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The current issue of The New York Review of Books (LIV 4) is particularly rich in interest, for me anyway. There's Jeremy Waldron on Hannah Arendt, Joyce Carol Oates on Joan Acocella, and Alison Lurie on Alain de Botton. Jason Epstein writes about the nuclear nightmare, and Bill McKibben turns up the heat on global warming. Pieces by Peter Galbraith and Michael Tomasky are indispensably timely. Mr Galbraith writes about the Surge; Mr Tomasky, the Democrats. It's hard to decide which is the worse muddle.
At the moment, I've got my chips on John Edwards for the Democratic presidential nomination, almost wholly because I think that turning toward populism is the only way for the Democrats to loosen the Republicans' grip on "ordinary Americans." Barack Obama is too green. His candidacy is premature, and the sooner he retires the better. As for Hillary Rodham Clinton, I regard her as ultimately unelectable. Lots of people like her, but few love her, and many hate her. It's not the woman herself, it's her helpless embodiment of elite life. Her career alienates her from the experience of most women and repels or frightens most men. She's doing a great job where she is, representing New York State in the Senate, and she would make an excellent Supreme Court Justice. There you have my outlook in a nutshell. A nutshell's all I've got. The idea of thinking about the election at this remove is enervating.
But I read Michael Tomasky's "The Democrats" with great interest. There are no surprises, but everything is laid out neatly, all in the course of reviewing seven recent books that I can't imagine anyone but policy wonks and political operatives buying. With titles like Thomas F Schaller's Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South, they sound like think-tank reports. Having read them, what is one supposed to do if one is a private citizen.
Political action is inherently unstable. Everyone has his own opinion, but all must hold together in order to make anything happen. Powerful people are disproportionally over-represented. But there ought to be more of it on the neighborhood level. There ought to be a local political club for almost everybody (the New Yorker in me talking - it could happen here, but probably not anywhere else). Single-sex organizations ought to be discouraged, at least for men; we don't need more political packs. I'm not talking about town meetings, either. I'm talking about rooms that can accommodate a number of flexible conversations. People would feel engaged in the political process - the clubs could issue statements from time to time, and band together with other clubs to present positions to elected officials. And everyone would be a lot more knowledgeable about what the hell's going on.
If that sounds utopian, it's also, unfortunately, a picture of the Democratic congress.
Maybe that's about to change. The book that gets the most attention from Mr Tomasky is Senator Charles Schumer's Positively American: Winning Back the Middle-Class Majority One Family at a Time (written as "Chuck Schumer," with Daniel Squadron).
I've dwelled on Schumer's book because he is a very powerful man now. He's part of the Democratic Senate leadership, and he's helped elect six freshman senators who are all to one degree or another in his debt, with more like them on the way. He is at the center of the highest-level Democratic debates about strategy and policy, and we know that the Democrats will listen to him.
Senator Schumer may lead the Senate, but Mr Tomasky goes on to fault the senator for being deficient as a leader of voters. Maybe this isn't the moment for genuine leadership, though. We have to restore competence first, and actually meet the challenge of a few domestic programs. I recognize that global warming is a grave problem that will require much thought and some sacrifice (better than little thought and lots of sacrifice), my feeling is that if it's an emergency, we're already too late.
Peter W Galbraith is the author of the recent The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End, and "The Surge," is studded with freshly-presented details that highlight the hopelessness of our Iraqi misadventure. I didn't know this about Lieutenant General David Petraeus, but maybe you did:
Petraeus, on whom so much now rests, served two previous tours in Iraq. As the American commander in Mosul in 2003 and 2004, he earned adulatory press coverage - including a Newsweek cover story captioned "Can This Man Save Iraq?" - for taming the Sunni-majority city. Petraeus ignored warnings from Ameerica's Kurdish allies that he was appointing the wrong people to key positions in Mosul's local government and police. A few months after he left the city, the Petraeus-appointed local police commander defected to the insurgency while the Sunni Arab police handed their weapons over en mass to the insurgents. Neither this episode nor the evident failure of the training programs for the Iraqi army and police which he ran in his next assignment seemed to have damaged the general's reputation.
Now, before you write to advise me that I'm wrong about the "current issue" of The New York Review, let me tell you that I just brought it up from the mailbox. We'll get to it later.
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