Letters to the editor

Office of the President

“The Founders’ Great Mistake” (January/February Atlantic) was, according to Garrett Epps, the design of the office of the president. In particular, Epps cites the inconvenience of the long lag between Election Day and Inauguration Day and, even more important, the difficulties in ending the tenure of a president who has lost the confidence of the voters. He notes that parliamentary systems do not suffer the long interregnum, but he does not mention that parliamentary systems can end the tenure of a renegade prime minister quite quickly through a vote of no confidence. Nor does he mention that parliamentary systems have a distinct advantage in keeping the functions of the head of state and the head of government separate. Combining both functions in a single person, as in the U.S., is another oft-cited dubious feature of the office of the president.

Isn’t it worth discussing the option of adopting a parliamentary system for the U.S.?

Robert W. Raynsford, Ph.D.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army (ret.)
Washington, D.C.

Readers responding to Garrett Epps’s January/February article on amending the presidency proposed a number of additional ways to check presidential power:

• Hold a Constitutional Convention open to the public.

• Grant a presidential line-item veto.

• Require the president to defend his policies in open public debate.

• Elect Cabinet members.

• Allow for a vote of no confidence.

• Amend the American people.

Garrett Epps makes important and interesting points about the inadequacies of the Constitution’s setup of the presidency, and persuasively argues that reform is necessary. On the issue of President Bush, however, it seems to me Epps gives Congress too light a treatment. Certainly by 2006, it was clear that we had what he calls a “runaway president,” and that Congress was specifically elected to rein him in. It failed to do so on issue after issue, despite its appropriations power. In this case, the Constitution provided more than enough ammunition for Congress to step in, but the legislature repeatedly backed down from the president’s games of chicken.

The specter of President Clinton’s victory over a truculent Congress in the mid-’90s may have scared legislators, except this time most of the country was hoping that Congress would, indeed, stop a man run wild. The failure to do so was theirs, not the Constitution’s or the Founding Fathers’.

Gidon Rothstein
Bronx, N.Y.

Garrett Epps offers a provocative argument. Still, while it is probably true that the executive branch received relatively little attention at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, the potentially monarchical character of the presidency got a great deal of attention and criticism in the wider public debate on the Constitution, notably in the writings of those known as the Anti-Federalists. Further, Epps overemphasizes the role of Alexander Hamilton in establishing an authoritative executive. Hamilton did make a forceful and influential case for implied powers, but in application the concept of implied powers did more to strengthen Congress relative to the states than to strengthen the president relative to Congress. Finally, the emergence of what Arthur Schlesinger called “the imperial presidency” was less a matter of constitutional design than of historical pressure. Specifically, two world wars and a Cold War and the development of the United States as an activist state at home and a global empire abroad pushed power toward a single decisive center.

That so many Americans now look to Barack Obama, not Congress, to save us from the consequences of George Bush’s bad decisions suggests that the imperial presidency may be here to stay.

Professor Carl L. Bankston III
Tulane University
New Orleans, La.

Identity Crisis

Hua Hsu’s “The End of White America” (January/February Atlantic) is an entertaining essay on an important topic but gets the fundamental story upside down in claiming that “the culture is being remade in the image of white America’s multiethnic, multicolored heirs.” Hsu gets it wrong by focusing on cultural froth, like music, food, and clothes. The real story, at the deeper level, is how much and how quickly the children of immigrants from many continents come to adopt WASP culture—the Indian American who marries out of love, the Asian American who shucks modesty in pursuit of personal success, the Mexican American who finds Protestantism’s path more fulfilling than her mother’s village Catholicism, and so on—like the Irish, Italians, and Jews before them. (African American descendants of slaves have been deeply American for generations.) The WASP culture that matters is not the culture of golf shoes and Lawrence Welk; it’s the culture of personal expression and personal salvation, material achievement, voluntarism in social matters, and egalitarianism. It’s roughly what Tocqueville described in 1836. And it doesn’t matter whether this deeper culture is expressed in first-generation Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” or a hip-hopper’s rap version of the same message.

Claude S. Fischer
Berkeley, Calif.

Hua Hsu hits on a number of important issues, but I believe that he overstates the plight of white America.

While sociologists like Matt Wray bemoan the lack of “white culture,” I look at white America and see only further strength. Minority groups have to look inward to find their “culture” because they need to define themselves in some way. White Americans have a much easier time. The white American narrative is interwoven with the American narrative as a whole. White culture is America.

As an Indian American who attended an effete private boarding school, I have learned that to achieve a level of cultural assimilation that enables a minority to move up the ladders in society, one has to embrace the “Stuff White People Like.” The peacoats, polos, Frisbee sports, and Arrested Development DVDs might seem like trivial favorites of the white elite, but they represent certain gateways that minorities have to navigate. My friends joke that I’m as white as they are, because I’ve essentially sold out to adhere to their cultural norms. But what choice does a student like myself have under these circumstances? There may be no “white culture,” but white people still dictate our societal norms. To become a cultural elite in America, one has to whiten him- or herself.

Ryan Karerat
Clinton, N.Y.

Hua Hsu replies:

I agree with Claude Fischer’s most basic assumption that there are deeper narratives and value systems, often unnoticed, that determine our entry into and relationship with American culture. And I agree that even the most progressive expressions of American identity still invoke the logic of assimilation (though I find Fischer’s classification of group characteristics rather rigid—perhaps this makes me an “immodest” Asian American).

Even if the “deeper culture” still maintains values like individualism or egalitarianism—values that aren’t exclusively the property of the Anglo-Saxon world—I believe that the circulation of new images and ideas is still significant. It certainly feels that way for those young enough to appreciate the effects of something as fluid and formally radical as hip-hop. Now, whether P. Diddy, the choose-your-own-identity quality of Facebook, Dora the Explorer, or Burning Man will result in discernible political change or a broader, spiritual realignment remains to be seen. But as we witnessed this past year, “froth” matters—it creates the conditions for change.

I agree, too, with Ryan Karerat’s ultimate assertion that it is too soon to pronounce America “post-white.” He offers a stirring personal example of the pressures of assimilation at this strange moment, when there are still expressions of mainstream “whiteness” but “whiteness” itself has no discernible core. I am reminded of the commentary about Barack Obama’s skill (and, more important, success) at “playing white.” I am somewhat hopeful about all of this: the logic of race and identity we’ve inherited no longer seems adequate. It is up to those who care about and are affected by this change to discover a new language and seek out new ideas befitting this moment.

In Defense of Print

Michael Hirschorn’s article “End Times” (January/February Atlantic), which speculates whether The New York Times can survive the death of journalism, leaves a lot to be desired.

The article refers to the paper’s credit crisis. We disagree with that characterization. Here’s our situation.

We have two revolving-credit agreements with banks that allow us to borrow up to $400 million under each agreement, or $800 million in total, whenever we need it. One of our agreements will expire in May 2009 and the other in June 2011. As we have said publicly on more than one occasion, because we believe we need significantly less than the total $800 million available credit, we do not plan to replace the full $400 million that is expiring in May. We have not already borrowed money against our building’s value, as the article states. Rather, we are in the process of pursuing a sale-leaseback for up to $225 million for some of the space we own in our headquarters building. While credit markets remain tight, we have been talking with lenders and, based on our conversations with them, we expect to get the financing to meet our obligations when they come due. And please remember, we continue to generate good cash flow from our operations.

With regard to the specific point made about the demise of the print edition of The Times in May, we have 830,000 loyal readers who have subscribed to The New York Times for more than two years, a number that has increased by about a third over the past decade.

Catherine Mathis
Senior Vice President, Corporate Communications
The New York Times Company

It seemed an all-too-facile argument to conclude that the demise of The New York Times—and, let’s just say it, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post—would not be a disaster. Michael Hirschorn points out that such a development would be a boon to the expanding Huffington Post and imitators to come, as well as “independent operators” like columnists Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman. HuffPo may be expanding, but one has to wonder if its business model now or in the foreseeable future will ever provide the resources, and develop and hold the talent, that have distinguished the best of American journalism for generations. As for the “independent operators,” lost in the analysis is the contribution of the backfield team of editors and design professionals who have had a critical and often unacknowledged stake in the careers of these “branded” news voices.

Larry O’Connor
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Michael Hirschorn replies:

The analysis in my column was based on the New York Times Company’s public statements. Catherine Mathis is correct that the Times Company was discussing, but had not yet begun, borrowing against the value of its Times Square headquarters when I wrote my article. Since then, however, The Times itself reported that the Times Company was close to a sale/lease arrangement with the investment firm W. P. Carey & Company that would amount to the same thing. I clearly jumped the gun. The information about revolving-credit agreements that Mathis refers to was announced on December 9—as it happens, the day my column went to press.

Given the subject matter, I will happily grant that this is, if nothing else, densely ironic. And I will also grant that these recently announced conditions may slow down the doomsday clock. However, numbers released by the New York Times Company since the piece went to press do not inspire confidence in the paper’s long-term prospects. Advertising revenues dropped 17.6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008 compared with the same period in 2007, and total revenues in Q4 were down 10 percent, though the paper continued to show a small profit overall. In addition to the likely sale/lease deal, the company has sought cash injections elsewhere, as my column suggested it would. The Times Company has started looking for a buyer of its stake in the Boston Red Sox and has effectively borrowed $250 million at the outrageous interest rate of 14 percent from the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. These moves will delay the day of reckoning, but they have the feel of burning the furniture to heat the building. And given the steepening decline of the overall economy, and broader shifts brought on by digital media, there is little reason to believe this pressure will end anytime soon. At some point, unless the Times Company moves very quickly, it will run out of furniture.

A Source of Hope

Christopher Hitchens may find “null emptiness” in the phrase audacity of hope (“Cool Cat,” January/February Atlantic). I had a different reaction to those words when I recently read them in a chapter from a wonderful book first published in 1962, titled Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America, by Lerone Bennett Jr.

Bennett wrote a moving passage:

The slaves ... transcended their environment, creating a new structure of meaning and putting their oppressors and the world in their debt. And no one can read the record of that transcendence without a sense of awe at the audacity of the slaves’ hope.

Perhaps in this way, it is easier to place those words into a meaningful context.

William Morton
Westford, Mass.