Archive for the ‘America’ Category

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In which Joe Hockey loves it when you call him Big Poppa

November 28, 2009

At the HeraldPeter Hartcher looks at Joe Hockey’s probable rise to the Liberal leadership next week:

If Joe Hockey wants to be the next leader of the Liberal Party the job is his – for a price. It’s very expensive. He will spend this weekend agonising over whether he wants to pay it.

It has three instalments. First, he has to be prepared to sacrifice his family life. This is standard for any political leader, but Hockey’s circumstances are particularly delicate.

He has three children under the age of five, one of them a newborn. Xavier is 4, Adelaide 2, and the new arrival, Ignatius, is just five weeks old.

And Hockey’s wife, Melissa Babbage, is committed to a demanding job of her own. As the head of foreign exchange trading at Deutsche Bank in Sydney, she is responsible for an $800-million-a-year business.

It’s not an ideal moment to move to an all-consuming, travel-heavy, sleep-destroying job with towering expectations and minimal resources.

That this is a consideration at all for a male politician is a small but fairly significant step. In the old days, it would have been a no-brainer for Hockey to place his career over his family and take the top job. (Disregarding the other factors Hartcher mentions: that it would require sacrificing his support for an ETS, and place him in the leadership at a time he’s unlikely to succeed.) A man in Hockey’s position would once have assumed he could leave the child-raising to his wife, while he got on with the serious man-business of politics.

It’s to Hockey’s credit that he considers the business of raising his family to be, at least in part, his responsibility, and that he’s willing to share the burden of doing so with his partner, Melissa Babbage. The challenge women face of balancing a career and a family can’t be easy for Babbage, particularly considering the size of her career and the size and youth of her family. That challenge is eased if it’s a challenge that belongs to her husband as well. That Australia appears to accept this is a reasonable consideration for a prospective leader to make is an undoubted good thing.

Of course, I suspect Hockey would have an easier time deciding to go for the leadership than if the roles were reversed and Babbage was weighing whether to sacrifice her family life for her career, she would have a slightly tougher time convincing the public that this was OK. Though we should be, I’m not sure we would be as comfortable with a mother of young children tilting at the leadership as we are with a father in the same position.

Then again, perhaps not. In the 2008 U.S. Presidential election, Sarah Palin ran for Vice-President with five children, including a new-born. Despite all manner of other criticism directed at her, there was a little in the way of discussion as to whether it was appropriate for her to take on a position of such responsibility while acting as mother to a large family. And nor should there have been; as with Hockey, that was a decision for her and her partner.

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In which we understand why words mean so much to you; they’ll never be about you

November 28, 2009

There was an op-ed in the Sydney Morning Herald Thursday. It wasn’t by a Herald writer; it was sourced from the L.A. Times. Whatever — I sure would have preferred to have seen an Australian writer get the space, but I’m not a protectionist when it comes to other things, so I sure shouldn’t be when it comes to my own industry. Evidently the editor thought the Herald’s readers would enjoy this piece.

It wasn’t that great a piece; just some woman called Amy Alkon making the perfectly fine argument that kicking an excessively disruptive child off a plane is a good idea, then using it as a battering ram to say all kinds of preposterous things. You know, opinion journalism. But I’ll show you the quotes that interested me.

Unbelievably, Root demanded the apology she eventually got from the airline (shame, shame) and hit it up for the cost of nappies and the portable cot she says she had to buy for the overnight stay.

Except Alkon didn’t say “nappies.” She’s American! It says as much right at the bottom of the op-ed! And sure enough, the original article used the word “diapers.” It also described a “portable crib,” not a “cot,” an edit I find astonishing, because I had no idea “crib” was an Americanism us Australians must be prevented from seeing for the sake of our national dignity*.

Likewise, in the Herald, Alkon is printed referring to the “Mummy Mafia,” when, of course, she wrote “Mommy Mafia.” This is an even more egregious edit; a “mummy” is quite different to a “mommy.” The images conjured up are entirely different and the notion that a mafia of one kind is identical to a mafia of the other kind makes me want to give these copy-editors nap-time with the fishes. Let me make it clear: Australians have mums. Americans have moms. American moms should be “moms,” even if an Australian is referring to them, and vice-versa. Would we really call Carmela Soprano or Marge Simpson or Peggy Bundy a “mum”? Should an American really think of Maggie Beare or Kath Day-Knight or Sal Kerrigan as “moms”? It’s preposterous!

It is time we all learned to accept that those of us around the Anglosphere speak different kinds of English. Unless that kind of English causes problems with comprehension (and sometimes even then; American publishers should not change “jumper” to “sweater”) we should retain the writer’s original voice. If the Herald thinks a woman in Los Angeles is worth publishing, it shouldn’t patronise its readers by assuming their precious cultural sensitivities will be shocked if they read that woman communicating in her natural voice.

*Come to think of it, “cot” sounds like a Britishism we should have jettisoned along with the Monarchy when we became an independent nation.

Cross-posted at my Tumblr

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Welcome to the future: Americans gear up to get super-freaky on climate change

October 20, 2009

Of late, Americans visiting Australia might feel like they’ve stepped into the near future, at least politically. Not only did Kevin Rudd’s 2007 election seem like a dress rehearsal of sorts for Barack Obama’s extravaganza in the following year, we can now be assured the current debate gripping our government will soon hit the United States Congress. Yes, forget health care; soon enough the number one issue in the States will be climate change, and what to do about it.

Of course, the U.S. is a different nation to Australia, and its climate change debate will not look the same as ours. The USSC’s CEO Geoff Garrett, for instance, discussed some of the differences in the policy in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald:

First, [Democrat Senator John Kerry and Republican Senator Lindsay Graham] advocate carbon tariffs, imposing financial penalties on products from countries that do not accept binding cuts to their emissions – to make them less competitive against local products  …

Second, Kerry and Graham emphasised that “nuclear power needs to be a core component of electricity generation if we are to meet our emission reduction targets”.

Finally, they said while the US needed to go to Copenhagen with a broad framework to help forge a global consensus, completed American legislation was neither likely nor essential. American bargaining power might in fact be increased by not committing domestically in advance.

As well as pursuing different policies, the U.S. has a different political environment to Australia, and that will affect any bid to pass a bill aimed at curbing American emissions. For a start, the Constitutional requirement that the U.S. Senate ratify any treaties the President negotiates makes any negotiations with other countries a far more precarious prospect, and it is understandable that Kerry and Graham would prefer to send Barack Obama to Copenhagen with a broad framework rather than an inviolable set of rules. America has a lot of clout, but its power is not absolute, and Obama is most likely to get results if he can show world leaders that any agreement they negotiate with him is consistent with the U.S. Senate’s desires – and will therefore be ratified by the United States.

And when the actual debate gets going, any coalition in support of a bill will have to be bipartisan, and will be contested by members of both parties. Here in Australia, we have the unusual situation whereby the majority of our Senate would like to pass a bill controlling emissions — Labor is united on the issue, and some Liberal moderates, including the party’s leader, Malcolm Turnbull, are convinced climate change is real, man made and must be stopped — but the Opposition is compelled to oppose the legislation to mollify its conservative wing and maintain party unity. In the States, however, the ruling Democrats will not act as one, as Labor has, and many Democrats, especially those representing industry-heavy Midwestern states, will have no interest whatsoever in curbing emissions. As with health care reform, the Democrats must convince some Republicans to join them in support of any legislation, but unlike health care, they’ll need more than one or two. The Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein put it like this last week: “This coalition will have to be more like the coalition that passed the Civil Rights Act, when Northern Republicans provided the majority with the votes that the Southern Democrats attempted to withhold.”

And over the past few days, we’ve had a taste of the likely character of the debate over U.S. efforts to reduce emissions. The American blogosphere has recently erupted in a storm of chatter about the new book from journalist Stephen J. Dubner and University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt. Dubner and Levitt write the Freakonomics blog at the New York Times and their new book,Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance goes on sale today. Freakonomics aims to use economics to “expose the hidden side to everything” – their first book had a chapter explaining why the average drug dealer was more like a McDonalds employee than a Scarface-esque high roller for instance – and the new book contains a chapter on climate change.

Klein, the Post blogger, describes Freakonomics as “prefer[ring] an interesting story to an accurate one,” and Dubner and Levitt indeed encounter problems when they eschew truth for intrigue in their take on climate change. They say that the real way to combat rising temperatures is not to reduce pollution, as is currently the strategy favoured around the globe, but to instead cool the earth down by pumping sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere. Their view has been criticised on a scientificeconomic, and journalistic basis (Dubner and Levitt allegedly misrepresented an expert’s views, and, more comically, failed to check what colour are solar panels). Paul Krugman at the Times scolds them on all three counts. Dubner defends the ethics of the book vehemently, though he has had little to say thus far about the purported errors in science and economics.

So what, can we take from this? Malcolm Turnbull may be heartened to see Dubner and Levitt use Australia as an example of a country that would gain no benefit from acting to reduce emissions before other nations do, and all Australians may nod ruefully at the book’s acknowledgement Americans would be unlikely to adopt environmentally-friendly kangaroo meat in lieu of methane-emitting cattle, but the real lesson from this is just how virulent the debate over emissions trading legislation will be in the U.S.

Though Dubner and Levitt write far too sceptically about man-made global warming for a pair that says their book supports fighting climate change, they are hardly hardcore deniers of the Stephen Fielding or Wilson Tuckey mould. Instead, for the sake of an attention-grabbing book chapter, they’ve engaged in some sloppy scholarship. But if mere sloppiness could result in this level of misinformation and prompt this much furore, imagine what it will be like once the debate expands to folks actually opposed to doing anything at all. The tumultuous days of Tea Parties and Town Hall Meetings aren’t over yet.

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In which America’s billionaire tyrant ruins journalism with his Australianity.

October 20, 2009

Or not.

In the midst of a perfectly reasonable article, Jacob Weisberg drops this inflammatory, obnoxious and ignorant bomb:

What’s most distinctive about the American press is not its freedom but its tradition of independence—that it serves the public interest rather than those of parties, persuasions, or pressure groups. Media independence is a 20th-century innovation that has never fully taken root in Europe or many other countries that do have free press. The Australian-British-continental model of politicized media that Murdoch has implemented at Fox is un-American, so much so that he has little choice but go on denying what he’s doing as he does it.

I know Americans would like to blame some other land for the ills caused by American (not Australian) citizen Rupert Murdoch, but this exercise in contrasting media landscapes is glib and fails to take proper account of cultural nuance.

As Weisberg elliptically acknowledges in the same article (he refers to the “”tea parties” that Fox covered the way the Hearst press covered the Spanish-American war” — an allusion to the politically-influential press barons of the 19th century American media) bias in the American media is hardly new; it was indeed a 20th Century innovation that made American news more oriented toward the public interest.

While I can’t, and have no interest in, speaking for the British press, Australian newspapers have a strong independent and public service-inclined streak that shouldn’t be dismissed in the scurrilous way Weisberg does here. While we have undoubtedly had stronger and more enduring tabloids — of the American Hearst/Pulitzer mould — here than in the States (major cities like Adelaide and Brisbane do not have local broadsheet papers), these publications are more concerned with serving the interests of a particular working class social class than pushing a political agenda, as Fox News does. And though sadly defunct news magazines like The Bulletin were not without a political agenda — that publication once had the slogan “Australia for the White Man” emblazoned on its masthead — these had long ago moved into modernity.

Papers like Fairfax Corporation’s Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and The Canberra Times remain respectably independent, and Murdoch’s own national broadsheet, The Australian, is filled with the kind of respectable reporting you would never find on Fox. (Its opinion pages lean heavily rightward, however, but then again, so too do American opinion pages like the Wall Street Journal — even before it was owned by Murdoch’s News Ltd.)

There is much to admire about American journalism, and a 20th Century commitment to independence is one of those things. Its continuing resistance to tabloid sensationalism is another. But the Fox News model of journalistic political advocacy cannot be sheeted home to Rupert Murdoch’s Australian birthplace; it was created in America, for Americans, by an American — Murdoch renounced his Australian citizenship in 1985, when he became an American — and if anything, it has distinct echoes of an earlier brand of American journalism, the kind William Randolph Hearst’s papers were deploying in the Spanish-American War.

Cross-posted at my Tumblr.

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In which Republicans are the kings of wishful thinking

October 12, 2009

I sure hope, for the sake of the G.O.P., that the New York Times is engaging in liberal mischievousness today, with its report that Republicans are so confident of gains big enough in the 2010 midterm elections that they may even take back the House:

“I have no doubt that we will,” said Representative Tom Price, the Georgia Republican who leads the conservative Republican Study Committee. “TheAmerican people want checks and balances, and the way to do that is to put Republicans back in charge.”

Publicly and privately, Republicans have been upbeat about the midterm outlook, saying voter unrest demonstrated at meetings this summer coupled with strong candidate recruitment have them highly optimistic about capturing 40 or more Democratic seats and resuming command of the House.

I would tell you all the many, compelling reasons this is utter fantasy –whether you agree that the 2008 election marked a once-in-a-generation political realignment leftward or not — except the Times has been good enough to do it itself:

At the moment, Democrats have not experienced a wave of retirements, sparing them from having to protect numerous open seats in competitive House districts — typically the best opportunity for a takeover by the opposition.

While Democratic fund-raising is down, the House committee has still outraised its Republican counterpart. Republican standing remains low in public opinion polls, and the party continues to struggle to resolve the gulf between its conservative wing, which is ascendant, and the remaining moderates.

Further, it is impossible to predict what the public mood will be a year from now or what the response will be if Democrats are able to pass a health care overhaul or the economy improves and unemployment decreases.

Things have got a bit better for the right since the nadir of the 2008 Presidential election. They’ve found, in Obama’s economic stimulus and health care reforms, a rallying point that has boosted their morale, and they’ve received a fair amount of media coverage over both. The bad news for them is that they’ve appeared to confuse the coverage of the Republican base with genuine voter sentiment.

It’s true that the American public has its doubts about health care reform. They’re nervous. But they also remain behind the goals of the reform — expanding coverage and reducing costs — and remain happy to increase taxes to see this done. Democrats are unpopular in Congress, but Republicans are even more unpopular, and voter identification continues to side with the Democrats. This suggests the midterms are unlikely to swing toward a Republican party offering itself up as a mere alternative to an unpopular government. That worked in 2006, when the governing party really was on the nose. Today, voters are frustrated with the government, but they’re still listening. The Republicans have wandered into a hall of mirrors and, staring at their own reflection, are convinced they’re in the midst of a revolution.

It is true that governments most often fail not when they offer bad solutions to their constituents concerns, but when they don’t recognize those concerns as problems at all. This is what happened in Australia in 1996 and 2007, and in the United States in 2008 and 1968. The Democrats should pay heed to American voters’ worries about high deficits and expanding government, lest someone else come along and pay heed for them. But right now the Republicans are offering very little in the way of solutions, and it is difficult to see them turning the current situation to their advantage.

Steven F. Hayward in the Washington Post expands on some of the background to this problem:

During the glory days of the conservative movement, from its ascent in the 1960s and ’70s to its success in Ronald Reagan’s era, there was a balance between the intellectuals, such as Buckley and Milton Friedman, and the activists, such as Phyllis Schlafly and Paul Weyrich, the leader of the New Right. The conservative political movement, for all its infighting, has always drawn deeply from the conservative intellectual movement, and this mix of populism and elitism troubled neither side.

Today, however, the conservative movement has been thrown off balance, with the populists dominating and the intellectuals retreating and struggling to come up with new ideas. The leading conservative figures of our time are now drawn from mass media, from talk radio and cable news. We’ve traded in Buckley for Beck, Kristol for Coulter, and conservatism has been reduced to sound bites.

President Obama has done conservatives a great favor, delivering CPR to the movement with his program of government gigantism, but this resuscitation should not be confused with a return to political or intellectual health. The brain waves of the American right continue to be erratic, when they are not flat-lining.

Basically, the right has a lot in the way of gas-bags willing to complain, but no one coming up with new ideas to turn those complaints into policies, and subsequently, votes. Right now, voters concerns are still centered on solidly Democratic issues: health, employment, the environment even. Republicans can’t afford to get cocky.

Yet right now in the cycle is the time for parties to get cocky. They do need to get the base excited and donating time and money. Closer to the election will come the time for management of expectations, and this should prove very interesting indeed. The Democrats likely will lose seats in the House, since they’re picked up numbers the past couple elections and many of these are in districts that naturally lean Republican. Not to mention that it’s tough being the party of any President half way through a cycle.

But this will not be 1994. Republicans have no Contract with America, and they’re not about to come up with one. The battle for the Republicans will be to make the gains they do make look substantive enough to seem like a victory; for the Democrats it will be to make their losses look mild and inevitable rather than a rebuke of their policies. The Democrats understand this game. If the Republicans keep talking about taking back the House, they will find the victories they do gain will look insufficient after their big talk.

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In which Texas stands athwart history and yells, “Huh? What?”

October 5, 2009

You should be feeling pity for Texas conservatives right now. See, conservatism is meant to be easy; that’s one of its greatest appeals. It rejects the mushy moral relativism of liberalism for simple, straightforward dicta. Like: if it’s Middle Eastern, invade it; if it’s a tax, cut it; if it’s a gay marriage, oppose it.

Except right wing Texans down[1] in the Lone Star State have found themselves in the uncomfortable position of supporting gay marriage. Or, one specific gay marriage anyway. Reports the New York Times:

HOUSTON — A judge in Texas paved the way for a court battle over the state’s ban on same-sex marriage when she ruled this week that two men married in another state can get divorced in Dallas.

The state attorney general said Friday that he would appeal the decision, even as gay rights advocates applauded the judge, Tena Callahan of Family District Court, for declaring that the state’s four-year-old ban on same-sex marriages and civil unions violated the right to equal protection under the 14th Amendment.

Turns out these two dudes Texas’s Family District Court is calling H.B. and J.B.[2]  got gay-married back in Massachusetts (where folks can do such things), moved to Texas, then realized they weren’t living gay-happily in gay-harmony, and wanted to get gay-divorced. Gaily.

Texas law does not permit gay marriages — indeed, it’s only permitted sodomy since the United States Supreme Court said it had to, six years ago — so it seemed J.B. and H.B.’s decision to divorce would have been recognized as an admirable effort to conform with the laws of the great state they now called home. The problem was, though, that since Texas refuses to admit the couple was ever married, it couldn’t exactly allow them to get divorced. Which meant they had to stay married. Except, according to Texas, they weren’t married. Except in Massachusetts. But they couldn’t get divorced in Massachusetts, where they were married, because now they lived in Texas.

You’d think, then, that it would have been a relief to everyone involved, gay, straight or Texan, when a judge stepped in and said that the two men were perfectly entitled to a divorce, just like every other resident of Texas. Indeed, she based her decision on the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution which says governments can’t deny citizens equal protection under the law. That is, if the government says two people who happen to be a man and a woman can get divorced, then two people who happen to be a man and a man are entitled to the same option.

The judge, Tena Callahan[3], was doing something pretty radical and pretty straightforward here. She looked at a constitution that said, basically, “folks need to be treated the same,” saw a situation where J.B. and H.B. were not being treated the same as other folks (i.e. were not permitted to get a divorce) and told the government in breach of that that this was not on.

Of course, this has implications for more than gay divorces. If Texas law must allow gay couples married in Massachusetts to be divorced, it must recognize that they were married in the first place. And since Texas must do so because, according to the U.S. constitution, it is discriminatory not to, then it probably is discriminatory for Texas not to permit gay marriages within its own borders. And since this is the American Constitution being discussed, rather than the Texan one, the ruling should apply to the entirety of the United States. Judge Callahan’s decision might as well declare gay marriage legal throughout the fifty states.

Texas Governor Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott, both Republicans, vigorously oppose Callahan’s decision. If Texas doesn’t reverse this decision, there’s a chance the case could go all the way to the United States Supreme Court, a prospect I’m sure the minimalist-inclined Roberts Court is dreading.

I guess we should all be pleased even Texan conservatives have finally expanded their defense of the sanctity of marriage to include gays, even if they don’t actually recognize the marriages of which they’re defending the sanctity. But it’s useful to hear from one of the parties involved, J.B., who Fort Worth’s Star Telegram quotes as saying in a statement from his attorney:

“Some have called for this to be a day of victory or a cause for celebration … It is actually a day of great personal sadness as a chapter to my life ends.”

Divorces aren’t fun occasions for anyone, and I’m sure they’re even worse when your state’s Governor is arguing about whether you can even have one. This is one gay marriage of which no one should be in favor.


[1] Well, since we’re in Australia, technically up.

[2] Guys, it’s not me.

[3] Us Australians may be a little discombobulated to find she’s campaigning for re-election next year.

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In which I get my Bush on…

October 5, 2009

...lay down the competition, take their cash crops, and get my push on.

Over at Slate, Reihan Salam and Sam Tenenhaus have been discussing the latter’s The Death of Conservatism. Says Salam:

As he plotted the rise of George W. Bush, Rove pressed for a kind of market populism, to use Thomas Frank’s derisive turn of phrase, that would unite Sunbelt conservatives with aspirational voters of all classes and ethnicities. It was the housing bubble and the failed push to revamp Social Security, the two pillars of the ownership society, that were at the heart of the Bush-Rove domestic vision, not the fight against abortion or gay rights. And though it is painfully clear that Bush’s brand of ownerism was dangerously half-baked, it really was an ambitious project of social reform designed to cultivate the bourgeois virtues and to chip away at entrenched poverty.

I sort of agree with Salam, though Tenenhaus goes on to offer a well-argued rebuttal. But while we shouldn’t underestimate the significant harm Bush did with his support for social conservatism, I doubt he was the true believer his base thought he was, or the left feared he was. The same goes for his neo-Conservatism, though his embrace of that philosophy had disastrous consequences.

Bush campaigned in 2000 as a “compassionate conservative” who desired an America that had a lesser involvement with the problems of the rest of the world (in fact, he seemed quite disinterested in foreign policy overall); a moderate and a businessman who spoke Spanish; a low risk worth taking in the peaceful prosperous nineties.

(Which is not to say that he is or was a fundamentally a good guy; his mocking of death row inmate Karla Faye Tucker’s plea to him for clemency was, for instance, a hint at his unreflective moral surety, his self-righteousness and his vindictiveness.)

But social conservatism seemed a means only to an end — getting elected — and neo-conservatism was a solution his advisors offered up to the foreign policy problem presented by 9/11. Bush campaigned on a new American isolationism, and when Osama Bin Laden made that an impossibility, the President gladly allowed his team to implement their solution of forcibly democratizing the Islamic world.

And social conservatism? What did social conservatives gain from the Bush presidency. They held back the tide a bit on stem cells and gay marriage, but as early as two months into Bush’s second term, the country had begun its repudiation of the movement with its clear disdain for Republican attempts to politicize the end-of-life arrangements of Terri Schiavo. Court decisions against the teaching of the supposed creationist silver bullet, Intelligent Design, followed, as did legal gay marriages in a steadily expanding set of states. And Bush didn’t support a constitutional amendment preserving marriage as a heterosexual-exclusive domain. He didn’t create a Supreme Court that would reject Roe. He just soaked up the support of religious conservatives to… well, to what?

To do exactly what he came into office to do. Bush was a businessman, albeit one with shamefully successful business ventures to his name, and he wanted to make things better for businessmen like him. He reduced federal regulation until it was barely effective, he cut taxes, he paid-lip service in the form of a silly, pointless fence, to his party’s urgings to combat illegal immigration — why would he, a businessman, want to oppose a source of cheap, compliant labor? He refused to regulate the financial sector, and his signature reform for his second term was his failed attempt to privatize Social Security.

And Bush got what was coming to a businessman who thought government could be destroyed to tame it. He created a federal bureaucracy unable to rescue the city of New Orleans from a natural disaster, he created a budget deficit that ballooned impossibly out of control, he created an economic boom that did not raise the earnings of the average American, and he set the economy up on the precarious perch from which it fell, in a neat piece of bookending, in the closing year of his presidency.

Bush is neither hero, nor monster, though he did monstrous things, and he pursued the tenets of Reganomics heroically. He was not a fundamentalist crusader nor a ideologically warped warmonger. He was the scion of a scion, who was born into wealth and wanted to do right by the moneyed men he grew up alongside. That Salam, a conservative, seems to recognize this presages well for any revival of American conservatism. That the rest of the right — and the right alone — seems convinced that the all-light-no-heat ravings of a hysterical minority of Palinites and Tea Partiers are their future does not.

(Cross-posted at my Tumblr.)