The debate over the Islamic center in lower Manhattan—the mosque with a pool and a prayer room—is not a matter of being for religious liberty and thus for the center, nor is it one of being against the center and therefore a bigot. Sometimes life offers such stark moral crises. This is not one of them.
The Obama White House is now feeling the effects of an inescapable historical fact: presidents rarely enjoy prolonged popularity in real time. They just do not. In memory we recast reality and choose to think—wrongly—that the leaders we consider great were thought of in such terms in their own eras.
At the conclusion of the arguments in Perry v. Schwarzenegger in June—at issue was the constitutionality of the ban on gay marriage that California voters passed in 2008—the leading attorney for the state found himself in a bit of verbal jousting with the judge, Vaughn R. Walker. “The marital relationship is fundamental to the existence and survival of the race,” said the lawyer, Charles J. Cooper. “Without the marital relationship, your honor, society would come to an end.”
A friend I thought I knew well startled me the other evening with a sweeping literary judgment that led me, for the first time, to question how much I truly understand him. The subject was mysteries and thrillers. “Oh, I can’t stand books like that,” he said, flatly, leaving no room for argument.
My family and I have spent most of July in Tennessee, which has put me in the position of being in touch with but not obsessed by the news cycle. (Though there is not really a cycle to news anymore. It is more of a treadmill.) My first glimmer of things comes from my e-mail, with its news alerts, and last week, inevitably, I found myself following the strange saga of Shirley Sherrod, a hitherto unknown employee of the Department of Agriculture.
It had been, Sen. John Sparkman of Alabama said, a “rocky road.” The year was 1968—one of those years that ranks with A.D. 33, 1066, and 1776 as an inarguable landmark—and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had spent hours in executive session struggling with the Vietnam War. Sen. Albert Gore Sr. of Tennessee dismissed concerns that holding public debates about the war would be divisive and undercut America’s chances of victory.
She is an unlikely emblem of the new. Queen Elizabeth II’s chief public virtue, in fact, has long seemed to be her stability and sturdiness. In introducing her to the United Nations General Assembly last week, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said as much, referring to the British monarch as an “anchor for our age.”
The American economy is sputtering, and we are running out of options. Interest rates can’t go any lower. Another burst of government spending—whether a good or bad idea—looks politically impossible. Is there anything that could protect us from the dangers of stagnation or a double dip?
In case you missed it—which is unlikely if you are reading this—President Obama gave an Oval Office speech last Tuesday on the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Though the remarks were hardly the stuff of legend—Lincoln’s ghost need not fear that the Address to the Nation of June 15, 2010, will replace Gettysburg in the American imagination—neither were they as bad as many commentators decided they were.
As the father of two formidable daughters (one is 5, the other 2, but they already seem formidable to me), I loved the splendid evening female candidates had last Tuesday in primaries from South Carolina to Arkansas to California. Leaving aside the politics of the winners, the returns ratified the cultural and political shift that took place in 2008, when Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin played central roles.
A drama that played out last week in Detroit is that rarest of public moments: one in which everyone involved acted with grace, giving the country an example not only of sportsmanship but of how to conduct oneself in politics, in business, in journalism, and in daily life. Can BP's CEO and those most directly engaged in the spill and its implications move forward with the same candor and clarity?
Americans easily forget about war and soldiers’ sacrifices because so few of us have any direct connection to those who are fighting now. The military has become another country, a place where a disproportionate number of disadvantaged young Americans go to find their way.
Government is not the root of all evil; neither are corporations. But governments fail, and corporations fail. Look no farther than the Gulf of Mexico for evidence of the culpability and responsibility of both entities for an unfolding and spreading disaster.
Here is a wild proposition, one that many who obsessively follow politics did not expect to entertain before Memorial Day. What if Barack Obama is not a tone-deaf big spender who misread the public on large-scale government reform such as health care, but is, instead, what he has always been: a smart, steady, and unobtrusively savvy politician whose long-term bets (his first being winning the presidency itself) are well--considered? Only a few months ago it was, as Republican House leader John Boehner put it, Armageddon on the Potomac, and Obama and the Democrats were to be the chief victims of the furies. I am mixing Christian and pagan imagery, but you get the point.
When I was growing up, I was semi-addicted to the novels of Herman Wouk, particularly The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. They did not glamorize warfare, but they did humanize it. For the generations who came of age long after World War II, books such as Wouk’s gave words such as Auschwitz and Midway and Leyte all the more meaning, for readers experienced them through the lives (and deaths) of the novelist’s characters. In the closing pages of his epic, Wouk mused on the tragedy of history, and on its redemptive possibilities. “The beginning of the end of War,” he said, “lies in Remembrance.”
He did not like the question very much. Last Wednesday afternoon, at the Peter G. Peterson Foundation’s summit on fiscal responsibility, I asked Peter Orszag, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, whether unemployment would have to rise even further for the country to see our long-term economic challenges as a true, rather than a theoretical, crisis. Orszag winced slightly, which speaks well of him as a human being: it would be morally reprehensible to wish more people the pain of joblessness. “The unemployment rate seems pretty high to me,” he said, “and the share of the unemployed who are long-term unemployed is also quite elevated.”
Here we go again. On April 15 a federal judge in Wisconsin ruled that the National Day of Prayer, slated for May 6, was unconstitutional. The usual voices have been heard rising in objection (Sarah Palin and Franklin Graham among them) and, proving yet again that President Obama is no radical, the administration announced its own plans to challenge the decision. One can make a reasonable case that the weight of custom puts the fairly banal idea of an occasionless, generic day of prayer (how many of you even knew that we have had such a day every year since 1952?) on the safe side of the Establishment Clause. But the right is, as ever, taking things a beat too far. Lest anyone try to convince you that God should be separated from the state, Palin said, our Founding Fathers, they were believers.Governor Palin's history is rather shaky. Religious liberty—the freedom to worship as one chooses, or not to worship—is a central element of the American creed. Yes, many of the Founders were...
On a beautiful autumn morning in 2007, a small but important pageant of American history unfolded in the East Room of the White House. The occasion was a ceremony, hosted by President George W. Bush, to present the Presidential Medal of Freedom to a small group of distinguished Americans: Brian Lamb of C-Span was one, as was the ailing Henry Hyde, represented by his son Bob. Another was Harper Lee, the Alabama-born writer whose To Kill a Mockingbird gave the whites of the Jim Crow South an object lesson in how they might at least begin to atone for the sins of segregation....
The country is in a bad place at the moment. As Evan Thomas and Eve Conant report this week, we are seeing a disturbing number of threats against lawmakers, a grim manifestation of the inchoate political and cultural anger on the American right. It is natural to try to reassure ourselves that the talk is coming only from nuts and small-timers, but nuts and small-timers with guns (or, in the case of Oklahoma City 15 years ago next week, truck bombs) change history. Words matter, for extreme rhetoric creates a climate in which those on the fringe may threaten, or even take, extreme measures, and that way madness lies.Here is the story of one threat, told through the words of FBI Special Agent Carolyn W. Woodbury of the bureau's Seattle office. Last week, in the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Washington state, Woodbury detailed her investigation into Charles Alan Wilson, who is now charged with threatening to "assault and murder a United States official"—Washington Sen....
David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, is a journalist other journalists would like to hate. But in every craft—athletics, banking, politics, whatever—there are a few people of such skill that envy gives way to admiration, and one is left feeling not hostility but respect. In my field, Remnick is one of those exceptional practitioners, and as a reader I have long benefited from his mastery of the art of the profile. Look up his pieces on—to pick just a few—Gary Hart, Murray Kempton, Mario Cuomo, Al Gore, and Elaine Pagels to get a sense of how a writer can best bring empathy and judgment to the most complicated of subjects: human beings.This week Remnick is publishing a biography of President Obama. The book, titled The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, comes at an especially opportune moment, for its reporting and its analysis turn our attention from the hurly-burly of the arena of the president's life in the White House to the man himself, a figure at once...
Pat Sajak is somewhat better known than Boethius (and Vanna White surely is), but this being Holy Week for Christians, let us take a moment to consider the philosopher who defined the wheel of fortune long before the game show. A sixth-century Roman Christian with a tragic sensibility about the intrinsic limitations of the world, Boethius wrote Consolation of Philosophy while imprisoned, and he framed his work as a conversation between himself and the personification of "Philosophy," who at a critical juncture speaks in the voice of Fortune: "Inconstancy is my very essence; it is the game I never cease to play as I turn my wheel in its ever changing circle, filled with joy as I bring the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top." Comforting words, but as I have grown older I have become more skeptical of them: they feel more like an excuse than an explanation.Yes, we are all subject to chance, and at times we fail to bend the world to our purposes. But we are also creatures of...