Oscar week here in Hollywood is a pain. Down the street on Hollywood Boulevard they’re assembling the set in front of the Dolby Theater – the red carpet comes next, along with the giant fiberglass Oscars on every corner. They’re still spraying those with gold paint in the parking lot behind the El Capitan, but Hollywood Boulevard is closed, as are half the streets in the neighborhood. No one can get anywhere and the whole thing is silly. No one takes movies seriously anymore. Hollywood peaked in 1939 with Scarlett O’Hara mixing it up with Rhett Butler in the Old South, and Dorothy and Toto visiting Oz. It’s been downhill ever since. This year it’s Birdman in Manhattan – but all the movies that actually made money seemed to be sequels to previous movies based on comic books from the forties.
This is not a serious place. Manhattan is serious, and after almost thirty-five years out here anyone would daydream about getting back to New York. That’s the center of the world, or something. Wall Street is there, and the real art and music worlds are there too – but the jazz station out of Long Beach offers those of us in exile out here some comfort. Someone is always singing about that New York state of mind, or autumn in New York, or Frank Sinatra is shedding his little-town blues in the city that never sleeps – and once a day George Benson is down and out on Broadway – and Charlie Parker isn’t dead. He’s still blowing hard bop on 52nd Street. That’s the place to be.
That was the place to be this week, at 21 West 52nd Street, at the 21 Club – which started out as a basement speakeasy down in the Village in the twenties. Now it’s uptown, or midtown actually, and upscale – a place that has held the private wine collections of John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford, and of Joan Crawford and Elizabeth Taylor and Ernest Hemingway, and of Frank Sinatra, Al Jolson, Gloria Vanderbilt, Sophia Loren, Mae West, Aristotle Onassis, Gene Kelly, Gloria Swanson, Judy Garland, and of course Marilyn Monroe. That’s pretty cool, and every President since FDR has dined at 21 regularly. George W. Bush didn’t, but before he became president he was having dinner there when he was discreetly informed by a waiter that his father had just been chosen as Ronald Reagan’s running mate. It’s that kind of place.
This isn’t Hollywood. This is a serious place and this where Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker just attended a private dinner hosted by the gurus of supply-side economics, the economists Larry Kudlow, Arthur Laffer, and Stephen Moore – and there’s a backstory to that. When competing with Reagan for the Republican Party presidential nomination in the 1980 election cycle, George H. W. Bush had sneered at Ronald Reagan’s amazing new supply-side policies, calling them “voodoo economics” – but Bush gave in. Reagan rewarded him for that by making him his vice president, as his son learned from that waiter.
His father had no choice. Everyone in the party sided with Reagan on these matters. The math was questionable, but Bush later fully embraced the voodoo to win the Republican nomination in 1988, because folks love crazy ideas that just might work. Bush became our president that year – and Laffer and Kudlow were pleased. Laffer had come up with the idea that an across-the-board reduction in income tax rates and an even larger reduction in capital gains tax rates – benefiting the wealthy – would goose the economy and we’d all be fat and happy. The money that would have been in government hands, to do government things, would be in people’s hands, and unlike the government, they’d do something useful with it – and the government would be well-funded anyway, because when the private sector boomed, so many more people would now be paying even those meager taxes that the aggregate tax revenues would soar – and the rich, having nothing to do with all that money they’d now not have to pay in taxes, would create lots of jobs with their spare cash, trying out all sorts of new business ideas, to accumulate even more money. What could go wrong?
The Laffer-Kudlow voodoo failed spectacularly – but that voodoo is Republican orthodoxy now, and the youngest of this trio, Stephen Moore, is the current champion of this view of how things really work, or should work, or might work, one day. These three, and their wealthy friends, want this to work, and they thought that Scott Walker might be their man in 2016. If he embraces the voodoo they’ll make sure he gets the Republican nomination, and if that goes well, they’ll make sure he’s our next president.
They didn’t have much convincing to do. Scott Walker worships Reagan and was there already. Laffer and Kudlow and Moore just needed to confirm that, but then the unexpected happened:
He showed up unannounced and was initially not even invited, but he was prepared all the same.
Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York and one-time Republican presidential hopeful, stepped to the microphone at the “21” Club in Manhattan on Wednesday, for an event ostensibly spotlighting Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. But by suggesting that President Obama did not love his country, Mr. Giuliani became the story.
And it was quite a story:
The former New York mayor, speaking in front of the 2016 Republican presidential contender and about 60 right-leaning business executives and conservative media types, directly challenged Obama’s patriotism, discussing what he called weak foreign policy decisions and questionable public remarks when confronting terrorists.
“I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America,” Giuliani said during the dinner at the 21 Club, a former Prohibition-era speakeasy in midtown Manhattan. “He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.”
With Walker sitting just a few seats away, Giuliani continued by saying that “with all our flaws we’re the most exceptional country in the world. I’m looking for a presidential candidate who can express that, do that and carry it out.”
“And if it’s you Scott, I’ll endorse you,” he added. “And if it’s somebody else, I’ll support somebody else.”
Giuliani crashed the party and laid down the gauntlet – agree with me that Obama doesn’t love America or lose my support, and the support of all Republicans. Kudlow and Laffer and Moore were blindsided, but the guy was adamant:
“What country has left so many young men and women dead abroad to save other countries without taking land? This is not the colonial empire that somehow he has in his hand. I’ve never felt that from him. I felt that from [George] W. [Bush]. I felt that from [Bill] Clinton. I felt that from every American president, including ones I disagreed with, including [Jimmy] Carter. I don’t feel that from President Obama.”
Jimmy Carter was a good guy? Giuliani was on a roll:
No more than an hour or two before Mr. Giuliani appeared at Mr. Walker’s event, he vented his frustration at Mr. Obama at another fund-raising event in Manhattan. There, Mr. Giuliani took particular issue with the president’s recent comments likening Islamic extremist terrorism to the religious warfare of the medieval Crusades.
Only the previous week, Mr. Giuliani veered off topic at a realtors’ conference in Las Vegas to assail the president’s irresolute stance toward President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, attendees said. And on Feb. 13, he told an Iranian-American group in Arizona that Mr. Obama was not “a man who loves his people.” (In an online video of the event, Mr. Giuliani is shown shouting: “Mr. President, wake up. Come off the golf course.”)…
After his initial comments caused uproar, Mr. Giuliani did little to tamp down the controversy in an interview with The New York Times on Thursday, and again on Friday night.
“I said exactly what I wanted to say,” he said. “I conveyed exactly the message I wanted to convey.”
Fine, but his party didn’t follow him down that road:
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who has criticized Mr. Obama for seeking to “make America more like the rest of the world,” told a Florida news outlet that he believes that the president nevertheless loves his country. Kristy Campbell, a spokeswoman for Jeb Bush, said the former Florida governor did not “question President Obama’s motives,” but rather his “disastrous policies.”
Mr. Walker declined to either endorse or denounce Mr. Giuliani’s remarks. Aides to Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey did not respond to emails seeking comment. (Mr. Giuliani described himself in an interview as Mr. Christie’s “mentor.”)
Earlier in the day, the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, responded to Mr. Giuliani’s comments with a trace of pity.
“I can tell you that it’s sad to see when somebody who has attained a certain level of public stature and even admiration tarnishes that legacy so thoroughly,” Mr. Earnest said. “And the truth is I don’t take any joy or vindication or satisfaction from that. I think, really, the only thing that I feel is I feel sorry for Rudy Giuliani today.”
After Mr. Earnest had spoken, Mr. Giuliani once again declined to back off, further criticizing Mr. Obama for his approach on a number of Middle East conflicts, and the issues that he chooses to highlight.
This was odd, but there was nothing new here:
In 2007, Mr. Obama’s love for his country came into question when people noticed that he was not wearing a flag pin while campaigning in Iowa. Asked about the fashion omission, Mr. Obama said at the time that such pins had become a substitute for real patriotism.
“I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest,” Mr. Obama, then a senator from Illinois, said at the time. “Instead I’m gonna’ try to tell the American people what I believe what will make this country great and hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism.”
In 2008, Michelle Obama was forced to reaffirm that she has always loved America after Republicans seized on comments she had made at a campaign event. “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country,” she had said.
The controversy over comments by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Mr. Obama’s former pastor, who once said “God damn America,” nearly derailed Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign as opponents suggested that he shared those beliefs. Mr. Giuliani brought up Mr. Wright in a Fox interview on Thursday night, but Mr. Obama was also criticized at the time by Hillary Rodham Clinton for not leaving the church when the reverend made those remarks.
The issue of American “exceptionalism” has also been a popular proxy for questioning Mr. Obama’s patriotism, and in 2012 Mitt Romney wielded it against him.
“Our president doesn’t have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do,” Mr. Romney said at a campaign event. “And I think over the last three or four years, some people around the world have begun to question that.”
The president’s patriotism has been on Mr. Giuliani’s mind lately. The week before his remarks about the president, Mr. Giuliani referred to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel as a man who fights for his people, “unlike our president.”
That’s American politics. Policy is hard, and boring. The personal is easy, and exciting. Make it personal, but Steve Benen sees this:
Rudy Giuliani is “not questioning” President Obama’s patriotism. He simply said to a Republican audience last night, “I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me.” The clownish former mayor made the comments at an NYC event for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) – who was right there near Giuliani while he spouted this garbage.
And at that moment, Walker was presented with a test of sorts. Would the governor do the decent thing and distance himself from Giuliani’s little tantrum, or would he do the partisan thing and stay silent?
Walker said nothing during the event or after it, but he had another chance this morning.
And he blew it:
“The mayor can speak for himself,” Walker said on [CNBC’s] “Squawk Box.” “I’m not going to comment on what the President thinks or not. He can speak for himself as well.”
“I’ll tell you, I love America,” he continued.
Co-host Andrew Ross Sorkin pressed further, asking, “But did you agree with those comments? Were you offended? What was your reaction when you heard them?”
Walker replied, “I’m in New York. I’m used to people saying things that are aggressive out there.” He would go no further.
The truth is, had Walker shown just a little more guts, this could have been an opportunity to demonstrate the kind of leadership he should be capable of. It’s not like Rudy Giuliani is a party boss with a massive constituency; the former mayor hasn’t even won an election in 18 years. Walker could have said something like, “I disagree with the president on nearly everything, but I’m sure he loves his country.” He would have looked like a mature, responsible contender for the most powerful office in the world.
But Walker just couldn’t muster the courage to take this simple step. A week after “punting” on whether he believes in evolutionary biology, the Wisconsin Republican is left to punt once again.
What kind of leader would Scott Walker be?
That’s a good question, but at least he’s not the other guy:
I’m starting to feel a little sorry for Gov. Bobby Jindal (R). Racially tinged dog whistles are Jindal’s thing. This has been his major point of differentiation against fellow Republicans. He can’t just sit there and let Walker bask alone in the reflected glory of Giuliani’s smear.
So Jindal released a statement to the media that he would not condemn Giuliani’s statement.
Note, no one actually cared whether the Louisiana governor agreed with Giuliani or not, but Jindal nevertheless issued a statement to the media, letting everyone know he was horning in on the story – and he’s perfectly comfortable with Giuliani attacking the president’s patriotism.
He shouldn’t be, as Jonathan Chait notes:
When Rudy Giuliani accused President Obama of not loving America, was he expressing a form of racism? If not, what was Giuliani saying?
Here’s the reasoning:
It is important to grapple with ideas on their own terms before merely analyzing their motivations. American conservatism is historically intertwined with white racism in such a way that nearly any conservative idea could plausibly be understood as an appeal to racism, but most of those ideas can be expressed and justified in non-racial terms, and they deserve to be taken at face value. The trouble with Giuliani’s comments is that they lack the coherence necessary to be analyzed as an idea. Brush away the bilious rage he has emitted, and nothing solid remains behind.
The original basis for Giuliani’s comments was Obama’s allegedly unusual upbringing. “He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up, through love of this country,” alleged the former mayor. As Wayne Barrett points out, Giuliani’s father was a mob enforcer, and he and his five brothers all avoided military service during World War II. What about this upbringing in any way suggests it conveyed some deeper patriotism than Obama’s?
Giuliani subsequently clarified his original remarks, though not in the way he intended, by asserting that Obama’s alleged anti-Americanism amounted to “socialism or possibly anti-colonialism.” Here Giuliani is reprising the theories of Dinesh D’Souza, who has described Obama as fundamentally influenced by Kenyan anti-colonialism. Unfortunately for Giuliani, D’Souza’s racism is so transparent not even many conservatives care to defend it any longer.
To be fair, Chait cites the National Review’s Kevin Williamson saying that this is just the normal left-versus-right debate about American goodness:
For the progressive, there is very little to love about the United States. Washington, Jefferson, Madison? A bunch of rotten slaveholders, hypocrites, and cowards even when their hearts were in the right places. The Declaration of Independence? A manifesto for the propertied classes. The Constitution? An artifact of sexism and white supremacy. The sacrifices in the great wars of the 20th century? Feeding the poor and the disenfranchised into the meat-grinder of imperialism. The gifts of Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Morgan, Astor? Blood money from self-aggrandizing robber barons.
Chait isn’t buying it:
It is certainly true that there is a strain of left-wing thought that implicitly or explicitly rejects patriotism, and which deems the United States no better than, or perhaps even worse than, other countries. The trouble is that Obama has explicitly and repeatedly rejected this thinking. Even Obama’s endlessly criticized 2009 press conference, in which he gave an answer on American exceptionalism that conservatives deemed insufficiently flag-wavey, ended on an affirmation of American exceptionalism (“I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional”).
The liberal conception of American exceptionalism espoused by Obama, while different than the left-wing conception with which Williamson conflates it, is also different than the conservative version. The left rejects American exceptionalism. The right treats it as something inherent in the American character, rather than, as liberals see it, an ideal that must be struggled toward and has often been failed. Obama’s treatment of the issue lies firmly in liberalism, rather than the left.
And of course the key element of Giuliani’s charge is that Obama has broken completely from the liberal tradition. He does not accuse Obama of being a weak-spined liberal like Jimmy Carter. He calls Obama worse than Carter.
Obama isn’t worse than Carter:
In fact, previous Democratic presidents have also acknowledged American historical failures, in language every bit as frank as Obama’s. In a famous 1977 speech, Carter conceded, “For too many years, we’ve been willing to adopt the flawed and erroneous principles and tactics of our adversaries, sometimes abandoning our own values for theirs.” Clinton mournfully acknowledged American slavery and support for military dictatorships in Guatemala and Greece. Obama has kept fully within the liberal tradition of conceding America’s inconsistent history of upholding its ideals without abandoning the ideals themselves.
Any attempt to salvage an idea from Giuliani’s gaseous smear invariably fails. His dark insinuation that this liberal Democratic president hates America in a way unlike other Democratic presidents is under-girded by nothing but a generalized suspicion neither he nor his supporters can define.
Paul Krugman goes even wider:
There have always been American patriots who could acknowledge flaws in the country they loved. For example, there’s the guy who described one of our foreign wars as “the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” That was Ulysses S. Grant – who long-time readers know is one of my heroes – writing about the Mexican-American War.
But now we (finally) have a president who is willing to say such things while in the White House. Why?
Krugman can only offer this:
The Greatest Generation is fading away, and the most recent war in our memories is Iraq – a war waged on false pretenses, whose enduring images are not of brave men storming Omaha Beach but of prisoners being tortured in Abu Ghraib. My sense is that Iraq has left a lasting shadow on our self-image; many people now realize that we, too, can do evil.
Maybe it’s just that we are becoming, despite everything, a more sophisticated country, a place where many people do understand that you can be a patriot without always shouting “USA! USA!” Maybe even a country where people are starting to realize that the shouters are often less patriotic than the people they’re trying to shout down.
If so, then things get tricky:
All of this doesn’t change the fact that we really are an exceptional country – a country that has played a special role in the world, a country that despite its flaws has always stood for some of humanity’s highest ideals. We are not, in other words, just about tribalism – which is what makes all the shouting about American exceptionalism so ironic, because it is, in fact, an attempt to tribalize our self-image.
Rudy Giuliani went tribal, and he went personal. He doesn’t live in that more sophisticated country that Krugman imagines, even if every Republican except Bobby Jindal does. Giuliani’s attack played well with the Rush Limbaugh crowd, not a sophisticated lot, but that was about it. And out here in Hollywood Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance will probably win Best Picture this weekend – and that’s all about a useless has-been trying recapture his glory days as a superhero, or move beyond those days, in the middle of Manhattan – kind of like Rudy Giuliani. That’s as close as we’ll come to relevance out here in this silly place. It will have to do.