The Anguish of the Malcontents
From the Scrapbook
Nov 8, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 08 • By SCRAPBOOK
For presidents do have the habit of grasping at favorite phrases or imagery, and never letting go. There was a time, during the late 1990s, when The Scrapbook felt as if its skull might explode if Bill Clinton spoke one more time about building a bridge to the 21st century. And a generation earlier, Richard Nixon would get a faraway look in his eye when describing “the lift of a driving dream.” Even after he said it the thousandth time.
Barack Obama, for his part, is no slouch at expressing himself, even in the absence of his beloved TelePrompTer. So we’re cautiously optimistic that the car-in-a-ditch line will disappear this week, to be succeeded by a fresh, new, up-to-date metaphor that incorporates the election results: A locomotive careening off the tracks? An ocean liner sinking beside an iceberg? The 2009 Obama convertible flipped into a ditch, wheels spinning?
The Bipartisanship Canard
President Obama, in recent speeches, has abandoned his oft-told tale about how House Republicans rejected his economic stimulus before he had a chance to discuss it with them. But the White House hasn’t given up on spreading this canard. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs brought it up recently, and the Washington Post, no doubt fed the story by the Obama administration, repeated it in a profile of John Boehner.
The story, as Obama used to tell it, goes like this. When he went to the Capitol to talk to House Republicans about the stimulus a week after his inauguration in 2009—January 27, to be exact—they’d already issued a statement opposing it. So his mission of bipartisanship was undercut by partisan Republicans, whose decision was based on politics, not the needs of the country.
Some of the story is true: Obama did indeed talk to Republicans that day. The rest is false. Republicans didn’t issue a “statement” expressing opposition to his stimulus. Nor was the supposed statement put out just as Obama’s motorcade was leaving for the Capitol. And Republicans did offer ideas that might have led at least some of them to vote for the stimulus.
Here’s what really happened. The day before the meeting, House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey unveiled the Democratic stimulus package—with zero input from Republicans. And word that Boehner and minority whip Eric Cantor were urging House Republicans to vote against the Pelosi-Obey bill leaked to the press a few hours before Obama arrived at the meeting. The next day, the bill passed the House over united Republican opposition.
This turned out to be the Obama bill. According to Republicans, the president could have told Democratic leaders to alter the bill to include some of their suggestions. Had he done so, a significant number of Republicans probably would have supported it. In any case, the Pelosi-Obey version was unchanged. And Obama didn’t express any dissent when it was passed.
Gibbs, at his press briefing on October 19, said reporters should ask Republican leaders about bipartisan relations with the president. “You’ll have to ask John Boehner, who, as I have used the example before, put out the statement opposing the stimulus as the president was about to load the motorcade to go to Capitol Hill to talk to the Republican caucus about the Recovery Act,” Gibbs said.
A week later, the Post said White House staffers were “still angry” about Boehner’s instant opposition. This account said Boehner had “snubbed” Obama by “denouncing” the stimulus. “That helped set the tone for his two-year effort to block Obama at every turn,” the Post said.
In Obama’s Washington, some canards never die.
From Strength to Strength
The Scrapbook has finished reading, cover to cover, the just-arrived third issue of the Jewish Review of Books. The first two issues were terrific, but this one may be the strongest yet. The combination of range and quality is what’s most striking. Adam Kirsch on Lionel Trilling and Judaism is deft and insightful; Abraham Socher, the journal’s editor, writes a fascinating review-essay on one of the most intriguing but also problematic movements in the Jewish world today, “The Chabad Paradox”; Anthony Grafton’s “The Bible Scholar Who Didn’t Know Hebrew,” on Elias -Bickerman, is a fascinating combination of biography and intellectual history. And there’s more—on the remarkable struggle for Soviet Jewry, on modern Israel, on Kafka and André Schwarz-Bart. Not a page that’s not worth reading.
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