Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

As a keen admirer of Winston Churchill I was sad to see this article in today's New York Times announcing that William Manchester will probably never finish the third installment of his three-volume Churchill biography.

Actually it's probably wrong to say I'm a Churchill admirer. Admiration is too equivocal a disposition. Confronting Churchill, one is quickly forced to a rash and drastic decision: either bow down before him or find him an archaism and a pompous fool. Probably a combination of the two responses is the most sensible, but I've always inclined toward the former. In any case, Churchill doesn't engender sensibility. Too moderate a virtue.

There are stacks of Churchill biographies, including a seemingly endless (but quite good, in its own way) official one by British historian Martin Gilbert. There are fascinating books on out-of-the-way aspects of his life or very detailed, even belabored narratives of key periods in it. But of the full-fledged biographies none captured my imagination quite like Manchester's The Last Lion. A few years back I read the first and second volumes which bring Churchill up to the brink of his moment of greatness when Neville Chamberlain's government falls and the King calls upon Churchill to form a new government.

Here the second volume ends. And since the first two volumes were a gift to me from some friend or relative -- I can't remember who -- I assumed finishing the story was simply a matter of heading to the bookstore to find the anticipated final tome.

But no such luck. I quickly determined that no third volume existed. And after confirming that Manchester was still alive I assumed that he was laboring away on the last volume.

According to the Times article, I wasn't the only one. And the expectation was accurate. But after completing perhaps a third of the last volume, Manchester suffered a series of strokes which have left him not incapacitated but seemingly too diminished in acuity and mental functioning to finish the task.

It's hard to describe how frustrating it is to read a masterful Churchill biography and have it leave off as the clouds are darkening in 1939, never to continue. I could illustrate the predicament with a sexual analogy but -- don't worry -- I won't.

There is apparently some chance that the final volume will still be completed, with the aid of a collaborator. But Manchester -- I guess understandably -- seems unwilling to let another writer finish, or help finish, what he himself apparently cannot. He's agreed to the idea of a collaboration in principle, but has turned away each potential collaborator.

Today's article included a link to what was to me a surprising 1983 review of Manchester's first volume by Michiko Kakutani. The essence of the review was that Manchester used heady, grand rhetoric -- somewhat in the manner that Churchill himself did -- but that Manchester was no Winston Churchill. "Perhaps such passages," Kakutani wrote, "represent a kind of homage to Churchill's own heady language, but an important distinction should be made: whereas Churchill's luxuriant use of words was capable of stirring an audience to great passion, Mr. Manchester's simply produces a yawn."

I have to disagree. I thought Manchester was particularly well-suited to the job.

Asides, ripostes and humorous comments often tell you more about the direction of someone's thoughts than their more considered pronouncements. That's why I was intrigued by the intentionally comical secret list of right-to-sue provisions Marshall Wittman 'found' hidden away in the hastily slapped together bill-killing Bush-Norwood Patients' Bill of Rights.

Here are faux right-to-sue provisions numbers 2,3,4,5 and 10:

2. Certification by the Florida Secretary of State.

3. Exhaustive personal investigation by an Independent Counsel.

4. A peer review by Senior Advisor to the President, Karl Rove.

5. A large certified check made payable to the Katherine Harris for Congress Committee.

10. Unanimous concurrence of the United States Supreme Court.

Florida, the OIC, Katherine Harris, oblique reference to the Supreme Court's Bush v. Gore decision? Aren't these Dem Talking Points? Our mantra of grievances? The tell-tale signs of the corruption of contemporary Conservatism?

What gives? Is there something you want to tell us, Marshall?

Wittman is certainly no liberal Democrat. Not any kind of Democrat really, at least not yet. But there are a number of us here on the other side of the aisle who believe in a progressive nationalism which isn't that far removed from what Wittman calls National Greatness Conservatism. And the valence of this sort of McCainite reformism seems to inevitably trend away from traditional Conservatism and the Republican party -- except on defense policy (which actually ain't such a bad thing.)

I'm no fan of the insistent sinophobia and the vestigial attachment to National Missile Defense. But hey, a few years back he was working for the Heritage Foundation and even the Christian Coalition. So give 'em time, give 'em time.

Why hold back, Marshall? Take the plunge. The water feels just fine.

Here at Talking Points we seldom let a day go by without some pithy comment or note. But some events are beyond our control. Early Saturday evening a 'manhole explosion' several blocks from the Talking Points world headquarters in Washington, DC cut off power to our offices for some thirty hours. That not only made it impossible to upload new posts; it also spoiled pretty much all the food in the official Talking Points world headquarters refrigerator.

P.S. No, I have no idea what a 'manhole explosion' is either.

A number of us believe that the Democrats have still not placed sufficient emphasis on what has to be seen as the defining action of the Bush administration thus far: that it's taken only six months for the administration to squander the budget surpluses it took such hard work in the 1990s to achieve.

(Yes, the economic downturn has something to do with it. But economic downturns happen; it's called the business cycle. The real culprit is flawed fiscal policy.)

In case you missed it, this is from Jean Meserve yesterday on CNN's Inside Politics:

And now, some scoops from our sources. The Congressional Budget Office now says it will release new revenue numbers on August 28, a week later than expected. Sources tell us GOP leaders told the CBO to sit on the numbers until Republicans can return from their vacations and be on hand to diffuse the expected fallout. According to one leadership staffer, the new revenue estimates mean, quote, "we'll just barely miss having to dip into the Social Security trust fund."
First cooking the books. Now leaving them in the oven too long!

President Bush's speech last night was pitiful -- not in his delivery so much, as in the thinking of his communications staff, which went for a largely technical talk, when a more personal one was what the moment called for. Having said that though I actually thought that Bush's decision, politically, may have been about the best he could do in a bad situation.

Few seem to be making the point, however, that the president's decision simply fails to meet the standard of simple logic.

Everybody realizes that thousands upon thousands of 'extra' embryos now sitting on ice in fertility clinics are going to be destroyed. The principled pro-life stance says that even if good could come of destroying these embryos it's still wrong to exploit the good that could come of it. I, of course, completely disagree with this position. But it's not an incoherent one, if you buy into the principles of the pro-life argument.

The principle is not unlike that which makes us recoil from the alleged Chinese practice of scheduling executions to maximize organ harvesting. As ethicists would say, it's the fruit of the poison tree. It doesn't matter that some benefit may come of it. The underlying act is wrong, tainted, impermissible and thus benefiting from it is wrong.

Again, that's not an incoherent ethical stance. The only problem is that that stance also prevents using stem cells already harvested from embryos. Precisely what President Bush has now endorsed.

All politicians play the 'outside the beltway' card and talk about getting out and talking to real Americans. As well they should, since DC is a very weird place.

But President Bush is pushing the envelope a bit. It's not just outside the Beltway, but the "heartland." And it's becoming pretty clear that when Bush talks about the "heartland" he means the South and the rural and small-town Midwest, or in other words, the states he won. Here's the President from yesterday in Waco, Texas:

I've told the people of the nation's capital there that I was coming back to the heartland to herald the values of the heartland, the values that make America so different and so unique. And one of those values is neighbors helping neighbors ... I've had the honor of traveling the -- the world for our country -- or went to Europe. And we're different, in a positive way. We're unique in an incredibly positive way. It's important for our nation never to lose sight of that ... We're making great progress in Washington changing the tone of our country. We're making great progress reminding people that the values of the heartland are the values that make America unique and different.
I won't belabor the point that the Bush-defined heartland (especially the South) tops almost every recorded measure of social dysfunction and pathology -- murder, poverty, illegtimacy, etc. -- but I mean, what about the deracinated and cosmopolitan coastal strips? Aren't we Americans too?

Let's follow up on yesterday's and the day before yesterday's posts about Clinton and Maureen Dowd. When I asked Clinton spokesperson Julia Payne whether the inauguration day exchange between James Baker and Bill Clinton had actually taken place, she responded: "The former president did not say anything of the sort to Jim Baker."

I followed up with Maureen Dowd too. Her assistant, Marc Santora, responded on her behalf: "Maureen says it is an anecdote with impeccable sourcing but she never discusses sources."

Is an 'anecdote' different from a quote? And anyway aren't there video tapes of the whole inauguration ceremony that would let us see if they chatted? Let's go to the tapes!

Today's Maureen Dowd column is a good example of the problem mentioned in yesterday's post. Today's column, needless to say, is on the Bill Clinton book deal. And towards the end Dowd reveals a fictitious chapter she was 'leaked' in which the ex-pres dishes about what appears to be a first tryst with Monica Lewinsky.

It's entirely clear from the context and the over-the-top quality of the leaked chapter that Dowd is putting us on. And that's perfectly legit. Talking Points has even been known to do the same some time.

But the alleged exchange between Bill Clinton and Jim Baker in Sunday's column kinda looks like it's just a put-on too. But it's not clear. Maybe it is and maybe it isn't. Is it a quote or is it made up? I'm not sure. Is anyone sure?

I'm not sure that we're supposed to be sure.

A couple days ago I took a harmless whack at Maureen Dowd for an error she made in her Sunday column on Al Gore. But I was even more interested in this paragraph.

At W.'s inauguration, as Bill Clinton and Al Gore walked down the stairs, Bill stopped at James Baker's row. "You were good in Florida, man, damn good," Elvis told the Velvet Hammer. Gesturing toward Mr. Gore, he went on: "But if this [epithet] would've listened to me and put me out on the trail, you'd of never had the chance to be good."
Where's that quote from? I follow politics pretty closely and I've never heard it before. Not even as scuttlebut. More to the point, the quote sounds a bit like what we sometimes call a story that's too good to check. In other words, it sounds a bit too good.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying Clinton didn't say this. He very well may have. He certainly believes in the premise of the quote. But without a clue about the source it's hard to evaluate its credibility.

So where's the sourcing? Where's the quote from? I doubt Hillary or Bill gave it to her. Was it Jim Baker? Al Gore? Who?

There are any number of dishonesties and distortions trucked out to hide the essentially ideological nature of the stakes involved in the Social Security privatization debate. (If you want to see one of the more shambling and pitiful examples read this article.)

But one of the most enduring is the contention that Social Security makes about a 2% annual rate of return and that a privatized version of Social Security would make perhaps three times that rate -- in the neighborhood of 6% or 7% annually.

The idea is that Social Security is so ineptly managed because it's in the hands of the government rather than the market. But this is a classic example of an inherently dishonest analogy. One of the key reasons the "rate of return" for Social Security is low is that much of the money that goes into Social Security goes into payments that aren't strictly for retirement, but rather ones that buffer or spread around the risks inherent in life.

Let me give you an example.

When I was twelve my mother died, rather suddenly. She was thirty-seven.

On my behalf, for the next six years, and on my sister's behalf for the next fourteen years (i.e., until we were eighteen), my father received checks from the Social Security administration to help raise us.

I don't remember precisely but I think these checks were for a few hundred dollars a month for each of us. Maybe two-hundred something; I'm not sure.

At the time she died my mother was thirty-seven, so in theory she had been of working age for fifteen years. But for much of my childhood she either didn't work or worked part-time. So figure, rounding out, that there were perhaps ten years in which she was paying into Social Security, and all of those at relatively low-paying jobs.

I could run the numbers if I had more specific receipts and check-stubs here with me, but the point is pretty clear: Social Security paid out far, far more to my mother's minor children than she ever paid in. So her extremely high "rate of return" - to use what is obviously in this case a fairly misleading phrase - was very high and it pulled everyone else's down a bit.

Let's think for a moment about why this is.

The idea here isn't that her pay-in had accumulated such-and-such rate of return but that this was part of the money she would have put toward raising us had she not died (thus the cut-off at age eighteen). This is an ethical and public policy decision, not a market one. Not only could she not make that money, for obvious reasons. But the money she had paid in wasn't enough to accomplish very much. So what happened was that, under the rules of Social Security, a bit of everyone else's money was diverted toward her children, just as it routinely is for the surviving children of countless others around the country. A part of the financial consequences of her misfortune was spread out among everyone else. Social Security isn't just a big investment pool, it's also a social compact. Or, as public policy types would say, social insurance.

This is a good example of why the issues surrounding Social Security reform aren't really computational as much as they are social and ethical and ideological.

Social Security - as currently structured - represents a sort of nation-wide social compact against the vicissitudes and tragedies of our existence. We know that a certain percentage of us will die early with obligations to our children still outstanding, or we will become disabled and unable to work, and many of those down the income scale won't have made enough yet when they die to have built up funds of cash for their children. That's where Social Security comes in. Social Security isn't just a particularly poorly managed 401(k) plan it's a vast social program in which we share risk, or to put it more immediately, in which we collectively look out for each other.

When privatizers say you could get much better returns in privatized accounts one of the things they're saying is that this part of Social Security would just be dropped. That it's every man and woman for him or herself. That for widows, and the disabled, and orphans or kids whose parents die, that it's just tough *#$&. Or if your private account goes south? Well, that's tough #@$* too. (Not only is privatized Social Security not secure, it's also not social.)

Whether we should have the current kind of Social Security or the privatized version is a debate well worth having. But the privatizers are deeply committed to having the debate on dishonest terms.

Which makes sense, since it's probably the only way they can win.