Wednesday, March 31, 2004


When I think of a National Security Adviser, I think of someone like the NSA in the movie “Clear and Present Danger.” This guy hunted drug lords, made side deals with other drug lords, bossed around the special forces, betrayed the special forces and committed numerous other miss-deeds. This guy was obviously the baddest ass in an administration full of bad asses.

While no real world National Security Adviser has been so venal (to the best of our knowledge), the NSA has typically been the toughest most hard headed person in the White House. One of Ronald Reagan’s National Security Advisers, Richard Allen, was a legendary shadowy figure who was always up to god-knows-what. Another stereotypical National Security Adviser was Henry Kissinger, arguably the most reliable American practitioner of realpolitik over the past half century.

The tough guy image of the National Security Adviser was dealt an irreversible setback in 1987, however, when the then NSA, Bud MacFarlane, decided that the appropriate reaction to the burgeoning Iran-Contra scandal was to scarf down a bottle of sleeping pills. He didn’t do his reputation as a tough guy any help during his testimony in the Iran-Contra witch-hunt, er, hearings, either. During the hearings, Bud became resentful over what he felt was the kid-gloves the committee was handling him with. In response, MacFarlane, proudly proclaimed, “I am not a fragile flower.” Lord knows no one had ever confused Dick Allen with a fragile flower.


While he never made it all the way to NSA, you'd think the Clinton administration's Joseph Nye would have had a similar tough-guy persona as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs and as Chair of the National Intelligence Council. If you thought that, of course, you'd be very mistaken. Wrested from the mean streets of Harvard Yard to deal with the world’s toughest customers, Nye repeatedly showed himself unable to deal with the kind of people who would rather shoot off AK-47s than study their Clausewitz. While a fine professor, Nye was a lot better at writing about realpolitik than practicing it.

In order to give us a flashback to those halcyon days of the 90’s when any Mogadishu warlord could make the world’s only super-power quake, Nye published a piece on the concept of “soft power” in yesterday’s Washington Post. The mere notion of someone who held his former post talking about something so mushy and wimpy as “soft power” is on its face absurd. A guy like that should be holding forth on subjects like secret assassinations and killer predator drones.

But the way Nye talks about the concept is also irritating. Note the way he takes the tone of a Harvard professor frustrated by the class dunce who just can’t keep up with his brilliance in the following passage:

“After the war in Iraq, I spoke about soft power to a conference co-sponsored by the Army. One of the speakers was Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. When someone in the audience asked Rumsfeld for his opinion on soft power, he replied, ‘I don't know what it means.’ That is part of our problem. Some of our leaders don't understand the importance of soft power in our post-Sept. 11 world.”

What’s especially delightful about that little Rumsfeld quote is how Nye doesn’t even realize that Rumsfeld was insulting him. Rummy wasn’t being dense, he was being dismissive. The concept of soft power is of course neither a new one nor a particularly complex one. Rumsfeld’s no dummy - I’m sure he understands it. What Rumsfeld meant, no doubt, was that it’s such a nebulous and undefined concept that it really doesn’t warrant much discussion, let alone a “conference co-sponsored by the Army.” What Rumsfeld was saying, in so many words was that soft power may be nice, but cruise missiles and tanks are nicer. And a lot more effective.

Nye goes on to give soft power way too much credit. “Soft power is the ability to get what we want by attracting others rather than by threatening or paying them…Think of Franklin D. Roosevelt's Four Freedoms in Europe at the end of World War II… Seduction is always more effective than coercion”
Now, if you took a poll of our World War II enemies, I’d bet they’d tell you that they found our hard power to be a lot more influential than our soft power. I’d bet they’d say our hard power had a lot more to do with us getting “what we wanted.” Furthermore, I bet a lot of the residents of Dresden or Nagasaki found some of our methods to be pretty damn “coercive.”

Yes, Roosevelt’s rhetoric was inspiring. But can Nye really think that the “Four Freedoms” had anything to do with winning either the war or the peace? Our WWII enemies reformed not because they saw the light. They reformed because they were abjectly defeated and they had no other choice. Naturally, Nye fancies “soft-power” playing a similarly prominent role in winning the war on terror. While he does concede that “hard power” will be necessary for the real hard core Jihadis, it’s obvious where Joe’s heart lies.


I’m not saying that soft power doesn’t have its uses. I’m also not saying that the use of soft power and hard power are mutually exclusive. Obviously both have their places and their functions. For instance, there’s a lot of things about, say France for instance, that we might like tweaked. These areas would be an ideal forum for “soft power.” But war, real war, is an entirely different beast.

The problem is that Nye, like a lot of mushy-headed academics, actually thinks that the current war is a war of ideas. It isn’t. To date, it’s been a war of bombed train lines and airliners flying into high rises and other atrocities. This is a war of blood and iron, like all the real wars that have preceded it. The term “war of ideas” is but a cute metaphor, nothing more. Furthermore, as today’s events in Fallujah showed, entire populations will have to be coerced into change. Some citizens will be more willing than others, but coercion will be part of the deal. Once again, the war on terror isn’t a metaphorical war. It’s the real deal.

This is no more a war of ideas than WWII was. I don’t know for sure, but I don‘t think many folks in the 1940’s were so confused as to actually think it might be relevant to ask why the Germans hated us. I doubt that there was even a single Ivy League navel contemplator who thought it was necessary to engage the “ideas” that under-girded Nazism. Such an exercise would have been ludicrous. A much more pressing project was determining how Nazism could be defeated.

Defeating the Axis had nothing to do with convincing them of the validity of our ideas. Hitler only “saw reason” in the bunker. After Hitler saw reason and the SS saw reason and the Wermacht saw reason, most of the Nazi assholes who followed or served them decided to see reason also. Similarly, someday soon, Osama bin Laden will see reason in a cave in Afghanistan. So will the Baathist dead-enders in Iraq and mullahs in Iran. And in quick order the Jihadi assholes who follow them will see reason also.

Note: A prior version of this column states that Professor Nye was once National Securtity Adviser. While the Clinton Administration made numerous mistakes, having Joe Nye as the National Security Adviser was not among them. I regret the error.

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

James Frederick Dwight

Tuesday, March 30, 2004


Abe Foxman that is, the head of the ADL. Maybe “disingenuous” Abe would be more appropriate. Or maybe “petty and unwise” would get more quickly to the heart of things. I’ve ripped Abe and the ADL a couple of times on these pages, and I’ve promised to leave it alone. But now I can’t. As a Jew, I have to let it be known that he doesn’t speak for all of us. He certainly doesn’t speak for me.

For those who were willing to give Abe the benefit of the doubt regarding his complaints about Mel Gibson’s “The Passion,” I respectfully submit the following:

March 21, 2004
London Sunday Times
Gibson's next film will be a Bible 'western'
John Harlow and Maurice Chittenden

As The Passion of the Christ bursts on to 300 British cinema screens this week Mel Gibson, its writer, producer and director, is heading for a row with the Jewish community over his next project.

He is planning to film the story of the Maccabees, a tribe that led the Jews in revolt against their Syrian overlords 165 years before Jesus was born. Their victory in reconsecrating the temple of Jerusalem is celebrated every December in the festival of Hanukkah.

Jewish leaders fear that Gibson, who may postpone a fourth Mad Max film to make The Maccabees, has likened them to ranchers from the Wild West.

"They made war. They stuck by their guns and they came out winning. It's like a western," Gibson said last week.

Abraham H Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League which was set up in America in 1913 to fight anti-Semitism, said: "Thanks for trying to make it up to us, but no thanks. The last thing we need is Jewish history turned into a western. In his hands we would probably lose."

So Gibson wants to make a film lionizing Jews, and Abe’s got a problem with that. Why? Perhaps it’s been personal the whole time. As I laid out in these pages last week, Gibson has long been a whipping boy for the left. One can only conclude that Foxman’s got a bigger problem with Gibson than he ever did with Gibson’s film. If that is indeed the case, Abe’s attacks on “The Passion” are particularly risible.

At the risk of stating the obvious, anti-Semitism at this point in history is a huge problem. And yet Abe is apparently using the anti-Semitism card to settle a personal and political score. If this weren’t a political issue, why would he possibly deny the olive branch of a gifted film-maker offering to memorialize one of Jewry’s proudest moments? Does any other explanation make sense?

When I wrote my piece on “The Passion,” I opined that the controversy would be quickly forgotten. A friend of mine, a Catholic, wrote to politely disabuse me of the notion that Abe’s actions and Frank Rich’s actions have no real impact. His thoughts on the matter were sufficiently cogent that I’m reprinting them here in their entirety:


Read your piece on the “The Passion of the Christ”. I haven’t seen it, but that won’t stop me from commenting on it either. I’m less inclined to be as charitable as to the motives of Gibson’s critics, particularly Abe Foxman, than you are. If you look at the timeline on the anti-Passion fulminating, Foxman was the origin of most of it and his starting point was receipt of the “leaked” draft of the script.

I think Foxman had a pretty simple choice to be made on receipt of the script, either:

a. Approach Gibson privately, try to work with him to tone down references that he viewed as overtly inflammatory and then go hand and hand with Gibson and a few Evangelicals to the public saying together “whatever you think of this movie, it should not be an excuse for anti-Semitism, interfaith dialog is at an all time high point, let’s not overlook our common heritage, etc., etc, etc”; or

b. Go public loudly, paint Gibson as an anti-Semite, try to “shame” distributors and theater owners into not touching the movie and line up old line Protestant PC-divinity school types and media talking heads to denounce the movie for you. In other words pull a power play. This route also has the benefit of getting the ADL and Abe Foxman in the paper as the defenders of American Jews.

Maybe “a” happened and Gibson shrewdly told Foxman to stick his complaints where the sun doesn’t shine (as Frank Rich has suggested) to create buzz, or, more likely in my mind, Abe decided that pulling a Jesse Jackson meant more donations for the ADL and more publicity for Abe Foxman and, if it worked, more power for the ADL the next time someone didn’t give the ADL approval over a controversial script. While I will certainly agree that there were critics of the movie who had good faith concerns that the movie would renew the old “Jews as Christ-killers” slander, Foxman’s antics (and those of Frank Rich) strike me as calculated to keep the issue on the media front burner.

At the end of the day I think that much as Rev. Jackson’s behavior corrodes inter-race relations, Foxman’s behavior causes harm to the interests of Jews. At a minimum, I think his behavior burns up a portion of the reservoir of good will Israeli and American Jews have built up in the Evangelical community over the last 25 years. I also have to think that more than a few Christians have to wonder what kind of fun house mirror the ADL views American Christians through. Most of what was coming out of the ADL over the last 6 months has made it sound as though the Cossacks were sharpening their sabers just on the other side of the hill.

In today’s world, with anti-Semitism on the rise in Europe and the Jihadis looking for a quick and easy way to wipe out as many Jews as possible, crying ”wolf” is not a luxury that American Jews and Americans in general can afford. So, I’m a little less sanguine than you about the harm this controversy has caused.

As I’ve reflected on the matter, I’ve concluded that my correspondent makes a compelling case. Abe and Frank Rich have done harm. Amazingly, they’re intent on doing more. While I have no problem with them setting about making themselves look like asses with an amazingly dogged determination, this is about more than them. Abe is one of the putative leaders of the American Jewish community. He owes it to us to conduct himself like a leader. He has no right to engage in pissing contests with Hollywood stars while wielding “anti-Semitism” like a club.

Abe – it’s time to stop. Now.

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

James Frederick Dwight

Sunday, March 28, 2004


For the past 12 years, I've occasionally spent my Saturdays teaching gifted public school 6th graders. The program I teach at is based at a prestigious private school located a couple of miles outside of Boston. As it was for every other institution in the country, the week of the 9/11 attacks was a unique one for us. Right after the attacks (which came on a Tuesday), there was a question of whether or not we should even have class that following Saturday. Remember what it was like that week? There truly was a question of whether or not anything in the country would ever be the same again.

Of course we decided in short order to have class on that Saturday. On Thursday of that week, the principal of the school sent out a memo detailing what our approach to 9/11 should be. While the program offered roughly 20 classes, my class (which focused on current events and politics) was the only one for which 9/11 might have any immediate relevance. Still, the principal thought it would be ridiculous to have any activity take place a mere four days after the attack without acknowledging the attack and how it changed things. Thus, she issued a memo on how we as teachers should consider dealing with this issue.

I don’t remember a lot about what the memo said, but I do remember the controversy that its mere issuance occasioned. Several members of the faculty thought it was arrogant that we should even touch on the subject. After all, all our students attended normal schools during the week – surely if there was anything regarding the 9/11 attacks that warranted conversation, the public schools would have handled it during the three prior days. Another concern was that, psychologically speaking, it was critical that the kids feel safe. How could we be sure that whatever we did in our classes would generate this allegedly critical feeling of safety?

Whatever specific advice this memo gave, it wasn’t particularly memorable. What was memorable was its conclusion which in so many words stated the following: This is a teachable moment. History occurred this week. It is our job as teachers to help our students think about what happened and make conclusions and judgments about what happened. It is also our job to help them to decide what should come next.

I loved that memo. I loved that it was issued, and I loved that it mandated that we must deal with this. I also loved the way it subtly acknowledged the fact that a lot of public school teachers would sooner do away with tenure than deal with an issue as tough as this one. Of course, since my class focused on current events, there was no doubt that I was going to spend all my time with the kids talking about what had happened four days ago. But I loved the fact that the other teachers were also mandated to take the leadership role that their profession requires.

I remember a lot about that Saturday, but one vignette stands out. The school that hosts this program is approximately two miles as the bird flies from Boston’s Logan Airport. It’s also two miles as the airplane flies, and many of those airplanes that approach Logan do so by flying approximately 2000 feet above our campus. You might remember that after 9/11, all air traffic was shut down for three days. So this Saturday was the first day that the skies were full of traffic again. Before classes start, many of the students and teachers congregate outside for chatting and talking and game playing. And about every two minutes, another airplane flew right over our heads. We all looked up at each plane’s approach, looking at them very differently than we had a week earlier. You could see that the kids understood the fact that their world had changed every bit as well as their teachers did.

During my class, one of the kids began the session by complaining that all he heard from his teachers and his parents that we were safe and we didn’t have to worry but he didn’t understand how that could be the case. After all, did the bond traders at Cantor Fitzgerald feel imperiled on that beautiful Tuesday morning? This kid’s parents, and some of his classmates’ parents as well, had tried to re-assure their kids but in so doing had only made things worse. Gifted and talented 11 year olds are pretty damn smart. They saw these largely unsupported claims of safety as signs that the adults were scared. And that didn’t help.

As we conversed in my class, the kids who hadn’t previously had their fears assuaged began to feel better. I think it was because for the first time in four days someone in authority gave them the truth. I acknowledged that we were fighting a fanatical foe that wanted to kill us. But I also told them that we had defeated such foes in the past. I also told them that part of the reason we were attacked was because we allowed ourselves to be vulnerable. While that would be little consolation to those who had lost loved ones in the attack, it gave us hope for the future. We were most certainly capable of doing better. I didn’t promise an easy road. But I did say that we as a country controlled much of our own destiny.

This whole day was brought to mind earlier this week by an email exchange I had with a friend. She has a highly intelligent ten year old who had some questions regarding the issues of the day. The questions, presented below verbatim, were as follows:

1) What is the probability of a terrorist attack on the eastern seaboard of the United States?

2) What is the point of the color coded terror alert system? Doesn't it encourage terrorists to move when we lower the color and let down our guard?

3) Is it true that George Bush knew about 9/11 and didn't do anything to stop it? My friend told me that and said that there was a congressional committee investigating that.

4) How come the NYT called Sheik Yassin a spiritual leader?

Through his mother. I sent the following response:

1) Regarding attacks on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States

An attack is very likely. They're trying to hit us constantly. The law of averages being what it is, eventually they'll have some measure of success. That being said, I doubt they'll be able to commit a large scale act of destruction along the lines of 9/11. I think a suicide bomber at the Mall of America or at Disney World is more likely what's in the immediate offing. There are two ways to prevent such an attack - the first is through defense, the second through deterrence. If the terrorists know that an American response to an attack will have a limitless ferocity, they will be far less likely to attack. Look how Hamas backed down from its rough rhetoric earlier this week.

2) Regarding the color-coded attack system:

The color code thing is probably a good idea if it's based on credible intelligence. If the color coding helps motivate law enforcement and the citizenry to a higher level of vigilance when a threat really is imminent, it's tough to argue with. Terrorists are always motivated - do you think they refrain from hitting the Super Bowl out of restraint or humanity?

3) Regarding George W. Bush’s culpability:

It is absolutely untrue that George W. Bush knew about 9/11 and didn't do anything to stop it. The congressional committee is investigating how we allowed such an attack to occur. It is not investigating the president's guilt or lack thereof. Your friend should be better informed before he speaks.

4) Regarding the New York Times and its labeling of Sheik Yassin as a “spiritual leader:”

The question about the NYT is the most interesting one. Sheik Yassin was evil personified. This is an individual who dedicated his life to eliminating 6 million innocent people. He died having only killed a thousand or so. Some people loved Yassin, just as many loved Hitler. The fact that Hitler was loved does not mean he was any less evil. Calling a spade a spade can be difficult in life. People will pronounce you insensitive or worse. But that being said, calling a spade a spade (and recognizing a spade for a spade) is critical to being a good person. The Times doesn't call Yassin what he was because the people who run the Times are cowards. They don't want to risk the wrath of others by saying Yassin was a terrorist mastermind and a murderer. When good people remain silent in the face of evil, darkness descends. It's up to people like you to make your voice heard.

By the way, if some teacher or someone should say that Yassin was a terrorist mastermind and a spiritual leader, tell them that's the dumbest thing you ever heard. Yassin is not famous for his religious views. He's famous for his terrorism. Treating him like religion was central to his existence would be beyond absurd. It would be like referring to Hitler as a "highly decorated World War I veteran (which he was)."

After receiving my response, my friend asked if I would really tell this to a ten year old. I admitted that the stuff about Disney World and the Mall of America might be a bit austere, but I thought the other stuff was completely appropriate. This is the world our kids have to grow up in and live in. It behooves us and them to prepare them to deal with some of the harsher aspects of reality. My friend agreed – she had reached the same conclusion probably years ago.

Kids are stronger than we think. They’re also more open to developing courage and even heroism than we might imagine. The least we can do is give them the gift of our own moral clarity.

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

James Frederick Dwight

Friday, March 26, 2004


They used to call his job “Secretary of War.” Now his post is called the far less intimidating “Secretary of Defense.” Dennis Kucinich ran partly on the platform of further degrading the position with the title “Secretary of Peace.” Admittedly Kucinich is an outlying fruitcake, but the trend is unmistakable. Somewhere along the line we decided that war is a bad thing and it would be better if we didn’t trumpet our skills at such an ugly endeavor.

Indeed, war is a bad thing, but throughout human history it’s been a necessary thing. And even if someday war should stop, being prepared for war will always be a necessity. Whatever you call the job in question, the guy who holds the post commands the most lethal killing force in the history of the world. We are lucky at this time in history to have a man like Donald Rumsfeld as our Secretary of War.

Saying Rumsfeld is different from the typical politician or bureaucrat is like saying a Porsche is different from a ten-speed Schwinn. The typical politician is characterized by John Kerry like nuance and a need to please. The typical bureaucrat is crippled by inertia and a lack of vision. To say Rumsfeld transcends these limitations underscores the obvious. But Rummy offers more. Rumsfeld’s brilliant, a true visionary. And he has guts. Rumsfeld is willing to do what needs doing and to say what needs saying. It’s not like he considers the political ramifications and decides to go ahead anyway. Rumsfeld decides what’s right and just does it. Guts and clarity – these are the things that characterize Don Rumsfeld.


One of the bizarre things about the Dick Clarke hubub was the ridiculously inaccurate picture of Rumsfeld that Clarke conveyed. Clarke suggested that Rumsfeld wasn’t concerned with terrorism until 9/11 and even then he didn’t want to talk terrorism but just Saddam. Even a cursory glance at the history shows this claim to be risible bullshit.

Rumsfeld came to Washington in 2001 preaching a couple of things that most in the Pentagon hated to hear. Rumsfeld said that the U.S. Armed Forces were approaching obsolescence because they were designed to fight a war that would never come. Since WWII, the military had been designed to face off against another huge military like the Soviet Union’s. Obviously creating an Army for this one purpose had its limitations, many of which were highlighted in the jungles of Vietnam. In 1991, however, America finally found a foe stupid enough to match its military in a “fair fight” – Saddam Hussein. After the Gulf War, it was inconceivable that anyone would ever square off against America in a similar fashion again. In order to stay relevant to the challenges that would arise in the post Cold War era, the military would have to change.

But military progress stalled completely during the 90’s under the uninvolved Clinton. As you might recall, the biggest military related initiative during the Clinton administration was “don’t ask/don’t tell.” Instead of debating how we should go about killing our potential enemies, we were debating where the avowedly gay soldiers should shower. Looking back, it boggles the mind.

So Rumsfeld resumed control of the Pentagon (where he had been in charge for a couple of years in the 70’s) dedicated to meeting the new challenges that would confront America. What were these challenges? Rumsfeld deftly defined them with the phrase “asymmetrical threats.” If a “symmetrical threat” could be described as a comparably equipped army belonging to another nation, “asymmetrical threats” could be defined as all the other stuff that has since come to pre-occupy us: irregular forces, non-state but still lethal aggressors, and of course, terrorism. Rumsfeld argued that in order to get at something like a terrorist structure, you couldn’t send in a division. You had to have a swift and nimble force. If the military were to serve this purpose, it would have to be re-structured.

Like all large organizations, the Pentagon resists change, especially the kind of big and historic change that Rumsfeld was advocating. From his first day in office, Rumsfeld earned the loathing of much of the military infrastructure that occupied the building. The in-fighting was fierce. During the summer of 2001, there was speculation that Rumsfeld would soon have to go because he had alienated so much of the military and made so little progress toward his oft-stated goal of “transformation.” Of course, after 9/11, we all shared the goal of transformation.

But here’s the irony – that pathetic ex-bureaucrat Dick Clarke comes forward and says that Rumsfeld and the administration prior to 9/11 ignored the terrorism threat. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rumsfeld was trying to get the military to obsess about terrorism the way he did. Instead, the military wanted to continue to prepare to fight a foe that hadn’t existed for over a decade. But here’s the really frustrating part. All of this was very public. I swear, it was in all the papers. It’s not like I’m reciting some obscure history here. And yet Dick Clarke’s ridiculous charges are mindlessly repeated by a typically credulous media.


“Transformation” was only Rumsfeld’s first visionary project and since it’s already been forgotten, it doesn’t look like it will take up as many pages in the history books as it ought to. His second visionary project has received a bit more press. Again, from their first days in office, Rumsfeld and his brilliant deputy Paul Wolfowitz were planning on how to systemically root out terrorism. It’s hard to imagine, but pre-9/11 the world looked at terrorists as people who should be pursued only after they had committed a terroristic act. In other words, Step 1 in the battle on terror was to duck and cover.

Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld figured that you had to start with the state sponsors and choke off the terrorists’ moral and financial succor. Some state sponsors like Saddam Hussein (whatever you might think of the Al Qaeda connection, Saddam made no secret of his support of Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade) would have to be destroyed. More reasonable state actors, like Saudi Arabia or even Libya, could be “influenced.” Of course, such “influence” wouldn’t result from an exchange of ideas at a Kennedy School sponsored forum. It would involve the historically far more effective tools of threat and menace.

The other critical part of their reasoning was that for really bad stuff to happen, terrorists would need state support. No individual terrorist actor could make a nuclear bomb. The financial and infrastructure demands of such a project would dwarf even Bin Laden’s resources. Thus, there would have to be a state player involved for the worst to happen. Unfortunately, every individual terrorist nut-case in the world can’t receive special attention from the American military. Fortunately, however, there are far fewer governments. And each one of them can receive some personalized attention from Uncle Sam.

Of course Iraq was on Rumsfeld’s radar screen from day one. Was it not a logical place to start? You know, after 9/11 there was a lot of talk from the left side of political spectrum about determining the “root causes” of terrorism. Of course, the people on the left were never serious about finding out the root causes of terrorism; they just wanted to create an intellectual and moral construct whereby one would be able to blame America for the world’s newest horror. It stands as quite an irony that Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were the serious ones when it came to determining the root causes of terrorism. There was a critical difference, though, between Rumsfeld and the left wing critics. The left wing wanted to incorporate the terrorists into their therapeutic society – take their sad song and make it better. Rumsfeld wanted to kill them.

To date he’s killed a bunch of them, and he’ll doubtlessly kill a bunch more before he’s through. He famously doesn’t tolerate fools. He also doesn’t tolerate terrorists. He’s your Secretary of War. Be thankful.

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

James Frederick Dwight

Wednesday, March 24, 2004


Lucky man that I am, I was able to have the 9/11 Commission hearings on in the background for the past couple of days. It was really a great spectacle. Without being too hokey about this, watching it made me proud to be an American. It’s remarkable that we have the type of society that things like this can take place in the open.

The performers were impressive. Other than the nakedly partisan Richard Ben Veniste, the members of the commission were incisive and intelligent. And the witnesses were uniformly sharp. While obviously I find the world views of Sandy Berger and Madeline Albright to be, ahem, flawed, it was still notable how obviously shrewd and intelligent our highest ranking government officials both past and present are. While naturally Donald Rumsfeld towered above all those who preceded and followed him, all concerned performed admirably.

In spite of Rumsfeld’s brilliance, Colin Powell’s star power, and Madeline Albright’s mysterious beauty, the star of this drama was of course Richard Clarke. As you know, Clarke took center stage on "60 Minutes" Sunday night and the week has belonged to him. One question has animated all of the Clarke related hoopla – why? Why did he turn on the Bushies? Why has he turned his life into a three ring circus? Why does he harbor such animosity for his former colleagues?

Even the most die-hard Bush supporter would have to admit the following: Clarke is and was a dedicated foe of terrorism. Fighting terrorism is more than just his life’s work – it’s his passion. Yet even the most die-hard Bush hater would be hard pressed to deny that Clarke battled his bureaucratic foes with the same ferocity that he battled Al Qaeda. When the bureaucratic turf wars didn’t go his way, Clarke wasn’t exactly a good sport about it. Many of the charges Clarke has leveled against the Bush administration have merit. But his brief is weakened by the remarkable bitterness that characterizes his petty personal war.


As a Bush supporter, I don’t see what’s to be gained in denying the obvious truth of Clarke’s central charge that our government, our society, and this administration didn’t take terrorism seriously enough prior to 9/11. I say this not just because the planes flew into the buildings. The fact is, our lack of preparation prior to 9/11 was a national disgrace and should provide a sobering lesson. Think about it – five 25 year-old Arab nationals are sitting in first class with box-cutters and no one (other than the actor James Woods) thinks that’s a problem. HELLO!!!! That one fact is just an indication of how completely our society and government weren’t cognizant of the threat.

The Bush administration has to take some measure of responsibility for the lack of 9/11 preparation. There’s not necessarily any shame in that. History hasn’t seen fit to condemn FDR for not being prepared for Pearl Harbor. And, of course, the Clinton administration bears even more responsibility for responding to actual attacks in only the most flaccid of manners. Nonetheless, I don’t see why Bush or some other high ranking official can’t say or isn’t saying something to the effect of, “Obviously 9/11 represents a failure of government. We’re sorry. But even more important than acknowledging that past failure is having a strategy going forward. And since 9/11, we’ve made and continue to make the right moves.”

Clarke’s opening statement came close to saying that. While he’s not exactly endorsing current administration policies these days, he did begin his day by apologizing to the relatives of the 9/11 victims. It was touching and I think it was sincere. Once again, when it comes to battling terrorism, I think it’s hard to doubt that Richard Clarke’s heart is in the right place.


But there was something disquieting about Clarke. The disconcerting stuff started during his “60 Minutes” interview. He said a couple of things that were so bitter, so weird, that your eyebrows just had to arch. At one juncture, he said to a purring Lesley Stahl that when he briefed Condi Rice shortly before Rice became National Security Adviser, Rice didn’t seem to know who Al Qaeda was. Come on, Dick! That’s just not possible. Say what you will about Condi, but she’s not a blithering moron. I bet she even reads the occasional newspaper. He sounded a like a bitter employee talking about his ex-boss. Come to think of it, that description pretty accurately describes the relationship.

Later in the same interview, he painted a picture of an enraged Donald Rumsfeld being unable to grasp the fact that Iraq wasn’t behind 9/11. Again, say what you will about Don Rumsfeld, but he also is no fool. I think it’s safe to say that any fact Richard Clarke could get his mind around, Don Rumsfeld could as well.

As the week went along, details of Clarke’s biography came out and those details cast his attacks into a different light. Under Clinton, Clarke held meetings at the Cabinet level. Under Bush, these meetings were held at the deputy level. So instead of getting Rumseld and Powell, Clarke had to settle for Armitage and Wolfowitz. Clarke considered this a problem, a sign that he wasn’t being taken seriously enough. And then there were the differing conclusions problems. Clarke automatically assumed anyone in the administration who had different thoughts on how to best battle terrorism was acting in bad faith. So if Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld differed with Clark and thought Iraq might be central to the war on terror, Clarke automatically assumed that base instincts were governing them. Finally, Clarke wanted to be appointed to the second in command post in the new homeland security department. He didn’t get the job and his failure to get the job “coincided” with him leaving the administration. And he left the administration full of bile.

But apparently it wasn’t always like that. A few hours before Clarke testified today, FoxNews’ Jim Angle released a tape made in August 2002 where Clarke spoke in the most glowing terms of the Bush administration’s efforts in the war on terror. Read the transcript if you’re curious. In that interview he contradicts the central theses he’s promulgated all week regarding the Bushies’ inadequacies in the fight on terror. There was no way you could make these August 2002 comments jibe with everything he said this week. The Democrats on the commission didn’t even try. The partisan Ben Veniste ceded his time, and Bob Kerrey attacked FoxNews for releasing the interview but unlike other members of the committee he didn’t address the interview’s substance.


So why’d Clarke do it? We’ll never know, and I bet he doesn’t fully know himself. Still, I’ve got a couple of theories. There’s an old joke that every Washington autobiography should be subtitled, “If They Only Listened to Me.” Clarke’s book is no different. Imagine how hurtful it had to be for this longtime terror foe to be marginalized by his superiors. And imagine the pain he felt when it was Rumsfeld’s and Wolfowitz’s ideas that dictated policy, not his own. For decades, Dick Clarke had made this struggle his passion. And just when things get interesting, he gets written out of the story. The anger had to be incredible.

That anger caused this spectacle. I think for the most part he made an ass of himself and left his reputation in shambles. Sure he’ll be a hero to the Howard Dean following Bush haters but that’s not the crowd he’s playing to. He was hoping his ideas regarding the Bush administration would gain ascendancy. On Sunday, that looked like a good possibility. Not anymore.

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

James Frederick Dwight

Tuesday, March 23, 2004


A little less than 48 hours ago, Israel killed Hamas leader and founder Ahmed Yassin in a rocket attack. As Yassin left his morning prayers, an Israeli rocket destroyed the self styled spiritual leader leaving only his head intact. Virtually everyone other than America condemned Israel for the assassination and even America’s own State Department weighed in with “deep concern.”

The global criticism for Israel takes two different forms. First there is the criticism of moral reproach. This critique holds that Israel had no right to “escalate” the struggle with Hamas in such a wantonly cruel fashion. The second critique rests on strategic concerns. This line of reasoning suggests that Israel’s action will inflame the region in general and the struggle with the Palestinian “nation” in particular. Both criticisms of Israel are ridiculous. Israel did the right thing, and hers is an example that America would be wise to emulate.

The criticism of moral reproach is particularly risible. My god, what world are the people who lob such charges watching? Yassin was the founder and leader of Hamas. Hamas is a body that has been openly at war with Israel for over a decade and has dedicated itself not just to the destruction of the Israeli state but to the extermination of the Jews who reside there. This isn’t an organization that’s pursuing wider borders or a greater economy or any other settlements that could be labeled political. Hamas simply wants the death of Israel. Hamas is composed of such lunatics that its members despise Yasser Arafat for being too moderate. Arafat has never conceded that Israel has the right to exist, and has amassed a frightful body count of innocent Israeli citizens over the decades. Yet Arafat’s desire to kill Jews isn’t sufficiently fiery for his Hamas rivals.

If you don’t believe me about Hamas, read its charter. Some relevant sections include such olive-branch type language as:

“Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it…The Day of Judgment will not come about until Moslems fight Jews and kill them. Then, the Jews will hide behind rocks and trees, and the rocks and trees will cry out: 'O Moslem, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him.'…So-called peaceful solutions and international conferences are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement. . . . There is no solution for the Palestinian problem except by Jihad."

It’s important to remember that such language isn’t mere rhetoric. Hamas has killed thousands of Israelis during its 16 year existence. The only reason that Hamas hasn’t done more killing is because it has lacked the ability to do so. If Hamas had one of these mythical suitcase nukes (actually, such things don’t exist – the suitcase is about the size of a vending machine) that Al Qaeda claims to possess, does anyone doubt Hamas would have the resolve to destroy Tel Aviv? Hamas has declared war on Israel, not just once but through repeated acts of savagery. Does Israel lack the right to strike back at such an adversary? It’s tough to imagine the muddled moral reasoning that would reach such a conclusion.

The strategic question is a more difficult one, and I can imagine people of goodwill differing on the wisdom of Israel’s strike. That being said, Israel did the right thing. Israel’s at war, a war that up until now it has chosen to prosecute half-heartedly. Like most of the world’s people, Israelis prefer peace to war. Such a preference is the natural order of things, and it’s difficult to realize that there are entities who don’t share such a basic human trait.

Unfortunately, such entities have been common through history. You can track almost a straight line from the homicidal Alexander the Great through Slobodan Milosevic – for millennia there have been tyrants who have preferred war and destruction to peace and prosperity. Such figures can at times galvanize nations. When they do, they will rain death and destruction on those they care to unless and until they’re stopped.


Some foolishly condemn Israel’s attack because instead of employing violence Israel should be trying to address this “root cause” foolishness. By now you’ve no doubt heard it a thousand times. Whenever the Israeli or American struggle against terror is discussed, a voice from the academy or some other removed locale will state that the critical issue to be addressed is why they hate us. Madeline Albright in her testimony before the 9/11 committee this afternoon went so far as to suggest that we’re in a war of ideas against bin Ladenism. There are no ideas behind Bin Ladenism, just hatred.

There’s no real logical reason why Bin Laden hates us, or any root cause for him to do so. Similarly, there’s no logical reason why Hamas hates all Jews. People sometimes hate; they get warped either in the womb or in the world and that’s the way it goes. Addressing their hate or re-dressing their hate is impossible. Why did the Nazis hate the Jews? Could the Jews have addressed the root cause? Is there anything the Jews could have done to mollify their malefactors? Of course not.

Figuring out why people hate as the Nazis did and the Jihadis do is certainly a bountiful intellectual challenge. Doubtlessly the Ivy League of the 22nd century will be full of professors offering radical and post-radical explanations for the phenomenon. Unfortunately, Israel has to ask a more pressing question: how can these lunatics be stopped?

Some say that Monday’s attack will make it more difficult to win the hearts and minds of the Islamic radicals. Sure. Until Monday, Israel and America were that close to winning that battle. Some say that Israel will face fierce retribution for Monday’s killing. Perhaps, because Hamas has to make it look like it has the ability to hit back when struck. But if Israel is struck, it means only that the timing of Hamas’ next attack was altered. Does anyone believe that Hamas has had murderous abilities that it has not deployed up until now merely because of its own restraint?

If Hamas does have murderous abilities that it has yet to use, it’s because Hamas feared Israeli retaliation. Yesterday’s attack gave Hamas more to fear, not less. This Israeli government jut showed that there are no more “red-lines,” no more safety zones. If Hamas does ratchet up the bloodshed, it can be assured that the price it will pay will be unparalleled.

And lastly, what were Israel’s options? Let’s assume that the status quo prior to Monday was acceptable (which of course it clearly wasn’t). Israel would lose a few hundred citizens a year due to Palestinian terrorism and the Palestinian leadership would foment greater unrest and hatred with each passing day. What should Israel have done? Wait?

If so, wait for what? Only two things would have changed the underlying dynamic. The first possibility would be that the Palestinian leadership would come to its senses and desire peace, prosperity and freedom for its people and a brotherhood of man. The second possibility is that before those things happened the Palestinian leadership would develop a more lethal way of attacking Israel and do damage far beyond blowing up a bus or a bar. Honestly now, which is the more realistic scenario?

Israel’s in a war. Either it will achieve victory or be defeated. The question was whether or not Israel would commit itself totally to victory before or after she had been grievously injured. The answer came Monday in the form of a missile that blew up a psychotic old man’s car. It was long overdue.


Hamas has used this occasion to menace the United States. What has our response been? We’ve expressed concern about Israel’s act, but we haven’t answered Hamas’ threat. That’s a mistake, and I hope it has at the very least been taken care of in back channel communications. I hope Hamas understands that any attack on American interests will be met with a devastating response. Devastating.

Hamas certainly wouldn’t have made such an inference based on Richard Boucher’s latest mealy mouthed pronouncements from Foggy Bottom.

Responses? Thoughts? Please email them to me at

James Frederick Dwight

Sunday, March 21, 2004


Controversial filmmaker Kevin Smith (“Dogma,” “Clerks”) talking about Mel Gibson’s “The Passion:”

“I haven't seen it yet. I think it's funny, though, that people bring it up and ask me, ‘What do you think of the controversy?’ I'm like, ‘What controversy?’ The dude made a movie about Jesus in a country that's largely Christian — a very traditional movie — and it's made over $200 million in two weeks. There ain't no controversy, people. That's a hit.”

I was really planning on not writing about “The Passion” until I had seen it. I figured I’d see the movie and then start my essay on the subject with a snotty line about how I was going to let the facts get in the way of my argument. Alas, I’ve yet to see the movie and if I wait any longer to weigh in on the subject my views will by completely non-topical. Sometimes the world just moves a little too fast.

As of today, the controversy has almost completely played itself out and we can look at the hoopla with a little hindsight, a hindsight that clarifies things. First, Mel Gibson knew what he was doing spending his own money to make this thing. According to the Wall Street Journal, he’ll make at least $300 million off the venture. When you’re used to struggling to get by on $20 million a picture, that’s a handsome payoff. Second, the movie’s been a huge hit. More Americans have seen it than anyone would have predicted. There’s a chance that it will become the highest grossing picture of all time even surpassing “Titanic” which coincidentally also featured what many thought was a Jewish villain. (What? You never heard the old Iceberg/Goldberg joke? Email me for explication if you’re really curious).

And what has all this popularity wrought? Have pogroms broken out through the heartland as so many allegedly feared? Has there been a worsening of Judeo-Christian relations? Have all those cheesy interfaith Seders been scrubbed for this upcoming Passover? No. The world spins much as it did before the movie came out. While a few individuals have emerged from the whole thing with their reputations permanently changed for either better or worse depending on your perspective (Mel Gibson, Hutton Gibson, Frank Rich, and Abe Foxman will never be viewed entirely the same), nothing else changed. The controversy surrounding the film has yet to be entirely forgotten, but it will be soon enough. Before that blessed day arrives, let us look back at the key players and try to understand what it’s all meant.


I tipped my hand on this one a few weeks ago. I wrote that as a Jew I couldn’t believe that some of our putative leaders were spending so much time on a movie while anti-Semitism was running rampant through Europe and the Middle East. Obviously, I had and still have little sympathy for Frank Rich’s and Abe Foxman’s grievances regarding “The Passion.” Even having said that, there are still a couple of key points left to touch on.

The principle charge against “The Passion” was that it would lead to increased anti-Semitism. I think it’s important to address whether or not this charge was made in good faith. If you look back through history, it would be impossible to find any work of art that changed any society in any significant or lasting way. Yes, every now and then an “Urban Cowboy” will come out and you’ll have a bunch of Travolta wannabe doofuses walking around Manhattan in cowboy boots for a few months but that’s not the kind of change that the ADL, the New York Times, and the Wiesenthal Center feared. The campaign against this movie started well over a year ago and was predicated entirely on the fear that it would foment real and lasting anti-Semitism.

One must ask, could the film’s protesters have been so obtuse to have thought this was a real possibility? Once again, I don’t think that there’s been a single work of art in the history of Western civilization that had the kind of profound impact that the ADL was predicting this film would have. Here, I will rush to the defense of the film’s protesters– yes, they could most certainly be that obtuse.

It would be hard to overstate the suspicion with which many so-called elites view devout Christianity. There’s no nice way to say this – most of New York and Harvard and Silicon Valley feels that evangelicals and other devout Christians are a bunch of boobs. Of course, no one in New Haven would be manipulated by a film and paint a swastika on a synagogue, but those knuckleheads in Alabama? Well, you can’t have the same level of confidence in their ability to process a movie. Implicit in Frank Rich’s vast volume of criticism pertaining to the film is a remarkably condescending conclusion: The people who view this movie are so stupid that they’ll turn into monsters just by sitting in the cinema. But I’ll take Frank’s side on this one point: the charges were made in good faith.

Or mostly good faith. Mel Gibson has been a bogeyman of the left for over a decade. In “Bird on a Wire,” Gibson had a scene where he campily mimicked a gay hairdresser. The scene enraged the homosexual community whose anger only deepened when Gibson refused to make any sort of apology. A few years later, Gibson again enraged the homosexual community with his Academy award winning “Braveheart.” While few viewers thought the movie had anything to do with gays or gay characters, it did in fact make fun of the Prince’s homosexuality and even went so far as to have the killing of the Prince’s lover be a laugh line. A few references to the Prince as a sodomite did little to mollify Gibson’s critics. Once again, Gibson refused to offer any sort of apology.

And then there’s the matter of Gibson’s father. As virtually everyone knows by now, Gibson’s father is a Holocaust denying kook. It would be comforting to a lot of us if Gibson would distance himself from his father or at the very least from his father’s crackpot views, but Gibson has steadily refused to do this for the past decade.

These factors combined to make Gibson at least a figure of suspicion for the left in general and Jews and gays in general. Thus, as far as the Jewish community was concerned, Gibson was a disquieting choice to make a movie about Christ’s final hours. That being said, elements of the left have been tearing at Gibson for over a decade. While much of the criticism directed at the project was doubtlessly heartfelt, some of it was very, very personal. It would be impossible to read Frank Rich’s countless columns on the subject without noticing the bitter bile that so thoroughly suffused each piece.

There’s also the issue of whether or not Jews have the right to say one mustn’t make a film based on these gospels of the New Testament. Much of the criticism of the film suggested that the Jewish priesthood was unfairly depicted. Such critiques were ridiculous. While it’s comforting for us Jews to think that the Sanhedrin may well have been warm humanists, they’re not portrayed that way in the New Testament. They are the villains of the piece. Do we as Jews have the right to say that Christians can’t dramatically and artistically present certain aspects of their faith?

Rabbi Hier of the Wiesenthal Center, on one of his countless visits to the cable news channels, amply illustrated the intellectual bankruptcy of this whole line of argument. The Rabbi suggested that the Sanhedrin should have been allowed a line or two where they explained why they were doing what they were doing: “We believe in monotheism and what Jesus is saying is a heresy. Thus, he cannot be part of this Temple or its faith.”

The notion that the heavies in a piece should have the right to explain themselves is self-evidently absurd. It would make as much sense to say that the Nazis in “Schindler’s List” should have had the chance to mention the humiliation of World War I and the Versailles Treaty and numerous alleged stabs in the back as justifications for the death camps. Of course such a soliloquy would have been obscene. I highly doubt that Spielberg considered inserting one.

One of the more disturbing features of this controversy was how disrespectful the Jewish critics were of Christians and Christianity. All individuals view any work of art through their own unique sensibilities. Thus, it’s not particularly surprising that a Jew would focus on the Jews in the New Testament. That being understood, it was nevertheless arrogant and foolish to think that Christians would view the story of their Lord as being about the Jews. In retrospect it probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that Christians have walked out of a movie about their Savior feeling that it was about their Savior, not the Jews. Was such a thing really so unpredictable?


Hutton Gibson’s reputation has been permanently shaped by this controversy. Everyone who knows his name now instantly associates him with being an anti-Semitic lunatic. Somehow I doubt he minds. I also doubt that earning the approbation of the New York Times was ever one of his priorities. I’m sure he’s delighted that his crazy views got a wider airing than he ever dreamed possible.

I bet Mel Gibson is a lot less comfortable with being viewed by a wide swath of the population as a Nazi sympathizer than his old man. Unlike his dad, he chose a business where the public’s approval is kind of important.

Gibson now finds himself in a position comparable to Charles Dickens’ after the publication of “Oliver Twist.” Like the New Testament, “Oliver Twist” featured a stereotypical Jewish villain. Like “The Passion,” “Oliver Twist” was hugely popular. And like Gibson, Dickens was pilloried by the right thinking folks of his day for peddling hate. Dickens spent much of the rest of his career making subtle and not so subtle apologies for “Oliver Twist’s” loathsome Fagin. He never had another Jewish villain and the rest of the Jews who peopled his novels were exemplary folk. Is it a coincidence that Gibson is now talking about making a movie about Judah the Macabee? Most actors and artists are pretty sensitive people. I doubt Gibson is entirely comfortable living out his days being viewed as a cretin by a lot of people.


There will be no lasting harm from this entire controversy. Frank Rich will keep writing columns, the ADL will keep doing whatever it is that it does, and Mel Gibson will keep working in Hollywood. Jewish/Gentile relations will be much as they’ve been, hardly changed if at all.

And in the Middle East, Islamofascists will continue to call for the extirpation of 6 million Jews and the annihilation of the Zionist entity. Much of the European left will either apologize for the Islamofascists or openly side with them. The UN will continue passing resolutions condemning the Middle East’s one democracy. And as Jews, we’ll have to decide what to do about these very real threats that are considerably more menacing than any movie ever could be.

Saturday, March 20, 2004


The conventional wisdom holds that the election will be a cliffhanger. It won’t be. The conventional wisdom holds that the election will be a referendum on Bush. It won’t be. The big story of Election 2004 will be how the Democratic nominee is completely unsuited for the job. It happens sometimes in American politics – a major party nominates someone who’s completely unpalatable to most of the American public. The Republicans did it in ’64 with Goldwater. The Democrats did it in ’72 with McGovern. (Nixon did not get more than 60% of the vote because he was a particularly beloved leader or had had a particularly successful 4 years.) It’s happening again in 2004. A solid majority of the American public will find the thought of a President Kerry to be simply unendurable.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that the Bushies wouldn’t have to go negative on Kerry because Kerry will drive his negatives up by his own actions. That prediction has been borne out, unless you believe that somehow the Bush attack machine has been responsible for the following:

1) Kerry saying that he voted for the $87 billion right before he voted against it;

2) Kerry having said between the ‘yea’ and ‘nay’ votes that it would be “irresponsible” to vote against the $87 billion but then voting “nay” during the height of the Howard Hysteria.

3) Kerry claiming that he had the support of unspecified foreign leaders;

4) Kerry refusing to specify said foreign leaders when pressed to do so;

5) Kerry snarling at a shlub attending one of his rallies that it’s “none of (his) business” what foreign leaders he spoke to; and

6) (my personal favorite) Kerry labeling a secret service agent a son of a bitch for allegedly causing to him to take a fall while snowboarding at a posh ski resort in Sun Valley, Idaho and denying any measure of accountability for the fall.

A sure sign that things were spiraling out of control for the Kerry campaign came yesterday when he actually did receive a public and explicit endorsement from a bona fide world leader. The former Prime Minister of Malaysia volunteered the following message of support for Senator Nuance:

"I think Kerry would be much more willing to listen to the voices of people and of the rest of the world," Mahathir, who retired in October after 22 years in power, told The Associated Press in an interview.
"But in the U.S., the Jewish lobby is very strong, and any American who wants to become president cannot change the policy toward Palestine radically," he said.

The Kerry campaign quickly declined the endorsement because anti-semitism is always unacceptable (unless it hails from the American or European lefts or is gussied up as anti-Zionism). Still, the damage was done.

With Kerry performing in such a way, one might wonder what could be left for Bush and Karl Rove to do? The Bush campaign has apparently decided to do one main thing regarding Kerry – mock him. Make him a subject of humorous ridicule. There’s no need to get down into the gutter. Instead, the Bushies will marginalize him by being funny.

First the campaign unveiled a hilarious spot ridiculing Kerry as an Austin Powers type international man of mystery playing on the foreign leader kerfuffle. If you haven’t seen this ad, make a point of doing so – it’s hilarious. And today, Bush’s speech was full of mocking one liners directed at Kerry such as the one about Kerry having been in Washington long enough to have taken both sides of virtually every issue.

Believe me, none of the lines in Bush’s speech were classics, but they’ll work. They’ll work because Kerry is rife for lampooning. The guy takes himself so damn seriously. Remember, this is a guy so breathtakingly arrogant that he can’t admit any error or any flaw. When he falls on the ski slopes, he has to go out of this way to make sure everyone knows it wasn’t his fault. You can see it in every fiber of his being – when it comes to himself, this guy has no sense of humor. While of course no one wants a clown as president, no one wants a self important tight ass either. It’d be nice if the most powerful guy in the world would be capable of just a tiny bit of self deprecation. Kerry isn’t. As Americans, we love seeing guys like that cut down to size. And most of us certainly don’t vote for them.

Friday, March 19, 2004


In his weekly email address to the neocon masses, the Weekly Standard’s magnificent Jonathan V. Last wrote today, “I actually like John Kerry quite a bit. He strikes me as a decent man.” That struck me as an odd sentiment. And then I remembered that fewer than two weeks ago, I myself wrote on these very pages, “Most importantly, he looks right for the part. While I personally find him unappealing, he’s tall and patrician and conveys the right sense of gravitas. He doesn’t come across like a lightweight, and he certainly doesn’t come across as anyone’s fool. You can see him standing up to the really bad men of the world.”

While my comments were a bit more honest than JVL’s who I simply cannot believe has an iota’s worth of fondness for Kerry, one could reasonably infer from my comments that I respect John Kerry or maybe like him a little bit or that I’m perhaps at least indifferent. Well, it’s full disclosure time. In order: I don’t respect him, I don’t like him, and I’m not at all indifferent to him. I dislike him – a lot. I don’t like him for the same reason America won’t like him. He’s just impossible to like.

Mark it down - Senator Nuance will make a point of showing how unlikable he is from now to the election. A week ago, I wrote that unlike Clinton who was adept at pretending to be normal, Kerry wouldn’t know normal if it roomed with him at a European boarding school. Remember when Clinton took a poll to find out where he should go on vacation? Give the guy a little credit – he knew he would have to work at everything in order to be a plausible man of the people.

On the other hand, we have Senator Nuance. Having freshly stepped into the spotlight of Presidential politics, Kerry decided this week he needed to kick back for a little time off. Like most Americans when in need of a breather, the putative populist opted for a snow boarding vacation with his working class brethren in Sun Valley, Idaho. As the New York Times put it, "People of great fame and wealth can come here (to Sun Valley), and people don't invade their privacy." One can only wonder which of John Edwards’ two Americas possesses Sun Valley.

Regrettably for Massachusetts’ French looking junior senator, his trip to Idaho has already registered a significant campaign faux pas. Once again, we’ll turn to the Times: “On his first full day off…Mr. Kerry awoke determined to hit the slopes of Mount Baldy. The image-conscious candidate and his aides prevailed upon reporters and photographers to let him have a first run down the mountain solo, except for two agents and Marvin Nicholson, his omnipresent right-hand man. His next trip down, a reporter and a camera crew were allowed to follow along on skis — just in time to see Mr. Kerry taken out by one of the Secret Service men, who had inadvertently moved into his path, sending him into the snow. When asked about the mishap a moment later, he said sharply, ‘I don't fall down,’ then used an expletive to describe the agent who ‘knocked me over.’"

A couple of days ago, I wrote, “When you’re John Kerry you never admit error.” Apparently, when you’re John Kerry you also never fall down.


I would be remiss if I didn’t point out a couple of things regarding the source of what has instantly become known as “Snowboardgate” in the blogosphere. First, you’d think the New York Times is, or at least ought to be, a friendly source of coverage for Kerry. Read the whole story, though. The snarkiness is incredible. Perhaps we’re once again witnessing Kerry’s incredible ability to make everyone dislike him. To put it mildly, such a trait can’t be an asset in a presidential campaign.

The other strange thing about the Times' coverage: the refusal to write the expletive that Kerry used to describe the agent. According to secondary sources, Kerry referred to the agent as a “son of a bitch.” Reading the Times report, wouldn’t you have thought he said something worse? Has the Times decided to sabotage Senator Nuance? Has Pinch joined the vast right wing conspiracy? What gives? Maybe Dan Okrent will address these things on Sunday.


I’ve been so amazed by Kerry’s arrogance these past few days that from now on, whenever I refer to Senator Nuance’s arrogance I will modify “arrogant” with an appropriate adverb. Henceforth, on these pages Kerry will be “breathtakingly arrogant” or “remarkably arrogant” or “astonishingly arrogant” or “mind-blowingly arrogant” or “unprecedentedly arrogant” or….well you probably get the point.

Sorry to have gone on like that, but the guy’s really arrogant.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004


In the spirit of today’s entry, we’ll start with a new semi-recurring feature, the John Kerry (henceforth also known on these pages as “Senator Nuance”) quote of the day:

"I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."

This whole “foreign leader” mini-scandal erupted when John Kerry allegedly told the Boston Globe that he was hearing from “foreign leaders” who were saying “you gotta beat this guy.” Kerry’s claim that he was receiving moral support from foreign leaders struck many as ridiculous. What kind of leader would be so imprudent as to wade into American politics so crassly? And if such leaders were making their sentiments privately known to a would-be future president, you’d think that would-be future president would have enough discretion to keep those sentiments private. Additionally, there was the fear that if Kerry’s boasts were true, these leaders might be rushing to his side because Kerry was making promises to them that he wasn’t sharing with the American public.

The Kerry campaign responds to each piece of negative news the way the Clinton campaign responded to their candidate’s numerous bimbo eruptions – belligerently and totally. First off, Kerry defended his ludicrous claim of mystical foreign support vigorously and with an arrogant hostility. The footage of him lashing out at that hapless schlub in Pennsylvania became inescapable. Next, Senator Nuance’s surrogates waddled out to show support for the claim. Richard Holbrooke said that it was common knowledge that every Jacques, Gerhard and Yasser was in Kerry’s corner. Ted Kennedy mumbled something incoherent but that was thought to echo the same sentiment.

Then things got strange. The Boston Globe reporter who broke the story at the end of last week apparently re-listened to his tape of the relevant interview this past Monday. Turns out that Kerry didn’t say anything about “foreign” leaders during the interview. Kerry said something about “more” leaders. The interview had nothing to do with foreign countries, foreign affairs, foreign leaders, foreign cars, foreign anything!

Which brings up a really interesting question: Why did Kerry defend a ludicrous statement that he never made? Pretty strange, huh? Does Kerry assume that if someone reports him having made a stupid statement, even if he can’t recall saying it he probably said it anyway? Does Kerry feel that he’s made so many ludicrous claims he can’t possibly keep track of them all?

I don’t think that’s the answer. Kerry behaves this way because of the character flaw that defines him almost completely – his remarkable arrogance. When you’re John Kerry, you never apologize. When you’re John Kerry, you never admit error. For a leader, those traits aren’t necessarily that damaging. A leader has to have a certain bull-headedness. But John Kerry takes it several steps further. Senator Nuance feels that he’s above being questioned. Whenever anyone questions him, his default position is to say, “How dare you question me.” That’s not scrappiness – it’s arrogance.

Any long time Bostonian will tell you that stories of Kerry’s arrogance are legion. Whether cutting in line at a restaurant or a wake (two I’ve personally witnessed), Kerry does so without guilt and without apology. He’s even managed to get a catchphrase associated with his conduct at these times. When challenged by a fellow patron or mourner who has the misfortune of being an ordinary citizen, Kerry has said on numerous occasions, “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?”

Maybe his campaign will put that on the bumper stickers.


I want someone to make a movie about Flight 93. It’s such an amazing story and, incredibly, I don’t think it’s been discussed enough. There’s even a ready made title: “Let’s Roll.”

All of the passengers on that plane woke up on 9/11 as ordinary citizens. By the time mid-day had come, they were all dead. All were no doubt victims, but some were also heroes. I often wonder about what the passengers went through in that cabin as they heard on their cell phones what was transpiring that morning. I’m sure it wasn’t unanimous in that cabin that re-taking the plane was the best option. The temptation to trust that the terrorists wouldn’t be so crazy as to crash their plane had to be incredible.

And yet some passengers had the clarity to see what had to be done and the guts to then do it. Theirs was the first victory in World War IV.

Clarity and guts - those are the traits that will be necessary for each subsequent victory in this ugly war.

Monday, March 15, 2004


I don’t do despair. It’s just not my way. For the most part, I leave the feeling “saddened” to others. I like taking a piece of hard news and summoning the resolve to make a plan to go forward. Hand-wringing, whining, pouting, lamenting – when things are tough, none of these things help a whole helluva lot. In that spirit, I’ve got a few things to say about the election in Spain yesterday.

Apparently, the terrorist attack on the train lines in Madrid convinced many voters to change their vote from the favored conservatives to the underdog socialists. Enough voters switched allegiances to give the socialists a surprise victory. This will be viewed as a victory for Al Qaeda as indeed it was. Whether motivated by fear or stupidity, the Spaniards have spread the word that the civilized can be intimidated by the barbaric. Al Qaeda’s view of the West has always been less than sophisticated. They actually thought that 9/11 would bring down the Bush government and replace it with anarchy. One can only imagine what they’ll infer from 3/11 and what implications that will have for October 2004 in the United States.

What should we learn from this weekend’s events? Or, more precisely, what should we re-learn? One thing’s clear: There are a 1000 Chamberlains for every Churchill. Cowards will always outnumber those who have the courage of their convictions. It’s always been that way, and no doubt always will be. Another important lesson: Different countries have different personalities. Some choose a freewheeling brand of capitalism, others opt for an iron clad social safety net. Similarly, in the war on terror, some will choose to cower, some will choose to fight.

In Israel, each terrorist attack bolsters the standing of the Sharon government. When hit, the Israelis prefer to hit back and hitting back is what the Sharon government is all about. The question is, will America respond to being hit more like the Israelis or the Spaniards?

It’d be easy for a lot of people out in the world to think that the John Kerrys and the Howard Deans and the Dennis Kucinichs and the MoveOn.orgs are somehow indicative of the American character given all the media attention they receive. Mercifully, they’re not. America is capable of a righteous rage that dwarfs anything the world has ever seen. After 9/11, most Americans would have gladly supported the immediate annihilation of all of Afghanistan. Americans and Spaniards are made of very different stuff. The Spaniards’ reaction to being hit was to wonder what they could do to get their attackers to leave them in peace. Americans’ reaction to being hit was to wonder what they could to get their attackers dead. Different countries, very different responses.

So we go on. America will have to lead this struggle and perhaps do all the heavy lifting. If that’s the way it’s going to be, that’s the way it’s going to be. There’s no use in crying about losing the doubtlessly heroic contributions of those 1200 Spanish soldiers. We don’t have time. We’ve got a job to do.


Until this weekend, I never really understood FDR’s famous “We’ve got nothing to fear but fear itself.” To my ears, it sounded pretty but meant nothing. Now I think I understand and it’s the developments in the war on terror the past few days that have made me understand. The only way the terrorists can win is if we let them win. They can’t get nuclear weapons unless by our own neglect we allow it. They can’t even live unless our lack of resolve allows their continued existence. If we decide to do what’s necessary and have the courage to stay the course, the nihilists don’t have a chance. Only by surrendering to our weakness and fear can defeat be possible. I think that’s what FDR meant: The only way the country would be unsuccessful in the challenges it faced would be if it surrendered to fear. Other than that possibility, there was nothing to be afraid of.

Sunday, March 14, 2004


Today we introduce a new feature to Soxblog. Every Sunday, Frank Rich of the New York Times shares his thoughts with a breathless nation. And every Sunday, his thoughts seem to get dumber and dumber. Honestly, it seems like there’s no limit to how foolish he can be. For instance, in last week’s column Rich decried the alleged “Jew-baiting” that Mel Gibson used to publicize his movie, “The Passion.” Yet Rich freely admitted to the fact that no Jew gave Gibson’s film more free publicity than Rich himself. So Rich’s argument, in so many words, boils down to the following: “That scumbag used Jew-baiting to popularize his movie. And I was the schmuck he baited!!”

Last week’s column for Rich was nothing special. It reflected what we can comfortably call his baseline of idiocy and silliness. But the overall trend is that he’s continuing on a downwards path at an accelerating rate. Thus, as a public service, Soxblog will monitor Rich’s deterioration and track his apparent dementia. Each week, his column will be rated on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the most stupid one could possibly be in the context of writing for the New York Times (let’s say something like Nicholas Kristof with a twist of Maureen Dowd married to a sensibility) and 1 being, if not intelligent, let’s say not entirely ridiculous.

So how did Rich do this week? This week’s column dealt with the surprising popularity of Donald Trump’s reality series “The Apprentice.” Rich has a novel explanation for why folks tune in: “The general joy attending…Mr. Trump's weekly dismissals is the most telling cultural indicator yet that the revulsion against business remains red-hot.... (People watch a show about business because they’re repulsed by business?) Trump's brand of leadership, narcissistic and autocratic as it seems, strikes audiences as more palatable than the corporate shenanigans that have been in the spotlight on the public stage in recent years.”

One must ask can Rich really believe this? It seems like Rich thinks that Joe Six-Pack sits at home and says to himself, “Boy, I’m so sick of Enron and Fastow and Ebbers. Business makes me sick. Let’s watch a good guy like Trump.” Even by Rich’s lofty standards, that’s really dumb.

Frank, let me help – not everyone obsesses constantly about the same things that you obsess about constantly. Really, some of us go entire hours without Mel Gibson or Andy Fastow or even the Bush administration invading our thoughts. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true.


Parenthetically, I have a different explanation for the popularity of the show. Americans love wealth, and we love the acquisition of it. Most Americans don’t do much in an entrepreneurial way, but we’ve always dreamed of giving it a go. This show has a bunch of kids putting it on the line and dealing with the plusses and minuses that go with any bold endeavor. They’ve sampled great wealth and been humiliated on national TV. And it’s magnetic seeing Trump describe and live his business philosophy, which I think can be summarized the following way: “Business ain’t beanbag. You got a problem with that?”

One last thing. The Times’ Nicholas Kristof’s column yesterday stated that our government’s priorities are all out of whack. Why? Because auto accidents kill 43,000 Americans a year and terrorism has killed but 3,000 since 9/10/2001 and yet our government trains far more resource on battling terrorism than it does battling car accidents. I’m not making this up. Link to the column, you won’t believe it. I really think the Times should make sure there’s an adequate flow of oxygen getting into their building. They should call the landlord. Maybe they’re stuck in one of those sick buildings or something.

For you Gray Lady defenders out there, I know I’m unfairly over-simplifying Kristof’s point. Still, even granting his argument all its inherent complexity, it’s really, really dumb.

Saturday, March 13, 2004


In sales, they have a saying: ABC – Always Be Closing. In the sales context that simple saying symbolizes everything that a good salesman is about – making the deal. Every salesman has that simple creed drilled into his head from the his first day on the job. ABC, Always Be Closing.

But ABC doesn’t tell you everything you need to know. A lot of simple salesmen view ABC as not only a license to jump to the end of the sales process as soon as possible but even a mandate to do so. Thus, you have car salesmen asking idiotic questions like what they have to do to get you into a car that day even though they only met you three minutes ago and still don’t know anything about you or your needs. Why do they do something so stupid? Because they always have to be closing. In this manner, ABC is abused in a million locations across our great land.

That’s a shame, because the actual lesson of ABC is a vital one and a powerful one. What ABC really means is that a salesman should never lose sight of the fact that the goal of the entire sales process is to close the deal. That’s a powerful lesson, because as deals become more complex, it can actually be quite easy to lose sight of such a simple fact. A lot of salesmen don’t have the patience to take the circuitous routes that are sometimes necessary in order to close the deal. Similarly, a lot of salesmen get so lost on those circuitous routes (i.e. golf outings, client lunches, boondoggles) that they forget why they’re doing them in the first place. The good ones, though, are always moving the ball forward, advancing to their goal, and never losing sight of that goal.


In politics, the equivalent of closing is getting votes. In an election, that’s what it’s all about. All you want to do is advance on the goal of getting more votes than your opponent on Election Day. It’s amazing how many politicians and pundits forget that Election Day is all that matters. With polling having become such a part of our political culture and “electability” having become such an all pervasive buzzword, it can be easy to forget such an obvious truth that there’s only one poll that counts.

A graphic example of all the smart people forgetting about the real goal came during the 2000 election. In the first presidential debate, George W. Bush came across as he normally comes across in such a setting: A likeably earnest guy who has the unfortunate habit of sometimes engaging the English language in a death-struggle. Al Gore, renowned for his debating abilities, had his usual comprehensive grasp of the facts and, unlike Bush, never had any trouble making himself understood.

But there was one other thing: Gore also came across like a raging asshole. Every time Bush spoke, Gore couldn’t refrain from sighing in exasperation to show his contempt. Gore was desperate to let America know that he thought his opponent was an utter moron. His rudeness was historic. Never in the history of presidential debates had a candidate conducted himself in such a juvenile manner.
Immediately after the debates, the instant polls on the networks asked America who had “won” the debate. By a margin of over 2-1, Americans thought Gore had won. The Jeff Greenfields and William Schneiders pronounced it a big night for Gore and a huge milestone in the tight election. And then, something remarkable happened. In the tracking polls the next few days, Bush surged. The pundits were stumped: How could Gore win the debate and do so by a huge margin and still ebb in the polls?

The question of who “won” the debate would have been a good one if the election were for national debate captain. Of course, the stakes here were a little higher. It never dawned on the pundits that the American public might become less supportive of an individual after he behaves like a total ass on the national stage. Of course, asking who voters thought won the debate was a completely irrelevant question. The issue wasn’t who they thought “won” but who they were more likely to vote for (or in this case against) as a result of the debate. During the debate, Gore lost sight of the over-arching goal. He was trying to win a debate when he should have been trying to win votes.


The fact that he’s going to have to win people over during a long campaign is going to be a major problem for John Kerry. By instinct, Kerry plays it for the short term. There’s little he won’t sacrifice for expedience and it just won’t be in his nature to sacrifice a couple of news cycles so he’s sitting where he wants to come November. (That’s quite a contrast to the Bush team which has so patiently held its fire these past several months.) The other problem Kerry’s going to have is he simply isn’t likable. Unlike Bill Clinton, who was reportedly as ebullient as Nixon in his private life (although considerably more randy), Kerry doesn’t know how to fake being a normal likable guy.

Both of these traits were on display during the little sidebar comment kerfuffle this week. As you probably know, after making a teleconference address to some union this week, Kerry turned to the few union brothers surrounding him and, apparently unaware that he still had a “hot mic,” proceeded to call this administration the most “crooked” and “lying” ever and then assured his working class compatriots that he had “just begun to fight.”

Even in this first part of the incident, you have one of Kerry’s principal weaknesses on display. He has this awful tendency to customize himself for a given audience. He’s with a blue-collar audience, he talks how he figures blue collar people talk. It’s pretty similar to the way he accused Bush of “fucking up” Iraq in his Rollin Stone magazine interview. When he talks to a rock ‘n roll magazine, he tries to talk like a rock ‘n roller. The Rolling Stone thing happened several months ago and no one with a life noticed it, but this “crooked liars” thing happened the week he became the all but official nominee. This one the country saw.

So what does Kerry do? How should he handle it? He’s been caught in the act of being at the very least non-presidential. Does he apologize? Does he perhaps say something dignified like he didn’t mean to impugn the president’s honor and say it was an insensitive off the cuff remark and let’s not make too big deal of it? Well if he did something like that, he would definitely lose this news cycle. So he can’t – that kind of sacrifice isn’t in him.

Instead he opts to make a total ass of himself. He holds a little press conference flanked by Ted Kennedy and other democratic Senators. He starts by defiantly saying he won’t apologize because he has nothing to apologize for. As I watch, I wonder, What’s he doing? Still courting the angry Dean get-a-life voters? But wait, he’s just begun. After he refuses to apologize for calling Republicans crooks and liars, he then launches into a self pitying tirade excoriating Republicans for about to launch a negative ad. Continuing with the self pity, he then whines about the alleged Republican attack squads that are about to come after him. Remember, this whining about Republican negativity comes right after he fired the first volley by calling them crooks and liars!

Let’s step back and remember the goal he should be pursuing – making the voters like him well enough to vote for him. Could he have possibly thought this tack would help in that quest? He’s run and run successfully as a war hero, a John Wayne type. John Wayne might also refuse to apologize so maybe that tack wasn’t indefensible, but would John Wayne whine about negative ads? Would he pout about fictitious attack squads? Instead of being the war hero, Kerry chose to be the pouty liberal. Not a good move.

As we sit here today, John Kerry is known by much of the American public as “Senator War-Hero.” A war hero he might have been, but that’s not what he is today. He is, and has been for decades, a weathervane politician with an off-putting manner. As of today, running against Senator War-Hero, President Bush is in a virtual tie. Eight months from now, he’ll be running against the fully defined Senator Kerry and will probably do considerably better.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004


For my money, the funniest performance in movie history is Kevin Kline’s Oscar winning turn as Otto in “A Fish Called Wanda.” Kline’s character had a memorable catchphrase. An American former CIA agent pulling a bank caper in England, Otto was forever being antagonized by the snottiness of his British hosts. “Ooooh, you English are SOOOOOO superior,” he would constantly snarl. What made Otto so poignantly hilarious was that in spite of being the consummate imbecile, he had this one right. The English characters in the movie were stereotypically stuffy and repressed just as the Americans were stereotypically brash and thoughtless. In this one area, Otto had unusual insight.

I couldn’t help think of that line, “You’re SOOOO superior,” as I read Jean-Marie Colombani’s op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal this morning. Just as John Cleese, the auteur behind a “Fished Called Wanda,” was intent on cleverly parodying England’s haughtiness, in today’s piece Colombani seems intent on proving every piece of ill-regard any American might have for the French and their arrogance.

As the editor of Le Monde, Colombani wrote an editorial titled “We Are All American” on September 12, 2001. In today’s pieces, Colombani modestly refers to this previous editorial as having been “resonant” in the United States. True enough. All anyone was talking about that week was Colombani’s resonant editorial. “The Towers, mon dieu, but how about that editorial,” denizens of the US were heard to say for weeks after the attack. In Colombani’s world view, the two countries were brought together by the attacks (with an assist from his editorial, of course). And now it’s all gone awry. How could this have happened, one might wonder. Colombani has an answer. It happened because our President is a boob and a liar.

Colombani’s angry that America didn’t recognize the obvious: that France should have veto power over U.S. foreign policy. “The problem was not so much the war itself, but the fact that it was launched without U.N. approval, when certain countries -- including France -- considered the inspectors' job unfinished and thought that international pressures on Saddam Hussein could be increased before a military invasion of Iraq, under the authority of the U.N.”

And Colombani’s also angry at President Bush. A lot of people of good will think there might be a case that Bush manipulated the intelligence evidence or wasn’t thorough enough in reviewing the intelligence evidence or was negligent in supervising the intelligence agencies. Jean-Marie goes a bit further: “What George Bush is criticized for is very simple: not only to have lied about the weapons of mass destruction -- the official pretext for the war -- as now publicly established by recent investigations.” Recent investigations have proven the President lied? Shhhh, don’t tell the Kerry campaign. They’d probably make something like that public, maybe even run an ad or two on it.

Now you might be wondering: How can we benighted new-worlders get into the good graces of this sophisticated European? Worry not. Colombani offers us some guidance: “John Kerry is, a priori, perceived with so much sympathy (in France). He personifies the promise of an America that will get back on track -- more just, more cohesive, more generous. In brief, less ‘unilateral.’”

Clearly, Colombani is trying to influence the American political scene. Thanks to Colombani’s second “resonant” editorial, all Americans who care about regaining the affection of snotty Frenchmen now know who to support. But then of course, there’s another type of American. You know the type, the ones who think that maybe it’s not such a bad thing that the Jean-Marie Colombanis don’t like us. Now they know who to vote for also. Of course, we’ve known all along.


I find it hilarious that the Colombani piece appeared in, of all places, the Wall Street Journal. It’s well known that the WSJ has by far the most conservative editorial board in the mainstream press. It’s certain that Colombani and his piece had no fans on the WSJ editorial board. And yet the boss of the page, Paul Gigot, went to the bother of having the piece translated from its original French and publishing it in a place of prominence. Why? I think when the Journal publishes a piece like this, it does so primarily to show what jerks some of its ideological adversaries are.

A couple of weeks ago, the Journal published a piece by one of Al Gore’s daughters on Ralph Nader. The piece was embarrassingly whiny and narcissistic. Even the Gores’ most die-hard believers couldn’t have been proud of the effort.

Today’s piece provides similar humiliation to Colombani’s fellow travelers. It’s so poorly reasoned, so arrogant in tone, it will find no champions and few defenders. Even if you hated Bush and the way he’s led, you’d find this analysis weak.

Well done, Paul!

Monday, March 08, 2004


On Saturday afternoon, “The Godfather” was on. My wife sat amazed as I watched it intently even though, by conservative estimates, I’ve seen it dozens of times and know at least 80% of the dialogue by heart. Later that evening, much to my delight, Michael Mann’s incomparable “Heat” came on. Once again, my wife sat amazed and dismayed as I watched part of yet another movie that I practically know by heart. Understandably, she doesn’t share my fondness for repeated viewings of anything, no matter how high the quality of what is being viewed for the 40th time. Later in the weekend, “The Sopranos” had its long awaited season debut. At least we could share that one together.

Men are drawn to movies and shows like these. We’re powerless in their presence. I’m serious – the typical channel surfing 35 year old male who stumbles upon “ The Godfather II” will be physically unable to continue changing the channel. It’s easy to see why so many of us love these entertainments so devotedly: They’re great. They’re literally amongst the most compelling pieces of art produced in the past 100 years. The makers’ techniques are flawless, the auteurs’ visions stunning. A harder question is why do so many of us love the characters that populate these dramas. To put it mildly, these are not good men. They’re murderers and misogynists who commit a litany of horrible deeds. To take the most extreme example, no one could persuasively say that Tony Soprano is a good man. And yet, we love him. We don’t just like watching him in action. We care for him and root for him. Why? Why do we love Tony and his crew of nutjobs, Deniro and Pacino in “Heat,” and the parade of 1000 sociopaths that populate the “Godfather” movies? It’s because these characters possess and even personify two attributes that all men wish they had – strength and fearlessness.

Few men are strong, and those who are wish they were stronger. Fewer still are fearless. But we all wish we were. It’s not like the guys in these shows overcome fear. A lot of us can do that to one degree or another. It’s that these guys just don’t have any fear. None at all. Such strength is a magnetic attribute – that’s why we’re so powerfully attracted to these guys.

Take last night’s episode of the “Sopranos.” Tony’s rival Johnny Sack is about to ascend to a position of unparalleled power. At the moment of his ascension, Johnny tells Tony menacingly that he’s still pissed off at Tony for what he considers Tony’s betrayal of a year ago. How does Tony respond to this newly imposing threat? In the best line of the episode, he asks Johnny what he wants, an “apology or a fucking Whitman’s Sampler?” Most of us in the audience, if we were threatened by a high ranking Mafioso, would be scared out of our minds. And Tony wasn’t just fronting. He was pissed that his adversary would actually think that Tony would be at all put off by this attempt at intimidation. He wasn’t scared, he was angry.

Most guys, we don’t want to live like Tony or the Corleones, but oh how we wish we had their strength. How wonderful life would be if you never feared turning down a dark alley. How wonderful indeed.


“Heat” came out in 1995 to respectfully solid but less than overwhelming reviews. I remember seeing it and telling my business partner at the time that it was one of the greatest movies ever made and that it would go down with “Goodfellas” and the “Godfather” as one of the greatest crime sagas put to film. My partner said I was saying that just because it was fresh in my mind and that years later while I’d still be playing “The Godfather” on my Betamax (technological devices weren’t his forte), “Heat” would be long since forgotten.

Over the course of many subsequent viewings, my passion for “Heat” only grew as did my appreciation for its dense yet ultimately lucid storyline. When first viewed, the film’s narrative can seem a bit obscure and the entire production a bit flabby. After several viewings, however, you come to realize that every scene, indeed every shot, is utterly indispensable to the finished product. Writer and director Michael Mann wove together a dense and disparate plot so deftly it almost defies belief. Mann has made several great movies during his career, but “Heat” will always be his unparalleled achievement.

For reasons that I don’t entirely comprehend, society has caught up to me on this one. Over the last couple of years, I saw a couple of reviewers refer to “Heat” as the best movie of the 90’s. Believe me, no one was saying that in 1999. And now there’s new evidence that “Heat” is getting the respect it deserves. I noticed that TV Guide is now giving “Heat” four stars. The TV Guide reviews reflect a critics’ consensus, so this is another sign that “Heat” is becoming one of the most respected movies of our day. As it should be.