Archive: December, 2008
I'm taking a break for the rest of the holidays. Next week will be dedicated solely to the pursuit of leisure - unless there is some unforeseen momentous news event, such as (a) Obama and Blagojevich work out a deal, whereby Blago agrees to name the Rev. Rick Warren as his spiritual advisor, in exchange for Obama agreeing to give Blago the name of John Edwards' hairdresser; or (b) Sarah Palin buys a house in Des Moines, to prepare for the 2012 Iowa Republican caucuses, and sends the bill to the Republican National Committee; or (c) Dick Cheney declares yet again that he has been infallible, but this time George W. Bush throws his shoes at him.
Failing that, I'll start afresh on Monday, Jan. 5. See you in the new year. Party on.
The poet Emily Dickinson once wrote, "There is no Frigate like a Book, to take us Lands away." She got that right; not even a 40-inch high-definition TV can compete with the pleasures of the printed page, although I suppose that such an observation dates me.
So today, in the holiday spirit of making lists and checking them twice, I'm tallying my favorite political and history books of 2008. This is a somewhat eclectic list, as anyone's list would be. Four of these books were published this year; the rest are newly-issued paperbacks. In alphabetical order:
The death last week of Mark Felt – best known as Deep Throat, the FBI guy who spilled the beans on Watergate – has prompted some media praise for those rare civil servants who blow the whistle on government perfidy. But even though Felt is arguably the most famous of all whistle blowers, he didn’t suffer in the workplace the way so many whistle blowers do. Unlike other members of that elite little group, Felt managed to guard his secret identity; as a result, he wasn’t ostracized at work, or demoted, or threatened with criminal or civil punishment.
No, a far more typical whistle blower is Thomas Tamm – hardly a household name, but perhaps he deserves to be. As profiled the other day in Newsweek, Tamm turns out to be a classic example of the genre. He’s suffering from depression, he’s 30 grand in debt, he’s struggling to make a living after leaving the U.S. Justice Department, and he’s currently in legal limbo, thanks to the ongoing threat of retaliatory federal prosecution for potential offenses that could land him in jail for a decade.
Thomas Tamm, a former career fed whose father and uncle were big shots in J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, is the guy who blew the whistle on George W. Bush’s illegal, warrantless domestic surveillance program. In the spring of 2004, he went to a pay phone and dialed up The New York Times.
The Philadelphia Inquirer, in its Sunday commentary section, staged a point-counterpoint about Dick Cheney and his legacy. Paul Mirengoff, the popular conservative blogger at Powerline, made the case for Cheney. I was asked to make the case against Cheney. (It was not exactly heavy lifting; I didn't even bother to mention "last throes" or "they will greet us as liberators"). Here’s an expanded version of what I wrote in print:
I last saw Dick Cheney at a Colorado rodeo arena, in August of 2004, flashing his grin-grimace on a stage flanked by bales of hay, his hands seemingly glued to the thick thighs encased in cowboy jeans, and it was painfully obvious that he wanted to rid himself of these campaign rituals and return to a secret undisclosed location.
He had little patience for his fans, even when they yelled nice things at him (“knock it off,” he yelled back), and after posing for their digital cameras, he parted the curtain and vanished. Which made perfect sense, because, unlike your typical politician and vice president, this was truly a guy who lived in the shadows, like a mushroom. He thrived where nobody could see him.
And that’s where he did the most damage to the very notion of honest, democratic self-rule.
I'm stuck with a competing work deadline today, so, rather than simply fall silent here, I invite you to stroll with me down memory lane. On this date 10 years ago - Dec. 19, 1998 - President Bill Clinton was impeached. What follows is the newspaper article that I wrote in the immediate wake of that historic event.
I was not yet an opinion columnist, but that day I was permitted to stretch the boundaries of "news analysis" commentary. Given all that has transpired these past 10 years, Clinton's predicament reads like ancient history, and one can argue that his character flaws are trivial, when matched against the manifest policy flaws of the Bush era. On the other hand, if Clinton hadn't behaved so badly, and hadn't lied under oath about it, and hadn't therefore alienated so many culturally conservative Democratic voters, then it's likely that Al Gore would have won the 2000 election. And Bush would have never gotten the chance to screw things up.
We’ve posed this question before:
Is it feasible to believe that Barack Obama can reach across the cultural divide, in the spirit of reconciliation, without undercutting core progressive principles and infuriating his own supporters?
The answer is, no. But Obama doesn’t seem perturbed by the prospect of angering his base. Clearly, in the interest of building bridges and establishing a nonpartisan tone, he considers such fallout to be acceptable collateral damage.
Now that Caroline Kennedy has thrown her coronet into the ring and declared her interest in ascending swiftly to the U.S. Senate, we can at least be thankful that the media won’t swoon on cue merely because of her surname. If she really wants this job – in the brutish political climate of New York, no less – she’ll have to take her knocks like anybody else.
There was a time – her father’s time, actually – when journalists bowed and scraped when ushered into the presence of a Kennedy, and the results were often quite nauseating. For instance, here’s author William Manchester at his most rapturous during the early days of Camelot, trying to show us that Jack and Jackie are so much cooler than JFK’s immediate predecessors:
“Dwight Eisenhower, the painter, declared that he wasn't too certain what was art, but he knew what he liked, and Harry Truman, the pianist, said of something he didn't like that if it was art, he was a Hottentot. Jacqueline Kennedy, the connoisseur, makes both look like Hottentots, if not outright clods….Cultivated families admire elegance, and John Kennedy sets great store by good form. His circle doesn't include men who wear clocks on their socks, or call Shakespeare 'the Bard,' or say 'budgetwise.'”
Six weeks after a national election, most normal Americans have successfully weaned themselves from presidential politics, preferring instead to do normal types of things, such as ingesting great heaps of saturated fats, or watching six hours of high-definition Sunday football, or cruising the malls for going-out-of-business sales.
But there remains a supspecies of human that still can't get enough of the '08 campaign - I'm talking, of course, about you - and this is why Harvard's Kennedy Institute of Politics lured four of the top campaign strategists up to Cambridge the other night, for the purpose of trading war stories and assessing the history that they all helped make.