January 2004 Archives
Thursday, January 29, 2004
The Dean Prognosis. I have to say that from where I sit, Howard Dean has come through the week looking like a stronger, more credible candidate. His campaign is another story--that looks pretty bleak. It's bad enough enough that he lost his lead, but now to learn that he's lost all his money--you have to wonder if anything has gone well for this man who just two weeks ago was everyone's favorite to coast into Boston a winner.
It's interesting to note that some of the networks now are trying to cut Dean some slack by letting it be known that the scream speech seemed worse than it was because he was using a background noise reducing microphone that made him sound louder and more manic than he was because you couldn't hear all the crowd noise he was trying to shout over. That whole business was blown way out of proportion, but it's something that will always be the first thing everyone associates with him.
It's too bad, because I think that if the country could just get to know Dean the man without all the baggage of the last week and a half, most people would find him to be a much more appealing candidate than his media image allows him to be. He has grown on me especially since the Iowa defeat, and I have to wonder if any one else is responding the way I am. If so, maybe he still has a shot.
The Dean strategy seems to be to hang back for the next week or so and hope that Kerry as frontrunner withers under the kind of media scrutiny that Dean received when he was the frontrunner. This might give Dean an opening to make his comeback when the Kerry novelty wears off. It could happen. Maybe.
In any event it looks like the Washington State Democratic Caucus on 2/7 might actually mean something this year. If Dean is going to rebound, it might start here, because Washington might be the first state that he wins. The state was, until recently, considered a Dean lock, but now, of course, everything is in question.
With all due respect to the voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, I question Kerry's superior electability. I don't at all feel confident that he's that much stronger a candidate than Dean. Dean has serious liabilities, to be sure, but so do Kerry and Bush. It could even be that Bush will be so wounded by next November that it won't matter much whom he faces, but I think that Dean would be the more effective campaigner.
He learns and adapts, but does it without coming across as Gore did, as someone who changes to become what he thinks others want him to be. Dean has impressed me this week for showing his adaptability while still remaining himself. He's for real. And because he is, he's someone who would grow on the American people if the media would give him half a chance. They might give him that chance now that he's the underdog, but that might be expecting too much.
Wednesday, January 28, 2004
War Angst. Interesting theory proposed by Tom Schaller of the Daily Kos regarding how the Iraq war is playing a role in the votes of Iowans and New Hampshirites:
But then it struck me: Sure, the core Dean supporters who opposed the war all along have long backed him, and most likely remain with him. But many of the non-core Dean supporters within the Democratic Party evolved on the Iraq issue to the point where, although they may side with Dean now, they did not start where Dean started. In fact, they probably started where Kerry and Edwards started: supporting the invasion, albeit with a sense of unease. Because their transformation more closely mirrors Kerry than Dean, voting for Kerry is more affirming. (Sample internal monologue: "Hey, if John Kerry was fooled and feels betrayed, well, I can understand that because I feel the same way.") On the other hand, a vote for Dean is a reminder that you believed in the president and his plan all along.
A lot of pundits say Dean's collapse can be attributed to buyer's remorse among Democrats who initially "dated" Dean, but have since "married" Kerry. Correct concept, wrong application: Dean is folding because of buyer's remorse, all right - but because he reminds Democrats of what Bush sold them a year ago, not what Dean is trying to sell them now.
This might be pushing it too far, but there might be something to it. I don't consider myself a Deaniac, but it could explain my own continued preference for Dean and why I personally don't understand the enthusiasm, if that's the right word, for Kerry. I was out there marching last Feb. 15 and thought the war was ridiculous from the beginning. Dean called it correctly back then, while people like Kerry and Edwards were snowed by the Bush propaganda machine, as was the rest of the Beltway establishment.
Dissension in the Ranks. It's interesting to observe the right wingers in the GOP getting all upset about the Bush move to the center (Medicare, immigration--never mind that both serve the corporate constituency very nicely, if not the ideologues). Don't they understand that that's politics, and if Bush doesn't do it, there is no tomorrow for him or for them.
This is an administration that has given the right wing more than it had any right to expect on the basis of Bush's moderate, "compassionate conservative" campaign in 2000. I dread what it will do in a second term when it won't have to worry about reelection. Don't the wingnuts realize that Bush has to move to the center this year in order to give them what they want next year?
Tuesday, January 27, 2004
Bush AWOL. Peter Jennings would lead us to believe that there is no factual basis for Michael Moore's assertion that GWB is a deserter, and technically he's right, but the evidence is strong that he was AWOL, and this report by Robert Rogers, a former Air National Guard Pilot, raises questions that have not been answered. His key findings:
1. Pilot George W. Bush did not simply "give up flying" with two years left to fly, as has been reported. Instead, Bush was suspended and grounded, very possibly as a direct or indirect result of substance abuse.
2. The crucial evidence – a Flight Inquiry Board – that would reveal the true reasons for Bush's suspension, as well as the punishment that was recommended, is missing from the records released so far. If no such Board was convened, this raises further questions of extraordinary favoritism.
3. Contrary to Bush's emphatic statements and several published reports, Bush never actually reported in person for the last two years of his service – in direct violation of two separate written orders. Moreover, the lack of punishment for this misconduct represents the crowning achievement of a military career distinguished only by favoritism.
This in-depth investigation and analysis of Bush's apparent misconduct over the last two years of his six year obligation suggests that Bush did not fulfill all of his military obligations to the Texas Air National Guard and to his country, contrary to his repeated assertions.
Here's what the Columbia Journalism Review blogger has to say about it:
. . .At some point in May 1972 Bush moved to Alabama to work on a U.S. Senate campaign. Bush requested a transfer to a specific National Guard unit in Alabama, but that transfer was denied. On a second attempt, a transfer to an alternate National Guard unit in Alabama was approved. However, military records, or more precisely the lack thereof, call into question how often, if at all, Bush reported to his temporary commander in Alabama. In May 1973, Bush returned to Houston and reported back to active duty until July 30, 1973, when he moved to Cambridge, Mass. His official release from active duty was dated October 1, eight months before his original six-year commitment was scheduled to end. (For more on Bush's National Guard tour and links to various military documents check out this report from Tompaine.com.)
Walter V. Robinson first broke this story nearly four years ago with an article that ran in The Boston Globe on May 23, 2000. Robinson wrote, "In his final 18 months of military service in 1972 and 1973, Bush did not fly at all. And for much of that time, Bush was all but unaccounted for: For a full year, there is no record that he showed up for the periodic drills required of part-time guardsmen." Under Air National Guard rules at the time, The Globe reported, guardsmen who missed duty could be reported to their Selective Service Board and inducted into the Army as draftees.
This the the guy Republicans want as their president? The double standard is pretty obvious, and it's pretty hard to stomach. And why has the media echo chamber given Bush a pass on this? Why is the presumption that Michael Moore and Clark are more wrong than right? Ok, he's technically not a deserter, but he still has a lot of explaining to do, and no one is holding his feet to the fire. Can you imagine Diane Sawyer questioning Bush about his missing years in the same way she drilled Dean about the scream?
The whole AWOL subject has becme a media taboo for reasons suggested before, so what makes it into the echo chamber instead? Clark's refusal to distance himself from Moore. It's just assumed by punditry that that was the mistake that caused his plunge. If it was the reason, it was only because the media kept bludgeoning him with it. If Clark made a mistake, it was in his not being more aggressive in defending himself. He should have just said that Bush has not satisfactorily accounted for these two years in question, and that raises serious questions that need to be answered.
Monday, January 26, 2004
A Week in New Hampshire. At this sitting, barring an Iowa-style last-minute surprise, after NH it looks like it's going to be a three-candidate race: Kerry, Dean and Edwards. Lieberman was never a serious contender, and Clark is just too inexperienced to be an effective campaigner.
Edwards is the most telegenic, but I don't yet have a feeling for the man behind the smile. Kerry still strikes me as an empty suit. Dean is the only one who comes across as real to me. That doesn't mean he's electable for reasons I've already given. But for me it's precisely because he's not a slick politician that I like him. Bush isn't slick either, but he has the pedigree and a certain affable charm to compensate. Bush is so effective as a candidate because he has the best of both worlds, a good 'ol boy and a prince.
Everyone is concerned that Dean has a reckless, impulsive temperament, but is it possible to imagine a more reckless fiscal and foreign policy than that pursued by the Bush administration? What could Dean do that would be more reckless? He's certainly not likely to get us into an unnecessary war. He has a history over ten years as governor for fiscal responsibility. He's proven himself to be a grownup. He's someone who learns and adapts. I'm inclined to trust the guy, whereas I'm reluctant to trust Kerry or Edwards. I don't think Dean can be bought off or snowed; I'm not so sure about that with Kerry and Edwards.
But as suggested before, while Bush is royalty because of his family pedigree, Dean is just this ordinary guy from nowhere with a shy wife who could be your next door neighbor. It's the Deans' very ordinariness, their lack of style, their unpretentiousness, their what-you-see-is-what-you-get quality that appeals most to me. They might be ordinary, but they're smart, spunky, and for real and I find that so refreshing..
Laura Bush by contrast is also ordinary, but in this canned, stiff Republican way like Nancy Reagan or Pat Nixon, both of whom gave me the creeps. Republican wives, with the possible exception of Barbara Bush, seem to be people who live up to other people's expectations. Their lives seems scripted, predictable. Democrat wives tend to be their own persons.
Republicans feel comfortable with role players. A guy like John McCain never had a chance in 2000. Democrats like real people. Candidate Dean isn't a former movie star or vice president or son of a president or a general as were the former Republican candidates who have been elected since WW II. He is, like the two previous Democrats elected before him, a former governor from a relatively insignificant state. He has nothing going for him except the force of his convictions.
Both Clinton and Carter were far more interesting and complex human beings than Reagan or the Bushes, but neither was well received in Washington, and neither was able to govern very effectively. The Beltway establishment did its best to get rid of them both. It succeeded with Carter and almost did with Clinton. I'd expect someone like Dean to get the same reception.
The Beltway crowd wants someone special, a role player with style or with a pedigree. They don't want plain Howard and Judy from nowhere, even if turns out that the rest of America does.
Dean did a better job of recovering from the Iowa disaster than I thought he would, and it's possible that his relationship with the media could change for the better, but I doubt it. He and his wife are not their kind of people. He could get the nomination and who knows, maybe even the presidency, but if so he and his wife are in for a world of trouble.
Friday, January 23, 2004
Beltway Courtiers. Molly Ivins in talking about Dean's problems with the media supports what I've been saying about insiders vs. outsiders:
My man Dean took a licking. Of course, he had the other candidates and the media ganging up on him, but hey, they always do that to the front-runner, and whining about it never helps. The Washington press corps can do the most amazing imitation of a clique of snotty high school kids, and they were determined to find that Dean was not good enough for their clique from the beginning.
I have long cherished a line from Max Frankel, editor of The New York Times, concerning Bill Clinton: "He came from nowhere, and nobody had ever heard of him." Clinton, like Dean, had been a governor for 10 years when he ran, yet Maureen Dowd recently wrote, "(Dean) comes from nowhere and wants to lead the world." The subtext here is: "Well we never heard of him. He's not one of us. We never see him at the best Washington dinner parties, so who does he think he is?"
In retrospect, it occurs to me that Dean is a perfectly decent, mostly moderate fellow who tried to become Paul Wellstone and it didn't work. The media kept translating passion as anger, and when Dean finally just made a bad speech on caucus night, the clique had a wonderful time announcing he was psychotic.
It's not fair, but that's the way it is. The Beltway media establishment have very strong cliquishly determined likes and dislikes that have very little to do with the likes and the dislikes of the rest of the country. But they nevertheless have an inordinate amount of power in shaping the country's perceptions of those they dislike or like to appear likable or unlikable.
Everybody has strengths; everybody has weaknesses. The establishment media can be savagely selective about which they choose to emphasize and which to disregard. And the logic behind it doesn't have a lot more to it than the high-school logic of who's in and who's out. Sounds simplistic, but the way you get ahead in that world is to combine a prodigious cleverness with an astonishing level of superficiality. Those are skills these people honed in high school, and it's prepared them well to become leading members of the Beltway courtier class.
The way, for instance, the media just assume that the Bush AWOL story is only for the lunatic fringe is an interesting case in point. There is a a lot of unrefuted evidence (scroll down for documentation) out there that points to this story having some validity, but it's a story that has never made it into the Beltway media echo chamber. Why? The reasons are complex, but a good part of it comes from the sycophantish inclination of courtiers consciously or unconsciously to protect those whom they perceive as royalty.
Thursday, January 22, 2004
SOTU Fallout. It's an interesting signal when Bush cheerleader Andrew Sullivan starts to voice his doubts about the Bush administration. I've had a hard time understanding how such an articulate voice for the gay marriage movement could feel as comfortable as he has felt with this administration. He's argued in the past that the Bush people have had a more nuanced position about gay marriage than the religious right, but he can't argue that after Tuesday's State of the Union address. He's also pretty upset about the fiscal irresponsibility of the current administration, as we all should be.
I'm no great fan of SOTUs; they all seem so laundry-list boring no matter who's giving one, and I'm not enough of an insider to really judge the significance of what was put in and what was left out. But I was surprised that he would give the marriage business so much prominence in the address. A constitutional amendment? What are the chances of that? They obviously see it as a winner symbolic issue for their base and see enough ambiguity about the issue in the people in the center to make it an effective wedge issue. And angering their Log Cabin Republican constituency is not a very high price to pay if it a way to make the Dems look like they're against family values.
In any event Sullivan is ticked off enough that he's publicly stated that he's going to give the Dems a look. If someone like Edwards emerges as the Dems' guy, I think it might be possible that he'd defect, and the Bushies will lose one of their most ardent supporters in the blogosphere. He'll be interesting to watch in the next couple of months.
Wednesday, January 21, 2004
Hot & Cold. Remember Marshal McLuhan's old bit about hot and cool communication styles and how hot doesn't work for politicians on TV? JFK was cool; Nixon was hot.
Hot in this context means high-definition, in your face, leaving nothing to the imagination. Cool means seductive, mysterious, the viewer fills in the blanks. Bobby Knight is hot; Phil Jackson is cool. In other words cool just gives you enough intriguing information so that you can project what you want; the object becomes more your fantasy about what he (or she) is than whatever substance is really there.
Hot, on the other hand is very direct, powerful, and immediate. It works best live and in person and not as well on TV. It's not about fantasy so much as it's about catharsis. The hot communicator becomes an ignition point for raw, instinctual collective emotion. Hot is a Hitler at a Nuremberg rally or Elvis, the Stones, Madonna, Limp Bizkit (or whoever's hot now) live in concert. For hot, you gotta be there. It's about being immersed in an intense emotional experience. Television is not a medium for that kind of immersion.
Howard Dean is hot; George Bush is cool. (More on his coolness another time.) Dean was at his best when he could meet under the media radar in live situations with the Deaniacs. He was an ignition point for a lot of people who were profoundly frustrated with the impotence of Democrats to stand up the the Bush program. But what worked for him early in the game won't work for him midgame and endgame. And Howard Dean is not someone who can keep his momentum if he tries to develop a cooler style. He'll lose his base, the media will start talking about how he's reinventing himself, and then he becomes everything everybody disliked about Al Gore.
I watched his concession speech the other night after his coming in a profoundly disappointing third in Iowa, and I didn't react to it in the way Letterman and the other media savvy did. I just saw a man who must have been emotionally devastated trying to keep his own spirits up and the spirits of those working for him up. They needed some signal from their leader that he was going to keep fighting and he gave it to them. I saw a man simply trying to rise to the occasion to rally his troops. I didn't see it as anything more or less than that, and I was at first quite surprised at how this was interpreted as a sign that he's out of control.
But I understand it. This may have just been Howard Dean being Howard Dean at his best (you gotta be there to really get it), but that just doesn't work on television for the people in the middle who are still shopping. And if by some miracle Dean survives and is nominated, that clip of him rattling off all the states and yowling at the end is going to be shown repeatedly out of context in GOP anti-Dean attack commercials all summer and fall.
If he manages a convincing win in NH, things could look different next week. And he does still have the most money, and there are probably any number of other things I'm not taking into consideration, but I think it's an uphill battle for him now. It's not about the issues, and it's not about who's the better man. It's about how you come across on the tube, and that's just the way it is. I'm becoming more convinced that Dean is unelectable. Bush wins the boobtube battle with him hands down.
Tuesday, January 20, 2004
As Dust Settles. It's clear that a lot of the positive opinion, as well as the negative, regarding the Dean candidacy was connected to his air of inevitability. I'll admit to being sucked in by that. Take that away from him, and he looks like a different guy.
I'm no Deaniac, but I was pulling for Dean in the hope that the Dems could have a candidate as soon as possible so they can get past all the fratricide and start focusing on developing the campaign to remove the incumbent. I was annoyed with all the criticism of Dean because nobody's perfect--get over it and get behind him. Focus on his strengths not his weaknesses. Focus on what's admirable, minimize what's not, and let's get on with it. If the Republicans can overcome Bush's glaring weaknesses, the Dems should find a way to overcome Dean's.
For better or worse, it's not going to play out that way. And from where I sit, it looks like we're starting from scratch, so I'm willing to give everybody a fresh look.
I think that there's a validity to what a lot of people are saying about how Dean performed a service for the party by getting it all worked up in its opposition to Bush, while he may not be the best guy to take it to him in the general election. Let's just say I'm open to that argument in a way I wasn't a week ago.
Like the Iowans, the bottom line for me is electability. I want the candidate or ticket that will have the best chances of defeating Bush in the Fall. Kerry/Edwards or Dean/Clark seem the best combinations. The two Beltway insiders or the two outsiders. Maybe the first combo makes more sense--experience/charisma; patrician/populist. Kerry's war record vs. Bush's; Edwards' bright, positive personality vs. Cheney's dour, pessimistic one. Gotta like that.
Problem is that there's something off-putting about Kerry. The positive word is gravitas; the negative one is ponderous. He has a reputation for dash and boldness from his experience as a military commander, but there's a real disconnect between that part of his biography and the man who presents himself to us today. But, as I said, nobody's perfect, and if I can look past Dean's negatives, I can learn to look past Kerry's if he's going to be the guy.
Monday, January 19, 2004
Last Post of the Day (11:15 PM PST). It's clear that in addition to all the negative pub Dean's been getting, the clubbing Dean and Gebhardt were giving one another hurt them both. Edwards and Kerry were able to slip around them while they were duking it out. It looks like Kerry and Clark might get into the same kind of thing now in NH. Dean and Edwards might be the beneficiaries of that fight. The one guy it might take a while to get slammed is Edwards. He might continue to surge in NH, where he says now he'll compete, and a strong finish there propels him to the SC primary where he's playing with home-field advantage, and he could very well become the guy to beat.
Here's another angle about why Edwards did so well and Dean tanked. from Ryan Lizza's campaign blog on Sunday:
Despite the conventional wisdom that a massive increase in turnout on Monday will naturally benefit the Dean campaign, in a long conversation about the caucuses on Saturday night, Joe Trippi explained to me that one of his biggest fears is unexpectedly high turnout. The reason is that a hard count campaign in a caucus is different from a primary campaign. Trippi has the name and address of every Iowan he believes will caucus for Dean. He has a guess at what total turnout will be. Given those two variables, he's fairly certain Dean will win. In a campaign based on a hard count, the unexpected is your enemy. For more than a year, Trippi has scoured the state for Dean voters and thinks he's found all of them. If turnout suddenly spikes on caucus night above his projection he has no reason to believe those extra attendees are Dean people. Trippi notes that Iowa caucus veterans like him and Gephardt campaign manager Steve Murphy sometimes wonder--and worry--that the caucuses will take on the characteristics of a primary, where the dynamics of a last minute surge mess up one's hard count. Trippi didn't betray a hint of concern that Edwards could pull this off, but it's at least worth considering that if turnout is explosive, it's not obviously a good sign for Dean.
Pretty prescient. There was a big turnout and the undecideds didn't go for Dean. The other thing is that Dean had a 30% unfavorable rating among Iowa Democrats as opposed to 10% for Kerry and Edwards. How much of this is Dean's fault and how much is the fault of the negative press doesn't really matter. The negatives on Dean are going to be hard for him to shake without his reinventing himself, and then he'll have to deal with all the negatives that will be associated with his doing that.
Dean's going to have to stick to his Harry Trumanesque persona--that's who he is and he will live or die by being who he is. He just has to hope that it becomes more of a positive for him beyond his core constituency of Deaniacs. But I have to say, it was pretty shocking that he didn't even carry the Deaniac precincts around the colleges and universities. Support for him might be a lot softer than everybody, including Trippi, thought.
The End of the Beginning. Well it all starts tonight in Iowa, and I think it will be very interesting what we learn. Despite all the talk about how Dean is in trouble, I'll be surprised if he does poorly. Even if he comes in second, I expect it to be a close second, most likely to Kerry. But who knows?
I've had CNN on in the background as I putter around the house today doing chores, and I caught a little exchange between Paul Begala and Bob Novak. The spinning is amazing. Begala, a former Clinton aide, makes Dean sound doomed. According to him, Dean caught the anger of the people upset by Bush, but as people calm down, they start to look around to make a more rational choice. He makes it sound as if Dean has fallen off the table, and that this is his postmortem for his failed candidacy. And he's not talking about caucus results, because there aren't any yet but just a couple of weekend polls.
And then later, when he gets together with the other Crossfire guys, he predicts Dean will come in first. It's no wonder so many Republicans find Democrats to be so intellectually confused. Carville predicts Kerry and Edwards will take the first two spots.
These people have already made up their minds--namely that Dean is unelectable--and so they seize any bit of evidence to support them in their prejudice and ignore everything else. On one level you have to say who cares--it's just meaningless chatter.On another you have to wonder how much of this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
More when the results come in.
Update: Maybe I'm the one who's confused. Just tuned in to CNN again, and Begala is sayng he picked Kerry Deam. Can't prove I'm right about my earlier recollection which was that he said Dean and then? could be I'm confusing him with Tucker Carlson who did predict a Dean victory. My bad. At this point (5:30 PST) the "entrance pollling" indicates a plurality for Kerry.
Update 7:00 PM PST. Wow. What a blow for Dean. I am surprised. That Kerry could beat him 2:1 is astonishing to me. I'm sure this will be endlessly analyzed, but it's clear that when push came to shove an awful lot of people bailed on Dean. It's clear that he suffered from the incessant attacks over the last several weeks and he wasn't able to recover.
It might not be fair, but that's the way it works. For whatever reason Dean got on the wrong side of the media establishment and the Beltway punditry. Their glee in Dean's defeat tonight is palpable. It remains to be seen whether the Dean phenomenon has crested or whether he'll be able to bounce back. It's one thing to finish close, but to have fallen so far is saying something very powerful.
But the whole business raises a question for me about the whole insider/outsider dynamic here. Maybe the Democrats would do better with someone like Kerry or Edwards with whom the Beltway establishment feels a greater degree of comfort. As I've written in earlier posts, I've been concerned that Dean, even if he were to be elected, would have to contend with a very resistant Beltway establishment which is not likely to change its mind about him even if the American people elect him.. There would be no honeymoon, and the ability to get anything done would be a greater struggle for people like Dean or Clark than it would be for Kerry or Edwards, who are known quantities in Washington.
P.S. Give credit where it is due. Begala's comments about Dean were clearly closer to the mark than I thought was warranted by the polling data. Dean has virtually fallen off the table. It reamains to be seen if he can get back up on it. But I think Dean's biggest asset so far has been his air of invincibility, and that is clearly gone now. he didn't need to win, but he needed a better showing than he had tonight.
Friday, January 16, 2004
Anti-Dean Media Bias Postscript. AP reports on a Center for Media and Public Affairs study found that there really is a lot more negative TV coverage for Dean:
Researchers examined 187 stories broadcast on the ABC, CBS or NBC evening newscasts in 2003, looking at elements including quoted remarks about candidates and how they were depicted in profiles.
The study found that 49 percent of the coverage of former Vermont Gov. Dean was positive, compared to 78 percent of the rest of the Democratic field, collectively.
Dean's coverage rose to 59 percent positive in December after former Vice President Al Gore endorsed him, the study found.
So it's not jut my imagination. But why? Is it ideologically driven? My brother Tom doesn't think so. Here's his read:
It just seems to me that the media (consciously and likely unconsciously) plays an active role in making sure that political "races" are competitive; that is, playing an active role in creating 'competitive tension' - in order to draw in public interest and ratings.
Of course there is real drama as campaigns draw to a finish. But I've always felt that media coverage was less about promoting one candidate over another, and more about putting out whatever story would sell best. If there isn't a scandal, then they will interview a 'Joe Blow' on the sidewalk who's for candidate "B" who is down 20% in the polls, and then report that "he's up from 30% down and making his charge --- The comeback kid syndrome.... "He might be losing by 20%, but jeese, look at him go......read all about it".
Could be. It sure seems to be working now regarding the Iowa caucuses. I know I'm going to be watching more TV this weekend to see how the tightening race there plays out. But I do think that the press takes a liking to some candidates and a real dislike to others, and it cuts those it likes more slack.
I don't think it's my imagination that Bush got pretty soft press treatment in 2000 considering the vulnerabilities in his background. I think the Press clearly likes Bush, as it liked Reagan and Kennedy. These guys live up to the Press’s image expectations of what a president should be.
The Republicans understand image and propaganda technique so much better than do the Democrats. (See an interesting interview about that with linguistics professor George Lakoff.) Clinton was a natural, and I always found it rather perplexing that he didn't fare better with the Press. I think it's in part because the Right kept him on his heels from Day One, and never allowed Clinton to be Clinton. The Right was successfully able to define him in terms of one manufactured scandal after another, the Press played along for the reasons Tom points out, and it worked brilliantly.
In any event, I think that it's more than likely that Dean, who doesn't come close to Clinton in terms of charm or political instincts, will continue to do poorly with the Press vis a vis Bush because of the comparative likability factor. The Press has already decided that it doesn't like Dean, and while that doesn't mean he can't get elected, it will make it tough, and as I said in my last post, he probably won't get much of a honey moon, if he ever does take office.
The one thing that might change the Press dynamic in play now is the potential for the the “jackal” factor to start working against the Bush presidency. If things continue to go south for Bush, as they very well might, there may come a point where he will appear to the Press to be weak and wounded, and they might just decide to pounce.
That isn't happening yet, but if more establishment types keep coming out of the woodwork to criticize Bush and his people, it'll be hard for the Press to ignore. That's what we saw this week in l'affair de Paul O'Neill. There are a lot disgruntled Army, State Department, CIA, and fiscal conservatives who are genuinely alarmed about what this administration is doing, and if they keep turning up the heat, even a friendly media establishment can’t protect this guy. The Valerie Plame business has yet to do its worst damage. I'm sure there are some other disgruntleds out there biding their time waiting for the propitious moment to drop their bombshells. If so, then Bush's failing presidency becomes the story, not Dean and his prickly personality.
That could be wishful thinking. But some variation on this theme is the Democrats' best hope--whether Dean is their guy, or any of the others.
PPS: Peggy Noonan's Take ;in the WSJ:
But this is what seems to me interesting and suggestive that the change shown in the polls is real. The press has kicked in and is playing a part in the drama. The journalistic establishment has become an anti-Dean mover. Tuesday's New York Times piece on the absent Mrs. Dean, for instance--that was a piece with a sting. They decided to front-page it six days before the caucuses. The morning network news shows and the cable news shows are full of Mr. Dean's gaffes, Mr. Gephardt's rise and Mr. Edwards's potential.
Why? It is true the press wants a race. They don't want to spend the next three months filing "Dean Wins Again" and "Why Kerry Failed to Ignite." But it's more than that. Reading between the lines and listening between the lines, it's hard to avoid the thought that reporters don't really like Mr. Dean. The last time a viable Democrat rose, in 1992, the columnists for the newsmagazines and profile writers for the newspapers loved Bill Clinton with a throbbing love [JW:Truer early on, but "throbbing love?!?"]. None of those columns are being written now. They don't love Mr. Dean.
This is not a shock. He seems as unlovable (unless you're a Deaniac) as he is improbable. But I suspect there's something else at work. I wonder if mainstream media aren't trying to save the Democratic Party from Mr. Dean. They know he's not a likely winner down the road. Boomer reporters who've been through the Clinton experience have sharp eyes. I suspect they're put off by Mr. Dean's Clintonian aspects, such as his tendency to dissemble. They're pushing Gephardt and Edwards and even Kerry. They may push Wesley Clark. But they're not pushing Dean.
It gets more Byzantine every moment. From Noonan's right wing end of the Beltway warp world the liberal media establishment in order to protect liberalism from itself is trying to torpedo the candidate that the liberal media has come to think of as too liberal, and unlectable because they think he's unlikable because they don't like him. Or something like that.
Could very well be. Of course from the perspective of the Beltway, it doesn't matter what the people outside of it think.
Kerry Surge?! What's going on in Iowa? Best possible explanation I've found comes from TNR. It's all about the organizational skills of Michael Whouley:
Brazile says she's not surprised that Kerry's Iowa surge was preceded by Whouley's arrival there. After learning that Kerry had sent Whouley to Iowa, Brazile says she contacted top Gephardt and Dean campaign officials with a friendly warning: Watch out. "Whouley knows how to close," she told them. "He will kick the living daylights out of your campaign operation. I said, 'Let me tell you what Whouley is going to do. He is going to close. He's going to convert twos to ones.'" (A reference to the campaign practice of ranking possible supporters on a one to five scale.) "And when the undecideds start moving," she warned at the time, "he's going to convert them, too." That's just what's happened.
Dean's organization ain't bad either. So it will be interesting if it can find a way to respond over the weekend. I've been leaning toward Dean, and if I were in Iowa this weekend, I'd be in his camp. I think that Dean represents more where things have to go, but I'm not sure he's the guy to get us there. I like his fire, and I think that it's what distinguishes him from the others. But he has liabilities--the most important being his charm deficit and the way the Press has taken a dislike to him--and it's not at all clear to me that he'll be be able to overcome them.
My quick and superficial read on the non-Deans: Kerry, a decent guy, a lot like Gore--he comes across as too ponderous, stiff and predictable. Lieberman is the only candidate who truly turns me off. He's symptomatic of what most deeply ails the Democratic party right now--too DLC smarmy. Edwards, bright future, but too unseasoned. Should run for Governor first. Clark, a man of ability, but first shot at elective office to be POTUS?!--better as VP or in the cabinet. Gebhart, too much of a rustbelt traditional liberal. Braun is out; others all too fringe.
I'd be ok with Dean, Kerry, Clark in more or less that order of preference.
Wednesday, January 14, 2003
Beltway Mindwarp. I probably couldn't convince my Republican friends of it--the idea of the liberal bias in the media is too deeply an entrenched conservative truism--nevertheless, mainstream media coverage of national politics has shifted to the right in a big way. This is understandable, and it's mainly a reflection of the shift in power over the last twenty years. Conservatives don't really believe it, but they have come to dominate American political life, and that means that more than ever they dominate Beltway society and shape its media biases.
That certainly doesn't mean that they have that kind of influence in New York or Los Angeles. That's where the disconnect occurs. Entertainment culture is very out of tune with the shift to the right in politics, and that's why conservatives think America is going to hell in a handbasket. The shows that get the ratings are the shows that demonstrate America's moral decadence.
But the point I want to make here is not about New York or L.A.as it's reflected in our entertainment culture, but about political attitudes as they are reflected in the Beltway-centered media. And the main arbiter of Beltway politically correct is the Washington Post. Americans mistakenly tend to think of it as a liberal paper because it was so instrumental in the fall of Richard Nixon. But while its editorial stance is not quite so far right as that of of the Wall Street Journal, it's hardly the great promoter of liberal causes that many think it to be.
An article in Salon today indirectly makes the same point. It talks about what is clearly a WaPo campaign to make Howard Dean look like a fool. But it did the same thing with Clinton and Gore. The Beltway establishment never liked those two guys, and it's clear that it doesn't like Dean either. Some key grafs:
Dean's real media sin, aside from some clumsy misstatements, seems to be that he's running as an outsider, which always breeds contempt among the Washington press corps. As governor of Texas, Bush pretended to run as an outsider in 2000, but nobody in the news business took the claim seriously. Dean, though, seems bent on it, including taking aim at the Beltway press. When he officially announced his candidacy with a June 23 speech, he asked rhetorically, "Is the media reporting the truth?" And instead of schmoozing reporters on the campaign trail and handing out playground-type nicknames the way Bush did in 2000, Dean treats them professionally, but pushes back when he thinks they're wrong.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it's the Washington Post -- particularly its editorial and Op-Ed pages, which double as the house organ of the D.C. establishment -- that has taken the lead role in deriding the surging outsider. But the rest of the press also seems eager to play along with the established, critical Dean narratives. . . .
Beltway insiders clucked over Dean's June appearance on NBC's mighty "Meet the Press," labeling him evasive and unprepared. But lots of party faithful saw something else -- a candidate who would stand up to biased, big-foot pundits -- and flooded the campaign with contributions that day. Instead of marking Dean's leveling-off point, "Meet the Press" marked the beginning of his ascent to undisputed front-runner status.
In the wake of "Meet the Press," the Washington Post on July 1 reported that a "new contentiousness" was creeping into Dean's press coverage. The paper made that a self-fulfilling prophecy on July 6, uncorking the Page 1 Dean profile that opened with the image of the former governor's bulging veins. In fact, in just two summertime features the Washington Post managed to use the following words to describe Dean: "abrasive," "flinty," "cranky," "arrogant," "disrespectful," "yelling," "hollering," "fiery," "red-faced," "hothead," "testy," "short-fused," "angry," "worked up," and "fired up." And none of those adjectives were used in a complimentary way. In fact the Post, in an Aug. 4 Is-Dean-mean story, took pains to distinguish him from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, whom the paper termed "brilliantly cranky."
Soon the rest of the press was lavishing attention on Dean's temper -- researching it, analyzing it, trying to document it. Both Time and Newsweek's August cover stories on Dean dutifully dwelled on the issue of anger. For Republicans the anger angle fit perfectly with the party's plan to attack Dean personally rather than politically. As was true with Gore in 2000, the GOP spin machine is paying less attention to Dean's policy agenda than to his alleged personality defects: "Arrogance" and "anger" are high on that list.
I know this doesn't prove anything. I'm just introducing it now as a theme I'll be following up on as the campaign progresses. The point is that during the Clinton administration, the Gore campaign, and now the Dean campaign, there were clear WaPo negative biases, and these biases reflect Beltway establishment thinking, which is hardly liberal. They reflect the conservative, rather insular bias of a city that has always been rather conservative, and it's clear that they don't take well to outsiders who don't want to play by the Beltway rules. Problem is that the American people tend to elect outsiders as their presidents.
The good news for Dean is that Beltway establishment thinking is pretty clueless about the rest of the country, and so its predictions about how he will be trounced by Bush in the general election aren't worth much. The bad news is that if he does get elected, he will get the same kind of chill Beltway reception that Clinton received when he showed up for work in '93.
The Beltway didn't like Bill and Hillary, and it's already clear it doesn't like Dean. And as it did with Clinton, Beltway hostility toward Dean will have an enormously negative impact on his ability to govern.
Clinton wasn't just fighting his opponents in Congress; he was fighting the entire Beltway establishment. He survived, but just barely. And so it has to be asked: who in his right mind would want to expose himself to what Clinton went through? The Republicans are already trying to paint Dean as crazy. Maybe they're right. You have to be these days to actually want what you're going to get, if in fact you get elected.
Tuesday, January 13, 2003
The Potemkin Presidency. Anybody who rises to become the chairman of Alcoa and the Secretary of Treasury is not your typical disgruntled whacko. O'Neill might be a speak-first-think-later, loose-lipped businessman, and he may have a few scores to settle. He does seem to be something of a political naif, but no one has accused him of beng disingenuous.
And his reporting of his experience as a cabinet member in the Bush Administration has credibility because he's saying what a lot of people think already. Namely, that whatever Bush's own views might be on issues, he doesn't have the personal wattage to direct his own presidency. His administration's agenda is being driven by ideologues like Rumsfeld and Cheney, and those agendas don't get publicly debated in the election process. The electorate is buying one thing and getting another.
This is also reinforced by a paragraph in James Fallows' Atlantic Monthly article I wrote about yesterday:
This is the place to note that in several months of interviews I never once heard someone say "We took this step because the President indicated..." or "The President really wanted..." Instead I heard "Rumsfeld wanted," "Powell thought," "The Vice President pushed," Bremer asked," and so on. One need only compare this with any discussion of foreign policy in Reagan's or Clinton's Administration--or Nixon's, or Kennedy's or Johnson's or most others--to sense how unusual is the absence of the President as prime mover.
We're dealing here with a Potemkin Village Presidency. Bush is for most Americans an attractive facade behind which an ugly reality hides.
Official Reality. One of the basic battles that is being waged and will be waged in the coming election year is the one to define the so-called "real world." The propagandists on the right understand this very well, and it's clear that a part of their strategy will be to present themselves as sane, patriotic grownups while painting their opponents or anyone who disagrees with their official version of reality as crazy conspiracy theorists, loose cannons, or whatever.
But the bottom line here is that the official version of reality that was promulgated by the Bush Administration in the Fall and Winter weeks before the war last March had very little to do with the situation as it really was on the ground. Many Americans may not care and loyal Republicans will find their various ways of justifying it, but the fact is that if Americans knew a year ago what they know now, the US would not today be bogged down in Iraq. Jay Bookman in his column yesterday elaborates on the point:
A nation that holds itself up to the world as the exemplar of representative democracy cannot blithely ignore the fact that its elected representatives were led into war under false pretenses.
In October 2002, there was no way on earth that Congress would have voted to authorize war had it known the truth. "The possibility of a link" between Iraq and al-Qaida would not have been considered sufficient cause for invasion. Nor would Congress have voted to spend hundreds of billions of dollars and the lives of 500 American soldiers and counting because Iraq possessed the intention to someday create programs that might someday in the future be used to create weapons of mass destruction.
In fact, as I recall, those who had dared to suggest that there must be some other reason for the war, because this talk of Iraqi WMD and alleged ties to al-Qaida made no sense, were accused of spouting wild theories unsupported by fact. As it turns out, the wild theories unsupported by fact were coming from the most powerful people in the U.S. government.
Do we not care how this happened? Are Americans not curious to know how much of this was an honest mistake, and how much of it was official deception? To ignore such questions -- to leave undisturbed the intelligence systems and personnel that created the problem -- is to increase the likelihood of being deceived again in the future.
Monday, January 12, 2003
Wars of Choice; Wars of Necessity. One of the most troubling things about the Iraq war for me has been that so much mainstream thinking about it accepted on the face of it that the war was a necessary and effective step in the effort to eradicate terrorism. The plausibility of this position rested on two basic assumptions: First, that there was a connection between Iraq and al-Qaida, and, second, that our setting up of a new democracy in Iraq to replace Saddam's tyranny would promote a model that other Arab states would emulate. The first has been pretty thoroughly discredited, and the second is coming increasingly under attack in the mainstream.
According to the thinking behind the second assumption, a forced regime change in Iraq would generate the following sequence:
If the US could achieve this, then the short-term pain for the long-term gain would have all been worth it. All the chicken-hearted doomsayers would be proven wrong, and the world would be a better place because Americans weren't afraid to take a risk for which the upside was so significant. Problem is of course that nobody wanted to talk about the costs in the short run or the long run.
The positive scenario is the one promoted by NY Times Foreign Affairs Columnist Thomas Friedman in the run-up to the war. He applauded the boldness of the administration's plans for Iraq in seeking to achieve the noble goals described above. But he did fret a little about whether the administration had the savvy and will to achieve them.
At this juncture, it would appear that his fretting was not without reason. Because even if we concede (and we don't) that the Iraq War was a very plausible first step in a longer-term strategy to bring peace and prosperity to the Middle East, it's increasingly obvious that the Bush people don't have mentality or the skills to make it happen. There are many levels on which this is demonstrably true. It's, for instance, becoming clearer every week that there was never much thought given to the challenges the Americans would face once the Saddam regime was toppled.
The failure to plan effectively is well documented in an interesting piece by James Fallows in the Jan/Feb Atlantic Monthly (not available online). In it he focuses on what might be described as a philosophical commitment on Donald Rumsfeld's part to a doctrine of "uncertainty." This doctrine was invoked to justify the Administration's refusal to estimate in the weeks before the war how much the Iraq adventure would cost. (How can you predict when there are s many variables and everything is so uncertain?) Uncertainty also seems to be the justification behind what in retrospect seems to have been a deeper refusal on Rumsfeld's part to do even some very routine planning for the post-war reconstruction.
The article is catalog of the information available to Rumsfeld before the war about the situation he was llikely to find after it. Rumsfeld seems to have been blithely dismissed most of it as the product of "old thinking." Fallows describes the Rumsfeldian mind:
[Rumsfeld] was near the zenith of his influence as the war was planned. His emphasis on the vagaries of life was all the more appealing within his circle because of his jauntiness and verve. But he was not careful about remembering his practical obligations. Precisely because he could not foresee all hazards, he should have been more zealous about avoiding the ones that were evident--the big and obvious ones the rest of the government tried to point out to him.
This is a polite way of saying what is becoming more apparent about the style of this administration--that it is blinded by its narrowly defined world view and that it is arrogant in its dismissal of other views. Rumsfeld is clearly infatuated with his own "new thinking." Anybody who isn't similarly infatuated just doesn't "get it," and is an "old thinker." We're not talking here about his dismissing just the predictable views of the anti-war left. See below.
Taking Our Eye of the Ball. Another interesting piece in today's Washington Post describes a report published by the Army War College by defense analyst Jeffrey Record criticizing the Iraq War as a distraction from the real threat which is al-Qaida This has been my concern all along:
"[T]he global war on terrorism as currently defined and waged is dangerously indiscriminate and ambitious, and accordingly . . . its parameters should be readjusted," Record writes. Currently, he adds, the anti-terrorism campaign "is strategically unfocused, promises more than it can deliver, and threatens to dissipate U.S. military resources in an endless and hopeless search for absolute security."
Record's core criticism is that the administration is biting off more than it can chew. He likens the scale of U.S. ambitions in the war on terrorism to Adolf Hitler's overreach in World War II. "A cardinal rule of strategy is to keep your enemies to a manageable number," he writes. "The Germans were defeated in two world wars . . . because their strategic ends outran their available means."
He also scoffs at the administration's policy, laid out by Bush in a November speech, of seeking to transform and democratize the Middle East. "The potential policy payoff of a democratic and prosperous Middle East, if there is one, almost certainly lies in the very distant future," he writes. "The basis on which this democratic domino theory rests has never been explicated."
He also casts doubt on whether the U.S. government will maintain its commitment to the war. "The political, fiscal, and military sustainability of the GWOT [global war on terrorism] remains to be seen," he states.
It's interesting that this piece was allowed to be published with Army War College approval. That's not the same as endorsement, but the they new that allowing an article like this to be published in one of their journals would have the kind of eye-opening impact it has had. If the CIA started coming out about its frustration with the Rumsfeld/Cheney policy around the time of the Valerie Plame outing, I think we'll be seeing more open criticism of war planning coming from the Army in coming weeks. They've been angry and frustrated for a long time now for the reasons that Fallows talks about in his article, and it's clear that a lot of Army people don't have much love or loyalty for Rumsfeld.
Tuesday, January 6, 2004
Josh Marshall in his post today (scroll down to 1:46 AM) confirms from a different angle what I've been saying off and on about David Brooks. My point has been that Brooks is going to be one of the key front men in the effort to reelect the president. His job will be to rehabilitate the Bush administration in the public's imagination as centrist, moderate, and reasonable. His column today is clearly a part of that effort.
There are basically three factions within the Republican party that have pulled the Bush administration farther to the right than any other Republican administration in recent memory, even Ronald Reagan's. They are the religious right regarding cultural values, the no-tax/ no-regulation corporate interests regarding economic policy, and the empire-ambitious PNAC neoconservatives regarding foreign policy. Expect Brooks to be writing columns to suggest that these groups with their different extremist agendas don't really have that much influence in the Bush Administration. In today's column Brooks tries to distance the administration from the neocons.
He does so by trying to deflect attention and responsibility away from the neocons by dismissing criticism of them as an anti-semitic conspiracy theory. One of the key elements in conservative propaganda strategy is to discredit critics by accusing them of being out of touch with reality. That's because the reality they want everybody to be in touch with is the one they construct for us through their propaganda efforts. This is obviously cynical and dishonest, and Marshall calls Brooks on it. Here's part of what Marshall has to say:
In Brooks’ column, aside from the anti-Semitism stuff I’ve noted, we can see another common ploy. In fact, it makes up almost the entirety of Brooks’ column.
The aim is to discredit any notion that neoconservatism plays any significant role in Bush administration foreign policy --- a demonstrably ridiculous point. Brooks does this by mixing in all sorts of code words about ‘conspiracies’, ‘jews’, radio communications through dental filings and the like to stigmatize as ridiculous what is actually a serious issue and ripe field for serious debate.
It’s almost the definition of anti-intellectualism.
Here’s a particular example from the second graf of Brooks’ column
…Theories about the tightly knit neocon cabal came in waves. One day you read that neocons were pushing plans to finish off Iraq and move into Syria. Web sites appeared detailing neocon conspiracies; my favorite described a neocon outing organized by Dick Cheney to hunt for humans.
This is really classic. First, a demonstrably accurate point, neocons pushing for forcible regime change in Syria followed by some story about Dick Cheney’s hunting trip to hunt humans.
How do you respond to something like this
Sort of like …
So many crazy stories out there. One minute people are claiming that jumbo-jets are flying from New York to Paris. The next day we hear that flying saucers are beaming people up to space and spiriting them away to Mars …
What's being practiced here isn't argument. These are rhetorical brickbats meant to squelch argument. The whole thing is disinformation from start to finish.
Sunday, January 4, 2004
Samurai Postscript. It's interesting how strong is the impulse so many still feel to romanticize certain aspects of premodern cultures. The same impulse that wants to romanticize the samurai way of life parallels the way many Americans still romanticize the ante-bellum south. It might seem treasonous for many Americans to romanticize Osama in the way the film The Last Samurai romanticizes Katsumoto. (Some Muslim filmmaker in the not too distant future surely will make such a film.) But the same Americans could very easily make the connection between Katsumoto and Robert E. Lee.
If you're like me you've probably wondered how a man of such reputed noble character as Lee could justify fighting for a government that sanctioned slavery. But southerners like Lee saw themselves as protecting a traditional agrarian way of life that was rooted in values radically opposed those of the industrializing North. Many Southerners saw their Northern enemy as a dehumanizing, money-driven machine--much the way Omura is caricatured in The Last Samurai. Or to draw a parallel to another recent movie, the Southern confederacy saw itself as Gondor attempting to defend its noble way of life and sacred traditions from the power-mad, machine-driven monster to the North.
The American Civil War was, like the efforts to centralize power in Japan, Germany, and Italy during roughly the same period, the story of a nascent industrial power bent on establishing its central authority by wiping out the last remnants of a resistant premodern way of life rooted in the feudal past. We think, rightly, of Lincoln as a heroic figure of world-historical stature. But his importance for our country was like Bismarck's for Germany and Meiji Tenno's in Japan. They each laid the foundations for enormously powerful centralized national military industrial machines that would collide in the next century. The American machine, as it turned out, would be the last one standing.
The radical left sees this development as an unmitigated evil, while the neoconservative right celebrates it as an unambiguous good. I say the jury is still out. I'm still hopeful that the U.S.can use its privileged position to help the world to more painlessly move into the future. But power is corrupting, and there is no guarantee that the US will be able to resist its corrosive effect. In fact, I would say the odds are against it. That's not a statement about Americans; it's a statement about human nature.
Saturday, January 3, 2004
Tacking toward the Center. David Brooks is the guy to watch in the coming election year if you want to understand the Republican strategy to reelect the president. I've said on a couple of occasions that there is no such thing as a moderate Republican anymore, but Brooks is certainly one among that all-but-extinct species. His moderate, reasonable vision of what it means to be a Republican, as rare as it is these days in the real world, will most likely to be pretty close the image that the Bush campaign will want to present of itself.
His column a few weeks ago previewed the coming State of the Union Address in which Bush will talk about hsi vision for an "ownership society," sure to be a key theme in his reelection strategy. His column today talks about how the Republicans can no longer credibly present themselves as the party of small government, so they should instead position themselves as the party of reform.
It makes sense that the Republicans will want to overcome their image of right-wing fanatics in the clutches of Tom Delay and Grover Norquist. What better spokespeson than the affable, moderate David Brooks. His pulpit is in the heart of enemy territory--the op-ed page of the New York Times and on PBS's Newshour on Friday nights.
But, come on. While we have every reason to expect Bush to run to the center in order to get elected, we have no reason to believe that he will govern as a moderate once he is elected. The Republicans are masters of saying one thing and doing another. Bush ran as a moderate centrist in 2000, and maybe in his own imagination of himself that's what he is. But the people running his administration are not moderate centrists, and there is no evidence to support that whatever George Bush says or David Brooks writes will have anything to do with what will actually happen after inauguration day in 2005.
Friday, January 2, 2004
Modern vs. Premodern. I’ve been looking for an opportunity to say something about Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York, and maybe I’ll get to that another time. Fresher in my mind are some thoughts about The Last Samurai. There are several annoying elements in the movie, especially toward the end, that have more to do with movie logic than real-world logic, but the film is a Lawrence of Arabia-style epic that is interesting on a number of levels and worth seeing.
I thought it was an excellent study of the clash between the modern and the premodern that has been the most wrenching dynamic driving history for the last five hundred years. We can talk all we want about cultural diversity, but the only differences between cultures that really matter in the long run are those that define the divide between the modern and premodern.
The dramatic conflict that structures this movie is the historical one suffered in Japan shortly after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. After about 250 years of isolating itself from the rest of the world, Japan realized that in order to maintain its national sovereignty in the face of Western encroachments, it needed to modernize. This meant first centralizing power by the abolition of a decentralized feudal system that the restorationists felt weakened Japan. And this in turn required the destruction of the samurai class. The movie is about one of the several samurai rebellions against the central government that occurred in the 1870s.
Tom Cruise plays an American ex-Civil War and Indian Wars veteran hired by the Japanese government in 1876 to modernize/westernize the young emperor’s army. He’s portrayed as a fearless a warrior who nevertheless feels the need to drink away his shame because of his participation in a My-Lai- like massacre of innocents during the Indian Wars. His story is one of finding his soul and recovering his honor after spending time in captivity with the samurai tribal leader, Katsumoto. Cruise’s Nathan Aldren is to Japan what O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence was to Arabia. He’s someone who recognizes that there are profound spiritual depths in this culture that he has been asked to help destroy. So like Lawwrence he goes native, and becomes its defender.
This is ultimately a story meant to contrast the nobility of the chivalric, premodern warrior vs. the mechanized soul-less affair that modern warfare was at that time becoming. I don’t know whether it was the filmmaker’s intention, but it isn’t too much of a stretch to see how the soul-less efficiency of the emperor’s army in its destroying the samurai parallels the efficiency of the American forces in the Middle East. The real long-term battle the US is waging there, of course, is not against tyrants like Saddam but against figures like Osama bin Laden, whom Muslims see as a romantically defiant culture hero. Like Katsumoto, Osama is fighting to preserve his traditional culture against what he perceives to be the soul-less encroachments of the materialistic West. Like Katsumoto, he’s going to go down fighting, and while his defeat is inevitable, he’s going to cause a lot of damage before that defeat comes.
Meiji Tenno, the young emperor, was portrayed in the film as ambivalent about what was happening to his country. He ascended to the throne when he was only fifteen, and he’s portrayed as a weak puppet of Omura, a Bismark-like figure whom the movie portrays as the architect of Japan’s modernization. Omura plays the part of the villain, although he surely thought of himself with some justification as a patriot who was doing what needed to be done to make Japan strong.
The samurai Katsumoto is a genuinely tragic figure in this film, but a better movie would have made Omura one, too. Omura knows what he’s destroying, but he also knows that if his modern army doesn’t defeat the samurai now, the Americans, Russians, or English will do it later, and Japan will be lost. So what real choices does Omura have? To indulge in romantic nostalgia about a world that one way or the other cannot survive? Or to do what he can to enable Japan to control its own destiny?
Perhaps there are other options, but I don’t know of any cultures that have been able to make the transition to modernity without its being painful, bloody, and profoundly tragic. The West went through it in the period dating from the Post-Reformation religious wars between Catholics and Protestants in the 1500s, through the Puritan revolt in England in the mid 1600s, to the French Revolution in late 1700s, through the wrenching process of industrialization in the 1800s.
Japan was the most precocious country in Asia in its understanding the way the world was going, and this movie attempts to dramatize how the drive to modernize, for all of its benefits, destroys a way of life that only the most ignorant can think of as savage or primitive. This is a tragedy that continues in our day to play itself out throughout the entire developing world.
It may be that there is no other way for this world-historcal transformation to work itself out in the coming decades except in this violently tragic way, but one should hope what has been destroyed will not be forever lost. One of the premises of the book that I’m writing is that among the cultural tasks of postmodern age into which we are now entering, we will need to retrieve what has been forgotten or destroyed from the world’s premodern cultural past. The Last Samurai is about a spiritual loss sustained by one Asian culture in the fairly recent past, but there are spiritual riches in the premodern past of the West that have been lost and are in a similar need of retrieval. We’ll talk about that another time.