“If there were any doubts that Sarah Palin is a total idiot, she settled them with that single statement….Tip to Sarah Palin: Obama may have some vulnerabilities, and you may have some strengths, but command of the issues doesn’t fall in either category.” As the up traffic here in DC, Slate‘s Fred Kaplan beats back some of the dumber GOP attacks on Obama’s nuclear policy, while Joe Conason tries to explain what Ronald Reagan really thought about nukes.
Sigh…Pick any issue these days, and for far too many of the GOP opposition, the question seems to come down to whether they’re out-and-out venal or just incompetent. Sadly, the answer seems to be yes.
When we first meet intelligence analyst Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), the bespectacled Everyman and titular shepherd of the film, it’s the spring of 1961, the Bay of Pigs invasion has just gone FUBAR, and America’s new president is looking for a few heads to roll over at Langley. In this middle of this spate of job anxiety, Wilson is mysteriously sent a photo and audioreel of a couple in the throes of passion, seemingly somewhere in the Third World. As he sets to work on deciphering this arcane message, Wilson’s thoughts wander all the way back to 1939, when he — a young, idealistic student of poetry at Yale — was recruited first by the infamous Order of Skull and Bones (a.k.a. preppy fratboys gone wild) and then, after war breaks out in Europe, by the OSS. Along the way, he takes on a number of varied mentors, ranging from a Nazi-sympathizing poetry professor with then-shocking proclivities (Michael Gambon) to a congenial if hobbled general and spymaster (De Niro, playing a variation on Wild Bill Donovan) to a gaggle of fellow scions of the WASP Old Boy Network (representing the Eli’s, William Hurt and Lee Pace; representing the Oxford-Cambridge crowd, Billy Crudup with a slipping accent.) He also falls in love, with a (note the symbolism!) kindly, open-hearted deaf co-ed (Tammy Blanchard), and falls, in lust, with a needy, easy, and borderline-psycho socialite (Angelina Jolie, verging on typecasting in a terribly written role, but still quite good.) As the years drag on and the world freezes into Cold War, Wilson finds himself not only engaged in high-stakes cloak-and-dagger gamesmanship against his Soviet counterpart, codenamed Ulysses (Oleg Stefan), but inexorably ceding more of his dreams, his morality, his family, and his very soul to that hungering bastion of the Eastern Establishment mafia, the Central Intelligence Agency. And every time he tries to get out, they keep pulling him back in…
Comparisons to The Godfather are probably as unfair as they are inescapable. Still, for all the striving and sweating on display here, Edward Wilson is ultimately no Michael Corleone. In fact, Damon, while trying admirably, can’t plausibly sustain the second “middle-aged” half of the film, and portrays Wilson as too much of a blank (clearly De Niro’s decision) to garner much in the way of sympathy or empathy. More resonant in The Good Shepherd are many of the supporting turns, particularly Gambon, John Turturro as Wilson’s tough-talking (non-WASP) #2, and Alec Baldwin in a minor role as a hard-living G-man. But they’re not enough to put Shepherd over the top, and for every vignette in the film that contains real emotional power — most notably the interrogation of defector “Valentin Mironov” (Mark Ivanir) — there are two that, through a combination of directorial straining and an overly intrusive score, spill over into overcooked blandness. (See for example, the plane and letter-burning sequences at the end of the film, both of which are carried for several beats too long and which suffer from paint-by-numbers swelling strings on the soundtrack.) The Good Shepherd is by no means a bad film, but, alas, it’s not particularly a good one either. Like a veteran CIA hand, it fades effortlessly into the background, and offers little that might be considered truly memorable.
The buck stops here? Not hardly. Grasping for historical validation wherever he can find it, Dubya has apparently begun to fancy himself a modern-day Truman. “James G. Hershberg, a Cold War historian at George Washington University, said he doubts that history will judge Bush as kindly as it has Truman, saying Truman’s roles in fostering European recovery and building the NATO alliance were seen as solid accomplishments at the time. ‘Bush, by contrast, lacks any successes of comparable magnitude to compensate for his mismanagement of the Iraq war and will be hard-pressed to produce any in his last two years’.“
“[F]or all their practical failures, conservatives have at least told a coherent political story, with deep historical roots, about what keeps America safe and what makes it great. Liberals, by contrast, have offered adjectives drawn from focus groups and policy proposals linked by no larger theme.” In keeping with the intellectual territory he staked out after the 2004 election, former TNR editor Peter Beinart makes the case for a return to Cold War liberalism in a NYT excerpt of his new book, The Good Fight (also discussed in the recent Atlantic Monthly.)
I couldn’t agree more with Beinart’s paragraph above, but I don’t think the lack of a sufficiently robust national security emphasis is really the defining element missing among today’s Dems. Are there really Democrats out there who don’t agree with Beinart’s three main assessments here, that (a) America faces a real enemy in Al Qaeda and other fundamentalist terror networks, (b) our foreign policy should be less hubristic and more attuned to both local contingency and international institutions, and (c) our national sense of self should emphasize our own fallibility at times? Beinart would probably target the MoveOn crowd, but as Eric Alterman noted in the last round of this back-and-forth, that’s just a DLC straw man, roughly akin to Joe Klein’s cadre of phantom lefty consultants in the last update.
Plus, I think there are two significant historical problems with the Cold War liberalism Beinart unreservedly espouses, which he fails to discuss here. For one, Cold War liberals could very easily be seen as best inattentive to and — at worst complicit in — the excesses of McCarthyism. If the enemy abroad becomes the central defining focus of your national narrative, then the enemy within is undoubtedly going to start eating at you as well. For another, (and as John Gaddis, among others, has pointed out) — for all its early sense of diplomatic complexity and limited, realistic goals — the Cold War liberalism Beinart promotes all too readily (d)evolved into the guiding rationale for wildly wrongheaded foreign policy interventions, most notably in Vietnam. (You’d think Beinart would pay more lip service to this issue, particularly as he himself made much the same mistake in shilling for the Iraq war in The New Republic.)
In short, I agree with Beinart’s assessment that the Dems lack a sense of usable past, but the problems with his argument can be encapsulated by his ideal of a what a good, hawkish, Cold War liberal Democrat should look like these days: That, if Beinart’s tenure at TNR is any indication, would be Joe Lieberman, a politician who’s not only been flagrantly cheerleading for the administration during the current war, but has exhibited little interest in today’s wartime civil liberties issues. Simply put, Joe Lieberman would hardly be my choice of template for the Democratic party. (Who would? That’s easy: Russ Feingold, who’s displayed a strong commitment to preserving both national security and civil liberties at home, while arguing for a more level-headed, less-in-your-face American foreign policy.)
“In short, more than one of every three documents removed from the open shelves and barred to researchers should not have been tampered with.” A recently-completed audit into the formerly secret Archives reclassification program finds that many more files were reclassified — and reclassified wrongly — than previously suggested. “In February, the Archives estimated that about 9,500 records totaling more than 55,000 pages had been withdrawn and reclassified since 1999. The new audit shows the real haul was much larger — at least 25,515 records were removed by five different agencies, including the CIA, Air Force, Department of Energy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Archives.“
Quiddity birddogs Turner Classic Movies’ line-up of Future Shock: Sci-Fi Films from the Cold War Era, every Tuesday this June. Featured films include the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Village of the Damned, Soylent Green, The Thing, It Came from Outer Space, 2001, and several others worth catching.
“Bush stopped short of accusing Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill of outright perfidy, but his words recalled those of hardcore FDR- and Truman-haters circa 1945…Bush’s cavalier invocations of history for political purposes are not surprising. But for an American president to dredge up ugly old canards about Yalta stretches the boundaries of decency and should draw reprimands (and not only from Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.)” Slate‘s David Greenberg outlines Dubya’s recent mischaracterization of the Yalta conference. Well, Dubya doesn’t even seem to understand diplomacy now, so why would he understand it then?