Sunday, December 31, 2006

Soul Without Faith
As I meant to write about a few days back, the LA Times recently published what I thought was an excellent guest essay about atheism and the misconceptions connected to it. It got me thinking, for the first time in awhile, about what I believe in the area of faith and spirituality. For a long time now, I've described myself as a Deist or a "biased agnostic": I'm not sure if there is a God or divine entity, but I hope there is. It seems that a fairly large group of people react to the word "agnostic" with disdain, feeling that it's something of a cop-out: you either believe in God, and presumably express that belief through one of the major monotheistic faiths that have millions of followers in America, or you don't.

The author of the Times piece, evidently, does not--but, like me, he absolutely rejects the notion that morality or spirituality cannot exist outside of an organized religious framework:

7) Atheists are closed to spiritual experience.

There is nothing that prevents an atheist from experiencing love, ecstasy, rapture and awe; atheists can value these experiences and seek them regularly. What atheists don't tend to do is make unjustified (and unjustifiable) claims about the nature of reality on the basis of such experiences. There is no question that some Christians have transformed their lives for the better by reading the Bible and praying to Jesus. What does this prove? It proves that certain disciplines of attention and codes of conduct can have a profound effect upon the human mind. Do the positive experiences of Christians suggest that Jesus is the sole savior of humanity? Not even remotely — because Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and even atheists regularly have similar experiences.
10) Atheism provides no basis for morality.

If a person doesn't already understand that cruelty is wrong, he won't discover this by reading the Bible or the Koran — as these books are bursting with celebrations of cruelty, both human and divine. We do not get our morality from religion. We decide what is good in our good books by recourse to moral intuitions that are (at some level) hard-wired in us and that have been refined by thousands of years of thinking about the causes and possibilities of human happiness.

We have made considerable moral progress over the years, and we didn't make this progress by reading the Bible or the Koran more closely. Both books condone the practice of slavery — and yet every civilized human being now recognizes that slavery is an abomination. Whatever is good in scripture — like the golden rule — can be valued for its ethical wisdom without our believing that it was handed down to us by the creator of the universe.

Emphasis mine. I used to describe organized religion, particularly the Judeo-Christian tradition, as "the training wheels of morality." That phrase strikes me now as too smug and arrogant, as well as too dismissive of the positive benefits of religious socialization--e.g. the very admirable charity/community work that many large churches, synagogues, mosques et al sponsor and support. But the core notion, that one shouldn't need the Ten Commandments or the New Testament or any religious text to guide one's behavior in the world, still holds true for me. Empirical experience bears out that this is the best way to behave: the Golden Rule and the behavioral admonitions of the Commandments minimize conflict and generally lead to more peaceful communities and more satisfied and satisfying lives.

Otherwise, the question of faith in a divinity is ultimately a private one. I simply don't know: my sense is that there is something beyond the immediately tangible, some kind of "world beyond the world"--that, as one spiritual leader once put it, "luminous beings are we--not this crude matter." But it's a storybook conceit: I have no proof that this feeling of mine isn't anything more than the result of countless personal, familial, and cultural inputs and experiences (like watching Star Wars so many times as a kid).

Set against this--and I believe this is why a significant number of liberals have an active animus against organized religion--is all the damage we've seen wreaked in its name, from the Spanish Inquisition to this morning's unreported violence in the Iraq civil war. But this isn't fair either--it holds both God and the virtuous faithful to account for crimes they had nothing to do with, unless you believe that the uglier exhortations of the holy texts were direct quotes.

Faiths should be seen and read in the real world as any other institutions that seek to exert temporal influence: governments, armies, political parties, advocacy organizations. And moral systems should stand or fall on their own merits, based on their real-world performance and consequences. Eventually humankind should be able to reap the benefits of religion's moral guidance without having to bear the consequences of the fundamental divisions it inspires.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Of Polls and Purpose
If I really wanted to bring myself down from happy contemplation of the Eagles' huge win yesterday, I might spend a few minutes trying to calculate how much money already has been spent on utterly meaningless 2008 presidential primary polling, how much more will be spent before the end of 2007--the earliest point at which I could imagine those polls will have any predictive or determinative value--and all the better purposes to which that money could be put. A look at the "Election Central Polltracker" section of Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo today informs us that as of two days ago, John McCain would narrowly edge Hillary Clinton, Al Gore or John Kerry and runs even with John Edwards... for the November 2008 general race... in New Hampshire. Barack Obama beats all the leading Republicans, all the Democrats beat Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani is stronger against every Democrat but Obama.

Really: who the frak cares, and could this be any less meaningful? It's fully possible that *no* combination polled for actually will head the tickets on Election Day 22 1/2 months hence, and by then we'll know so much more about the candidates that current opinion probably will bear no resemblence to voters' sentiments at that point. Primary polls for the winter 2008 contest in the state are only slightly more useful, and they show Giuliani, McCain, Clinton and Obama in the best position. McCain, obviously, is known in the state and knows how to win in New Hampshire; Rudy's myriad personal problems likely aren't as well known. Obama is a Rorschach candidate on whom everyone is projecting their hopes; I like him too, but it's just impossible really to know what his candidacy will be like.

Still, Obama has one advantage over Hillary Clinton that I don't think will go away, an edge he shares with John Edwards, and arguably with McCain and some of the lesser known candidates on the Republican side. His campaign is more likely to have a clear purpose and rationale, and my read of the last 50 years of presidential politics is that candidates who make the race for an easily understandable reason do better in both the primary and general elections. JFK's "pass the torch" generational appeal in 1960; Jimmy Carter's reform and integrity rationale in 1976; Reagan's nostalgic conservatism four years later; Bill Clinton's notion of reclaiming government for the middle class in 1992; Bush's "we hate turr'ists 'n homos" re-election win in 2004. Occasionally, tactics and money are enough to win races without clear themes, as in 1988 and 2000. But most of the time it's either a referendum on the performance of the incumbent (1984, 1996), or a contest of whose vision is stronger and clearer.

(As an aside, I should point out that the rationale theory doesn't totally hold up: when the rationale is explicitly ideological, as it is with these two guys, it's very tough to make a sale. Probably to our benefit, we are not an ideological country.)

The emerging theme of Obama '08 is reconciliation and an end to the vicious political wars of the last 20 years--begun by Lee Atwater with the victory of the first President Bush in 1988, stoked to fever pitch first by the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign and then by the ascendance of Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay, and brought to its most extreme point by Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman in 2004, when their brutal and brilliant tactics dragged a failed incumbent to re-election victory over a feckless opponent. With the same playbook deployed to losing effect in 2006, and the problems of the nation too pressing to ignore much longer, the chance for a cease-fire is real, and Obama could be the man to make the peace. He's devout, aware and salutarily critical of some of the dumber tenets demanded by true-believer Democrats, and has a biography that embodies some of the contradictions that must be reconciled: black and white, big city (Chicago, where he made his name) and rural (Kansas, where he was born). As a fresh face, he could be much more palatable for lifelong Republicans than veterans of the long political war--particularly Hillary Clinton, who's almost a symbol of the zero-sum politics of her time. But more on her in a bit.

Edwards too has an emerging rationale: social and economic justice. His plan to announce a second presidential run from the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, where the disaster of Hurricane Katrina has never really ended, seems designed in part to seize the moral high ground from Obama and every other Democrat: I'm sure he'll be criticized in cable news circles for being a "downer," and dismissed for his naivete in calling for the country to live its values. But to run that sort of campaign with any hope of victory, you need to have an innately likable personality--and Edwards probably qualifies there. Add in his clear opposition to the war, strong ties with unions, and evidently much-improved campaign chops, and he could be a force.

Al Gore, if he chose to run, would have two compelling rationales: unmaking the tragic mistake of 2000--a mistake for which he shares some responsibility--and dramatic action on climate change. Wes Clark could offer the idea of how America acts in the world, based on his military career and success in the Balkans. But I don't know if that will be enough, even though Clark's the guy I plan to support right now.

John McCain has a unique problem: the rationale he offered in 2000--reform and moderation at home, purpose and power abroad--is unpalatable to the Republican primary electorate and to some extent has been discredited by the actions of the Bush administration. If he'd left the Republican Party in 2005 to prepare for an independent presidential run, he might have been unbeatable. Now he has to toe the line as a Bush pseudo-conservative through the primaries, then hope he can shed his costume and re-emerge as Radical Centrist McCain for the general election. I don't think it's going to happen. The other leading Republicans have their own problems: Rudy Giuliani is trying to run on a cult of personality and the emotional resonance of his 9/11 performance, but he might be approaching the sell-by date for that, and his personality won't wear well in small-town Iowa and New Hampshire. Mitt Romney is running a campaign that strikes me as oddly similar to that of John Kerry two years ago: emphasizing what he's not rather than what he is. And he's already starting to crash on the same rocks that sank Kerry in 2004: the perception that he's an opportunist and flip-flopper.

That leaves Hillary Clinton. I don't know many hardcore Hillary supporters; I'm not sure there are that many outside the professional Democratic establishment, where it's presumably difficult to parse true belief from careerism. But I'd love to ask them why they think Hillary should run, and why she will run, if she does. Is it Clinton Restorationism? Newsflash: this ain't no hereditary monarchy. Breaking gender barriers? Maybe, but that's just not very compelling, I think. Any policy goal? The next big idea Mrs. Clinton offers will be her first as a Senator.

No, I think that like fellow New York pol Giuliani, this is a cult of personality campaign. The problem is that the personality isn't very compelling: if a group of relatively well-informed Americans of diverse political viewpoints were asked to describe Hillary Clinton, I think the most common words coming back might include "scripted," "cold," and "calculating." (And yeah, those are the words I'd use: I'm well aware that I might be overgeneralizing from my own opinion. But then, it is my blog.)

She's evidently good in small-group settings, her money will help, and she has the best political mind in the country (Bill, of course) to help her. But that lack of an answer to the simple question "why" is big--and combined with the strengths of her opponents and a media that will be relentless in picking her apart, I just don't believe it will be enough.
Flyin' High
Here begins lots of posting today--on the Philadelphia Eagles, the 2008 presidential race, and last but not least the minor question of humanity's relationship to the divine. Gotta love vacation.

First, the best news: the Birds delivered a magnificent Xmas treat to millions of football-crazed Philadelphians and displaced natives yesterday with a 23-7 dismantling of the hated Dallas Cowboys. Unlike most memorable Eagles wins this year, Monday's contest was almost entirely stress-free: the team came out of the gate fast, and the gameplan--superb for a second straight week, on both sides of the ball--was designed to win the fourth quarter. Once the Eagles got the ball back in the third quarter leading 16-7--after a huge drop by Terrell Owens, Christmas Ass, that could have put the Cowboys on the doorstep of a game-tightening touchdown--there wasn't much doubt: the Eagles' offensive line, among the biggest in the NFL and suffused with the nasty attitude of mainstay tackles Jon Runyan and William (Tre) Thomas, just ground the fast but small Cowboys defensive front seven into dust. With the lead, and fresh legs from the clock-consuming drives the offense kept putting together, the Birds' defenders were able to force Dallas to play their game: passing three-quarters of the time, having to keep extra men in to block against the ferocious but disciplined blitzes Jim Johnson kept calling. By the end, the Cowboys looked completely beaten, and their fans streamed out of Jerkwad Stadium by the middle of the fourth quarter.

Just wish I could have said to the luxury box crowd: "You might have screwed up our country pretty good, but at least we kicked your punk ass at football."

A few other points on the most satisfying Eagles win since the January 2005 NFC Championship game:

  • Ever since Ray Rhodes came in as coach for the 1995 season, it's been trendy among Eagles fans to knock the West Coast offense. Maybe this is because it's a finesse attack that doesn't comport with cold-weather East Coast notions of how you win football games in December; maybe it stems from the fact that its downsides--difficulty running out the clock with a late lead, getting overly cutesy with formations, the reported post-doc complexity of the playbook--often have been more immediately noticable than its benefits. But it's clearly a system that, in the hands of a master operator who really needs its structure to thrive, can be a thing of beauty. The Eagles now have such an operator in Jeff Garcia. He's not the physical player that injured Donovan McNabb is, and this isn't to badmouth McNabb--who, after all, was headed back to the Pro Bowl before he got hurt, and remains probably the best quarterback in franchise history. But McNabb (or at least the pre-ACL tear McNabb) could fake defenders out of their cleats, throw the ball 60 yards across his body on a dead run, and generally turn disaster into glory by virtue of his physical gifts and improvisational mastery. Garcia, a less innately talented guy, has to get everything he can out of the system. Combined with better game-planning that leverages the size and athleticism of the O-line and the new willingness to ride the talents of all-world back Brian Westbrook, Garcia gets more out of this system.

  • As badly coached as the Eagles looked while losing five out of six games, they look that good now. Not only the play-calling, which has been superlative, but the fundamentals. Their penalties are down, aside from some of the questionable calls in the Giants game last week; they are no longer dropping a half-dozen passes a game (I think two in the last two weeks, both by Thomas Tapeh); they've become sure-handed tacklers; special-teams coverage units are staying in their lanes and minimizing returns. When they hit 5-6, I thought that after seven and a half years, the team had tuned out Andy Reid and his staff; I couldn't have been more wrong.

  • The play following personnel changes on defense hasn't been as evident as the offensive turnaround after Garcia took the reins, but it's been just as important. Rookie OLB Omar Gaither, who was really an afterthought in a ballyhooed draft class that included Broderick Bunkley, Winston Justice and Jeremy Bloom, has been a playmaking force since winning a starting job. Second-year safety Sean Considine isn't as athletic as his mates in the defensive backfield, but he's a solid tackler who plays well in the scheme. And Bunkley, the star-crossed rookie who's had trouble getting on the field, has been a big key to stuffing the run the last two weeks; the normal problem with rookies in December--fatigue after playing more games than the college schedule calls for--hasn't affected him, because he hardly played before this month.

The Eagles did not handle success well earlier this year: after the last Dallas game, they lost three straight and in each of them, they didn't seem to be all there until well into the second half. Another lapse now, and all the current good feeling will be gone in two weeks' time after a first-round playoff loss. But the way they've played in their last two games, completing a march of destruction through the home stadiums of their bitterest NFC East rivals, this team can take anybody. A month ago, January football seemed an impossibility; now it's legitimately worth getting excited about.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Last Lull
Nobody is really focusing on it at the moment, but this month of December 2006 could be the last period of relative political peace and calm for at least two years, probably more.

When the 110th Congress convenes in January, there will be four main orders of business: doing the budgetary work willfully left behind by the outgoing 109th, implementing the Democrats' "100 Hour Agenda" that includes raising the minimum wage, making more money available for college financial aid, and other broadly popular provisions; starting to redress the near-total absence of executive-branch oversight that has allowed the Bush administration to run riot the last four years; and determining some new direction for policy in Iraq. The whole point of the Republicans leaving #1 undone was to throw down a roadblock for #2 (Nice, huh? Why bother doing the country's business when there are political fights to be waged? That's a big part of why you lost, fellas); #3 is going to roll forward and likely will trigger an unending series of battles between Congressional subpoena wielders like Henry Waxman and various executive departments, notably that of Citizen Dick Cheney.

But it's #4, the Iraq conundrum, that's riveting everyone's attention right now. In part this is politics as usual: the Republicans are desperate to somehow make Iraq The Democrats' Problem Too, while the Democrats are terrified of making the political misstep that would reopen them to accusations of not supporting the troops. The Iraq Study Group moment seems to have come and gone; it wasn't condemnatory enough to satisfy the Democrats, nor was it sufficiently jingoistic or reality-resistant to find an appreciative audience amongst the dead-enders who still see this accursed war as worthwhile. It's not my point here, but I wonder if the likely fate of the ISG's work--to sink under the waves with hardly a ripple to speak of--doesn't indicate something larger about the final collapse of the bipartisan and consensus-driven model that once obtained for US foreign policy.

Throughout the virtual realm of the Left Blogosphere, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid is taking some shots today for his evident conditional support of the administration's plan to throw more troops into the meat grinder. It's a valid debate on several levels--whether Reid's signal is good politics for the Democrats, whether it's a morally repellent stance even if he's right on the politics, and whether this idea has anything on the merits to recommend it--but, to my view, somewhat misses the point: evidently, we don't really have the troops to do it.

One reason why is the fundamental flaw of the Bush administration: the president and his people have never even tried to appeal to an American patriotism that asks for more than a ribbon sticker on the family minivan. While I no longer have much regard for John McCain, I still believe that in this one aspect, at least, he'd try to show the leadership that Bush never exhibits: I could see McCain getting on TV, attempting to articulate why this war is so important after all, and encouraging citizens to enlist.

But Bush can't and won't do that: not now, not ever. The core principle of his administration is that, as Margaret Thatcher once put it, "There's no such thing as society." We have no ties to each other: as such, there's no reason to enlist in the military, or take action to help the people of New Orleans, or even to pay slightly higher taxes today so our kids don't get it in the neck tomorrow.

It's a classic "free rider problem": those who already have agreed to sacrifice, by virtue of joining the military (whether they did so with an expectation of combat or not), are just ordered to do ever more, so the rest of us need not be bothered. As the holidays approach, it seems to me that the real moral question is whether we can ask any more of those who already have given so much, for such nebulous purpose.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Another Brainwashed Romney
As some readers well know and others probably have figured out, I maintain an abiding interest in the 1968 presidential race. I believe it was a huge turning point, not just in American politics but in American history: you had the final crackup of the Democratic coalition (and nearly the same on the Republican side; if either Rockefeller or Reagan had seized the nomination from Nixon at the Miami convention, you wouldn't have had Chicago-style riots in the streets, but you might have seen a third-party emergence), the last of the traumatic trio of assassinations that defined the Sixties for many (which also ensured the Democratic crackup; RFK might have held things together for one more cycle), and the beginning of the long national disenchantment with politics that so deepened in the early 1970s and arguably bottomed out with Bush v. Gore 32 years later.

Nearly forgotten in all of that year's drama was a remarkable act of political self-destruction by a man whom many felt, in 1967, had as good a chance to win the '68 election as anybody: Republican Governor George Romney of Michigan. But with one remarkably ill-chosen statement during the Summer of Love, Romney flushed his own hopes down the drain:

In a taped interview with Lou Gordon of WKBD-TV in Detroit, Romney stated, "When I came back from Viet Nam [in November 1965], I'd just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get." He then shifted to opposing the war: "I no longer believe that it was necessary for us to get involved in South Vietnam to stop Communist aggression in Southeast Asia," he declared. Decrying the "tragic" conflict, he urged "a sound peace in South Vietnam at an early time." Thus Romney disavowed the war and reversed himself from his earlier stated belief that the war was "morally right and necessary." The connotations of brainwashing following the experiences of the American prisoners of war (highlighted by the film The Manchurian Candidate) made Romney's comments devastating to his status as the GOP front-runner. Republican Congressman Robert Stafford of Vermont sounded a common concern: "If you're running for the presidency," he asserted, "you are supposed to have too much on the ball to be brainwashed." (Johns 2000) At the National Convention Romney finished a weak 6th with only 50 votes on the first ballot (44 of Michigan's 48 plus 6 from Utah).

Fast-forward forty years, and another Romney with presidential ambitions could be on the verge of repeating his father's mistake. Mitt Romney, son of the Michigan governor and himself the outgoing governor of Massachusetts after two terms in office, is trying to position himself as a social conservative--the thing to be, of course, in Republican presidential politics today.

There's just one problem: during his political career in Massachusetts, he expressed sentiments rather more tolerant than those befitting a consistently hate-addled True Believer. During his competitive but ultimately unsuccessful 1994 Senate race against Ted Kennedy, for instance, Romney pledged in a letter to the Log Cabin Club of Massachusetts that he would be a stronger advocate for gay equality than Kennedy, and praised then-President Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy as “the first in a number of steps that will ultimately lead to gays’ and lesbians’ being able to serve openly and honestly in our nation’s military.”

And now he's being called on it:
[T]he breadth of the letter’s language and the specificity of many of the pledges stunned conservative leaders. Many of them had turned to Mr. Romney as a conservative alternative to Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, whose position on issues like abortion had been considered suspect.

“This is quite disturbing,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, who had praised Mr. Romney as a champion of traditional values at the group’s conference in late September. “This type of information is going to create a lot of problems for Governor Romney. He is going to have a hard time overcoming this.”

Paul Weyrich, a founder of the modern conservative movement, said: “Unless he comes out with an abject repudiation of this, I think it makes him out to be a hypocrite. And if he totally repudiates this, you have to ask, on what grounds?”

The letter, and Mr. Romney’s effort to reconcile it with the way he had presented himself on the campaign trail, reflects what has been one of the central challenges facing him in his campaign: how to move from winning an election in one of the most liberal states in the union to becoming the presidential candidate of a party whose nominating process is dominated by social conservatives.

Romney is trying to square that circle by stressing his opposition to gay marriage, implicitly arguing that the other stuff--anti-discrimination measures, gays serving in the military--is less important. For a general-election race, this probably serves him well: gay marriage remains short of majority support (though that won't be the case in as few as 10 years, and almost certainly no more than 30), but the public doesn't support explicit discrimination against gays. But that's not going to do in a contest where the electorate is largely and unapologetically homophobic: to paraphrase another Republican presidential hopeful of the 1960s, when it comes to hating on gays, people like Perkins, Weyrich, and Radical Cleric James Dobson see moderation as no virtue and extremism as no vice.

(This problem, plus others having to do with his temperament and scandalous past, is also going to screw Rudy Giuliani, who richly deserves it. I'm just sorry that it could well be Rudy's most honorable political virtue--his steadfast support of gay rights--that's going to do him in, rather than his myriad personal/political vices.)

The great hope of homophobic "social conservatives," Rick Santorum, obviously won't be making the race after getting his ass handed to him in a Senate re-election race last month. But there's still Sam Brownshirt--I mean, Brownback--who's got the bigotry bona fides right-wing religious leaders crave: just a couple weeks ago, Brownback publicly considered blocking a Bush judicial nominee for her great sin of appearing at a "commitment ceremony" honoring the relationship of two women. To beat that, maybe Romney can burn the women in effigy--and then, of course, claim he was "brainwashed" by all those years amongs the god-hating liberals of Massachusetts.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Malice, or Incompetence?
Today the Washington Post offers two historians' early assessments on George W. Bush's likely place in history. Eric Foner of Columbia is pretty straightforward in his take: Bush is the Worst.President.Ever, combining Nixon's arrogance and partisan spite with Buchanan's ineptitude and Harding's tolerance for corruption.

His former colleague Douglas Brinkley, now at Tulane, has a somewhat different take: Bush is bad, but his failures are those of stubbornness and misjudgment: if I'm reading this right, Brinkley argues that Bush is above the very bottom rung by virtue of his personal integrity:

Though Bush may be viewed as a laughingstock, he won't have the zero-integrity factors that have kept Nixon and Harding at the bottom in the presidential sweepstakes. Oddly, the president whom Bush most reminds me of is Herbert Hoover, whose name is synonymous with failure to respond to the Great Depression. When the stock market collapsed, Hoover, for ideological reasons, did too little. When 9/11 happened, Bush did too much, attacking the wrong country at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. He has joined Hoover as a case study on how not to be president.

You might not be surprised to read that I think this lets Bush off much too easily. Brinkley--a fine historian and really excellent writer, by the way--inspired me to do something I almost never do: write a letter in response. Here the gist of it:

While I think your assessment is mostly on the mark, I must take strong issue--as I'm sure many others will as well--with one sentence:

"Though Bush may be viewed as a laughingstock, he won't have the zero-integrity factors that have kept Nixon and Harding at the bottom in the presidential sweepstakes."

This is only the case if you're willing to give Bush a pass on all of the following:

--Manipulation and "stove-piping" of pre-war intelligence for his "war of choice"
--The leaking of Valerie Plame's identity and other actions of "pushback" against war critics
--Intentionally misleading Congress about the estimated costs of Medicare Part D
--Executive-branch involvement in the nexus of Abramoff-related scandals

This is just off the top of my head; I'm sure that a brief Google search would yield many more.

It's also worth noting, of course, that Nixon's "zero-integrity" misdeeds surfaced in no small part because he had a Democratic-majority Congress willing to stand up to him. With the exception of a razor-thin Senate majority for 16 months or so, the Democrats have had no institutional footing to stand up to or investigate Bush through his first six years in office.

And while you might be correct that Bush is "an honest man"--though the families who have lost loved ones in the Persian Gulf or the Gulf Coast might disagree--I believe people often described Harding in similar terms.

The great criticism of Harding, as I understand it, was that he was a weak leader who didn't exercise control of his subordinates or cronies. Despite his much-lauded "resolve," I think the same can be said of Bush--or, perhaps more accurately, he isn't so much weak as indifferent and unengaged. Thus he supported borderline-delusional ideologues in the Defense Department, hired and praised utterly incompetent and unqualified hacks like "Brownie," and acceded in staffing the Iraq Provisional Authority (among many executive-controlled departments and agencies) with twenty-something Republican operatives whose career aspirations were more along the lines of Lee Atwater than George Marshall. So the choice as I see it, in assessing Bush's record is this: was he malicious, or just stunningly incompetent?

In terms of performance, I suspect Bush is the worst, and I find his presence in the office to be a walking, talking middle finger to the notion of meritocracy: had he been born George W. Smith, his life possibilities would have ranged from Town Drunk to Assistant Manager at a sporting-goods store.

But it also must be said that, terrible as his performance has been, the consequences of it for the day-to-day lives of most Americans--obviously, with tragic exceptions such as those who were thrown into the Iraq meat grinder or saw their lives destroyed by Katrina--have been relatively light. At least to this point, if there was ever a moment when we as a country could "afford" a president as disastrously bad as George W. Bush has been, it was probably 2001-2009. The damage, unfortunately, is likely to accrue later on, when all the problems we've failed to deal with during his period of misrule--fossil fuel dependency and climate change, the shift to a post-industrial economy and demographic transformation of the populace and labor force, and the widening "opportunity gap" between the children of the poor and everyone else--ripen further.