Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Journeys With Alexandra

I was finally able to watch Alexandra Pelosi's much-talked about HBO documentary "Friends of God" on Tivo last night. The film features interviews with the likes of Jerry Falwell and the now-disgraced Ted Haggard, among many others. Some Christians have called the film a hit-job on evangelical Christianity, others (like evangelical-friendly Rabbi Daniel Lapin) say it's a surprisingly fair treatment of evangelicals, and others still (like the San Francisco Chronicle, which complains that allowed her subjects to "charm" her) go so far as to charge Pelosi with being downright solicitous in her treatment of evangelicals.

So what did I find? The truth is that Pelosi (daughter of House majority leader Nancy Pelosi) allowed her subjects to speak largely without commentary and that evangelical Christianity comes off looking like the trite, shallow, often-creepy mess that it all too often is. To be sure, the film is far from objective. While Pelosi adds little verbal commentary, there's no question in the film that she views the Christians she's talking to with a somewhat jaundiced, superior eye, and this underlying commentary shows up in her choices of shots and subjects. The interviews, for instance, are filmed at frighteningly close range through a fisheye lens that subtly distorts the appearances of the interviewees, making them look like odd, "Napoleon Dynamite" characters. But mostly she just lets the camera run.

And the sad fact is, plenty of what her camera captures is disturbing regardless of the photographic technique. Watching Ted Haggard, for instance, it's almost impossible imagine that large numbers of people who knew him didn't see his fate coming. I had never seen the man speak before the scandal of last fall, but his effeminate mannerisms are startling in the segments Pelosi devotes to him--which were shot a full year before his downfall amidst allegations of homosexual misconduct. As she travels the country, Pelosi encounters an evangelical Christian pro wrestling circuit, a drive-through church service, a Christian "comedian," and a low-rent Bible theme park, among other things--all of which frankly made me want to cry.

Ultimately, regardless of her intentions, Pelosi captures something that we Christians desperately need to see. The truth is, we evangelicals have trivialized and cheapened our faith by simply conforming it to lame, white, American middle-class culture. Sadly, I don't think most of us can even see the difference at this point. We've so commingled our suburban cultural preferences with the historic truth of Christ that we're no longer able to tell one from the other, while a yawning (and lost) world meanwhile searches for something more authentic than ugly pre-fab steel buildings and Starbuck's card giveaways.

As we watch Pelosi's images of a well-intentioned Christian leading us through his "Christian" miniature golf course (complete with a play-through facsimile of the empty tomb of Christ), or see pro wrestlers (tights embroidered with Bible verses) gouging each other's eyes out before giving a requisite come-to-Jesus altar call to the crowd, perhaps we will start to realize that we're making our God, who is a consuming fire, look like a piece of kitsch sold at a Branson gift shop. Perhaps we'll wake up from our treacle-induced sugar coma to realize that the good and right purpose of sharing the gospel of Christ is inestimably damaged when we make it one of many cheap products to be sold alongside truck tires and pop music. Can we expect God not to remove the American church's lampstand when we've made the Kingdom of Christ about tacky amusement parks, derivative pop music, bumper sticker slogans, and self-fulfillment therapy?

Pelosi's documentary is damaging--precisely because it shows a large swath of evangelical American culture as it really is.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

And Now For Something Completely Different

Doug Wilson, in an unrelated context, supplies an excellent analogy to my conversation with the conspiracy theorist:
[It] reminds me of an old Monty Python skit where a television interviewer is talking to a man who claims to be Queen Elizabeth I. The host raises a series of objections, which the interviewee deftly handles, but finally the interviewer says, "But Queen Elizabeth has been dead for three and half centuries!" And the man responds, "Yes, well that's where my theory falls apart."

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Conversation With A Conspiracy Theorist

ME: So you believe President Bush had something to do with 9/11?

HIM: Yes, he had at least something to do with it. Too much doesn't add up.

ME: So he conspired in actually killing 3,000 Americans.

HIM: I think it's very possible.

ME: Okay, I'm confused about something.

HIM: What's that?

ME: What is absolutely destroying Bush's presidency right now?

HIM: Iraq.

ME: I agree. His popularity numbers are as low as Nixon's. Rock bottom.

HIM: Right.

ME: And you think he arranged a conspiracy in which literally thousands of people would've had to take part--all secretly--in planting explosives in the Twin Towers and detonating them on national television.

HIM: They probably would've been disguised as workers. Those buildings were really big, so they probably wouldn't have noticed a few hundred people dressed as telephone repairmen or maintenance people or whatever.

ME: While they were planting explosives all over the building.

HIM: Right.

ME: Here's my question then. If George W. Bush is so malevolently competent as to be able to pull off a conspiracy of thousands of people, all of whom have remained silent, to destroy the World Trade Center on national television and blow up part of the Pentagon, why couldn't he have arranged to have a few weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq?

HIM: Well, there weren't any there. If there had been, they'd been smuggled out.

ME: Yeah, but he's doing all this for his own nefarious purposes anyway. Under your theory, the whole war is just a pretext anyway. And it's destroying his presidency. So if he's able to pull off 9/11, surely he's capable of planting a few weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to legitimize this war, right?

HIM: Well, I think there's also an Iran angle, and you have to remember...

ME: No, no, no. Respond to what I'm saying. Why couldn't the man who was capable of pulling off 9/11 stick a few WMD's out in the desert, which would have legitimized the war, saved his presidency, shot his approval ratings into the stratosphere, and perhaps even set us up for further wars to benefit whoever this is supposed to be benefitting? Surely a guy who could do what was required to pull off 9/11 could arrange to stick a few chemical weapons out in the Iraqi desert somewhere. What would that take? Maybe a hundred people?

HIM: Well, but what about the fact that the military was late scrambling planes to get the airliners on 9/11?

ME: [Banging head against wall and whimpering.]

(This conversation really happened.)

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Around The Horn

  • Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (one of the few remaining living members of the dissolute Kennedy family) has called radio/television talk show host Glenn Beck "CNN's chief corporate fascism advocate." Oh, well as long as we're being reasonable about it. Why does Kennedy say this? Because Beck has foolishly advocated actually knowing what we're doing before we go off half-cocked on implementing high-cost, low-yield global warming "solutions." Of course, the Kennedy family hates corporations. Their trust funds were built the old-fashioned way--through bootlegging. I suppose if anyone would know a fascist, though, it would be a Kennedy, since Grandpa Joe (whose money he lives on) was such a noted supporter of Hitler's Third Reich.
  • If you've missed the spectacular flameout of Internet racists Harry Seabrook and Greg "Badonicus" McDivitt of Little Geneva infamy, you're missing quite a show. I haven't seen anybody get their pants pulled down on the web like this in a long time. They evidently made one highly motivated and resourceful enemy along the line. May God grant them repentence.
  • You've no doubt by now heard about the exchange last week between Sen. Barbara Boxer and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in which Boxer impugns Rice's judgment on the basis of Rice not having immediate family members in the war. I know this argument carries a lot of popular currency, but if Rice did have children in the war (or even of fighting age), wouldn't this be what in other arenas we commonly call a "conflict of interests?" Why is it suddenly considered good for a public official to make decisions based on how they might affect personal family members?
  • I'm surprised more hasn't been said about this, but "Mr. Decency" Gerald Ford taking slaps at President Bush with the proviso that they only be published after Ford's death was an utter weasel move. Max Schulz at National Review Online lays out the situation. And when's the last time Bob Woodward actually interviewed somebody who was alive? I wonder if he's in Art Buchwald's hospital room right now getting quotes from him.

Monday, January 15, 2007

And Now, On With The Countdown

For Christmas this year, my lovely wife gave me an XM Satellite Radio, which may be the coolest gift I've ever received. Frankly, I never thought she'd get it for me, since it's long been a foregone conclusion in our home that my musical tastes, formed in the early 1980's by acts like Def Leppard, Prince, and the Rolling Stones, will ultimately propel my children into hopeless degeneracy. But XM also has the Major League Baseball broadcasts on it, and we're all pretty cool with that. I think ultimately she was willing to place the possible father-son bonding that can take place this summer listening to Mike Shannon call Cardinals games above the possible side-effects from the kids accidentally overhearing me singing along with "99 Luftballoons" on the 80's channel.

Anyway, one of the really, really cool things for me about the XM radio is that on 70's and 80's channels on the weekends, they rerun old episodes of Casey Kasem's "American Top 40" from those decades. I can't tell you what a great thing this is. The top five or ten songs from any given period are usually still widely played even today, so those are all too familiar. But when you get down to the 20's and the 30's on the charts, you find some real forgotten gems which are always fun to hear.

It also gives you the occasional opportunity to hear some of the absolute worst pop music ever foisted upon mankind. Such was the case with a rancid little number I heard for the first time this weekend, moving into #23 on the pop chart in 1972. It's absolutely the worst song I've ever personally heard, which means it has to be among at least the top ten worst songs in pop history. Don't get me wrong; it's highly entertaining, in the way Shatner singing "Rocket Man" is entertaining. It's mawkish, self-important, simple-minded, didactic, naive, and supremely idiotic. Just an utter trainwreck. It's something called "Things Get a Little Easier (Once You Understand)" by Think. You can listen to it here, if you dare. And as you do, keep in mind--the kind of people who thought songs like this would transform society are basically the kind people who run today's Democratic Party.

Also, make sure you don't bail out early and miss the hilariously ham-handed "surprise ending." It will amply reward your persistence. I've heard better acting in local used-furniture store commercials. Perhaps the only thing funnier than the song itself was Casey Kasem's super-somber outro (which I can only wish were also on the Web) at the end. "Moving up to number 23 [pause] that's 'Things Get a Little Easier' by [pause] Think." I think by using dramatic pauses, Casey was trying to give us the opportunity to Think about what we had just learned. And I did.

So as far as I'm concerned, that's worth the XM Satellite subscription fee right there.

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Friday, January 12, 2007

A Kick In The Grass

Okay, the baseball stuff has pretty much killed traffic here this week, so we'll change gears. To soccer!

Here's something that everybody needs to get straight: Soccer is a boring third-world snooze-fest that Americans will never, ever like to watch in any large numbers. The reason we have to bring it up again is because someone who evidently wants to bankrupt his business and flee the country as soon as possible (otherwise known as the owner of something called the Los Angeles Galaxy) signed English soccer star David Beckham for $250 million over five years. Evidently there was a drizzle, so the owner wasn't able to just set the money on fire.

Of course, that money would be better spent on, say, programs for teaching cats how to water ski. But I'm sure some dope somewhere is convinced that this copiously gelled semi-poofter and his Spice Girl wife are just the thing to finally kick soccer into high gear here in America. Not gonna happen. I'll bet you a Pele and raise you three Mia Hamms. But it will at least be something to talk about in five years when the Galaxy's owner runs out into the intersection to clean off my winshield for a lousy greenback.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Is The Hall of Fame "Just For Men"?

Most discussions about the baseball Hall of Fame are devoid of reason and logic. Few topics of discourse are decided ultimately on "gut feeling" or "something indefinable" or what somebody "looked like" than the subject of who should or shouldn't be in the Hall of Fame.

Most people look at a Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, or Joe DiMaggio and say, "That's a Hall of Famer." The reality is, however, that those guys have never been the standard for the Hall of Fame. They're the absolute cream of the crop even in the Hall itself. To look at the top 10% of the guys who are in the Hall of Fame as the standard for the Hall of Fame is simply not a valid way of going about the process. It might make for a nice imaginary, ideal, Platonic Hall of Fame, where only 20 guys are members, but the real Hall of Fame has never been limited to the Ted Williamses and the Stan Musials.

So in discussions about the Hall of Fame, we need to look at the real Hall of Fame rather than some figment of our imagination, and see how a proposed player fits into the real one. We need to look at what a player actually accomplished, as opposed to indefinable, subjective criteria (e.g "He didn't look like a Hall of Famer to me.")

With all that having been said, I want to propose someone for the Hall of Fame who ought to be there but doesn't even get serious consideration. Indeed, he recently dropped off the ballot altogether. That player is...(drumroll please)...Keith Hernandez. Yeah, you heard me. Keith Hernandez.

"But wait a minute, John. Keith Hernandez was a fine ballplayer. But he didn't look like a Hall of Famer to me." As I said before, I don't know what that means. It doesn't cut it. Facts and logic must rule the day (though, of course, they haven't).

Here are the facts. Keith Hernandez may well be the finest defensive first baseman of all time. Is there any other position in baseball (except for pitchers, who only play every five days and thus are not evaluated on their hitting or fielding) in which the finest defensive player ever has been excluded from the Hall? Hernandez made all the routine plays at first base, and he also made plays I've never seen any first baseman make before. "Aha!" you might object. "Now you're arguing for a player based on what he looked like." Fine. Let's go to the objective facts. Hernandez won eleven gold gloves at first base. There are only five position players in baseball history who have won more Gold Gloves than that, and all the eligible ones are in the Hall of Fame (with Ivan Rodriguez still in the process of winning more). If we admit that baseball is a two way game, and if we are willing to put power-hitting, zero-fielding first basemen in like Harmon Killebrew, how do we keep the best defensive player at the position out of the Hall?

Presumably, if we were going to try to keep such a player out, we'd have to strongly penalize him for his hitting. He'd have to be an unusually subpar hitter in order for us to negate his tremendous fielding achievements. Is this warranted in Hernandez's situation? No; to the contrary, he was an excellent hitter. He won the NL batting title (as well as the MVP award) in 1979 with a .344 average, finished in the top 10 in the league in average seven times, and won two Silver Slugger awards at first base (awarded to the best offensive player in the league at each position--and he did not win the award in his MVP year).

But we're not done yet. What else did possibly the best defensive first baseman of all time accomplish offensively? He was in the top ten in the league in runs scored five times (including leading the league twice), finished in the top ten in doubles eight times (including leading the league with 48 in 1979), and was in the top five in on-base percentage seven times (and in the top two five different times!). He drove in 90 or more runs in six different seasons. He finished a 17-season career with a lifetime .296 average.

In addition to all this, he played an integral role on two different World Series championship teams (including as captain with the '86 Mets) and was a five-time All Star. And he played an integral role in one of the greatest "Seinfeld" storylines ever.

So how does a guy like this not even get considered for the Hall of Fame? I think two things are at play. First, Hernandez's position has come to be considered a power position, and Hernandez was not a big power hitter (though he had some respectable pop in his bat: 162 lifetime homers in the pre-steroids, pre-bandbox ballparks era, playing the majority of his career in cavernous Busch Stadium). But this is arbitrary at best. Where is it written that a power-hitting, poor defensive first baseman like Hank Greenberg is better than a great defensive, excellent doubles and average guy like Hernandez? It's utterly arbitrary to single out home runs as the main criteria for first basemen and give no credit for great defense and otherwise excellent hitting.

Second, I think that Hernandez's drug problems, brought to light in the infamous Pittsburgh drug trial probably torpedoed any real chance he ever had. Heck, one might even think I'm arguing for Hernandez because he was a Cardinal and I'm a homer, but I've hated Keith Hernandez for years, ever since his drug involvement came to light at about the same time that his Mets were the Cardinals' fiercest rival. If even I feel that way, I have no doubt it influenced Hall voters. (Also, those "Just for Men" commercials with Walt "Clyde" Frazier can't be helping.) Nonetheless, the members of the Hall of Fame would never comprise an ideal citizenry. They should, as I've argued all along, be judged for what they did on the field. And by that standard, Hernandez is a legit Hall of Famer.

A knowledgeable baseball fan will say, "Well what about Don Mattingly, then? He has very similar qualifications." To which I say: That's correct. Donny Baseball belongs in the Hall of Fame too. Both of these guys are more deserving than at least 1/3 of the people who are currently in the Hall of Fame.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Talkin' Baseball

In any case, it’s unfortunate that the McGwire controversy will taint the elections of Ripken and Gwynn, two of the game’s undisputed good guys. I’ve gotten to do some amazing things in my Forrest Gump-like life, and one of them was talking hitting with Tony Gwynn, a lifetime .338 hitter.

Around 1994 I was covering a Cardinals/Padres game for KFNS in St. Louis. After the game, as we reporters streamed into the clubhouse, I spotted Tony Gwynn getting dressed in front of his lockers. No reporters had gotten to him yet. I nervously strolled over to introduce myself and get a few comments for my tape recorder. But Gwynn was such a genial, likeable, enthusiastic guy, I decided to try to have a full-blown conversation with him.

Seizing the moment, I skipped the incidental information about that night's particular game and started asking him about the science of hitting. He lit up like a kid on Christmas morning. Hitting the baseball was Tony Gwynn’s passion, and I got the sense he’d talk about it all night if you wanted to. I asked him about bats, about the use of video in preparing for hitters, about training, and on and on. Of course, I heard about half of what he said. Mostly I heard a running loop in my mind saying, “I’m standing here talking to Tony Gwynn about hitting! I’m going to be able to tell my grandchildren about this someday!” Other reporters began gathering around to get quotes from Gwynn regarding the actual game that had been played that night. As my line of conversation continued, they began to get annoyed. “Hey, c’mon, we’re on deadline here!” they started grousing. Gwynn ignored them and kept talking about hitting. He treated me like I was the only guy in the room.

After about 15 full minutes, I finally gave way to the other reporters. I thanked Gwynn for his time and excused myself. “I enjoyed it,” he said. And I think he really meant it.

By the mid-90’s, there were a lot of jerks in baseball. There were guys after only money, and guys (like Bonds) who practically walled themselves off from the media and even their own teammates. But Tony Gwynn was a guy who decided to take less money to play in one town--his hometown--his whole career. And he was a guy who, even in the middle of a Hall of Fame career, was willing to sit with some dope reporter after a game and just talk about hitting. Today Tony Gwynn was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot, garnering 97.6% of the votes. There’ve perhaps others who have been as deserving, but I don’t think there’s ever been anyone more deserving of the Hall of Fame than Tony Gwynn.

(And for what it’s worth, tomorrow I’m going to make an argument for someone to go to the Hall who is being severely overlooked. And it’s not any of the people you think. He's not even on the ballot anymore.)

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The Road To Cooperstown

Later today, the 2006 National Baseball Hall of Fame elections will be announced. There is no doubt that Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn will (deservedly) be elected, and the only question is by how much. I find myself constantly amazed that no players get elected unanimously. In my opinion, any baseball writer who looks at his ballot this year and says, “Tony Gwynn? Nah, he’s not a Hall-of-Famer,” ought to have his vote revoked. Anyone who doesn’t vote for both Ripken and Gwynn on this ballot is simply an irremediable dolt.

Of course, a great deal of controversy will surround the non-election of Mark McGwire, who by all accounts will not even come close to getting the nod this year. Even as a Cardinals fan, I find myself ambivalent about McGwire considering the recent steroid allegations and his pitiable performance before Congress a couple of years ago.

At one time, McGwire was an instant, first-ballot, no-question Hall-of-Famer. I’ve been watching baseball all my life, and I’ve never seen anyone on a baseball field as commanding as McGwire. I remember covering a pre-game batting practice in Miami the night that McGwire tied and broke the National League single season home run record in 1998 on his way to 70. The players on both teams came out of the clubhouses and stood on the dugout steps to watch McGwire take batting practice swings. After each amazing shot, they’d laugh and high-five each other, as if to say, “I don’t believe what I’m seeing here.” When McGwire came to bat in a game, everything in the stadium literally stopped. Vendors stopped hawking and turned to home plate. People stepped out of concession lines to get a glimpse of the field. He was amazing. All of that has now been tainted, however, by the allegations of steroid use—allegations McGwire has never adequately addressed.

For what it’s worth, two non-St. Louis writers give impassioned defenses for the position that McGwire should be elected to the Hall. Jayson Stark of ESPN writes:
See, this is the essence of the problem. Mark McGwire is the first prominent player tied to performance enhancers with Hall of Fame numbers to show up on this ballot. But he's only the beginning. So how do we know where to draw the line? How do we know which guys we should or shouldn't vote for if we want to make some kind of statement?

It was baseball that allowed all of this to happen. In a sport with no rules, no testing and no punishment for using the hottest substances of the day, this was no tiny problem, involving a few obvious home run trotters. This was the culture inside the game, just as amphetamines were part of the culture in the '60s and '70s and '80s (and beyond).
The fact is, this is going to be an issue with every potential nominee from now on. Are we just going to pretend that the ‘90’s never happened in Major League Baseball? Bill Simmons of ESPN.com voices a similar sentiment:
Let's stop pretending that the Baseball Hall of Fame is a real-life fantasy world -- a place where we celebrate only the people and events we can all unanimously agree deserve to be celebrated -- and transform it into an institution that reflects both the good and bad of the sport. Wait -- wasn't that Cooperstown's mission all along? Shouldn't it be a place where someone who knows nothing about baseball can learn about its rich history? Isn't it a museum, after all?

If that's the case -- and I say it is -- then how can we leave out Pete Rose, the all-time hits leader and most memorable competitor of his era? And how can we even consider leaving out McGwire, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa, the three most memorable hitters of the 1990s? We're supposed to stick our heads in the historical sand and pretend these people were never born? Imagine if the rest of the world worked like this. Word is, JFK cheated on his wife. Should we change the name of the airport and remove all his memorabilia from the Smithsonian?

...When a painful strike canceled the 1994 World Series and nearly killed the sport, two events got people caring again: Cal Ripken's breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record in 1995, and McGwire's and Sosa's battling for Maris' record three years later. Watch the end of "61*" sometime, or reread Mike Lupica's gushing book, "Summer of '98." (Note: Lupica now argues that Big Mac doesn't belong in the Hall. He never says anything about returning the profits from his book, however.) The home run chase meant something back then. And by the way, when it was going on, we all chose to overlook the fact that McGwire was a can of green paint away from being the Incredible Hulk and that Sosa looked like he was developing a second jaw. Let's not forget that.
I can’t blame a writer for not casting a vote for McGwire at this point. Yet I also have to wonder if the future Baseball Hall of Fame is going to simply pretend like the 90’s didn’t exist, excising an entire era like the old Soviet history books used to do.

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Friday, January 05, 2007

Challies For (Canadian) President!

Though I disagreed with him a little bit on the homeschooling issue, I want to make something perfectly clear: Tim Challies is the finest human being in the world, and there is no better site on the Internet than Challies.com!

Thanks to Tim, my wife and I will now be able to afford to go to the Ligonier Conference in Orlando in March, which is something we had been discussing just last night. For the two of us, it was going to cost at least $250 just to register. Among the speakers at the conference are R.C. Sproul, John Piper, Al Mohler, and Ravi Zacharias.

You made one family's day, Tim. Thanks.

(And thanks too, of course, must go to Ligonier Ministries, who provided Tim with the free registrations to give away in the first place. You would think us genuine geeks if you could see how excited my wife and I both are about winning this.)

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Football Helmets Used To Be Leather

In watching the Larry King interview from 1999 with Gerald Ford, another exchange struck me that pointed to Ford's relative cluelessness, though it also provides another window onto Ford's sudden canonization by the media.
KING: What are your thoughts on the great debate in your party about abortion?

FORD: Well, I have to be very frank and clear here. Betty and I are pro-choice, period. We have no apology for that. And we, on the other hand, don't think that issue should be in the partisan political arena.

KING: Shouldn't be in the platform even?

FORD: That's right. It's not a philosophical, partisan issue. It's a very personal issue. We can be opposed to abortion, but it should not be thrown into the partisan political debate. And, therefore, even though we're pro-choice, we would oppose any effort to get an anti-abortion provision in our platform.
Interestingly, Ford's "argument" (if one could call it that) essentially draws a false dichotomy between the "personal" and the "philosophical"--as if all our personal actions (as well as public policies) were not produced by a philosophy of some sort or another. It also begs the question by ruling opposing views out a priori, as if to say, "You can have your views and I'll have mine, and mine will be the law by decree and yours must never be mentioned in public because that wouldn't be proper."

But more than that, Ford is exactly and precisely wrong here. Abortion is absolutely a political and philosophical issue. The very fact that the issue of abortion was suddenly removed by the Supreme Court from the public political arena is the reason the nation is still deeply and substantially divided over it 34 years after Roe v. Wade. As Judge Robert Bork has written:
If judgments about the prudence of overruling are invoked, the justices should take note of the fact that Roe lies at the center of the bitter polarization of much of American society. In countries where the issue is decided democratically, no such intense animus exists. Compromises are worked out and each side knows that it is free to continue the public debate in hope of doing better next time. That was, and would be again, the case in America if the subject of abortion were returned to state legislatures and electorates. Overruling Roe would not, as some Democrats will claim, make abortion illegal, but merely the subject of democratic regulation. We have paid a high price for a ruling that rests upon nothing in the Constitution and was arrived at in an opinion of just over 51 pages that contains not a line of legal reasoning.
Even noted liberal law professor Cass Sunstein agrees with Bork on this:
The court might've gradually built up to something pretty close to Roe v. Wade without anything like the intense public backlash that Roe itself yielded. We would've eventually gotten there through the slow process of case-by-case decisions. Another possibility is that the court would permit some restrictions on abortion rights -- more restrictions than it now does -- and we would see some variability across the states. Some states would basically ban abortion, with exceptions for rape and incest, but most states would allow abortion, probably quite freely. We wouldn't have the intense political tangles we now do, and things would be much more congenial between pro-choice and pro-life people.
I don't agree with Sunstein about what the American public would have ultimately done, but his overall point still stands. The fact is, abortion absolutely is a political issue, and by removing it from the people's policy-making power (where it properly belongs, contra Ford), the Supreme Court insured that it would never be settled.

Ford's stance is emblematic of the wishy-washy, pragmatic philosophy that made him a presidential non-entity. He demonstrates the same mushiness on the gun issue:
KING: And, of course, Reagan being shot. Do you have some thoughts on guns in this country? There's a constant debate about it.

FORD: Let me just say this. We've never owned a gun in our house. I'm not a hunter, so I have no ...

KING: Personal.

FORD: ... personal views, other than I think some reasonable, responsible gun control legislation is desirable. I don't think that's going to solve the problem a hundred percent, but I think reasonable restrictions do make sense.
Again, a man of few words who says even less. In fact, this demonstrates one of Ford's most characteristic qualities: he was a lifelong member of the Faux-Decisive School of Public Speaking. This is the club in which members begin statements with such steely declarations as, "Let me be perfectly frank here," or, "Let me give you my unqualified, unvarnished opinion on this," followed by a mushy, blobby, amorphous, gelatinous nothingness.

"Larry, I want to make something perfectly clear here. I have always felt that some laws were good, and some laws were bad. I think it would be wise for us to try to have more of the good laws, and perhaps fewer of the bad ones." Because reporters are generally morons, they'll actually believe you're being perfectly frank as long as you simply inform them that you're being perfectly frank. Which is why this week you hear the press bemoaning the fact that we don't have more Gerald Fords. Now, in Ford's defense, I don't think he was being misleading or disingenuous. He really was mushy, blobby, and amorphous, and his "frankness" merely demonstrated that. He may have been a decent guy, as we've been hearing incessantly. But make no mistake about it. A car full of Gerald Fords could never even get out of the garage. Thank heavens we only had 2 1/2 years of this.

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Our Long National Nightmare

Okay, can somebody please put Gerald Ford in the ground already? He died like two months ago or something. I'm all for formal state funerals, but c'mon. This funeral has lasted longer than Ford's actual presidency.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Gerald's Heralds

I've found myself a bit surprised at the level of pomp and circumstance surrounding the funeral of former president Gerald Ford over the past week. Of course, because of the stature of the presidency, one would expect a certain amount of fanfare. And by all accounts Ford was an eminently decent man, well-liked by all. Nonetheless, the pageantry is far greater than I expected.

It perhaps won't seem kind to say this (and it surely won't be popular), but the natural desire to honor the dead is causing Ford to be vastly overrated during this mourning period. The fact is, as a president, he was largely a non-entity. Ford was a political pragmatist without any kind of guiding philosophy or worldview. Pragmatism can perhaps allow one to build a long Washington career, but it usually fails to inspire anybody. Pragmatists don't inspire love or devotion among real people (though the media usually loves them for their "bipartisanship"). Bob Dole was a similar kind of politician, and it's easily forgotten among this week's laurels that the uninspiring Ford/Dole ticket was soundly beaten in 1976, which largely (and thankfully) paved the way for the far more successful Reagan era. (Dole, inspiring nobody but his immediate family, also led the GOP ticket in '96 and was utterly trounced.)

Yes, Ford pardoned Nixon, which was a major decision whether one agreed or disagreed with it. But beyond that, there's precious little in the Ford record to remember him by. I was reminded of this while watching a rerun over the weekend of an interview Ford did with Larry King back in 1999. Here was one of the exchanges:
KING: You have an also been critical of your own party of late, especially its drift farther rightward. Was that tough for you, to come out and criticize your own, to break the Reagan rule of we don't criticize our own?

FORD: Not at all, because I think having been in the political arena actively and holding positions of responsibility, at my age, I have an obligation to speak out as I really feel, and I feel very strongly that the Republican Party ought to be the party of the middle, not an extreme right-wing party and duplicate the mistake that my Democratic friends made for about three elections of being too far to the left. The record is that when the Democrats nominated an extreme liberal...

KING: McGovern.

FORD: McGovern, Dukakis, the others, they lost. And we Republicans will lose if we nominate candidates who are on the fringe, the extreme right. The public generally, Larry, believes in moderation, middle of the road political philosophy and ideology.
That, in a nutshell, is the dullness which was Gerald Ford. His analysis of Democrats may be correct, but he was demonstrably wrong when it came to Republicans--and to the politics of the American people at large. The fact is that for decades now, it's the Republicans the media portrays as extremists who actually win and hold the presidency. Ford spoke these words just as a Republicans running as a staunch conservative was about to win the first of two terms in the White House. Meanwhile, Ford, taking this "centrist" position, was roundly booted from office by the American people. Indeed, while it hasn't been mention much this week, Ford was so uninspiring that he nearly lost the Republican nomination to Ronald Reagan as the incumbent president. That's virtually unprecedented.

The fact is, the most "moderate" Republican presidential candidates of the last 30+ years--Ford, Bush 41, and Dole--have been losers. Of these, only Bush 41 actually won a presidential election, and that was largely because he was (mistakenly) seen as an ultra-conservative after eight years as Reagan's vice-president. The ostensible "extremist" partisans--Reagan and Bush 43--have been the party's biggest winners. Nixon, though less conservative than I would care for, was also perceived by the media as an arch-conservative and loathed by the left, and as a result he won two presidential elections during a time of unrest as a "law and order" candidate--including a landslide in '72 during the height of the anti-war movement.

But Ford was the media's favorite kind of conservative, which is to say not very. Other than the Nixon pardon, his enduring legacy is the nomination of John Paul Stevens to the Supreme Court, which has been an unmitigated disaster for anyone who values the Constitution (the actual paper one, I mean, rather than the amorphous "organic" one from which Stevens works) and the rule of law.

"Why, oh why can't we have more Republicans like Gerald Ford?" the media is asking this week. The answer seems to be that, generally speaking, Republicans decided that they would rather win elections than run dull, uninspiring, middle-of-the-road, let's-all-go-play-golf-and-have-a-drink career hacks. No doubt the media and the Washington establishment would love to see an unending string of "moderate" Republicans who cannot actually win national elections (which is why they drool at the sight of John McCain), but for the most part, the Republicans have annoyingly seemed to prefer winning.

So there's a lot of hoopla this week as Gerald Ford is laid to rest, and I think generally that's a good thing. The presidency is important, and some degree of ceremony should attend the funeral of a president. A president is a president, and he should be buried like a president. But you'll be hard-pressed to find any real people getting emotional over the passing of Gerald Ford the way they did a couple of years ago when President Reagan died. It's purely a Washington phenomenon. As Slate's Timothy Noah writes:
Within the narrow confines of Permanent Washington—the journalists, lobbyists, and congressional lifers who are the city's avatars of centrism and continuity—Ford is considered the beau idéal of American leadership.

...Washington's Gerald Ford cult differs from, say, its John F. Kennedy cult or its Ronald Reagan cult in that no branches can be found outside the nation's capital. It is possible to say, "America loves JFK," or "America loves Reagan," but no one in his right mind would ever say, "America loves Ford." (If attempted, the statement would surely be mistaken for an advertising slogan touting the Dearborn, Mich.-based auto manufacturer.) America has not given Gerald Ford a lot of thought.

...That is why Washington loves Gerald Ford. Comity and bipartisanship are easy to overrate, and Permanent Washington can always be counted on to overrate them.
While we honor Gerald Ford this week, we should keep in mind that he's being highly overrated by the media and his fellow politicians. No doubt he was a fine gentleman, but he was a medium-to-bad president and we're probably fortunate we were only stuck with him for two years.

And if you think I'm lacking charity, just take a gander at what Christopher Hitchens has to say about the Ford send-off this week.

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