Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Decline of Joe Klein

Published in Nationl Review Online on July 30, 2008

Wouldn't you know it? In my recent exchanges with Joe Klein, I made the point that blogging was harming Klein because it allowed his unfiltered rage to make its way into print (so to speak), thereby embarrassing him and Time magazine. Klein responded with a blog post offering… more unfiltered rage.

I sense a pattern developing.

In this latest posting, Klein accuses me of being “Karl Rove's intellectual hatchet man in the White House.” (Rove, Klein helpfully informs us, “had an eye for talented misleaders.”) It turns out that my point-by-point rebuttal to Klein's interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic is not only wrong; according to Klein, my “intellectual dishonesty is simply breath-taking.” We also learn that one of my “pet agit-prop projects” in the White House was the president's Freedom Agenda.

Klein even dusts off some oldies but some goodies. He reminds readers that he once suggested that I “spend some time emptying bedpans at Walter Reed in penance for [my] horrific performance in the White House.” I need to “get a whiff of the reality of [my] ideology as it is lived by those who've been maimed by [my] policies.” And thanks to Joe, I found out that I will spend the rest of my life trying to “Lady Macbeth” my role in the Iraq “catastrophe.” Alas, “the blood won't wash.”

My goodness; where to begin, other than with the observation that Time magazine must be enormously proud of the civil tone and the rigorous quality of arguments advanced by one of its most prominent figures.

The first thing to note is that Klein appears to have backed away from his charge that Jewish neoconservatives have “divided loyalties” — a charge which was what triggered my response to Klein in the first place. If that's the case, it's a good development.

Beyond that, he leaves unchallenged almost every substantive point I made; he tries to simply dismiss them as “dishonest fulminations.” I'm perfectly content to let people read our exchanges and decide who is engaging in “dishonest fulminations” and who is not. But let's just say that if Klein could offer an intellectually serious response to the specific argument I made, I rather suspect he'd do so.

Klein's single example of my “breathtaking dishonesty” highlights, I think, just how weak a case he has. In quoting from a past column he wrote, Klein asserts, I elide his strong skepticism about President Bush's Freedom Agenda with “an ellipses.” As it happens, almost half of the words in my piece were quotes from Klein (not to mention several links to his articles and interviews). But Joe, who has a rather high opinion of himself, felt like I didn't quote him often enough. He wanted, I guess, my article on him to consist solely of quotes by him.

In any event, the problem for Joe Klein is that if you read his column without ellipses, my point still holds up. And a simple point it is: Klein today refers to the effort to spread liberty to the Arab Middle East as a “really dangerous anachronistic neocolonial sensibility.” But back in the early months of 2005, when the “Arab Spring” was unfolding, Klein was much more hopeful and far less critical of the Freedom Agenda. Hence the last sentence of his column:

If the President turns out to be right [in supporting liberty in the Arab Middle East]–and let's hope he is–a century's worth of woolly-headed liberal dreamers will be vindicated. And he will surely deserve that woolliest of all peace prizes, the Nobel.

Given Klein's habit of using vivid words, it's reasonable to assume that if he had strong opposition to the president's agenda at the time, he would have made it pretty clear. In early 2005, however, he was uncertain about its merits but hopeful about its effect. The president might be right, Klein said, and we should hope he is.

Klein's ambiguity was fine; one does not have to have, and probably shouldn't have, absolute certitude on every public question at every moment in time. The problem Joe has is that he writes as if what he believes now is what he believed then, and that only a fool could think differently from what Klein believes at the very moment he writes.

Klein's case isn't helped, of course, by the fact that I quoted and provide links to other articles Klein wrote at the time — including this piece on the Iraqi elections:

And yet, for the moment, Bush's instincts–his supporters would argue these are bedrock values–seem to be paying off. The President's attention span may be haphazard, but the immediate satisfactions are difficult to dispute. Saddam Hussein? Evildoer. Take him out. But wait, no WMD? No post-invasion planning? Deaths and chaos? Awful, but…. Freedom! Look at those Shiites vote! And now, after all that rapid-eye movement, who can say the Shiites and the Kurds won't create a government with a loyal Shiite-Kurd security force? And who can say the Sunni rebels won't–with some creative dealmaking–eventually acquiesce? The foreign-policy priesthood may be appalled by all the unexpected consequences, but there has been stunned silence in the non-neocon think tanks since the Iraqi elections. [Emphasis added.]

And since Joe would like me to quote more of his words, here's the conclusion of that same column (without ellipses):

This, then, is a moment of no small anguish for the traditional policy establishment, both liberal and conservative. The real division in George W. Bush's Washington is not so much between left and right as between those who act and those who contemplate. Logic would dictate that action without long-term planning is disastrous: that you can't borrow forever, that you can't barge into someone else's region and impose your views without negative consequences.

But expertise and deliberation have never seemed more stodgy, unappealing and unconvincing than they do right now.

And I suppose if I really had wanted to drive the point home, I could have linked to this article and cited these opening paragraphs from Klein's February 6, 2005 column:

There was a cheap metaphor to be had in the remarkable moment when Safia al-Souhail, who had just voted in the Iraqi elections, and Janet Norwood, whose U.S. Marine son was killed in Iraq, embraced during the President's State of the Union speech last week. Norwood was holding her son's dog tags, which became entangled in al-Souhail's cuff. The two struggled at disentanglement. Laura Bush had to help them. It was an image with some resonance, to be sure.

Then why is it cheap to see it as a metaphor? Because nothing should detract from the emotional truth of the moment, the magnitude of Norwood's loss, the exhilaration of al-Souhail's ballot. Yes, disentanglement will be difficult. And, yes, we shouldn't “overhype” the election, as John Kerry clumsily suggested. But this is not a moment for caveats. It is a moment for solemn appreciation of the Iraqi achievement–however it may turn out–and for hope.

There is simply no question, then, that Joe
Klein is saying something different now than he was just a few years ago. That's not a crime, and it need not even be a problem. But where Klein hurts himself is in denying his past positions and in condemning — with tiresome, thundering arrogance — positions he either held in the past or was at least open to in the past. That's why his past support for the Iraq war, before it was launched, matters. It's not that Klein wasn't at times skeptical that the war was the right thing to do. It's that he now ridicules the war as “the stupidest foreign policy decision ever made by an American president” — even though he was telling Tim Russert a month before the war began that, while it was a “really tough decision,” Klein thought that the war was probably the “right decision at this point” — and offered a series of reasonable justifications for his position.

The fact that Klein contradicted his own view at other times doesn't mean he never held this view at any time. Klein's response to Russert in 2003 is also why, when Jeffrey Goldberg asked Klein earlier this week, “Wasn't there a period when you were for the war?”, the honest answer would have been “yes” rather than what Klein said, which was “no.”

A final word (I hope) on the tone and personal nature of Klein's attacks these days. It is both somewhat startling and slightly depressing. He once was, after all, one of the best political columnists in America, in possession of an elegant pen and keen insights. But somewhere along the way, something went off track. He is still of man of impressive talents as a writer, if, as we have seen, obvious limitation as a foreign-policy thinker and commentator. But Klein's passions gave way to anger, which in turn has given way to hate. It not only clouds his judgment; it sometimes dominates it. And when that happens, it cannot have a good ending — as, unfortunately, we are witnessing. 

Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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