Balkinization  

Monday, June 30, 2008

Should people be denounced for telling the truth?

Sandy Levinson

The U.S. News and World Report has asked, with regard to Charles Black's comment that John McCain would benefit from a terrorist attack, whether it was "a flub or the quiet truth." He was certainly quickly denounced for stating what almost everyone, I am confident, believes to be a truth, quiet or not. (Does anyone believe that it would help Obama or even be a wash in terms of impact on the election?)

Similarly, former Gen. Wesley Clark, an Obama supporter, has been castigated for telling CBS that "I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president." I think that one should ask the identical question posed by the US News and World Report. One might say, as has Sen. Obama (repeatedly) that John McCain displayed literally incredible valor in responding to many years of torture in Vietnam; I would also add my admiration for McCain's refusing to bear grudges against those who had been anti-War during the 1960s. But why would any person believe that "getting shot down" (which is precisely what happened to McCain) and then being tortured has anything to do with qualifying one to be President of the United States as against, say, receiving an award for displaying incredible grace under maximum pressure? And, incidentally, is it relevant that McCain graduated well down in his Annapolis class? Isn't it worth thinking about the fact that the three senators who in fact saw ground combat in Vietnam--James Webb, Chuck Hagel, and John Kerry--are all dedicated opponents of the Iraq War? I know that McCain has a son serving in Iraq, but, again, so does Webb. One might also consider Eisenhower's generally prudent policies during his presidency--including his apt decision not to join the French in Vietnam--as against the far more inexperienced Kennedy's decision to follow many of his militarily inexperienced advisers into that morass. (Kennedy, of course, made it to the White House in part because his boat was destroyed and he had the good fortune to survive. He, too, never saw any ground combat.)


I was severely chastised last year for suggesting that there is good reason to mistrust people whose sole experience of war is from planes high above the ground. They have rarely, if ever, whether in this country or others (such as Israel), been sources of wisdom on the conduct of international and military affairs (which, of course, are intertwined). They notoriously believe in the ability of airpower to "shock and awe" and win quick and easy victories, as did McCain prior to the invasion of Iraq. I intend no disrespect for the pilots who risked their lives and, on many occasions, genuinely served the highest interests of the United States. But that's a logically different question from asking what constitutes the best experience to serve as President. If military service is relevant at all, which is itself debatable, then surely we can debate what kind of service is most relevant. (Would any sane person believe that George W. Bush's "service" in the air force reserve gave him any relevant experience fitting him to become president?) None of this has anything to do with challenging patriotism. I assume that McCain (and, for that matter, George W. Bush) get A's in "patriotism." What we're talking about is what is relevant to becoming president and taking on the powers of our "constitutional dictatorship" with regard to the power of life and death in military conflict


Both Black and Clark were probably dumb to say what they did. (And, for Clark, I assume that this torpedoes his possibility of becoming Vice President.) But is this anything more than an illustration of Jack Nicholson's point (I forget the name of the character he was playing), "You can't bear the truth"? (Note well, I have no reason to believe that amending our dysfunctional Constitution would change anything in this regard. We are talking about political culture, not about legal institutions.)



Comments:

Talking Points Memo reports that Obama has rejected Clark's statement (he didn't say what about it he could possibly reject), and that McCain replied, "Of course Barack Obama has called many times for a new kind of politics, but his campaign just hasn't lived up to it. We've learned we need to wait and see what Senator Obama actually does, rather than take him at his word."

So Obama, like a typical Democrat, wimps out, and McCain, like a typical Republican, responds by playing tough and dirty, causing Obama's wimping out to backfire, as Obama should have known that it would. During the primary campaign, Obama showed that a Democrat could play tough without playing dirty, but now that he thinks that he must move to the center, he adopts the old Democratic strategy that fails everytime. It is sad.
 

The Military Commissions Act of 2006 authorized torture and the denial of habeas corpus. How can anyone who, like McCain, voted for it, or who, like Bush, signed it into law, be patriotic? Surely they have hurt the United States. Isn't it time that we stopped defining "patriotism" the way Republicans do and defined it to mean promoting what is best for the nation?
 

But is this anything more than an illustration of Jack Nicholson's point (I forget the name of the character he was playing), "You can't bear the truth"?

"You can't handle the truth." From the movie "A Few Good Men".

Annoyed as I am by Obama at this moment, I think Clark's comment deserved to be reputiated. So far as I know, nobody has ever suggested that getting shot down somehow qualified McCain to be President. Instead, the claim is that his experience as a squadron leader is more executive experience than Obama has (or, perhaps, it's enough to qualify McCain to be President).

The problem with Clark's comment is that (a) it snarked on an irrelevant point; (b) it's easy to confuse Clark's comment with a challenge to McCain on an issue where he truly should be seen as untouchable, namely his heroism upon being taken prisoner.

That's not to say I agree entirely with the way Obama handled the issue. I think he should have explained matters the way I just did and then gone on to reaffirm Clark's real point about the inadequacy of leading a squadron to qualify one to be President (any more than Kennedy's PT 109 service qualified him).

I hope you're wrong about this controversy torpedoing (sorry) Clark's VP chances. Not because I want him as VP, but because I'm really tired of "gotcha" politics.
 

is it relevant that McCain graduated well down in his Annapolis class

I don't know, is it relevant that 30% of all graduates of Stanford Law, class of 1973, graduated well down in their class? True fact; should we cast aspersions on them for it? Perhaps it would be more relevant to note they graduated from Stanford frickin' Law, every one of them, and that's not an attendance prize, folks.

And neither is an Annapolis degree, last I checked.

So, no. It's not relevant.

May I suggest that this entire discussion of what's the point, is entirely beside the point, where the point is anything worth discussing, as nearly as I can determine.
 

I'm not sure about the Eisenhower/Kennedy thing: Eisenhower had essentially zero combat experience. In contrast, Churchill had a bunch, and presided over some major disasters. Our sample size is small, but my reading of military history and biography really doesn't suggest any correlation between personal experience and hawkishness, caution, prudence, good judgment, moral courage or any other similar character quality.
 

Clark is correct that honorable military service is not always training for executive positions. Rather, many folks use the self sacrifice for and service to country inherent in honorable military service to be positive evidence of the person's character.

I found it amusing that, when presented with the reporter's riposte asking what Obama offers which can match the McCain service, all Clark could come up with is communications skills and character.

It is true that Obama gives well delivered speeches demanding self sacrifice and service from others, but can anyone offer any example of Obama's own self sacrifice for and service to his country, nevertheless examples on par with Mr. McCain's contributions to his country?
 

I appreciate Mr. DePalma's posting. I think it important that we agree that military service, however honorable, is not necessarily relevant to occupying an executive position. I also agree with him that honorable military service may indeed reflect an admirable character. I would also argue, as Mr. DePalma would no doubt expect me to, that Obama's decision to become a community organizer and to reject a decidedly fat cat career that could have been his for the asking, also reflects exemplary character. What remains to be discussed is the relationship, if any, between something called "character" and the wisdom and judgment we want in a commander-in-chief/constitutional dictator. I must say I would be happier if Sen. Obama had more relevant experience relating to his future role as commander-in-chief. But one of the reasons I supported him in the primaries is that Richard Danzig, a former Secretary of the Navy in the Clinton Administration and a man of the very finest character, is one of Obama's close advisers, which I think speaks very, very well of Obama. I must say that I'm not very impressed by McCain's foreign policy advisers (but, then, that will also come as no surprise to Mr. DePalma).
 

As a former career military officer myself (USAF), I'd like to offer a slightly different view of what an officer's background "qualifies" him to do (or "predisposes" him to do).

First, I disagree with Professor Levinson's assertion that it's pilots who tend to be Douhet advocates (airpower as the decisive element in military affairs). It's not the pilot community per se, but the military academy graduates... and it's not just limited to the Air Force. It's really interesting to get graduates from West Point, Annapolis, and Colorado Springs in the same room and ask them to define exactly what military force means to national security. Inside of the military, there is a distinct divide between ringbangers and those of us who got real educations as undergraduates. ;-)

Second, I am old enough to have worked with former POWs while I was on active duty — Vietnam-era POWs. We should honor former POWs for their service to the country. Some of them even make excellent advisors. Most of the ones I worked with/for/around and/or commanded, however, were not the people you wanted to get that 3am phone call. Their experience — or, maybe, just the character it took to get through that experience — almost uniformly led to a certain impulsivity when surprised. Senator McCain's public statements over the last few years lead me to believe that he has the same characteristics. Without any disrespect intended, I think that disqualifies him from the Presidency more than it prepares him for it.

Not every job in the military — not even every high-level job, let alone command — results in the kind of experience that people think of as "military experience." For example, Eisenhower may not have had a lot of "combat experience" before the balloon went up... but he did have substantial experience working with foreign officers, and he wasn't in a combat command. Eisenhower's formative experiences were through logistics, and the Allies defeated the Axis primarily through superior logistics. The slightly cruder way that we nonrated officers tended to put it was that wars are won behind a desk, not playing with a stick between one's legs.
 

C.E. Petit said:-

"Eisenhower's formative experiences were through logistics, and the Allies defeated the Axis primarily through superior logistics."

I was only 1 year old when Eisehower had his Supreme Command in the UK, but my father's generation spoke warmly of him as a military diplomat - who could rein in and arbitration between some real 'prima donnas', Montgomery and Patton spring to mind, not to mention the politicians: FDR, Churchill, Stalin, De Gaulle!

I regard him as the last "good" Republican President, principally by reason of his stance on Suez, support for the UN and NATO and for the wisdom of his warning on the perils of the 'military-industrial complex'
 

Have their been studies as to why people voluntarily enlist in the military? Or why, when there were drafts, some declined to enlist but did serve when drafted? Also, what motivates those who attend West Point, Annapolic, Air Force Academy?

I was too young for WWII, in college/law school after Korea broke out (thus deferred), post-law school (also post-Korea) I served two years as a draftee, finishing up before Vietnam. Thus, I describe myself as a post Korean, pre Vietnam "veteran" (the reference to being a "veteran" being only partly valid). I was aware of what guys in my neighborhood (Roxbury, MA) thought of in joining the military, or the reserves or national guard, during WWII through Vietnam. For some it was to avoid jail, for others, to get out of a perceived dead-end situation.

Now segue to post-draft and the all volunteer military: why did so many of the best and brighest NOT join the military? Did they have more important things to do and left this function to others, perhaps many of them not as economically advantaged?
 

sandy levinson said...

I would also argue, as Mr. DePalma would no doubt expect me to, that Obama's decision to become a community organizer and to reject a decidedly fat cat career that could have been his for the asking, also reflects exemplary character.

:::smile:::

I never considered organizing political agitation within a bureaucracy to be any more service to the country than the counter productive bureaucracies themselves. TNR had an interesting essay on Mr. Obama's much referenced, but little analyzed community organizing that sheds some light on his work.

However, to be fair, Mr. Obama's financial self sacrifice is notable.

What remains to be discussed is the relationship, if any, between something called "character" and the wisdom and judgment we want in a commander-in-chief/constitutional dictator. I must say I would be happier if Sen. Obama had more relevant experience relating to his future role as commander-in-chief. But one of the reasons I supported him in the primaries is that Richard Danzig, a former Secretary of the Navy in the Clinton Administration and a man of the very finest character, is one of Obama's close advisers, which I think speaks very, very well of Obama. I must say that I'm not very impressed by McCain's foreign policy advisers (but, then, that will also come as no surprise to Mr. DePalma).

There are men and women of both parties of fine and less than fine character. However, unless one assumes that fine character is gained though osmosis by being in the proximity of others with fine character, I want to know what kind of character the candidate himself possesses.

Frankly, character is one of the few things that this conservative likes about McCain. The man has dedicated his life to public service and does tend to stick to his guns even when he is alone in the party on some position.

In contrast, Mr. Obama has demonstrated himself to be a political opportunist of a near Clintonian level. I have had a great deal of fun over at my blog detailing Mr. Obama's changing positions over the years in a series called The Revisionist Lies of Barrack Obama. However, I will not start the inevitable partisan brawl by repeating them all here.
 

shag from brookline said...

Now segue to post-draft and the all volunteer military: why did so many of the best and brighest NOT join the military? Did they have more important things to do and left this function to others, perhaps many of them not as economically advantaged?

The military is far more highly trained and educated than the population at large. It is not unusual for NCOs to have undergrad degrees and officers to have graduate degrees. Moreover, the work itself is interesting and very challenging.

However, military service is dangerous and does not pay well. There is your more likely reason for many of our wealthy avoiding service.
 

The question is should people be denounced for denouncing someone without reading what he said.

Mark Field, for example claims:
"Annoyed as I am by Obama at this moment, I think Clark's comment deserved to be reputiated. So far as I know, nobody has ever suggested that getting shot down somehow qualified McCain to be President."

Mr. Field should read the transcript where the Face the Nation moderator, always firmly in the Republican pocket, suggest exactly that. Clark, repeating Schieffer's words, uttered the phrase that Obama "rejected". (Was Obama suggesting that riding in an airplane and getting shot down WAS an appropriate qualification for office?)
 

The question is should people be denounced for denouncing someone without reading what he said.

I read it. I stand by my comment. Schieffer was stupid too, but that doesn't excuse Clark.
 

Prof. Levinson's headline reminds of me how one often sees "issues" framed in laughably bad briefs -- i.e., skewed so tendentiously as to admit of only one answer. (Many a law student has been led astray by incompetent writing adjuncts on this point as well.) Of course people should not be "denounced for tellign the truth." But is that really what Black got denounced for? Or was he denounced for suggesting that a terrorist attack wouldn't be such a bad thing for America -- if it got McCain elected? Now, you can argue all you want that such a denunciation would be premised on a faulty read of Black's statement, and you might be right. (Although, I would think a law professor knows a thing or two about reading between the lines.) But he was not denounced "for telling the truth." Please.
 

>It is true that Obama gives well delivered speeches demanding self sacrifice and service from others, but can anyone offer any example of Obama's own self sacrifice for and service to his country, nevertheless examples on par with Mr. McCain's contributions to his country?

If the general thrust is what qualifies someone for such a leadership position, capacity to bring in genuinely qualified people and actually listen to them may be more relevant than self sacrifice. At a time when 'divided we stand' is too apt a watchword, someone with the ability to move towards 'united we stand' will likely better serve the nation.
 

Clark doesn't need excusing. He's been attacked for purportedly trashing John McCain's military service and/or his patriotism. He did no such thing. His point could be paraphrased this way: McCain's military service alone didn't give anyone who didn't already have a reason to support McCain any additional reason for doing so.
 

"Clark doesn't need excusing. He's been attacked for purportedly trashing John McCain's military service and/or his patriotism. He did no such thing. His point could be paraphrased this way: McCain's military service alone didn't give anyone who didn't already have a reason to support McCain any additional reason for doing so.

"# posted by Gary Chartier"

Or -- Clark is being attacked for non-existent reasons:

McCain is running, at least implicitly, on the claim that he not only has military experience, but is also allegely a hero.

All Gen. Clark said was essentially that being a POW does not qualify one to be president.

He spoke (also), that is, to the fact that one needs executive "willingness," if not skill and experience -- which Clark, unlike McCain, does have, having been NATO commander, which isn't a position limited to "bomb, bomb, bomb -- bomb, bomb Iran" macho stupidities. It includes being able to perform diplomacy, and to make non-military/militarist decisions.

By contrast, McCain shows the same limitation of all Republicans: there is one solution to every problem: belligerance and bullying backed by military power. "My way -- or war."
 

bart depalma said:
"Frankly, character is one of the few things that this conservative likes about McCain. The man has dedicated his life to public service and does tend to stick to his guns even when he is alone in the party on some position."

Of course by sticking to his guns you mean flip-flopping on a number of issues such as, but not limited to, campaign finance, immigration, support for overturning Roe, tax cuts, torture, ethanol, and state promotion of the Confederate flag.
 

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