From The San Francisco Chronicle:
by Jordan Michael Smith, May 10, 2012
Lyndon Johnson's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, once boasted that "Liberalism, above all, means emancipation - emancipation from one's fears, his inadequacies, from prejudice, from discrimination, from poverty." By the 1988 Republican National Convention, Ronald Reagan was brandishing the term as an insult: "The masquerade is over. It's time to ... say that dreaded L-word; to say the policies of our opposition are liberal, liberal, liberal."
Liberalism's rise and fall is the subject of journalist Eric Alterman's new book. Historian Kevin Mattson contributed some outlines, but this is Alterman's magnum opus. A columnist for the left-wing Nation magazine and the author of seven previous books on politics (and one on Bruce Springsteen), Alterman is well-placed to tell the history of his ideology.
He begins, as many historians do, with Franklin Roosevelt, the man who first defined his philosophy as liberalism and that of his opponents as conservatism. "What President Roosevelt left as his enduring legacy was the modern American welfare state, and with it the foundation of modern American liberalism," Alterman writes. Though others from Andrew Jackson to Woodrow Wilson contributed to the origins of liberalism, it was FDR who crystallized that vision, and weaved together the coalition that would sustain it for generations to come.
"The Cause" shows how liberalism has been under siege ever since Roosevelt's death, in 1945. As soon as the 12-year president died, liberals rued the fact that the pragmatic Harry Truman became the leader, not the left-wing Harry Wallace. Once Truman declined to run for re-election in 1952, Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson's intellectualism proved no match for Dwight Eisenhower's easygoing manner and military credibility.
"It was Stevenson's high opinion of his own intellect, repeatedly demonstrated during his two presidential runs, that helped cement the notion of the effete, ineffectual liberal stereotype that has proved to be such rich territory for conservatives to mine since the mid-twentieth century," Alterman shrewdly notes.
Similarly well observed is that the Republican Party remains indebted to Joseph McCarthy, whose "right-wing populist resentment gave rise to America's postwar culture war - elites versus ordinary citizens - that would frame American politics from then on and would prove to be conservatives' fail-safe option and single most politically effective weapon whenever their political fortunes faded."
Alterman's book takes us into the Obama era, but it would be a mistake to say it is focused on presidential politics. All aspects of liberalism are surveyed, from the culture of Hollywood movies to the civil rights movement to intellectual debates. In fact, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and historian Arthur Schlesinger are as much central players in "The Cause" as are Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. In this way, Alterman's book stands as the definitive work on its subject.
What makes "The Cause" so valuable is its combination of detail and empathy. Though clearly on the left side of the spectrum, Alterman has important critiques of left-wing identity politics, the 1960s New Left, and aspects of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs. He is sympathetic to the need for Democratic politicians to hedge toward the center, even as he laments that fact. He recognizes that Americans are deeply hostile to the notion of a powerful central government, even as they approve of many of the individual actions it undertakes.
For most of "The Cause," Alterman's fiery temperament is restrained by shrewd judgment, compassion and judiciousness. It is only when he gets to the Obama era that he is unable to see the positive achievements of the current president. He concedes that health care was Obama's "signal accomplishment," but focuses only on its drawbacks and compromises.
Similarly, he awards the president few points for his stimulus package, which virtually all economists agree stopped the economy from going into free fall. Obama's daring raid to kill Osama bin Laden "was shadowed by the disturbing recognition that Osama had been kept safe and sound in Pakistan." Surely that fact is outweighed by the accomplishment of killing the man responsible for 9/11!
Alterman sounds at times almost as reluctant to credit the Obama administration's liberal achievements as its Republican critics are. Still, it is hard to argue with "The Cause's" conclusion. "America has undoubtedly become a fairer, more open and less oppressive society thanks largely to the political and cultural struggles waged by the liberals described in this book."
Tremendous achievements have been made on behalf of everyone from immigrants to African Americans to women to gays and lesbians. "But the fact remains that on the economic front, contemporary liberals find themselves on the defensive in virtually every respect."
Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at Salon. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
From The Boston Globe:
April 22, 2012| By Mickey Edwards
One need not subscribe to all of the Left’s grandiose ideas for remaking America to grant that it has been largely responsible for much of what is actually best about the United States of the 21st Century (civil rights laws, universal suffrage, environmental protection, the 40-hour work week, food safety). And despite the rhetoric one hears too often, this has not been the work of “Kenyan socialists” (who would have thought Kenya would replace France as the great bugaboo of the right!).
Most of the men and women who have brought us this government-centric vision aren’t really socialists at all. In short, the American liberal has quite a story to tell and even those of us who think of ourselves as the real liberals (advocates of individual liberty and constrained government) owe it a hearing.
The Left, though, save for the periodic attempt by a Bill Galston or John Podesta, has been relatively silent when it comes to putting its own story out there. Sylvia Nasar’s “Grand Pursuit” does a good job of it, but hers is a story of economics and gives equal voice to the leading conservatives in that profession. Beyond that, the Left has been satisfied with people like Thomas Frank and Michael Moore, who offer an abundance of heat but little light.
What a relief it is, then, to read Eric Alterman’s superb new book, “The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism From Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.” (Kevin Mattson is billed as a second author but had to drop out of the project early, leaving this mostly Alterman’s work).
Rather than seize on high-profile victories, the book moves chronologically through the advances, false starts, missteps, and triumphs of the decades that followed FDR’s inauguration. The leading characters in the unfolding liberal play are woven into the story, along with the conflicts that sometimes accompanied them. Because it is a history, set in the context of the times and the players, Alterman doesn’t weigh the book down with ex post facto arguments — what is gained now, in the 21st century, from making the case for Social Security or assailing its critics? — but treats the need for government intervention as a given and lays out how the ensuing policies were shaped and realized.
Alterman, despite his strongly held views, does not rant; he knows what liberalism is all about, why it matters, and why, in his view, it should be the basis for American governance. He is an intellectual, not a flack, and his book is long (more than 500 pages), dense, and complex, full of events, decisions, and big personalities. But it would be a mistake, whether you are a conservative or a liberal, not to read it.
Here is one liberal of the mid-19th and 20th centuries, John Dewey, writing of liberalism’s commitment to “the common man,” followed years later by another liberal, Daniel Bell, arguing that “mass man” must be constrained by “educated elites.” Here are FDR’s “positive freedoms” and landslide victories and Arthur Schlesinger, a dozen years after Roosevelt’s death, writing that “[l]iberalism in America has not for thirty years been so homeless, baffled, irrelevant, and impotent as it is today.”
One of the great strengths of Alterman’s story — a mix of history, biography, and political philosophy — is the straightforward way in which he discusses the movement’s challenges as well as its goals and its triumphs: problems created by the antiwar movement and charges that the Left was soft on communism and national security; tensions between Democrats’ “twin constituencies of blacks and working-class whites”; the McCarthy-Kennedy challenges to Lyndon Johnson; conflicts between Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem over the direction of feminism and Friedan’s ouster as president of the National Organization for Women.
In Alterman’s portrait, one can trace the development of ideas that have had great impact on modern society — Isaiah Berlin’s notions of “negative liberty” leading to William O. Douglas’s conception of a right to privacy among “penumbras” in the Constitution and ultimately to the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade. Here, too, are John Rawls and the communitarian Michael Sandel at odds over claims of social obligation and individual rights.
Like the most admirable of true believers, Alterman does not feel it necessary to hammer away at the arguments of others. He has his opinions — he is among the best known, and best, of today’s liberal commentators — and one can find his views easily enough in these pages, but he is content to let liberalism speak for itself and to show us how it came to be and why it has enjoyed the support of so many Americans. In these pages you can argue with or cheer for the people and the ideas that underlie so much of what we today take for granted — I would happily take up some of those debates myself — but if your goal is to learn about, and understand, one of this country’s most potent political forces, this book belongs in your hands.
Mickey Edwards is a former Republican congressman. His latest book, “The Parties Versus The People,” is forthcoming this summer from Yale University Press. From
From The American Prospect:
Our Battle Scars
JOAN WALSH MAY 7, 2012
The Cause tells how liberals gave America the best of the 20th century. So why is it so hard to be one?
It’s taken me almost my entire life to come out of the closet as a liberal. In college at the end of the 1970s, I was no revolutionary, but I thought of myself as a radical. Working at “the independent socialist newspaper” In These Times in the 1980s, I tried on actual socialism, with some relief at having a name for what I thought I believed. Later I became a progressive, when that term came to stand for the Paul Wellstone-Howard Dean “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”
In middle age, I’ve belatedly found solace and realism in calling myself a liberal. Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson’s The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama explains why. The book also makes clear why it took me so long to come to terms with my sober, modest, occasionally enervating political identity.
Alterman and Mattson remind us how much liberalism has accomplished over the past 75 years: protecting workers; advancing civil and economic rights for black people and other racial minorities as well as women; supporting seniors, the disabled, and (to some degree) the unemployed; saving capitalism from itself, first in the 1930s and again under President Barack Obama. What’s exhausting is seeing how much time liberals have spent defending those gains and explaining that they’re not what others think they are.
Liberals went from insisting they weren’t socialists, communists, or Soviet--symp pacifists in the 1940s and 1950s to separating themselves from violent New Left revolutionaries in the 1960s and 1970s to disowning their “big government” past in the 1980s and 1990s. In the first decade of this century, thanks to Karl Rove’s indecent political gamesmanship, some felt a need to prove they were as tough on terrorism as the GOP, leading even genuine liberals like Senator John Kerry and—fatefully—Hillary Clinton to vote to authorize President George W. Bush to use military force against Iraq.
At the time, the gambit seemed like one more effort to shake off the conservative charge that liberals lost Vietnam in the 1970s. But what if, in a way, they were still fighting the allegation that liberals lost China in 1949? The most important contribution of The Cause is to situate the recent predicaments of liberalism in a longer arc of history than we see it framed in in today’s political debates. We often talk as though the Democratic Party and the New Deal coalition began to split in the 1960s, amid the bitterness over Vietnam, race, and the Great Society. But 1968 divisions had nothing on the party’s 1948 crack-up, when a pro-civil-rights convention plank drove out the Dixiecrats behind segregationist presidential candidate Strom Thurmond, while former FDR Vice President Henry Wallace picked off progressives, pacifists, and remnants of the Communist Party USA behind his Progressive Party bid for the presidency.
Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), founded in 1947 with the declaration “We reject any association with Communists or sympathizers with communism in the United States,” fought backers of Wallace and the Progressive Party at every turn. But the ADA further divided over the question of anti-anti-Communism, disagreeing about whether and how ardently to fight for the civil liberties of domestic communists and sympathizers even as it denounced their ideas. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the scholar and Democratic Party wise man, defended the film director Elia Kazan after Kazan named names, and Schlesinger also ambivalently backed the anti-communist Smith Act. But Schlesinger opposed Hubert Humphrey’s Communist Control Act as “hasty and reckless” and denounced the firing of New York City schoolteachers who had joined the Communist Party. You see what I mean about exhausting. As for the 1948 election, imagine Obama having to run in the final stretch of this year’s campaign against not only a Republican but also Representative Dennis Kucinich, say, and Blue Dog Senator Ben Nelson. It’s amazing Harry Truman won a second term, even narrowly.
In a way, liberalism’s troubles with the white working class started with these early skirmishes. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 had rolled back union protections; the subsequent decline, in numbers and power, of labor unions would change the course of liberalism, as its strongest force for economic populism lost political influence both within the movement and in the wider world. The Democratic Party was already beginning to fracture around race in the South. In the North, a segment of so-called white ethnics, particularly Irish Catholics, were easily riled into believing that godless communists (and their snooty Ivy League allies in the State Department) were out to take our freedom. It was thus Dwight Eisenhower in the early 1950s, not Richard Nixon in the late 1960s, who started to peel the white working class away from the Democrats.
Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate in 1952 and 1956, was an admirable civil libertarian and a reliable anti-anti-communist, but he wasn’t particularly strong on either labor or civil rights, sending confusing signals on whether Taft-Hartley should be repealed and staying neutral on the Supreme Court’s anti-segregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Stevenson won his egghead designation thanks to an elongated bald dome, the preternatural anti-intellectualism of the American right, and his own frank elitism. When an admirer shouted, “You have the vote of every thinking person,” he answered, “That’s not enough, madam, we need a majority!”
Daniel Patrick Moynihan got behind John F. Kennedy in 1960 after noting that Moynihan’s people in the Bronx and Brooklyn had abandoned the not terribly populist Stevenson. As Moynihan hoped, Kennedy recaptured liberalism—Joseph Alsop called Kennedy “Stevenson with balls”—and committed the Democratic Party to aggressive anti-communism, out-hawking Nixon over a nonexistent “missile gap” with the Soviets. (Earlier, Kennedy had refused to take a position on the censure of Joe McCarthy, a friend of his father’s—he was in the hospital for the Senate censure vote.) By some measures, Kennedy moved slowly on civil rights. But from the shrewd gesture of calling Coretta Scott King when her husband was jailed during the 1960 campaign to his historic June 1963 speech calling civil rights a “moral issue … as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution,” Kennedy put his party on the side of fighting racism.
When Lyndon Johnson made good on Kennedy’s rhetoric—and the Watts riots erupted five days after the passage of the Voting Rights Act—liberalism began to unravel. But The Cause shows that just as crippling as race was another Achilles’ heel: proving your American bona fides by advancing a muscular foreign policy, this time in Vietnam. Again, the debate not only split the country; it split liberalism. Folks like the labor movement’s Gus Tyler and the former socialist Bayard Rustin parted company with Martin Luther King and other left-liberals over the campaign that had sprung up to “Dump Johnson,” fearing it would destroy the best president labor and civil-rights leaders had ever known. They were right about that, yet the anti-war movement was right about the war.
The factions still might have reconciled if not for the growing nihilism of white anti-war revolutionaries and Black Power extremists and the assassinations of King and Robert F. Kennedy. As muckraker Jack Newfield wrote after those twin tragedies: “We are the first generation that learned from experience, in our innocent twenties, that things were not really getting better, that we shall not overcome. … We had already glimpsed the most compassionate leaders our nation could produce, and they had been assassinated. … The stone was at the bottom of the hill and we were alone.”
Yet Alterman and Mattson suggest that before both King and Kennedy died, there were signs that liberalism couldn’t contain the friction. In 1966, New York City Mayor John Lindsay’s reform proposal for a Civilian Complaint Review Board to oversee the police department seemed a no-brainer, endorsed by not just The New York Times but by conservative Catholic Cardinal Francis Spellman. Then angry cops organized behind a ballot measure to repeal the law and won. Similarly, the battle in Brooklyn’s desolate Ocean Hill/Brownsville neighborhood over black “community control” of the schools pitted the Jewish teachers’ union against Manhattan liberals and African Americans. (Amazingly, King and Rustin sided with the union, an often-forgotten measure of how close the early civil-rights movement was to labor.)
The two controversies did what had seemed impossible: They united outer-borough Jews and white Catholic ethnics, once antagonists in working-class precincts of Brooklyn and the Bronx, against official liberalism. The New Deal coalition died in New York, the city that had been its birthplace. The authors quote Schlesinger and democratic socialist Michael Harrington arguing that RFK would have held the two groups together had he lived. But they also quote Kennedy suggesting that minorities and liberals might have to go it alone and “write off the unions”—a conclusion ultimately reached in 1972, by George McGovern strategists Fred Dutton and Gary Hart, after AFL-CIO President George Meany did everything he could to sabotage the emerging Democratic coalition.
No Kennedy could have put that coalition back together. Certainly not Ted Kennedy. The Cause revisits a sad truth: The youngest Kennedy’s presidential hopes were dashed not only by his irresponsibility at Chappaquiddick but by his support for Boston’s school-busing plan, violently protested by Irish Catholic South Boston voters who loved his brothers. Few seemed to notice at the time, or to care, that most of the measures liberalism proposed to fight racism set the have-nots against the have-a-littles, and Republicans moved in to stoke the fires of resentment. The main place where wealthy liberals suffered was at the ballot box. Relieved that he was re-elected in 1976 “in light of the recent turmoil in Boston,” Kennedy challenged Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1980, unwittingly helping to elect Ronald Reagan.
Alterman and Mattson aim to remind Americans of liberalism’s concrete achievements: first, the New Deal and postwar policies that protected labor, helped the poor, and most important, built the middle class; then the liberation of African Americans, women, and gay people. But they spend two-thirds of their book moving from the Truman administration through Reagan’s victory. The last third covers roughly the same time span. My page counting isn’t meant to criticize; it’s to observe that liberalism’s troubles today have more to do with that tumultuous earlier era than with recent, mostly ineffectual attempts to reckon with what happened in those years.
McGovern begat Carter. Carter’s defeat (as well as Walter Mondale’s) launched the age of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). It’s tempting to compare the DLC to the ADA, since both were intended to purge the Democratic Party—and, to an extent, liberalism—of a politically toxic taint. For the ADA, it was sympathy with communism and pro-Soviet pacifism. For the DLC, it was the legacy of the chaotic 1960s and 1970s, the anti-war movement, and to some degree even the Great Society.
That’s where the two groups differ. Where the ADA admirably represented the party’s left wing on domestic issues like labor and civil rights, the DLC stood not only for hawkishness in foreign policy but for correcting Democrats’ perceived excesses in the realm of the welfare state, even on the issues of civil rights and feminism, and luring a new business donor class. Bill Clinton rebuked rapper Sister Souljah (a stand-in for Jesse Jackson), balanced the budget, ended “welfare as we know it,” and presided over the repeal of Depression-era Glass-Steagall banking regulations, helping to usher in the corruption and risk-taking that tanked the economy a decade later.
Clinton also did good things with government (stealthily, through the tax code, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and building a new college tax-credit program) and guided America through a remarkable economic boom. After which George W. Bush slashed taxes and started two wars, letting the deficit balloon, al-Qaeda regroup, New Orleans drown, and Wall Street run amok, mistakes that set the stage for Barack Obama, a thrilling newcomer who didn’t always use the term “liberal” but who embodied the creed’s contradictions.
Our first black president came of age in the shadow of that forlorn era when “the stone was at the bottom of the hill and we were alone” (as did Alterman and I, by the way). Sober, well intentioned, Obama pursued the career of a post-civil-rights, Reagan-era do-gooder: registering voters, a stint with one of Ralph Nader’s public interest research groups, community organizing. At law school, a left-wing Harvard professor described the young Obama as having “a very strong sense of the limits that American politics and political culture impose on what can be said and done” and “the style of sociability that is most prized in the American professional and business class.”
From the Illinois Senate to the U.S. Senate and even into the White House, Obama couldn’t suppress the telling tics of moderation: In reading Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope, Time’s Joe Klein counted 50 trademark “on the one hand, on the other hand” formulations. Largely due to his opposition to the Iraq War (plus unrivaled charisma), Obama beat Hillary Clinton and then John McCain, only to face a bitter backlash as the intransigent right capitalized on economic anxiety (as well as racism) to thwart the new president.
Some of Obama’s White House troubles had their roots in the fractious Democratic primary, amid an economic crisis that should have been a chance for liberal renewal. When white working--class primary voters turned out for Clinton, their affinity was mostly viewed as a racist rejection of the black candidate, rather than approval of the marginally more populist platform of the white Democrat. Once in office, confronting the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Obama mostly deferred to financial-sector advisers and Ivy League mentors, holding fast to dreams of post--partisanship long after it was obvious that Tea Partiers and their mainstream enablers were not interested in extending hands across the aisle unless they could break his wrist.
In fact, Obama performed better with white working-class voters than did Kerry, Al Gore, or Bill Clinton. But when his efforts at stimulus, Wall Street regulation, and health-care reform hit the rocks of Republican obstinacy, his white support declined again—and again, it was largely blamed on white racism, rather than on the fact that Democrats often proved to be as cozy with Wall Street and as inept in dealing with working-class dislocation as Republicans.
Alterman and Mattson correctly put race at the center of liberalism’s fracture. “The history of American liberalism through the New Deal and Fair Deal periods was one of steady progress so long as it excluded the demand for full political and social equality,” they write. Post–JFK liberalism absolutely did the right thing on civil rights but never found a way to reckon with the resentment and fear of liberalism’s onetime core constituency, the white working class. “The callousness with which liberal politicians treated the genuine concerns of so many white working men and women as they sought to address, and when possible, reverse the consequences of racial discrimination was truly politically perverse and morally difficult to justify.” I absolutely agree—yet I did not find in The Cause, or in my own anguished reckoning with Democratic Party history, a lot of concrete action liberals could have taken to change the outcome.
With all its respectful accounting of accomplishments, The Cause makes clear that liberalism is more temperament than ideology. As Jacques Barzun said of the great mid-20th-century liberal Lionel Trilling, we’re the people who answer every query with “It’s complicated.” We’re the folks who referee between radicalisms of the left and right. Or as Robert Frost put it, “A liberal man is too broad-minded to take his own side in a quarrel.” I thought about that quotation a lot watching Obama in the first three years of his presidency.
I came away from The Cause amazed, and a little drained, by the amount of energy liberals have spent fighting lies and defining themselves by what they’re not. So is defending ourselves an ongoing necessary evil? Or is it futile, because it never works? I’m not sure all the earnest rhetorical strivings of the ADA, the DLC, the centrist Third Way, or the “post-partisan” Obama White House have managed to convince a single skeptic that liberals are good Americans. What we know works, at least for a while, is something FDR, Truman, and Clinton did—and something Obama is beginning to do. We prevail when we deliver on promises that make life measurably better for most Americans. Obama seems to have learned that lesson, albeit belatedly. Let’s hope he holds on to it.
From Publishers Weekly:
In this ambitious work, journalist Alterman (Kabuki Democracy) and historian Mattson (When America Was Great) present an encyclopedic history of liberalism, a movement devoted to equality, justice, and freedom, and a powerful engine of change in the 20th century. With a huge cast ranging from political to cultural figures as diverse as Reinhold Niebuhr, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Lyndon Johnson, Gloria Steinem, Richard Rorty, Bruce Springsteen, and many, many more, the authors tell the tortured story of the liberal fight for social justice. Against the backdrop of the lives and works of these men and women, they undertake an exhaustive exposition of legislation, election campaigns, foreign policy decisions, theoretical books and journals, and other cultural artifacts. The liberal devotion to rationality leads to the problem of “how to inspire passion for a philosophy that itself distrust[s] passion.” Alterman and Mattson suggest that, in our current era, liberalism has “pledged itself to rationality in a political culture in which anti-intellectualism runs rampant,” and in which the enemies of liberalism are effectively mobilizing populist fear and ignorance. Though the book loses narrative focus due to the slew of mini-biographies spliced throughout, it remains an illuminating history of postwar politics, international relations, culture, and philosophy—all in one scrupulously researched volume
From the Daily Beast
The Cause: The Fight For American Liberalism From Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama by Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson
“Liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition,” the great literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote in 1950. Is that still true?
'The Cause' by Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson. 576 pp. Viking. $33.
“Liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition,” the great literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote in the preface to 1950’s The Liberal Imagination. That does not mean there’s no conservatism—just that its impulses do not “express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” A look at the current Republican landscape, and you’ll see this is still perfectly true. But The Cause shows why this is also completely false. Eric Alterman, a columnist for such publications as The Nation and The Daily Beast, wrote the book with the help of academic Kevin Mattson, and the two chronicle an intellectual (and actual) history of liberalism that even Trilling would approve of. Alterman follows this story leftward with his keen compound eye for the schemes that mattered in the last 70-odd years (FDR’s legacy, civil rights, feminism), and what perhaps shouldn’t matter (Reaganomics, neocon), as the world increasingly mistakes the gestures that “resemble ideas” to be actual ideas. But Alterman’s greatest strength is pointing out the failures of liberalism. As you read this coherent and excellent version of our recent past, keep in mind what Alterman believes is Trilling’s biggest flaw: not only the liberal imagination but ideas in general are cursed to “proceed not with excitement or enthusiasm, but with caution and modesty.” Look around—we have arrived at today.
Unequal to the Moment
Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama
By Eric Alterman, Nation Books, 214 pages, $14.99
Revival: The Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House
By Richard Wolffe, Crown Publishers, 312 pages, $26.00
ROBERT KUTTNER | The American Prospect, February 7, 2011
How do we explain President Barack Obama's failure to rise to the challenge that history dealt him, and the inversion of a Franklin D. Roosevelt moment into a new period dominated by the corporate elite and the far right? After the epic 2010 midterm defeat, the optimistic scenario for progressives would be for a damaged Obama to squeak through to re-election in coalition with an almost certain Republican Congress. The pessimistic picture would be for Republicans to capture both branches. Either way, the national narrative increasingly blames government rather than market excesses for the economic catastrophe. And the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party stays in the wilderness for several more years.
Obama has already adapted to the Republican takeover of the House by moving further center-right. When he named as his new chief of staff Bill Daley, more a Wall Street lobbyist than a "business leader," Obama won praise from The Wall Street Journal editorial page, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, all of whom want nothing so much as to destroy Obama's presidency. As our colleague Robert Reich recently observed, "Obama's failure is that he won't challenge this Republican narrative." He has governed as if his sole task were legislative, rather than seeking to move public opinion and thereby generating popular pressure for deeper reform.
The first batch of books from relatively friendly analysts of Obama's presidency falls into two broad categories. Some, like Jonathan Alter, Richard Wolffe, Bob Woodward, and David Remnick, were so taken with the man, his life odyssey, and his intellect and decency (as well as their access to him) that they cut him a huge amount of slack. He was, after all, facing a severe recession, the collapse of the financial sector, and a dysfunctional political system in which 41 determined senators could block any legislative action. Others, such as Ari Berman, emphasized the fragmented Democratic Party but also faulted Obama's failure to convert a campaign movement into a governing strategy.
Eric Alterman has single-handedly created a third category in his important new book, Kabuki Democracy. This short volume, an elaboration of an influential essay that he published last year in The Nation, is surprisingly kind to Obama--maybe a little too kind--and instead takes systematic stock of structural barriers to American progressivism. Others have worked this territory, but Alterman goes well beyond the standard checklist (big money, the filibuster, right-wing media) and gives us a more complete and depressing grid.
The Beltway view of Obama, Alterman reminds us, is that he just tried to do too much--"moving policy too far left, sparking an equal and opposite reaction in the rightward direction," as Alterman quotes Wall Street Journal columnist Gerald Seib. The far right simply brands him a socialist. This talk drives progressives nuts, given Obama's rather modest and conciliatory approach to everything from economic stimulus to banking reform and health overhaul. For the left, Obama quickly gave up inspirational change in favor of small-bore deal-making. But all of this is mostly beside the point, according to Alterman.
For the truth, dear reader, is that it does not much matter who is right about what Barack Obama dreams of in his political imagination. Nor are the strategic mistakes made by the Obama team really all that crucial, except perhaps at the margins of any given policy. The far more important fact for progressive purposes is simply this: the system is rigged, and it's rigged against us.
Alterman then takes stock of all the ways in which the system is rigged, and it's quite a tour d'horizon. Hence his book's title: "If our politicians cannot keep the promises they make as candidates, then our commitment to political democracy becomes a kind of Kabuki exercise"--whose failure to deliver only depresses faith in government and in democracy itself, further weakening progressivism, which depends on both.
Some of this will be familiar--the time bombs left by the Bush-Cheney presidency; the weakness and ideological division within the Democratic Party compared to the GOP ("conservatives enjoy a genuine political movement"); the multiple tools and uses of legislative obstructionism; the increasing dominance of big money; and, of course, the asymmetric power of right-wing media. Though we've read some of this before, Alterman's contribution is to add new insights and to connect more dots, since all of these dynamics are mutually reinforcing. His richest chapter is the one on the area he knows best--right-wing media.
I have two quibbles with this very useful and readable book. First, Alterman is too gentle on Obama's plainly disappointing leadership and strategic style. Why, he asks, wasn't the health legislation stronger? "Well, it wasn't the president's cowardice, his short-sightedness, a lack of character or an absence of cojones. ... Without powerful interests lined up on Obama's side, the battle for reform would have been lost before it had begun. As it was, Obama won it by the skin of his teeth."
But that static view of the array of political forces lets Obama off the hook too easily, because it ignores the unique role--or absence--of presidential leadership in occasionally transforming public opinion. You could have written a book similar to Alterman's about all of the structural forces arrayed against Roosevelt's New Deal in 1933 or against Lyndon Johnson's efforts to finally enact civil-rights legislation in 1964 and 1965. But somehow these leaders rose to the occasion and broke through, with their potent combination of insider leadership, mobilization of public opinion, and alliance with social movements on the ground.
The second weakness is what my friend, the late Bennett Harrison, called "the Chapter 10 problem"--what do we do about this depressing picture? Alterman's concluding chapter offers the right Hail Mary passes--build a movement, leash political money, reform Senate obstructionism--but is short on what it would take politically to bring them about. As consolation, he quotes Obama, speaking after the 2010 election loss: "It took time to free the slaves. It took time for women to get the vote. It took time for workers to get the right to organize." Well, yes, but leaders of those radical movements detested lectures about patience and gradualism. And they required allies in government who did not set back their cause.
Alterman's is the opposite of an insider book. It reflects a smart synthesis of materials available on the public record and displays the mind of an astute observer of politics. Richard Wolffe, by contrast, has written the ultimate insider book. After his fawning treatment of the Obama campaign in his earlier book, Renegade, Obama and his aides allowed Wolffe the run of the White House for two months and then gave him several additional interviews with every senior West Wing official from the president and vice president on down. They will not be disappointed by the resulting book, though other readers should be.
With this sort of access, a journalist can complement his insider interviews with other reporting and deliver a telling account. Or he can mainly hope to be invited back. Wolffe chose the latter course. You would think such a book would produce new insights on how the Obama White House works--the fault lines and the strengths and weaknesses of Obama's leadership. What it produces mainly is adorable quotations, such as this one from adviser David Axelrod speaking of his leader: "He's the first person to be concerned if you're having a bad day. He's attuned to people's moods in ways you don't expect."
Wolffe concludes his narrative just after Obama's come-from-behind win on health reform. So his is a story of defeat and redemption, or as he puts it, "From the depths of a brutal winter inside the Oval Office to the beginnings of spring in the Rose Garden, this is a tale of despair and discovery, or survival and revival." Unfortunately for Wolffe's story line (and for the country), the win on health care was prologue to another roller-coaster descent into the political pit.
In order to create some dramatic tension, Wolffe divides Obama's top aides into "revivalists" and "survivalists." The former, according to his interviews, wanted to rekindle something of the insurgent spirit of the campaign, while the latter were more minimalist and transactional. Clearly the ultimate leader of the survivalist camp is the president himself. Wolffe's quotations, both attributed and anonymous, are mostly predictable, pedestrian, and often just plain lame. After a period of bitter tension between Obama and then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Wolffe credulously quotes the president on their blissful relationship: "'I don't think Nancy is difficult to negotiate with at all," he told me. "I think that Nancy is very mindful that she is leader of her caucus. ... I actually had fun negotiating with Nancy.'" Since he is embedded in the White House, Wolffe evidently doesn't pursue Pelosi's side of the story. His story is reconstructed from White House staff interviews and press clips.
What passes for analysis is poorly written, almost like filler between the quotations of extended interviews. For example, Wolffe reports a sense of crisis when CIA agents were lured into a trap and killed in the Afghan mountains near Pakistan. He then writes: "Would the Afghan attack weaken the president's will to reform a failed system to defend the homeland? He seemed to veer between challenging the intelligence community and threatening the terrorists." Say what?
One can fault other insider books, such as those of Bob Woodward, for also being too soft on their willing collaborators. But at least Woodward manages to break news. Not Wolffe. The most interesting few pages come in the section on Larry Summers, who was evidently even more of a bull in a china shop than previously reported. "Summers," Wolffe writes, "clashed with almost every other member of the economic team and his love of contrarian argument seemed to aggravate technical policy differences." The book is worth reading, mainly for the occasional nugget, but sheds little useful light on what makes this president tick.
Everyone has heard of the Great Man theory of history. But what about the Lesser Man theory? Historians will long be debating the relative weight of systemic constraints versus Obama's personal weakness as a leader, in what is shaping up as one of American history's epic missed moments. Alterman, at least, is asking the right questions.
Reviews of When Presidents Lie
Washington Monthly (November, 2004)
The Boston Globe (10/24/2004)
The Boston Phoenix (09/24/2004)
St. Louis Post Dispatch (09/19/2004)
Los Angeles Times Book Review
September 26, 2004
Tripped up by the truth
When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, Eric Alterman, Viking: 448 pp., $27.95
By Jon Meacham, Jon Meacham, managing editor of Newsweek, is the author of "Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship."
On the evening of Nov. 30, 1943 -- a late autumn Tuesday in Tehran -- Winston Churchill, flanked by Franklin Roosevelt and Josef Stalin, was celebrating his 69th birthday. It was the final night of the first wartime conference of the Big Three, and it had been a tumultuous few days as the Allied leaders fought over the timing of a cross-Channel invasion and the shape of a postwar United Nations. But at the table, as the champagne and wine flowed, there was much candor and good cheer in the dining room at the British legation. Amid many toasts, the talk turned to deception schemes designed to mislead the Germans about plans for Operation Overlord. "In wartime," Churchill said, "truth is so precious that she should always be surrounded by a bodyguard of lies."
Though Churchill's aphorism from this long-ago night has often been cited to justify all sorts of deceptions, it is important to remember the context: He was talking about deploying falsehoods to protect a military operation, with lives at immediate stake. He was not proposing that a democracy routinely resort to lying to perpetuate itself. Yet the evocative "bodyguard of lies" is one of those phrases that now gives politicians convenient Churchillian cover when they choose to mislead the people.
Churchill, then, is something of a victim of his own eloquence, but in the long run an expression's currency is more important than its coinage, since it is in its usage that it reaches from the past to shape the present. Is lying inextricably bound up with statecraft? Are democracy and deception ultimately compatible? When do the ends justify the means -- and who decides? These are ancient questions. (It was an exasperated Pontius Pilate, after all, who muttered, "What is truth?" amid the trial of Jesus.) Into this perennial debate -- one made more urgent by the intelligence disasters on the road to the war with Iraq -- comes a provocative, intriguing and insightful new book by Eric Alterman, "When Presidents Lie." Alterman, a combatant in the partisan wars of the moment (a columnist for the Nation and co-author of "The Book on Bush: How George W. [Mis]leads America"), takes a broad, complex and satisfying view in his latest work, examining four cases of deception by U.S. presidents in the 20th century. He chooses well: FDR, Truman and Yalta; JFK and the Cuban missile crisis; LBJ and the Gulf of Tonkin; Reagan and Iran-Contra. In Alterman's parlance, a lie is "presidential dishonesty about key matters of state," and such lies, he says, are "ultimately and invariably self-destructive." Acknowledging that we live in the real world, he notes that leaders should use confidentiality, not mendacity, to protect the state. "Keeping a secret," Alterman writes, "is not the same as telling a lie." His eye is on deceptions about policy. His prescription for the presidency: Lying "should be avoided at all costs. Period."
Before the Bush-obsessed left leaps to its collective feet to applaud, though, it should know that Alterman's case is more subtle than the conspiracist-minded Michael Moore wing of the American political class would probably like. Granting that a certain amount of deception is necessary in the presidency, Alterman goes far beyond moral finger-wagging -- in fact he purposely avoids moral judgments altogether -- to assess large lies about large things, from the Crimea in 1945 to Iraq in 2003. He argues that Roosevelt and Truman, not Stalin, initially failed to live up to the promises made at Yalta, particularly on the question of a postwar Polish government. The resulting disintegration of Big Three relations, Alterman writes, helped press Stalin to take a tougher line and, in the end, led to a prevailing Western impression that "no American president could or should trust any Communist leader to keep his word on any matter of mutual interest. When problems arose, they would be settled exclusively by the threat of force." Alterman's is an interesting revisionist view and, like many revisionist views, is open to argument on the details. (To think Stalin would have long remained a friendly kinsman in FDR's envisioned family of nations strains credulity, but Alterman makes a nuanced case that is worth weighing.)
His reading of the Cuban missile crisis connects Yalta with the Gulf of Tonkin and Vietnam. Hating to be seen as "soft," the Kennedys covered up the crucial step in the resolution of the standoff with the Soviets: the deal to remove American missile bases in Turkey in exchange for removing Moscow's nukes from Cuba. The public message: Compromise is for the weak. Alterman's conclusion: "The false rendering of the crisis taught President Johnson, his advisors, and the American people an updated version of the lesson that Harry Truman says he learned at Potsdam: 'Force is the only thing the Russians understand.' " In 1964, Johnson used the murky incident in the Gulf of Tonkin to escalate the U.S. military effort in Southeast Asia — even though it was unclear that American forces had been attacked. "I am not going to lose Vietnam," Johnson said, "I am not going to be the President who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went." So the truth did not matter, the larger mission did, and Johnson sold the country a war on a false pretext. In a devastating chapter on Iran-Contra, Alterman details the Reagan administration's march of folly in Central America — a case study in the imperial presidency run amok. Citing the false claims that justified the war with Iraq, Alterman dubs the current Bush administration a "post-truth" White House. I might quibble with that phrasing: Bush is a theological president, one who believes in a truth that may or may not be supported by facts.
One of the more chilling points Alterman makes is that presidents tend to lie not only to us but also to themselves, convincing themselves of things that may not comport with the facts. We all do this in our own minds, recasting uncomfortable or inconvenient feelings or events in a more flattering light — doctoring, in a way, the scripts of the movies that play in our heads. But when presidents rewrite unfolding history, there are real, lasting and frequently adverse consequences. Ideally there would be no deceit in a democracy, for a public armed with disinformation cannot make intelligent political decisions. But we do not live in an ideal world. The best we can hope for, it seems, is that the people we choose to lead us will understand that, in the end, history rewards presidents who concentrate on saving lives rather than saving face.
Alterman argues concisely and well, if sometimes a bit too clinically. At the heart of each of the lies he delineates with such skill and clarity is the human tragedy of a man or men struggling to lead the nation through what George Eliot called the "dim lights and tangled circumstance" of life. Captive to their experiences, bound to the devices and desires of their own hearts, consumed by their own needs, they made mistakes and the rest of us paid for them. Still, these were good and even great men, and in each case one can see why they did what they did. We now know Yalta as the last act of the war, but Roosevelt did not, obviously, since his essential sense of invulnerability did not allow him to contemplate his own death. FDR may have left the Crimea with a bad deal for Poland, but he believed he could make things come right in the end, and he usually did. The Kennedys were understandably sensitive to being portrayed as soft on a totalitarian foe: Their father, after all, had wrecked his own political and diplomatic career by appeasing the Third Reich just 20 years earlier. Johnson recoiled at the idea of losing a war that he thought JFK would have won. And Reagan dwelled so much in his own imagination that America had to take the good with the bad. The good was Reagan's romantic belief that he could defeat communism like a heroic movie star; the bad was that he let his vision of reality, rather than reality itself, color the course of his government.
Is Alterman's prescription for the presidency -- never lie, period -- practical? Even with the distinction he draws between lying and keeping secrets, I don't think so. But I admire Alterman for doing about the only thing one can to further the cause of truth in a world riven with deceit: explain the failings of the past to the powers of the present in the hope that example will do more good than exhortation. Stories are almost always more effective than sermons, and the stories Alterman tells in "When Presidents Lie" are important reading for the men and women making the life-and-death decisions of our own time.