Sunday, May 14, 2006

Sunday Reading

  • Frank Rich:

    When America panics, it goes hunting for scapegoats. But from Salem onward, we’ve more often than not ended up pillorying the innocent. Abe Rosenthal, the legendary Times editor who died last week, and his publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, were denounced as treasonous in 1971 when they defied the Nixon administration to publish the Pentagon Papers, the secret government history of the Vietnam War. Today we know who the real traitors were: the officials who squandered American blood and treasure on an ill-considered war and then tried to cover up their lies and mistakes. It was precisely those lies and mistakes, of course, that were laid bare by the thousands of pages of classified Pentagon documents leaked to both The Times and The Washington Post.

    This history is predictably repeating itself now that the public has turned on the war in Iraq. The administration’s die-hard defenders are desperate to deflect blame for the fiasco, and, guess what, the traitors once again are The Times and The Post. This time the newspapers committed the crime of exposing warrantless spying on Americans by the National Security Agency (The Times) and the C.I.A.’s secret “black site” Eastern European prisons (The Post). Aping the Nixon template, the current White House tried to stop both papers from publishing and when that failed impugned their patriotism.

    President Bush, himself a sometime leaker of intelligence, called the leaking of the N.S.A. surveillance program a “shameful act” that is “helping the enemy.” Porter Goss, who was then still C.I.A. director, piled on in February with a Times Op-Ed piece denouncing leakers for potentially risking American lives and compromising national security. When reporters at both papers were awarded Pulitzer Prizes last month, administration surrogates, led by bloviator in chief William Bennett, called for them to be charged under the 1917 Espionage Act.

    We can see this charade for what it is: a Hail Mary pass by the leaders who bungled a war and want to change the subject to the journalists who caught them in the act. What really angers the White House and its defenders about both the Post and Times scoops are not the legal questions the stories raise about unregulated gulags and unconstitutional domestic snooping, but the unmasking of yet more administration failures in a war effort riddled with ineptitude. It’s the recklessness at the top of our government, not the press’s exposure of it, that has truly aided the enemy, put American lives at risk and potentially sabotaged national security. That’s where the buck stops, and if there’s to be a witch hunt for traitors, that’s where it should begin.


    Soon to come are the Senate’s hearings on Mr. Goss’s successor, Gen. Michael Hayden, the former head of the N.S.A. As Jon Stewart reminded us last week, Mr. Bush endorsed his new C.I.A. choice with the same encomium he had bestowed on Mr. Goss: He’s “the right man” to lead the C.I.A. “at this critical moment in our nation’s history.” That’s not exactly reassuring.

    This being an election year, Karl Rove hopes the hearings can portray Bush opponents as soft on terrorism when they question any national security move. It was this bullying that led so many Democrats to rubber-stamp the Iraq war resolution in the 2002 election season and Mr. Goss’s appointment in the autumn of 2004.

    Will they fall into the same trap in 2006? Will they be so busy soliloquizing about civil liberties that they’ll fail to investigate the nominee’s record? It was under General Hayden, a self-styled electronic surveillance whiz, that the N.S.A. intercepted actual Qaeda messages on Sept. 10, 2001 — “Tomorrow is zero hour” for one — and failed to translate them until Sept. 12. That same fateful summer, General Hayden’s N.S.A. also failed to recognize that “some of the terrorists had set up shop literally under its nose,” as the national-security authority James Bamford wrote in The Washington Post in 2002. The Qaeda cell that hijacked American Flight 77 and plowed into the Pentagon was based in the same town, Laurel, Md., as the N.S.A., and “for months, the terrorists and the N.S.A. employees exercised in some of the same local health clubs and shopped in the same grocery stores.”

    If Democrats –— and, for that matter, Republicans — let a president with a Nixonesque approval rating install yet another second-rate sycophant at yet another security agency, even one as diminished as the C.I.A., someone should charge those senators with treason, too.

  • Carl Hiaasen on the chances of there being a Bush III presidency.

    On the same day a national poll showed George W. Bush’s popularity skidding to a new low, he told reporters in Florida that he’d like to see his brother Jeb make a run for the presidency.

    At which Jeb must have inwardly winced, thinking: Gee, thanks, bro.

    That’s like being asked to steer the Titanic after it hits the iceberg.

    Gov. Bush has repeatedly said he won’t run for president in 2008, and there’s little reason to doubt his word. Regardless of how one views his politics (and I often disagree with him), he’s undeniably a bright fellow.

    Not that you need to be a genius to figure out that voters won’t be sending another Bush to the White House anytime soon.

    The latest New York Times/CBS News poll puts the president’s job approval rating at a feeble 31 percent. That ties his father’s rock-bottom number in July 1992, four months before he lost the election to Bill Clinton. Only two other presidents in the last 50 years racked up lower popularity scores: Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.

    Discontent is widespread and bipartisan. Seventy percent of those surveyed last week said the country was headed in the wrong direction, reflecting the worst epidemic of national pessimism in more than two decades.

    According to the poll, Americans are deeply disgruntled about the debacle in Iraq, high gas prices, immigration issues and the economy. About two-thirds of the respondents said the country was in lousier shape today then it was when Bush took office six years ago.

    Jeb would have to be certifiably nuts or totally stoned to consider running for president in two years. Even if his day should come, it’s not clear that he wants the job.

    There’s an element of epic irony in his fate, because establishment Republicans had assumed that he — not George W. — would be the first Bush heir to reach the White House.

    It might become one of the great what-ifs of modern political history. What if Bobby Kennedy had lived to be elected? What if the Watergate burglars hadn’t been caught?

    And what if Jeb and not W. had run for president?

    Surely today’s headlines would be different. It’s inconceivable that as president Jeb would have pushed for an invasion of Iraq. He’s far too pragmatic and cautious — plus, he actually reads.

    I believe he would have made it his business to know that the reports of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction were both flimsy and hotly disputed within the U.S. intelligence community.

    In any event, he would have been sensible enough to question why we should attack a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 and no al Qaeda connections whatsoever.

    As governor, Jeb has displayed a demeanor and management style that contrasts markedly with that of his detached and delegating brother.

    Jeb’s known as a detail freak and workaholic. His manner isn’t down-home, nor he is a folksy dispenser of nicknames. He can be blunt, cold and difficult to dazzle.

    That’s not to say there wouldn’t be some boneheads working at a Jebster White House. The governor has recruited some real low-voltage hacks to Tallahassee (like Jerry Regier, the conniving troll who was sent to streamline the Division of Children & Families and promptly began piecing out hefty contracts to his pals).

    Still, there’s no Dick Cheney-like figure whispering instructions from the shadows. For better or worse, Jeb’s the only one running the ship. In times of crisis he gives a strong impression of being engaged and focused, which isn’t always true of his brother.

    Look at the administration’s doddering reaction to Hurricane Katrina. It’s impossible to imagine that, given his experiences in Florida, Jeb wouldn’t have known in advance what would happen to those levees in New Orleans — or at least listened to someone who did.

    A willingness to hear experts is one of the many differences between the Bush siblings. Naturally, there are similarities, too.

    Like George W., Jeb had no qualms about exploiting the tragic situation of Terri Schiavo to score brownie points with the far right. The governor fought to keep a feeding tube connected to the gravely brain-damaged woman, despite numerous court rulings and reams of medical evidence that she was in a permanent vegetative state.

    The Schiavo case backfired on the Bushes and other top Republicans, who’d badly misjudged the public’s tolerance for politicians meddling in private family matters. That was the nadir of Jeb’s tenure, yet his standing among Floridians remains solid: Sixty-three percent of those surveyed in March gave him a positive job-approval rating.

    In another time and circumstance, poll numbers like that would be a pass to a national ticket. Not today, not when the president is hobbling along at 31 percent.

    You can’t blame W. for nudging Jeb toward the Oval Office, but the timing couldn’t be worse. When the governor’s term ends in January, he’ll likely return to Miami, make a bundle in business and wait until 2012 to see whether the coast is clear.

    If he still chooses not to run, as he might, lots of people will be looking back at the paths of both brothers and wondering:

    What if…

  • Literary Note: I finished reading The DaVinci Code. I agree, it’s a real page-turner; I kept turning the pages to see when I would start to actually care about characters who are drawn so thinly and stereotypically that I began to wonder why the author included them other than as props. The plot is very intricate and — to me — so innocuous in terms of questioning the history of the Catholic Church that I wondered if all the hoo-ha being whooped up by the pseudo-pious wasn’t a nefarious plot by the publisher and the movie producers to juice the box office of the film version that opens this week. (Tom Hanks, the star of the film, coincidentally showed up on Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me. A little product-placement among the intelligensia? Hmmm.)

    Dan Brown’s writing style is typical of the spy-thriller genre, but he could take a lesson from Robert Ludlum, John Le Carre, or Frederick Forsyth and learn that it’s bad form to use an exclamation point in the narrative: The car screeched around the corner, struck the fencepost, and exploded! Save that for the dialog: “Help me!” wailed the piquent starlet.

    One thing I’m grateful for is that, unlike a lot of books of this genre, we were spared the obligatory sex scene between the macho male hero and the female-in-distress. I suppose that would have upset the Church more than the speculation about Jesus Christ and one Man’s family.

    Overall, I agree with Dorothy Parker: “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”

  • Speaking of literature, there are some new postings at The Practical Press, and the next chapter of Small Town Boys is in process.