Jewish World Review December 4, 2002/ 29 Kislev 5763


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Lapham's Mad World | Newsweek's Howard Fineman, the magazine's political beat reporter, isn't obnoxiously ideological. There's little doubt that he favors Democrats, but far more important to this pedestrian journalist is the thrill of elections and internecine Beltway squabbles. A scoop or correct prediction-not to mention more television appearances-trumps the implications of a turnover in a state's legislative makeup any day. Unlike many of his coleagues, I doubt Fineman gets into a lather about SUVs, "hate crimes," Kofi Annan's nonexistent backbone or President Bush's long-ago dealings with Harken Energy.

Currently, Fineman's immersed in the 2004 presidential election. In a Nov. 27 MSNBC website dispatch, he handicapped the potential challengers to Bush and came up with this remarkable conclusion: it's possible the President, despite his current high approval ratings, could lose the White House a bit less than two years from now. As usual, his article is pockmarked with cliches explaining why so many men lust for the Democratic nomination. He writes: "Democrats are eager to run against [Bush] in 2004. Why? Because they know something his father learned, and that the current President Bush shouldn't forget:

A year is a lifetime in the turbulent world of politics. He's aced his exams so far-exceeding expectations that I always knew the Washington Establishment had set too low. But now comes the hard part."

Next comes the litany of landmines that will determine whether Bush is reelected: Iraq, the economy, further terrorist attacks in the United States and a Republican-controlled Congress that apes Newt Gingrich's ill-fated agenda in the mid-90s.

Thanks for the tip, Howard. Obviously Bush is cognizant of his father's snoozy campaign against Bill Clinton in '92-he was there, buddy-and knows an American disaster abroad or another recession will probably send him back to Texas.

But what Fineman and other reporters refuse to acknowledge is that the political landscape doesn't remotely resemble that of a decade ago. The NYC/DC massacre on Sept. 11, 2001, was nothing short of this century's Kristalnacht. Mixed in with the exponential rise of anti-Semitism both domestically and abroad is the new possibility of a war waged against the U.S. by religious fanatics that is unlikely to abate for at least a decade. It's the opposite of the Cold War's conclusion; whereas the Soviet Union's collapse was a momentous victory for democracy and changed much of the world, today's unprecedented terrorism war won't stop with the inevitable overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

What happens in Iran is just as consequential in the Mideast, and Saudi Arabia's day of reckoning, once that cabal of double-crossing despots has exhausted its usefulness, will arrive in due time. "Regime change" is a phrase the administration has expediently backed away from in recent months, but the Saudis will have to cooperate with Bush unless they develop a taste for oil on their cornflakes each morning.

Fineman's superficial sketches of presidential aspirants John Kerry (recipient of Joe Klein's requisite imprimatur in the Dec. 2 New Yorker), Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, Dick Gephardt, Howard Dean, Joe Biden and John Edwards aren't really objectionable. (Although tort-lawyer Edwards is an interesting case: he may be forced to run for president rather than face a difficult Senate reelection campaign in North Carolina.) Read the Newsweek correspondent's cover story three months from now and he'll probably present a completely different scenario; it's not as if readers will recall what he wrote four weeks before Christmas this year. In fact, it's unlikely Fineman himself will be remembered in three decades.

McCain aboard the "Straight Talk Express"

So if Fineman's report-and I don't mean to imply he's the only hack reporter on the campaign trail; dig up a snapshot of John McCain's 2000 "Straight Talk Express" and you'll see his equally head-in-the-sand colleagues-is harmless, you can't say the same for the Big Thinkers who share their wisdom in any number of periodicals.

Consider Lewis H. Lapham, editor of the once-respected but now musty Harper's. This effete Manhattan creature is an example of the left-wing bias in the media that is currently being debunked by pundits who just can't fathom Bush's popularity or the Democrats' drubbing in the midterm elections last month. In Lapham's December "Notebook," he castigated the Democrats who approved the President's war resolution.

He writes: "The sergeants-at-arms didn't take the trouble to dress up the occasion with a slaughter of sacrificial goats or the presentation of a bull to Apollo, but the subtext of the vote could be understood as a submissive prayer: Our president is a Great General; he will blast Saddam Hussein and rescue us from doom. To achieve this extraordinary mission he needs extraordinary powers, so extraordinary that they don't exist in law. The barbarians are at the gates, but our general is all-knowing, and he sees what we cannot. Great is Caesar; God must be with him."

I swear that this actually appeared in Harper's and not The Harvard Crimson.

Further exhibiting his delusions, the sort that would send a less well-dressed man to the loony bin, Lapham continued: "War was never easy and not to be lightly undertaken, but catastrophe loomed on both the far and near horizons, and who could doubt that Saddam must be destroyed? Not Citigroup or ExxonMobil; not the New York Times, CBS, the Washington Post, NBC, the Wall Street Journal, Fox News or USA Today."

But Lapham's a man of the people, and he didn't come upon the crux of this absurd essay by merely pecking at his word processor, while sipping an aged scotch or bourbon, in complete isolation. Echoing the nitwits who couldn't believe that Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan won the presidency because no one they knew voted for them, Lapham spoke with a number of people about the coming confrontation in Iraq. Surprise! The pollsters and voters were all wrong!

"[I]n New York during the months of September and October I could find little trace or sign of the militant spirit presumably eager to pat the dog of war. Not once in six weeks did I come across anybody who thought that the President had made a coherent argument in favor of an invasion of Iraq. Whether at a lunch with film producers in Greenwich Village or at dinner among investment bankers overlooking Central Park, the commentary on the President's repeated attempts at explanation invariably descended into sarcasm."

Have no fear, however, for Lapham points out that he consulted citizens in California, Connecticut, Virginia and Oregon during his travels and everyone agreed with the learned editor that Bush is, as one Canadian official recently said, a "moron."

This surprised Lapham, that people outside his circle of acquaintances could be so enlightened. After all, he writes, "Given my long confinement in [Manhattan's] spheres of literary influence, I don't know many people who admire President Bush or who feel anything but loathing for the reactionary scholars who teach him lessons in geography. In New York I expect to hear Bush compared to Little Lord Fauntleroy or Bernie Ebbers, and I take it for granted that nearly everybody else in the conversation shares my own low regard for the corporate-management theory that informs the making of American foreign policy."

Two "voices in the wilderness"-probably from San Francisco or Portland-made a particular impression on the man who dines with investment bankers overlooking Central Park. The first said: "Why must the security of every other nation in the world be subordinated to the comfort of the United States." Why, indeed? Never mind that 3000 Americans were slaughtered 15 months ago, or that the DC metro region was paralyzed by a deranged pair of Al Qaeda sympathizers, but where is the evidence that the "security" of other countries is being compromised by America's military action? Afghanistan, for example, has yet to stabilize, but can anyone say, in a sober state of mind, that the Taliban's removal was a bad thing?

Perhaps Lapham's "voice" belonged to Rep. Barbara Lee. The second comment is more troublesome: "If Bush means what he says about a war on terrorism, why doesn't he begin by disarming the Arab and Israeli terrorists in Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip?" If the inclusion of the word "Arab" were omitted, one might believe that Lapham had broken bread with Pat Buchanan or Alex Cockburn.

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JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press ( Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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