Sunday, October 7, 2007

Sunday Reading

Getting Out: White House aides are streaming for the exits.

They left for different reasons — new professional opportunities, a gentle or not-so-gentle nudge, young kids, the hope of having young kids — but the cumulative exodus of so many key people at once has transformed the White House as it heads into the dwindling months of the Bush presidency. Rove and Bartlett are gone, and so are their fellow Texans, Harriet E. Miers and Alberto R. Gonzales. Tony Snow, Sara M. Taylor, Rob Portman, J.D. Crouch, Peter D. Feaver, J. Scott Jennings and a host of others have left.

There is so much turnover that on one recent Friday there were four farewell parties or last-day exits. Bush poses for so many Oval Office photos with departing aides it feels like an assembly line. Officials said the transition is a function of so many aides having stayed longer than in past White Houses. “When you look at the people who are leaving, these are people who have been here since the beginning,” said Liza Wright, who herself left last month as White House personnel director. “And it’s a killer of a job.”

All the more so in a White House beset by an intractable war, a hostile Congress, a shipwrecked domestic agenda and near-historic-low approval ratings. The long-term ideals that many of them came to the White House to pursue appear jeopardized, even discredited to many. They tell themselves that they have acted on principle, that the decisions they helped make will be vindicated. But they cannot be sure.

“There’s this overriding awareness that we’re living and acting for the judgment of history,” said William Inboden, who resigned last month as senior director for strategic planning at the National Security Council.

And as history judges, Iraq is always there. “It constantly looms,” he said. “It is the inescapable presence, the inescapable reality. You see it in all these ways. People. Time. Money. Diplomatic and political capital. It sort of becomes the reality you live with and obviously we have to be able to.”


“I know the intentions were noble and the arguments to go to war — we believed there were weapons of mass destruction and he was a malevolent figure,” said Wehner, who was White House director of strategic initiatives until August. “The fact that it didn’t go so well is something you struggle with.”

Wehner, who recalled losing sleep in 2006 when the war seemed to be further slipping away, blames former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. “It was mishandled in a lot of ways,” he said. “The administration went in with a plausible approach and a plausible strategy, but it was wrong. The secretary of defense didn’t make the adjustments that he ought to have and there’s a cost to that and that’s something you live with.”

The subsequent troop buildup, Wehner added, has given him hope again. “I think we have a decent shot at a decent outcome,” he said. “But mistakes were made and there’s a cost to it.”

One cost has been friendship. Some people who were once close no longer talk with him, Wehner said. “The view is ‘Pete was a nice guy, but he was taken over by the dark side, joined Rove world.’ “

Gee, that’s too bad that they’ve lost sleep and friends because they worked for the president who launched the war, and it’s nice to see that they’re expressing doubts about it, even if they are using the passive voice “mistakes-were-made” line. Gee, it almost makes up for the dead, the wounded and the degradation of America and our place on the moral high ground. Almost.

Nobody Knows the Lynchings He’s Seen: Frank Rich examines what has and hasn’t changed in the world of Clarence Thomas:

It’s useful to watch Mr. Thomas at this moment, 16 years after his riveting confirmation circus. He is a barometer of what has and has not changed since then because he hasn’t changed at all. He still preaches against black self-pity even as he hyperbolically tries to cast his Senate cross-examination by Joe Biden as tantamount to the Ku Klux Klan assassination of Medgar Evers. He still denies that he is the beneficiary of the very race-based preferences he deplores. He still has a dubious relationship with the whole truth and nothing but, and not merely in the matter of Anita Hill.

This could be seen most vividly on “60 Minutes,” when he revisited a parable about the evils of affirmative action that is also a centerpiece of his memoir: his anger about the “tainted” degree he received from Yale Law School. In Mr. Thomas’s account, he stuck a 15-cent price sticker on his diploma after potential employers refused to hire him. By his reckoning, a Yale Law graduate admitted through affirmative action, as he was, would automatically be judged inferior to whites with the same degree. The “60 Minutes” correspondent, Steve Kroft, maintained that Mr. Thomas had no choice but to settle for a measly $10,000-a-year job (in 1974 dollars) in Missouri, working for the state’s attorney general, John Danforth.

What “60 Minutes” didn’t say was that the post was substantial — an assistant attorney general — and that Mr. Danforth was himself a Yale Law graduate. As Mr. Danforth told the story during the 1991 confirmation hearings and in his own book last year, he traveled to New Haven to recruit Mr. Thomas when he was still a third-year law student. That would be before he even received that supposedly worthless degree. Had it not been for Yale taking a chance on him in the first place, in other words, Mr. Thomas would never have had the opportunity to work the Yalie network to jump-start his career and to ascend to the Supreme Court. Mr. Danforth, a senator in 1991, was the prime mover in shepherding the Thomas nomination to its successful conclusion.

Bill O’Reilly may have deemed the “60 Minutes” piece “excellent,” but others spotted the holes. Marc Morial, the former New Orleans mayor who now directs the National Urban League, told Tavis Smiley on PBS that it was “as though Justice Thomas’s public relations firm edited the piece.” On CNN, Jeffrey Toobin, the author of the new best-seller about the court, “The Nine,” said that it was “real unfair” for “60 Minutes” not to include a response from Ms. Hill, who was slimed on camera by Mr. Thomas as “not the demure, religious, conservative person” she said she was.

Ms. Hill, who once taught at Oral Roberts University and is now a professor at Brandeis, told me last week that CBS News was the only one of the three broadcast news divisions that did not seek her reaction to the latest Thomas salvos. Mr. Kroft told me that there were no preconditions placed on him by either Mr. Thomas or his publisher. “Our story wasn’t about Anita Hill,” he said. “Our story was about Clarence Thomas.”

In any event, the piece no more challenged Mr. Thomas’s ideas than it did his insinuations about Ms. Hill. As Mr. Smiley and Cornel West noted on PBS, “60 Minutes” showed an old clip of Al Sharpton at an anti-Thomas rally rather than give voice to any of the African-American legal critics of Justice Thomas’s 300-plus case record on the court. In 2007, no less than in 1991, a clownish Sharpton clip remains the one-size-fits-all default representation of black protest favored by too many white journalists.

The free pass CBS gave Mr. Thomas wouldn’t matter were he just another celebrity “get” hawking a book. Unfortunately, there’s the little matter of all that public policy he can shape — more so than ever now that John Roberts and Samuel Alito have joined him as colleagues. Indeed, Justice Thomas, elevated by Bush 41, was the crucial building block in what will probably prove the most enduring legacy of Bush 43, a radical Supreme Court. The “compassionate conservative” who turned the 2000 G.O.P. convention into a minstrel show to prove his love of diversity will exit the political stage as the man who tilted American jurisprudence against Brown v. Board of Education. He leaves no black Republican behind him in either the House or Senate.

The Confessions of Justice Thomas: Maureen Dowd channels Justice Thomas and tells all:

I have no apologies to make. When you’re born in a backwater shack in Pin Point, Ga.; when you grow up poor, cold and hungry; when you get a bellyful of racial slights and condescension; when you can’t get a job after graduation, even with a degree from Yale, because you’re competing with rich, white, well-connected guys who were legacies at Yale, that’s when the anger boils up in you.

Every Southern black who lived through Jim Crow knows the feeling. From the time I was a kid, when my white classmates made fun of me as “ABC” — “America’s Blackest Child” — the beast of rage against The Man has gnawed at my soul.

Your Yale law degree isn’t worth 15 cents when everyone assumes you got special treatment because of the color of your skin, when, really, it was the witless Wonder Bread elites who got special treatment because of the color of their daddy’s money.

I still have a 15-cent sticker on the frame of my law degree because it’s tainted. I keep it in the basement.

That’s why I refuse, as a justice, to give a helping hand to blacks. I don’t want them to suffer from the advantages I had. Few of them will be able to climb to my heights, of course, but if they do, they will have the satisfaction of knowing that they made it on their own, as individuals.

Because Poppy Bush put me on the Supreme Court after I’d been a judge for only a year, I’ll always wonder if I got the job just because of my race. I want to spare other blacks that kind of worry. That’s why I pulled the ladder up after myself — so that my brothers and sisters would have the peace of mind that comes with self-reliance.

I used to have grave reservations about working at white institutions, subject to the whims of white superiors. But when Poppy’s whim was to crown his son — one of those privileged Yale legacy types I always resented — I had to repay The Man for putting me on the court even though I was neither qualified nor honest.

So I voted to shut down the vote-counting in Florida by A. — oh, I’ll just say it: Al — because if he’d kept going he might have won. I helped swing the court in case No. 00-949, Bush v. Gore, to narrowly achieve the Bush restoration.

I know it wasn’t what my hero Atticus Finch would have done. But having the power to carjack the presidency and control the fate of the country did give me that old X-rated tingle.

Al Gore’s true claims didn’t matter in that standoff any more than Anita Hill’s true claims did during my confirmation. That’s the beautiful thing about being a conservative. We don’t push for the truth. We push to win, praise the Lord.

Old Hondas and New Friends: How a car that never made it to the US has one man running with the likes of Jay Leno.

The e-mail message that would validate Brian Baker’s lifelong passion had the same subject line as many others that arrive at his in-box: Honda S600. Mr. Baker, an authority on the S600, a tiny roadster built from 1964 to 1966, thought nothing of it.

Brian Baker and his Hondas

“I get them all the time — people find me from my Web site and they contact me about their cars,” Mr. Baker said, while sitting at a table at the entrance to Formula H, an independent Honda and Acura service center in Middletown, N.Y., that he owns with his brother, Jeff. (The Web site is Mr. Baker, 45, is tall and thin and has light blond hair. He was wearing a red polo shirt with the Formula H logo, blue running shorts and a digital watch.

“If you cut open my head, one half of it would be Honda,” he had told me earlier on the phone. “The other half would be competitive running.”

But this particular e-mail message was unlike the others in one big way. It was from Jay Leno, the talk-show host and celebrated car collector, who had just bought an S600 and wanted to restore it in time for a car show. At first, Mr. Baker thought the message was some kind of hoax. But he called the phone number. Two days later he received a call from the man himself.

“There’s no mistaking the Jay Leno voice,” said Mr. Baker, who added that they spoke for 20 minutes about “how much he loves it.”

“‘Out of all my cars, I bet you this is one of my five favorite cars out of all that I own,’ ” he quoted Mr. Leno as saying. ‘ “It’s so much fun to drive. It’s technically interesting.’ ”

At this point in the story, which Mr. Baker told with colorful detail and dramatic punch, his excitement reached an apex: “For me that’s a feather in my cap, because it’s like saying here’s somebody who’s got some serious machines, and he’s saying that the S600 is one of his favorites, and it happens to be my personal passion. That’s cool.”

If you haven’t heard of the S600 (or its follow-up, the S800, which was made until 1970) that might be because Honda never sold it in the United States. According to Mr. Baker, who bought his ’65 S600 in 1981, most of the 700 or so S cars that came here were brought in by military personnel who had been stationed overseas. He estimated that only about 375 remained, and “probably only 10 percent are running,” explaining that parts are expensive and very hard to find — and even harder to assemble.

“I like to say that the taker-aparters are winning over the putter-togetherers,” he said.

Doonesbury: History lesson.

Opus: Wax job.

It’s Over: Cubs lose. *Sigh*