8:17: The shift from the war-ending announcement to the nation-building task reminds me of the BP speech—from the disaster to a different energy future was a stretch too far.  A good speech makes one or two strong points, not lots.

8:17: Yep—there’s the money: a post 9/11 GI bill. He’s daring Republicans to challenge it.

8:17: Is that a subtle gauntlet—the reference to doing right by our veterans?

8:16: This is starting to feel a little platitudinous. Time to dangle Beau from the upstairs window.

8:15: By one estimate, America has spent about $750 billion on the Iraq war.

8:14: Blaming the deficits on the war? True up to a point, but …

8:14: Also very nicely done—not setting a timetable for Afghan withdrawal. That makes it his more than Iraq. Double-down.

8:13: “As we approach the tenth anniversary, there are those who are asking tough questions about our mission there.” And I’m not going to answer those questions. PUNT!

8:12: Can’t explain why but the Oval Office format doesn’t play to Mr Obama’s significant strengths as a communicator. Maybe those curtains…

8:12: Having said that, I enjoyed this comment from one of Kevin Drum’s readers: “The surge worked just like stitches work to close a wound after improperly handling a knife.”

8:11: Why not thank him for the surge? It was a courageous, albeit very late in coming, policy.

8:10: Very nicely done—the reach-out to GWB. He didn’t knuckle under and thank him for the surge (as well he shouldn’t), but it was a graceful acknowledgement.

8:09: “A belief that out of the ashes of war, a new beginning could be born in this cradle of civilization.” Don’t feed the neocons.

8:09: Odd no mention of Saddam. If the war achieved anything it was toppling a mass murdering dictator. But that would be giving too much credit to Bush.

8:08: This part (Iraqis are a proud people, only Iraqis can do this and that) has the feeling of a plea.

8:08: Nice wiggle room: when a representative government is in place, then they will have a strong partner in the United States (but until then…?)

8:07: Is that true: that Iraqi forces have “taken the fight to” al-Qaeda, and have weakened them?

8:07: Credible elections, yes, but how can the US get the warring politicos to form a credible government?

8:06: It’s quite a valedictory tone, considering there are 50,000 troops still there.

8:05: Praising the courage of the armed forces is understandable and even obligatory but also a wonderful way to dodge the question of the whether the war was worthwhile

8:03: “Ahem, these are the reasons I did not support this war.”

8:02: Have other presidents had so many family pictures behind them during Oval Office addresses? Nice touch.

8:01: On the question of whether Mr Obama will give Mr Bush credit: I think he should. But I also think Mr Obama’s Afghan strategy is the sincerest acknowledgment of the surge’s success.

8:00pm: And we begin.

Instapundit:

ABSOLUT VICTORY: STEPHEN GREEN IS Drunkblogging Obama’s Iraq Speech.

Bush got a mention, the troops got two mentions — but I haven’t hear thanks to either one. . . .

What the hell is this? Seriously. We were promised an update on Iraq. Instead we’re getting a defense of Obamanomics, which unlike the Surge (anyone?), has been a total failure.

Read the whole thing. And weep, or laugh, or something. Drink!

UPDATE: More from Prof. Jacobson.

And here’s the full text of Obama’s speech.

Allah Pundit:

8 p.m. ET across the dial. It’s billed as an Iraq speech, but that’s not really what it is. The “key part,” apparently, will be a renewed call to “take the fight directly to al Qaeda” by finishing the job in Afghanistan. (Wouldn’t taking the fight to AQ require operations in Pakistan, not Afghanistan?) It’s also being billed as a “mission unaccomplished” speech, as the White House is ever mindful after Bush of the pitfalls in celebrating too early. But that’s not really what this is either. Like it or not, by investing the end of combat ops with the grandeur of an Oval Office address, The One is necessarily signaling completion of the task. And why not? The public couldn’t be clearer as to how it feels about renewing combat operations if Iraqi security starts to fall apart. This is closure, for better or worse.

Because it is closure, and closure at a moment when things are ominously open-ended in Iraq, I admit to having no appetite today for the standard left/right recriminations about how much Bush screwed up or whether Obama should credit him for the surge. (I think he will acknowledge Bush tonight, for what it’s worth, mainly to signal that this is an occasion that transcends partisanship. But never underestimate the political instincts of the perpetual campaigner.) Instead, since we’re putting a bookend on history, I offer you this grim big-picture reminiscence by star NYT correspondent John Burns, who was on the ground over there until 2007. Today is a day that’s taken forever to arrive, he says, and yet it still seems to have arrived too soon.

Ann Althouse:

Obama on Iraq: Mission Accomplished.

Jennifer Rubin at Commentary:

But most of all, the bulk of the speech had nothing to do with either Iraq or Afghanistan — it was a pep talk for his domestic agenda. This cements the sense that he simply wants out of messy foreign commitments. He also repeated a number of domestic policy canards. This was among the worst, blaming our debt on wars rather than on domestic fiscal gluttony: “We have spent over a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing from overseas. This, in turn, has short-changed investments in our own people, and contributed to record deficits. For too long, we have put off tough decisions on everything from our manufacturing base to our energy policy to education reform.”

He is arguing for more spending.

Obama is still candidate Obama, never tiring of reminding us that he kept his campaign pledge and ever eager to push aside foreign policy challenges so he can get on with the business of remaking America. All in all, it was what we were promised it would not be — self-serving, disingenuous, ungracious, and unreassuring.

UPDATE: COMMENTARY contributor Jonah Goldberg’s smart take is here.

UPDATE II: Charles Krauthammer’s reaction is here.

Bill Kristol at The Weekly Standard:
President Obama opposed the war in Iraq. He still thinks it was a mistake. It’s therefore unrealistic for supporters of the war to expect the president to give the speech John McCain would have given, or to expect President Obama to put the war in the context we would put it in. He simply doesn’t believe the war in Iraq was a necessary part of a broader effort to fight terror, to change the Middle East, etc. Given that (erroneous) view of his, I thought his speech was on the whole commendable, and even at times impressive.

UPDATE: Ross Douthat

George Packer at The New Yorker

Scott Johnson at Powerline

Jonah Goldberg at The Corner

Matt Welch at Reason

UPDATE #2: Bill Scher and Matt Lewis at Bloggingheads

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Iraq, Political Figures

Senate Malfunction, What’s Your Dysfunction?

George Packer at The New Yorker:

[…]

The Senate is often referred to as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” Jeff Merkley, a freshman Democrat from Oregon, said, “That is a phrase that I wince each time I hear it, because the amount of real deliberation, in terms of exchange of ideas, is so limited.” Merkley could remember witnessing only one moment of floor debate between a Republican and a Democrat. “The memory I took with me was: ‘Wow, that’s unusual—there’s a conversation occurring in which they’re making point and counterpoint and challenging each other.’ And yet nobody else was in the chamber.”

Tom Udall, a freshman Democrat from New Mexico, could not recall seeing a senator change another senator’s mind. “You would really need a good hour or two of extensive exchange among folks that really know the issue,” he said. Instead, a senator typically gives “a prepared speech that’s already been vetted through the staff. Then another guy gets up and gives a speech on a completely different subject.” From time to time, senators of the same party carry on a colloquy—“I would be interested in the distinguished senator from Iowa’s view of the other side’s Medicare Advantage plan”—that has been scripted in advance by aides.

While senators are in Washington, their days are scheduled in fifteen-minute intervals: staff meetings, interviews, visits from lobbyists and home-state groups, caucus lunches, committee hearings, briefing books, floor votes, fund-raisers. Each senator sits on three or four committees and even more subcommittees, most of which meet during the same morning hours, which helps explain why committee tables are often nearly empty, and why senators drifting into a hearing can barely sustain a coherent line of questioning. All this activity is crammed into a three-day week, for it’s an unwritten rule of the modern Senate that votes are almost never scheduled for Mondays or Fridays, which allows senators to spend four days away from the capital. Senators now, unlike those of several decades ago, often keep their families in their home states, where they return most weekends, even if it’s to Alaska or Idaho—a concession to endless fund-raising, and to the populist anti-Washington mood of recent years. (When Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House, in 1995, he told new Republican members not to move their families to the capital.) Tom Daschle, the former Democratic leader, said, “When we scheduled votes, the only day where we could be absolutely certain we had all one hundred senators there was Wednesday afternoon.”

Nothing dominates the life of a senator more than raising money. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat, said, “Of any free time you have, I would say fifty per cent, maybe even more,” is spent on fund-raising. In addition to financing their own campaigns, senators participate at least once a week in the Power Hour, during which they make obligatory calls on behalf of the Party (in the Democrats’ case, from a three-story town house across Constitution Avenue from the Senate office buildings, since they’re barred from using their own offices to raise money). Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican, insisted that the donations are never sufficient to actually buy a vote, but he added, “It sucks up time that a senator ought to be spending getting to know other senators, working on issues.”

In June, 2009, top aides to Max Baucus, whose Finance Committee was negotiating the health-care-reform bill, took time to meet with two health-care lobbyists, who themselves were former Baucus aides. (Baucus received more than a million dollars from the industry for his 2008 reëlection campaign.) That month, according to Common Cause, industry groups were spending $1.4 million a day to lobby members of Congress. Udall, speaking of the corrosive effect of fund-raising and lobbying, said, “People know it in their heart—they know this place is dominated by special interests. The over-all bills are not nearly as bold because of the influence of money.”

Daschle sketched a portrait of the contemporary senator who is too busy to think: “Sometimes, you’re dialling for dollars, you get the call, you’ve got to get over to vote, you’ve got fifteen minutes. You don’t have a clue what’s on the floor, your staff is whispering in your ears, you’re running onto the floor, then you check with your leader—you double check—but, just to make triple sure, there’s a little sheet of paper on the clerk’s table: The leader recommends an aye vote, or a no vote. So you’ve got all these checks just to make sure you don’t screw up, but even then you screw up sometimes. But, if you’re ever pressed, ‘Why did you vote that way?’—you just walk out thinking, Oh, my God, I hope nobody asks, because I don’t have a clue.”

Aides, at the elbows of senators as they shuttle between their offices and the Capitol, have proliferated over the past few decades, and they play a crucial role. Lamar Alexander, who has an office of fifty people, pointed out that staff members, who are younger and often more ideological than their bosses, and less dependent on institutional relationships, tend to push senators toward extremes. Often, aides are the main actors behind proposed legislation—writing bills, negotiating the details—while the senator is relegated to repeating talking points on Fox or MSNBC.

One day in his office, Udall picked up some tabloids from his coffee table and waved them at me. “You know about all these rags that cover the Hill, right?” he said, smiling. There are five dailies—Politico, The Hill, Roll Call, CongressDaily, and CQ Today—all of which emphasize insider conflict. The senators, who like to complain about the trivializing effect of the “24/7 media,” provide no end of fodder for it. The news of the day was what Udall called a “dust-up” between Scott Brown, the freshman Massachusetts Republican, and a staffer for Jim DeMint, the arch-conservative from South Carolina; the staffer had Tweeted that Brown was voting too often with the Democrats, leading Brown to confront DeMint on the Senate floor over this supposed breach of protocol. Bloggers carry so much influence that many senators have a young press aide dedicated to the care and feeding of online media. News about, by, and for a tiny kingdom of political obsessives dominates the attention of senators and staff, while stories that might affect their constituents go unreported because their home-state papers can no longer afford to have bureaus in Washington. Dodd, who came to the Senate in 1981 and will leave next January, told me, “I used to have eleven Connecticut newspaper reporters who covered me on a daily basis. I don’t have one today, and haven’t had one in a number of years. Instead, D.C. publications only see me through the prism of conflict.” Lamar Alexander described the effect as “this instant radicalizing of positions to the left and the right.”

Sandy Levinson:

Everyone should read George Packer’s piece in the current New Yorker (though it’s possible you need to be subscriber to get it), on “The Empty Chamber: Just how broken is the Senate”? The answer is very. The filibuster is only part of the problem. The article begins with the lunatic Senate Rule XXVI, paragraph 5, which requires unanimous consent for any committees to hold hearings after two in the afternoon when the Senate is in session. If senators were in fact required to be in the chamber, this would pass the minimum rationality test. But, since they are not, it is truly and utterly lunatic, serving only to give yet another arrow to obstructionists who want to destroy the capacity of the Senate to operate (and, most certainly, to engage in the kind of oversight for which committee hears are necessary). Then there are holds…. Packer also focuses a lot on the personalities of the people (particularly hard-right Republicans).

Packer sugggests that there is very little hope for the “constitutional option” to change the filibuster rule at the beginning of the next session, since too many senior Democrats like it (so they can make sure that Republicans can’t pass their own programs when the time comes).

No sane country designing a constitution today would establish an institution like the United States Senate. The fact that we are suffer under it is the best illustration of what political scientists call “path dependance,” the ability of bad decisions in the past (recall that James Madison hated the “Great Compromise” that brought us the Senate, which should give reverential “originalists” at least some pause, or, at least, they should explain why the Senate is any more legitimate than the 3/5 Compromise that entrenched the power of slaveowners, the other “Great Compromise” that made the Constitution possible).

Matthew Yglesias

Heather Horn at The Atlantic with the round-up

Jonathan Bernstein:

Everyone is reading and commenting on the George Packer piece on the Senate, and rightly so: there’s a lot of good stuff in there.  That said, it’s sort of a hodgepodge.  There’s a bit of old fogyism creeping through it, about the overall quality of current Senators compared to the past.  That’s one thing.  A second thing is sort of a general critique of the evolution of the Senate over time, featuring the rise of a staff-heavy Senate; time devoted to fundraising; and more time spent back in the state, all of which combine to produce the demise of personal relationships between Senators.  Then there’s a third element, which is about partisanship and the use (and/or abuse) of Senate rules in sort of a runaway arms race.

What I think is that these things don’t really go together.  The first one is, most likely, just not true; the quality of individual Senators now is probably more or less as good as its ever been, and almost certainly higher than it was, say, in Lyndon Johnson’s Senate.  The second one is true, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.  I do think there’s probably been a loss of personal relationships, and that’s probably bad.  But all those eager staffers are a plus, too; the institutional capacity of the Senate is certainly much higher than it was in Lyndon Johnson’s time.  Of course, it’s also true that the capacity needs to have grown, since the government itself is more complex than it was.  I’d like to see campaign finance reform that would reduce the time pols spend dialing for dollars, and I’d rather we had a political culture that wasn’t as phobic about Potomac Fever, so that Senators could move their families to Washington and spend more time there.  But, really, I don’t think that those issues are particularly related to current Senate disfunction.

David Frum at Frum Forum:

<!–

  • POPULAR TOPICS

–>But I want to dissent from Packer’s main thesis – which is that it is the defects of the Senate that have stalled the Obama agenda.

On July 21st, President Obama signed the completed bill. The two lasting achievements of this Senate, financial regulation and health care, required a year and a half of legislative warfare that nearly destroyed the body. They depended on a set of circumstances—a large majority of Democrats, a charismatic President with an electoral mandate, and a national crisis—that will not last long or be repeated anytime soon. Two days after financial reform became law, Harry Reid announced that the Senate would not take up comprehensive energy-reform legislation for the rest of the year. And so climate change joined immigration, job creation, food safety, pilot training, veterans’ care, campaign finance, transportation security, labor law, mine safety, wildfire management, and scores of executive and judicial appointments on the list of matters that the world’s greatest deliberative body is incapable of addressing. Already, you can feel the Senate slipping back into stagnant waters.

That seems wrong on 2 grounds:

1) A lot of the Obama agenda has passed, actually.

2) To the extent that the agenda has not passed, the causes are bigger than the slow motion of the Senate. Look again at George Packer’s list of stalled initiatives. On how many is the American public clamoring for immediate action? On how many is the Obama agenda on the wrong side of public opinion altogether?

Like all presidents who win a big national election, Barack Obama wanted to whip as many measures through Congress as fast as possible But it’s not “obstructionism” for the Senate to decline to act like the British House of Commons, enacting whatever it pleases the chief executive to propose. There’s a big difference between the Senate of the 1950s refusing session after session to consider civil rights legislation backed by the overwhelming majority  – and the Senate of the 2010s declining to try for the fourth time in 10 years to shove through an immigration amnesty that Americans do not want.

Packer cites job creation as an area of inaction. I suppose he’s referring to the much-discussed “second stimulus” that dwindled into a tiny package of small-business tax measures. But surely the failure of the FIRST stimulus to deliver the promised results is the real culprit here, not the otiose procedures of the U.S. Senate?

Packer himself does not express this view, but many of the liberal blogs seem to take the view that once a president wins an election, his duty to persuade the country somehow adjourns for the next four years. That is not true, and it should not be true. If a president can mobilize the country behind an idea, it’s amazing how the filibusters will fade away. Look at how Republicans opted to step out of the way of the Sonia Sotomayor appointment or unemployment insurance extension. If the president cannot mobilize, he will fail. The Senate may be one of the more visible manifestations of that failure. But don’t mistake the manifestation for the cause.

Ross Douthat:

Liberal commentators often point out that this White House’s approval ratings — and, by extension, its legislative agenda — are hostages to the unemployment rate. That’s true, up to a point. But it’s also true that the Obama White House placed a bet, on the policy substance and politics alike, when it made the stimulus package the centerpiece of its response to the recession. And having lost that bet, they’ve arguably been fortunate that more of their legislative agenda hasn’t been derailed. Fair or unfair, that’s just how politics works: There was never a world where Congress was going to pass the stimulus bill and health care reform and financial regulation and cap and trade and immigration reform, all in the teeth of a persistent 9-to-10 percent unemployment rate. The procedures of the Senate have been the mechanism whereby particular pieces of liberal legislation stalled and died, but the real causes of those defeats run much deeper than the filibuster.

David Broder at WaPo:

Earlier this week, as the Senate went through the motions of debating Elena Kagan’s nomination to a Supreme Court seat that almost certainly will be hers, readers of the New Yorker could review journalist George Packer’s masterful article “The Empty Chamber,” tracing the decline and fall of that same Senate.

Packer shares with thousands of citizens across the country what every reporter who covers the Capitol knows: that the public disdain for Congress, measured in record-low approval scores in polls, is mirrored by the frustration of the members of both parties who have to serve and bear the scorn.

I heard that frustration over lunch one day last week from a conservative Republican senator with three years of seniority. He was bitterly disappointed that he did not find the collegial, challenging body that his predecessor had described to him — or the cross-party friendship that Vice President Biden had told him he once enjoyed in his travels with a Republican counterpart from the senator’s own state.

Packer does as good a job as I have ever read of tracing the forces that have brought the Senate to its low estate. But he does not quite pinpoint the crucial factor: the absence of leaders who embody and can inculcate the institutional pride that once was the hallmark of membership in the Senate.

The Senate was designed not as a representative, small-d democratic body, but as a deliberately minuscule assemblage, capable of taking up the most serious national challenges and dealing with them appropriately because of the perspective and insulation provided by its lengthy terms and diverse constituencies.

Its best leaders have been men who were capable, at least on occasion, of rising above partisanship or parochial interest and summoning the will to tackle overriding challenges in a way that almost shamed their colleagues out of their small-mindedness.

Many forces — from the money chase, to the party realignments, to the intrusiveness of 24-hour media — have weakened the institutional bonds of that Senate. But it is the absence of the ethic embodied and enforced by its leaders that is most crippling.

In Broder’s mind, the “crucial factor” is simply personal. There are no leaders. In the old days, there were leaders, now there aren’t. The solution is to somehow get more leaders in the Senate who can inculcate their members with institutional pride, then things will return to the way they worked forty years ago. In other words, Broder looks at data like this:

…and sees an institution that has simply had fewer and fewer good leaders as time has gone on.

A more realistic analysis holds that the South’s post-Civil War racial Apartheid system created a highly unusual arrangement in which political parties were not sorted out ideologically — some of the most right-wing members of Congress were Democrats, and many progressives were Republicans. In that atmosphere, party ties had a very weak hold on individual members, especially Senators. Thus it was possible for social norms to encourage cooperation and limit the use of the filibuster to very rare occasions, usually involving civil rights.

A few days ago, I made an analogy to baseball. Suppose teams were allowed to put two extra players in the field in the wanted, but the social expectation was that they’d do so only rarely, when they really needed to get an out. You might be able to enforce a norm like that in a family picnic softball game. But if that were the rule in Major League Baseball, eventually every team would be playing 11 fielders all the time.

Two factors have made bipartisan cooperation impossible. One is ideology. Zero, or almost-zero, Democrats shared George W. Bush’s goal of transforming Social Security from a social insurance program into a network of individually held, defined-contribution retirement accounts. Very few Republicans shared Barack Obama’s goals of providing universal health insurance and limiting carbon dioxide emissions. Moreover, for those who might share such goals, they face strong incentives to stay in line with their party in the form of potential primary challenges and sheer partisan incentive. If Republicans gave Obama bipartisan support, then Obama’s policies would become popular, as would Obama, which would make it much harder for Republicans to retake the majority.

So even if the institutionalist analysis of what went wrong is true — and I’m deeply suspicious of analyses that revolve around the premise that people had more moral fiber back in the good old days — there’s no solution. They’re asking Senators to act in direct contravention of their own political interest. As Jon Tester, an opponent of filibuster reform, says, “I think we need to look to ourselves more than changing the rules.”

Greg Sargent on Broder:

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume leadership is the problem. Shouldn’t we say which leaders are to blame?

The words “Mitch McConnell” don’t appear in Broder’s article. The words “Harry Reid,” however, do appear in passing, when Broder writes that Reid “threw in the towel on energy legislation.” Broder points to this as another sign of Senate dysfunction. But he doesn’t say anything about the lockstep GOP opposition to energy legislation that was partly responsible for forcing Reid to throw in the towel.

Yes, Republicans said Dems were to blame for GOP opposition to energy reform because Dems didn’t do this, that or the other thing. Maybe Broder agrees with this. Maybe he thinks Republican opposition was indefensible. The point is, he doesn’t say.

Look: There’s evidence Republicans pursued a pre-conceived strategy designed to deny Obama bipartisan cooperation solely to prevent Dems from winning major victories, and to grind the Senate to a halt to make Dems look like ineffective leaders. Never mind the fact that filibustering is at historic highs. McConnell himself all but copped to this strategy, telling Adam Nagourney that it was “critical” for Republicans to remain unified against health care reform because if it were bipartisan, the public might be more inclined to support it.

More recently, McConnell said he’d be willing to compromise during the next cycle, but only if Obama decides to change course and pursue a “center right” agenda. That doesn’t sound like a real compromise offer. Does it?

This is the sort of thing that should outrage Broder, given his nostalgia for a more collegial time. If Broder has railed about this in the past, he certainly doesn’t do so with any regularity.

Maybe Broder doesn’t think Republicans are mainly to blame for the current state of affairs. Maybe it’s all Dems’ fault. Fine: If that’s the case, let’s hear it, and let’s hear why. The point is that the Senate’s dysfunction is an enormous problem that could conveivably have an impact on the fate of our planet. It’s fair to expect a columnist with the institutional knowledge Broder possesses, and the respect he enjoys, to take a real stand on who’s really to blame for what’s happening.

UPDATE: Lisa Kramer at The League

2 Comments

Filed under Legislation Pending

Mr. Packer Does Not Give A Flying Tweet

George Packer in The New Yorker:

The truth is, I feel like yelling Stop quite a bit these days. Every time I hear about Twitter I want to yell Stop. The notion of sending and getting brief updates to and from dozens or thousands of people every few minutes is an image from information hell. I’m told that Twitter is a river into which I can dip my cup whenever I want. But that supposes we’re all kneeling on the banks. In fact, if you’re at all like me, you’re trying to keep your footing out in midstream, with the water level always dangerously close to your nostrils. Twitter sounds less like sipping than drowning.

The most frightening picture of the future that I’ve read thus far in the new decade has nothing to do with terrorism or banking or the world’s water reserves—it’s an article by David Carr, the Timess media critic, published on the decade’s first day, called “Why Twitter Will Endure.” “I’m in narrative on more things in a given moment than I ever thought possible,” Carr wrote. And: “Twitter becomes an always-on data stream from really bright people.” And: “The real value of the service is listening to a wired collective voice … the throbbing networked intelligence.” And: “On Twitter, you are your avatar and your avatar is you.” And finally: “There is always something more interesting on Twitter than whatever you happen to be working on.”

This last is what really worries me. Who doesn’t want to be taken out of the boredom or sameness or pain of the present at any given moment? That’s what drugs are for, and that’s why people become addicted to them. Carr himself was once a crack addict (he wrote about it in “The Night of the Gun”). Twitter is crack for media addicts. It scares me, not because I’m morally superior to it, but because I don’t think I could handle it. I’m afraid I’d end up letting my son go hungry.

I don’t have a BlackBerry, or an iPhone, or a Google phone, and I don’t intend to get an iPad. I’ve been careful not to mention this to sources in Washington, where conversation consists of two people occasionally glancing up from their BlackBerries and saying, “I’m listening.” I worry that I won’t be taken seriously as a Washington journalist, and phone calls from my retrograde Samsung cell phone will go unanswered. On Amtrak between New York and Washington I sit in the Quiet Car with my phone off, laptop stowed, completely unreachable, and find out if I’m still capable of reading for two hours. On arrival at Union Station, I find someplace to sit near the café in the lobby and get on its wireless network and check my e-mails, since I know that anyone canceling an interview at the last minute would have assumed I have a BlackBerry. More than once, out somewhere in the capital without the Internet, I’ve had to call home and ask my wife to log onto my e-mail account, just in case.

So I can hardly escape the demands of the throbbing networked intelligence, the nonstop nagging of the wired collective voice. Lately, I’ve begun to think—with real trepidation—that I’ll have to get a BlackBerry. I’m well aware that this is a perverse way to act like a political journalist and cover Washington. It’s like doing war reporting without a flak jacket or satellite phone. It’s a temporary and probably untenable compromise between the world of the work and the desire to protect my consciousness from it. Sooner or later, something will have to give. If it looks like I’m drowning, give a shout.

Nick Bilton at The NYT:

Unfortunately, Mr. Packer’s misgivings seem to be based entirely on what he has heard about the service — he’s so afraid of it that he won’t even try it. (I wonder how Mr. Packer would feel if, say, a restaurant critic panned a restaurant based solely on hearsay about the establishment.)

“Twitter is crack for media addicts,” he writes. “It scares me, not because I’m morally superior to it, but because I don’t think I could handle it.”

Call me a digital crack dealer, but here’s why Twitter is a vital part of the information economy — and why Mr. Packer and other doubters ought to at least give it a Tweet.

Hundreds of thousands of people now rely on Twitter every day for their business. Food trucks and restaurants around the world tell patrons about daily food specials. Corporations use the service to handle customer service issues. Starbucks, Dell, Ford, JetBlue and many more companies use Twitter to offer discounts and coupons to their customers. Public relations firms, ad agencies, schools, the State Department — even President Obama — now use Twitter and other social networks to share information.

There are communication and scholarly uses. Right now, an astronaut, floating 250 miles above the Earth, is using Twitter and conversing with people all over the globe, answering both mundane and scientific questions about living on a space station.

Most importantly, Twitter is transforming the nature of news, the industry from which Mr. Packer reaps his paycheck. The news media are going through their most robust transformation since the dawn of the printing press, in large part due to the Internet and services like Twitter. After this metamorphosis takes place, everyone will benefit from the information moving swiftly around the globe.

You can see that change beginning to take place. During the protests in Iran last year, ordinary Iranians shared information through Twitter about the government atrocities taking place. That supplemented the reporting by professional journalists, who faced restrictions on their movements and coverage. More recently, after the earthquake in Haiti, Twitter helped spread information about donation efforts, connected people to their loved ones, and of course, spread news from inside the country — news that reprinted in this publication.

Packer responds:

I didn’t expect my cri de coeur about drowning in data to bring down the wrath of the wireless world. Nick Bilton, who is the Timess “lead Bits blogger,” and whose areas of expertise include “futurism,” found my concern about information technology as silly as that of the nineteenth-century reactionaries who thought train travel would destroy civilization. Bilton faulted me for condemning a tool (Twitter) that I hadn’t even used, and other media powerhouses—Romenesko, Jack Shafer—cheered him on. If they own the future, why are these guys so sensitive? (On the other hand, I seemed to hit a nerve with a lot of Bilton’s own readers.)

It’s true that I hadn’t used Twitter (not consciously, anyway—my editors inform me that this blog has for some time had an automated Twitter feed). I haven’t used crack, either, but—as a Bilton reader pointed out—you don’t need to do the drug to understand the effects. One is the sight of adults walking into traffic with their eyes glued to their iPhones, or dividing their attention about evenly between their lunch partner and their BlackBerry. Here’s another: Marc Ambinder, The Atlantics very good politics blogger, was asked by Michael Kinsley to describe his typical day of information consumption, otherwise known as reading. Ambinder’s day begins and ends with Twitter, and there’s plenty of Twitter in between. No mention of books, except as vacation material via the Kindle. I’m sure Ambinder still reads books when he’s not on vacation, but it didn’t occur to him to include them in his account, and I’d guess that this is because they’re not a central part of his reading life.

And he’s not alone. Just about everyone I know complains about the same thing when they’re being honest—including, maybe especially, people whose business is reading and writing. They mourn the loss of books and the loss of time for books. It’s no less true of me, which is why I’m trying to place a few limits on the flood of information that I allow into my head. The other day I had to reshelve two dozen books that my son had wantonly pulled down, most of them volumes from college days. I thumbed idly through a few urgently underlined pages of Kierkegaard’s “Concluding Unscientific Postscript,” a book that electrified me during my junior year, and began to experience something like the sensation middle-aged men have at the start of softball season, when they try sprinting to first base after a winter off. What a ridiculous effort it took! There’s no way for readers to be online, surfing, e-mailing, posting, tweeting, reading tweets, and soon enough doing the thing that will come after Twitter, without paying a high price in available time, attention span, reading comprehension, and experience of the immediately surrounding world. The Internet and the devices it’s spawned are systematically changing our intellectual activities with breathtaking speed, and more profoundly than over the past seven centuries combined. It shouldn’t be an act of heresy to ask about the trade-offs that come with this revolution. In fact, I’d think asking such questions would be an important part of the job of a media critic, or a lead Bits blogger.

Instead, the response to my post tells me that techno-worship is a triumphalist and intolerant cult that doesn’t like to be asked questions. If a Luddite is someone who fears and hates all technological change, a Biltonite is someone who celebrates all technological change: because we can, we must. I’d like to think that in 1860 I would have been an early train passenger, but I’d also like to think that in 1960 I’d have urged my wife to go off Thalidomide.

Discussions like these are a healthy part of a democracy and our future — whether or not you use Twitter.

Steve Coll in The New Yorker:

So I have been reading with great sympathy as my colleague George Packer has staked out his resistance to Twitter triumphalism. I had never been on the Twitter site until I read his recent posts. (Like him, I was aware that The New Yorker did some twittering on my behalf, but I preferred not to think about what that might imply.) Last night, fearing what I would learn, I went on the site and scoped out my Twitter fingerprints. There were dozens of recent tweets emanating from South Asia linking to an interview I had given to the Times of India about Indo-Pakistani relations. There were a handful of nice tweets from random people reading one of my books. It all seemed fine. It also seemed like a space that did not require my direct participation anytime soon.

In what way do technological systems have moral characteristics? We value books as a technological system (at least, at The New Yorker, we do), but why? In the history of publishing, book writers and readers surely have engaged in as much mendacity, manipulation, triviality, confusion, and wasted time—as a proportion of the whole endeavor—as bloggers and tweeters do today. A technological system is as indifferent to the character of its user as dice are to the character of the craps player. And yet the qualities of excellence in a great book do seem specific to the book’s form, and what it requires of its human partner. The book’s disappearance might well herald the diminishment of those qualities in culture.

The qualities of excellence in a great tweet—let’s stipulate that these might include spontaneous humor and the real-time witnessing of crimes against humanity—are also particular to its form. It may be that the generation growing up with Twitter will come to feel that the distinctive qualities the technology requires—such as living without privacy in an electronic hive, bee-like—is natural and desirable. For the rest of us, like all forms of evolution, it will require adaptation. Resistance is part of adaptation. Was George’s original online essay and the online hive’s reaction to it, followed by George’s online response to the hive, an example of resistance to electronic media, or an example of adaptation? We know this: Twitter doesn’t care.

Jeffrey Goldberg:

I too found it interesting that Marc didn’t mention books much. I asked Marc about Packer’s observation, and he wrote, “I read several hundred books a year, including Packer’s books. I write thousands of words per day. And I organize my information stream around Twitter. So far as I know, I don’t have a brain tumor and I do have a healthy social life.”

Packer’s generally right about Twitter (I use it mainly to steer people to longer pieces), but Marc isn’t the best target; he’s actually literate, and he actually reports — and values reported, closely-edited journalism. If our business were filled with Ambinders, it would have a brighter future than it currently has. And it definitely needs more Packers. Biltons it already has in abundance.

John McQuaid:

But the problems Packer cites, from his own observations, have little to do with books, or reading, or the content of your Twitter stream. It’s random social media stuff that rubs him the wrong way. He expresses revulsion at the sight of people reading their during lunch conversations, or pressing their noses to their smartphones as they stroll into traffic. He bemoans the end of the print-media business model and blames Twitter.

In other words, this is not a serious argument about the future of media. (A sure sign of this is to denounce your critics as members of an “intolerant cult,” compare social media to Thalidomide, and, stripping the irony from Roland Hedley – mon dieu! – equate Twitter and thanatos.) Maybe we shouldn’t expect a thoughtful argument in what was, originally, just a rant on a blog, albeit the New Yorker’s. But of course if you use the New Yorker platform to attack Twitter and the media revolution, it’s going to attract attention and debate. So I wish he’d have devoted some thought to this.

Packer pines for the way things used to be. But were things really so great before social media fractured our attention? Trashy entertainments and distractions are as old as culture itself. There may be more avenues for trash and trivia today, and more ways to waste time, but the obsessions haven’t changed. The question is, is this a difference of degree or kind? If you say “kind,” what are the implications for reading, for writing, for neurology? For news, for politics? Can they really be all bad? If they aren’t all bad, where does the promise lie for the long forms and deep thoughts that Packer seeks?

Ezra Klein:

It is true that for the best books, there is no substitute for a book. I do not want to read Robert Caro’s blog posts if they will delay his final volume on Lyndon Johnson by so much as an hour. But for many books, a few blog posts, or an article, would work just fine, and the reader would save a lot of time in the process. And time has value.

Then there are the advantages that online media offer that books can’t match: It’s possible to follow an issue in real time. People who really wanted to understand the health-care reform conversation were better off reading Jon Cohn’s blog than any particular book or magazine. Did those people spend more time reading Jon and less time reading books? Probably. But it was time well spent. Packer is insistent on making the point that something is lost as we move into this faster, more fractured, more condensed media environment. But so too is something gained.

And finally, I wonder whether online media is crowding out books to the degree Packer assumes. My blog is primarily read during the workday. That’s true for every blog I know of. It’s also true for the type of Tweeting under discussion here. This is all operating in the crevices of the workday, in part because it can be done on the computer, and so it looks like work. Cracking open a biography, conversely, is not the sort of thing that you can do while your boss roams the halls or in the spare moments between finishing one task and beginning another.

The different mediums are suited not just for different types of information but also for different levels of possible focus, and that makes them a lot more complementary than some think. Packer’s post is about the competition between them, but my hunch — and my experience — is that people read blogs and online articles (which is what Twitter mainly links to) during the day and books during the night. That seems unambiguously better than when the only option was books during the night.

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Of course I listed a considerable number of blogs before that. I’m not on twitter. I just don’t see the point. But I part with George in the sense that I think that’s about my personal predilections. I’m not convinced it reflects a refined critique of the future of information.

These things come together in weird ways. Without getting into specifics, last month was the best month this blog has had since the election high. But the posts that do the best, in terms of traffic and comments, aren’t quick hit, off the cuff, witty observations (Crash-bashing excluded) but the dense, long-ish stuff that usually comes from reading books. A couple of weeks ago, we had 100plus comment discussing whether slave should be considered as assets, labor, or both.

This is probably particular to me, but nothing has encouraged me to read more books than blogging here. It provides content for the site but it also makes book-reading more enjoyable. Being outside academia, I don’t know where else I could find people to discuss Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom. I’ve actually been thinking about trying to get a bunch of commenters together to read Ulysses. I’ve never read it, and can’t see myself plowing through it solo. But together we may yet conquer.

Matthew Yglesias:

This is all correct, and yet despite his protestations to the contrary, it just amounts to Packer offering a luddite argument. The life of a prosperous American man circa 1960 was pretty good. No risk of starvation, no idiocy of rural life, decent job stability, etc. For your leisure time you have many books to enjoy, can listen to records (or the radio), go to the movies, or watch one of three television networks. Plenty of social problems around, but nobody was writing about “the crisis of the under-entertained American” or anything like that. And yet just consider the volume of new books that have been written in the past 50 years. Just consider the volume of new good books that have been written in the past 50 years. And yet the earth still revolved around its axis in 24 hours and around the globe in 365 days. All those new books represent a loss of time available to read all the great pre-1960 books. Less Hamlet, less Great Gatsby, less Moby Dick, less Crime and Punishment, less Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and we mourn the loss of these great works!

Obviously, though, the publication of new books is progress rather than regress. A person who chose to never read a single piece of post-1960 fiction could still live a rich and full life. He could even adopt a sneering attitude toward people who insisted on reading new novels. And people who subscribe to cable television (later: DVRs). And people who buy VCRs (later: DVD players). And people who read blogs (later: Twitter feeds). But what does it really amount to? To take advantage of new opportunities to do new things means, by definition, to reduce the extent to which one takes advantage of old opportunities to do old things. One shouldn’t deny that the losses involved are real—of course they are—but simply point out that it’s unavoidable. To say, “aha! this is the thing—this Twitter, these blogs—that’s crowded books out of my life” is a kind of confusion. Life is positively full of these little time-crunches. The fact that something displaces something of value doesn’t mean that it has no value, it just means that it’s new. To displace old things is in the nature of new things, and to cite the fact of displacement as the problem with the new thing really is just to object to novelty.

Jonathan Chait at TNR:

Yglesias is missing Packer’s point. Packer is not making a version of the complaint that “nobody listens to records anymore and records are really cool.” He’s saying that he and many of his friends are reading fewer books and are unhappy about that fact. People who have DVRs don’t complain about the fact that they don’t watch their VCR anymore. Their unhappiness suggests that something more is going on here than people substituting a newer and better technology for an older one.

Packer is suggesting two factors at work. First, there’s so much information to keep up with, as emails and blog posts and Twitter messages keep flying in, that people find themselves on an information treadmill they can’t get off. Second, the constant imbibing of this information can alter our mental habits in such a way as to make long-form reading more difficult even when we do have the time. That’s the point Packer is making when he says that he pulled out a volume of Kierkegaard and couldn’t believe he had once been able to immerse himself in it. Maybe twentysomethings have managed to avoid this. Packer’s complaint rings true to me.

UPDATE: Kevin Drum

1 Comment

Filed under Books, New Media

We Talk Niebuhr, Oh Yes, We Do

We’re going back to Obama’s Nobel speech for a moment. David Brooks in NYT:

Barack Obama never bought into these shifts. In the past few weeks, he has revived the Christian realism that undergirded cold war liberal thinking and tried to apply it to a different world.

Obama’s race probably played a role here. As a young thoughtful black man, he would have become familiar with prophetic Christianity and the human tendency toward corruption; familiar with the tragic sensibility of Lincoln’s second inaugural; familiar with the guarded pessimism of Niebuhr, who had such a profound influence on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In 2002, Obama spoke against the Iraq war, but from the vantage point of a cold war liberal. He said he was not against war per se, just this one, and he was booed by the crowd. In 2007, he spoke about the way Niebuhr formed his thinking: “I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.”

His speeches at West Point and Oslo this year are pitch-perfect explications of the liberal internationalist approach. Other Democrats talk tough in a secular way, but Obama’s speeches were thoroughly theological. He talked about the “core struggle of human nature” between love and evil.

More than usual, he talked about the high ideals of the human rights activists and America’s history as a vehicle for democracy, prosperity and human rights. He talked about America’s “strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct.” Most of all, he talked about the paradox at the core of cold war liberalism, of the need to balance “two seemingly irreconcilable truths” — that war is both folly and necessary.

He talked about the need to balance the moral obligation to champion freedom while not getting swept up in self-destructive fervor.

George Packer in The New Yorker:

The spirit of Niebuhr presided over the Nobel address. Neither idealist nor realist, Obama seemed to be saying that universal values and practical geopolitics exist in the same tension as war and peace. The readiness is all—the ability to discern opportunities and not be hemmed in by rigid abstractions. The President cited Nixon’s overture to Mao during the Cultural Revolution as an apparently inexcusable act that over the long run produced real improvements in the lives of the Chinese people. If something similar comes of Obama’s outreach to Iran, it, too, could be seen as a historic diplomatic breakthrough. At the moment, however, there’s no sign of progress.

In his address, Obama said, “When there is genocide in Darfur, systematic rape in Congo, or repression in Burma, there must be consequences,” and he added, “We will bear witness to the quiet dignity of reformers like Aung San Suu Kyi; to the bravery of Zimbabweans who cast their ballots in the face of beatings; to the hundreds of thousands who have marched silently through the streets of Iran.” This was the least convincing passage of the speech: so far, there have been no consequences in places like Darfur, and bearing witness—or at least such low-key witness—to Iranian protesters has done nothing to sway the mullahs. The weakness of Obama’s strategic flexibility is that it depends so heavily on practical skill, above all in diplomacy, a field in which America has lost its touch over the past two decades. Failure will seem like a failure of vision and principle.

Obama’s Peace Prize has been fairly called premature—a criticism that the President himself endorsed, first when the award was announced, in October, and again in Oslo. It was given more for who he is and what he says than for anything that he has done. The speech exemplified a quality of wisdom that could place his legacy among those of previous winners, such as George C. Marshall and Nelson Mandela, against whose achievements he belittled his own. On the other hand, the 2009 Peace Prize could end up like the 1926 version, which went to Aristide Briand, the co-author of a pact outlawing war. The results will tell.

Andrew Sullivan:

“A little better than we were yesterday.” Whatever that is, it is not utopian or liberal except in the deepest, Niebuhrian sense. Obama has never been a pacifist. Never. His opposition to the Iraq war, as he said at the time, was not because he was against all war, but because he was against a dumb war. He is, in so many ways, a Niebuhrian realist. And with Niebuhr, there is the deeper sense that even though there is no ultimate resolution in favor of good over evil on this earth in our lifetimes, we still have a duty to try. It is this effort in the full knowledge of ultimate failure on earth that is the moral calling. It is to do what we can, knowing that it will never be enough.

The problem with Bush’s foreign policy was that it was based on a “doctrine” which is never a good thing to base any politics on; that it was far too sanguine about the power of good in the world; far too crude about the role of culture and history in limiting the universal appeal of Western freedom; far too reckless in deploying resources without any concern for their limits; and so convinced of its own righteousness that it could even authorize the absolute evil of torture in pursuit of the absolute good of freedom. Bush was riddled with all the hubris, arrogance, rationalism and utopianism of the worst kind of liberalism. Obama is not a Tory realist; he still believes in the slow, uncertain march of human enlightenment. But he sure isn’t a Bush-style or Carter-style utopian. And he is such a deeper, calmer spirit than Clinton’s always-maneuvring mind.

These are desperately dangerous times. They are dangerous primarily because religion has been abused by those seeking power and control over others – both in the mild version of Christianism at home and the much, much more pernicious and evil Islamism abroad. They are dangerous because the fusion of this kind of religious certainty with the sheer power of technological destruction now available could bring the planet to catastrophe if we are not very, very careful. Very few moments in history have required an Augustinian statesmanship as much as now.

Stephen Walt in Foreign Policy:

Readers here know that I recommended that we not pay much attention to Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, mostly because what mattered was not what he said — we all know by now that he’s eloquent on such occasions — but what he did.

Needless to say, the commentariat ignored this advice, with prominent pundits like Andrew Sullivan, David Brooks, and George Packer praising Obama’s remarks for his Niebuhrian “Christian Realism.” (In his New Yorker comment on the speech, Packer uses variations on the word “realism” four different times.) So having originally decided to ignore it, I decided I’d better go back and read it again (see Whitman quotation above).

There’s no question that realists can find much to agree with in the speech.  Instead of promising a “war to end all wars,” he warned his listeners that “we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.” He also acknowledged that the use of force is sometimes “not only necessary but morally justified” and made it clear that his role as head of state is first and foremost “to protect and defend” the United States. Why? Because he must “face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.” Hard to think of a more “realist” notion than that. And surely realists would agree that his position is “a recognition of history, the imperfections of man, and the limits of reason.”

That said, other aspects of the speech were less consistent with realist thinking as well as less convincing in themselves. He suggested that the world “needed institutions to prevent another world war,” even though the case that institutions can or have performed that role is weak. Institutions are useful tools, to be sure, and one can argue that the United Nations has performed valuable peace-keeping roles in a number of places, but institutions cannot prevent great powers from pursuing their interests and did relatively little to prevent another world war.

Instead, as Obama himself acknowledged, what has kept peace among the great powers over the past sixty years is mostly power. Here Obama gave full credit to the United States, saying that it “has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades.” Most realists would agree — but only up to a point. As Campbell Craig and Fredrik Logevall show in their excellent new book, America’s Cold War, the United States did play a positive role in stabilizing Europe after World War II and in containing possible Soviet expansion in that region afterwards. But they also show that America’s role in Indochina, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East was far more destructive, even though the U.S. leaders who conducted these policies undoubtedly thought they are serving a larger moral purpose as well.

Will Inboden at Foreign Policy on Walt:

Christian realism and academic realism do share much.  Both consider power a first-order factor, both are anti-utopian, both caution about unanticipated outcomes of good intentions, both assume human folly and national self-interest, both hold that order precedes justice, and both take the salience of the nation-state as the basic unit in international relations. No surprise, then, that in his day Niebuhr frequently found common cause with more traditional realists such as George Kennan and Hans Morgenthau.

But there are significant differences as well. Christian Realism is primarily a philosophy about the individual human being and the meaning of history, rather than of how the international system works. It focuses on the limits of human aspirations and the pervasiveness of human pride, but also the fact of human dignity and the possibility of proximate justice here on earth, even if absolute justice is left for the end of history. Moreover, while Niebuhr harbored few delusions about the capabilities of the United Nations, he and his fellow Christian realists still placed greater faith in such international institutions — even to the point of helping create the intellectual architecture for the United Nations — than traditional realists.

Christian realism also gives more primacy to moral judgments, including about the internal nature of societies, than academic realism. Niebuhr broke from his fellow liberals in the 1930s by condemning Nazi Germany for its categorical evil and urging the United States to take up arms and defeat it. In the next decade he again condemned Soviet communism as evil and urged a robust military posture — including nuclear arms — to resist it. In neither case was it simply about one nation-state balancing the rise of another nation-state or protecting its own interests. His most pointed opposition to the USSR came not because it was a rival power but because of its existential threat and sacrilegious zeal. In Niebuhr’s pointed words, “Hell knows no fury like that of a prophet of a secular religion, become the priest-king of a Utopian State.” Likewise, Niebuhr’s Christian realism sometimes led him to take positions that deviated from the traditional realists of the day — such as his fervent and outspoken support for Israel during its precarious first decade of existence.

And while warning constantly against American hubris or the deification of any nation-state, Christian Realism does allow for a distinctive — even exceptional — role for the United States in the world. Hence Niebuhr’s deep affinity for the American experiment even while cautioning against its ironic vices.  In a related vein, one of Niebuhr’s intellectual projects was to defend democracy as the most viable and most realistic political system, grounded in a particular moral order and philosophy of history. From this comes one of his most famous quotes: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s capacity for injustice makes democracy necessary.”

Perhaps the most important distinctive of Christian Realism (evidenced by its name) is the fact that it is irreducibly religious. It contends that the root of the world’s problems is not mere self-interest and conflict but the pervasiveness of Original Sin. While holding that the mind of God is ultimately inscrutable, Christian realism still submits all of human existence to divine judgment, and sees history being steered by the divine hand to an eschatological culmination and new reality. Not the sort of stuff one will find in a political science textbook.

Niebuhr himself is notoriously elusive and resistant to ideological pigeon-holing. Those as politically diverse as Arthur Schlesinger, E.J. Dionne, David Brooks, Andrew Bacevich, Michael Novak, Wilfred McClay — and now Barack Obama — happily confess the influence of Niebuhr on their own thought. As for Obama, while I have in the past been skeptical of the depth behind his occasional references to Niebuhr, with the Oslo speech he has crafted something that would likely have resonated with Niebuhr — even if not as much with academic realists.

UPDATE: Matt Taibbi

1 Comment

Filed under Go Meta, Religion

Much Longer Than Joe Pesci’s 1990 Oscar Acceptance Speech

Jonathan Chait at TNR:

I’m not a big fan of political speeches in general, but I thought President Obama’s Nobel acceptance speech today was unusually good. (If I were a speech-y kind of writer, like Rick Hertzberg, I’d have used a better adjective in the last sentence than “good.”)

After again acknowledging that he doesn’t really deserve the award–“I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the considerable controversy that your generous decision has generated. In part, this is because I am at the beginning, and not the end, of my labors on the world stage. Compared to some of the giants of history who have received this prize–Schweitzer and King; Marshall and Mandela–my accomplishments are slight”–Obama set out his foreign policy worldview.

Michael Crowley at TNR:

I agree with Chait and, to offer him some fancy synonyms, think this may have been the deepest and most elegaic speech of Obama’s presidency. But what a strange one it was. Obama is a man trapped amongst the contradictions created by America’s awkward place in the post-Bush world. Last week, Obama’s address on Afghanistan both escalated and promised an end to the war there. Today, Obama opened his Nobel Peace Price acceptance speech with a long disquisition on the nature of war and its necessity–complete with a brief survey of “just war” theory. (He even threw in a passage about the necessary role of coercion against states like Iran and North Korea that mess around with nuclear weapons.) I suppose it was the honest way to take such a prize at a time when America has about 200,000 soldiers occupying foreign countries. But it was something of a surreal exercise.

David Frum at FrumForum:

First Obama tells us how humble he is. Then he tells us that he is bending history in the direction of justice – a phrase that associates himself with Martin Luther King. Charming.

But it gets worse. The slightness of Obama’s achievements is (the president says) only a partial and lesser reason for the controversy over the prize. The “most profound” reason that the award has been so disparaged is … George W. Bush! Yes, Obama’s prize is controversial because the country is fighting two wars, one of which it did not seek – but the other of which we apparently did seek. Or rather – that George W. Bush sought.

While the one war is an effort of self-defense , the other is … not.

While the one war mustered an international coalition deserving of respect, the other mustered an international coalition that is … not.

When Barack Obama got word of the prize in October, he said he would accept “as an affirmation of American leadership.” But in Oslo he did not speak as leader of all America, but as leader of a party – and as a party leader who cannot refrain from snide insituations against the motives – not only of his opposite-party predecessors – but of all who worked with them, including the leaders of many allied governments.

William Kristol at WaPo:

“proliferation may increase the risk of catastrophe. Terrorism has long been a tactic, but modern technology allows a few small men with outsized rage to murder innocents on a horrific scale….

“We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

“But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation,…I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms.

“So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace….

“But it is also incumbent upon all of us to insist that nations like Iran and North Korea do not game the system. Those who claim to respect international law cannot avert their eyes when those laws are flouted. Those who care for their own security cannot ignore the danger of an arms race in the Middle East or East Asia. Those who seek peace cannot stand idly by as nations arm themselves for nuclear war.”

— President Barack Obama, Nobel Peace Prize speech, Oslo, Norway, Dec. 10, 2009

“Our second goal is to prevent regimes that sponsor terror from threatening America or our friends and allies with weapons of mass destruction….

“North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens.

“Iran aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people’s hope for freedom….

“States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.

“We will work closely with our coalition to deny terrorists and their state sponsors the materials, technology and expertise to make and deliver weapons of mass destruction….

“We’ll be deliberate, yet time is not on our side. I will not wait on events while dangers gather. I will not stand by as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.”

— George W. Bush, State of the Union speech, Washington, D.C., Jan. 29, 2002

Daniel Pipes at The Corner:

Obama’s Nobel “lecture” offers critics the usual cornucopia of opportunities, but I shall focus on just two statements:

“I am the commander-in-chief of a nation in the midst of two wars.” And here I thought there were three wars. Obama’s two are Iraq and Afghanistan; missing is what George W. Bush termed the War on Terror and I call the “war on radical Islam.” Obama apparently reduces that third one to al-Qaeda and counts it as part of the Afghan war. His mistake has real consequences; long after American troops have left Iraq and Afghanistan, Islamists will be attacking and subverting us. If we don’t see their efforts as a war, we lose.

“Religion is used to justify the murder of innocents by those who have distorted and defiled the great religion of Islam.” Here, Obama follows his predecessor in presenting himself as an interpreter of Islam. I ridiculed “Imam Bush” for telling Muslims about true Islam and its distortion, and now I must ridicule “Sheikh Obama” for the same. He’s a politician, not a theologian. He’s a Christian, not a Muslim. He should steer completely clear from the topic of who are good or bad Muslims.

Victor Davis Hanson at The Corner:

The president said some good things, but unfortunately, his long academic lecture on the nature of war itself had all the characteristics of we have come to accept from a Barack Obama sermon:

1) Verbosity (4,000 words plus!) and extraneousness (he finally even referenced the world’s farmers); 2) I/me exhaustion (34 times) and the messianic cult of personality; 3) the 50/50, split-the-difference trope; 4) the straw man: on the one hand there are realists, on the other idealists, and I Obama singularly reject this either/or dichotomy (as if no one else does as well); 5) veiled attacks on the previous administration; 6) reference to his own unique personal story; 7) good-war/bad-war theory of Afghanistan and Iraq; 8) the hopey-changy rhetorical flourish.

Is there a Microsoft program somewhere that writes these things out?

Peter Wehner at The Corner:

How individuals and nations travel that journey in an imperfect world, one inhabited by violent and malevolent men, is a question that has been debated and that people have struggled with throughout the ages. How can those who say they long for peace justify war? What makes war just? When can it be justified on humanitarian grounds?

President Obama’s Nobel address didn’t add to (or better articulate) what others have said about these matters. But that doesn’t mean Obama’s speech wasn’t impressive. It was, in terms of its ambition, in its willingness to address a morally complicated matter in a serious way, and in the judgments at which Obama finally arrived. He provided — for the first time, really — a strong moral justification for his decision to send troops to Afghanistan.

Joe Klein at Swampland at Time:

How does a rookie President, having been granted the Nobel Peace Prize, go about earning it? Well, he can start by giving the sort of Nobel lecture that Barack Obama just did, an intellectually rigorous and morally lucid speech that balanced the rationale for going to war against the need to build a more peaceful and equitable world. The first half of the speech, in which the President made the case for Just Wars, will be the part that makes news. It was especially notable because it was delivered to an elite European audience, denizens of a continent where the most vicious warfare conducted in the history of humankind has been replaced by a facile moral superiority (made possible by the U.S. force of arms during the Cold War). But Obama’s clarity would also have been useful last week when he gave a more grudging, less straightforward, speech at West Point, announcing his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan.

Conor Friedersdorf at American Scene on Frum

George Packer in the New Yorker

Leave a comment

Filed under Political Figures

Our Corn Flakes Are On Fire

homer epic fail

Bob Woodward in WaPo:

The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan warns in an urgent, confidential assessment of the war that he needs more forces within the next year and bluntly states that without them, the eight-year conflict “will likely result in failure,” according to a copy of the 66-page document obtained by The Washington Post.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal says emphatically: “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”

His assessment was sent to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Aug. 30 and is now being reviewed by President Obama and his national security team.

McChrystal concludes the document’s five-page Commander’s Summary on a note of muted optimism: “While the situation is serious, success is still achievable.”

But he repeatedly warns that without more forces and the rapid implementation of a genuine counterinsurgency strategy, defeat is likely. McChrystal describes an Afghan government riddled with corruption and an international force undermined by tactics that alienate civilians.

Peter Feaver at Foreign Policy:

I have a few initial assessments of my own:

1. It is not good to have a document like this leaked into the public debate before the President has made his decision. Whether you favor ramping up or ramping down or ramping laterally, as a process matter, the Commander-in-Chief ought to be able to conduct internal deliberations on sensitive matters without it appearing concurrently on the front pages of the Post. I assume the Obama team is very angry about this, and I think they have every right to be.

2. A case could be made that the Obama team tempted fate by authorizing Bob Woodward to travel with General Jones (cf. “whisky, tango, foxtrot”) in the first place and then sitting on this report for nearly a month without a White House response. You cannot swing a dead cat in Washington without meeting someone who was briefed on at least part of the McChrystal assessment, and virtually every one of those folks is mystified as to why the White House has not responded as of yet. The White House will have to respond now, but I stand by my first point: leaks like this make it harder to for the Commander-in-Chief to do deliberate national security planning.

3. Without knowing the provenance of the leak, it is impossible to state with confidence what the motives were. For my part, I would guess that this leak is an indication that some on the Obama team are dismayed at the White House’s slow response and fear that this is an indication that President Obama is leaning towards rejecting the inevitable requests for additional U.S. forces that this report tees up. By this logic, the leak is designed to force his hand and perhaps even to tie his hands.

Michael Goldfarb at TWS:

According to the McChrystal assessment, “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.” Yet Obama is slow-walking the troop increase for political reasons, even as it seems likely that he will, in the end, do the right thing and send the necessary reinforcements.

The assessment also says that “While the situation is serious, success is still achievable.” Obama’s hand-picked commander has laid out a strategy for defeating al Qaeda and the Taliban. During the campaign Obama had promised to give the war in Afghanistan the attention and resources necessary to do just that — in explicit contrast to the Bush administration whom he alleged had diverted the resources and attention of the military from the real threat of al Qaeda and their Taliban allies in Afghanistan.

McChrystal leaves no doubt about what must be done if Obama is to keep his word — more troops and very soon. The president cannot delay that decision any more — not for the sake of his health care initiative or anything else. And in any case, as a matter of politics the best thing for Obama and the Democrats is to win the war. Yesterday Obama immodestly compared himself to some of the great presidents of American history. “Maybe you hear what people had to say about Abraham Lincoln, or what they had to say about FDR, or what they had to say about Ronald Reagan when he first came in and was trying to change our approach to government.” That answer came in response to a question from George Stephanopoulos about the health care town halls during the August recess. But it wasn’t legislative accomplishments that made those men great presidents. It was their decision to commit fully to the major conflicts of the day — and to win decisively.

Spencer Ackerman:

Everyone I interviewed for this story made it clear that there would be no resource request, at all, unless and until Obama has determined the strategy advances that core anti-al-Qaeda interest. That includes , as you’ll see from the sourcing in the piece, people in McChrystal’s circle. I can’t conclude from my reporting that McChrystal is engaged in any power play. Nor is Petraeus engaged in any such power play. The military leadership is getting what it has said for years it wanted: a thorough and deliberative process from the political leadership to determine what the national strategy ought to be. Not a rubber stamp and not knee-jerk rejectionism. It’s all on Obama’s shoulders.

Update: On the other hand, this leak surely came from whomever wants troop levels increased

Rich Lowry at NRO:

I’m just starting to read the memo now, but this leak was ideally timed — whether intentionally or not — to push back against Obama’s weak performance on the Afghan war yesterday. Suddenly, he doesn’t know what the strategy is? This is a way for McChrystal’s voice — missing so far from the debate — to be heard loud and clear, making the case for counter-insurgency tactics and more troops to back them up.

Michael Crowley at TNR:

It’s an awfully uncomfortable spot for Obama to be in. During the campaign he spoke often–albeit usually in the context of Iraq–about heeding the advice of his commanders on the ground. Now he’s in a position where he may not want to accept it. As I wrote in my last print piece, this line of thinking helped George W. Bush screw up Iraq. That said, what the generals want is not the only consideration here. Their job is to tell Obama how the war can be won. Obama’s job is to decide whether, in the context of America’s myriad priorities at home and abroad, it’s worth the projected cost.

Ed Morrissey

Andrew Sullivan

Joe Klein in Swampland:

The President needs to know what the next Afghan governmnet is going to look like–will there be a runoff between Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah? If Karzai still manages to score more than 50% after the phony ballots are tossed, will Abdullah and other Karzai opponents endorse the Karzai government? What sort of moves will Karzai make to restore some confidence in his government?  Are the Canadians going to stay in Kandarhar Province, are the British going to stay in Helmand? Are the Dutch and Australians going to stay in Uruzgan?

Obama was absolutely right on the Sunday talk shows: troop levels aren’t nearly as important as strategy. He has, at most, one more shot at getting this right. The military piece is only one part of the picture–but for many conservatives, like John McCain, it is the only piece that matters. That is a disastrously myopic way to look at an exceedingly complicated problem. Any attempts by the military, or their allies, to pressure a troop increase now are premature and misguided.

Jennifer Rubin at Commentary:

And yet the president dawdles—waiting for what? Is it health care or some other agenda item that concerns him? We don’t know, but what is evident by the McChrystal recommendation ( and by the apparent need to leak its contents, stemming no doubt from frustration with the White House stall) is that there is good reason to be concerned that the president’s failure to make a prompt decision may in and of itself impair our ability to succeed. The president may not like what he’s hearing (”Toward the end of his report, McChrystal revisits his central theme: ‘Failure to provide adequate resources also risks a longer conflict, greater casualties, higher overall costs, and ultimately, a critical loss of political support. Any of these risks, in turn, are likely to result in mission failure’”), but he owes the country a timely decision—or at least an honest explanation as to why he finds it so hard to make up his mind.

Kevin Drum

Dave Schuler

UPDATE: Leslie Gelb at WSJ

Spencer Ackerman at The Washington Independent

Max Boot in Commentary

UPDATE #2: George Packer in the New Yorker

Leave a comment

Filed under Af/Pak

The Year Was Hip, Happening And Full Of Giant Steps

June1120091231pm1959

Fred Kaplan of Slate has a new book out on 1959.

Some posts from Kaplan at Slate on the book, here and here. Kaplan:

I entered into my project with apprehensions of just this sort of eye-rolling. There are a lot of books out there that insist a specific year, or type of fish or grain or mathematical equation, altered the course of civilization. But I went ahead with it anyway, not because I figured I was cashing in on a trend (Cohen’s article is headlined “Titlenomics, or Creating Best Sellers”)—if I do, I’ll be more stunned than anybody—but because, well, I was convinced that 1959 was the real deal.

It began with simple curiosity. Several years ago, it occurred to me that many of my favorite groundbreaking record albums, books, and movies—Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz To Come, The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce, Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself, Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows—were all released in 1959.

Was this just coincidence, or was it part of a pattern? Was there something more broadly significant about that time? The more I looked into it, the more it struck me that 1959 really was a pivotal year—not only in culture but also in politics, society, science, sex: everything.

Consider: It was the year when the microchip was introduced, the Food and Drug Administration held hearings on the birth-control pill, IBM marketed the first business computer, a passenger jetliner took the first nonstop trans-Atlantic flight, and America joined the Russians in the “space race.” It saw the rise of free jazz, “sick comics,” the New Journalism, and indie films; the birth of Motown, Happenings, and the Generation Gap; the Lady Chatterley trial that overthrew the nation’s obscenity laws; the U.S. Civil Rights Commission’s first report, which sparked the overhaul of segregation laws—all this bursting against fears of a “missile gap,” the fallout-shelter craze, and the first U.S. casualties in the war in Vietnam.

Kaplan on the Diane Rehm show

George Will:

Kaplan lavishes excessive attention on Norman Mailer, who today seems marginal. It is a significant datum — signifying today’s diminished importance of words — that the poet Allen Ginsberg’s 1959 recitation at Columbia University caused the sort of commotion that only a rock group could cause today. But Kaplan’s judgment that Ginsberg “saw the connection between freedom from structures in poetry and freedom from structures in all of life” merely validates the axiom that everything changes except the avant garde.

More serious change was coming, born of a mundane material, silicon. On March 24, 1959, at an engineers’ trade show, Texas Instruments introduced perhaps the 20th century’s most transformative device, the solid integrated circuit, aka the microchip. It would help satisfy what Kaplan calls Americans’ “yearning for instantaneity,” a cousin of the spontaneity (“first thought, best thought” proclaimed Ginsberg) so celebrated in the next decade.

Kaplan is especially convincing concerning jazz as a leading indicator of more serious, because more disciplined, cultural enrichment. On March 2, 1959, Miles Davis began recording “Kind of Blue,” perhaps the greatest jazz album. On May 4, John Coltrane recorded “Giant Steps,” on May 22, Ornette Coleman recorded “The Shape of Jazz to Come” and on June 25, David Brubeck began recording “Time Out.” The emancipation of jazz from what Kaplan calls “the structures of chords and pre-set rhythms” proved that meticulously practiced improvisation is not an oxymoron.

George Packer in the New Yorker:

Kaplan, who’s a friend of mine, is a poly-enthusiast. He writes books and columns about defense and foreign policy; he reviews high-end stereo equipment; he writes about jazz, a subject on which he’s deeply knowledgeable; he knows all about the latest DVD releases and the technology behind them; he frequents music clubs, art-film screenings, gallery openings, art auctions; he reads contemporary fiction. He and his wife, Brooke Gladstone, are the rare New Yorkers who actually take full advantage of the city’s cultural cornucopia. He’s a sort of wonky hipster, a type that subsumes and coalesces almost all of the characters—physicists, poets, jazz musicians, astronomers—who set America on fire at the end of the Eisenhower decade, and who people “1959,” Kaplan’s new book, which puts all of his passions between hard covers.

Steve Goddard:

Unquestionably, America was on the cusp of change as President Eisenhower’s second term wound down. Who can disagree that Berry Gordy’s founding of Motown was transformative in forever changing American musical culture? And successful court challenges to obscenity charges against such books as Lady Chatterley’s Lover broadened our reading choices overnight.

If Kaplan had dumped the “Everything” subtitle or substituted something a little less sweeping, his book might have more accurately assessed the significance of the year I graduated from high school.

Susan G at Daily Kos:

In Kaplan’s careful interpretation of the year, 1959–even aside from its headline scientific and cultural milestones–was a simmering cauldron of innovation and change, with superficial conformity and false shallows hiding the depths beneath. The non-headline-grabbing shifts were beneath the surface, but even more than the current events of the day, they shaped the future we live in now. John Kennedy was readying for a presidential run, honing his message and building up his network in the year prior to his run. Martin Luther King Jr. made a trip to India and studied in depth the resistance methods of Mahatma Gandhi. In different states, court rulings were made regarding voting rights and desegregation that laid the groundwork for the civil rights struggles that would explode into the mainstream in a few short years.

Zachary Lazer in the LA Times:

Was I persuaded that 1959 was the year that changed everything? I’ll give Kaplan the microchip, and the Beats, represented here by the publication of “Naked Lunch” — nothing in literature after the Beats has managed to be as radical and popular at the same time. But I’d bet on Warhol eclipsing any 1950s artist and a certain band from Liverpool eclipsing him and everybody else (my apologies to the King of Pop). Which is to say only that the year 1959 was absolutely great, but maybe not the absolutely greatest.

UPDATE: Robert Wright:

It’s true, though, that these “pivotal year” arguments are hard to operationalize. Is the proposition that, had the year not happened, our world would be radically different? Well, I’m guessing that, had the year not happened, the resulting gap in the space-time continuum might have led to our world not being here at all. Maybe the way to frame the question is as one of narrative economy: Does telling the story of a given year efficiently illuminate the contemporary world? Having not read the book, but knowing Fred’s work, I’m betting the answer to that question is yes. For me, at any rate, 1959 was crucial. I got a nice red tricycle… and the rest is history.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, History