Politics postsSunday November 02, 2008
My First Blog Post
Eight years ago, either the night before or a few nights before the 2000 election, I read Hendrik Hertzberg’s “Talk of the Town” column in The New Yorker before going to bed and panicked. I couldn’t sleep.
I hadn’t gotten involved in the campaign much — I was a freelance writer, struggling to keep my head above water during a time of great prosperity and opportunity — but I was definitely for Gore, and not simply because I was a Democrat, but for all the reasons Hertzberg laid out in his column. What I didn’t know, what Hertzberg began to let me in on, was how bad it had gotten, and how culpable the media was in making it bad, which is to say close. Too close to call. We had to wait until the U.S. Supreme Court decided for us, by a 5-4 vote, on December 12, 2000: a date which will live in infamy. (For more on this, please read Boies v. Bush v. Gore, about Gore’s lawyer David Boies, which I edited for New York Super Lawyers magazine this fall.)
That evening, instead of sleeping, I got up, turned my computer back on, searched online for the Hertzberg article (futilely, for this was 2000), and then proceeded to type the whole damn thing up and send it to everyone I knew. I suppose it was my first blog post. READ this, I told everyone. SEND IT to everyone you know.
We've come a long way baby since then, and mostly, like the old Springsteen song says, down down down down. It's amazing to consider the country Bush inherited and the country he leaves behind. Only the most blinkered among us would consider the last eight years anything other than an unmitigated disaster.
We can't re-do that choice but we can do this one right. My god, what would it be like to have a smart man, a really smart man, in the White House?
Here's the Hertzberg column I sent out eight years ago. Read it and weep. Read it and hope:
After the polls close next week, we will learn what Presidential politics in the year 2000 has been “about.” Specifically, we will learn whether it has been about “issues” or “personality.”
If the campaign turns out to have been about “issues,” then the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, will be elected, because he is the superior candidate in point of both command and positions...
Vice President Gore has shown himself to be, in comparison with the Republican candidate, George W. Bush, more fiscally responsible (because he proposes to spend somewhat less of the chimerical surplus than does Governor Bush), more socially responsible (because he proposes to spend more of that surplus on social needs such as education and health care and divert less of it to individual consumption), and more egalitarian (because his plans for changing the tax code, combined with his spending plans, would ameliorate inequalities of wealth and income while Bush’s would exacerbate them).
Gore’s foreign policy would be more energetic in its promotion of democratic values than Bush’s, and probably more so than President Clinton’s. Bush has offered few clues to what his foreign policy might be, except to say that he would build a missile-defense system whether or not it was technically workable or strategically advantageous, and that he opposes the American military presence in Haiti (where, at last count, we had 29 soldiers) and in the Balkans, where a unilateral withdrawal would have the effect of weakening the Western alliance and America’s role within it.
As for the superiority of Gore’s command of the issues, this is not a matter of opinion — or, if it is, everyone’s opinion is the same, even (to judge from his defensive jokes) Bush’s: Gore knows more, understands more, and has thought more, and more coherently, about virtually every aspect of public policy, domestic and foreign, than Bush has...
Bush’s point of superiority, then, is in the matter of “personality,” and it is striking how narrowly that word seems to have been defined for electoral purposes. Personality apparently excludes, if not intelligence itself, then such manifestations of it as intellectual curiosity, analytic ability, and a capacity for original thought, all of which Gore has in abundance and Bush not only lacks but scorns. Personality apparently excludes courage: Gore put himself in harm’s way during the Vietnam War; Bush did not.
Gore’s tendency to embellish anecdotes, especially about himself, is real and undeniable. Even so, some of his alleged lies have turned out to be strongly rooted in factuality. He did not “create” the Internet, obviously, but he was one of a tiny handful of politicians who grasped its significance when it was in its infancy, and he did take the lead in writing legislation to spur its development.
In the debates, Bush uttered inaccuracies that, unlike Gore’s, falsify the underlying essence of his point — as, for example, when he said that Gore was outspending him in the campaign (when the reverse is true, to the tune of $50 million), and that he fought to get a patient’s bill of rights passed in Texas (when he actually vetoed one such bill and allowed another to become law without his signature), and that his health-care proposal would “have prescription drugs as an integral part of Medicare” (when this is precisely what Gore’s plan would do, while Bush’s would dismantle Medicare as we know it in favor of a system of subsidized private insurance).
Still, there’s no denying that a large number of people find Gore irritating; to prove it, there are polls, to say nothing of the panels of “undecided voters” — that is, clueless, ill-informed citizens who even at this late date cannot summon the mental energy to make up their minds — assembled by the television networks into on-camera focus groups. Gore can be awkward and tone-deaf, and he sometimes has trouble modulating his presentation of himself, and he plainly lacks the instinctive political exuberance of a Bill Clinton or even the slightly twitchy easygoingness of a George W. Bush.
Gore is aggressive, assertive, and intensely energetic, qualities once counted as desirable in a potential President but now evidently seen by many as disturbing. At a time of domestic prosperity and tranquility, much of the public seems to have developed a thirst for passivity, a thirst that Bush is eager to slake.
This may explain the paradox that while Gore was widely judged the substantive winner of all three of the televised debates, he lost the battle in the post-debate media echo chambers, and perhaps partly as a result, in the opinion polls. In the final debate, Gore stretched the rules, while Bush complained and turned beseechingly to the moderator for help. To caricature them both, Gore was a smart bully, Bush a hapless tattletale. Neither attribute is attractive, but it may turn out that fear of the first will outweigh contempt for the second. In that case, “personality” will definitely have triumphed over “issues,” and the transformation of the Presidency of the United States into the presidency of the student council will be complete.
— Hendrik Hertzberg
All Hail Hendrik Hertzberg!
Still, these guys are so good they often come through. Loved Rich’s piece last week and particularly loved Hertzberg’s latest “Talk of the Town.” Everything you wanted to know about socialism but were afraid to ask. “You” being you. Or possibly Joe the Plumber.
It’s more than John McCain’s comment to the daughter of a doctor who, during the 2000 campaign, complained we were getting too close to socialism in this country (“...when you reach a certain level of comfort,” he told her, “there’s nothing wrong with paying somewhat more”), or the fact that Sarah Palin’s Alaska, which has no sales or income tax, funds itself with huge levies to oil companies and then gives what’s left back to (or just “to”) its citizens. Talk about spreading the wealth. And these two are basing their entire presidential campaign (this week) on attacking Barack Obama for similar economic plans? Their hypocrisy is overwhelming. One wonders, for the thousandth time, how they sleep.
Hertzberg fires this:
The Republican argument of the moment seems to be that the difference between capitalism and socialism corresponds to the difference between a top marginal income-tax rate of 35 per cent and a top marginal income-tax rate of 39.6 per cent. The latter is what it would be under Obama’s proposal, what it was under President Clinton, and, for that matter, what it will be after 2010 if President Bush’s tax cuts expire on schedule.More comprehensively, he gives us this, which has always been my argument:
Of course, all taxes are redistributive, in that they redistribute private resources for public purposes. But the federal income tax is (downwardly) redistributive as a matter of principle: however slightly, it softens the inequalities that are inevitable in a market economy, and it reflects the belief that the wealthy have a proportionately greater stake in the material aspects of the social order and, therefore, should give that order proportionately more material support.Ex-mothereffin-actly!
On HuffPost, Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild, of all people, who supported Hilary Clinton earlier this year and is now supporting John McCain, has an anti-Obama post in which she raises the same stupid fears. I’m not sure what her game is — is she really that greedy or does she merely want McCain to win in ’08 so Hilary can win in ’12? — but she trots out that familiar Republican talking point against higher taxes for the wealthy:
Today, the top 1% of earners contributes 40% of the nation's $2.6 trillion tax intake and the bottom 50% pay 2.9% of our nation's total needs.I can’t think of a better argument for a more steeply progressive tax system than this. If the top 1 percent, paying at a rate similar to mine, already pay 40 percent of our taxes, think how much money they’re making. If these people are lucky enough to have the skills that allows them to prosper in the kind of system we currently have, then they should be paying even more to keep that system running smoothly. And they haven’t. It’s time the bastards paid up.
“Idiot Wind” is a startlingly good song for the way the McCain camp has attacked Obama this fall. Line after line hits home:
Someone's got it in for me, they're planting stories in the press
Whoever it is I wish they'd cut it out but when they will I can only guess...
I haven't known peace and quiet for so long I can't remember what it's like...
I noticed at the ceremony, your corrupt ways had finally made you blind
I can't remember your face anymore, your mouth has changed, your eyes
don't look into mine...
The awful thing about the attacks is that you don't need to know anything about Obama, or about McCain, to know they're bullshit. You just have to know something about the world. A communist...and a Muslim? How is that possible? A secret socialist, who wants to make government all-powerful...and a secret terrorist, who wants to destroy government from within? How is that possible? The inanity (Sean or otherwise) is overwhelming.
Unafraid to Listen
An editorial in The Washington Post today condemns the latest guilt-by-association attack by John McCain and his campaign. The latest version involves an Arab-American scholar and Columbia professor, Raschid Kalidi, who holds, the Post says, complex views of the Middle East situation, and who was the subject of a toast at a dinner party by Barack Obama in 2003. Barack apparently said that Mr. Kalidi “offers constant reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases.”
By the end of the editorial, the Post quotes Mr. Kalidi saying he's waiting for this latest McCain-inspired “idiot wind” to blow over, and the Post agrees. But first they write this:
It's fair to question why Mr. Obama felt as comfortable as he apparently did during his Chicago days in the company of men whose views diverge sharply from what the presidential candidate espouses. Our sense is that Mr. Obama is a man of considerable intellectual curiosity who can hear out a smart, if militant, advocate for the Palestinians without compromising his own position.
I'm not a fan of “Duh” but... Duh! Seriously are we that pathetic? Are our own points of view so fragile that they can't bear the scrutiny that listening to someone else's views requires? I'm reminding of something James Baldwin said about living in France and Turkey: “Whenever you live in another civilization you are foced to examine your own.” This examination is good and necessary if you are ever to improve your own society. The people who do not engage in it — fellow non-travelers like George Bush and Sarah Palin — have limited, absolutist world views that are not only dispiriting, but, in world leaders, positively dangerous. Both Palin and Bush don't have the intellect, or intellectual curiosity, or humility about one's intellect that true intellectual curiosity fosters, to be world leaders. We've already seen what happens when they get into positions of power. John McCain isn't much better. Plus he's got a dangerous temperament. Plus he's obviously sold his soul to the devil with this campaign. He's leaving behind a stink that we may never get out. And that's if he loses. If he wins, every campaign, at every level, will be flinging the same shit. We'll be covered in it.
Here's my point. This latest McCain-inspired controversy is actually one of the best reasons to vote for Barack Obama.
John McCain, like Sarah Palin and George Bush, is rarely the smartest person in any room he walks into — and he doesn't need to hear what you have to say.
Barack Obama is almost always the smartest person in any room he walks into — and he still wants to hear what you have to say. My god. How refreshing.
Good Talking Points Memo feature here on the number of conservatives who have dismissed McCain and/or endorsed Obama, and the number of newspapers who have done the same, specifically because of McCain's VP pick. You have a favorite? Mine's still Colin Powell, although I give Chris Hitchens props.