Monthly Archives: May 2008

Douthat’s second good post today speaks to our presidents’ weakness for the grand gesture, the manipulation of gathering storms for historical canonization. What looks on first reading to be a defense of George W. Bush is actually a subtle condemnation of his yearning for presidential greatness and the weakness of Jon Meacham types forever in search ofChief Executives ready to lead another Greatest Generation:

All of these presidents benefited, as Bush hopes to benefit, from the consonance between their sweeping, often hubristic goals and the gradual upward trajectory in human affairs. Despite our crimes, the Philippines turned out well enough in the long run, and so did South Korea; in the very long run, so did post–World War I Europe. (Indeed, if LBJ or Nixon had only found a way to prop up South Vietnam until the 1990s, they might have been forgiven the outrageous cost in blood and treasure, and remembered as Trumanesque heroes rather than as goats.)

But these well-respected presidents have benefited, as well, from the American tendency to overvalue activist leaders. So a bad president like Wilson is preferred, in our rankings and our hearts, to a good but undistinguished manager like Calvin Coolidge. A sometimes impressive, oft-erratic president like Truman is lionized, while the more even-keeled greatness of Dwight D. Eisenhower is persistently undervalued. John F. Kennedy is hailed for escaping the Cuban missile crisis, which his own misjudgments set in motion, while George H. W. Bush, who steered the U.S. through the fraught final moments of the Cold War with admirable caution, is caricatured as a ditherer who needed Margaret Thatcher around to keep him from going wobbly.

I said as much a couple of months ago. But Douthat (craftily?) omits any allusion to the manipulation of intelligence and swelling of executive power that’s transpired in the adminstration of this Bush, both of which should remind him that powerful presidents are more attractive in history books than in office.

Douthat’s second good post today speaks to our presidents’ weakness for the grand gesture, the manipulation of gathering storms for historical canonization. What looks on first reading to be a defense of George W. Bush is actually a subtle condemnation of his yearning for presidential greatness and the weakness of Jon Meacham types forever in search ofChief Executives ready to lead another Greatest Generation:

All of these presidents benefited, as Bush hopes to benefit, from the consonance between their sweeping, often hubristic goals and the gradual upward trajectory in human affairs. Despite our crimes, the Philippines turned out well enough in the long run, and so did South Korea; in the very long run, so did post–World War I Europe. (Indeed, if LBJ or Nixon had only found a way to prop up South Vietnam until the 1990s, they might have been forgiven the outrageous cost in blood and treasure, and remembered as Trumanesque heroes rather than as goats.)

But these well-respected presidents have benefited, as well, from the American tendency to overvalue activist leaders. So a bad president like Wilson is preferred, in our rankings and our hearts, to a good but undistinguished manager like Calvin Coolidge. A sometimes impressive, oft-erratic president like Truman is lionized, while the more even-keeled greatness of Dwight D. Eisenhower is persistently undervalued. John F. Kennedy is hailed for escaping the Cuban missile crisis, which his own misjudgments set in motion, while George H. W. Bush, who steered the U.S. through the fraught final moments of the Cold War with admirable caution, is caricatured as a ditherer who needed Margaret Thatcher around to keep him from going wobbly.

I said as much a couple of months ago. But Douthat (craftily?) omits any allusion to the manipulation of intelligence and swelling of executive power that’s transpired in the adminstration of this Bush, both of which should remind him that powerful presidents are more attractive in history books than in office.

I was thinking about how to start a small post on Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian [whew], but Ross Douthat nails what made the film disappointing. It’s difficult for me to be objective about the Narnia books: along with Louise Fitzhugh’ s Harriet The Spy series, they were my favorite books as a boy. I reread them until the bindings came off. The much-ballyhooed Christian allegories with which Lewis purportedly bludgeons the reader never stood out much to this beneficiary of twelve years of Catholic school education; I mean, they were there, but I noted them and went on.

But back to the films. I was surprised that The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe kept most of the book’s nuances. Thanks to the casting of Tilda Swinton as the White Witch (a much cooler and imperious vision of evil than Lewis’, and thus compelling) and Georgie Henley as Lucy Pevensie, we understand the tug that this pagan world exerts on the four children. It says a lot about the first adaptation that by the time the children are coronated I wanted it to keep going. As the book that really got me to keep reading the series (I read TLTWATW not knowing it was the first of seven volumes), I’ve a special affection for Prince Caspian, narrative problems notwithstanding. The film adaptation straightens the unwieldy flashback with which the book’s first half begins, yet sacrifices the children’s affection for each other and connection to their adopted world for swordplay and horseplay. Peter Dinklage’s Trumpkin – the novel’s most enduring character – gets nothing to do. There’s little sense that these four children were once kings and queens and mighty warriors, worthy of being summoned from the High Past (Edmund in particular wanders in a daze through most of the film). Peter and Caspian arguing over battle plans could very well be Judd Nelson and Emilio Estevez bickering over who asked a girl out first. Finally, whoever came up with the bright idea of having the Telmarines talk like Ricky Ricardo and look like Raul Julia should be sacrificed on the Stone Table.

Good news, though: director-adaptor Andrew Adamson will hand the franchise to someone else for the next adaption, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the most leisurely, action-packed, and religio-mystical of the seven books, and somehow my favorite.

The age demanded

“Passion and enthusiasm, which sometimes can be enough to sway a crowd, aren’t even necessary. You can manufacture faith out of nothing and there are an infinite number of patterns and lines that connect from key to key — all deceptively simple.”

–Bob Dylan, Chronicles.

From today’s New York Times Magazine interview with McCain:

“I’ve seen other stories and I’ve seen comments about my national-security speech,” McCain said, referring to an address he gave in Los Angeles a few weeks earlier. “The story line is as follows: ‘McCain’s not the same McCain. He’s changed, and now he’s become a hawk, and he is dramatically different from what he was.’ ” He recited this narrative as if repeating the nonsensical words of dullards. “And anybody is free to write whatever they want and form whatever opinions they want to form. But facts are facts. And the fact is that I know war, and I know the tragedy of war. And no one hates war more than veterans.”

From here, McCain went on to list for me some of the military actions he supported (Grenada, Panama) and some that he opposed (Beirut, Somalia). He had always followed the same set of values, he said, grounded in the premise that all people, not just Americans, were created equal and had inalienable rights. And when America could intervene militarily to further those values around the world without needless sacrifice in lives and money, he was all for it, and where we couldn’t, he was not, and there was nothing extreme about that.

“As far as people who advise me,” McCain went on, though I still hadn’t asked a question, “probably one of my most trusted advisers for the last 30 years is Henry Kissinger, not known as a hawk or a neocon.” McCain infused the word with sarcasm. “I also remember the days when Ronald Reagan was portrayed as a hawk and a neocon. I remember the near hysteria in response to his ‘tear down this wall.’ I remember the ‘Oh, you can’t do that, when you call the Soviets an evil empire.’ I remember all those things. Same people who are now saying — ” He stopped himself midsentence, then began again. “I’m always open to new ideas and new thoughts, but my principles were grounded many years ago in places like the National War College and other places where I have learned and studied and talked to people I admire and respect.

“So,” McCain said finally, “with that preface, I’d be glad to answer any questions you might have, and again, it’s always good to be with you.”

The profile is touching in ways that reporter Matt Bai and McCain himself didn’t expect. Here you see a serious man, much more serious than his brethren in the Republican Party, struggling to articulate a foreign policy that redresses the evil (there’s no other word) of Kissingerism — whose adherents showed nary a gasp when the Metternich of Foggy Bottom sabotaged Hubert Humphrey’s peace plan so that his capo Richard Nixon could get peace with honor by invading Cambodia — yet clings to that very American espousal of the principles of the Declaration of Independence as long as McKinley-Roosevelt’s Open Door Policy was honored. I admit, there may have been a time in the recent past when McCain’s inchoate vision may have sufficed — may even have honored our divisions about what to do with all this power and a limitless supply of foreign markets buying our consumer goods; but it’s not 2000 anymore, and to be right about theocratic terrorist cells isn’t the same as being right about the American counter-argument. He reminds me a bit of Herbert Hoover: earnest, plodding, possessed of good motives but awful instincts, unable to accept that the time for his beliefs has long since passed; the age demanded something else, even if the alternative we vote for poses questions whose answers may make us tremble anew. Who can blame McCain? Pessimism is a tenet of conservatism that I accept wholeheartedly.

Dylan again: “Miscalculations can also cause no serious harm.”

The usual blowhards make the tired arguments, but for the next six months at least homosexual couples can marry in California. Rebuttals to the judicial activism canard don’t get better than Glenn Greenwald’s (which also contains demurrals if you read carefully):

Numerous states have already adopted laws declaring that they will not recognize same-sex marriages from other states. Moreover, the Defense of Marriage Act makes clear that states are not required to do so. Thus, those states which wish to continue to deny basic marriage rights to their gay citizens will be free to continue to do so. Today’s ruling applies only to California.

(4) The Court did not rule that California must allow same-sex couples the right to enter into “marriage.” It merely ruled that if the state allows opposite-sex couples to do so, then same-sex couples must be treated equally. The Court explicitly left open the possibility that the state could distinguish between “marriage” (as a religious institution) and “civil unions” (as a secular institution) — i.e., that California law could leave the definition of “marriage” to religious institutions and only offer and recognize “civil unions” for legal purposes — provides that it treated opposite-sex and same-sex couples equally. The key legal issue is equal treatment by the State as a secular matter, not defining “marriage” for religious purposes.

This is the crux of the matter. At Babalu Blog, I’ve a civil debate going on with two critics of the California Supreme Court’s decision. One ECM makes a valid point: the legislature could have over-ridden the governor’s veto if a veto-proof majority in support of the legislation existed. I don’t know the intricacies of the California legislature (ours is erratic enough), so maybe some of my readers on the west coast can chime in. So I remain cautiously optimistic. Were the voters to approve the constitutional amendment in November, critics of today’s decision can rightly crow — and study the quiet experiment in homo/hetero cohabitation happening in Massachusetts.

Alisons Moyet – "Invisible"

Rarely has such a rinky-dink arrangement anchored a more shattering vocal. Old pro Lamont Dozier (who knows something about shattering vocals) wrote a song whose tempo doesn’t intrude on Moyet’s drama, which is too raspy, has too many blue hues, to be called “histrionic.” Key moment: the shift from shriek to gulped croon at the 1:44 mark when Moyet sings, “But I know you’re home.” Histrionics, meet reality. Next to this, Annie Lennox sounds like Aimee Mann.