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Isn’t It Rich

Al Gore, the former vice president who but for the vote of one Supreme Court Justice would have captured the American presidency in 2000, is now “Romney rich,” so dubbed by Bloomberg News. Losing the White House does have its upside, I guess.

Bloomberg estimates that Gore may now be worth $200 million after selling his 20% share of the not very successful Current cable TV operation to Qatari-owned Al Jazeera for a cool $70 million. (Apparently a Gore strange bedfellow, Rupert Murdoch,  actually helped ensure that Al would get his big pay day by guaranteeing that Current would, despite awful ratings, stay on Murdoch’s DircTV,  a decision estimated to have been worth $200 million. Wouldn’t you like to have heard that conversation?)

Gore also made what appears to be a $30 million haul by exercising options on the Apple stock he accumulated while serving on the tech giant’s corporate board. “That’s a pretty good January for a guy who couldn’t yet call himself a multimillionaire [based on 1999 and 2000 disclosure forms] when he briefly slipped from public life after his bitterly contested presidential election loss to George W. Bush in late 2000,” writes Ken Wells and Ari Levy of Bloomberg.

Goodness knows I don’t begrudge a big pay day for a Democrat – or Republican or Libertarian, for that matter – although the stock options that Fortune 500 companies lavish on very part time and mostly very disengaged directors is one of the dirty little scandals of American capitalism. And come to think if it shouldn’t every liberal activist aspire to have Rupert Murdoch’s ear for heaven’s sake? Rather what has always bothered me about Al Gore, and this I suspect will be the flavor of the reporting on his vast new wealth, is that he has always struck me as being one of those people in public life who is not comfortable in his own skin. He is not exactly what he appears to be and what he appears to be is, well, confusing. Begging the question then – who the heck is this guy?

Is he the climate change crusader who shared a Nobel Prize for focusing attention on that issue? Or is he a big-time Silicon Valley communication and high tech wheeler-dealer who can romance the California corporate crowd and Rupert Murdoch? Or is he the guy who once and very questionably raised campaign money at a Buddist Temple, but now says “our democracy” has been hijacked by big and secret money? And what about the big houses and bigger carbon footprint? And did you, a guy passionate about global climate matters, really need to sell your TV network to a bunch of oil-rich princes in the Middle East?

In their wonderful little book The Prince of Tennessee – subtitled “The Rise of Al Gore” – writers David Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima detail young Al Gore’s early days as the son of a Senator – Albert Gore, Sr. – who spent many of his formidable years growing up in Suite 809 atop the Fairfax Hotel on Embassy Row in Washington, D.C.   Today the hotel’s website touts the place’s history. “Prominent tenants included a young Al Gore, Jr., Mrs. Henry Cabot Lodge, Admiral and Mrs. Chester William Nimitz, and Senator John L. McClellan. A young George H. Bush and his parents, Senator and Mrs. Prescott Bush, also made The Fairfax their home when in town.”

“If this experience made him different from you and me, to borrow F. Scott Fitzgerald’s phrase, it was not from being rich, but rather from being apart,” Maraniss and Nakashima wrote in their book published in 2000. “[Gore] grew up in a singularly odd world of old people and bellhops, separated from the child-filled neighborhoods of his classmates at St. Albans and further still from his summertime pals at the family farm in Tennessee.”

Gore’s only sibling, sister Nancy, was a decade older and Al grew up mainly with himself. It doesn’t take a Fitzgerald-like imagination to picture the young Al reserved and proper, typically hanging around not with his teenage friends, but with the old and stuffy Senate friends of his parents. On such occasions you’ll not be surprised to know that Gore was described as “a perfect gentleman.”

The description of Gore in The Prince of Tennessee, which I suspect will be the best insight we’ll ever have to the man who came so close to being president, is of a “serious and earnest” guy “always striving to do right, but at times [revealing] flashes of a more complicated struggle within, his stoic front masking a hidden artistry, sarcasm, and loneliness.”

In a lengthy profile in the current New York Magazine Gore is described as having been devastated by his lost in 200o to George W. Bush.  “For two and a half decades, he was on a trajectory that was supposed to end in the presidency,” according to Carter Eskew one of his closest advisers. Now Gore awkwardly attempts to hide what must be the lingering hurt and regret with a throw away line that, when delivered in his stiff and not quite believable way, sounds rehearsed as if it had been tested in a focus group. “I used to be the next president of the United States,” he says always followed by a laugh.

With that line everyone thinks Gore is referring to his less than 600 vote loss of Florida and the White House 13 years ago, a loss ratified by five votes out of nine on the Supreme Court, but one wonders if he wasn’t also thinking of his first campaign for president in 1988. Unprepared, unimpressive and uninteresting in the first go round, I’ve always thought it was interesting that the young Senator from Tennessee wasn’t an important or compelling enough character to be featured in what is now widely considered the best campaign book ever written – the late Richard Ben Cramer’s classic What It Takes. Perhaps Cramer concluded that compared to his nuanced and broadly sympathetic treatment of Bush Senior, Bob Dole, Mike Dukakis, Joe Biden, Dick Gephardt and Gary Hart, that Al Gore just didn’t have what it takes. Speaking of strange bedfellows, remember that current Texas Gov. Rick Perry endorsed Gore in his 1988 race for the White House. You can look it up.

It is a rich irony that Gore got to the White House, as close as he would come anyway, thanks to the endlessly interesting and frequently bigger than life Bill Clinton, who picked him as his running mate and was always too comfortable in his skin. Gore, to the astonishment of most political pros, almost completely shunned Bubba when it fell his turn to seek the presidency, but that is political psychoanalysis for another day.

One gets the soft focus impression that Al Gore feels he no longer needs to explain himself even if he could. But in fairness to the man without a shadow, who do you know who is worth $200 million who worries about what others think of them or feels compelled to explain? He’s reached the point where money makes explaining unnecessary and unimportant. Gore, once so close to the ultimate brass ring, has come full circle. He really is different from you and me and always has been. Now he doesn’t have to be anything but different. When running for public office he tried out a variety of roles – New South populist, then New Democrat moderate and in his campaign against Bush a fire-eating, class warfare espousing champion of the little guy. None of the roles was entirely believable because the actor wasn’t convincing. John Wayne and Bogart were comfortable in their skin. Not everyone is.

In thinking about Al Gore, the new multimillionaire packing around a bundle of contradictions inside his checkbook, it’s tempting to recall the last line from Fitzgerald’s best book because there is a quality to Gore that indeed seems “borne back ceaselessly into the past,” a past that was never quite real and now is never over.

Yet, the better Fitzgerald line is this one from Gatsby and you can almost hear the man who once was “the next president of the United States” say it: “You see I usually find myself among strangers because I drift here and there trying to forget the sad things that happened to me.”


When Conventions Mattered

William Gibbs McAdoo – that’s him in profile – is mostly forgotten to history today, but back in the day when delegates to national political conventions actually made decisions about the candidates for president and vice president, McAdoo was a political kingmaker.

By 1932 McAdoo had assembled a remarkable political resume. He married well – Woodrow Wilson’s daughter – and served as his father-in-law’s Treasury Secretary. He was also chairman of the then brand new Federal Reserve Board, managed the national rail system during World War I and was twice a serious candidate for president. In 1924 McAdoo came within an eyelash of winning the Democratic nomination before losing out when the convention turned to a compromise candidate after struggling through 103 – you read it right – 103 contentious ballots. That still qualifies as the longest convention in American political history. One wag quipped that New York had invited the Democratic delegates to visit The Big Apple, not to move there permanently. The convention lasted 17 long, long days.

McAdoo was mounting a political return in 1932 just in time to put him in position to be a kingmaker.  McAdoo was both a candidate for the U.S. Senate from California and the political leader of the large California delegation to that year’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In a word – McAdoo had influence and he used it.

The convention that eventually nominated Franklin D. Roosevelt was the last Democratic convention that required a two-thirds vote to nominate a standard bearer. That 103 ballot marathon in 1924 became a disaster for the party, but southern Democrats insisted on retaining the super majority requirement in order to maintain an out-sized role in the national party. As a general rule, if southern Democrats stayed together on a candidate they could usually name the man who would lead the ticket, or at least influence the shape of the national campaign.

William McAdoo knew all this in detail. He was born in Georgia and enjoyed substantial support among southern politicians, in part, because of two issues – booze and race. McAdoo was a dry – he favored prohibition – and his not so skillful navigation of the explosive issue of the Ku Klux Klan – he refused to condemn the Klan out of fear of losing southern support – was a major factor in his losing the 1924 nomination.

FDR, then the governor of New York, entered his party’s 1932 convention as the favorite for the nomination, but he hardly had the necessary votes locked up. His advisers actually contemplated an attempt to change the convention rules to require only a simple majority to nominate a candidate, but when word leaked out of what was being considered and howls of protest ensued, Roosevelt ordered his managers to back off. He would have to find the votes of two-thirds of the delegates to win.

Consider for a moment what the political drama must have been like in Chicago in late June 1932 and contrast that drama – and all its consequences – with the tepid, heavily stage managed GOP convention that groans on in Tampa this week and the similar Democratic event that will take place in Charlotte all too soon. The nation was gripped by a Great Depression in 1932, President Herbert Hoover was growing more unpopular by the day and the Democratic nomination seemed to virtually ensure the election of the man who would be lucky enough to claim it.

On the first ballot in Chicago nine different candidates received votes. Roosevelt led the pack and tallied 666 votes, a number far short of what he needed to secure the nomination. Facing a toough fight, FDR was able to add only 11 more votes on the second ballot, while a variety of favorite sons and two more serious candidates – Speaker of the House John Nance Garner of Texas and former Democratic presidential candidate and New York Gov. Al Smith – divided up more than 400 other votes.

On the third ballot Roosevelt polled just five additional votes and his managers were profoundly concerned that his momentum toward the nomination had stalled. If his vote totals began to actually decline on additional ballots, they worried, the convention might be stampeded to another candidate. Smith, for example, once FDR’s mentor, was determined not to give up the fight believing that he was entitled to one more run at the White House. Smith’s vote totals – he got 201 votes on the first ballot – remained rock solid through the third ballot and he must have felt that if he could hang on long enough the convention would turn to him again as it had done in 1928.

However it was Garner, a conservative southerner, who became the key to FDR’s nomination. Garner had the support, not surprisingly, of his own Texas delegation, but also enjoyed the support of newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst and William Gibbs McAdoo. It’s not clear that a smoke-filled room or bourbon was involved – Garner was a habitual cigar smoker and enjoyed a drink – but a deal was done and McAdoo helped broker the agreement. On the fourth ballot, it was agreed, the California and Texas delegations would switch support to Roosevelt and the stampede would be on for other delegates to join the bandwagon. Garner didn’t exactly hanker after the number two spot on the ticket, but as a loyal party man he agreed to accept the vice presidential nomination. Does anyone ever really turn down the vice presidency?

FDR secured the Democratic nomination on the fourth ballot – Al Smith still polled nearly 200 votes – and for the first time in history the nominee traveled by airplane to Chicago to accept the prize in person. The rest is history. Roosevelt went on to win a smashing election victory in November against Hoover.

William Gibbs McAdoo won his own election victory in November and served a single term in the U.S. Senate. His real legacy might be that he knew just when to cut a political deal; a deal that helped change history at a time when party conventions really mattered. McAdoo died in 1941 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetary. His tombstone notes his service as Treasury Secretary and in the Senate. It could honestly also call him a presidential kingmaker.


The Veep

As the analysis continues around Mitt Romney’s selection of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate a little history may inform how, generally speaking, unimportant the Number Two’s are to the eventual success of a national ticket.

For sure Ryan brings youth, partisan excitement, strong conservative credentials and a certain policy wonk attractiveness to the GOP ticket, not to mention the potential to put dependably blue Wisconsin into play in November. Still, to believe that a relatively unknown member of the House of Representatives really could help the ticket requires a major break with what history tells us about the running mate.

Only twice in the 20th Century – 1932 and 1960 – did running mates really make an electoral difference. In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt needed to give the second spot on the Democratic ticket to House Speaker John Nance Garner of Texas in order to secure his party’s nomination. In those long ago days, Democratic convention rules required a two-third vote of the delegates to bestow the party’s blessing on any candidate. FDR flirted with trying to change the controversial rule that had forced the Democrats to a marathon 103 ballots in 1924, but even the popular Governor of New York had to ultimately admit that he would have to find some way to command a super majority in order to secure the nomination.

Garner, a tough-talking, bourbon-drinking, cigar-smoking southerner, was a favorite of the party’s more conservative wing and had the backing of, among others, newspaper magnate and would-be kingmaker William Randolph Hearst. Garner also controlled a large block of convention votes from his own state, as well as from California. Facing a convention deadlock, FDR and Garner did what politicians used to do – they made a deal. Garner knew that he couldn’t get the nomination for himself, but could potentially deny it to Roosevelt. A dark horse alternative could have happened at the Democratic convention in 1932 and think for a moment how that would have changed history.

Cactus Jack, a the Speaker was called, threw his block of votes behind the more liberal FDR in exchange for the vice presidential nomination. The Boston-Austin axis was created and the powerful ticket – a New York patrician and a Texas populist – coasted to victory over the humbled Herbert Hoover. A vice presidential decision made a big difference in 1932.

Another unlikely pairing, a northeastern patrician and a wily pol from the Texas Hill Country, came together to win the 1960 election. John F. Kennedy was afraid he might lose Texas to Republican Richard Nixon, since Dwight Eisenhower had carried the state in the two previous elections, so he overruled his brother and campaign manager, Bobby Kennedy, and gave the Number Two spot to the Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. Arguably, Johnson not only helped the Democratic ticket carry his home state, but also helped ensure narrow Kennedy margins in a number of other southern states. Another vice presidential candidate made a big difference in 1960.

But, that’s it.

It’s difficult to find many other examples in our history – maybe 1864 when Lincoln created a national unity ticket with Democrat Andrew Johnson – where the second place on the ticket helped contribute to victory. More often vice presidential candidates have created problems rather than victories. Think of Sarah Palin four years ago or Sen. Thomas Eagleton, who was dumped from the Democratic ticket in 1972. And, more often than not I would argue, a vice presidential decision is made for personal rather than strategic reasons. It is, after all, the rarest of rare chances when one politician can completely remake another.

Harry Truman picked the older Alben Barkley, the Senate Democratic leader in 1948, because Barkley was loyal, Truman liked him and it seemed to be Barkley’s turn. There is evidence to support the contention that Nixon selected the virtually unknown Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew in 1968 because Agnew was sure not to upstage the presidential candidate. When FDR abandoned Garner in 1940 – the eight-year vice president publicly disagreed with Roosevelt’s quest for a third term – Roosevelt insisted on the wonkish, not particularly popular Henry Wallace as his running mate. (Henry Wallace is the answer to a great political trivia question: Who went from being Secretary of Agriculture to the Vice Presidency?) If anything, Wallace hurt the Democratic ticket in 1940 and FDR in turn dumped the Iowan from the 1944 ticket in favor of Truman. The GOP candidate in 1940, Wendell Willkie, gave the Number Two spot to Sen. Charles L. McNary of Oregon, primarily because McNary was well-liked in Washington and had the political experience that the businessman Willkie lacked.

So, Paul Ryan may – or may not – turn out to be an inspired choice as Mitt Romney’s running mate, but if he actually helps the ticket to victory in November he’ll be running in the face of much political history. A safer political bet would be that a relative unknown Congressman from a Midwest state with a long paper trail of controversial votes and policy positions will prove to be a drag on the ticket. There is little precedent to support the idea that a vice presidential candidate is the “game changer” that the pundits have been discussing since last weekend.


KSM’s Circus

Justice or a Show Trial?

Khalid Sheik Mohammed’s attorney has his hands full.

Idahoans who know Boise criminal defense attorney David Nevin, a quiet, well-spoken, extremely thoughtful fellow, will instantly identify with the challenges he confronts in a courtroom in Cuba as he attempts to mount a defense for the world’s most notorious terror suspect. Nevin, a University of Idaho law grad, would be the first to acknowledge that the sense of fairness that is supposed to be at the heart of our adversary-based judicial system, coupled with a commitment to the “rule of law,” is at the very core of what Americans mean when they think about the concept of justice.

Yet, the circus-like atmosphere that prevailed last Saturday during the long awaited arraignment of KSM and three other defendants seems to have little to do with the American system. “The system is a rigged game to prevent us from doing our jobs,” Nevin complained at the end of the 13 hour proceeding last weekend conducted before the military commission that will, probably years from now, put Khalid Sheik Mohammed on trial.

Specifically, attorneys for the terror suspects can’t have anything like a normal attorney-client relationship with the men they are supposed to be representing. Everything that KSM says, even to his lawyer, is apparently being considered by the government to be a state secret. And torture, specifically the allegation confirmed by the CIA that KSM was waterboarded 183 times, and that torture may have led to a confession is, so far, off-limits in the proceedings.

“The government wants to kill Mr. Mohammed to extinguish the last eyewitness to his torture,” Nevin said, as reported by McClatchy’s Carol Rosenberg.

Nevin is living out the highest calling of the American criminal justice system; the notion that everyone – even the man accused of plotting to bring down the twin towers – deserves a fair trial, a chance to hear all the evidence against him and to introduce evidence, including evidence of torture, if it may help his defense. The trouble for Nevin is simply that he’s been asked to supply an adequate defense for his client in an environment of secrecy and possible torture, while the awful wounds of 9-11 still haven’t begun to heal.

Here’s the real rub: the government of the United States wants to bring these guys to justice – we all do – but for largely political reasons has determined it cannot trust the normal, open American judicial process to work as it should. A decision by Attorney General Eric Holder to conduct the legal proceedings in a New York federal courtroom ignited a firestorm of protest, the Congress got involved and the Obama Justice Department backed down. The military commission with its secrecy, determination to protect “state secrets” and Kafkaesque rules is now what David Nevin and the other lawyers at Gitmo must deal with.

One of the toughest critics of the Gitmo process is the now-retired Air Force Colonel and one-time terrorist case prosecutor, Morris Davis, who resigned his commission and retired rather than go along with a Pentagon ruling that waterboarding was permissible in dealing with terror suspects.

“After a decade of starts and stops and revisions and failures, the system is already presumptively discredited,” Davis said in an interview recently with the Los Angeles Times. “That the apologists for the commissions say they are essentially the same, or virtually the same, or nearly the same as federal court — the fact that they have to put a qualifier on it proves it is not the same.”

Davis predicts that KSM will eventually be executed, a martyr’s death he wants, after wringing the maximum propoganda value from the proceedings. “If we execute him, we will be giving him exactly what he wants,” Davis said.

Our government’s zeal to protect secrets almost always leads to bad outcomes. The desire to protect the secrets tends to pervert the very process that the secret allegedly protects. In the Gitmo cases, the most likey outcome is conviction of KSM and the others for the unspeakable crimes of September 11, 2001 and, while that might feel like justice it also might look to the rest of the world as an outcome derived by means of a distorted and unfair process.

The fundamental strength of the United States, including a justice system that has rules, procedures and methods to protect even the guilty, ends up looking to our enemies like an updated Stalin-era show trial. If the 9-11 mastermind is guilty – and I have no doubt he is – then show the world the evidence in open court. Try him as the suspected criminal he is, not some super human hoarding great secrets, and use the strength of the American justice system to show just what kind of man he is.

We must have a system of justice that is better than those individuals to whom we apply it. It’s doubtful these commissions will pass the test of history and let’s hope we don’t regret that failure to live up to our own best standards.



Ten Years On…

Amid the tenth anniversary reflections over the terror attacks on New York and Washington there is much to ponder, remember and regret, including our response and its effectiveness.

Bill Keller, just stepped down as the top editor at The New York Times, used the tenth anniversary to revisit his own cheerleading for the Iraq war. Keller concludes “I think Operation Iraqi Freedom was a monumental blunder.”

No such reflection or any second thoughts from former Vice President Dick Cheney who told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “I think we made exactly the right decision (regarding the invasion of Iraq.)”

The weekend’s commemoration of September 11, 2001 was remarkably free of politics, but 9-11 and the war on terror, as Politico points out, continues to infuse our politics.

“Even as voters grow weary of the nation’s wartime footing,” Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman write at Politico, “Democrats and Republicans continue to seek out opportunities to wield the memory of 9/11 for electoral gain — whether that means using the Guantanamo Bay detention center as a wedge issue, courting the support of firefighters and police or attacking a proposed Islamic center near ground zero.”

So much was lost ten years ago and it is altogether fitting and proper that we regret and mourn that loss. We will do so for as long as people are alive who remember that day. But, we might do well to also reflect on the fleeting nature of the profound desire that existed in the days immediately after September 11 to come together as a country, share both grief and sacrifice and get our national response correctly calibrated. The Spirit of September 12, needless to say, did not last long.

Historian Julian Zelizer writes that our passion for partisanship couldn’t be overcome even by the tragedy of 9/11.

“Could the promise of September 12 ever be fulfilled,” Zelizer asks. “Certainly today there are enormous areas of consensus between the parties, such as over most counterterrorism policies, over the need for strong homeland security programs and even for strong military vigilance with countries such as North Korea and Pakistan.

“Nonetheless, the partisan forces that play out on the campaign trail are simply too great to overcome. If 9/11 taught us anything, it’s how deeply rooted partisanship is in our modern political culture. Even a tragedy of its magnitude could barely contain the forces that perpetually rip apart members of the two parties.

“Ten years ago, the parties came together. But they came together just for a brief spell. In the long span of history, it was as if the moment ended before either side could even blink.”

More serious than even the partisanship of our politics is the general failure of real reflection and analysis in the wake of that terrible day ten years back. A Dick Cheney can’t even hint that he has had a moment of pause considering all that has happened in a decade, including wars costing thousands of lives and perhaps $4 billion in treasure.

But reflect we must and not just on the horrible losses of a decade ago. Fareed Zakaria and others ask are we safer, was our response to 9/11 truly effective, have we improperly compromised our civil liberties and the American reputation for respecting the “rule of law,” has the re-ogranization of our intelligence system worked, and are we fated to wage an endless “war on terror?”

It is worth remembering, as Zakaria does, that “on the day before 9/11 the U.S. was at peace, had a large budget surplus, and oil was $28 a barrel. Today the U.S. is engaged in military operations across the globe, has a deficit of 1.5 trillion dollars and oil is $115 a barrel.”

A new Rasmussen survey says 66% of Americans think the country has “changed for the worst” since 9/11 and fewer than 50% think we’re winning our war on terror. To believe such surveys is to believe that the American people know that we haven’t gotten it right. As the past weekend illustrates, we remember well enough, but do we accumulate much knowledge along with the memory?

Bin Laden is dead and by most accounts his vastly diminished terror network is on the run, but it’s impossible to think – ten years on – that we are anywhere close to the end of the era that began on that spectacular September day a decade ago. Where do we go now? How will we know without more real reflection, without more effort at taking stock and admitting that maybe – just maybe – we have more learning to do?

A question for us – a question that really honors those who perished on 9/11 and in the wars that followed – is whether we will be smart enough to really assess the effectiveness of our response to the tragedy, and adjust as necessary, so that 20 or 50 years on the children of the victims of 9/11 will live in country that not only remembers their loss, but has learned from it as well.


The Gutsy Call

Getting Bin Laden

Of all the remarkable images over the last 24 hours or so, the tense scene in the White House Situation Room Sunday night tells most of what we need to know about the remarkable operation to capture or kill the evil mind behind Al Qaeda.

The President’s assistant for counter terrorism, John Brennan, called Barack Obama’s decision to send Navy Seals after Bin Laden “one of the gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory.” I’ve been wondering if there has been another moment – the gutsiet moment – in any recent presidency. I think not.

The famous Doolittle Raid on Japan in April 1942 gave the country a sense of hope in the wake of the military disaster at Pearl Harbor. The raid was planned and carried out after Franklin Roosevelt told his military advisers shortly after the Hawaii disaster that he would like to see the Japanese home island bombed as a morale boost. The raid was of little military significance, but it did have great morale and propoganda value.

George H.W. Bush launched the 1989 invasion of Panama to oust the tin horn dictator Manuel Noriega who was captured, held as a war prisoner and eventually tried and convicted. Hardly a transformative event, the invasion was roundly criticized even as Noriega’s crimes were exposed.

There are bound to be some comparison between the Bin Laden operation and the failed effort in 1980 to rescue the Americans held hostage in Iran. The very public failure of that mission damaged American prestige and undoubtedly contributed to President Jimmy Carter’s re-election lost later that year. The raid served to reinforce an image of Carter’s presidency as something less than successful.

Think for a moment about what the reaction would have been had the incredible operation Obama ordered last Friday not worked as it did. We’d be seeing stories today about the failure of the White House and the president to carefully calibrate the odds of going into Pakistan and not coming back. What if a helicopter with a dozen Seals had been shot down and American lives lost? What if Obama had opted for a “surgical strike” with a Predator drone or a Cruise missile that missed or even hit the mark, but could not provide positive identification of the target that the operation has produced?

Obama must have known that the only way to get Bin Laden was to confront him face-to-face with a young American who could capture him, or if that became impossible, kill him. Without Navy Seals on the ground in Pakistan, we would not have the “evidence,” the “treasure trove” of documents and computers, that those young men took from that compound where Bin Laden has apparently been holed up for five or six years.

Obama did indeed make the gutsy call. It’s difficult to compare all this with any other single event that has the same kind of drama, the world-wide impact and the transformative possibility.

Still, while the events around Bin Laden’s death have already assumed historical proportions, such transformative moments can, and do, change over time. I remember thinking as George W. Bush landed on an aircraft carrier and stood under that “Mission Accomplished” banner in 2003 that his re-election had just be secured.

Now, as history has moved on, the mission accomplished moment looks a whole lot different. I can’t help but wonder if the soon-to-be iconic photo of the President and his advisors huddled in the Situation Room watching the Bin Laden mission unfold will be seen ten years from now as we see it today.

It was a gutsy call and lots of history will follow it.



The Nazis Burned Books, Too

book burningNo Good Comes From This

Unfortunately there is a long history of humans believing they can destroy ideas by burning the books that contain those ideas. The practice hardly began with a crackpot preacher in Florida, but dates back to the Inquisition, the Spanish conquest of the “New World” and even ancient China.

In May of 1933, in the town where Martin Luther nailed his famous Theses to the church door, pro-Nazi students burned 25,000 books deemed “un-German.” Included were works by the German Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann, a guy named Hemingway and, of course, works by Karl Marx, Socialists and Jews. The pictures and what they foretold are haunting and should tell us something.

Two things about the story out of Florida are worth noting it seems to me. The first is the enormous media attention lavished on Rev. Terry Jones. Not bad for a guy, as Gail Collins pointed out, who has built a thriving congregation of “about 50 people.” In a matter of hours, Jones’ plan to burn the Quran went viral sparking protests in Afghanistan, worry about the impact on our soldiers in the field, comments from every politician in the nation, etc. More important, perhaps, the Aljazerra website has been all over the story.

Additionally, I’m struck by the fact – as we approach the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks – how far we have come, in the wrong direction, in building a worldwide consensus to oppose the radical forces that operate in the shadow of Islam.

I remember George W. Bush – megaphone in hand, standing on the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center – and the profound sense that the United States, at that huge moment in time, had the moral force to lead a worldwide effort to confront extremism. For a brief moment, the world was with us, but…well, apparently we blew it and here we are nine years later.

Now I fear the message sent by Rev, Jones, and folks like Newt Gingrich fulminating against a Muslim Cultural Center in lower Manhattan, paints America as unfaithful to our own professed and cherished traditions of religious freedom and tolerance. A perception of hypocrisy doesn’t play well in any culture.

Books – even books we would never read or whose content we abhor – are important things. They are symbols, as well as repositories of history, culture and, at a very important level, tolerance.

I’m not a big fan of Sidney Shelton or Barbara Cartland. In fact, I’ve never cracked a cover of either of those best selling authors, but they have huge followings and you have to respect that. I don’t read the Quran, either, but 22% of the people on the planet do and their numbers are growing at a rate faster than the world’s population.

Sending a billion and a half people regular telegrams from America with a message that we hate them doesn’t seem like a winning strategy.

It also doesn’t seem like America.