Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is the Prospect's daily blogger and senior writer. He also blogs for the Plum Line at the Washington Post, and is the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

Recent Articles

Photo of the Day, Mindless Tech Slavery Edition

Attention, my subjects. Behold this watch. You will buy it. Is it because you want it? Silly question—I have presented it unto you, and therefore you want it as much as you have ever wanted anything, even if it doesn't actually do much that the device in your pocket doesn't already do. You want it, because it is Apple, and because it exists. You will pay $349 for it if you're a cheapskate, $549 for the one made from a slightly different material, and $10,000—yes, I said $10,000—for the gold one. Why? Is it because you are slaves? Of course not—you're creative and independent and rebellious and forward-thinking and youngyoungyoung, which all the world can see because you buy Apple products. Now go and do as I command.

Obama in Selma, and the Definition of America

I wanted to say a bit about President Obama's speech on Saturday in Selma, which I think will (and should) stand as a key document in one of the central arguments of the Obama years. That argument is this: What is America? It's an argument as old as the nation itself, of course. But in the last six years it has taken on particular urgency, as Republicans have channeled the fears and resentments of many of their constituents into an ongoing stream of rhetorical bile, directed at the person of Barack Obama himself and what he represents.

A lot of people have characterized this speech as a retort to Rudy Giuliani and his recent assertion that "I do not believe that the president loves America. … he wasn't brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country." Which it was in part, but we shouldn't forget that not just Obama's patriotism but his very American-ness has been questioned from the moment he became a serious candidate for the presidency. In the eyes of Giuliani and millions like him, America is not people like Barack Obama. It's people like them, and only like them. There may be other people here, sure, but their American-ness is suspect.

I want to point to one passage in particular in Obama's speech. It's a bit long, but you should read it because it's as clear a statement of the the liberal answer to the question "What is America?" as you'll find:

For we were born of change. We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. We secure our rights and responsibilities through a system of self-government, of and by and for the people. That's why we argue and fight with so much passion and conviction—because we know our efforts matter. We know America is what we make of it.

Look at our history. We are Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea, pioneers who braved the unfamiliar, followed by a stampede of farmers and miners, and entrepreneurs and hucksters. That's our spirit. That's who we are.

We are Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, women who could do as much as any man and then some. And we're Susan B. Anthony, who shook the system until the law reflected that truth. That is our character.

We're the immigrants who stowed away on ships to reach these shores, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free—Holocaust survivors, Soviet defectors, the Lost Boys of Sudan. We're the hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande because we want our kids to know a better life. That's how we came to be.

We're the slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South. We're the ranch hands and cowboys who opened up the West, and countless laborers who laid rail, and raised skyscrapers, and organized for workers' rights.

We're the fresh-faced GIs who fought to liberate a continent. And we're the Tuskegee Airmen, and the Navajo code-talkers, and the Japanese Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty had been denied.

We're the firefighters who rushed into those buildings on 9/11, the volunteers who signed up to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.  We're the gay Americans whose blood ran in the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down this bridge.

We are storytellers, writers, poets, artists who abhor unfairness, and despise hypocrisy, and give voice to the voiceless, and tell truths that need to be told.

We're the inventors of gospel and jazz and blues, bluegrass and country, and hip-hop and rock and roll, and our very own sound with all the sweet sorrow and reckless joy of freedom.

We are Jackie Robinson, enduring scorn and spiked cleats and pitches coming straight to his head, and stealing home in the World Series anyway.     

We are the people Langston Hughes wrote of who "build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how." We are the people Emerson wrote of, "who for truth and honor's sake stand fast and suffer long;" who are "never tired, so long as we can see far enough."

That's what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history, or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others. We respect the past, but we don't pine for the past. We don't fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing. We are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes. We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit. That's why someone like John Lewis at the ripe old age of 25 could lead a mighty march.

And that's what the young people here today and listening all across the country must take away from this day. You are America. Unconstrained by habit and convention. Unencumbered by what is, because you're ready to seize what ought to be.

No conservative would have spoken those words. Conservatism is about conserving, so of course the story they tell about America isn't one of constant change in order to improve the country. Their story, particularly in the last few years, is one of a kind of immaculate conception, in which the framers issued forth the nation in a state of perfection. The problems we have now can be solved if we would only revert back and be true to their vision. And the way you express that patriotism is precisely with the "stock photos or airbrushed history"—it's about praising America with the strongest voice you can muster and insisting that it is better than every other country, always has been and always will be. Yes, there are times when you can criticize the country, but that's something entirely separate from patriotism.

But the importance of this passage is about the inclusiveness of the "we" Obama repeated. It isn't that conservatives don't want their coalition to be as diverse as it can, because they do. But their leaders know that a sizeable part of the rank-and-file that votes Republican has a real problem with a "we" that includes all those different kinds of people, and that tells a story where immigrants and marchers and rabble-rousers are the heroes who define the nation, precisely because they change it.

Again, this is an old argument. But it's one conservatives are going to have an even harder time winning in the future.

Why Liberals Don't Trust Hillary Clinton

(AP Photo/Denis Paquin, File)
(AP Photo/Denis Paquin, File) Then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton talks to reporters outside the U.S. District Court in Washington in this January 26, 1996 file photo, after testifying before a grand jury investigating Whitewater. Mrs. Clinton went to court to offer her explanation of why her law firm records turned up inside the White House living quarters two years after they were subpoenaed. D ear Secretary Clinton: Watching the story of your State Department emails emerge last week, liberals were possessed by an old familiar feeling. It's the one that makes them say two things at once: "This seems ridiculously overblown," and "What the hell is wrong with her?" It was like reliving a trauma, one they got through in the end, but nevertheless left its emotional scars. When I talk to liberals about the endless scandal wars of the 1990s, the word that comes up most often is "exhausting." It's true that it's been pretty exhausting arguing for six years about Barack Obama's birth...

An Open Letter to Hillary Clinton

(AP Photo/Denis Paquin, File)

Then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton talks to reporters outside the U.S. District Court in Washington in this January 26, 1996 file photo, after testifying before a grand jury investigating Whitewater. Mrs. Clinton went to court to offer her explanation of why her law firm records turned up inside the White House living quarters two years after they were subpoenaed.

 

Dear Secretary Clinton:

Watching the story of your State Department emails emerge last week, liberals were possessed by an old familiar feeling. It's the one that makes them say two things at once: "This seems ridiculously overblown," and "What the hell is wrong with her?" It was like reliving a trauma, one they got through in the end, but nevertheless left its emotional scars.

When I talk to liberals about the endless scandal wars of the 1990s, the word that comes up most often is "exhausting." It's true that it's been pretty exhausting arguing for six years about Barack Obama's birth certificate and whether he loves America. Every Democratic presidency will bring its own flavor of Republican obsession. But the Clinton years were something unique.

It wasn't just that Republicans went on a binge of hearings and conspiracy theorizing and faux outrage. It was that at the heart of every scandal, no matter how disproportionate or ridiculous the Republican response, there was a kernel of truth. Again and again, we suffered through a pseudo-scandal in which Republicans made grandiose charges for which there was little or no evidence. But every one started the same way: with some questionable decision on your part, your husband's, or both. You may not have broken the law, but you screwed up, in ways that gave your opponents enough material to crank up the calliope of scandal-mongering. Then you inevitably fought the release of information, which may have seemed like smart strategizing at the time but had the effect of dragging everything out interminably.

Liberals defended you and President Clinton not only against the false charges and the wildly exaggerated ones, but against claims that had some bit of merit, whether it was the White House sleepovers or the travel office or the cattle futures or any of a hundred other controversies. Even if your opponents made mountains out of molehills, liberals were the ones who found themselves again and again around watercoolers and dinner tables, arguing that the molehill itself was nothing to be concerned about, culminating with impeachment.

Yes, it was insane to impeach President Clinton over his affair with Monica Lewinsky, but every liberal who defended him during that year felt like they were in some indirect way justifying the fact that the most powerful man in the world was screwing a White House intern 27 years his junior. It was not a good feeling.

You are not responsible for your husband's behavior, of course. But you played a key role in dealing with the fallout from it, just as you did on every other controversy. We can't rerun history, so we'll never know whether a different set of decisions could have prevented George W. Bush from becoming president in 2000, with all the catastrophic consequences that ensued. But even that possibility should have kept you up nights.

So as you begin your 2016 campaign, no one should appreciate more than you that this time, you owe your supporters better.

It may be absurdly facile to say, as so many journalists have, that this email story "plays into a narrative" and therefore deserves blanket coverage. But your propensity for secrecy is real, and it has gotten you into trouble before. Nowhere was this more clear than on Whitewater, where yours was the strongest voice urging your husband to fight the release of information. We all saw what happened: A story about a failed investment turned into the subject of an independent counsel investigation, which ultimately led to impeachment. All the inquiries eventually concluded that you did nothing wrong in the Whitewater investment. Does that give you any satisfaction? If it does, then you really haven't learned.  

And don't tell us that other politicians have their own problems with private email accounts. It's true, but it's irrelevant. You have to be better, because of everything that's happened before.

If you're going to win, you have to get over your propensity for self-pity, particularly when it comes to the media. You don't trust reporters? You think they're out to get you? Well they are. The press loves nothing more than a Clinton story with a faint odor of scandal; give them the barest whiff and they'll be off on an adrenaline-fueled rush of speculation, whether the facts support it or not. The question is whether you let your resentment about that overwhelm your judgment, or find a way to deal with their antagonism rationally.

If you can't, you won't see your own mistakes when you make them. For instance, Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman report in Politico, which states that "[b]oth Clintons still attribute [her 2008] defeat to fawning coverage of her rival." Oh, please—get over it. Did Barack Obama get good press coverage during the 2008 primaries? Yes, he did. Is that why he beat you? No, it isn't. He beat you because he was a better candidate than you were, and ran a campaign that was vastly superior to yours in every way. If you're going to correct everything you did wrong in 2008 (and there was so much), you have to be willing to acknowledge those facts.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is greeted by a local resident before working the grill at U.S. Senator Tom Harkin's annual fundraising Steak Fry, Sunday, September 14, 2014, in Indianola, Iowa. 

 

You owe that kind of honesty to liberals, because you and Bill asked so much of them for so long. Follow us out onto this tightrope, you said; we'll make it to the other side, but not until we've all felt our hearts drop to our feet and thought the end was at hand a dozen times. And now you're asking them to take another walk out over another chasm.

You've come a long way to get here, and this time there is no hotshot young senator ready to take you out in the primaries. But for all the distance you have traveled, there are still things you need to prove. You need to prove that you can accept responsibility when it's necessary. You need to prove that you can learn from your mistakes and correct your shortcomings. Perhaps most of all, you need to prove that you're worthy of what you're asking of your supporters: their time, their money, their enthusiasm, but most importantly, their trust.

If they grant you those things, it won't be for your sake, it will be for the sake of the entire liberal project. When you court disaster and hand your enemies a blade to thrust at you, that's what you endanger. If you falter, the result would be a Republican presidency that expresses the will of the radicals who have taken over the GOP, with ramifications that could echo for decades.

So when you come to liberals asking for their help, it will not be enough to say, "Look how awful my enemies are." It will not be enough to say, "Think of the Supreme Court." It will not be enough to say, "Imagine how historic this presidency would be." Yes, those enemies are awful, and yes, the Court's future is ample reason to vote for any Democrat, and yes, a woman president is long overdue. But that isn't enough, not nearly. 

No one asks for or expects perfection, but liberals need to know that you grasp the full depth of the responsibility you now carry. The fact that you have little primary opposition may seem like a relief, but it confers upon you a profound burden. You have to be better—not just better than the other side, but better than you've been before. The stakes are impossibly high. Liberals want to put their faith in you, but they still have reasons to doubt.

 

Photo of the Day, Crushing the Wonder of Childhood Edition

This innocent tot is inspecting a "fairy door" in Somerset woods in England. Here's the caption from Getty:

Over the past few years more than 100 fairy doors have appeared delighting local children and adults alike who come to see homes of the fairies and leave gifts and messages. However, the trustees of the wood have issued an appeal to fairy house builders to tone it down and not to screw any more doors directly to trees. They also say that flowers are getting trampled by visitors and that some older people who used to walk around the woods when they were untouched have complained.

As a trustee of the woods told the BBC, "We've got little doors everywhere. We're not anti-fairies but it's in danger of getting out of control." The fairies themselves have yet to comment.

Pages