Wednesday, November 09, 2005


The Times finally gets it. No soft pedaling, no equivocations. Today’s lead editorial on the Bush presidency was a belated shock of directness and conviction. Maybe the Times is discovering that compulsive moderation isn’t the right antidote to the reactionaries in conservative garb. Maybe the Times is sensing a shift in moods. Maybe it knew the outcome of the Virginia gubernatorial race ahead of time (a Democrat pulled it off, against odds). You’d think the late great John Oakes was back at the editorial helm, from where he was summarily fired in 1977 (in that Times way of not quite firing those it wants pastured) after fifteen years on the job, along with most of his editorial board, when Punch Sulzberger decreed him too shrill for the times, and the Times. “John was staying liberal and I was getting older, growing more conservative,” Sulzberger says in The Trust, the 2000 biography of the Times. “We just drifted apart.” Actually, the Times didn’t want to drift too far from the levers of power. The country was moving right. Instead of standing in its way, the Times moved right with it. Oakes was out. The likes of A.M. Rosenthal were in. Oakes was nevertheless granted the occasional op-ed, which became my favorite but too-rare surprises on those morning commutes on the Number 7 train. Here’s one, headlined “The Reagan Hoax,” from November 1, 1981:

Ronald Reagan is proving every day that his bite is worse than his bark.

His warm and casual style mesmerizes voters who still don't realize what hit them last January. What hit them was a harshly reactionary revolution that in no way fits the endearing image of ''nice guy'' Ronald Reagan. While a bemused public and a leaderless Congress look on, foreign and domestic policies that are classic throwbacks to Hoover, Harding, and McKinley are now being locked into place - with a dash of secretive, imperious Nixonism tossed in.

President Reagan has substituted a mindless militarism for a foreign policy, rattling arms from El Salvador to Saudi Arabia, frightening our friends from Japan to West Germany. He proposes a 50 percent increase in ''defense expenditures.'' Much of it will be dissipated in the self-defeating spiral of an open-ended nuclear-arms race that poses a greater threat to our own internal and external security than all the Communist propaganda that ever emanated from Moscow. Already, the cost of Reagan policies is devastating to our country in economic strength, in diplomatic influence, in national security, in moral stature.

On the domestic front, needed budget-cutting has devolved into shameful budget-gutting. It affects the health, the safety, and the well-being of every American. Combined with skewed tax reductions favoring the rich, it has turned the war against poverty into a war against the poor. It is altering the relationship of government to the people and of the people to each other. Behind Ronald's Reagan's disarming smile, the ethical role of American democracy as balancer of conflicting forces is being coolly subverted. But somehow Mr. Reagan is not held responsible.

And so on. If the Times hadn’t so idiotically gone “select,” I’d have linked to the full article. But for lack of Oakes, here’s today’s full editorial. It’s worth the completeness. Finally:

President Bush's Walkabout

After President Bush's disastrous visit to Latin America, it's unnerving to realize that his presidency still has more than three years to run. An administration with no agenda and no competence would be hard enough to live with on the domestic front. But the rest of the world simply can't afford an American government this bad for that long.

In Argentina, Mr. Bush, who prides himself on his ability to relate to world leaders face to face, could barely summon the energy to chat with the 33 other leaders there, almost all of whom would be considered friendly to the United States under normal circumstances. He and his delegation failed to get even a minimally face-saving outcome at the collapsed trade talks and allowed a loudmouthed opportunist like the president of Venezuela to steal the show.

It's amazing to remember that when Mr. Bush first ran for president, he bragged about his understanding of Latin America, his ability to speak Spanish and his friendship with Mexico. But he also made fun of Al Gore for believing that nation-building was a job for the United States military.

The White House is in an uproar over the future of Karl Rove, the president's political adviser, and spinning off rumors that some top cabinet members may be asked to walk the plank. Mr. Bush could certainly afford to replace some of his top advisers. But the central problem is not Karl Rove or Treasury Secretary John Snow or even Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary. It is President Bush himself.

Second terms may be difficult, but the chief executive still has the power to shape what happens. Ronald Reagan managed to turn his messy second term around and deliver - in great part through his own powers of leadership - a historic series of agreements with Mikhail Gorbachev that led to the peaceful dismantling of the Soviet empire. Mr. Bush has never demonstrated the capacity for such a comeback. Nevertheless, every American has a stake in hoping that he can surprise us.

The place to begin is with Dick Cheney, the dark force behind many of the administration's most disastrous policies, like the Iraq invasion and the stubborn resistance to energy conservation. Right now, the vice president is devoting himself to beating back Congressional legislation that would prohibit the torture of prisoners. This is truly a remarkable set of priorities: his former chief aide was indicted, Mr. Cheney's back is against the wall, and he's declared war on the Geneva Conventions.

Mr. Bush cannot fire Mr. Cheney, but he could do what other presidents have done to vice presidents: keep him too busy attending funerals and acting as the chairman of studies to do more harm. Mr. Bush would still have to turn his administration around, but it would at least send a signal to the nation and the world that he was in charge, and the next three years might not be as dreadful as they threaten to be right now.