Letters to the editor

Debating JFK

In his reply to Alecia Flores, who chided him for taking a gratuitous potshot at President Kennedy (Letters, July/August Atlantic), Christopher Hitchens—apparently riding his one-trick pony into the ground—takes yet more potshots at a man who can’t fire back!

For instance, he refers to JFK as “the boy president”—a potshot that also has the virtue of being incomprehensible, since Kennedy was forty-three when he was elected president and had already been a congressman, a father, and a combat veteran. How much, one wonders, had Mr. Hitchens done by that age? How would he have liked being called a boy?

And then there’s that old favorite: the smirking insinuation that Ted Sorensen, not JFK, wrote Profiles in Courage. We have mountains of sworn statements; we have eyewitness testimony to the actual act of writing (JFK was in the hospital during part of the book’s composition, and, predictably, he was a great favorite of the nurses); we have handwritten and annotated drafts of every single page of the book. But does any of that matter? No! Not when a nod and a wink can pass for knowledge of a subject.

And how many witnesses, how many long-suffering dinner guests trapped in mini-lectures by the commander in chief, how many subsequent references and remarks made by JFK himself, does Mr. Hitchens need before he can refrain from implying that Kennedy wouldn’t have read such books as Cecil’s Melbourne or Agar’s Price of Union?

Finally, Mr. Hitchens gets his dramatis personae wrong. JFK wouldn’t have been “the Galahad of Camelot"—of course, he’d have been the king. One wonders how much patience he’d have had with bargain-basement Mordreds.

Steve Donoghue
Boston, Mass.

The Monster of Florence

The travesty of justice undergone by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi (“The Monster of Florence,” July/August Atlantic) is the tip of the iceberg. The Italian judiciary (which includes the public prosecutors) is a branch of the civil service. This particular branch chooses its members, is self-ruling, and is accountable to no one: a state within the state! This body of bureaucrats can be roughly divided into three sections: a large minority, corrupt and affiliated to the former Communist Party; a large section of honest people who are too frightened to stand up to the political minority (which controls the offices of the judiciary); and a minority of brave and honest men with little influence. Political and dishonest judges have an infallible method of silencing or discrediting opponents, political or otherwise. A bogus indictment, the tapping of telephones, the conversations (often doctored) fed to the press to start a smear campaign, a spectacular arrest, prolonged preventive detention under the worst possible conditions, third-degree interrogations, and finally a trial that lasts many years and ends in the acquittal of a ruined man. Spezi was lucky, because the powerful Florentine public prosecutor is no friend of the Perugia prosecutor’s and, I am told, “suggested” that Spezi be freed; the Perugia court, I am told, accepted the “suggestion.”

Count Neri Capponi
Florence, Italy

Fire the Clerks!

I somehow missed the connection between Stuart Taylor Jr. and Benjamin Wittes’s professed concerns about the Supreme Court (“Of Clerks and Perks,” July/August Atlantic)—the literary projects of various members, the perceived lack of civility, the justices’ choices about which cases they hear—and their proposed solution of firing the Court’s law clerks. Their actual agenda seems to be to make the job of a Supreme Court justice significantly less pleasant. (Note the nostalgic reference to times when being a justice was “a grind.”) Why don’t we also evict the justices from their offices, and expect them to write their opinions at Starbucks?

As Taylor and Wittes must know, it is customary in almost all law firms for a junior lawyer to draft a document and a senior lawyer to review what the junior lawyer has prepared. It’s not clear to me why judges should operate differently. Now, a good senior lawyer may well need to make significant changes to a junior lawyer’s draft; it appears from their summary, though, that this already happens with the current members of the Court.

J. Thomas Oldham
John Freeman Professor of Law
University of Houston Law School
Houston, Texas

In their Swiftian proposal to make Supreme Court justices work more by firing their law clerks, Stuart Taylor Jr. and Benjamin Wittes confuse caseload and workload. The Court’s 160 “full decisions” in 1945 were published in a single volume that was about 1,300 pages long. The last term’s sixty-nine signed opinions will be published in three volumes totaling nearly 4,000 pages.

The reason the justices “don’t have to hear any case they don’t wish to” is that the late Chief Justice Rehnquist was determined to focus on the cases of most lasting consequence, and Congress obliged by eliminating most of the Court’s mandatory jurisdiction. Able to shape the field of its pronouncements, the Rehnquist Court ruled more by ruling less. The opinions became mini-treatises, and the basic legal research had to be perfect. Hence, the rise of the law clerk.

Mario Loyola
Arlington, Va.

Does Oil Have a Future?

In “Shock Absorption” (June Atlantic), Clive Crook assures us that the world isn’t running out of oil. But the world has been running out of oil from the moment we began using it. And the question isn’t when we will run out, but when production will peak and begin to decline. That’s when our growing population will collide with shrinking energy availability—and many oil experts believe that oil production is at or very near its peak today. Crook’s assurance that we have enough oil to last for decades makes it clear that he doesn’t understand the problem. A February 2005 Department of Energy study found that we would need to start a crash program twenty years before global oil production peaks in order to avoid severe economic disruption.

Carl R. Henn
Rockville, Md.

Clive Crook claims that we have both plenty of oil and also decades in which to manage the threat of global-warming climate change, but he’s wrong on both counts. Some of those “proven” oil reserves that Crook asks us to rely on are real; others are just figures pumped up to make oil companies and governments look good; still others are in places so remote or so politically unstable that they should hardly be counted at all. The cheap and easy oil—the light, sweet crude that gushes from wells under its own pressure—is a thing of the past. What’s left is ever harder and more costly to extract, and ever lower in quality.

As for global warming, with carbon dioxide at 385 atmospheric parts per million—far higher than at any other time in the history of civilization—it’s already well on its way toward changing sea levels and patterns of rainfall. We don’t have the leisure to leave it to be dealt with over “an extended span of time.”

David A. Korn
Washington, D.C.

Extreme Parenting

Alissa Quart solicited a variety of professional views about the flexibility of developmental windows (“Extreme Parenting,” July/August Atlantic), but these opinions are countered by the evidence—noted in my book, Learning Before Birth: Every Child Deserves Giftedness—that the brain’s postnatal plasticity is dwarfed by the cellular proliferation and massive die-off that occurs in the womb. Two months after conception, a genetic program triggers the manufacture of brain cells, about 250,000 per minute for ten weeks, with only 10 percent from this production surviving to gestation’s end.

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