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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - Richard Cohen

RealClearPolitics - Articles - Richard Cohen

Last Build Date: Tue, 07 Apr 2009 00:00:54 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2009

Sacrificing Wealth to Serve in Government

Tue, 07 Apr 2009 00:00:54 -0600

Summers is clearly one of these people. D.E. Shaw paid him $5.2 million last year to meet with important clients. In addition, he lent the firm his expertise as a crack economist and it, in turn, provided him with an idea of how a wildly successful hedge fund works. At the same time, Summers made around $2.7 million in speaking fees from other organizations and companies. He was, to use a technical (micro) economic term, on easy street.

Yet he chucked it all for an office on the street of broken dreams, Pennsylvania Avenue. So did national security adviser James L. Jones, who was earning about $2 million a year. David Axelrod, who had been running public affairs firms before going into the White House, kissed away at least the $1.5 million he earned last year and sold his stake in his companies. Other members of the Obama team similarly unburdened themselves of excess wealth, spare time and privacy, proving that money is not everything.

This is the dirty little secret of Washington. I don't mean to characterize these or other administration aides as the functional equivalent of Trappist monks, since they enjoy the attention, the power and -- above all -- the action. They are doing something substantive, important -- sometimes making life-or-death decisions and gaining, if they are lucky, a mention in a history book. It is not a life without any compensation.

There are few among us who would take a multimillion-dollar pay cut. Yes, you could say, someone like Summers could make it back, but that's not really -- or always -- the case. Take Tom Daschle. Here was a man who was not trying to build a career. He is 61, and his career was largely behind him. Yet he was willing to give up a lucrative lobbying practice to go back into government as secretary of the health and human services. It turns out he cared more about reforming health care than he did about building a fortune. He didn't make it into the Cabinet, foiled by a humiliating spot of trouble about taxes that he could have avoided just by staying where he was and raking in the money.

In Ronald Reagan's famous formulation, "government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem." This statement, at the very heart of the so-called Reagan Revolution, denigrated government and the people in it. Reagan's statement withdrew John F. Kennedy's invitation to the intellectually gifted to come to Washington and see what they could do for their country. Reagan sent a different message. Government service is for the lame, the cautious. If you really want to do something for your country, shun Washington and make money. It was morning again in America -- whatever that meant.

It is to Barack Obama's immense credit that he has reversed Reagan's reversal. Washington crackles with people on a mission. Brains are once again back in vogue if only because Obama has them in abundance. Not for him the aw-shucks affectation of the previous eight years, when instinct was extolled and ideology trumped analysis. We are in a mess, and one of the reasons is that people who might have noticed or done something about it had been told to stay out of government.

In our scandal-soaked culture, it is de rigueur to denigrate public officials and to search for the inevitable conflict of interest. But here are people like Summers who have put aside wealth and lavish perks for government service. They have their reasons, sure, but whatever they are, we -- not them -- are the richer for it.

No More Auto Bailouts

Tue, 31 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

The Obama administration has warned both companies that it may let them sink into bankruptcy. In the meantime, though, more money is probably on the way -- along with some cosmetic management changes. Rick Wagoner, GM's chief executive of blessed memory, has already been pushed out and the company's directors are heading in the same direction. Still, somebody -- God only knows who -- is supposed to come up with yet another plan to save GM and do it in 60 days. Maybe they'll outsource it.

It beats me if either company can be saved. Both have proved themselves to be singularly incompetent over the years, but lately some brain waves have been detected. GM, in particular, has been developing energy-efficient cars and, according to the administration's own auto task force, could survive if it further cuts its expenses. Chrysler, in contrast, can only survive if it more or less merges with Fiat -- a company once renowned for poor management. See: anything can happen.

Here I must introduce Tim Geithner, the hapless-cum-brilliant secretary of the Treasury. He not only proves that conventional wisdom is a half-truth, but that in certain matters, it is best to be first. Geithner got confirmed by the Senate even though he had failed to pay some taxes; Tom Daschle later had to withdraw his Cabinet nomination for a similar offense. As always, timing is everything.

So it is with this auto industry bailout. It comes too late. It comes after the government has substantially taken over some big banks and that financial house of horrors called AIG. Taxpayers are now deeply in hock for trillions of dollars, some of it incurred to bail out the thieves and rascals who bought $1,000 bottles of Cristal champagne at New York clubs or put the GDP of small nations up their noses. With the various stimulus packages, we are adding an additional $9.3 trillion in debt over the next 10 years.

The auto industry is not only late to the table, it comes with a bad rep. We may not understand what AIG did -- what's a credit-default swap, anyway? -- but we sure as hell know what GM did: It made a lot of lousy cars. So did Ford and Chrysler. They made cars with utter contempt for the customer. The industry at one time even opposed seat belts and air bags, and designed cars that were not safe. I know things have changed, but I remember. I remember.

Finally, we have yet another application of the Geithner Rule. Recall his confused explanations of how he learned of those AIG bonuses. Those of us who cannot find our keys in the morning ought to have nothing but sympathy for a man who is now running a large part of the American economy. Of course, he might not have been paying attention. He can't pay attention to everything.

This is where bankruptcy comes in. It slows things down. It's a mechanism. It's a process. It takes things step by step. It has been designed for situations such as the one the auto manufacturers face. It puts things into court and out of the political arena, where both the United Auto Workers and the Big Three can play the lobbying game. Bankruptcy can save the industry.

Is there a downside? Sure. No one knows if anyone will buy the cars of a bankrupt company. (The government could guarantee the warranties.) Will it further hurt the economy? Probably, but who really knows? But bankruptcy acknowledges a reality -- GM and Chrysler are broke. I wish them luck -- but no more of my money.

The Stale Air of Business as Usual

Tue, 24 Mar 2009 00:40:00 -0600

The pressure for the legislation was great. In just a day, Charlie Rangel, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, went from opposing the idea to introducing the very bill he had earlier denounced. Rangel had all the stock phrases ready -- stuff about shattered dreams and greedy executives, which is all true enough -- but he was right when he first said that the tax code should not be used as a "political weapon.'' With such an about-face, it's a miracle he did not wind up in traction.

As for Obama, around the time this extremely ill-considered piece of legislation was flying through Congress and Pelosi was waxing very hot indeed on television, the cool president went on the Jay Leno show. His appearance was historic, we were solemnly told, but it also turned out to be useful for him to get out of town. The most toxic asset in Washington was fast becoming Congress, where the Democratic leadership was threatening to send him an awful bill that could be very hard to veto. With friends like these ...

Earlier in the administration, the White House allowed Congress to write the $787 billion stimulus bill. It was bad enough that the candidate who promised change had no choice but to prop up some of the country's most reviled or antiquated institutions -- financial firms, auto manufacturers, etc. -- but what's worse is that the bill came blinged with extra spending. That allowed Republicans to pose as longtime and passionate opponents of pork, producing a noxious cloud of hypocrisy that drifted from the Capitol to the White House. This was not the fresh air of change, but the stale air of business as usual.

Something similar happened with the $410 billion omnibus spending bill. Earmarks were permitted. This was not the president's bill since it originated under the previous administration, but Obama did not fight the earmarks or seem upset by them and indeed pronounced them yesterday's news. The speaker, as is her wont, got her way and so, once again, change was parked at some scenic overlook, biding its time until it is allowed into Washington. It is already way late.

The president is slipping in the polls. Last month, he had a 64 percent approval rating. This month it was 59 percent, but more to the point, the National Journal's astute Charlie Cook noticed that political independents were trending Republican. Some of this was bound to happen, but some of it is a consequence of Obama remaining undifferentiated, defined more by allies like Pelosi than by enemies like the GOP.

In foreign policy, where a president is monarch, Obama has been a change agent. But in domestic matters, Obama's image has become muddled. He remains more popular than credible. Where does he draw the line? Not at tax delinquency, clearly, and not at earmarks, clearly, and not at real school reform, which he advocates but has done little to implement. He sometimes says he's angry, as with the AIG bonuses, but it's a parental pose designed to fool children and not a genuine emotion. Obama eschews symbolic politics.

This is not the case with Pelosi. She is a very strong speaker of the House, both an ideologue and a pragmatist, who cherishes her prerogatives and guards her turf -- more like Newt Gingrich than previous Democratic speakers -- but her message is hardly one of change. It's early yet, but already she's left her mark on the government -- and, in the process, all over Obama's image.

Don't Blame Jim Cramer

Tue, 17 Mar 2009 00:25:00 -0600

Or take Richard Fuld. He is the former chairman of Lehman Brothers, which, as we all know, is no more. He lost about $1 billion.

Or take Citigroup's former chairman, Sanford Weill. He lost about $500 million.

Or take all the good people at Bear Stearns, the company Cramer adored almost to the bitter end. They went down with their stock.

If these people kept their money in these companies -- financial and insurance giants they had built and knew from the inside -- then how was even Jim Cramer to know these firms were essentially hollow?

I give you one other name: Richard Cohen. He who writes this column had some of his (extremely) hard-earned retirement funds in AIG stock. This was because I was a cautious investor, and what could be safer than an insurance behemoth? Who knew that in far-away London, a division of AIG was fooling around in stuff that virtually cratered the whole company? Not my broker. Not me. Not even Greenberg.

Now we get back to Stewart. The gravamen of his charge is that the financial press, particularly CNBC and Cramer, knew all the time what was happening and was, in effect, shilling for the industry. "Listen, you knew what the bankers were doing, and yet were touting it for months and months," he told Cramer in probably the most celebrated showdown since the Earps and Doc Holliday met the Clantons and others at the O.K. Corral.

The Washington Post and The New York Times both covered Cramer's appearance on Stewart's show and so did the august Financial Times, on Page One yet. Trouble was, Cramer almost instantly sunk into a classic case of Stockholm syndrome, agreeing much of the time with his captor. He came with sleeves rolled up but with the droopy eyes of a chastised puppy. He allowed that he actually was, really, an entertainer. No!

The acclaim visited on Stewart for spanking Cramer tells you something. In the first place -- and by way of a minor concession -- he's got a small point. CNBC has often been a cheerleader for the zeitgeist -- up when the market's up, down when it's down. This is true of the business press in general.

But the role that Cramer and other financial journalists played was incidental. There was not much they could do anyway. They do not have subpoena power. They cannot barge into AIG and demand to see the books, and even if they could, they would not have known what they were looking at. The financial instruments that Wall Street firms were both peddling and buying are the functional equivalent of particle physics. To this day, no one knows their true worth.

It does not take cable TV to make a bubble. CNBC played no role in the Tulip Bubble that peaked, as I recall, in 1637, nor in the Great Depression of 1929-41. It is the zeitgeist that does this -- the psychological version of inertia: the belief that what's happening will continue to happen.

Stewart, too, rides the zeitgeist. The hunt is on for culprits and scapegoats, and Stewart has served up a cliche: the media. As with the war in Iraq, for which a credulous press should take some responsibility, the sins are blown out of proportion. It would be one thing if Wall Street titans by the score were selling their company stock and the press failed to report it, but when someone puts their money where their mouth is, you have to pay attention. The big shots believed.

Stewart plays a valuable role. He mocks authority, which is good, and he mocks those, such as the media, who take the word of authority as if, well, it's authoritative. But given the outsized reception to his cheap shot at the business press, he ought to turn his wit inward: Mocker, mock thyself.

Obama's Realism Settles In

Tue, 10 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

The Obama administration is talking to the Syrians. It is willing to talk to the Iranians. It will parley with the North Koreans. It has kicked the wheels off the "Axis of Evil" and has, in general, shied from the lofty language of the preceding Bush years, especially all that stuff about wars on terrorism and spreading democracy. This is an administration to bring a lump to the throat of Brent Scowcroft, the arch realist, who has never mistaken foreign policy for missionary work, even though they both usually take place abroad.

For the most part, this is good. Even George Bush was starting to realize that he had overreached, over-dreamed, under-thought and under-analyzed. The war in Iraq is coming up on its seventh year and the one in Afghanistan has lasted even longer. The Taliban have gone and come, and the democracy movement in the Middle East has withered from an utter lack of enthusiasm, not to mention democratic leaders.

Obama will get no lip from the left about his new foreign policy. Liberalism has been blanched of a pronounced moral component. That -- in furious exaggeration -- is now the province of conservatism. The liberal New York Review of Books recently published an open letter from literary notables asking Obama to "negotiate with the Taliban (and) withdraw all troops from Afghanistan." No mention was made of Afghanistan's shaky neighbor, Pakistan, with its nuclear weapons, nor for that matter of Afghan girls who have the effrontery to crack a book.

Right there is the danger Obama runs. The Taliban are bad. They kill their opposition. They are hideous to women and when they were in control of Afghanistan, they sheltered al-Qaeda. In Vietnam, it was always possible to insist that the communists were really agrarian reformers -- or some such mindless formulation -- and so when the U.S. capitulated, the resulting horror came as a surprise to some. No one, though, can be surprised by what the Taliban will do. In the very recent past, they have already done it.

Winston Churchill supposedly once asked his wife to have a pudding removed from his table -- because "it has no theme." In the same way, a "realistic" foreign policy also lacks theme or, more to the point, an overarching desire to do good. America's enemies are never merely our opponents; they are evil. We are good. This is the way we see ourselves. The abandonment of Vietnam was sickening to observe. The disfigurement of schoolgirls by Taliban zealots will be no different.

Obama is right to be realistic and to abjure bombastic rhetoric. Moralism is expensive -- costly in blood and treasure. This is the new reality. The danger is that we will turn inward -- not isolationist, because that is impossible -- but financially exhausted and callously indifferent to the rest of the world.

This is a tricky, auspicious moment for a young president. He is ending one century, beginning another. Concisely, he essentially laid out his approach to foreign policy in a blurb for a recently reissued book by the late theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. He wrote that he took away from Niebuhr's works "the compelling idea that there's serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain." He added that "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."

This, then, is the Obama Doctrine: wisely, to have none at all.

History Roars Back

Tue, 03 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

Then Zweig experienced a stark loss of control over his life. He went from being at home anywhere in Europe to being on the lam, a Jew fleeing the Nazis. He wound up in Brazil where, in the depth of both despair and hideous reality, he killed himself. His world -- "The World of Yesterday," is what he called his memoir -- had vanished.

Zweig's story is extreme, yet it contains elements of the current economic calamity. The term economic "depression" has now been uttered. This means not that things are suddenly worse, but that we have recognized them for what they are. We give power to words or terms -- which is why it was news in itself when the media chose to label what was happening in Iraq a "civil war."

So now, at least in Saturday's New York Times, we are in a depression --maybe not a "great" one, but one that will do for now. This means that unemployment could go over 10 percent and the housing catastrophe will deepen and some major banks will become wards of the government. Europe is scared and Japan is sullen and Russia, which needs $70 oil to break even, is hurting at near $40. This is a very bad time.

A depression, if it amounts to that, is not just an economic crisis. It's a historical mugging. Those of us who have been accustomed to exercising control of our lives are about to undergo an awfully frightening experience. This will hit the young particularly hard. If you asked almost any of them over the last 20 years or so why they did not read a newspaper or, really, care about the news at all, the answer was that news was irrelevant to their lives. It did not matter to them that what was happening in Washington or London or even Baghdad.

An older generation still had a residual appreciation for the linkage of things --- how an event there could affect an event here and a job would disappear or a war would erupt. It mattered because history mattered. One had the feeling that what with wars and famines, disease and ruthless economic cycles, one could never really control one's own life.

But generations that followed came to feel that they had mastered history and it was, like polio, no longer a threat. The great exception in my lifetime was the Vietnam War and its suffocating draft. Rage was the result. The campuses exploded.

The rage that is coming will change the politics of our time. Barack Obama will either figure out how to channel it, as Franklin D. Roosevelt did, or he will be flattened by it, as Lyndon Johnson was. Obama's challenge might even be greater than FDR's. The people of the 1920 and '30s were tough, hard. They did not expect all that much from life and they had learned to expect next to nothing from government.

In contrast, we are soft, coddled. We actually thought we could have a house we could not afford and a mortgage we could not pay and it would all somehow work out. This keeps being called the American Dream. It was actually the American Delusion.

Zweig fled Austria in 1934 and made his way to England and then to America and finally, for some reason, to Brazil. He was safe there as he had been in America, but his world -- once so comfy and secure -- was gone. He became a castaway, a Viennese writer deposited roughly on a Brazilian beach. History had come roaring out of Germany and flattened everything.

The beast is loose again.

Israel Must Achieve Equality for All

Tue, 24 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600

Weizmann's admonition may not be known to Avigdor Lieberman, an immigrant from the former Soviet republic of Moldova and now one of Israel's most important political leaders. Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu Party placed third in the recent election, meaning he will almost certainly be part of the next government. Lieberman is often called a "nationalist." Maybe so, but he is also an anti-Arab demagogue.

The Arabs of Lieberman's antipathy are not Israel's traditional enemies -- either in Gaza, the West Bank or elsewhere in the Middle East. He is referring instead to the Arabs of Israel proper, about 20 percent of the population. They are his fellow citizens, some of them of dubious loyalty, it is true, and most of them with genuine grievances, it is also true. In essence, Lieberman wants to swap them for Jewish settlers now living provocatively on the occupied West Bank. It's half a good idea.

But it is the other half -- the one that would rid Israel of its Arabs -- that has propelled Lieberman to the front rank of Israeli politicians. The Israeli electorate, feeling besieged, has moved to the right. The centrist Kadima Party narrowly won the election, but it is the right that gained strength overall and now Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu, not Kadima's Tzipi Livni, is trying to form a government. Lieberman ought not to be part of it.

The issue of Israel's Arabs is complicated. They are not Jews, yet they are expected to be loyal to a Jewish state. They are Arabs, yet they are expected to stand by while their fellow Arabs are pounded -- as in Gaza -- by Israeli guns.

Yet, in an odd way, Israel's Arabs ought to represent the best of Israel. They can vote. They hold seats in parliament. They have more civil rights in Israel than they would in any other Arab nation. They ought to be a point of pride. Their civil liberties, their standard of living, their political participation ought to show the world what sort of country Israel is. That's what Weizmann wanted.

Weizmann was no dreamer. His century -- the 20th -- was fast becoming the bloodiest in history. The world was just completing an orgy of genocide, ethnic cleansing and population transfers -- Greeks for Turks and Turks for Greeks, Germans for Poles and Poles for Germans, a decades-long brawl culminating in the Holocaust and followed by the expulsion of millions of ethnic Germans from all over Eastern Europe. Pakistan and India were created in a similar manner -- a population swap of many millions of people. This was the way things were once done.

Israel, too, engaged some in ethnic cleansing -- or why else all those Palestinian refugees? But the attempt was both chaotic and, as we can see, not wholly successful. More important, the concept was anathema to important members of the Zionist establishment such as Weizmann. The way of the world -- eliminating ethnic minorities -- would not be practiced by the very ethnic minority that had suffered the most.

It is clear that the world has grown weary of Israel. Its problems seem intractable, insoluble. Its solicitous critics suggest it imbibe the hemlock of proportionality -- a missile for a missile, a rocket for a rocket. To do otherwise amounts to "state terrorism," in the felicitous phrase of Bill Moyers. It turns out winning isn't everything; losing gracefully is.

Lieberman's rhetoric has excited some concern in the American Jewish community, but as usual, most of the leaders are mum. They ought to open their Weizmann, page 461 to be precise, and see what Israel's founding fathers had in mind. Israel can swap land for peace, but not Arab for Jew. That would leave an empty space -- not only where the Arabs once were, but where Israel once kept its values.

Partisan Realities

Tue, 17 Feb 2009 00:20:00 -0600

Gregg's turnabout was supposedly an embarrassment for the new Obama administration -- and I suppose it was. But it also was a moment of realism, of clarity, of an antidotal repudiation to all the gauzy talk about partisanship -- about how it is always pernicious and usually silly: games for the sake of games. What Gregg has shown was that ideology matters, ideas count, beliefs divide -- and legitimately so -- and he could only go so far and no further. He decided to be true to himself.

Something of the same has prevailed since the inauguration. Congressional Republicans have made a stand on the stimulus package, just as they did on the original bank bailout when they refused to accommodate a president of their own party, George W. Bush. These Republicans are as wrong as wrong can be and history, I am sure, will mock them, but they were not elected by history and they are impervious to mockery from the likes of me. They come from conservative districts and they are voting as their people want them to. That's partisanship. It is also democracy.

The desire to think that political differences are manufactured and can be sweet-smiled into consensus is touching, but unrealistic. Obama has learned that lesson in recent weeks and not much damage has been done. In foreign affairs, it may be a different matter. The Iranians or the North Koreans or even certain Islamic militants are not mere Republicans with odd accents. Their differences, their ideologies, are deeply rooted and often grounded in culture.

I happen to think that Obama's willingness to talk to anyone is a good thing. It is downright bracing to learn in James Mann's forthcoming and engrossing book on the end of the Cold War, "The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan," that some of the same people who are now warning Obama about putting too much emphasis on tone once had the same warnings for Ronald Reagan about Mikhail Gorbachev. You'll be relieved to know that the experience has not left them humbled.

Reality is real. No amount of lofty rhetoric is going to change the way members of Congress are elected. Most of them come from exquisitely gerrymandered districts created by computers that could, if good taste allowed, part the marital bed, separating man from wife if they were of different political parties. This system created districts that are frequently reliably liberal or conservative. The computer has deleted the middle.

Rhetoric about lobbyists is equally detached from reality. In the first place, not all lobbyists are bad or venal or wear Gucci loafers. Second, some of them offer a valuable service. They have constituencies that ought to be heard. But, last, the reason lobbyists have arrived at positions of supreme influence in Washington is because they provide campaign funds. As long as the American people tolerate a system where members of Congress have to grovel on a routine basis for campaign funds, lobbyists will remain inordinately influential. Change the system and lobbyists will go back to getting bad tables in Washington restaurants.

Little to none of any of this has been attempted by Obama -- yet. He can ban lobbyists from the White House, tattoo an "L" on their foreheads, deprive them of their constitutional rights or worse, Lincoln Town cars, and congressmen will still welcome them into their congressional offices. It is the same with all this wailing about partisanship. It is a product of the system as we engineered it and tolerate it. As Obama has recently found out, the more he only talks about change, the more things remain the same.

Pope Should Not Accept Holocaust Denier

Tue, 10 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600

Still, he could go to Treblinka, also in Poland, or any of the other Polish camps -- Sobibor, Belzec, Majdanek. In Germany, Austria and elsewhere he could visit Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Flossenburg, Mauthausen, Ravensbruck or the many subsidiary camps -- a trek that could take him across Europe and into the cold reality of historic horror.

Holocaust denial suggests a mind perforated by anti-Semitism, a bigotry so extreme that it blinds the bigot to mounds of shoes and hair and eyeglasses, all of these exhibited at various Holocaust museums. To be a denier, it is necessary to believe that all the survivors -- Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel and all the others -- staggered out of the camps, got together and agreed to fabricate a story.

You have to believe that historians did something similar -- and so, too, did the people who lived downwind from the crematoriums, and even the train engineers who brought countless Jews unto the camps and took none out. Where are the 54,000 Greek Jews of Salonika? Where did those people go? "We dig a grave in the breezes," Paul Celan wrote in his Holocaust poem "Death Fugue." Ah, yes, that's where they are.

Williamson's lawyer confirmed the authenticity of the e-mails to Der Spiegel. It is possible, though, that the pope has not yet seen the article. He sees so little. Astoundingly, the pope says he was unaware that Williamson is a Holocaust denier. He did not know that Williamson said that only 200,000 to 300,000 Jews were killed during World War II and none was gassed. Williamson said that he once reviewed the physical evidence. This, of course, is the telltale twitch of the really obsessed anti-Semite, an architectural deconstruction of the ovens and the chimneys to conclude that the whole thing was impossible -- a yarn, a myth concocted by those diabolically clever Jews to win sympathy, reparations and, of course, Israel itself.

It's clear the pope doesn't only travel in a bubble, he lives in one. But that is no concern of mine -- or yours. What should concern us more is the charade that continues. A Holocaust denier now pretends to sift through the evidence to see if such a thing happened. What shall we do with the results? What if Williamson says the Holocaust occurred, the ovens worked, the chimneys were big enough? Who cares? Should he be considered sincere? Can this graduate of Cambridge University suddenly be exonerated of his patent anti-Semitism? How can you doubt the Holocaust and not be a raving Jew-hater?

Still, the pope mulls the matter over. What should he, a German, do about this Holocaust denier? (The pope has dismayed much of Germany.) What should he, the pope, do after eons of Vatican anti-Semitism culminating in a supine silence during the Holocaust itself? He dithers. He did not know. He demanded a retraction. He is waiting. He is being played for a fool.

Benedict XVI is a traditionalist, an organization man, and so he worries about a schism in the Church -- the Pius X Society representing ultra-conservatives who reject the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which pertinently included a strong repudiation of anti-Semitism. Never mind that the schism has existed since 1969 and does not matter much anyway. With his overture to Williamson and his subsequent dithering, Benedict XVI has opened a much more consequential schism -- between the church he heads and a worldwide community of appalled onlookers. It is one thing to deny the Holocaust. It is somehow worse to deny that doing so is anything other than an irreversible and disqualifying confession of anti-Semitism. No matter what he may come to say, Williamson must not be accepted by the pope. History forbids it.

Use Spending to Demand Education Reform

Tue, 03 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600

That message is only compounded by the stimulus package. The need for at least $1 trillion in economic stimulus is beyond argument, and the GOP's obsession with tax cuts -- What if taxpayers don't spend enough? -- is just a version of what Samuel Johnson said about second marriages: "The triumph of hope over experience." (The most recent tax rebate proved to be a relative bust.) But what's lacking in the package is precisely what Barack Obama campaigned on: change. The stimulus is mostly more of the same.

Education should have been the area where Obama put some meat on the bones of change. The administration has earmarked an astounding $100 billion for K-12 education, but far, far less for reform. One man's crisis is another's opportunity and the current recession is a grand chance to induce the education establishment to change its wayward ways. More money alone is not going to make a big difference. Look at the District of Columbia's school system. If money alone made the difference, the official language of Washington would be Latin. It ain't.

Most of the $100 billion earmarked for K-12 education goes to enrich existing programs or ensure that they continue. Some of these programs such as Title I for disadvantaged kids are federally mandated, and with the recession are becoming increasingly difficult for the states to fund. This is money well spent.

But if the money is going to be offered, why not couple it with demands for reforms? After all, without the extra cash, the likelihood is that teachers across the country will be laid off. That gives the president some leverage: take my money, take my reforms. Maybe a deal could not be done. We won't know. We do know, though, that the teachers unions have an understandable aversion to some reforms. We also know that the unions supported Obama in his campaign.

Do your reading on education and you will find an emerging consensus. Abolish tenure. There are other ways to ensure that teachers are fairly treated without guaranteeing the jobs of the inept. (Cops don't have tenure, and neither do columnists.) Ensure that the best teachers teach at the most challenging schools and ensure also that they get lavishly paid for doing so.

How about extending the school day, maybe for an hour or so? How about extending the school year? How about tinkering with No Child Left Behind, but insisting that testing -- accountability -- be maintained? How about doing something about the sad fact that teachers aren't what they used to be? Now that women and minorities have more opportunities in almost every field, the best of them have abandoned teaching. The pay is lousy and the work can be hard. Can $100 billion do something about that? Could be.

None of this is exactly radical. It is more or less the program advocated by such reforming big city school chiefs as Washington's Michelle Rhee and New York's Joel Klein. They, as well as other educators, are not union-busters in the old sense of the word. They are, in fact, rather conventional liberals. But if your priority is the kids -- what a businessman would call "the product" -- then certain rules have to be changed. The federal government cannot micromanage 50 states and thousands of school districts, but it can set standards for getting its money. This, as any parent knows, is how allowances are earned.

An opportunity has been missed. I can appreciate the need to move things quickly and to avoid unnecessary political fights -- teachers unions know how to fight -- but the explosive energy of "change" is being lost. Hit rewind. It's not too late to get it back.

Moving Past Torture

Tue, 27 Jan 2009 00:30:00 -0600

Dershowitz, mind you, was not in favor of torture but argued that if torture was going to be done, it was best that it be done legally. In a similar vein, the thoughtful Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter mulled the legality, the morality and the efficacy of torture. In the end, Alter ruled it out -- although not sodium pentothal (truth serum) or off-shoring terrorism suspects "to our less squeamish allies." In fact, the government was already sending suspects to be interrogated abroad. Alter's essay created quite a stir -- and to his considerable surprise, a lot of whispered support from liberals. Around the same time, historian Jay Winik wrote about the usefulness of torture, how Philippine agents in 1995 got a certain Abdul Hakim Murad to reveal a plot to blow up 11 American airlines over the Pacific and send yet another plane, this one loaded with nerve gas, into the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. After being beaten nearly to death, what finally broke Murad was the hollow threat to turn him over to Israel's Mossad. The Philippine example was widely mentioned at the time, even by those who opposed the use of torture. The conventional wisdom that torture never works -- so counterintuitive as to be an absurdity -- was not yet doctrine. Neither for that matter was the belief that the coming war in Iraq was a moral and practical absurdity. Congress overwhelmingly voted for war and the American people overwhelmingly supported it. That, though, was the other country called The Past. In the country called The Present, certain people are demanding that the torturers and their enablers be dragged across the time border and brought to justice. There are many practical difficulties involved, but the impetus is understandable: A nation that once posed to the world as lawful and civil turned out to be brutish and indifferent to international law. We tortured. So says the incoming attorney general, Eric Holder. We tortured. So says the person in charge of deciding such matters at Guantanamo. That question has been answered. Now comes another: What are we going to do about it? President Obama's inclination, it seems, is to not do anything much. "I don't believe anybody is above the law," he recently said. "On the other hand, I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards." This is a nifty formulation that ignores reality; in order to look forward you need to know where you've been. In other words, if we do not find out precisely how our government came to waterboard at least three suspects and abuse others, we will not know how to ensure that the future doesn't wind up looking much like the past. At the same time, we have to be respectful of those who were in that 9/11 frame of mind, who thought they were saving lives -- and maybe were -- and who, in any case, were doing what the nation and its leaders wanted. It is imperative that our intelligence agents not have to fear that a sincere effort will result in being hauled before some congressional committee or a grand jury. We want the finest people in these jobs -- not time-stampers who take no chances. The best suggestion for how to proceed comes from David Cole of Georgetown Law School. Writing in the Jan. 15 New York Review of Books, he proposes that either the president or Congress appoint a blue-ribbon commission, arm it with subpoena power, and turn it loose to find out what went wrong, what (if anything) went right and to report not just to Congress, but to us. We were the ones, remember, who just wanted to be kept safe. So, it is important, as well as fair, not to punish those who did what we wanted done -- back when we lived, scared to death, in a place called The Past.[...]

The Weight of the World Now Falls on Obama...

Tue, 20 Jan 2009 00:00:00 -0600

As he was dressing, tribes in the nether reaches of Afghanistan started to move toward the Pakistan border. In the Korengal Valley of Konar province, a U.S. helicopter had been downed and the Taliban were taking credit. In Pakistan itself, a terrorist group affiliated with al-Qaeda was recruiting scientists to infiltrate the country's top-secret nuclear weapons program. His two daughters burst gleefully into the bedroom. During the customary church service, more children died of cholera in Zimbabwe, and Darfur sunk further into misery. There were riots in Estonia, Latvia and Bulgaria, and some people suspected Russian instigation. Pakistan. Afghanistan. Failing state. Failed state. Nuclear weapons. The minister was wrapping up his sermon. Back at Blair House, he looked across the street at the White House. In New York, the markets had opened and nothing was as it once had been. As he looked out the window, 2,031 Americans were informed they had been laid off, more bankruptcies were declared, homes were foreclosed, charities galore went bust and on the cold streets, the number of homeless increased one by one. He decided to change his tie. Too many kids were not in school and too many were reading below grade level. The Chinese were not buying American debt. The Indians were about to follow. Chancellor Merkel in Germany would not enrich her stimulus plan and without it, Europe's largest economy was not pulling its weight. The Russians had turned on the gas to Ukraine, but they could turn it off again. U.S. troops were still dying in Iraq and troop levels were doubling in Afghanistan. This war would no longer be George Bush's. Time for the customary coffee with the outgoing president and the first lady. While he passed on the muffin, Speaker Pelosi was continuing to set her own agenda, unaccustomed, probably, to following the lead of a president. She was altering the mix of spending and tax cuts. The bank bailout was not succeeding but it was not failing either, and the incoming Treasury secretary had not paid all his taxes. The country was sinking into a debt so profound, so deep, that it was the monetary version of a black hole. You could throw the entire banking system into it and it would disappear. He thanked the Bushes for the coffee. During the 1.5-mile ride from the White House to the Capitol, the dollar moved against the yen, the euro moved against China's yuan and 1.2 million kids slipped out of school for some mayhem. North Korea was again threatening South Korea. Pyongyang said it had weaponized enough plutonium for four or five nuclear bombs. The truculent Israelis might not be through with Gaza, and much of the world was treating Hamas as if it were a national liberation organization from the old days. He instinctively reached for his belt: no BlackBerry. So much information in so little space represented a constant warning of what could happen. Weapons, too, could be miniaturized. No flying armada needed. Just fanaticism. Just implacable hatred. The inaugural stand was larger than he expected. The Iranian nuclear program had advanced that morning. Soon, the Arab world would respond with programs of its own, a Sunni bomb for a Shiite bomb -- one unstable state after another with nuclear weapons. Mubarak was old; the Muslim Brotherhood patiently waited. Overnight in Washington, two more young men had been killed. The Earth was warming, running out of oil, not to mention patience. His kids had to adjust to school. He stood. You could put a nuclear weapon on a ship off Tel Aviv. You could put it in a backpack. You could put anthrax in a canister disguised as bug spray. You could shut down Washington with a cyber attack. One [...]

Meet Lady Subprime

Tue, 13 Jan 2009 00:25:00 -0600

This tale, unfortunately as American as apple pie, was recounted recently in The Wall Street Journal. Since the story ran over a long, holiday weekend, it is possible that you, not to mention the occasional member of Congress or, God forbid, the various government regulatory agencies, missed it. It is the only possible explanation for why there have been no executions, never mind arrests. Halterman's house was never exactly a showcase -- the city has since cited her for all the junk (clothes, tires, etc.) on her lawn. Nonetheless, a local financial institution with the cover-your-wallet name of Integrity Funding LLC gave her a mortgage, valuing the house at about twice what a nearby and comparable property sold for. According to the Journal, Integrity Funding then sold the loan to Wells Fargo & Co., which sold it to HSBC Holdings PLC, which then packaged it with thousands of other risky mortgages and offered this indigestible porridge to investors. Standard & Poor's and Moody's Investors Service took a look at it all, as they are supposed to do, and pronounced it "triple-A." "Double-A" must mean no running water. In each step of this mortgage process, a moral crime was committed. Halterman's interest rate would have ballooned to 15.25 percent, when in all likelihood 1 percent would have been a reach for her. (Her welfare payments and disability payments totaled $3,000 a month.) After paying off all her debts and the usual fees, Halterman cleared $11,090. After processing her mortgage, Integrity cleared nearly as much: $9,243. We turn now to Bernard Madoff, the accused swindler who allegedly ran a $50 billion Ponzi scheme. The English language lacks sufficient words of contempt for this man who leveraged the teachings of Maimonides -- the sacred obligations of philanthropy -- to swindle charities of money for the poor. His victims were rich and not so rich, one-time Masters of the Universe and one-time schoolteachers, now equally broke, a leveling of wealth that not even Lenin could have envisaged. The wreckage is immense. But think: Was there a better Ponzi scheme than the one that ensnarled countless underfinanced homeowners? Who has gone to jail? Nobody. Who has paid back the huge amounts of money made in financial services? Nobody. Where's the former financial genius who has vowed to return his bonus -- or donate it to charity -- because he was overseeing a huge dream factory that produced nothing more than a stack of three-dollar bills as high as the sky? "Here, sorry, I didn't earn it." Words you will never hear. How was Madoff's alleged scheme so different? He could go to jail. The other guys are scot-free. But they had to know that Halterman could not pay off her mortgage. They had to know that she could not afford a 15.25 percent interest rate. It didn't matter. One institution sold to another, taking their fees, passing along this Ponzified paper like it was a hot potato -- don't hold it for too long or you'll get burned -- and then offering it to the vaunted, all-knowing and downright perfect Market, our secular god. Ah, Halterman, you are our unintentional Marianne, our Britannia. You represent the consequences of a Congress that was both deluded and bought. You personify succeeding presidencies (Clinton, Bush) that sniffed the glue of deregulation. You embody a public that fervently believed in the free lunch of ever-rising housing values and a financial system that figured out that the buck didn't really ever have to stop ... until it did. The little house on West Hopi Street is slated to be torn down. Pity. For as little as $18,000, its apparent value at the moment, it could be bought by the government and turned into an appropriate[...]

Could Have Seen This War Coming

Tue, 06 Jan 2009 00:00:00 -0600

I get the impression that Israel is expected to put up with this. The implied message from demonstrators and some opinion columnists is that this is the price Israel is supposed to pay for being, I suppose, Israel. I am informed by a Palestinian journalist in a Washington Post op-ed article that Israel is trying to stop "amateur rockets from nagging the residents of some of its southern cities." In Sderot, I saw homes nagged to smithereens.

While I was reading the online version of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz for all the latest news about the war, a pop-up ad announced itself: "Camp Kimama, Israel, 2009 -- What childhood memories should be made of." The picture shows kids frolicking in the water. Placed next to stories about battle, it was a jarring -- but vivid -- statement of war aims: the expectation of normal life.

The CIA's World Factbook says that Israel has a population of 7,112,359. Of these, about 5,434,000 are Jews. That includes 187,000 settlers in the West Bank, about 20,000 in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights bordering Syria, and about 175,000 in East Jerusalem. It does not include, however, the approximately 750,000 Israelis living in the United States -- some for a brief amount of time, some for an extended period, some permanently. For a variety of reasons -- and often with considerable pain -- they have given up on the country of their birth.

As the leaders of Hamas understand, the war in Gaza is about Israel's incessant fight to be a normal country. Maybe that's impossible. The war between Arab and Jew predates the founding of Israel in 1948. For the Palestinians, it is a fierce fight for Arab justice, for Arab pride, for Arab myth -- for ancestral houses and orange groves that few living have ever seen. For Israel, it is so kids can swim in a lake.

Three years ago, Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip. Good, the world said. Next, pull out of the West Bank, the world said. But then Hamas, which has vowed to destroy Israel, won the election in Gaza. Sderot soon became hell. The West Bank is controlled by Fatah, the moderate Palestinian organization, which once had control of Gaza, too. If Israel withdraws from the West Bank, will rockets come from there? If you lived in Tel Aviv, a spit from the West Bank, would you take the chance?

Anyone could have seen this war coming. The diplomats and demonstrators who are now so engaged in the problem and the process were nowhere to be found when rockets began raining down on southern Israel. The border between Gaza and Egypt is riddled with tunnels -- some for food, some for weapons. The international monitors that are so evidently needed now were just as evidently needed then.

Conventional wisdom says that when Israel went into Lebanon in 2006, it lost that war. Hezbollah stood up to the mighty Israeli army; Israel could not muzzle Hezbollah's rockets. That may not be the way Hezbollah sees things, however. After the war, its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said he had miscalculated. He was not prepared for the fury of the Israeli attack. He apologized. Now, Hezbollah takes no role in the current war. It will be back, but still has wounds to lick.

The horrors of war are not to be dismissed or demeaned. In 2006, Israel accidentally killed 28 civilians in the Lebanese village of Qana when it attempted to take out a nearby rocket site. In Gaza, innocent Palestinians are being killed. The suffering is great and cannot be ignored. But what has been ignored is the series of events that led to this war. Anyone could see how it was going to start. As always, though, it's a lot harder to see how it ends.

Reading Into Bush's Book List

Tue, 30 Dec 2008 00:20:00 -0600

In his Wall Street Journal column, Rove says that Bush read 95 books in 2006 alone. In 2007, he read 51 books and as of last week, he had read 40 in 2008. The numbers are precise because Bush challenged Rove to a contest: who could read the most books. Rove always won, but Bush had the ready excuse that he was, as he put it, "Leader of the Free World." This, though, is not an excuse. As Dwight Eisenhower once told me (I'm not making this up), he had more time as president to dabble in painting than he did in retirement. Such is the virtue of The Bubble.

Rove appreciates that he's written a caricature-buster. "In the 35 years I've known George W. Bush, he's always had a book nearby," he writes. "He plays up being a good ol' boy from Midland, Texas, but he was a history major at Yale and graduated from Harvard Business School. You don't make it through either unless you are a reader."

As might be expected, most of Bush's books have been biographies and histories. Biographies are usually about great men who often did the unpopular thing and were later vindicated. As for histories, they are replete with cautionary tales. That might explain how the 1961 classic, Hugh Thomas' "The Spanish Civil War," made it on this year's presidential reading list. Had Hitler (and Mussolini) been stopped in Spain, much misery would have been avoided. Substitute Iraq for Spain and you have, for the president, some reassuring bedtime reading.

Still, the fact remains that Bush is a voluminous, industrial reader, and this does not conform at all to his critics' idea of who he is. They would prefer seeing him as a dolt, since that, as opposed to policy or ideological differences, is a briefer, more bloggish explanation of what went wrong. Still, in fairness to these critics (see Rove above), Bush himself has encouraged this approach. Aw shucks is an infuriating defense of a policy.

It is awfully late in the day for Rove -- and, presumably, Bush -- to assert the president's intellectual bona fides. Now feeling the hot breath of History, they are dropping the good ol' boy persona and picking up the ol' bifocals one. But the books themselves reveal -- actually, confirm -- something about Bush that maybe Rove did not intend. They are not the reading of a widely read man, but instead the books of a man who seeks -- and sees -- vindication in every page. Bush has always been the captive of fixed ideas. His books just support that.

The list Rove provides is long, but it is narrow. It lacks whole shelves of books on how and why the Iraq War was a mistake, one that metastasized into a debacle. Absent is Rajiv Chandrasekaran's "Imperial Life in the Emerald City," Tom Ricks' "Fiasco," George Packer's "The Assassins' Gate" or, on a related topic, Jane Mayer's "The Dark Side" about "extraordinary rendition'' and other riffs on the Constitution. Absent too is Barton Gellman's "Angler," about Dick Cheney, the waterboarder in chief.

Bush read David Halberstam's "The Coldest Winter," which is about the Korean War, but not on the list is Halberstam's "The Best and The Brightest," which is about the Vietnam War. He read some novels, but they are mostly pre-movies, plotted not written, and lacking the beauty of worldly cynicism. I recommend Giuseppe di Lampedusa's "The Leopard." Delicious.

My hat is off to Bush for the sheer volume and, often, quality of his reading. But his books reflect a man who is seeking to learn what he already knows. The caricature of Bush as unread died today -- or was it yesterday? But the reality of the intellectually insulated man endures.