Sunday, May 25, 2008

Sunday Reading

The Autumn of Wingnuttia: Thers at Firedoglake notes that the right wing’s response to an article in The New Yorker reveals even more about the right than the article itself.

If “movement conservatism” has failed, as I sincerely hope it has, I’d argue that this is because too many of its proponents believed their own press and became persuaded that “movement conservatism” was ever an intellectual movement at all, as opposed to an essentially nihilist politics of vicious opportunism, where the entire goal is power for its own sake.

Packer is of course discussing the GOP’s rather bleak electoral prospects this year, especially in the House and Senate. (He pretends to believe that McCain is a new kind of “post-partisan” candidate, a common form of elite journalist wishful thinking that ignores, for openers, Hagee and Parsley.) He speaks to a number of conservative writers, like David Brooks, Ross Douthat, David Frum, and Pat Buchanan. The Brooks part has gotten the most attention, perhaps because of Brooks’ admission that “You go to Capitol Hill—Republican senators know they’re fucked,” which is of course hugely entertaining. But the overall thesis is that the period of GOP dominance just may be over, because the Nixonian “Southern Strategy” as well as other mechanisms for splitting the old FDR coalition may just have finally run out of steam. Moreover, the end of the Cold War left old-school conservatives as pointless as Batman without the Joker, and ever since the Reagan administration they’ve been essentially “Happy Days Again” with Ted McGinley starring as a feckless George W. Bush and Dick Cheney acting like a superannuated Arthur Fonzarelli. (Packer doesn’t discuss the Clinton interregnum or 9/11, two pretty glaring omissions. Both probably ended up keeping movement conservatism from wheezily expiring at the end of the first Bush administration.)

Anyhow, as far as political history goes, Packer’s article is interesting, if facile; taking David Brooks at his word is funny, when it’s perfectly clear what safe haven he intends to reach as well as what sinking ship he is rapidly quitting. But like I said, the fun is in the responses to this class of stuff.

Leonard Pitts, Jr.: Where are the thoughtful conservatives?

Don’t read this column yet.

First, I want you to do something. Google ”Chris Matthews + Kevin James.” This will bring up video of the latter, a conservative L.A. radio pundit, being questioned by the former last week on MSNBC’s Hardball. You must see this video.

For the Internet deprived, here’s a recap: James goes on Hardball to comment on a speech President Bush gave before the Israeli Knesset in which he accused unnamed politicians — read: Sen. Barack Obama — of a policy of appeasement toward terrorists. Bush invoked Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister whose attempted appeasement of Adolf Hitler made him one of the more thoroughly discredited figures of the 20th century.

James goes off like fireworks, blasting Obama’s willingness to talk to the nation’s enemies and accusing him of policies detrimental to Israel. And Matthews asks him a simple question: What did Chamberlain do? You’re defending a speech that equates Obama with him, so what was his sin?

James couldn’t answer. He could bluster, sputter and spread fertilizer like a gardener, but he couldn’t answer. This became painfully obvious each time Matthews doggedly repeated the question.

What Chamberlain did — he gave Hitler a chunk of Czechoslovakia in exchange for what he thought was ”peace in our time” — is not some Jeopardy! obscurity. It is, rather, a pivot on which turned perhaps the bloodiest tragedy in human history. Yet Kevin James knows nothing about it.

If anything more aptly symbolizes the regression of conservatism since the age of Reagan, I am not aware of it.

Some will say it’s unfair to paint thoughtful conservatives with the same brush one uses to tar this blowhard. I would suggest the very need to use that modifier speaks volumes. There was once a day when conservatism was driven by principles: smaller government, less-intrusive government, strong national defense, fiscal sobriety. But in the years since that day, the putative heirs to Reagan have trampled not just those principles, but also principle itself.

The ideology that wanted small government now presides over expanded government, the one that wanted less intrusion now seeks to regulate bedroom behavior, the one that demanded strong national defense has run the military into the ground, the one that championed fiscal sobriety turned a $236 billion budget surplus into a $400 billion deficit. And if thoughtful conservatives see the disconnect, if they have the intellectual integrity to find it shameful, the newsflash is, thoughtful conservatives no longer predominate their ideology.

No, that honor goes to unthoughtful conservatives, the loud, proudly ignorant voices of talk radio, books and television of which Kevin James is now the poster child. Matthews kept asking him to explain the sins of Neville Chamberlain and he kept crying, ”appeasement! appeasement!” clinging to the words like a drowning man to a raft.

That’s what people like him do. They are geniuses at rhetoric (”War on Christmas,” anyone?) that rouses the rabble and lets them feel aggrieved, while simultaneously having the intellectual heft of cotton balls. But they can no more step beyond that rhetoric than Gilligan could step off his island. There is no there there.

Still, every once in awhile, one is required to stand and deliver. His inability to do so says everything you need to know about James and his brand of conservatism.

During the MSNBC interview, his opposite number, Mark Green of the liberal Air America radio network, gave James some advice: ”When you’re in a hole, stop digging.” James, whose station, KRLA, might want to rethink its slogan — ”Intelligent. Conservative.” — did not listen.

So I figure he’s halfway to China by now. If we’re lucky, he’ll take the other unthoughtful conservatives with him.

Frank Rich: South Pacific, the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical based on James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, still has tales to tell.

The Lincoln Center revival of this old chestnut is surely the most unexpected cultural sensation the city has experienced in a while. In 2008, when 80-plus percent of Americans believe their country is in a ditch, there wouldn’t seem to be a big market for a show whose heroine, the Navy nurse Nellie Forbush, is a self-described “cockeyed optimist” who sings of being “as corny as Kansas in August.”

Yet last week one man stood outside the theater with a stack of $100 bills offering $1,000 for a $120 ticket. Inside, audiences start to tear up as soon as they hear the overture, even before they meet the men and women stationed in the remote islands of the New Hebrides. Among those who’ve been enraptured by this “South Pacific” the most common refrain is, “I couldn’t stop myself — I was sobbing.”

This would include me, and I have been trying to figure out why ever since I first saw this production in March. It certainly wasn’t nostalgia. I was born two months before the show’s Broadway premiere in April 1949 and had never before seen “South Pacific” on stage. It was mainly a musty parental inheritance from my boomer childhood. My father had served in the Pacific theater for 26 months, and my mother replayed the hit show tunes incessantly on 78s as our new postwar family settled into the suburbs.

Like countless others, I did see Hollywood’s glossy 1958 film version. As the British World War II historian Max Hastings writes in “Retribution,” his unsparing new book about the war’s grisly endgame in the Pacific, “Many of us gained our first, wonderfully romantic notion of the war against Japan by watching the movie of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘South Pacific.’ ” But the movie of “South Pacific,” a candy-colored idyll dominated by wide-screen tourist vistas, is not the show. Its lush extravagance evokes the 1950s boom more than war.

In the 1960s, after the movie had come and gone, Vietnam pushed “South Pacific” into a cultural black hole. No one wanted to see a musical about war unless it was “Hair.” Unlike its Rodgers and Hammerstein siblings “Oklahoma!” and “The Sound of Music,” it never received a full Broadway revival.

Today everyone thinks they’ve seen the genuine “South Pacific” only because its songs reside in the collective American unconscious. “Some Enchanted Evening.” “Younger Than Springtime.” “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame.” But few Americans born after V-J Day did see the real thing, which is one reason why audiences are ambushed by the revival. They expect corn, but in a year when war and race are at center stage in the national conversation, this relic turns out to have a great deal to say.

Go, Danica: Danica Patrick isn’t the first woman to race in the Indianapolis 500. that honor goes to Janet Guthrie in 1977. But today might be the day that a woman wins it.

INDIANAPOLIS — Danica Patrick is exhausted.

Life is a blur for the trailblazing driver more than a month after she made history as the first woman to win an IndyCar race.

You could see the fatigue in her eyes, but you couldn’t hear it in her voice this week as she discussed her chances of winning the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday.

A perennial contender in the Indy 500, Patrick sounded confident and borderline brash as dozens of reporters and cameramen surrounded her at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Patrick has proved she can win, but whether she is capable of adding a signature victory — the win that would put a stamp on her career and further validate her talent — remains to be seen.

”There is no reason why I can’t win this race at all,” Patrick said.

She said she is drained from a schedule jammed with interviews. But she is not shirking from the spotlight or this moment.

‘If someone told me, `You’re not going to get tired at all this month, everything’s going to be under control and completely manageable,’ I would have said, ‘Hmm, we should have tried a little harder,’ ” Patrick said. ”This is a month to take advantage of the fact [that the media is] watching, and the world is watching.”

She will start fifth, and it is no mystery why Patrick believes this might be her race. She has momentum, a top-tier team in Andretti Green Racing and a record of strong performances on the 2.5-mile oval. Her fourth-place finish in 2005 is the highest by a woman in Indy 500 history.

Doonesbury: Would you like a mint? (Coincidentally, this reminds me of our dinner last night at Bo Brooks on the Baltimore Harbor.)

Opus: Color Steve skeptical.