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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - James Piereson

RealClearPolitics - Articles - James Piereson

Last Build Date: Wed, 27 Jun 2007 18:30:51 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2007

Lincoln and Kennedy: A Tale of Two Assassinations

Wed, 27 Jun 2007 18:30:51 -0600

The attempt to portray President Kennedy as a modern-day Lincoln was inspired by the purest of motives but it turned out to have had the most unfortunate consequences for the nation and for the liberal movement that Kennedy represented. Kennedy's assassination, as it happened, was not at all like Lincoln's. The two shattering events had political consequences that were directly opposite of one another: Lincoln's assassination tended to unite the nation around the ideals of union, freedom, and emancipation; Kennedy's assassination divided the nation against itself, sowing endless division, confusion, and controversy that continued for a generation afterwards. Much of this was caused by the false portrayal of President Kennedy as a martyr for civil rights. The historian Merrill Peterson remarked, in his fine book on Lincoln in American Memory (Oxford University Press, 1994), that "the public remembrance of the concerned less with establishing its truth than with appropriating it for the present." The man or woman on the street does not look back on history or on historical figures with the historian's concern with evidence and objective assessment. The memory of Lincoln was refracted through the lenses of his assassination and the final victory of the Union army. These events turned the politician who eight months earlier was certain that he would lose his bid for re-election into a martyr for the Union. Lincoln was the final casualty of the war and in that sense a symbol for everything it represented. In a parallel way, Kennedy, after his sudden death and solemn funeral, was turned into something different in public memory from how he was understood in life. Like Lincoln, Kennedy too was viewed as a martyr, but in devotion to a most ambiguous cause. Here was a source of much bewilderment about the man and the event. What exactly did John F. Kennedy stand for? What was the link between the assassination and the ideals he stood for? The great difference between Lincoln and Kennedy is that the former died at his moment of victory while the latter was killed before he was able to achieve any great success. Lincoln was assassinated at the end of a Civil War, Kennedy at the beginning of a long-running cultural war. Lincoln was mourned but also celebrated for his magnificent achievement; Kennedy was mourned in a spirit of frustrated possibility and dashed hopes. This spirit, as things turned out, infected the liberal movement in America, and cast a pall over the nation in general in the tumultuous years that followed. ************************ Lincoln was assassinated by the itinerant actor and southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, Good Friday on the Christian calendar, while he and Mrs. Lincoln were watching a play from the presidential box at Ford's Theater. Booth was immediately recognized by veteran theater-goers as he leaped from the box down to the stage, shouting Sic Semper Tyrannis ("Thus always to tyrants."), the motto of the Commonwealth of Virginia and an exclamation attributed to Brutus after the assassination of Caesar. Booth did not view his deed as the killing of a republican leader but rather as an act of revenge against a tyrant, one of the great themes of classical drama in which he was well versed. In keeping with that theme, Booth had hoped to shoot Lincoln the day before, on April 13, the monthly day of reckoning (the "Ides") in the Roman calendar, but a change of schedule on Lincoln's part aborted those plans. Booth regained his opportunity the next day when he learned, quite by accident, that Lincoln planned to attend that evening's performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater. Thus, as Michael W. Kaufman wrote in his study of the assassin (American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies, Random House, 2004), "Booth had hoped to kill Lincoln on the Ides and highlight his resemblance to Caesar; but instead he shot him on Good Friday and the world compared him to Christ." Lincoln's as[...]

On the Paradox of Success

Mon, 11 Sep 2006 14:53:31 -0600

The paradox of success seems everywhere evident in the world of politics and public policy. There was a time a few decades ago when rates of violent crime were at unacceptable levels in American cities, so much so that many worried about the very future of urban life. In response to public demand, policy makers responded with a crack-down on crime by increasing penalties on convicted felons, sending them to jail for long terms, eliminating parole, and even imposing the death penalty for the most serious of crimes. Soon our prisons filled up and then crime rates began to fall, in some places (like New York City) to levels not seen since the early 1960s when the modern crime wave began. Yet instead of concluding that the policy was a success, many politicians and editorialists, including those at The New York Times, conclude that there is little point in maintaining these harsh policies because crime is no longer a great threat. It does little good to point out that the crime rate is low precisely because these policies have been in place. During the Cold War, many wondered why we had to develop new weapons systems or augment our military strength when it was clear that the Soviet Union would not dare to attack us (or our allies). Yet it may have been true that the Soviet Union did not threaten us because our military strength had been constantly augmented. When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended, many concluded that the internal dissolution of the Soviet Union proved that our military strategy had been unnecessary -- thus ignoring the fact that this strategy had contributed to the dissolution. On a subject closer to home, many wonder why Wal-Mart stores should maintain their wage and benefit policies, along with their pricing policies, when they are so profitable and have so many customers. It is through such policies, of course, that these stores have been able to attract customers and accumulate profits. If Wal-Marts' critics would take a look at the condition of our auto-makers, Ford and Geneal Motors, they might recognize the perils of following their advice. The paradox of success seems especially relevant to the debate that is now developing over the war on terror. Many acknowledge that the government's aggressive efforts to incarcerate terrorists and to disrupt their flow of money and communications have greatly impaired their capacity to launch sensational attacks of the kind that occurred five years ago. Yet for this reason many have now concluded that such efforts may no longer be necessary. James Fallows, for example, in a generally informative article in The Atlantic, concludes that "the global war on terror is over and . . . we have won." He suggests that the metaphor of "war" in relation to this threat is both exaggerated and counter-productive as it breeds anxiety among the public and over-reaction by the government. He recommends a change of emphasis in the direction of global development which will involve cleaning up the environment and eradicating disease and poverty in the Third World which he views as sources of anti-American extremism and terrorism. The New York Times adds to this discussion with an article by Scott Shane and Lowell Bergman in Sunday's (September 10) Week in Review section. "As time has passed without a new attack," the authors write, "the voices of skeptics who believe that 9/11 was more a fluke than a harbinger are beginning to be heard." The authors quote John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University, who says that "A perfectly plausible explanation is that there are no terrorists here." According to this line of reasoning that is rapidly gaining currency, the terrorist threat has been greatly exaggerated by the government as a result of a single devastating assault; the best evidence of this conclusion lies in the fact that there have been no attacks on American soil since then. It follows that the aggressive policies that have been part of the "war on terror" are no longer necessary -- if they ever were necessary in t[...]

Is the New York Times About to be Indicted?

Wed, 24 May 2006 17:12:30 -0600

The Times, in reporting on this interview on Monday in an article by Adam Liptak, quoted the Attorney General at length, but suggested that the espionage laws in question had been written to apply to government officials who leaked classified information and not to journalists and newspapers that might have published it. In this context, Liptak referred to a pending prosecution of two representatives of the American Israel Political Action Committee who were charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 with conspiracy to transmit classified material to members of the media and to a foreign diplomat. It is true that the Espionage Act has never been invoked as a basis for prosecuting reporters. One might argue, as many have, that there is a national interest in promoting debate about defense and security policy and that such debate would be impeded by the prosecution of journalists. At the same time, the two AIPAC officials are not government employees but rather (alleged) recipients of classified material. As their lawyer pointed out a pre-trial hearing, "James Risen won a Pulitzer Prize for what my clients have been indicted for." The Times next weighed in with an editorial on Wednesday in which the editors picked up this particular theme. The editorial stressed that Mr. Gonzales was mostly blowing hot air because the Espionage Act could not be applied to journalists. Revealing some sensitivity on this issue, however, the Times went even further in its editorial to suggest that the Bush administration was in no position to invoke congressional statutes since, in the view of the editors, it had routinely violated them in authorizing wiretaps without warrants and in failing to enforce civil rights and environmental laws. If the Bush administration can ignore the laws, the editors seemed to ask, why can't we? The editorial reads much like a pre-emptive strike designed by lawyers to ward off impending indictment. In that case, however, the editors may have gone too far in implying that they have as much right as the government to determine what the laws are and which ones deserve to be obeyed. The issue here is whether or not the Times, along with two of its writers, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, violated federal laws when it published an article last December revealing that President Bush had authorized the National Security Agency to monitor communications inside the United States without first obtaining warrants. The authors, along with the Times editorialists, assert that President Bush violated the Foreign Intelligence Security Act (FISA) of 1978 by authorizing wiretaps inside the country without warrants. The President, for his part, has defended his actions on the grounds that the communications in question originated abroad and were thus international rather than domestic in character. He has insisted that these steps were required to defend national security against planned terrorist attacks; and he has further pointed out that relevant committees in Congress were notified of the policy. Still further, he requested the paper to withhold publication of the information on national security ground -- a plea that the editors turned aside. Thus, the editors cannot claim that they published the article without prior knowledge of the importance of the information contained therein. Afterwards, the President called the publication of the article a "shameful" act that compromised national security. Risen subsequently published a book based on his reporting under the title, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration (Free Press). Risen won a Pulitzer Prize this year for his reporting on this issue; and perhaps it might be said that the Pulitzer committee, in confirming this award, was itself providing some pre-emptive protection for the paper against possible prosecution. At a pre-trial hearing for the AIPAC defendants, their lawyer pointed out that "James Risen won a Pulitzer Prize for doing what my clients have been indicted for." The best [...]

Two Disasters at Sea

Sat, 11 Feb 2006 06:15:00 -0600

Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians, published in 1918, was the first and certainly one of the most influential of twentieth-century attacks on Victorian morality. His portraits of Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold, and General Gordon were meant to reveal the hypocrisy of these representative figures of the era. Under the guises of virtue, rectitude, and service to others, these Victorians were (according to Strachey) in fact seekers after influence, position, and public approbation. Strachey's portraits shaped the modern understanding of the Victorians as moral hypocrites and gave to the word "Victorian" a decisively negative interpretation.

World War I is thought by many to have been the last gasp of the Victorian era and the event that demonstrated the hollowness its claims to moral virtue. It was perhaps the disillusion with the war that prepared the way for the acceptance of Strachey's interpretation of the Victorians.

Others have pointed to the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 as the event that both closed the door on the Victorian era and represented its moral aspirations. After the Titanic's fateful collision with the iceberg, Captain Smith and his crew, knowing the ship would go down within hours, set about placing women and children aboard the available lifeboats while the band played the hymn, "Nearer My God to Thee." Of the 2200 passengers, 1500 or so went down with the ship due to the inadequate supply of lifeboats on board. The captain and nearly all crew members went down with them. One of the executives of the White Star Line managed to save himself by sneaking on a lifeboat, and was afterwards denounced as a coward for having done so. Winston Churchill is said to have remarked that the conduct of the captain and crew, and of many of the men on board, affirmed his faith in Christian honor -- a pair of virtues that Strachey would later dismiss as features of the Victorian moral apparatus.

These ruminations are occasioned by the awful news of last week's sinking of the cruise ship Al Salam 98 on the Red Sea which cost the lives of perhaps 1,000 of the 1,500 passengers on board -- a disaster comparable in loss of life to the sinking of the Titanic. What is particularly worth noting about this disaster, however, is that according to survivors the captain and members of the crew adopted a "to hell with the passengers" attitude, and took off aboard scarce lifeboats as soon as it appeared that their ship was in danger of going down. The passengers were left to fend for themselves and, in the event, many drowned. The contrast with the Titanic's captain and crew could not be clearer.

This brings us back to Strachey and his condemnation of the Victorians as hypocrites. The attack of hypocrisy in modern times is not intended to encourage people to redouble their efforts to live up to high moral standards, but rather to dissolve the distinction altogether between virtue and vice. It seems hard to believe that this campaign, so successful in overturning moral categories in the West, has penetrated the Arab world. Still, one wonders, after contemplating these two sea disasters nearly 100 years apart in time, if in fact there might not be something to be said in favor of hypocrisy.