Letters to the editor

The Speechwriter’s Tale

Matthew Scully imbues his piece (“Present at the Creation,” September Atlantic) with a lighthearted, at times almost comic tone—a tone that has no place in anything written about the Bush administration. Was I supposed to chuckle when I read that speechwriter John McConnell would “favor” his fellow propagandists “with one of his impersonations”? This glibness serves no purpose other than to humanize three people—Scully, McConnell, and Michael J. Gerson—who contributed so eloquently to some of the greatest domestic- and foreign-policy disasters in our nation’s history.

Scully’s story is just one more example of the administration’s tone-deaf inability to understand that many people are as repulsed by their attempts at humor—like George W. Bush’s looking-for-weapons-of-mass-destruction skit performed at the Radio and Television Correspondents Association dinner in 2004, and “MC” Rove’s rap performance at this year’s dinner—as they are by hearing Bush utter phrases like axis of evil.

Scully seems unaware he’s clamoring to take credit for what any sensible person would hire a criminal attorney to deny: putting words in the mouth of a corrupt, discredited, and globally despised politician.

Robert Rosen
New York, N.Y.

Matthew Scully’s “Present at the Creation” quotes from the post-9/11 joint session speech by President George W. Bush, “We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail,” and adds, with admiration, “It was a case of presidential speechwriting working exactly as it should, with the words spoken by the very man who inspired them.”

Well, actually it was another man. I find it exceedingly odd for a senior presidential speechwriter not to have recognized those inimitable cadences from the most brilliant political speechwriter in all of history: Winston Churchill.

On February 9, 1941, the day after the House passed the Lend-Lease Act (which the Senate was to pass two days later), Churchill, in a radio broadcast beamed to the United States, said:

Put your confidence in us. Give us your faith and your blessing, and, under Providence, all will be well. We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.

Apparently, while Mike Gerson was claiming exclusive credit for the joint efforts of the West Wing speechwriting staff, their boss was claiming credit for words spoken some five years before his birth.

Raphael Shevelev
El Cerrito, Calif.

The Rove Legacy

While I thoroughly enjoyed Joshua Green’s insightful piece on Karl Rove (“The Rove Presidency,” September Atlantic), I was struck by an omission in the story. Green does a wonderful job of focusing on Rove’s penchant for sowing “interparty divisions as an electoral strategy,” but he curiously neglects to mention the Rove strategy’s effect on centrist Senator Jim Jeffords, who decided to switch from Republican to Democrat-leaning independent in the summer of 2001—a decision that cost the GOP control of the Senate. Having covered the Jeffords switch as a reporter for Congressional Quarterly, I recall that the senator’s decision was influenced in large part by the bare-knuckled and threatening posture Rove and the White House took on the president’s tax-cut plan earlier that year. One might argue that Jeffords’s switch represented the first big blunder of Rove’s tenure.

Emily Pierce
Washington, D.C.

Given the Bush administration’s many shortcomings and errors of judgment, it is easy to see why Joshua Green has deemed this presidency a failure. But in awarding a final grade, he should take all aspects of performance into account. In examining these last seven years objectively, we should not disregard the fact that North Korea, a nuclear threat, has now all but agreed to disarm; that the economy is, and has been, humming along with low inflation; that crime is down nationwide; and that anyone owning real property has probably seen his asset double (or more) in value. And, most important, and not for want of trying, there has been no terrorist attack on American soil.

On balance, perhaps, the deserved grade is the ever-familiar “Gentleman’s C.”

Michael E. Zuller
Great Neck, N.Y.

Joshua Green writes that Karl Rove “is a great devotee of the historian Robert H. Wiebe,” who, like Rove, emphasized the pivotal quality of the 1896 McKinley election. This Rove-Wiebe bond can only be explained by careless reading. Wiebe’s history The Search for Order 1877–1920 tells of the gradual rise of the modern bureaucratic, expert-manager federal government. Theodore Roosevelt initiated it, Woodrow Wilson vastly enlarged it during World War I, and Herbert Hoover’s planning and banking initiatives completed the process.

Yes, 1896 provided a crucial realignment of farm and city voters, but that realignment was, as Wiebe tells it, secured by deeper and more-enduring social and economic processes. The new way of ordering American life began first in the business corporation and then spread to municipal governments, states, and the federal government. The federal institutions put in place by Republican businessmen and reformers are the very ones Rove and George W. Bush have set about destroying.

Sam Bass Warren
Needham, Mass.

The Foodie’s Dilemma

I appreciated B. R. Myers’s critique of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (“Hard to Swallow,” September Atlantic). But I have been torn between my admiration of Pollan’s ability to convey so effectively the absurd and troubling realities of the modern American food industry, and my dismay at his dismissal of ethical vegetarianism as a viable choice.

It’s not that Pollan doesn’t think in moral terms—the whole book is a moral, as well as practical, critique. It’s that he seems unwilling to seriously engage moral considerations that might interfere with the efficiency of the small, local-farming utopia he holds up.

Marianne Arbogast
Detroit, Mich.

B. R. Myers alleges that gastronomes are indifferent to the suffering of food animals. But who today plucks the tongues of larks or hummingbirds, or fattens ortolans in cages? Yes, Julie Powell and Michael Pollan, in odd and unfortunate paragraphs, do echo a version of Genesis 1:26, wherein flying, swimming, quadruped, and legless creatures are condemned to the dominion of humans. But most of us kill our lobsters swiftly and humanely, with the sharp point of a heavy chef’s knife at the juncture of head and body, then split and broil the creature or dismember him (preferably her) in a hot pan with a mirepoix. Our victims suffer nothing and taste better that way; Powell is merely late in getting the news. Our Wagyu steers are anesthetized before bleeding and pampered while alive; our chickens and pigs range free. We eschew bluefin tuna as too noble for the table (squid, herring, and mackerel, good enough for bluefin, are good enough for us), as well as any species deemed endangered or inhumanely raised or killed. Our salmon are wild and line-caught, our bivalves handled more humanely than by any other ostreophage, winged or pedalian.

To the end, Myers offers only a visceral, incoherent veganism in place of the serious ethical critique he leads us to expect.

David Dunlap
West Plains, Mo.

It is easy to imagine a bruised and dazed Michael Pollan picking himself up off the floor and wondering how he managed to walk into B. R. Myers’s buzz saw of a book review. I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma when it came out, and have sampled Pollan’s writings from both before and after the book’s release; I simply don’t recognize the amoral glutton portrayed in Myers’s jeremiad. In fact, the titular dilemma is spelled out as What should we eat? The word should defines distinctly moral questions, and Pollan doesn’t shy away from them. But Myers simply can’t tolerate the fact that Pollan arrives—rather tentatively—at a different answer than he does.

Rob Lewis
Langley, Wash.

B. R. Myers replies:

I disagree with Rob Lewis; it is not easy to imagine a bruising buzz saw, nor to imagine a writer getting upset about a review that describes much of his book as a tour de force. If my article conveys the impression that Michael Pollan is amoral, it does so less through my own writing than through lengthy excerpts from The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Here I need only mention the passage in which the “journalist/philosopher,” as the back cover calls him, expresses pity for people who want to live more-virtuous lives. David Dunlap, for his part, employs a rhetorical strategy popular among letter-writing hunters, which is to demand that we judge a group not by its average representatives but by its “true”—i.e., ideal—ones. Or does Dunlap really believe that American foodies eat Wagyu beef, which can cost over $100 a pound, more often than they eat lobsters that have been boiled alive? In any case, the most highly prized form of the beef in question comes from cows who are kept indoors all day with nothing to do except eat and drink. I can see why a gourmet would regard such treatment as enviable “pampering,” but animals tend to want more from life.

Debating the B-2

Robert D. Kaplan is right to applaud the dedication of B-2 air and maintenance crews (“The Plane That Would Bomb Iran,” September Atlantic). Yet he is too sanguine about the implications of this weapon system. Does the B-2 deter “rogue” nations, or does it encourage them to seek less-conventional ways of striking at us—ways that do not provide readily identifiable targets? Alternatively, do the unique capabilities of the B‑2 and its virtual immunity to enemy countermeasures encourage our leaders to seek deceptively simple military solutions to complex geopolitical problems? Here one need only read Matthew Scully’s “Present at the Creation” piece in the same issue of The Atlantic to be reminded of the euphoria leading up to the May 2003 “Mission Accomplished” speech—those quiet sirens of Baghdad, that silent desert. Tragically, “quiet” Baghdad and the “silent” desert have never ceased being killing zones.

The fact that the grandson of Colonel Paul W. Tibbets Jr. is the current squadron commander of the 393rd may have more historical resonance than Kaplan is prepared to entertain. Piloting the Enola Gay, Tibbets essentially inaugurated “shock and awe” at Hiroshima in August 1945. Historians still debate whether the atomic bomb hastened the war’s end (I am inclined to think it did), but most agree that the sheer expense and technological enormity of the Manhattan Project, together with the cost of the B‑29 as its most logical delivery system (each effort cost over $2 billion in 1945 dollars), made it difficult in the extreme for Harry Truman to decide against using atomic bombs.

Will similar technological and cost imperatives encourage today’s leaders to use the B‑2 to awe the enemy, especially when they need risk only a handful of U.S. lives (and perhaps none, if the B‑2 strikes from a distance)? If we destroy an enemy’s weapons of mass destruction or persuade a rogue dictator to reform, all well and good. But for every Libya, there is an Afghanistan or an Iraq. Misguided use of the B‑2 and its dedicated crews may ultimately require more boots on the ground, not fewer.

William J. Astore
Lieutenant Colonel
U.S. Air Force (Ret.)
Williamsport, Pa.

In “The Plane That Would Bomb Iran,” Robert D. Kaplan reports that Air Force Captain Jim “Genghis” Price earned his call sign “by destroying a line of suspect buildings in Afghanistan with a ‘stick’ of 28 500-pound bombs, and then dropping cluster bombs on nearby cave entrances.” This tells us a lot about the way we are fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Five-hundred-pounders are big bombs: Dropping 28 of them from a plane flying 500 miles per hour at 30,000 feet will do a lot of damage over a very large area, and blanketing what’s left of the target with cluster bombs will make sure that there won’t be many survivors. I just hope that the bombs were on target, that the buildings were more than just “suspect,” and that some unsuspecting goatherds hadn’t wandered into the target area.

Cluster bombs are particularly lethal and unpredictable antipersonnel weapons. Packed in canisters containing as many as 600 bomblets (each about the size and shape of a softball), and designed to scatter over a wide area and explode upon impact, cluster bombs fail at such a high rate that large numbers of bomblets remain unexploded after the combatants have left. Innocent people, especially children, see these lethal devices and, out of curiosity, pick them up or kick them, with devastating results. They are such a threat to civilians that 46 nations have joined together to ban their manufacture, sale, and use. The United States, Britain, and Israel are not among the signatories. There is, however, legislation now before the U.S. Congress that would “ban the use of cluster munitions in or near civilian populated areas, as well as the use, sale, and transfer of cluster munitions with a failure rate of more than one percent.”

Norman Ewers
Colonel U.S. Marine Corps (Ret.)
Irvine, Calif.

In his piece on the B-2, Robert D. Kaplan writes that the B-52 made its debut during the Vietnam War. I believe that that formidable aircraft actually dates back to the mid-1950s.

Joe O’Connell
Gaithersburg, Md.

Robert D. Kaplan replies:

It is true that every conventional solution puts pressure on adversaries to attack us unconventionally. Assets like the B‑2, although enormously expensive, can solve a lot of problems within their aerial domain, but they are not a foolproof solution to all our challenges in war. I agree that we put too much emphasis on “shock and awe,” and have consequently neglected low-tech, asymmetric warfare—something I’ve written about in other articles. The Vietnam War, to my knowledge, was the first major conflict in which the B‑52 was used in a high-profile manner.

All the President’s Secrets

Graeme Wood doesn’t provide enough information to support his assertion that the Bush administration is “pathological” in classifying information (“Classify This,” September Atlantic). The graph that accompanies the article shows an increase in the number of documents classified under George W. Bush, but these figures are meaningless without the total number of documents produced. While 20.6 million documents classified in 2006 is numerically high, it may be a smaller percentage of documents produced than, say, the roughly 11 million classified under President Clinton in 2000.

Steve Wilent
Zigzag, Ore.

Graeme Wood replies:

It is possible, as Steve Wilent suggests, that the number of documents produced overall has kept pace with the absolute rise in classification actions during the current administration (in which case that number would need to have nearly doubled). But these data are only one sign of secrecy fetishism; others include instructions from the Department of Justice to fight Freedom of Information Act requests, the thwarting of the government’s own secrecy watchdog’s inspections, and the specious logic the administration employs to justify classification practices that likely jeopardize national security.

Blowing in the Wind

The item “The Fire Next Time” (Primary Sources, September Atlantic) shows diagrams of fallout plumes that could be produced by 550-kiloton nuclear attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. Your readers should be aware that the orientation and length of the plume that would result from a nuclear explosion would depend strongly on the direction and speed of the winds aloft at the height of the mushroom cloud that would contain the radioactive debris produced by the blast. Thus, the plumes shown in the diagrams could result after nuclear attacks on New York and Washington, but plumes of quite different orientations and lengths could result instead. Therefore, contrary to what the diagrams suggest, the fallout plumes might well not cover Long Island and Baltimore.

Sean Barnett
Annandale, Va.

Editors’ Note:

A 19th-century orator mentioned in Matthew Scully’s article “Present at the Creation” (September Atlantic) was incorrectly identified as Edward Everett Hale; he was Edward Everett. Joshua Hammer’s article “After Musharraf” (October Atlantic) incorrectly identified Richard Armitage as an assistant secretary of state; he is a former deputy secretary of state. We regret the errors.