Letters to the Editor

Supremacy by Stealth

Our country owes The Atlantic a great debt of thanks for publishing Robert Kaplan's "Supremacy by Stealth" in the July/August issue. I found his analysis especially valuable on the basis of my experience as a political scientist who has written on world politics, communicated with high-level administrators, and served for two years as a U.S. cultural attaché to France. To stress just the last basis of this judgment, Kaplan's comments about communication with other societies are exactly on target. The current administration's attitude to France and the French is simply foolish. One would never know that a French author—Régis Debray, celebrated as a leftist revolutionary during the unrest of the 1960s—recently proposed that the West respond to Islamist extremism by forming an Atlantic Empire with its capital in Washington, D.C.

Roger D. Masters
Hanover, N.H.

I have long admired the work of Robert Kaplan. However, "Supremacy by Stealth" was not merely unsettling, as intended; it also contained a troublesome nest of improbabilities.

As I understand it, Kaplan suggests that the American version of democracy be conveyed around the globe by an elite, comprehensively trained military cadre of "good character," operating quietly, even clandestinely. For the sake of efficacy this group will mainly relate to senior officers in other nations, and will avoid exposing its activities to public scrutiny or control in this country. Furthermore, a cooperative, or captive, media will spin the principles of democracy to targeted clients, using deliberate distortion when deemed necessary.

The argument that our values can save the world from chaotic populist or rampantly fundamentalist alternatives to present regimes only if presented under cover is disturbing. If our values cannot be presented openly, maybe they are not worthy of transmission.

Stewart Goodwin
Cotuit, Mass.

Robert Kaplan sets forth some interesting prescriptions for managing the "American Empire" in the future. And he has some good suggestions. But, unfortunately, he minimizes the potential contribution of one option: private military firms (PMFs). He cites firms like MPRI as a potential tool for covert or clandestine action. Putting aside the fact that nothing MPRI does is covert (its contracts are approved by the State Department), the reality is that PMFs are now operating on a global scale—not just in Africa, where they first rose to notice in the mid-1990s. As Peter Singer, the author of the recently released Corporate Warriors, documented in his Ph.D. thesis,

In the last decade, PMFs have been active in zones of conflict and transition throughout the entire globe. They have been critical players in a number of conflicts, and in many the determinate actor. They have operated from Albania to Zambia, often with strategic impact on both the process and outcome of conflicts. PMFs have been active on every continent but Antarctica, including in relative backwaters and key strategic zones where the superpowers once vied for influence.

Given U.S. unwillingness to engage internationally on a sustained basis, increased use of PMFs on an overt, not a covert, basis is an option that U.S. policymakers should not ignore.

David Isenberg
Arlington, Va.

I applaud Robert Kaplan's cogent "Supremacy by Stealth," particularly the recurring theme that culturally sensitive and adept civilian and military personnel are indispensable to executing America's overseas interests.

I take serious issue with only one assertion in the article: that the U.S. Information Agency was "gutted by the Clinton Administration under pressure from Senator Jesse Helms." A senior USIA career official before and after the announcement of the agency's merger into the State Department, I observed its demise as a deliberate, ideologically driven choice by the Clinton Administration. Senator Helms's interest was to consolidate foreign-affairs agencies (the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Agency for International Development, and USIA) by eliminating two of the three. The Administration elected to dissolve the USIA and ACDA while preserving AID's institutional identity.

The Clinton Administration was philosophically more sympathetic to AID's economic-development mission than to the USIA, viewed as a Cold War anachronism without any contemporary relevance. The Clinton foreign-policy perspective rejected any hint of "American exceptionalism" or a special message to project in the cacophonous global bazaar of ideas. The Administration's emphasis was on economic and technical aid, not on values and attitudes. There can be a legitimate, serious debate over this issue, but I am absolutely convinced that the disappearance of the USIA is the responsibility of the Clinton Administration and not Senator Helms.

Dell F. Pendergrast
McLean, Va.

As one of the warrior-diplomats out on the front lines here in the Middle East, I was fascinated by Robert Kaplan's article. Kaplan brings up a number of interesting facts and draws some very sound and logical conclusions regarding the use of U.S. military forces in the future. However, he misses one of the main points of U.S. Army Civil Affairs, which is that more than 95 percent of us are professionals in the civilian world, reservists who get recalled to active duty to help Special Forces and other parts of the military successfully execute operations and minimize civilian interference. In fact, we are used more and more often to assist with "winning the hearts and minds" of the populations we're engaged with. I know this from personal experience: for the past twenty months I have contributed my civilian skills as an investment banker and an M.B.A. professor to Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom in thirteen Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries and ten U.S. states.

Edmund L. Luzine Jr.
Major, U.S. Army Civil Affairs
Baghdad, Iraq
Adirondack Capital Management, Inc.
Albany, N.Y.

I run a ghostwriting business in Washington, D.C., and have spent months at a time in the Pentagon and meeting with defense strategists like those Robert Kaplan cites. I respect Kaplan's bold and exploratory journalism, but my experience in "the building" points me to a different view of America's future.

I agree with Kaplan's argument that we need a culturally literate military that is more mobile and more flexibly structured. Yet I believe his analysis rests on a perilous assumption—that, as he writes, only American power "can serve as an organizing principle for the worldwide expansion of a liberal civil society." This is a large claim. What I hear being discussed in the Pentagon—in its cafeterias, its hallways, even its men's rooms—does not support it. Kaplan's axiom is that "the mission is everything." The everything I hear being discussed, everywhere in the Pentagon, is the business of war—not its mission, and certainly not its meaning. Kaplan has traversed the world to discuss U.S. military strategy with those who execute it. Yet what can be heard in every cafeteria in the Pentagon, at one table after another, is the shadow side of our national-security strategy: discussions about deals, jobs to be filled, and the contracts that will yield these jobs. No one should underestimate the power of these conversations.

I believe that our military professionals are among the noblest adults bred by any of America's social institutions. Yet the system that sends them on their missions is deeply compromised, and it compromises them—and their missions. The military strategy our warfighters executed in Iraq was hugely successful, yet it is not bringing victory. What we are bringing to Iraq and Afghanistan, to the Gulf States, to Latin America, and now to Africa is not "liberal civil society." It is the rhetoric of democracy—and behind it the calculation that we can not only win "wars of liberation" but also profit from them. This is a risky bet. We are not "liberating" in a vacuum. We are known in the world for what we do to others, not for what we say about ourselves.

No matter how skillfully our forces execute their missions or how many languages they master or how effective they are at gaining the allegiances of local leaders, as long as we deny our profit motives in projecting U.S. power across the world, as long as we believe our happy talk about bringing civil society to every part of the planet, as long as the gears of our war machinery are greased with oil and with our dependence on oil, we will be fighting in every region of the world and we will need all the sound military advice that Kaplan has offered. But it will not be enough. We do not need to conquer the rest of the world; we need to join it. I wish I could accept Kaplan's assumption about what history will require from us in the coming years, but I do not think it is our raw power that history needs, or our rhetoric. I think it is our humility and our humanity. If we can summon and project these elementary virtues, which are understood worldwide, we may need fewer military strategies, and we may need to use them on fewer enemies.

Gabriel Heilig
Takoma Park, Md.

Texas Clemency Memos

Alan Berlow's article in the July / August Atlantic, "The Texas Clemency Memos," is a chilling document, describing as it does the dozens of inadequate memoranda reviewing death-penalty cases that President Bush, then Governor Bush, received from Alberto Gonzales, his legal counsel. That such memos usually arrived on the day of the execution itself, just hours before the executions were scheduled to take place, and that Bush signed a record 152 death warrants during his years governing Texas, should make even those who favor the death penalty shudder.

However, the part of Berlow's article that caused me the greatest shock, appearing as it did only three months after Richard Brookhiser's "The Mind of George W. Bush," was Bush's pious statement describing his feelings about Karla Faye Tucker. He told Gonzales that signing off on Tucker's execution "was one of the hardest things I have ever done." But Brookhiser describes Bush as jeering at Ms. Tucker's plea for clemency. "Please," the President whimpered, imitating what he thought she might have said to him, "don't kill me."

I find it hard to understand—as, I imagine, do most who read both articles—how Bush found it both very difficult to order Karla Faye's execution and very amusing.

Joan Walston
Santa Monica, Calif.

Alan Berlow presents a frightening picture of the clemency process in death-penalty cases. These memos offer a rare window on the decision-making process. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1993 (Herrera v. Collins) affirmed that executive clemency is the fail-safe in an admittedly flawed judicial system. One would assume that the governor would read the clemency petition submitted to plead for the prisoner's life. These clemency petitions are only twenty pages long, on average, and are very different from legal briefs. They summarize in story form the best arguments the prisoner has to make. Unlike legal briefs, clemency petitions typically cite only a few legal precedents. In other words, they are written in language that non-lawyers would be able to understand.

Berlow discovered that Governor Bush may have not even read the clemency petitions, but instead relied on incomplete summaries and, at most, had a thirty-minute discussion with his legal adviser. Clearly, this is not what the Supreme Court had in mind when it looked to the executive branch to be the fail-safe in preventing miscarriages of justice. It is time for the Supreme Court to revisit this issue. Time and again we see that the death penalty destroys our due-process principles.

Cathleen Burnett
author of
Justice Denied: Clemency Appeals in Death Penalty Cases (2002)
Kansas City, Mo.

As the deputy general counsel in Governor George W. Bush's office from 1995 to 1999, which includes the period in which the fifty-seven summaries discussed in "The Texas Clemency Memos" were prepared, I have personal knowledge of the Texas clemency process. Berlow's article paints an inaccurate and incomplete picture of that process under Bush.

Confidential summaries were routinely prepared for the governor at the time of each scheduled execution, whether or not the inmate was seeking clemency. These summaries were just that—a general summation of basic information about each case, including a discussion of the facts of the crime, background information about the defendant, a summary of legal proceedings, and the basis and status of any last-minute clemency petition. These summaries were part of the decision-making process but were only the last of several communications normally presented to the governor about each case during the weeks or months before an execution. Governor Bush's office was fairly informal, and members of the general counsel's staff had ready access to the governor about many legal issues confronting the state. It was not at all unusual after a meeting on a different subject, or during an ad hoc meeting, to discuss upcoming executions. Then, generally on the day of the execution, the general counsel and one of his lawyers always provided a more formal oral briefing, during which the very latest information was conveyed to the governor, and both the facts of the case and the requests for clemency, if any, were reviewed, and the governor's formal decision was received. During all meetings the governor actively probed the information provided, asked detailed questions, and received thorough answers. (I personally participated in a number of such meetings, both formal and informal.) Contrary to Berlow's assertions, thirty minutes in that last meeting on the day of the execution often proved more than sufficient for a serious discussion of last-minute developments, precisely because of these advance briefings and discussions. If additional time was necessary, that need was accommodated.

Berlow appears to be more interested in what the written summaries said than in what the governor knew (which, of course, should be the relevant inquiry). And he does not appear to understand that information about a case was generally communicated to the governor independent of the written summary.

For example, the article implies that Gonzales's work on the Irineo Tristan Montoya matter was deficient because the memo omitted the issue of an alleged violation of international law. But at the same time, Berlow acknowledges that the issue had been brought separately to Governor Bush's attention by, among others, the U.S. Department of State. Gonzales had numerous conversations with Bush about possible violations of Article 36 of the Vienna Convention. Furthermore, discussions with the State Department were ongoing. Gonzales clearly did his job in advising the governor of the possible international-law issues.

Berlow was also critical of Gonzales's summary regarding the Terry Washington case, suggesting that Gonzales had ignored Washington's mental limitations. The Gonzales summary plainly states, however;

documents indicate that [Washington] is mentally retarded and that he suffered organic brain damage potentially as a result of fetal alcohol syndrome because his mother drank steadily during her pregnancy. Documents reflect that Washington may have suffered abuse as a child and that his family has a history of violence.

At the time of Washington's execution the governor's office was advised by the Texas attorney general that the death penalty may constitutionally be imposed on someone with Washington's mental limitations, provided that he or she is mentally competent to stand trial. We were further advised that the test for determining competency is whether the defendant has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding, and whether he has a rational as well as factual understanding of the charges against him, the proceedings, and the consequences of his decisions. In this case not only the state courts but also a federal district court and a federal court of appeals panel had already determined that Washington was competent to stand trial. But more to the question of what the governor knew, the general counsel made it a practice to advise the governor of all credible bases for clemency—particularly one that, as the article discusses, was the subject of national debate: the execution of someone who has mental limitations. Although I do not recall being at any specific meetings with the governor regarding this case, I do remember the case, and I recall discussing mental competency on numerous other occasions. Given the practice of the office and the circumstances of this case, if the issue were raised in a clemency plea, the governor would be advised of such a plea and the facts both supporting it and militating against it.

Berlow also fails to recognize that according to American jurisprudence, clemency is a discretionary act of grace bestowed by the governor under the state's constitution. It is not part of the judicial process. If the governor chooses never to grant clemency; or to exercise that constitutional authority sparingly, and then only when legitimate questions about guilt or innocence persist or when legal issues are raised that have not been reviewed by the courts; or to grant it in every case, he may clearly do so. Governor Bush took a consistent, principled position on clemency, and Gonzales's counsel served his client well by bringing all credible matters raised by the condemned to the governor's attention. The fact that the author disagrees with the governor's standards does not make them wrong; nor does it make Gonzales's summaries deficient.

Finally, I want to state for the record that the general counsel's office approached each of these cases with the greatest of care and sensitivity. I categorically disagree with any suggestion otherwise.

Pete Wassdorf
Austin, Tex.

I believe it was the ruling I obtained from the Texas attorney general in the case of David Spence four years ago that allowed Alan Berlow to acquire all the other memos Alberto Gonzales sent to Governor Bush in clemency cases.

Berlow writes that he "found no evidence that Gonzales ever sent Bush a clemency petition—or any document—that summarized in a concise and coherent fashion a condemned defendant's best argument against execution." While not exactly arguing with that, I would like to point out that in the Spence memo Gonzales—actually, Stuart Bowen, in Gonzales's office, who wrote the memo—puts the wealth of evidence exonerating Spence (who claimed complete innocence) in a very concise, point-by-bulleted-point summary near the end of the document.

What makes the Spence memo so egregious is that this information comes in a section headed "Publicity," in which the efforts of a businessman from Waco to stop Spence's execution are dismissed as a "crusade." The litany of exculpatory evidence, some newly found, even buried as it is in this section, leaps off the page as something that should be noticed and dealt with. Bowen/Gonzales tries to counter each point but in the end relies on such things as a prosecutor's "absolute belief" that Spence was guilty and the fact that various courts upheld the conviction. The straining to reach a preordained conclusion is transparent—and has correlatives in the intelligence reports that were used last fall to bolster Bush's call for war.

David Spence, I'm told, may soon be proved absolutely innocent of the crimes for which he was executed. Should that day come, Bush and Gonzales will certainly say they didn't have all the information at the time of the execution. But the memo Bush perused on that execution morning contained enough information for any rational person to realize that something was terribly wrong and the needle had to be stopped.

Doug Magee
New York, N.Y.

Alan Berlow replies:

Contrary to Pete Wassdorf's assertion, "what the governor knew" and when and how he knew it are precisely the issues I examine. The record is clear that what Bush knew came primarily from Gonzales's execution summaries. Wassdorf does not claim that these memos provided Bush with a thorough or balanced report on a single case. Instead he offers two principal arguments, unsupported by any evidence.

First, he says that the Gonzales summaries were "only the last of several communications" presented to the governor, implying that Bush was given other, presumably more detailed memoranda that contained the hard facts he needed to make tough decisions about who lived and who died. In each of the fifty-seven executions I examined, however, these communications are mysteriously absent from the files Bush turned over to his archive. And not one of Gonzales's execution summaries either attaches or makes reference to any of these earlier, presumably more elaborate exegeses.

An inventory of Bush "execution case files" prepared by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission makes clear that Gonzales's staff had access to voluminous records on each of these executions, including court records, correspondence from all interested parties, and more-detailed execution summaries (apparently prepared by the Department of Criminal Justice), along with attachments. Yet the archive reports "no indication that the Governor reviewed" any of this. "What the Governor did review are the execution summaries prepared by the General Counsel." My point exactly.

Wassdorf's second, and seemingly contradictory, line of defense is that the complex and conflicting arguments that arise in death-penalty cases were routinely vetted in "informal," "ad hoc" verbal encounters with Bush. That's a remarkable way to handle matters of life and death. These ad hoc briefings, moreover, are unrecorded in Bush's appointment logs. Nor have they, as far as we know, been memorialized by any of the attorneys present.

Wassdorf claims that Terry Washington's mental retardation was seriously discussed in the Gonzales summary and insists that Bush would have been advised of the arguments for and against clemency in this case. He provides no evidence, however. The passage Wassdorf cites happens to be the entirety of what the summary says on the subject. More important, as I noted, the summary fails to mention that none of this information was ever made known to any jury.

As for Doug Magee's assertion that a ruling he obtained from the Texas attorney general laid the groundwork for release of the files I report on—if that is the case, I am grateful. I do not, however, contend that Gonzales ever lacked the information necessary to write a comprehensive summary of any of these cases—only that his summaries were not comprehensive. Had George Bush desired a more detailed presentation, he could have asked for it. There is no evidence that he did.

Finally, Wassdorf is correct in asserting, contrary to Bush's own claims, that Bush could have granted clemency in any case where he saw fit to do so.

A new Deal for Teachers

Matthew Miller correctly identifies dismal teacher quality as the greatest weakness of poor school districts ("A New Deal for Teachers," July/August Atlantic). Offering higher pay to better teachers is an idea whose time has come. However, the measurement of teacher quality is critical, and Miller waffles on this issue.

Assessment of teacher quality by means of student outcomes is an invitation to abuse: everything from gaming the system to outright cheating. (Teachers have been caught feeding test answers to students when their jobs are on the line.) "Objective" evaluation by colleagues or principals would reward political talent and sycophancy, not teaching skill.

The solution is simply to test teachers for academic competence in their subject areas. Standardized tests administered at the state level would eliminate cronyism, dishonest student assessment, and other evasions of accountability. Academic proficiency correlates very well with the quality of teaching (hence the excellent performance of engineers or biologists grandfathered in as teachers), and it can be accurately measured. Arguments about the validity of standardized testing may safely be ignored, because you can't teach what you don't know. Teachers failing to demonstrate competence should be dismissed, and those with excellent scores should be rewarded financially. Teachers will therefore have a powerful incentive to improve their mastery of academic knowledge—rather than bogus pedagogic dogma.

Teachers' unions bitterly oppose such testing, because it ruthlessly reveals incompetent teachers—and the academic bankruptcy of the education-school curriculum. The appalling results of statewide testing of teachers in Massachusetts a few years back is instructive in this regard. However, testing is by far the best method of assessing teacher quality, and could reverse its thirty-year decline.

Geoffrey Wittig
Dansville, N.Y.

As an associate principal of an urban, public charter high school, I read Matthew Miller's piece on improving the teachers in urban schools with great interest. I agree with much of what Miller says, and in particular agree that school principals must be given greater autonomy, including authority to hire and fire staff members. However, I must quibble with him on two points.

1) Miller discusses the use of "emergency credentials" and implies a connection between teacher quality and teacher credentialing. The most prestigious independent schools, where the rich send their sons and daughters, have very few credentialed teachers, and those teachers are paid less than their public school peers. Having worked in such schools, I know that many of these "unqualified" teachers are highly talented and highly qualified. In fact, not having to waste a year of their lives in a terrible teacher-credentialing program may explain why they are teaching in a private school in the first place. One might wonder why our urban poor are not allowed to benefit from those who are teaching the nation's wealthiest students.

2) Paying urban teachers a higher salary would unquestionably bring more talented people into urban school systems. However, there is a larger issue, unaddressed by Miller. As he notes, half of new teachers in urban schools quit within the first three years. And by and large they are the stronger half. But why are these teachers leaving? Surely they knew what the salary schedule was when they signed on for the job. In my view, the top college graduates who enter urban schools leave because of the appalling work conditions in these schools, where teachers are not given the freedom to teach what they believe is right (unlike their counterparts in independent schools) but, rather, are forced to march through a standardized, "teacher-proof" curriculum to prepare students for multiple-choice tests. Professionals, be they lawyers, doctors, or consultants, are given autonomy and are expected to achieve results. Until we treat teachers like intelligent, thoughtful professionals, we will be unable to recruit enough people deserving of such expectations. Even if we do recruit some by paying them drastically higher salaries, they will surely quit in disgust when they experience the mind-numbing bureaucracy as it exists today.

I remember well my frustration (as one of the "top college graduates" that Miller refers to) with the public school hiring process, and despite having obtained a teaching credential (in physics and math, no less), I eschewed the higher salaries in the public schools for the autonomy that independent schools allowed. Some teachers may work in private schools because of the perception of "easier" students—but I believe that the professionalization of the teaching position in these schools is a greater draw.

Ben Daley
Associate Principal, High Tech High
San Diego, Calif.

While proposing higher pay and noting that women and members of minorities no longer form a ready pool of talented teachers-to-be, Matthew Miller misses the point as to why teachers leave the profession. For the past thirty years teachers have consistently been portrayed as lazy, unprofessional, stupid, and incapable of performing their duties. People enter the profession believing in the cliché that they can make a difference. But making a difference is not that easy. Here is where Miller errs when he talks about "poor" schools. No amount of training or salary can compensate for the array of problems that students in such schools present. Typically, these students come from chaotic backgrounds. They may attend two or three or more schools in one year. Even if a school system has an absolutely rigid curriculum, with every teacher in every grade teaching the same lesson on the same day, children who move from school to school cannot keep up. Similarly, these students often have terrible attendance, making it virtually impossible for them to achieve even basic skills. Coupled with these problems is another issue that Miller completely ignores—the real lack of respect that teachers in "poor" schools get from students and the adults in their lives.

The violence rampant in some areas of our country spills over into every institution in those communities. Teachers are ill prepared to deal with gang-related problems, students with guns, students who act out by cursing and swearing and throwing things. No amount of motivation on the part of the teacher can bring the "teachable moment" to students whose lives are consumed by anger fomented by a society that pays them and their needs no attention.

Chester E. Finn, of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, can say all he wants that teachers should "take a risk with [their] employment," trading job security and benefits for a salary based on what Adam Urbanski, of the Rochester Teachers Association, calls "student learning outcomes." As a teacher for more than thirty years, I would challenge Finn to be held accountable for students whose lives away from school make it impossible for them to learn in school. Students who do well in school are those whose families support the entire education process. This is not to say that students in underperforming schools learn nothing. Many of them actually perform quite well, considering the distress of their environment (even if their performance will never match that of children whose fortune it has been to be born into the middle or upper class). Teaching is a wonderful career, one that I have thoroughly enjoyed. In my most recent permutation as a teacher, I have moved from a working-class high school to a university. The difference between teaching when classroom management is a part of the job and teaching when communication of information is the primary function is astonishing. Does that mean I wish I had taught college for my whole career? In no way. I consistently run into students I taught, and I see each as a success in his or her own way. That's what teaching really is, actually—meeting children at their level of development and helping them. Teachers in "poor" and underperforming schools try their hardest, against great odds, to do that. When they are held to impossible standards, they quit. How many doctors or lawyers or CEOs would like to be held accountable for their performance based on only the sickliest patients, the most criminal clients, or the worst-performing organizations?

Barbara M. Simon Baltimore, Md.

Aq New Deal for Teachers" highlighted some creative approaches to improving our education system. Why not provide parents with the opportunity to grade teachers? Those teachers who get high marks from parents should receive bonuses on top of their pay. This approach will motivate teachers to work hard to communicate with parents, and will also promote more parental involvement in education.

Paul Feiner
Greenburgh, N.Y.

In Praise of Nepotism

Iqn Praise of Nepotism," by Adam Bellow (July/August Atlantic), had me doing a double take at the cover of the magazine to make sure it was not the April issue. Can one take seriously a treatise on the benefits of position granted because of family connections as opposed to ability from one who has benefited personally from such a system? This country is populated by the descendants of those who believed that ability and hard work should overcome social position. Bellow ignores this fact and sings the praises of a caste system, within which he himself is well placed. Giving space to such intellectually immature self-promotion in The Atlantic downgrades the quality of your magazine. What is next—"In Praise of Dishonest Corporate Accounting," by Ken Lay?

Marc Pelletier
Boston, Mass.

Adam Bellow argues that "the new nepotism represents a valuable corrective to the excesses of meritocracy." This ignores a huge moral contradiction: that during the past decade affirmative action has been under assault, in the name of meritocracy, by American conservatives—including most of the "neocon family network" that provided the first boost to Bellow's own career.

These neocons insist that the sacred principle of meritocracy must never be compromised when it comes to judging kids from less privileged families. But somehow, when their own flesh and blood stands to benefit from nepotism, meritocracy is suddenly "excessive" and in need of correction. As Dana Carvey's Church Lady used to say, how convenient.

This explains why Bellow's three "hidden rules" of nepotism—"Don't embarrass me," "Don't embarrass yourself," and "Pass it on"—don't include the most important rule that the Kennedys, the Roosevelts, the Rockefellers, and even the elder Bushes used to live by: "Lend a hand to the less fortunate." If sheer good luck has blessed you with status and connections, you owe something to those whom bad luck has impoverished. It's sad that the practitioners of the "new nepotism" don't seem to share that ennobling sense of obligation to those outside the charmed family circle.

Karl Weber
Chappaqua, N.Y.

Adam Bellow writes, " I would suggest that the new nepotism represents a valuable corrective to the excesses of meritocracy." He goes on, referring to Christopher Lasch, who "suggests that meritocracy unleavened by nepotism lacks a necessary humanizing element." It strikes me that one could replace "nepotism" with "diversity" in the foregoing, and the argument would be equally valid. If I may extend meritocracy to refer to the marketplace, it is intriguing to read a neocon admission that the marketplace requires corrective humanizing elements. If I accept nepotism to uphold the hereditary principle, will conservatives accept affirmative action to obtain diversity?

Matthew Burr
Austin, Tex.

It was so refreshing to read such an honest assessment of the rise of the Nepots in modern America. And best of all that it came from a young Nepot, frankly acknowledging that without his father's eminence he might well have never found his way to the position he now occupies. However, I think that young Master Bellow has not thought this all the way through. Because although the first generation of the Nepot may prove quite capable, it is also true that the instinct to pass on the golden name only intensifies with the passing of generations. Thus does an aristocracy harden into a useless caste of exploitative rentiers.

Christopher Rowley
Ellenville, N.Y.

In his provocative article on nepotism, Adam Bellow cites a study finding that children of doctors are "14 percent more likely" to be admitted to medical school. I'm sure that physicians' children are more likely to apply to med school, but I'd like to see that study.

My father was a small-town GP for forty years. The only way I could go into the "family business" was on my own merit, not from any nepotism. I didn't even get into his med school, to which he had contributed for thirty years.

Nepotism may be making a comeback in business, politics, show business, et al., but U.S. medicine remains a meritocracy—for which we can all be thankful next time we're in the OR or the ER.

Mark Dillen Stitham, M.D.
Kailua, Hawaii

Adam Bellow replies:

No one is proposing to grant position or benefits to people based on family connections, as Marc Pelletier suggests. What I do say is this: people who get breaks through personal connections—whether friends of relatives, relatives of friends, or friends of friends—must earn their advantages after the fact or suffer the consequences, just like beneficiaries of affirmative action. It is the market that determines social outcomes, not connections. Karl Weber accuses some conservatives of being hypocritical about meritocracy, but I don't think I am one of them.

Matthew Burr finds it "intriguing" that a neocon would question the rule of the market.ÊRead my book, Mr. Burr. Good luck trying to pigeonhole me as a "neocon" or anything else on your standard political compass. I think of myself as an anthropological realist. The whole thrust of my book is a quarrel with those on the left or the right who make a fetish out of rugged individualism. As for affirmative action, I describe it as a well-meaning but inadequate attempt to make up for the destruction of healthy nepotistic ligaments among African-Americans by slavery, segregation, internal migration, and urban renewal. (As Eddie Murphy has said, nepotism isn't practiced enough among blacks.)

Christopher Rowley cites what Marxists call the "iron law of oligarchy" to argue that meritocratic elites inevitably decline into moribund castes. Quite so: there is ample evidence in my book to support the idea. Elites continually rise, decline, and fall in American history. Indeed, the very rule of generational decline that Rowley cites is what protects us from permanent domination by such groups, since elites that fail to admit talented upstarts doom themselves to decay and irrelevancy. And a good thing, too—don't confuse me with a defender of aristocratic privilege.

Mark Stitham wants more evidence for the accumulation of advantage in meritocratic professions such as medicine and science. The particular study I cited appeared in the Journal of Human Resources, vol. 23, no. 3. You can also read Robert Merton's famous essay "The Matthew Effect in Science" (to those that have, more will be given), or Harriet Zuckerman's study of the Nobel Prize, which shows that people who work in the labs of Nobel Prize winners have a higher probability of winning the prize themselves. The fact is, connections and networking are just as important as merit in the competition for grants and appointments. But there is no necessary contradiction between inherited social capital and merit, and rising levels of succession in medicine, law, and other elite professions do not mean those professions are becoming less meritocratic. The fact that he thinks that's what I'm saying merely reflects his outdated assumption that nepotism means, always and everywhere, favoritism for the unqualified.

All these letter writers make the same mistake in thinking that nepotism is practiced only by the rich: nepotism is far more prevalent, far more accepted, and far more necessary among immigrants and the working classes. The antagonism to nepotism is really a middle-class hang-up, and it mainly reflects historical amnesia on the part of educated professionals who like to preen themselves on being self-made individuals, forgetting the several generations of ethnic and family striving that allowed them to exploit their opportunities. As Dana Carvey put it, "How convenient."

The Colfax Riot

I enjoyed Richard Rubin's fine article about Colfax, Louisiana, and the massacre that occurred there in 1873 ("The Colfax Riot," July/August Atlantic). It surprised me that neither he nor the half dozen professors he consulted had heard of this event. The Colfax massacre is described in one of the leading histories of the era: Reconstruction, 1863-1867, by Eric Foner. Foner calls it "the bloodiest single act of carnage in all of Reconstruction" and notes that it gave rise in 1876 to the Supreme Court's decision in U.S. v. Cruikshank.

Robert A. Snyder
Hilton Head, S.C.

Richard Rubin implies that he rediscovered an obscure event in Louisiana history. In fact the Colfax riot and a related Supreme Court case (U.S. v. Cruikshank) are covered in James McPherson's Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. The author claims that he had "studied the Civil War and Reconstruction quite extensively ..." Mr. Rubin might also have found and consulted a basic text such as Joe Taylor's Louisiana Reconstructed, 1863-1877 or Ted Tunnell's Crucible of Reconstruction: War, Radicalism, and Race in Louisiana, 1862-1877. Apart from the half dozen history professors consulted by Rubin, I'm sure the state contains those in the field of Louisiana history who would have been happy to enlighten the author.

Alexandra Happer
Denver, Colo.

Advice & Consent

Bruce Hoffman argues in "The Logic of Suicide Terrorism" (June Atlantic) that the strategy behind suicide bombings is to shrink the space in which Israelis feel safe, so that ultimately life in Israel just isn't worth living. As buses and malls are avoided because of the danger, restaurants and shops become the next targets. Then it will be schools, hotels, ad infinitum. What he describes is a war. And no matter what the United States seems to want to believe, it is not just Hamas, it is a consortium of groups with the same goal and the same tactic. It is no different from Germany, Italy, and Japan sixty years ago. They had mutual interests, common enemies, and similar tactics. They didn't have to talk to or conspire with one another to know that the efforts of each contributed to the benefit of all. As it was with them, it is with the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hizbollah, Fatah, and so forth. Did other nations sympathetic to Germany's cause have to declare war against the Allies? No, of course not. They could stay neutral, even make noises in support of the Allies and peace, while secretly financing and supporting the Nazi effort. But if Germany prevailed, they would share in the fruits of victory. Thus it is with Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the PA, newly proclaimed by President Bush to be peace-lovers and not the problem. They will talk the talk to please Bush, but never walk the walk. A cease-fire? Sure, while Israel eases up, surrenders property, disrupts the lives of Israeli loyalists (particularly Israeli displaced settlers ethnically cleansed from the new Palestinian state), and abandons its moral and military superiority. A cease-fire? Yes, but only after Hamas ceases to exist; after Yasir Arafat dies a natural death; after the PA recognizes Israel and Jews and allows Jews to live in peace wherever they live, even within their bloodstained, extorted new nation; after Syria stops supporting Hizbollah; and after our friends the Saudis stop fomenting hatred and financing and housing terrorists. Until those things happen, the war rages on, no matter what artificial or natural lulls occur. In other words, a cease-fire? Never again!

J. M. Fishman
Duluth, Ga.

What a blast to read "Love Me," Garrison Keillor's short story in the July/August Atlantic. I wondered in passing a few years ago what the heck Garrison Keillor was doing writing an advice column on Salon.com. Now we know: he was trolling for nincompoops. And we couldn't wait to line up and swallow the hook. Now, in some sort of weird but juicy interactive work, he gleefully "outs" us all. Yet he's easy to forgive, because he exposes himself alongside us, pointing out how we are all pretty much treading the same petty but sweetly human sea of longing and lacking. And he does this in a manner so tender that we forget we are laughing at ourselves and that he is once again lying his pants off. Marvelous.

Susan Guthrie
Belfast, Maine

Seth Gitell argues in "The Democratic Party Suicide Bill" (July/August Atlantic) that the Democrats severely damaged their electoral prospects in 2004 and beyond by embracing the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-reform bill. His analysis is straightforward and familiar. Democrats have come to depend more on soft money (nonfederal funds from corporations, unions, and wealthy individuals) than have Republicans. Their soft-money raising is almost at parity with the Republicans', but they trail badly in hard money. Hence the abolition of party soft money will put the Democrats at a severe disadvantage.

Gitell has much that is sensible to say—especially about the importance of principle or ideology in motivating the positions of the two parties on campaign-finance reform. But he overstates the likely impact on the Democrats. President Bush will certainly enjoy a substantial financial advantage in 2004, but it is an advantage he would have had without any changes in federal election law. After declining public matching funds in 2000, Bush raised and spent much more than Al Gore in the months before the party conventions. And the Republican Party was able to match and trump the soft-money-financed "issue ads" that the Democrats broadcast in behalf of Gore. In 2004 Bush will even further outdistance his Democratic adversary in personal fundraising (thanks to his incumbency and the higher, $2,000 individual contribution limit), but the Democrats are not without ways and means of helping their candidate. They can use hard-money-financed independent expenditures to broadcast political ads when their likely nominee is out of funds. And they can invest unlimited hard dollars in building their voter identification and mobilization capacity for the fall campaign. Under the new law parties can accept as much as $57,500 from an individual during a two-year election cycle. If the economy remains sluggish and postwar Iraq unsettled, the Democratic nominee will run a competitive race in spite of the disparity in resources. If conditions are positive on the domestic and international fronts, no amount of money will enable Democrats to deny Bush a second term.

At the level of congressional elections, the impact of the new law on Democratic fortunes is even smaller. Parties provide a modest share of the funding in congressional elections, especially under the new law. They can no longer pump millions of dollars of soft money into issue ads in a handful of competitive races. The parties are likely to spread their resources more widely, invest additional funds in grassroots activity, steer member-to-member contributions more aggressively, broker pac contributions for key races, and mobilize voter identification and turnout activities of allied groups. Democrats need not be badly outclassed in this altered arena of competition.

Thomas E. Mann
The Brookings Institution
Washington, D.C.

Robert Baer ("The Fall of the House of Saud," May Atlantic) states in his reply to John Tietjen—the reader who calculated that the average rate of increase of Saudi Arabia's external trade over the fifty-year period 1950- 2000 was approximately 12 percent, not 70 percent, as claimed in the original article—that his calculation of the rate simply needed adjustment by a factor of 10, and should have been seven percent (Letters to the Editor, July/August Atlantic).

I do not know how Baer is making these calculations, but a seven percent growth rate over this time frame would result in external trade in 2000 of approximately $1.66 billion—nowhere near the $19.3 billion that was actually achieved. John Tietjen's result, 12 percent, is the correct one.

Kenneth B. Keating
Wilmington, Del.

Regarding Benjamin Schwarz's review of Curzon (July/August Atlantic): Mention of Harold Nicolson of the Foreign Office, who traveled with Lord Curzon to the Lausanne Conference, prompted me to reread—for the tenth time—Nicolson's experiment in what he described as the most impure form of biography, namely, biographical fiction. In 1946, my freshman-English anthology contained Nicolson's hilarious short story "Arketall," which deliciously captured the flavor of 1920s European diplomacy in the misadventures of the hastily hired, bumbling, alcoholic manservant whom Lord Curzon suffered with noble patience. Evelyn Waugh could not have composed it better.

Thomas W. Kemp
Boca Raton, Fla.

In Cullen Murphy's article "Manual Labors" (July/August Atlantic), what is the name of the manual (or handbook) that "the U.S. government makes available to immigrants seeking citizenship," which is about "American history and politics [and is] fuller and sharper than most high school textbooks"? And where can I get it?

James Timm Portland, Ore.

Editors' Note:

The manual in question, a series of instructional pages collectively referred to as the U.S. History and Structure Study Guides for the Civics Exam, is available in PDF format at the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services Web site. Scroll to the lower half of the following page: http://www.bcis.gov/graphics/services/natz/require.htm.