Cutting Through the BS: Ambinder, Kinsley

By James Fallows

Not that either of them needs a tout from me, but I wanted to mention two posts today by Atlantic colleagues that, in different ways, illustrate the real-time self-corrective potential of the modern news system.

One is by Marc Ambinder, and its point is best summarized by our home-page headline: "There's No Scandal Here." It refers of course to the "scandal" of the White House trying to convince Rep. Joe Sestak that he should not challenge Sen. Arlen Specter in the Democratic primary this year. (Of course Sestak did, and he won.) Ambinder disposes of the alleged lucrative-job offer to Sestak as, simply, "false." The job in question was Secretary of the Navy, and the Obama Administration had already offered it to somebody else a month before Specter switched parties. (Ie, while Sestak could not even have been thinking of challenging him in the primary, since Specter was still a Republican.)

And if the "accusation" is that the Administration sent Bill Clinton to see if Sestak could be talked out of running, including with an unpaid position on a Presidential advisory board, so what?  That is how political parties operate, trying to minimize internal struggles and deploy electoral talent for the best overall results. The U.S. has nothing like the nationwide re-shuffling of manpower that often happens in Britain, where the parties match parliamentary candidates with constituencies anyplace in the country where the prospects seem best. But every American president, regardless of party, has tried to encourage strong candidates, discourage weak ones, and generally boost his side's chances. I would feel exactly the same way if John McCain were now president and the story involved his efforts to sort out the Marco Rubio / Charlie Crist struggle in Florida. A curse of standard political coverage is the "critics say" pose of faux objectivity: "Critics say that Obama committed a crime, but the Administration denies the charge." Ambinder, to his credit, explains why the main charge is "false" and why a larger effort to keep Sestak out of the race, whether or not it was politically wise, was perfectly normal and legitimate.

The other item is by Michael Kinsley, who applies a "cut the BS" perspective to a political analysis two days ago on the front page of the NY Times and more generally to the Richard Blumenthal "when I was in Vietnam" episode. As always, he needs no help in making his case, one trenchant part of which is:

It's often noted that North Vietnam defeated the United States in the short run but the US won in the longer run. Look at Vietnam today. Meanwhile, another reversal seems to have happened to the argument in America about the Vietnam war. The war ended when it lost the support of most Americans. Today, ambitious politicians imagine that they fought there. If they're going to make up anything, they should be making up stories about how active they were in the anti-war movement.

This last line is a segue to a fairly significant correction-of-the-record I have to make. In several previous posts about ROTC and the Ivy League, I noted that the original argument about pushing ROTC programs off-campus was to protest the Vietnam war. For the past few decades, the ongoing objection to ROTC's return has involved the military's refusal to accept openly gay service members, but that's a different matter. In these recent items, I have said that the Vietnam-era argument "made sense at the time," at least to me. It turns out that even at that time I was talking about the danger of an enforced separation between the military and the elite schools. Witness this "on the other hand" dissenting editorial from the Harvard Crimson just before the faculty's vote on expelling ROTC in 1968, provided by my friend Jack Wheeler.

I suppose I could feel better about consistency-of-view over the decades, but in fact I feel worse about the distortion of memory. My only explanation is that the rapidly increasing anti-Vietnam and anti-ROTC fervor of the following two years had made me sympathetic to the anti-ROTC argument by the end of my time in college, so that's the memory that stuck with me. In any case, it's long past time for the elite universities to begin repairing this breach.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/05/cutting-through-the-bs-ambinder-kinsley/57430/