You're Doing It Wrong, David Mamet: How to Be a Political Apostate

It's not unusual for people's views to transform, but the playwright's Newsweek cover shows he could learn a lot from a late nuclear negotiator.


Political evolutions are commonplace. The liberal college student becomes a conservative adult. The conservative adult grows more liberal on gay rights. The French orator Francois Guizot said of the anti-monarchists of his day, "Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head." It's a quote that's been reworked a gazillion times since. It's one dear to the heart of neoconservatives many of whom began as devotees of Trotsky and ended up embracing Reagan.

There are conversions that we may not like -- Arianna Huffington from right to left or Norman Podhoretz from left to right -- but which are considered and understandable. And then there are conversions that seem harder to fathom. See the cover of Newsweek where the much lauded playwright, author, and producer David Mamet challenges gun control.

There are any number of coherent, intellectual, and constitutional arguments to be made against the president's proposals to limit magazine size and ban certain types of weapons as well as to expand the background-check program. Mamet foregoes any reasonable argument for a piece that likens Obama to Marx and his proposals to totalitarianism. "For it is, again, only the Marxists who assert that the government, which is to say the busy, corrupted, and hypocritical fools most elected officials are (have you ever had lunch with one?) should regulate gun ownership based on its assessment of needs." Apparently the Marxists now include Joe Scarborough and Joe Manchin, if not Reagan and the Bushes.

Anyone who's listened to Michael Savage, the talk radio host, is familiar with the zealotry of the convert. His Savage Nation program is among the most popular in the conservative talk-show firmament and his conversion from San Francisco liberal to conservative provocateur is well known to his listeners. His incendiary rhetoric, though, has led even conservative broadcasters to distance themselves from him. Fox News contributor Bernard Goldman cited him as one of the "people who are screwing up America." He's been lambasted for remarks about gays, Muslims and even autism: "Now, the illness du jour is autism. You know what autism is? I'll tell you what autism is. In 99 percent of the cases, it's a brat who hasn't been told to cut the act out. That's what autism is. What do you mean they scream and they're silent? They don't have a father around to tell them, " 'Don't act like a moron. You'll get nowhere in life. Stop acting like a putz. Straighten up. Act like a man. Don't sit there crying and screaming, idiot.'" Savage has a Ph.D. in nutritional ethnomedicine so he should know.

I couldn't help think of Savage and Mamet when I read that Max Kampelman died this week at 92. If you were involved in politics and policy in Washington in the last quarter of the 20th century you've probably heard of Kampelman. Otherwise, it's less likely. Born to Jewish immigrant parents, he was a longtime aide to Hubert Humphrey during the 1940s, 50s and 60s. An accomplished attorney whose name was on the smoked glass at the great firm Fried, Frank, he was asked by Jimmy Carter to be lead the talks to bring the Soviet Union and some of its satellites into compliance with the Helsinki human rights accords. This seems almost quaint now but the talks in Madrid, where he led the American delegation, were an important diplomatic forum for confronting the Soviets, one of the major avenues for cataloguing and confronting their abuse of liberty. Like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Kampelman was an eloquent and fearless voice for human rights.

President Reagan asked Kampelman to lead arms control talks with the Soviets that led to the START agreements cutting nuclear weapons. In his later years, he was a staple of international affairs and human rights organizations like Freedom House and the U.S. Institute of Peace, a lawyer diplomat of the likes of John J. McCloy or James Baker. He was a hawk with ties to neoconservative groups like the Committee on the Present Danger but he was a flexible one, willing to adapt to changing times. In 2007, he joined Sam Nunn and George Shultz in their efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons. His tone was civil and courtly. Richard Sauber, once a partner at Fried Frank and and who Kampelman tapped to offer legal advice to Freedom House remembers one particularly heated board meeting where Kampelman had the patience of Job. "The board was filled with a who's who of foreign policy, and Max was like an adult among children: the most reasonable person with exquisite judgment." (For the record, Sauber is my attorney, too.)

The interesting thing about Kampelman that relates to Mamet and Savage is that he had a political conversion. He began as a conscientious objector, so much so that he had a deferment not during Vietnam or Korea but during World War II -- the Good War, the one that helped save the Jewish people from extermination. As part of his "CO" status, he went to the University of Minnesota where he participated in tests where he was voluntarily subjected to near starvation. And it's in Minnesota where he found a job with Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey that Kampelman's pacifism faded and he came to see the merits of a strong defense -- a position that echoed that of Humphrey himself and the Democrats of a bygone era like the late Henry "Scoop" Jackson, the senator from Washington and leading voice for what was called guns and butter.

Presidents of both parties understood Kampelman's greatness. Carter brought him in and Reagan kept him even though Kampelman had helped the 1984 Mondale campaign. Bill Clinton gave Kampelman the presidential medal of freedom even though he was Reagan's negotiator. They saw in him a steady hand and a reasonable mind. For the rest, of us he's a role model on how to manage our own political evolutions. Evolving from pacifist to hawk is about as big a pendulum swing as can be imagined but Kampelman did it in a way that made him beloved. See a bipartisan tribute to him here when he was awarded the 2008 Democracy Service Medal by the National Endowment for Democracy.