Backtalk, September 15, 2008

What $700 Billion?

Must agree with Mr. Peña: the numbers do not add up. But what does add up is the money given away freely to Israel: much more than $700 billion. Presumably, giving money to “unfriendlies” in the form of legitimate purchases implies the USA is funding unfriendlies, which blows back at the U.S. But funding a friendly directly (e.g., Israel) creates more tension between the friendly and the unfriendly, which also blows back to the U.S. in one way or another (e.g., 9/11).

An interesting paradox. Seemingly, a valid solution is to stop the “funding” entirely.

~ Al Zurzin

The Hothead and the Finger on the Button

Well reasoned and well said. McCain clearly does not have the temperament to be president. But what to do about it?

There are encouraging signs that Democrats are at least thinking about this issue. Obama’s brief mention of the T-word in his acceptance speech was encouraging. So was Barbara Boxer’s sparring match with Kay Bailey Hutchison, in a split-screen conversation on CNN. Boxer actually used a quote from Thad Cochran about how the idea of McCain as president sends chills down his spine. (There are other quotes available, including the Phillip Butler quote that your piece mentioned.) It was interesting to see Wolf Blitzer’s reaction as he asked Boxer to repeat what she was saying and explain what she meant by it. Clearly, he was catching a whiff of the unspoken subtext: “John McCain is way too volatile to serve as president in a dangerous world.”

But a passing mention of temperament in a speech or in a televised interview is not enough. Obama has to pound away at it in his ads. So the pivotal question is how far to go in raising the delicate but highly relevant question of McCain’s temper. Answer: Maybe not quite as far as the famous daisy ad that President Lyndon Johnson used to such devastating effect against Sen. Barry Goldwater four decades ago, but pretty far. First of all, there’s the threshold question of whether temper and temperament really matter. Well, remember what retired Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said in 1932 after receiving a distinguished younger visitor, President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The judge’s blunt assessment: FDR had a “second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament.” Some historians believe that Roosevelt’s temperament was more important to his presidential success than his analytical ability. And the historian Geoffrey C. Ward used the Holmes anecdote in the introduction and the title of his book, A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt.

Arguably, temperament matters even more now. The presidency, like an athlete on steroids, has swollen to shirt-busting proportions. It’s way too much about the commander-in-chief function, way too focused on fast decisions about life-and-death military matters. In that sort of presidency, a calm demeanor is crucial. That’s not to say that a president with a bad temper is going to push some simple button, like the big, red “Easy” button in the Staples commercial, and send a death-dealing rain of nukes heading to addresses far away. Launching nuclear weapons, though not as complicated and prohibitively difficult as it really ought to be, is a lot more involved and circumscribed than that.

Still, the image of a nuclear explosion did play a major role in that 1964 campaign between an accidental Democratic president running for a first full term and an iconic conservative Republican from Arizona. Goldwater had famously said in his acceptance speech at the Republican national convention: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” But his loose talk about nuclear weapons was far more alarming: “Let’s lob one into the men’s room at the Kremlin.”

After the convention, Johnson’s campaign advisers feared that Goldwater would tone himself down, and voters would forget his over-the-top rhetoric about nuclear war. Johnson told his young aide, Bill Moyers, not to let Goldwater get away with it. That was the origin of the famous commercial, crafted by the Doyle Dane Bernbach advertising agency and approved by Moyers.

In the 30-second ad, a little girl pulls the petals from a flower, one by one, and counts in a sweet voice. Then, off camera, an echoing male voice counts down. She looks up, and the camera zooms in for an extreme close-up of her eye, the countdown reaches zero, and a nuclear explosion fills the screen. In the background, the voice of Lyndon Johnson proclaims: “These are the stakes! To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.” Finally the announcer intones: “Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”

The ad did not mention Goldwater’s name, but it didn’t have to. The Republicans knew it was aimed at him, and they roared their indignation. So it ran only once. That was more than enough to reinforce a subliminal impression of Goldwater as too dangerous to trust.

There are obvious parallels in this campaign. McCain has said some truly intemperate things. The most memorable was in answer to a question from an audience member who expressed concern about Iran, then asked McCain: “When do we send them an airmail message to Tehran?” Playing to the crowd’s applause for the question, McCain recalled the old Beach Boys song, "Barbara Ann," calling it “Bomb Iran,” and singing briefly, “Bomb, bomb, bomb.” Not even close to being funny, John.

If we are to avoid having a man this dangerous serving as our president, Obama should be considering an updated version of the daisy ad.

~ Bob Keeler

Judgment More Important Than Experience

Eland makes the main points very well, but there’s a third factor here (besides experience and raw judgment) that apparently dare not speak its name: education.

The giant, unmentioned pink elephant in the room is that Sara Palin got a journalism degree from the University of Idaho with a poli-sci minor, and Barack Obama was the youngest ever editor of the Harvard Law Review, for God’s sake! Has America become so anti-intellectual that we’re not even allowed suggest that this huge difference in intellectual achievement just might have some tiny relevance as to whether these respective candidates can handle the rigors of the presidency?

For example: which of these two people would be more easily manipulated – say, into embarking on some disastrous new military venture – by the neocon think-tank foreign policy “experts” who infest Washington?

~ Mark W.

Ivan Eland replies:

I think education should be considered. But Woodrow Wilson had a Ph.D. and was the most educated president in U.S. history. And he was a prime mover in making the 20th century the most bloody in history (more people were killed by war in that century than in all other centuries combined). Wilson helped cause the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler, World War II, the Bolshevik Revolution, and eventually the Cold War. So education isn’t everything.

I didn’t think that I would one day say this to my favorite writer, Mr. Ivan Eland, because I now question his judgment.

Why is it that the Democrats say that Sarah Palin does not have the experience to be the Republican vice presidential candidate, while it is not necessary for the Democratic presidential candidate to have experience? How do we know anything about Obama’s judgments when he has not shown us that he had succeeded in anything related to his future job, except that he is a better liar than Hillary? How do we base our judgments on Obama’s judgments? Because he didn’t support the Iraq War? Because it was not, as he said, an intelligent war? Because he would support smart wars on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and the Palestinians? Because he would support the government spying on its citizens? Because he felt it unnecessary to comment on rendition, torture, and American war crimes?

While some people may not like anything Republican, there are still a lot of undecided or not blindly committed people. I am sorry to say that I must from now on read Mr. Eland’s articles with the caveat that they might not be spoken out of fairness.

~ Peter Man, China

Ivan Eland replies:

As a person who tilted toward Ron Paul in the primaries, I am simply saying that Obama appears at this juncture to have better judgment than McCain (since he is a neocon, that’s not hard to best). I’m not saying he is the ideal candidate or has good judgment on everything. But in the two-party system, the realistic choice is only between the two of them. The main point is that “experience” should not be used in place of judgment to determine whether someone should be president. McCain’s judgment has been awful. Donald Duck would have had better judgment. Obama’s at least appears to be better and more nuanced than McCain’s. But maybe I should have advocated writing in Donald Duck.

Sarkozy: Israeli Attack Inevitable

I am sad to have to say that Mr. Prather’s claim that Sarko said that an attack on Iran was “inevitable” is a barefaced lie! What Sarko said was: “L’Iran prend un risque majeur à continuer le processus d’obtention du nucléaire militaire, ce qui est notre certitude, parce qu’un jour, quel que soit le gouvernement israélien, on peut se retrouver UN matin avec Israël qui a frappé.” Thus, the English translation in the text is perfectly good, but it flatly contradicts Mr. Prather’s “inevitability” claim! The verb is “could,” a conditional. Anyone who understands the English language knows that something that “could” happen is not inevitable!

I am increasingly horrified by the unconcealed glee with which Americans like Mr. Prather seek to whip up war hysteria, no doubt believing that those who will die will not be Americans. I cannot think of better proof of the depths of moral depravity to which Americans have fallen that that! Mr. Prather ought to be ashamed of himself!

~ Michael Kenny

Gordon Prather replies:

Basically what Sarkozy said was that the only thing that could perhaps prevent Israel from attacking Iran was for Iran to surrender at the point of a gun its “inalienable right” to pursue its IAEA Safeguarded programs. Since there is no possibility that Iran will do that (and since the NAM ministers support the Iranian position), Sarkozy is essentially saying that a Israeli attack on Iran is inevitable. But, clearly, it isn’t. If Sarkozy wants to stop the Israelis from attacking Iran, he has the power to do that. If Israel does attack Iran, it is Sarkozy who should be ashamed of himself and of his government.

Sarah Palin: The Xena of the War Party

This is a typical Raimondo column: direct and to the point, it makes an issue seem so commonsensical that we wonder why no one else has put it in quite such obvious terms. The only thing I disagree with is the allusion to the idea that extensive political experience is a vital prerequisite to the presidency:

“It’s a big gamble, because Palin’s unreadiness to be president, in the event of McCain’s untimely demise, is all too apparent. Far from injecting a youthful note into the campaign, Palin’s physical presence next to the Old Man only underscores his advanced age – and the prospect of President Palin staring us in the face. If that doesn’t scare voters, then nothing will.”

Yes, one would want considerable foreign policy knowledge, but I don’t know how valuable foreign policy experience in our current government is; in some respects I think it’s counterproductive. As an example, George Bush now has nearly eight years of foreign policy experience and you have none, but do you honestly think that you couldn’t do a better job in the Oval Office than he can? Do you really think that her inexperience is worse than John McCain’s experience-based pathological madness? Aside from her disturbing willingness to send her own son off to the Iraq disaster, the most telling sign I’ve seen thus far that testifies to Palin’s failure in foreign policy is the Israeli flag she displays in her office. Unfortunately, that isn’t a whole lot different than the rest of the four candidates.

~ Mac Beaulieu

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