In his "The Feel-Good Presidency" (March Atlantic), Chris Lehmann makes four basic claims about the NBC hit series The West Wing: the show is symptomatic of a "liberal retreat into political fantasy"; the fantasy advanced by the show dangerously links personal feeling with statecraft; that fantasy is nothing short of hero-worship; and that fantasy has mythologized Bill Clinton as "the President of Television."
Aside from the fact that the Bartlett archetype lacks the Clinton "priapic weakness," I worry about Lehmann's reasons for rebuking the rhetorical vision offered by The West Wing. Lehmann derides the show for wearing its own "stirringly 'human' themes on its sleeve," for its "obsession with feeling." He says that the show forwards a "therapeutic vision of presidential politics ... that often renders policymaking indistinguishable from the conduct of an encounter group." He mocks the notion that a President would make any decision on the basis of "feeling."
Clinton is said to be charismatic because he seems to embody the virtue of caring when he speaks, because he seems to listen and to empathize when he converses. Empathy, care, listening—these are qualities that are stereotypically identified with women. Could Lehmann be condemning the rhetorical vision of The West Wing not only because of the disappointments of the Clinton years but also because it is a threat to "masculinity"?
I am sincerely perplexed by how Chris Lehmann could possibly see the character Josiah Bartlett, in NBC's series The West Wing, as in any way defending the credibility of Bill Clinton as a President or as a person. Rather than creating a "cult of personality" around Bill Clinton, The West Wing, week after week, shows viewers who Bill Clinton could have been but wasn't.
Once again a conservative pundit tries to demonize liberalism and all liberals by any means necessary—even going as far as attempting to create a glaringly absurd false analogy in the form of a "Bartlett is really Clinton" critique of a superb television series.
Grand Rapids, Mich.
Wow, silly me. Before reading Chris Lehmann's review I thought The West Wing was one of the best entertainments on TV, with sharp, often funny dialogue, engaging characters, and just enough headline references to make it timely. Boy, was I wrong! It turns out the show is actually an embodiment of odious Clintonian liberalism, with its tepid political ambitions and emphasis on doing what feels right rather than what (presumably) is right. Thanks to Lehmann, I now realize that in enjoying The West Wing I've been intellectually shallow, culturally bereft, and politically naive.
Chris Lehmann replies:
I am not now, nor have I ever been, a conservative, let alone (shudder) a pundit. I would suggest that the nation's politics have come to a curious pass when the act of criticizing Bill Clinton or his televisual idealization condemns one to both these cruel fates.
Nor am I worked up over allegedly imperiled masculinity in The West Wing's vision of the American presidency. The emotionally charged features of the show which I criticized aren't objectionable because they're somehow "feminine"—they're troubling because they lend themselves to all sorts of symbolic manipulation. Their regular deployment permits the very cold, clinical exercises of executive power that Joshua Gunn properly questions to go unremarked in any setting of principled argument and public deliberation. I would remind Mr. Gunn that essentialism cuts both ways: Would he suggest that the thirteen women serving in the U.S. Senate, or countless others in other powerful walks of public life, are somehow unduly "mannish" or anxious about their feminine identities? As Bonnie Angelo has demonstrated in her recently published study First Mothers, many of America's most influential chief executives have been what earlier generations of gender essentialists called mama's boys.
With regard to Jonathan Raban's article "Battleground of the Eye" (March Atlantic), I would like to point out what I believe is a historical error. According to Raban, "By 1855 great tracts of the land that [George Catlin] had known as wilderness had been claimed for civilization by the barbed-wire fence." I don't believe that the barbed-wire fence was introduced or even invented until the 1870s. A much better date for this sentence would be 1885.
In his article on landscape art of the Pacific Northwest, Jonathan Raban suggests that a postcard featuring a Boeing bomber reflected Cold War tensions circa 1950. The plane shown in the photo, however, is one of the initial prototype YB-17s. First flown in 1935, they were already outdated by the beginning of World War II, by which time more-advanced versions of the famed bomber were flying. If the image was available at that time, it may have been seen as an indication of America's growing military might against the forces of fascism, not against Moscow. If it was in circulation after the war—when B-17s had long been replaced by swept-wing, A-bomb- carrying Boeing B-47s—the image would have been symbolic of technological superiority over no one.
Jonathan Raban replies:
I'm grateful for both these corrections: I really should have known about the barbed wire, having once explored its history; as for the aircraft, Gregory Paul's information came as news to me. The postcard in question is dated "c. 1950" in the book (Greetings From Washington) in which I found it, but in light of Mr. Paul's comments I'm inclined to think that it may well have been printed earlier than that.
Reading Jack Owens's piece "Don't Call Us" (March Atlantic), which bemoans the fact that the FBI cannot seem to hire black women, left me puzzled. First, nowhere does Owens suggest that the functioning of the FBI is impaired by the lack of black women in its ranks. Second, he does seem to accept that the FBI's preference for candidates who have practiced law for a while and are about thirty is applied fairly. Third, and most important, it seems that the only reason that black female lawyers cannot be recruited by the FBI is that they are "snatched up by Wall Street firms and the best legal houses."
Owens does not suggest that the nation's law enforcement is harmed in any way by being in the hands of recruits "from police departments and the military." Nor does he suggest that the FBI's recruitment policy harms the prospects of black female lawyers (who are sought by the FBI, according to Owens, because they "can speak well and write well"). The only conclusion one can reach is that his objective is diversity for diversity's sake. Surely the fact that black female lawyers are doing so well is a reason for celebration and not concern.
Blue Bell, Penn.
It seems wasteful that well-educated black women should be encouraged to join a law-enforcement agency where they will be guaranteed anonymity by the nature of the job rather than be encouraged into the business and professional fields, where successful black women can be role models to encourage young black females to pursue educational goals that would lead to further improvement of the role of blacks in American society. Black female doctors, educators, corporate CEOs, and the like are surely more valuable to America today and in the future than lady coppers, however grand the FBI appears to be.
Louis Freeh is right, and his successors will do well to hire from an applicant pool that is seasoned and more likely to stick with the FBI and to maximize the returns to taxpayers on training investments. If that practice does not attract a politically correct work force, then the problem is in the work force, not in the hiring scheme.
W. L. Welch
Jack Owens replies:
Ram Mudambi is correct in saying that black females are doing well in the legal profession, which is precisely why the FBI should be and is recruiting them. They are sought not simply for the sake of diversity but because law graduates are intelligent, mature, and skilled in communicating—attributes required of agents. Black female lawyers enrich the ranks of agents, as do those from other professions—military, police, or otherwise. The Bureau would like to have more black female law graduates, but its new policy of waiting to hire lawyers until they have established themselves in practice has unintentionally resulted in a significant shrinking of the applicant pool of female attorneys, many of whom would apply right after graduation if the Bureau would hire them then. Instead they go elsewhere and prosper, costing the FBI an impressive pool of applicants. As for Kenneth Bullock's letter, what better way for black women to be role models than to prove themselves and advance in a male-dominated profession like law enforcement? Far from being anonymous, FBI agents are usually known in their communities as agents. Ambitious agents, male and female, rise to the head field offices and occupy prominent positions at headquarters, publicly representing the Bureau on important cases and getting singled out in the media for their accomplishments. The Bureau's work is often significantly shaped by the contributions of black female agents. I find no waste in that.
Director Louis Freeh wants black women in the FBI because many are skilled professionals. The Bureau is committed to recruiting them. Unfortunately, its hiring strategy is flawed and has failed to produce. It should be changed, which is why I wrote the article.
Lqost Islands," by Richard Rubin (February Atlantic), is, at least in part, inaccurate and unfair. Claims to islands in the Central Pacific that were allegedly misplaced by the State Department were, in fact, relinquished by the United States in a 1979 treaty with Kiribati. For the most part the U.S. claims were based on the Guano Act of 1856. Prior to Kiribati's independence, both the United States and the United Kingdom claimed the islands; the United States used Canton and Enderbury Islands for missile tracking, and both nations used Christmas Island to test nuclear bombs.
In 1979 I led the U.S. delegation that negotiated the treaty covering the fourteen islands in the Line and Phoenix groups in Kiribati. In addition to State Department representatives, the delegation included representatives of the Defense Department, the Commerce Department, the State of Hawaii, and the U.S. Territory of Samoa. We also consulted with Congress and the American tuna industry in drafting the treaty, which I signed in 1979.
Much to the joy of a few fringe groups like State Department Watch, a small group of conservative senators held up ratification for four years despite the overwhelming support of the Reagan Administration. Finally, in 1983, the disputed-islands treaties, including the U.S.-Kiribati Treaty, passed the Senate by a vote of 94-4. The treaty came into force on September 23, 1983.
William Bodde Jr.
United States Ambassador (ret.)
Chevy Chase, Md.
Richard Rubin replies:
I thank the ambassador for his letter, and although my piece was intended merely to present, not to settle, the controversy over who can rightfully claim these territories, I will gladly pass on this information to the concerned parties at the State Department—if I can figure out who they are.
That Japan has the testicular fortitude to honor its World War II soldiers in spite of today's political correctness is to be applauded ("The Kamikazes Rise Again," by Murray Sayle, March Atlantic). But for Sayle to compare a government-financed sculpture of a jaunty young kamikaze pilot to a weathered statue of a humbled Confederate soldier is an uninformed attempt to link a states'-rights initiative with expansionist, imperialist totalitarianism. To further impugn Confederate submariners on the CSS Hunley, by linking their unselfish bravery to suicidal pilots, is an even greater insult to the memory of those Confederate sailors.
Sayle presupposed the revisionists' Big Lie: that his "brave men and women" of the Confederacy fought the war for a single reason—slavery. Although he does not plainly say that, he clearly means it. Although some of the men of the South certainly had the issue of slavery in mind as they marched to defend their country (as well as to repel an invading army, defend the pre-Fourteenth Amendment Constitution, win freedom from punishing taxes, and so on), one objective they definitely did not have in mind was imperialist expansion.
The headline was tantalizing: "The Kamikazes Rise Again. This time, to help Japan confront its past." I plunged into Murray Sayle's thoughtful piece on World War II suicide pilots eagerly. Had the Japanese suddenly atoned for their aggression in Asia, or at least begun to experience remorse? Not a bit. Not a word of Sayle's excellent article supports the headline, if by "confront" the headline writer meant "to face or oppose boldly, defiantly, or antagonistically" (the second of three definitions given in the nearest dictionary). Indeed, if one wishes to place the kamikaze memorials in the larger context of the Japanese viewing their past, it would surely be one of continuity rather than of change. The one permissible way to view World War II in Japan has been through the suffering of the Japanese people, as in a film like The Burmese Harp, which depicts Japanese soldiers starving in Southeast Asia. Kamikaze pilots and beautiful army nurses dying of tropical diseases are of a piece with this tradition.
Murray Sayle replies:
My understanding is that the final breaking point between North and South was whether new states were to be admitted to the union as slaveholding or free-soil—that is, which side was to benefit from the future expansion of the United States. However, the parallel I saw between Japan and the former Confederacy—the only part of the English-speaking world to have known defeat and occupation in almost a thousand years—was not in their causes so much as in the continuing debate in both about what those causes were. Marshall Brown's letter confirms that there is no southern consensus 136 years after the Civil War. I looked carefully in the kamikaze exhibition in Tokyo for any word vindicating the Japanese cause, and found none. Japan, as Susan Shin indicates, still has a long way to go in addressing (if she prefers this to "confronting") the causes of a war that ended fifty-six years ago, much further to reach a consensus; but the interest of young people in the exhibit, and its lack of a partisan message, struck me as at least a start.
In his essay discussing President Bill Clinton's economic accomplishments (February Atlantic) James Fallows credits some of Clinton's most important economic advisers, including Joel Klein, the director of the antitrust division of the Justice Department, for the important roles they played in the Administration. He writes that "Klein famously led the antitrust case against Microsoft—while approving other forms of concentration (for example, AOL's merger with Time-Warner)." Although Klein certainly played a very important role in the Microsoft case, he had no official involvement in the investigation into AOL's merger with Time-Warner. Instead, the Federal Trade Commission, which shares responsibility with the Department of Justice to enforce noncriminal federal antitrust law, conducted the investigation and granted approval (subject to conditions) of AOL's merger with Time-Warner. The FTC is an independent agency, and an executive-branch official such as Klein would have no direct role in influencing the FTC's disposition of a merger investigation. This is a small factual error, to be sure, but many people at the FTC spent the better part of a year working on the AOL/Time-Warner matter, and their efforts should not be overlooked.
Great Falls, Va.
James Fallows replies:
The Justice Department influenced the Clinton Administration's overall view of antitrust, including the AOL case. But I should have included Robert Pitofsky, the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission since early 1995, on the list of Clinton appointees who had shaped and administered an effective economic policy.
Sqhock and Disbelief," by Daniel Smith (February Atlantic), was a major contribution to the treatment of individuals with severe psychiatric disorders. Electroconvulsive therapy has been badly underused, to the detriment of our patients, because of opposition to it by Scientologists and other anti-psychiatry groups. Your story was scientifically correct, which is much more important than being politically correct.
E. Fuller Torrey, M.D.