Five Best Thursday Columns

Bill Keller on candidates' religion, Karl Rove on Boehner, and Frank Bruni on culinary elitism

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Bill Keller on asking candidates about religion  "When it comes to the religious beliefs of our would-be presidents, we are a little squeamish about probing too aggressively," writes The New York Times executive editor Bill Keller. When a debate moderator asked Michele Bachmann whether she would be submissive to her husband as the Bible instructs, the audience booed the question. But the presence of several GOP candidates with ties to churches that many Americans find confusing or off-putting should convince us to get over our squeamishness and ask the candidates respectfully about their views, Keller writes. Keller says he does not care if Mitt Romney believes "the stories of ancient American prophets were engraved on gold tablets and buried in upstate New York," though the religion seems bizarre to him. "But I do want to know if a candidate places fealty to the Bible, the Book of Mormon (the text, not the Broadway musical) or some other authority higher than the Constitution and laws of this country." Keller points out both Bachmann's and Rick Perry's ties to Dominionists, those who believe that only Christians should control earthly institutions. "Neither Bachmann nor Perry has, as far as I know, pledged allegiance to the Dominionists... But as we have seen with the Tea Party (another political movement Perry hopped aboard in its early days), the support of a constituent group doesn't come without strings. In any case, let's ask." Keller has submitted a questionnaire to each candidate with questions like "Would you have any hesitation about appointing a Muslim to the federal bench? What about an atheist?" He also asks candidates personally tailored questions probing their connections to people with more dangerous religious views. "We'll be posting the campaigns' answers--if any--on And if they don't answer, let's keep on asking," he writes.

Brian Fishman on avoiding the missteps of Afghanistan and Iraq in Libya  "Toppling a dictator is difficult; stabilizing a country and building a functional government is much harder," writes Brian Fishman in Foreign Policy. "The narrowness of Qaddafi's power base should not obscure the fact that there are losers in this revolution--enough of them to plunge Libya into a protracted insurgency if the postwar period isn't handled properly." The Libyans should look to past case studies from Algeria in the 1990s and Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s for lessons in what not to do, Fishman writes. First, they should keep foreign troops off the ground. The NATO forces have so far been strategic in aiding the rebels while staying mostly out of sight. A more visible presence could be a rallying cry for opponents of the new governing coalition. Second, Libya should keep soldiers and technical experts employed, Fishman prescribes. When the coalition put 250,000 Iraqi soldiers and police out of work in 2003, they "not only undermined one of the few national institutions in which Iraqis took great pride, but also immediately created a large cadre of disillusioned and reasonably well-trained young men primed for criminality and insurgency." Rank-and-file members of Qaddafi's organized forces should be welcomed into the new government. Third, Libyans should treat defeated leadership respectfully. When previously oppressed Afghanis tormented the Taliban, they helped create an insurgency that still "rages" today. Rather than focusing solely on the military, Libya should shore up a strong civilian police apparatus. The lack of one in Iraq and Afghanistan had dangerous consequences. Lastly, the international community should offer to buy back weapons so they do not get put in the wrong hands. "At a minimum, a program to purchase these weapons from Libyan factions will raise their market price." Above all, he writes, we must "treat the challenges in Libya with humility and respect. Broad principles from other conflicts are useful reminders of potential missteps, but they are not a blueprint for peaceful transition."

Jennifer Gordon on the failed J-1 visa program  The state department says the "J-1 visa Summer Work Study program" allows foreign students to work in the United States temporarily and is meant to promote "lasting and meaningful relationships." Last week, 300 J-1 visa holders went on strike at the Hershey's factory in Pennsylvania. "These engineering majors and future lawyers from places like Turkey, Moldova and China came hoping to travel and speak English, but spent the summer packing and lifting heavy pallets of Kit-Kats, often on overnight shifts and for meager pay," writes Jennifer Gordon in The New York Times. A program founded to generate goodwill during the Cold War has since evolved into the country's "largest guest worker program." Hershey's once employed union workers in its own factory but now outsources much of it to places that use the J-1 workers. These students are paid $8 an hour, "but after fees and deductions, including overpriced rent for crowded housing, they netted between $1 and $3.50 an hour." Other guest worker programs are regulated by the Departments of Labor and Homeland Security. The J-1 program is not and thus has much less oversight. "If the program continues, it should be reformed to explicitly incorporate worker protections, including the right to organize, and should be supervised by the Department of Labor," Gordon writes. Moreover, America should take this opportunity to reflect that to solve unemployment we need not just jobs, but jobs that pay living wages and treat workers with respect.

Karl Rove on John Boehner's surprising success  Speaker of the House John Boehner "has done more than any other [politician] to set the national agenda this year," writes Karl Rove, who reflects on the speaker's surprising successes in today's The Wall Street Journal. It began last December, when Republicans still in the minority shifted debate from "whether wealthier Americans should pay their 'fair share' to whether it is wise to raise taxes amid high joblessness and sluggish growth." They succeeded in getting Obama to sign a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts. "In February, the speaker and his new House majority cut Mr. Obama's planned 2011 budget by $61 billion and then, in April, slashed the government's spending authority by $38 billion." During the debt ceiling debate, Boehner rejected Obama's call for a clean debt ceiling raise and forced Obama to move almost entirely to the Republican position. "He has succeeded in large part because he had a more modest view of the post than his recent predecessors," Rove writes. Unlike Democrats, who concentrated power amid the leaders, he has allowed congressional committees to do more of "the House's work." By including members, he succeeds at persuading them rather than threatening or bribing them. "So Washington's agenda this fall will reflect the priorities not of the glitzy Mr. Obama but of the modest, well-grounded Mr. Boehner." In the up-coming session, he will continue to force spending cuts. "Time and again this year, the 61st speaker of the House has out-thought, out-negotiated and outmaneuvered America's 44th president. And Mr. Obama, frustrated and increasingly unsteady, is losing his cool," Rove writes.

Frank Bruni on foodie culture wars  Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain recently turned his acid tongue on Paula Deen, "the deep-fried doyenne of a fatty, buttery subgenre of putatively Southern cooking," writes Frank Bruni in The New York Times. "Bourdain, in an interview with TV Guide published last week, branded her an outright menace to America, scolding her for 'telling an already obese nation that it's O.K. to eat food that is killing us.'" Bruni isn't a fan of Deen's food, but neither is he a fan of Bourdain's elitism, and he applauds Deen for her savvy response: "My friends and I cook for regular families who worry about feeding their kids and paying the bills." Deen actually makes too much money to position herself as a cook of the people, Bruni points out, but her response does get at real class divisions and snobbery in the food world. Deen's show isn't the reason America is obese, Bruni writes. "A great deal of American obesity is attributable to the dearth of healthy food that's affordable and convenient in low- and even middle-income neighborhoods, and changing that requires a magnitude of public intervention and private munificence that are unlikely in such pinched times." But in fact, even those who can afford to eat organic come off as hypocrites in this debate. "When Deen fries a chicken, many of us balk. When the Manhattan chefs David Chang or Andrew Carmellini do, we grovel for reservations and swoon over the homey exhilaration of it all." Deen represents a "down-home" movement of food also championed by the likes of Rachel Ray and Food Network Magazine. And while Bruni prefers watching Bourdain's show to Deen's, he recognizes this is his privelege. "Treating Deen, Lee & Co. with anything that smacks of moralizing and snobbery isn't likely to move them or their audience toward healthier eating. It's apt to cook up resentment," Bruni concludes. "And we've got enough ill will and polarization in our politics. Let's not set a place for them at the table."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.