Archive for February, 2008

HNN, February 27, 2008



Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN.

As the Obama Phenomenama grows, many who are not completely starry-eyed fear his foreign policy may be too starry-eyed. The 46-year-old Senator’s foreign policy can best be summarized in two words: “Leave Iraq.” Echoing the 1960s’ get-out-of-Vietnam movement, this approach risks perpetuating the delusions of the Clinton 1990s he usually rejects, ignoring the ugly realities facing post-9/11 America.

As a former community organizer, Obama cares most about domestic issues. His experience overseas is limited – beyond his oft-distorted Indonesian sojourn when young. Like most Ivy League-educated idealistic Americans, he assumes compromises can be found for every foreign conflict, while viewing “evil” as a right-wing Republican construct not a force in today’s world. And considering how high he has soared with his charisma and eloquence, he naturally assumes he can handle any world leader, one on one.

The transcripts of his recent speeches and his Obama ’08 Website indicate he and most Democrats prefer ignoring the world beyond America’s borders. He even turns most references to Iraq into a domestic critique, lamenting that the money wasted could rebuild America. Such neo-isolationism offers cheap populist applause lines not serious policy analysis. George W. Bush’s staggering budget deficits will swallow up any Iraqi war savings.

Even more sobering, Obama most frequently mentions 9/11 by complaining about using it “to scare up votes.” This posture blasts President Bush without engaging the Islamist terrorist challenge. In fact, Obama’s world rarely links the words “Islam” or “Islamist” with terrorism. In his few major foreign policy addresses during 2007 he preferred affirming the 1.3 billion Muslims’ peaceful intentions rather than tackling the challenge the rabid minority of Islamist Jihadists pose. In fairness, Hillary Clinton’s campaign also downplays the terrorist threat as an ideological challenge, mentioning “terrorists” or “extremists” without acknowledging Islam’s centrality in their identities.

By contrast, Senator John McCain emphasizes the fight against what he calls “global terrorism and Islamist extremism.” On his Website, in the section “Election 2008: What’s at Stake?” the first answer warns, in boldface: “America faces a dangerous, relentless enemy in the War against Islamic Extremists.”

McCain has other flaws but he recognizes that terrorism cannot be stopped without confronting its underlying ideology. The distinction shouldn’t need emphasizing but let us be clear – no, most Muslims are not terrorists, but all Jihadist terrorists are Muslims. Ignoring that unhappy fact blinds us to the threat we face. This divide is less about personalities and more about the Republican-Democrat split following Bush’s polarizing approach to fighting terrorism. Rather than building on the national consensus forged in the fires of September 11, Bush allowed the war on terror to become a partisan flashpoint. In fairness, Democrats are also guilty, frequently allowing their hatred of Bush to blind them to the Islamist threat. “The villains are no longer the terrorists,” New York’s Democratic Congressman Jerrold Nadler claimed at a news conference in 2007. “The villains live in the White House.”

If elected President, Barack Obama will have to govern as a muscular moderate not a spineless centrist. He will have to show that behind his fine words and high ideals lies a savvy leader who can fight Islamist terror, Iran’s nuclear-driven genocidal aims, North Korea’s saber-rattling, Venezuela’s anti-Americanism. He will have to repudiate the Clinton administration’s delusional holiday from history. He will have to learn from his hero John Kennedy, a Cold Warrior with no illusions about Soviet aggression. At his best, Kennedy understood how to export American values through programs like the Peace Corps while confronting the Soviets when they snuck missiles into Cuba. President Bush recognizes the seriousness of the Islamist threat. His historic failures to embody, elevate and export American ideals while fighting against these serious existential threats, cannot be repaired with a naïve worldview.

Presidencies are full of surprises. Campaigns churn out superficial applause lines not detailed plans candidates follow if elected. But the dangers facing America and all Western democracies, combined with his thin foreign policy resume, make it incumbent on Obama to work harder articulating a sophisticated, realistic foreign policy vision. Michelle Obama’s admission that only her husband’s success has made her proud of America, makes it even more important for Barack Obama to show he is a tough, proud, patriot, who will govern in the assertive but inspirational foreign policy tradition of liberal Democrats such as Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John Kennedy.

Obama should deliver some speeches advocating “tough-minded diplomacy” while addressing America’s external challenges more regularly when campaigning. He should remind fellow Bush critics: “Just because the President misrepresents our enemies does not mean we do not have them.” He should reassure his fellow Americans that he knows “The terrorists are at war with us” and “the threat is real.” He must reaffirm Americans’ historic understanding that “we cannot win a war unless we maintain the high ground” and that we need not make “a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand.”

And yes, he should boldly proclaim that “Iran’s President Ahmadinejad’s regime is a threat to all of us,” that “when Israel is attacked, we must stand up for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself,” and that America needs “to finally end the tyranny of oil, and develop our own alternative sources of energy to drive the price of oil down.” Wouldn’t it be great, if he sprinkled some Obama rhetorical magic around, saying “We will author our own story,” rather than being defined by our enemies.

Actually, all these quotations came from speeches Obama delivered in 2007. Obama has written the right lyrics to a strong, effective foreign policy song. Will he showcase them when campaigning? And if he becomes President will he turn them from beautiful words to guiding principles, from political postures to effective policies?

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HNN, February 18, 2008

With the glee of a conservative in the 1990s catching Bill Clinton with a new girlfriend, the Hillary Clinton campaign has accused the 21st century Teflon man, Barack Obama, of plagiarizing one of his speeches from Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick. As reported by the Politico’s Mike Allen, and others, the Clinton campaign publicized two YouTube links showing the two friends’ overlapping rhetoric.

On October 15, 2006, speaking of his female opponent Kerry Healey, Patrick said: “But her dismissive point, and I hear it a lot from her staff, is that all I have to offer is words — just words. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, [applause and cheers] that all men are created equal.’ [Sustained applause and cheers.] Just words – just words! ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ Just words! ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ Just words! ‘I have a dream.’ Just words!” Last Saturday night in Milwaukee, Obama said: “Don’t tell me words don’t matter! ‘I have a dream.’ Just words. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ Just words! [Applause.] ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ Just words — just speeches!” In response someone only identified as “an Obama official” said: “They’re friends who share similar views and talk and trade good lines all the time.”

Plagiarism is a serious charge, especially to those of us in the academy. But this is a confusing case. On the one hand, as historians familiar with the history of campaigning, we immediately think of Senator Joe Biden, who withdrew from the 1988 campaign in disgrace when the Dukakis campaign circulated a videotape of Biden stealing a biographical riff from the British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. (It turns out that Biden usually did acknowledge Kinnock but that particular time lapsed – and watched his campaign implode). Like Biden, Obama should be held to a high standard because so much of his political identity rests on his rhetoric. On the other hand, as historians who assess many speeches, we know that great oratory resonates because it builds on our collective memory banks, offering original twists on familiar phrases. Moreover, as lecturers, we know that when we speak spontaneously we cannot be as scrupulous about not echoing others as we are in our writing – and Obama’s riff was spontaneous, it was not written out in his prepared remarks.

On a personal note, I was particularly intrigued by the Obama defense that, in essence, this was part of an implicit collaboration, an ongoing partnership and brainstorming with a friend. Without mentioning names so as to avoid embarrassing the reporter yet again, I was once contacted by a reporter who accused another reporter of plagiarizing my work. The alleged plagiarist mentioned me twice in his article, but then had an unattributed riff that clearly echoed my work. I emailed the accuser, saying, that given the other citations, and the fact that I had been interviewed by the reporter numerous times, and was always mentioned in the ensuing articles, I was not offended, did not consider it plagiarism, and often gave journalists more slack considering their time and space constraints. The accusing reporter then called me up and asked me, “would it be okay if one of your students did not document part of a paper?” Cornered, I admitted that no, it would be “unacceptable” if a student submitted a paper without properly attributing a paragraph that was based so clearly on someone else’s work. With that, the accuser had his “j’accuse.” He ran the story, embarrassed his colleague, and the accused reporter never interviewed me again.

According to Peter Slevin of the Washington Post, Obama dismissed the plagiarism charges. “Well, look, I was on the stump,” he said. Speaking of his friend Governor Patrick, Obama said: “He had suggested we use these lines. I thought they were good lines. I’m sure I should have. Didn’t this time.” All in all, Obama doubted “this is too big of a deal.”

In thinking this issue through, I think it is a bigger “deal” than Obama concedes. His campaign – in fact the stolen riff itself – emphasizes just how important his words are to his campaign, and words are to American politics historically. Obama missed an opportunity with his airy dismissal. He could have said, “I’m sorry, that was wrong.” In so doing, he would have distanced himself from both George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton – two of the leading American politicians least likely to apologize. In one classy moment, Obama could have proven that his rhetoric is real, that he really is the candidate of change. Instead, the usually nimble junior Senator from Illinois gave us all the same old Washington shuffle. What a pity that he chose to imitate the ways of his new hometown when trying to defend his occasional penchant for mimicry on the stump.

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HNN, February 13, 2008


If Hillary Clinton succeeds in winning the Democratic nomination – and it is looking more and more iffy – she and the Democrats will be grateful for the harsh reality check Barack Obama has imposed on her candidacy. Let’s face it. She has been an awful candidate running a terrible campaign. You cannot win the presidency ricocheting from the insecurity reflected in her now famous tears in New Hampshire to the arrogance of Bill Clinton’s racially-polarizing barnstorming in South Carolina. In order for this Ohio-Texas firewall of hers to work, Hillary Clinton has to retool, changing her strategy, revitalizing her campaign, and redefining her message. Otherwise, she will lose. However, if she succeeds in reviving her campaign, she will be grateful that her crisis came during the primaries, making her a more effective candidate for the general election.

All campaigns ebb and flow. John McCain was lucky to bottom-out in the fall, before many voters really paid attention. The entire Clinton franchise benefited from the myth of Bill Clinton as the (self-styled) “Comeback Kid” in 1992, when he did not even win the New Hampshire primary but stayed viable as a candidate after enduring so many scandals.

Hillary Clinton seemed to think that she could float into the presidency, or certainly into the Democratic nomination. In this way, she was not only badly served by the sycophants she loves to surround herself with, but she was deprived of an opportunity to sharpen her skills during her 2006 re-election campaign. Her easy stroll to re-election in New York State made her staffers complacent and muddied her message. Rather than being forced to come up with a compelling new message and creative new strategies in a large, diverse state, she took a stately victory lap – and frittered away tens of millions of dollars along the way.

Now, she has to prove her own abilities to rebound. To do so, she should learn from two politicians she detested, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Hillary Clinton should study Nixon’s 1968 campaign. He, too, was disliked by many, with the enmity lingering from White House controversies of the previous decade. To mollify some of his critics, Nixon and his advisers launched the “New Nixon,” a softer, friendlier incarnation, promising to restore harmony to the nation.

Part of the problem Hillary Clinton faces is that Nixon’s strategy implicitly apologized for his previous harsh partisanship. But while her husband is the great bite-your-lower-lip apologizer, she is not. Like another Republican, the current president George W. Bush, she is famously unwilling to apologize, to acknowledge imperfections. To her, apologies are a form of weakness, and she genuinely feels she has nothing that requires making amends.

Americans, however, love stories of redemption – especially in campaign season. During the 1984 campaign, after stumbling in the first debate against Walter Mondale, Ronald Reagan stopped his slide with one quick quip. By coming back at the President again and again in the first debate, Mondale made Reagan look old and befuddled. Reagan responded in the second debate by quipping: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Surprisingly, that comeback line helped Reagan rebound and win the election.

Hillary Clinton should launch the new Hillary by apologizing to her supporters for running such a terrible campaign. If done right, without acknowledging any previous mistakes, without opening up all the Clinton controversies from the 1990s that linger, a broad enough, sufficiently self-critical apology could acknowledge the widespread doubts about many issues, bury the past, and look toward the future.

At the same time, Hillary Clinton has to show she has internalized the criticism by running a crisper campaign with a more passionate message. Experience – especially given how spotty her record as First Lady really was – is not enough. Americans are yearning for vision, seeking inspiration, craving redemption. Hillary cannot echo Obama as the “change” candidate; he has got that market cornered. But she can pull a classic Clinton move, triangulating between Obama’s optimism and John McCain’s real national security experience. Let the new Hillary be the candidate of true American values at home and abroad, promising to restore a sense of national virtue while maintaining American security and stability.

Rather than running away from Iraq, Hillary Clinton should run toward the complicated diplomatic issues the next American president will face, and the continuing threat of Islamist terror. She represented New York during 9/11, she knows what devastation America’s enemies can bring. She can prey on fears of Obama’s inexperience by tackling the foreign policy issues America faces directly. And if she can figure out a couple of clever, defining quips along the way – that wouldn’t hurt either.

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HNN, February 7, 2008

We seem to be suffering from a collective act of historical amnesia. All the commentators claiming that Senator Barack Obama has generated more excitement than any candidate since John F. Kennedy have overlooked the inconvenient, embarrassing, fact that a more recent candidate generated a similar buzz. In fact, given the ubiquity of this “JFK standard,” we could say that the last candidate to trigger such Kennedyesque hopes was none other than Obama’s chief rival’s spouse (could we say rival in-law): Bill Clinton.

Remember back in 1992 Clinton was the candidate of hope, who happened to be born in a little town called Hope. Coming from nowhere, a relative unknown when he started, he was carrying the torch of a new generation, generating rock-star like crowds with his special kind of charisma and his own distinctive eloquence steeped in optimism. Clinton on the campaign trail had that “It” factor that Obama has. Clinton had millions gushing that he was their John Kennedy, the first candidate in their lifetime who inspired them and empowered them.

Clinton, like Obama, also had sex appeal. I recall meeting a leading woman academic who admitted, just after the 1992 election, that she had received one of those emails bouncing around the internet identifying ten signs that you have a crush on Bill Clinton – and that she had almost all of them.

Bill Clinton’s transitions from wunderkind to senior statesman, from man of hope to perpetual adolescent, from party renegade to ultimate insider, have all obscured the jazz and optimism of 1992. President Clinton did not indulge in the same kind of inspirational politics that candidate Clinton or President Kennedy did. Of course, Hillary Clinton’s own artlessness on the campaign trail also accounts for some of the historical haze.

In fact, the contrast between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as campaigners is striking. Obama words are lyrical, his manner is fluid, the speeches rock. Compare him — even when he lost in New Hampshire — and Hillary Clinton when she won in New Hampshire. He is as smooth, as she is stiff. His words take off, soaring like colorful balloons that you want to linger over and watch until they have disappeared from view; her clipped tones and predictable words sink like the proverbial lead balloons. It is not surprising that Obama’s words have been set to music – Hillary Clinton should not expect such treatment for her earnest addresses any time soon. This kind of ease cannot be invented or replicated — you either have it or you don’t — Bill Clinton has it, Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush – who had other talents — didn’t. Ronald Reagan had it. Walter Mondale, his opponent in 1984, didn’t.

And yet, the fact that so many Americans now skip over Bill Clinton and go straight to John Kennedy when rummaging through the historical attic searching for inspiring characters, offers sobering warnings to Obama and to the American people. While Franklin D. Roosevelt was correct — the presidency is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership – governing is not the same as politicking. The transition from being an inspirational candidate to a workaday president can be rough. Ronald Reagan was more successful than Bill Clinton at remaining fired up. Bill Clinton’s experience was more typical, as the complexity of governing turned him from the poet of possibility to the king of compromise.

We know Obama knows how to wow a crowd, we don’t know how he would weather the transition from shaper of dreams to maker of policies. Ironically, the somewhat embarrassing comparison between Barack Obama circa 2008 and Bill Clinton circa 1992 reinforces one of Hillary Clinton’s most compelling arguments for her own election. She keeps saying trust the record not the rhetoric. Of course, she and her campaign team would love to find a different analogy to help bolster that argument.

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