Realism We Can Believe In

The left wanted a messiah, and the right believed it had found the perfect foil: a Democratic president with an exotic name and an alleged disdain for the largely mythic rural world of God-fearing gun owners. In truth Barack Obama—like the nation he leads and the world that is watching closely—eludes glib categorization. For a long time he believed that he was successful in elite circles (Columbia, Harvard Law) because other people, black and white, saw in him what they wanted to see, not necessarily what was there. Now no sentient person should be in much doubt about the nature of the 44th president. The -Afghanistan deliberations and the ensuing address at West Point give us, I think, the clearest insight into the real Barack Obama that we have yet had. He is comfortable with ambiguity and with tragedy, but believes, with Franklin Roosevelt's old Groton headmaster, Endicott Peabody, that "the great fact to remember is that the trend of civilization itself is forever upward; that a...

Why Dick Cheney Should Run in 2012

Gallup is not asking about him in its prospective polling, and his daughter Liz's recent Fox News Sunday allusion to a presidential run provoked good-natured laughter, as though the suggestion were just a one-liner. Float the hypothetical in political conversation, and people roll their eyes dismissively.But I think we should be taking the possibility of a Dick Cheney bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 more seriously, for a run would be good for the Republicans and good for the country. (The sound you just heard in the background was liberal readers spitting out their lattes.)Why? Because Cheney is a man of conviction, has a record on which he can be judged, and whatever the result, there could be no ambiguity about the will of the people. The best way to settle arguments is by having what we used to call full and frank exchanges about the issues, and then voting. A contest between Dick Cheney and Barack Obama would offer us a bracing referendum on competing...

A Look Inside Iran's Regime Driven By Nuclear Ambitions

They warned him not to talk. When Maziar Bahari was finally freed after 118 days in an Iranian prison on phony espionage charges, he was instructed never to speak of what had happened in jail. If he told his story, his interrogator said, he would be hunted down. "We can put people in a bag no matter where in the world they are," the interrogator said. "No one can escape from us."This week's cover is Maziar's declaration of independence from the threats of a regime that imprisoned and tortured him for months. As you would expect, it is a compelling narrative, told by a skilled journalist and filmmaker. But it is something else as well: a rare glimpse inside the mind and motives of a regime riven with internal rivalries and driven by nuclear ambitions.The revelations—of paranoia, irrationality, insecurity, pride, and fury—are unsettling. Diplomacy and security depend on having rational actors in positions of power. Maziar's experience suggests that there are rising elements of the...

Why Palin Matters to Obama—And to You

Richard Nixon sensed trouble. seated in the cow palace in San Francisco at the GOP convention in 1964, he listened as Barry Goldwater said: "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty—is—no—vice." A 41-second ovation ensued. Then Goldwater continued: "And let me remind you also—that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." As Rick Perlstein reconstructs the scene in his book Before the Storm, Nixon reached over to keep his wife, Pat, from rising politely with the crowd. Later Dwight Eisenhower called the Goldwater speech an offense to "the whole American system." The crowds did not care: Goldwater was one of their own, riding in from Arizona to take the GOP from the Ikes and the Rockefellers.Goldwater was a seminal figure, and is too often caricatured as a nuclear cowboy by the left and as a conservative John the Baptist by the right. But as Perlstein's reporting makes clear, Goldwater was seen in real time as an extremist, as the embodiment of...

Rethinking the Lessons of Vietnam

Napoleon was not a particularly philosophical man, but an observation of his that has come down to us bears thinking about. "What is history," he once asked rhetorically, "but a fable agreed-upon?"Well, it is lots of other things, chiefly a story of nuances and near misses. The most useful way to think historically—that is, the way to frame the present in terms established by past experience—is to remember that we are often too quick to package the past into Napoleonic fairy tales. Countries shape and reshape their pasts in the way individuals bring order to their own experiences by creating internal psychological narratives in which memory stokes both hope and fear.There is much danger here, of course. Like individuals, nations always risk falling into denial or can fall prey to reinventing reality to smooth out the rough edges of the past, turning the complexity of experience into too-neat morality tales. We should instead be always open to rethinking and reinvestigation, for in...

The Great American Ideological Crackup

Shortly after the 2004 presidential election, I was chatting with a senior figure in the Democratic Party when, inevitably, the talk turned to why John Kerry had lost. My interlocutor's theory of the case: the voters did not know the truth about George W. Bush. Why didn't they know the truth? I asked. The reply: because of Roger Ailes.On hearing that a particularly dopey man we both knew had gone to rehab for drinking, a friend of mine once sent me an e-mail that said: "You know, that's an awful lot to blame on alcohol." To adapt the image, the 2004 victory is an awful lot to credit Ailes with. The head of Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel, Ailes (whom I know) is a talented and influential man. He rose from The Mike Douglas Show to become a maker of presidents, from Nixon to Bush 41, and his channel is a big player in our politics. But if he and Fox News were as omnipotent as Democrats fear, John McCain and Sarah Palin would be in the White House.Still, to many liberals, Murdoch and...

Meacham: McChrystal and Gates on Afghan Debate

Coming from Robert Gates—the epitome of the soft-spoken, buttoned-down public servant—the rebuke was particularly striking. Military officers, Gates said last week, should give their advice to America's civilian leadership "candidly but privately," an allusion to Gen. Stanley McChrystal's remarks in London about the need for counterinsurgency, not counterterror, in Afghanistan. Less noted was the fact that Gates included civilians in his admonition, a broader criticism of all leaks. But the general's comments, which came in a question-and-answer session after a speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, are the ones that have roiled Washington and the foreign-policy establishment, producing a head-snapping conversation in which conservatives are cheering the suggestion of dissent within the ranks and liberals are going on about how military officers should shut up and salute. Consistency, though, has never been an especially widespread partisan virtue.The...

Editor's Letter - Meacham

On Nov. 2, 1945—All Souls' Day in the Catholic tradition—J. Robert Oppenheimer spoke to scientists at Los Alamos. "It is clear to me that wars have changed," he said. "It is clear to me that if these first bombs—the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki—that if these can destroy 10 square miles, then that is really quite something. It is clear to me that they are going to be very cheap if anyone wants to make them." Oppenheimer basically had it right: nuclear weapons are not particularly cheap, but the knowledge, once unleashed, could not be contained. This was a persistent concern among the scientists who made the Manhattan Project come to life, including Albert Einstein, who wrote FDR in 1939 about "extremely powerful bombs of a new type." (The Pulitzer Prize–winning book American Prometheus, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, is essential reading about the beginnings of the bomb.) Those present at the creation feared what has come to pass: the steady proliferation of the means of...

Know Thy Enemy. And Then Defeat Him.

For several weeks now—beginning in the last days of August—people inside the Obama administration, the military, and the diplomatic community have been unusually unanimous on the subject of Afghanistan. Their refrain: we do not know what is going to happen; no one knows what is going to happen. Then they pause, and, in case we missed the point, say: we do not know what is going to happen.This is at once unsettling and reassuring. One would like to think that the leaders of the nation have the course and conduct of an eight-year war well in hand, and it is clear that they do not. But it is also clear—and this is the reassuring part—that the president and the military are intent on a healthy and thorough review of the policy."Know thy enemy" is an ancient principle of warfare; in his Art of War, Sun Tzu suggests that victory will come only when warriors know both themselves and their foes. Knowing more about the enemy was the animating idea for this week's cover on the Taliban, a...

Meacham: Words Have Consequences

The wars of the Obama presidency—the tea parties, the heckling, the charges of racism—are covered breathlessly, but they are, sadly, all too familiar. Controversial presidents have always inspired epic love and epic hate; Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, TR, FDR, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush are among those who commanded the loyalty of millions and endured the enmity of many. Given our short national attention span, it may come as a surprise to some that our present ferocity is the historical rule, not the exception. To want to look backward sentimentally is understandable: it is more pleasant to be a Scarlett O'Hara, thinking about tomorrow, than it is to be a William Faulkner, for whom the past is never past.But the airbrushing of what has come before leaves us ill equipped to judge the significance of the passing scene. That is why the sooner the political conversation takes into account the fact that there has never—never—been a golden age of bipartisanship,...

I Was a Teenage Death Panelist

Though I did not realize it on either occasion, I have twice served on death panels. The first was more than two decades ago, when my grandmother was ill and there was little hope of recovery. My grandfather asked me (in passing, to be sure; I was 16) whether we ought to prolong her life by artificial means or let her die what I clearly remember his calling "a noble death." Then, last year at this time, my father was diagnosed with a fatal case of lung cancer (three packs of cigarettes a day for 40 years will do that to you) and quickly ended up on a respirator for several days, with, the doctors advised, no hope of ever waking up. His wife and I consulted over a painful weekend and made what was to us a clear decision. A priest was summoned, prayers said, and the machines turned off. He died within moments.Such situations are not what the right-wing opponents of President Obama's health-care reform were thinking of when they coined the term "death panels," a lie crafted to foment...

Meacham: We Shouldn't Withdraw From Afghanistan

The answer came quickly, and clearly. in may president Obama gave NEWSWEEK an interview on what he had learned in his first months in office. When asked what had been his most difficult decision, Obama answered without hesitation: the order to send 21,000 more American troops to Afghanistan in this, the eighth year of the war there. Later in the conversation, Obama said that the American people, broadly defined, understand and appreciate the complexity of many of the problems facing the country. The implication was straightforward: that he, with his professorial talent for explanation, was the man for a moment when America, or at least the chunk of it that had voted for him, was willing to hear him out, often at length.I recalled these points of the president's last week during one of Washington's periodic outbreaks of attention to the war in Afghanistan. The occasion was the submission of a report by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the new commander there, which reportedly details a...

Understanding Teddy Kennedy

In the 1950s, Charlottesville, Va., was—as it largely remains—an idyllic place of Jeffersonian architecture, Blue Ridge vistas, and seemingly endless white horse-country fences. It was fashionable in certain Eastern circles for children of the Ivy League to journey south for law school at the University of Virginia. Louis Auchincloss did it, and so, in 1956, did Edward Moore Kennedy. "At law school he was already known for three things that stayed with him: drinking, driving fast, and women," says Charles Peters, the founding editor of the Washington Monthly, who overlapped with Kennedy at UVA. The substantive side of Kennedy—the one that has received so much attention since he died of brain cancer at 77—was in evidence, too, if less noted. "He and John Tunney, who became a senator from California, won the moot court, and you didn't win that if you didn't have good lawyerly instincts. That was a big deal."There it all was, in Albemarle County in the years of Eisenhower: Teddy...

Meacham: Kennedy, Personality, and Power

It fell to him, the youngest, to tell his father. On the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, Edward Moore Kennedy was in Washington, presiding over the U.S. Senate—a ceremonial chore assigned to junior lawmakers—when word came that the president had been shot in Dallas. He found his sister Eunice Shriver, and together they flew from the capital to Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod. From there they were driven to Hyannis. Ambassador Joseph Kennedy Sr., stricken by stroke but still mentally alert, was napping. Unsure how to break the news to the president's father, the household staff had unplugged the patriarch's television, telling the old man that it was on the blink. When the senior Kennedy pointed to the plug, Teddy put it back in the wall and surreptitiously ripped the wires out of the back of the set. The next morning, after mass, Teddy and Eunice returned to their father's bedroom. "There's been a bad accident," Teddy said. "The president has been hurt very badly." The...

Meacham: Hitler and Health Care Don't Mix

Churchill should have known better. Campaigning in 1945, he delivered a speech suggesting that an unchecked Labour government would impose a socialist regime whose survival would require "some form of Gestapo." The British people had just finished nearly six years of war with Nazi Germany—the campaign fell between VE and VJ days—and recoiled at their prime minister's comparison of an opposition party with what he had once called "all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule" in the noble days of 1940.His wife, Clementine, hated the evocation of the Nazi regime, and said so in advance, but the prime minister, his blood up, charged forward nonetheless. The speech became a touchstone for those who wanted to paint Churchill—the man who had saved the nation—as a hopeless reactionary. The Conservatives lost, and Churchill received, as he put it, "the Order of the Boot."The important point for us is that even Winston Churchill, at war in the political arena, became so agitated by the passions of...

Mike Ross, a Man From Hope

Mike Ross is not exactly what you would call a colorful character, at least not in the context of national political theater. An Arkansas Democrat and five-term congressman, he is an amiable former state legislator and chief of staff to his state's lieutenant governor. Before the past few weeks, it is safe to say that few people outside Arkansas's Fourth Congressional District had heard of him, and you have to have been engaged in the details of the struggle over the president's health-care bill to have heard of him even now. But Ross—who is, inevitably, from Hope—is not a bad way to gauge where real people stand on the big questions being debated in Washington.And what do I mean by "real people"? Pretty much anybody who is not Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin. It is not news that there is often a disconnect between the topical and the truly long--lasting: there will always be human-interest stories or tabloid fare. (It all depends on your point of view. Some people wept when Michael...

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