The Breakfast Table

These Rainesian Times


What was the first line of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl”? “I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” Could this be applied to Howell Raines? Mickey Kaus notes elsewhere in Slate the Rainesian Enron obsession (today’s Times Enron harvest: nine stories and an editorial, which beats today’s terrorism harvest by one). Actually, I enjoy Raines’ passions: The tension between his natural dudgeon and the Times’ Gray Ladyship has always been an entertaining show—and will be the source of obsessive interest now that he’s in charge of what we, in the news business, laughingly call objectivity. So far, so good, I think: Raines’ energy has really juiced the Times’ coverage of the big stories (as for liberal bias, the Times’ domestic policy “reporting”—on issues like health insurance, welfare reform, race, and religion—has long languished in a niche between the New Republic and The Nation; I don’t suspect that will change). Howell’s Enron campaign may be bloated but where else—unless I’ve missed it—did we learn that many of the Enron documents were shredded horizontally?

But enough of that. Striking thing to me recently, and definitely today, is how the Bush administration’s handling of the two big issues—terrorism and Enron—so effortlessly conforms to the DNA of both political parties in the television age. Republicans are great overseas and dreadful on the economy. Democrats are uncertain—either too aggressive or not aggressive enough—overseas and excellent on the economy. (Jimmy Carter, sadly, wasn’t very successful at either.) The Republicans’ most delightful virtue overseas—aside from seeing the world as a contest between freedom and utopian extremism—is their willingness to ignore the feckless natterings of the Europeans. Reagan did it when he insisted on placing the Pershing missiles (which, in fairness, Carter had proposed) in Germany, and when he pursued Star Wars, and when he called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” Bush 41 dragged the Euros along on the Gulf War, although he did listen to Colin Powell about ending the campaign prematurely. Bush 43 seems likely to ignore Powell and the Euros on the treatment of the terrorists at Camp X-Ray. And he’s right: We should be interrogating the hell out of them by any means necessary. (Those who disagree should make their argument to the nine families in my little suburban town who lost loved ones on Sept. 11.)

As for the economy, the White House likes to say that Enron is a financial, not a political scandal. Nonsense. As Sebastian Mallaby notes in today’s Washington Post, it is a metaphoric scandal: Just as Democrats mythologize the poor, Republicans mythologize the rich. Democrats are happy, if a bit uncomfortable, taking Ken Lay’s money, but Republicans really, really like these plutocrats, consider them friends, patriots, scintillating dinner partners, and experts on what’s great for the economy. What’s great for the economy, however, is whatever helps all those small businesspeople who aren’t plutocrats. I noted in Howell’s Times, once again, that 37 percent of the Bush tax cut goes to the top 1 percent. Sheer fiscal pornography. A question: Why didn’t Bush use that money to semi-privatize Social Security?