Like some of you, I had the following reactions reading the transcripts of Illinois’s Governor Blagojevich
1) Here in the 21st-century are we back to the 1860s of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall, or the cesspool Chicago of Mayor Big Bill Thompson in the 1920s? All our moral claims about cleaning up government, all our postmodern sophisticated ethics, our vaunted notions of ‘transparency’ are reduced to a two-bit thug in the governorship of a large state like Illinois? For all our high-tech gadgetry, or our angst about situational morality, or self-help pop therapy, we revert to a foul-mouthed, profanity-spouting wretch, trying to sell a U.S. Senate seat the way a corrupt 4th-century AD emperor auctioned off proconsulships in the twilight of the Empire?
2) There are two types of felonious actors caught on tape: the first is the ambivalent Hamlet-type crook who frets about the honesty of it all, and confesses out loud that to take a bribe or offer one would be wrong, but in extremis one is forced to… Or couches his corruption in coded terms, or is remotely aware he has sold his immortal soul for money or power.
And then there is the Mafioso braggadocio of pure, unadulterated crudity: four-letter words, pomposity, no inhibition about admitting lust for money, gratuitous slurs about everything and everybody, constant threats, an entire family to dine at the table of greed. Blagojevich is something out of Dante’s Eighth Circle of Hell, a modern-day Malacoda in the 5th bolgia. One must resort either to Al Capone’s Chicago or the villains of classical literature to match these transcripts.
3) I was puzzled by Obama’s almost immediate denials that he had been in any way in contact with the Governor’s office. Why? Because for the last month it was simply understood, both by his own admission and by David Axelrod’s interviews, that his own preference for his Senate replacement was probably made known to the Governor. And fittingly so. Of course, there would be nothing wrong about Obama simply saying, “I am surprised as the next person, since I have discussed my replacement as would be natural with a governor of my own party responsible for the appointment, and I never detected anything out of the ordinary on his part.” Why instead the unbelievable denial of any communications that in turn earns the more unbelievable “misspoke” on the part of Axelrod? All that brings us back to the now familiar territory of “only a neighborhood acquaintance” and “not the (fill in the blanks) I once knew” and “I was only (fill in the appropriate adolescent age) when I was supposed to have (fill in the blanks)”. The problem with Obama is that any one “pal” (to use that now taboo word) from the past in and of itself is no problem. But each one thrown under the bus—a Rev. Wright, a Tony Rezko, a Bill Ayers, a Father Pfleger, a Governor Blagojevich, a Rashid Khalidi, et al—serve to expand the possibilities that any one of them might come clean (or come dirty) and give us a very different picture at just the time Obama needs unity to govern the country. E.g. A Rev. Wright memoir will come out with perhaps different memories of Obama’s attendance; a Tony Rezko plea bargain might reinterpret the Obama land deal; a creepy and conniving Blagojevich might have evidence of conversations that supposedly never occurred; and so on. The problem is twofold: Obama’s Chicago past was considered embedded within race and off-limits and thus never thoroughly investigated by a fawning media who did us all a disservice; and, two, the American public is not fully aware just how corrupt Illinois politics are, and thus how Obama is probably unusual by not being much more thoroughly tainted. (cf. The Blagojevich’s apparent anger that Team Obama is quite lawfully dictating a choice without ponying up any cash). I wish Obama well in governing us in times of peril, but I also wish he would just stop the stuttering in ex tempore settings, and come clean the first time.
4) On Monday the air waves were full of the Dan Rathers and Chris Matthewses lamenting the Constitution’s unfortunate rules of succession—why could not President-elect Obama save us even earlier by assuming office right now in December? Or why could not Bush resign now and allow our salvation to commence a month earlier?
Then suddenly on Tuesday morning, all such talk disappeared and instead the news was—“Of course, President-elect Obama did not… could not… would not…(fill in the blanks with the appropriate tense of the appropriate verb: know, communicate, hear, etc.) At least the Governor did us a favor by ending talk about amending the Constitution. (As a footnote: One wonders if Obama is less than successful, and, say, a Sarah Palin is elected in 2012, would a Chris Matthews ponder allowing her to assume office early in December? And, of course, it was never suggested of the once impeached, but not convicted yet ostracized Clinton in 2000 that he should step aside earlier than January 20. He did not, and should not have—and thereby on January 19 (or was it the very early morning of the 20th?) pardoned fugitive felon Marc Rich, who, via his ex-wife, had amply funded the Clinton library, furniture fund, Hillary’s exploratory campaign fund, the Democratic Party, etc. to the tune in aggregate of $1 million.
5) We don’t need this cloud over our next President. Everyone from financial speculators and Iranian mullahs to Big Three exec and Russian oligarchs are watching our POTUS for any crack in the up-to-now remarkable calm façade. I think Obama did nothing at all out of the ordinary, so he should frankly admit he talked with members of the Governor’s staff the last few years, and then say that one in politics regrettably gets exposed to such people—and quit the implausible denials and get on with the transition.
A Note on Sullivanism
I have had only two incidents with Andrew Sullivan whom I otherwise know little of, other than his radical about-face on the war when his writing seemed to go from jingoist to fantically anti-war. The first was in a recent debate at Columbia University, when he for some reason out of the blue accused me of being on record in support of torture. I had, in fact, though written two columns opposing government use of techniques that could be remotely called torture and called him on his false charges. He later retracted that accusation, and I assumed Sullivan had simply made an honest slip.
Then later, he alleged that I had opposed the Petraeus surge, but again cited no evidence. In fact, I had supported both the Petraeus appointment and his effort in 2007 to commit a surge in troops. Perhaps he was confused inasmuch as I had opposed in a long 2004 Commentary article an earlier suggestion of sending an addition 50,000+ troops in 2004 to Iraq to create a force of 180,000 (20,000 higher than the Petraeus surge level), without radical changes in tactics and the use of force.
The thrust of that article was, aside from the fact we did not have such numbers readily available to reach 180,000, that military history suggests how troops are used is often as important as how many are employed. (I think historians will also note the 2007 30,000-man surge was successful not just due to additional numbers per se, but in part for showing American will to the enemy at a time of national doubt, and prompting a much needed reemphasis on counter-insurgency tactics, as well as (a) the role of soaring Iraqi oil revenue, (b) the cumulative attrition of Iraqi insurgents (a fact never cited but universally albeit privately understood), (c) the Anbar awakening, and (d) the fruition of years of training of and investment in Iraq security and police forces. I am not sure that sending 30,000 in 2005, even with the best of tactics and personnel, would have worked as it did in 2007-8.)
So, I am afraid that I wasn’t too surprised the other day in reading Sullivan’s latest outburst:
It Gets Worse
One wonders how out of it NRO can get, and then one reads this from Victor Davis Hanson:
FISA and wire-intercepts of terrorist communications in the pre-Obama president months were once derided as more of Ashcroft-Bush stomping on the Constitution — except that now ABC News reports that, in fact, US intelligence agencies supplied India with general knowledge of the rough time period, place, and perhaps even method of terrorist attack. Are we to believe that such newfound capability to warn a country 7000 miles away about terrorist infiltration on its borders would be of no utility here at home?
Does Hanson actually believe that opponents of the Bush warrantless wiretapping were actually against all wire intercepts of terrorist communications? Does he really believe we wanted no intelligence procured through spying or wiretapping? Or is he actually aware that we were concerned about checks and balances so that these powers could not be abused or adopted in secret or given to the president alone? And just lying about it?
“Lying” is a serious charge, and this time is as false as Sullivan’s past two allegations. The truth is that the post-9/11 increased surveillance and wiretapping statutes were rather soon derided in the calm of peace by many of those who had once praised them in the terror of another looming attack (cf. the changing congressional editorializing on the Patriot Act)—and they allowed us intelligence about terrorism abroad that was simply impossible in the pre-9/11 days before passage of the Patriot Act and amending of the FISA accords (once opposed as illiberal, and then supported as necessary, by Barack Obama).
Many of the wiretaps of calls reaching Americans from suspected terrorist origins were critical in finding terrorists and specifically allowed under the tenets of the Patriot Act and FISA accords. And yes, I believe many critics of them were against wire intercepts of foreign communications, as various leaks in major newspapers of confidential measures and congressional grandstanding attested.
And no, I believe that Sullivan’s proverbial “we” in fact wanted intelligence procured through expanded (but lawful, albeit controversial) wiretapping when it worked and saved lives, and so could postfacto be proven to have been effective, and when it didn’t appear to have been successful or perhaps necessary in times of calm, could be opportunistically derided as an assault on individual liberty.
Is that charge hyperbole? I am afraid not given Mr. Sullivan’s history of this sort of dissimulation.
I first became acquainted with Sullivan’s rather extremist pro-Iraqi, pro-total war exhortations shortly after the anthrax attack of 2001. Then in near hysterical fashion he was chest-thumping about the real possibility of using nuclear weapons against Saddam Hussein, whom he was sure was behind the attacks (whose origins had not been proven then—or now).
After that Strangelovian response, I wasn’t all that surprised when he unfortunately serially trafficked in rather despicable rumors about Gov. Sarah Palin’s last pregnancy—alleging that her teen-aged daughter somehow in conspiratorial fashion had actually delivered the governor’s Down-Syndrome child, Trig—all without a shred of evidence, but apparently, in the heat of campaign partisanship, with plenty of malice and to this day without apology.
In one regard, that was a particularly unfortunate stance for Sullivan: in 2001 during the era of his pro-Iraq war pieces, he had once written convincingly I thought about the maliciousness of character-assassination involving his own growing number of critics when they serially trafficked in rumors about Sullivan’s own private excesses as supposed referenda about his truthfulness, judgment and character—rumors with a bit more basis in fact than those he promulgated about Palin.
As in the case of the Monterey Herald, I expect this sort of thing will continue from Sullivan or his surrogates, and will from time to time as time permits try to reply as usual.
I also suppose one should call all this frenzy a sort of Sullivanism (the print version of Matthewsism): a subset of Beltway hysteria, in which erratic political posturing and shoot-from-the-hip opportunism are chalked up to “figuring things out,” and falsely accusing others is but a routine day’s work of “thinking out loud.”
Note on Movies
I read carefully the comments. I agree that “Heat” was a masterpiece. Val Kilmer gave a great performance; he is, in certain roles, another underrated actor. The last scene between Pacino and DeNiro was quite good; the music and lighting were eerie. I like Mann’s films. Likewise I thought the underappreciated “Man on Fire” by Tony Scott was a classic and the finest performance of Denzel Washington’s fine career. He was a sort of Achilles unleashed in the last half of that movie.