BRIAN LAMB, HOST, Q&A: Peter Beinart, I’m reading some words from Eric Alterman when he wrote, "Beinart’s argument amounts to little more than a fact-challenged, intellectually garbled, ideologically motivated attempt to read his opponents out of the debate that he has already lost. There’s a lot more of that on the Web.”
What are they talking about?
PETER BEINART, EDITOR, THE NEW REPUBLIC: They’re talking about an article that I wrote last fall after John Kerry’s loss, which is called "A Fighting Faith: An Argument for a New Liberalism.” It’s an article that I’m now at The Brookings Institution expanding into a book.
And it’s an argument that liberalism, in many ways, is in a situation similar to the situation it was in, in the beginning of the Cold War. What happened to liberals in the beginning of the Cold War was they had in internal fight, an internal – a very heated internal argument.
The question was, is the fight against totalitarianism – at that point, communism – going to define what it means to be a liberal?
I think liberals need to have that same argument again, and that we need to be more – we need to honestly look at this question about whether the fight against what I would call totalitarian Islam should be at the center of what it means to be a liberal.
LAMB: How long have you been editor of "The New Republic”?
BEINART: I’ve been editor of "The New Republic” since fall of 1999.
LAMB: And how old were you when you took over that job?
BEINART: I was – I guess I was 28.
LAMB: Coming off of what? Where had you been before that?
BEINART: I had been a writer at "The New Republic” for several years, before that an editor, and before that in graduate school.
LAMB: And you were a Rhodes Scholar from Oxford.
LAMB: What year did you get out?
BEINART: I was there from ’93 to ’95.
LAMB: So, a lot of people have charged you with being a, you know, a Republican in so-called Democrat’s clothes. What’s that about? Why are they upset with you?
BEINART: I think part of it stems from the fact that I and "The New Republic” reported the Iraq war, which has been a deeply, deeply divisive issue in the country and amongst liberals as a whole.
But also, that I think that we, and I in this article, have been willing to say that there are people who call themselves liberals who don’t share the principles that I think liberals should uphold.
I don’t think that a vigorous debate amongst liberals about what liberalism means is a bad thing. I think there is a tendency to think that liberals should focus only on their battles with conservatives and the Bush administration. And goodness knows, I spent a lot of my writing talking about all of the disagreements I have with the Bush administration conservatives.
But it seems to me, when you lose an election like this – and Democrats have now lost both elections in the September 11th era – you need to also look at yourselves and say, what do we believe? Why is this not coming through? What are our principles?
And right after an election – you can come together before the next election – but right now is the time for vigorous internal debate.
And in my article, I talked about Michael Moore and MoveOn.org. And I said, these are two – Michael Moore is a person who opposed the Afghan war. MoveOn.org is an organization that I read their statements of having opposed the Afghan war. I think that we need to have a real debate about whether this is the view of national security that we want to define liberally.
LAMB: When did you become a liberal?
BEINART: I think, as far back as I can remember.
For me liberalism means equality of opportunity. It means a society where people are not the prisoners of their birth, but that there are institutions that exist so they can rise and fall based on what Martin Luther King called the content of their character.
It means, in the social realm, integration. But integration so that historically disenfranchised groups have a chance to define what it means to be America. And it means, in the foreign policy realm, American ideals backed by American power, which is democracy and human rights backed by the power of the most powerful government on earth.
LAMB: What town in America did you grow up in?
BEINART: I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is probably considered a hotbed of liberalism, including many liberals who would dissent from my vision of liberalism.
LAMB: And what did your parents do?
BEINART: My father is a professor. And my mother has also been involved with universities and sold real estate.
LAMB: Can you remember the first thing you felt strongly about when it came to issues?
BEINART: That’s a very good question. My family background is a little bit unusual, in that my parents came to the United States from South Africa. So the anti-apartheid movement was a very powerful force in both of their lives.
And that was really in many ways a real – one of the great movements of the 20th century, a multiracial movement for freedom.
My parents were in the audience at the University of Cape Town in 1966, when Robert Kennedy came there. And in one of his most famous speeches – in fact, the speech that is excerpted on his tombstone – spoke about a tiny ripple of hope and the way that could change the mightiest of structures.
And I think that that connection between what was happening in the ‘60s in the United States at that time, the struggle for racial justice and the struggle in South Africa for racial justice, had a very powerful impact on them, and they transmitted that to me.
LAMB: Where were you born? In Cambridge?
BEINART: I was born in Cambridge, yes.
LAMB: And when did they come to the United States?
BEINART: They came just, right prior to my birth.
LAMB: I’m intrigued by the fact that you know the quote on his tombstone. You’re talking about up at Arlington National Cemetery.
LAMB: Is that why they have the little pond there? The ripple in the pond?
BEINART: That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer to that. But I just happened to be reading about that speech, and there’s some question about who wrote that speech.
And one of the things that I love about the speech is that Kennedy talks about – he says, I’ve come here to speak about a country, a very troubled country that I love. And he talks about a country that has tremendous racial animus, and its history of violence, and was forged on a frontier. Everyone thinks he’s talking about South Africa. And then he says, I refer, of course, to the United States of America.
And what I love about that was that Kennedy didn’t come to South Africa just to say that South Africa needed to improve, although good knows, that country needed a radical transformation.
He also came to say, we in America are not perfect. We in America also have great struggles. We are not the Utopia that the world should strive for. If we inspire you at all, it’s because of our efforts to make ourselves better.
That’s a language I don’t hear from George W. Bush. He tends to present America as a fixed model for the world. The Muslim world must change radically, and I agree with him about that. But America somehow seems to have no work to do, that have no – that our human rights issues are never raised.
And that’s one of the things that I love about Robert Kennedy, and I think is missing with George W. Bush.
LAMB: Brookings, run by Strobe Talbot, is not exactly a conservative bastion.
When you have an issue like this, do you negotiate with them before they bring you over there? Do they know what you’re going to write?
BEINART: They don’t know specifically. They know the general topic. They’ve been very, very kind to me and generous, given me an office, access to their wonderful, wonderful library and staff. And said, go and do your thing. But you’re able to take advantage of the enormous resources and the great scholars that they have there.
LAMB: And how long is this going to take you?
BEINART: Till the fall.
LAMB: And when will the book come out?
BEINART: Sometime next year. When exactly is not clear.
LAMB: And why do you want to do this?
BEINART: I want to do it because I think it’s a very, very important moment in the history of American liberalism.
I think that liberalism has historically had great difficulty, certainly in the era since Vietnam, in dealing with questions of national security. I think you can make a strong argument that liberals have never won – a liberal presidential candidate has never won – an election since Vietnam when national security was at the top of people’s agenda. They’ve only won at the times when national security went off the radar screen, like 1976, and then during the 1990s.
I don’t think national security is going to leave the American political scene. I think it’s going to be a dominant issue for a long time. And liberalism has to respond to that. And that seems to me to be one of the great challenges of our time.
LAMB: How did you decide to go to "The New Republic” in the first place?
BEINART: I had been a reader of "The New Republic” for many years, and a great admirer of that magazine, and when I was – and I had been an intern there. And then when I was leaving Oxford and deciding that I didn’t want an academic career, I looked around, and I was lucky enough to find a position at "The New Republic.”
LAMB: Where did you meet Marty Peretz the first time? He at that time was full owner, wasn’t he?
BEINART: Yes. Yes. And he’s still one of the magazine’s owners and editor-in-chief, my boss.
He – I’m not sure I remember where I first met him. I probably met him when I was an intern at the magazine. And I stayed in touch with some who also – Andrew Sullivan, who was then the editor. And I did some writing for the magazine, and I was lucky enough to be able to come back.
LAMB: I read Eric Alterman’s piece. I’m not sure that one was, but one his pieces was in "The Nation.” Yes, this one was in "The Nation” magazine.
What’s the relationship between liberalism in "The New Republic” and liberalism in "The Nation”?
BEINART: That’s a good question, not an easy question. "The Nation” and "The New Republic” are both magazines that have a long history of being associated with liberalism. And they’ve also taken different twists and turns at different moments. They’ve not been static.
I would say, if one had to generalize in recent history, "The Nation” has had, been more interested in the relationship between liberalism and radicalism. And "The Nation” has been a magazine with brought liberal – which saw itself as bringing liberals and radicals together.
And that meant it was much more suspicious of the whole notion of a Cold War, of America that was focused on anticommunism than "The New Republic,” which I think, certainly in the years since Marty Peretz bought it, has basically believed that the Cold War was the right prism, it was morally right.
Anti-communism was morally right. And I think you still see some of those strains today, where I think, where "The New Republic” has wanted to pursue a very aggressive war against what George W. Bush calls terrorism, what I would call totalitarian Islam, and supported, in fact, the war in Iraq, but it supported a much broader panoply of efforts.
And I think "The Nation” is much more – has many more questions about whether, in fact, this war on terrorism is the right way for America to approach the world.
LAMB: Now, in the past, Marty Peretz has had some differences with editors. When you decided to be for this war, did you have to get his permission?
BEINART: It was part of a conversation. You know, one of the – when you’re – a magazine is, not to be too grandiose, a little bit like a court. You have precedent. When a new issue comes up, you go back and look, well, how have we thought about these kinds of issues in the past? You don’t make it up from scratch.
"The New Republic” supported the Gulf War. And it not only supported the Gulf War, but it was generally sympathetic to the idea that America should try to topple Saddam Hussein then. And that was a concern throughout the 1990s. It was very hawkish in its view of America’s role in the Balkans under Bill Clinton.
So, there was a tradition that one could look at and say, it is in keeping with our principles to believe that Saddam Hussein is a threat, and the Middle East would be a better place without him.
LAMB: And this article that came out in December, and it’s titled "A Fighting Faith,” when did you decide to do that? And did you think you were going to get the kind of reaction you got?
BEINART: I didn’t think I would get this kind of reaction. You know, you never know when you write something, what kind of reaction you’ll get.
I started thinking about this after John Kerry lost. I thought he was going to win. I really did. I was surprised. I was very disappointed. And I was very struck by the lack of trust that Americans seemed to have in him and in the Democratic Party and in liberals on national security.
And I went – I started thinking about, when was a time when Americans did trust liberals on national security, when liberals had a vision that could capture the country and also do a lot of good for the world? And what can we learn from that period?
And it was in reading about that period – the period of the late 1940s – and that I came to this article.
LAMB: When did liberals first get the idea of being strong on national security? I mean, the first picture you see in your article is Harry Truman.
BEINART: That’s right. Well, this story goes back, certainly, through Franklin Roosevelt and even to Woodrow Wilson. But I started my article in the late 1940s, in 1946 and 1947. And the reason is because, the Cold War started very quickly in America. And it was a radically new national security era.
And in that way, I think there are real parallels with the era after September 11th. September 11th came out of the blue. And it changed America’s relationship with the world, and it changed American politics.
And the years at the very beginning of the Cold War were years when liberalism redefined itself. It made anticommunism the center of what it meant to be a liberal. And I think that allowed it to compete politically against conservatives, but also created a framework for us to create a more just society at home.
And I think that that is what liberals have by and large not done in the years since September 11th. And I think that that’s the project that we need to have.
LAMB: Who are the "softs”?
BEINART: The "softs” was a term that was coined by a magazine called, "The New Leader” in 1950. "The New Leader” was a magazine in some ways somewhat similar, you might say, to "The New Republic” today.
It was liberal magazine, but a very passionately anticommunist magazine, and a magazine that believed that American power in the world was necessary to promote democracy and to fight communism. And it categorized liberals at this time as "hards” and "softs.”
And what it meant by "softs” were the people associated with Henry Wallace, who challenged Harry Truman for the presidency in 1948. People who said anticommunism should not be what be what it means to be a liberal, that communists could be allies in liberalism’s domestic fight. And in fact they had been. They were very supportive of civil rights and the New Deal.
But that liberalism’s fights should be only with the right, with conservatives, and that America did not need to exercise its power in the world in opposition to the Soviet Union.
I think there are some similarities. Again, historical analogies, I recognize, are always fraught – but there are some similarities today with someone like Michael Moore, who opposed the war in Afghanistan, but not only that, generally talks about this new era, the threat from terrorism as something that George W. Bush has ginned up, as something manufactured by the Carlisle Group and the people around George W. Bush. And I think that is a mentality that really needs to be debated amongst liberals.
LAMB: Should Michael Moore go away, in your opinion?
BEINART: Well, I don’t know what it means to go away. He certainly has the right to make movies. But I think it should be clear that he is not someone who speaks for liberals.
It seems to me, that I think liberals should be saying that George W. Bush didn’t do enough in Afghanistan. And John Kerry said this, to his credit, that George W. Bush, by not being willing to put American troops on the ground, allowed many people in al Qaeda to get away at Tora Bora. And the Bush administration has not taken homeland security seriously.
When you have someone like Michael Moore who is seen to represent a lot of liberals, who opposed the war in Afghanistan, and mocked the very idea of homeland security, because he says that the threat is something manufactured by George W. Bush – that undercuts those liberals who are trying to say, no. We can fight this war better.
And that’s why I think one needs to be much clearer about the fact that he does not speak for American liberals.
LAMB: Can you remember a professor in your undergrad times or at Oxford that made a big impact on these kind of issues on you?
BEINART: Yes. There were a number of them. A political scientist at Yale named David Mayhew, who is a wonderful student of American government. An American historian who wrote a wonderful book about Americans for Democratic Action – one of the groups I write about – named Steven Gillen.
A professor of African history, since I spent a lot of time studying Africa, named David Aster (ph). Really, a professor named Diana Wylie, who studied southern Africa. Many – really, a wonderful group of people have had an influence on me.
LAMB: Now, do you come to a classroom like that with preconceived views? Or do you come to a classroom ready to learn, and decide then that those people are the ones that are – whatever their point of view – is the ones you believe in?
BEINART: Gosh. I think when I came to those classes, I didn’t really know what they believed in. I knew what the subject was. I didn’t know what they believed.
And then, to some degree, I don’t, still don’t know what their particular ideological perspective is. What I know is that they taught me about how to be an academic, about what it meant to be an historian, what it meant to take the path seriously.
And even though I – and I thought I wanted to be an historian – even though I ended up becoming a journalist instead, those lessons stayed with me a long time.
LAMB: Do historians, from what you know, write from a basis of history or from a basis of their ideology applied to history?
BEINART: Gosh. I think most historians would tell you that they try to honestly and fairly look at the documents in front of them, at the primary text they’re looking for, and then paint a picture of a certain period or in response to a certain question, based on where the evidence would take them, that there may be theoretical and ideological questions that come up, but they are secondary.
But the primary questions have to do with where they evidence leads them.
LAMB: And what did you learn about liberalism at Oxford?
BEINART: That’s a very good question. For one thing, I think I got a foretaste of the rise in anti-Americanism that we have seen in the last few years.
I think George W. Bush has done a lot to increase anti-Americanism. I think his administration and conservatism, in general, have not nearly taken this phenomenon seriously enough as a strategic threat.
But it is also true that anti-Americanism did not start with George W. Bush. Even in the ‘90s when Bill Clinton was president, I was really struck by the hostility, particularly on the left, to the United States that I saw around the – in Oxford – a feeling that America was a force for bad things in the world, and that, in fact, that the world would be better off if America retreated from the world.
And that was a view that I vigorously disagreed with and that I thought that many of the people who were promoting it were highly irresponsible morally. And that is a feeling that I have retained in the years since.
LAMB: Now, that was during the Bill Clinton years.
LAMB: What did they think of Bill Clinton at Oxford?
BEINART: He wasn’t, by and large, that popular. It’s funny. I suspect that many people now in Britain may think fondly back to him, because they dislike George W. Bush so much.
But my memory of it was that he was not that popular, actually, that America was still considered to be throwing its weight around in the world. There was great opposition to America’s view and ultimate intervention in Bosnia, which was a very controversial issue back then.
And America was not often looked upon – at least the American government – looked upon that kindly. And I think this was resentment about America’s influence in the world by people who ultimately had no alternative model for how they would create a more just world if America were to retreat.
LAMB: If you had to pick a book off of your bookshelf that would represent a lot of what you think, either a philosopher or a historian or a political scientist, who would it be?
BEINART: Gosh, that’s such a wonderful …
LAMB: It doesn’t have to be one. I mean, it could be more than one.
BEINART: Well, let me mention a few. One of the central texts of liberalism, and certainly the period I’m writing about, is a book by Arthur Schlesinger called "The Vital Center,” that he wrote in 1949. It’s summing up the kind of liberalism that I think we need to look back to today.
Schlesinger talked about totalitarianism as the central opposition to what liberalism was. He said – what he meant by the vital center was the idea that liberalism should be centered, should be in the center between fascism and communism. Unlike people like Henry Wallace who saw liberalism as something close to communism, he said, no. Liberalism is equidistant from the two great totalitarian forces of our time – fascism and communism. And I think that is valuable for us to recognize today, when we think about a totalitarian movement like al Qaeda.
To mention a couple of more recent books, two people who are great heroes of mine from a later period of liberalism are Allard Lowenstein, who may have been one of the authors of that speech of Robert Kennedy’s in 1966. There’s a wonderful biography of him by an historian named William Chafe called "Never Stop Running.”
Allard Lowenstein was someone who recognized that in the 1960s liberalism had to change. It had to adapt to the great tumult of the anti-Vietnam war movement and the civil rights movement. But he never lost sight of the fact that liberalism had to be opposed to communism, and that it also had to believe that nonviolence and integration and working within the democratic process could ultimately bring social change.
And he always recognized what too many other liberals of that period did not recognize. Was that liberalism should never look down on the white working class in the United States. It should never see itself as superior to them, never see them as the enemy.
The other person …
LAMB: Before you go on, I want to tell our audience that if they want to read something about William Chafe and the book on Allard Lowenstein, it’s on BookNotes.org’s Web site, because he was a guest here some time ago. And they can just search and find – you know, it’s an hour’s worth of discussion about who Allard Lowenstein was.
He’s buried right out here in Arlington Cemetery, quietly off to the side, near the Kennedy grave. And the reason I mention it, I want you to tell us who he was and why he died young.
BEINART: He was tragically shot, assassinated by a former protégé of his who had become mentally ill, in 1980.
Allard Lowenstein was someone who – he got his start in something called the National Students Association. And he became a real – he was a real leader of the student movement in the 1960s, but not the student movement that one would associate with Students for a Democratic Society, and what’s become known as the New Left, which basically had a very radical critique of the United States, which was opposed to the belief that America should oppose communism, or what I would call anti-anticommunist, and also had lost faith in the idea that America’s democratic institutions could produce change.
That wasn’t Allard Lowenstein’s student activism. His student activism was the student activism more associated with the early ‘60s, with John F. Kennedy, with the idea that while Vietnam was a tragic, tragic mistake and a terrible misuse of American power, it didn’t obviate the need for America to stand up to the Soviet Union around the world.
And beyond that, that even though African Americans, in particular, were growing increasingly angry about the injustice in American society, that injustice could still be addressed within the context of America’s democratic framework, that America did not need violence or revolution.
Allard Lowenstein ran – was in the House of Representatives for one term, from 1968 till 1970, when he was gerrymandered out of his seat on Long Island.
But in that period, one of the most poignant things about that race was – he runs in 1970, even though the odds are completely against him and Chafe writes beautifully about this – is that unlike other liberals at that time, he recognized that liberals who were opposed to the Vietnam War must never disrespect the military, must never look down on the traditional values of working class Americans, must never see the struggle for civil rights as something that was in opposition to white working class people who were struggling to get by.
That was the great, one of the great tragedies of American liberalism in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, is that in their concern for African Americans they turned their back on struggling, white working class people. And in turn, white working class people, who had been the bedrock of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition, turned on liberals.
The two people who I admire the most in that period are Allard Lowenstein, who recognized that, and a man named Bayard Rustin. And there’s also a wonderful new biography called "Lost Prophet” about Bayard Rustin.
Bayard Rustin, the man who organized the 1963 March on Washington, who started saying in 1964 – very early, in 1964 – wait a second. Civil rights cannot – it has to be about helping all people. It has to be about economic justice for the white poor as well as the black poor. It has to bring the labor movement in.
He spoke to the Teamsters – who became one of the classic, white backlash labor unions, and it eventually endorsed Richard Nixon – and said, civil rights is for you, too. And he saw that many, many years before many other people did. And he also fought to save liberalism.
And those are two of the people who I really admire from that period.
LAMB: Now, if do the math, you couldn’t have been alive in 1964.
BEINART: No. I was not alive in 1964.
LAMB: But I get a sense that you wouldn’t mind being back in those days. I mean, it seems like, that as a writer, that was – those days appeal to you.
BEINART: Yes. Those days appeal to me a great deal. The period of the late ‘40s and ‘50s appeals to me tremendously, and the early ‘60s, because it’s an era of liberal success and achievement, and confidence.
But there is great pathos in the tragedy of what happens to liberalism in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, when it had the opportunity to do such great things, and I think did do great things – the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, even the Great Society, even though conservatives trash it every day.
The Great Society reduced poverty in America significantly. It did great things. But yet it was destroyed by the backlash that was produced against the left. And I think that is really one of the great tragedies for liberals.
LAMB: Of all of the politicians back in those days, which one would you be likely following today if he were still around?
BEINART: Well, certainly Robert Kennedy was the great hope for many people. And the reason he was the great hope was that he turned against the Vietnam War, but he didn’t turn against anticommunism. He didn’t turn against the notion that America had a powerful role in the world.
And he was able to speak to the white working class, unlike Eugene McCarthy, who also ran in 1968, originally challenged Lyndon Johnson, who was really someone who appealed mostly to students and to the upper middle class.
Kennedy could speak to African Americans, but he could also speak to the white working class who eventually went for Richard Nixon and even for George Wallace. So, Kennedy is clearly an important figure.
Another interesting figure later on, although a much more controversial figure amongst liberals, is Scoop Jackson, the senator from Washington State, who runs for president in 1972 and 1976.
Scoop Jackson is considered by many people the father of neoconservatism, because many people who worked for him, including someone like Richard Perle, went on into the Reagan administration and became a prominent what’s known as neoconservative.
And it’s true that, in terms of what he said about foreign policy, there was a great deal of overlap between Scoop Jackson and Ronald Reagan. But Scoop Jackson would not endorse Ronald Reagan in 1980.
On domestic, Scoop Jackson was a great environmentalist, and on economic policy he always retained his belief in the New Deal and the idea that government could be a force for good in people’s lives, not in the unregulated market. And that’s something that I think neoconservatives forget about Scoop Jackson, but one of the things that I admire about him.
LAMB: So, what politician today – and it can be more than one – would more than likely get your attention for your views?
BEINART: I’m an admirer of Joseph Biden, the senator from Delaware. I think – I loved his speech at the Democratic Convention, which I wish would have gotten more attention, which I much prefer to John Kerry’s speech.
I think Biden has – somehow (ph) he always hit the right notes about to approach the world, in a number of ways. First of all, he hasn’t criticized the Bush administration for doing too much since 9/11. He’s criticized it for doing too little. He’s called it timid. I think that’s exactly right. It has been timid. There’s been no Marshall Plan by this administration for education in the Muslim world, so kids will have an alternative to these madrasas where they learn to hate.
Biden believes in multilateralism, but with – I felt with Senator John Kerry, it sometimes sounded like an end in and of itself, a principle in and of itself. It’s not.
Biden talked about multilateralism only as a means to achieve freedom in the Muslim world and American safety. And he wasn’t afraid of challenging the Europeans, of saying, you should be helping us in Iraq, even if you opposed the war in the beginning.
So I’m admirer of Joe Biden.
And I’m an admirer of John Edwards. I think on foreign policy his ideas are not as developed as on domestic policy. But he had a critique of the Bush administration on domestic policy, on economic policy during the campaign that I found very compelling.
What he said was, the Bush administration does not value work. What it wants to do is continually cut taxes on people who get their wealth through investment or trust funds or inheritances, but actually raise taxes through the backdoor for people who make their money by working.
And that unlike Bill Clinton, who rewarded work with things like the earned income tax credit which said, if you’re working hard but you’re still poor, the government will give you a bit more – that George W. Bush is moving in exactly the opposite direction.
That was a way of framing the liberal economic critique within a moral critique, which I think is very, very important. And I admire John Edwards for that.
LAMB: You haven’t mentioned Hillary Clinton.
BEINART: I admire what Hillary Clinton has done as a senator. I admire – she – I admire her steadfastness on Iraq. I think that people of goodwill can certainly disagree about the Iraq war. Many of people who I have great respect for oppose the Iraq war, and I myself at times have been despondent about how the war has gone and very angry about the way it’s been prosecuted.
But what I like about Hillary Clinton is that she supported the $87 billion. I think that was a very important moment for liberalism. I think that John Kerry and John Edwards made a real grave mistake when they voted against that.
I can understand that they wanted to pay for it, that they wanted to take the money out of the tax cuts for the very wealthy. Absolutely right.
But once they lost on that vote, they should have voted for the money, because having supported the war – and even if they hadn’t supported the war – once we were engaged there, to vote against money for building hospitals and schools in Iraq, when we know that it’s hospitals and schools that are the ultimate way that we’re going to defeat this totalitarian ideology represented against al Qaeda.
I think that was an illiberal thing to do. I think they were wrong. And I admire Hillary Clinton for her steadfastness.
LAMB: So, in your opinion, do people like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden and John Kerry and John Edwards, did they decide what they believed first, and then announce it? Or did they look at the polls and calculate – pick any of these folks – Hillary Clinton says, I’m going to run in 2006, and then for president in 2008. John Kerry says, I need to make a decision now.
Where do you think they come out on these kind of decisions? Do they decide from principle? Or do they decide what will be expedient politically?
BEINART: I really don’t know the answer to that question. I think – I’m not close enough to their operations to know that.
I would imagine with most politicians, it is something of both. There is an element of conviction, and then there’s an element of having to respond to politics.
But I think one of the fascinating lessons of American politics in recent years has been that politicians of conviction – and I think of someone like John McCain, for instance – and actually able to do far better politically than conventional analysts like me often think they will be.
We think there are certain rules in American politics about how you win and how you lose. And yet, politicians who seem honest, who seem authentic, who seem to speak from their heart, often blow those rules away, whether they’re on the far left or the far right or the center.
I think of people like Ross Perot or – not people I necessarily agree with – Ross Perot or Pat Buchanan or Jerry Brown or John McCain, or even Ralph Nader, can do much better than people recognize. And I think there is a political value in being honest and being authentic and saying what you believe.
LAMB: So, what do you admire in George Bush?
BEINART: I admire the fact that he is loyal to the people around him, and that he inspires loyalty from the people around him. I think that that – if you look at the Gore campaign and the Kerry campaign, one of the great problems of those two campaigns is, those two people did not have people around them who were loyal to them, who believed in them.
And they did not have disciplined operations. I admire the discipline of this operation.
Many of the things that it allows George W. Bush to do are things that I bitterly oppose. But one cannot help but admire the way they run that operation.
I also admired much of his inaugural address this year about the power of freedom. I think it is a wonderful thing when an American president says, to those people in dictatorships around the world sitting in jail cells, we believe in you and we’ll stand for you.
I think that’s wonderful. I’m glad he said that.
What bothers me is that there is not a corresponding sense that America needs to change. This is what I was talking about with Robert Kennedy.
I think one of the reasons there is so much cynicism about this rhetoric around the world is that George W. Bush says to the world, you must accept unprecedented infringement upon your sovereignty in hopes of becoming better societies.
But any suggestion that America should be asked to change, that we should be part of some common effort through a treaty or an international institution that will require us to be held to a higher moral standard, that is immediately rebuffed.
In fact, when the Red Cross wants to come in and inspect our jails to see if people are being tortured – and we now know that they are, they were being tortured – we moved – we found that we have moved our prisoners around to evade the Red Cross.
It seems to me, when you do that, you undermine your ability to be able to call on other countries to improve themselves. America has to look at itself, not only look at the rest of the world.
And I think that’s one of the ways of diminishing this overwhelming sense of arrogance that comes across when America speaks to the world, when its president speaks to the world.
LAMB: By the way, what do you think will happen if John Kerry runs again in 2008? I mean, what do you hear?
BEINART: My own view would be that he shouldn’t run. I think he’s had his opportunity. I don’t think that he laid out a compelling vision of what the Democratic Party stood for. I say this with no ill will towards John Kerry. I think it’s other people’s turn.
I don’t know whether he’ll run, but my instinct would be, it is unusual in American politics for someone having got the nomination to get a second try. And usually, when they do, I think it is a sign of some degree of ideological exhaustion.
I think about Adlai Stevenson running in 1952 and 1956. I hope we are not in a period of such ideological exhaustion for liberals.
LAMB: All right. Let’s go back to the book. You’re at Brookings.
LAMB: You have an office there.
BEINART: I do.
LAMB: You have a how many month respite from "The New Republic”?
BEINART: Say, eight months.
LAMB: And what does Marty Peretz do in that timeframe?
BEINART: Well, luckily, we have a very, very able executive editor who is serving as acting editor, named Peter Scoblic – a very, very talented guy. And he is really running the magazine day to day. I still help out. I go in two mornings a week. And, of course, Marty Peretz is always a presence there. And we have other editors and writers, a very talented group. So they’re doing very well.
LAMB: What do you want this – is this book going to be a larger version of your article?
BEINART: Yes. The book is going to be – it’s going to try to sketch out a vision of a different kind of liberalism, a liberalism that has an anti-totalitarianism at its heart.
And be partly a critique of what conservatism has been since 9/11. But particularly a critique of what liberalism has not achieved since 9/11, with a hope that the history of liberalism can illuminate some of the possibilities.
LAMB: By the way, again I want to mention to our audience that we have your article at cspan.org. Right there in the little bug, the little orange bug that’s featured items, so they can read this publication.
"The New Republic” – somebody was criticizing it, maybe it was Eric Alterman, as only having 60,000 subscribers, and that you’re in a downtime.
What do you say to him?
BEINART: No. I think that’s not true. I think the magazine circulation has been steady. We’ve seen a huge increase on our Web site, which is where many people are coming to the magazine.
And I think "The New Republic” is continuing to have a very powerful role in this debate about what liberalism is and about what the Democratic Party should be.
And so, I think it – and I think we have a wonderful, very talented group of writers, who are doing some of the best journalism around. And I think it’s a very good time for the magazine.
LAMB: Again, liberalism – do you think it’s good idea to use that term if you’re a politician?
BEINART: I don’t know, if you’re a politician. Again, one of the wonderful things about being a journalist is, you don’t have to think about things like that. Whether a political consultant would say it’s good, I – people tend to like to use the word "progressive” more.
I find that somewhat ironic, in a way, because when Harry Truman ran against – when Henry Wallace ran against Harry Truman, he ran on the progressive line. And so, for me, progressivism still has this connotation, actually, of something which is to the left of liberalism, and doesn’t share liberalism’s anti-totalitarian principle.
Maybe a politician would find that this word has too much negative valence. But I think it’s very important for me to use it, and for other people who don’t have to run for office to use it, because it expresses an intellectual tradition. And we can’t give up on that intellectual tradition.
LAMB: How would you grade the conservative talk show hosts, who have used the word liberalism for years, now, as a skewer? Have they been successful?
BEINART: I think they have been fairly successful, in terms of demonizing liberalism. There’s no question about that.
Although I think it’s also important to recognize that liberals have to look at themselves and the way their own mistakes and misdeeds have tarnished the reputation of liberalism.
But I think the truth – I mean, most conservative talk show hosts, when they talk about liberalism, never define what they mean. They’re basically creating a straw man for them to knock down, and they’re not being really intellectually honest.
If they were, they would have to deal with the fact, for instance, that George W. Bush’s inaugural speech was in many ways, had many of the classic trademarks of the liberal tradition, going back to Woodrow Wilson. And that’s not something that you usually hear conservative talk show hosts acknowledging.
LAMB: So, what do you think, when George Bush said during the campaign, I’m not a nation builder, is this a total flip-flop?
BEINART: I think it is a flip-flop. And I think that one of the great problems I have with the Bush administration and with conservatives since 9/11, is that it has partly changed, but I think not changed fully.
Which is to say, there is now this belief, I think, in the Bush administration that American military force in the world can be a transformative agent, an agent for freedom and democracy. And I agree with that to some degree, but not only American military force.
The Bush administration, I think one of the reasons they didn’t do nearly enough planning for the Iraq war, one of the reasons they didn’t, hadn’t worked to try to create a military that could successfully be nation building was that they didn’t believe in nation building. They still don’t believe in nation building, even as they’re involved in the most ambitious nation building exercise in many years.
Donald Rumsfeld closed down the Peacekeeping Institute, just a few months before the Iraq war. And I think that that has to do with a notion they have about American power that is very limited, which is to say, they believe in American military power.
But nation building for them, that smacks of what was called in the 1990s social work. That seems to them not – that’s not something that they have a great belief in.
And you see that in their lack of willingness to make a real effort on foreign aid, to really fight the social and political and economic roots of totalitarian Islam. And I think you see that that has led up to many of the problems that we have in Iraq.
The Bush administration is doing nation building, but it still doesn’t really believe in nation building.
LAMB: In a piece that you wrote in the WashingtonPost.com, March 6, 2005, you write, "The biggest problem is cultural. Democrats should acknowledge that at times the left’s understandable anger over Vietnam degenerated into a lack of respect for the military.”
That seems to have really ticked off a lot of people on the blogs, because – well, you’ve seen the blogs. And why did they react so strongly to your position on that?
BEINART: Well, I guess some of them feel that they themselves respect the military. And I’m sure they do. And I think that’s great. And I am not – but I think that one has to deal with perceptions. I think that there is, I think – there was, in the protest movement during the Vietnam War, a hostility to the military.
There were flags of North – of the NLF at many of the big protest marches in Washington. This is one of the things that Allard Lowenstein and Bayard Rustin were so concerned about, at the message that was being sent. Not that that was what most people in the antiwar movement, but that many did.
There was a hostility to the police and to the military that came to epitomize the New Left view of its opposition to the war. And I think that has left real scars, particularly about the way that people who came back from Vietnam felt they were treated in American culture.
And I think that that is part of why liberals had so much trouble winning over military voters in the years since. And I think that’s very important.
And one of the issues that I point out is this issue about the military’s inability to recruit on many college campuses and law schools, because they violate the antidiscrimination laws.
I think that the military’s policies against gays and lesbians are absolutely wrong. And I believe in fighting them. I believe that gays – it’s a tragedy that gays and lesbians are not allowed to serve openly in the military.
However, I think it is very wrong for these liberal academic institutions to use that as a reason to not allow the military to recruit. That seems to me to send a message of disrespect during a time of war that is very harmful. And if liberals really believe they have something to add in this fight that we’re involved in, they shouldn’t be alienating themselves from the military.
So that may make people on some of the blogs upset, but it’s my point of view.
LAMB: But doesn’t that go to the fundamental position that people have who are liberal who say, why would we let that military on here when they discriminate? I mean, how do you get past that?
BEINART: I think it’s a question of perspective. You can argue, again, that the military should not discriminate. You can try to fight that, without throwing – without giving up on the military, which is – we have treated the military as a hostile institution, which is basically what you do when you say, you can’t come on to our campus.
That’s wrong. The military does – I think the military is wrong in this regard. But fundamentally, it’s our military. We need to be part of it. We need to support it.
And our elite, liberal institutions – which are culturally quite alienated from the military, if you look at the fact that most people in the officer corps describe themselves as conservative – need, I think, to work to overcome that.
One of the reasons is that I think a greater connection with the military will help liberals show Americans that they can be trusted on questions of national security. That would help to give liberals a kind of a credibility. And that credibility is very important.
LAMB: I want to switch the subject a little bit here and ask you about the media.
Where is the – in your opinion – where is the power today in the political discussion in the media?
BEINART: You mean, in what kinds of institutions? You mean, on the left or the right? Or what …
LAMB: Well, I mean, if today you had to point your finger to four or five institutions that are places where people go now to get their direction in politics …
BEINART: Good question.
LAMB: … and who have an influence on the discussion and setting the agenda and all that.
BEINART: I think first and foremost, without a doubt, are still the elite newspapers – the "New York Times,” the "Washington Post,” the "Wall Street Journal,” the "L.A. Times.” I think there’s no question about it.
I think they set the agenda for TV, to a large extent. I think that the cable news shows are really looking at what is considered important by those newspapers in deciding what, then, they want to have discussions about.
And I think the blogs, even though the blogs have become very important, the blogs are often playing off of, and commenting on, what is in those newspapers, often critically. And it is those newspapers, still, that are providing much of the best reporting, day in and day out, about what’s happening in the rest of the world.
As someone from an opinion magazine, we do reporting, yes. But you can’t have opinions unless you have information. And those are still our best sources of information.
LAMB: OK. Put yourself aside, because this piece obviously has made a difference. Who’s doing the most original thinking who’s writing today, about any of these of these subjects we’re talking about?
BEINART: Gosh. There are a lot of people. To choose someone on my own magazine – although I won’t only choose people on my own magazine – John Judas, who’s a colleague of mine, who actually quite disagrees with this article, has a somewhat different perspective. I think he’s done very, very important work, also looking at history.
He wrote a book about America’s history with empire, about Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt as a way of looking at this period. He’s now looking at the history, about the relationship between religion and foreign policy. I think he’s having a very important impact.
I think on the right, George Will is someone who is a very, very important voice for what’s conservatism is in America today, someone with – someone – one of my critiques of some degree of conservatives, is that they’re willing to move with whatever the Bush administration says. And the Bush administration radically redefines conservatism going, in saying we should be against nation building to being for, and they all jump on the bandwagon.
One of the things I really admire about George W. Will is, I think – George Will – is I think he has a deeper understanding of what it means to be a conservative, and what that intellectual tradition means. And that means he doesn’t get as swayed as much by what the Republican Party happens to be saying at that particular moment, even though he is often in agreement with them.
LAMB: In one of our discussions on Q&A we had Paul Weyrich here, who was the founder of the Heritage Foundation. And you’re at Brookings right now.
Where are the hubs around town now, where there is power among these think tanks? Which ones are the strongest?
BEINART: Well, the conservative think tanks, I think, are going to have an advantage, because its their movement that’s in power, so they are going to have greater access to the instruments of power.
LAMB: Which ones?
BEINART: Well, I think certainly an institution like the American Enterprise Institute has been very influential in helping to set what you might call the neoconservative foreign policy agenda. No question about that.
Heritage, I think, perhaps a little bit less influential in terms of the big ideas, but influential at a programmatic level, in terms of specific legislation.
I think on the liberal side, I think Brookings has always been seen as a place where the quality of scholarship was exceptionally high, and has a number of people who have really gotten a lot of attention for their work. If you think of someone like Ken Pollack, for instance, who I think was probably, maybe the single most important liberal supporter of the Iraq war and now has an important book about Iran.
The new Center For American Progress, started by John Podesta, I think has become a very important way for liberals to get out their message. A place like the New America Foundation, the Progressive Policy Institute, which is connected to the DLC, is a place for which I have a great – a lot of sympathy (ph) for many of the people there.
So there are a number of institutions on the liberal side …
LAMB: And this may sound like a strange question, but what’s it like inside a think tank? I mean, outsiders looking in, you think about it’s just a – it’s a clubby atmosphere, that you all get together every day and, you know, a lot of conversation and trading ideas.
What’s it like?
BEINART: My experience is that it’s a very quiet place. It’s a place that people allow you the time and space to do your work, although they are very collegial. I found it a wonderful place, not elitist at all. Friendly, but serious.
And I think one of the great things about a think tank is that people actually have the time to reflect. I think one of the concerns that I sometimes have about what’s happening with journalism is, the pressure to respond immediately to things always, to have an opinion immediately and put it on the Web, leads people to not have the time to really reflect and think and read and try to come up with more considered opinions.
And one of the things I really admire about Brookings is that, that’s what people there do.
LAMB: You know, somebody – and commentators always suggest that if only John Kerry – and not just, any race – if only John Kerry or Bob Dole or whatever candidate in the past had changed this or changed that, they could have gotten elected.
Is there – does anybody ever just say, the person that won, won because people like him more than they like the other guy?
BEINART: I think some people have said that. I think some people have said that George W. Bush just personally resonated with people. People felt comfortable with him, in a way that Al Gore and John Kerry did not.
I think there are different things that John Kerry could have done. But I also think it’s important to look at John Kerry’s background.
John Kerry’s background on national security in the 1980s and into the 1990s, I think was not as strong as it could have been. And I think that also, he opposed the Gulf War, for instance. And I think that undermined his credibility to some degree.
I think were other Democrats who would have had a stronger background in national security.
LAMB: Let me ask you about something that’s way off. You mentioned Al Gore, and I want to ask you about him, because Marty Peretz taught him at Howard, and supported him in the magazine.
I don’t want to characterize what happened to Al Gore after the election, but it’s not – you know, his behavior after the election was – unusual. What he was willing to talk about, the fact that he’s not been interviewed very much. He’s really not gone over the details of the election and all that.
What – do you know him? And what was his strategy? And he’s already taken himself out of 2008. Why did he ever suggest that he might run again in 2008? And what happened there?
BEINART: I really have no idea. I don’t know Al Gore at all.
And so, I really, honestly can’t speculate about why he’s – how he’s handled things since the election.
LAMB: Well, that – long question and a short answer.
Another quote in this piece in December was about – you say, or take Saudi Arabia where bin Laden is wildly popular.
If bin Laden or his local associates took control of the Saudi oil supply, the U.S. economy would plunge into depression.
BEINART: That’s right. And I don’t – is this a likely scenario? No, I don’t think it’s a likely scenario.
LAMB: Why not?
BEINART: Well, I think that the Saudi government has woken up to some degree to the threat that bin Laden represents. And they are heavily armed, and I think they are trying to keep control of their society.
But I think it is – there are surveys that suggest that bin Laden is very popular in Saudi Arabia. Maybe his popularity has declined a little bit in some of the recent attacks on Saudi soil.
But it is, if not bin Laden himself, it seems to me that the opposition in Saudi Arabia right now comes more from the kind of theology that he is promoting than from a liberal one. And that the consequences of a change of government in Saudi Arabia, or chaos in Saudi Arabia, to the American economy would be absolutely dramatic.
And this is just yet another reason that there are deep national security – national interest concerns for America in the future of what happens in the Muslim world.
LAMB: You wrote in one of your articles, Iowa caucuses have remained a graveyard for hawkish Democrats. I just use that to ask you a question.
In 2008, will there be an Iowa followed by a New Hampshire primary? Or will the Democratic Party change all that and have more states involved earlier?
BEINART: Well, my hope would be – I know that there’s a commission looking at this. I think it’s unlikely that the Iowa caucuses will be abolished, or will not be first.
My hope will be, they will be not the only thing that is first, there will be a number of states that are allowed to participate on that same day. I think that would be very good.
My problem with the Iowa caucus is that caucuses by their nature attract very small turnout compared to primaries. You have a much smaller cross-section of who the Democratic Party is. And that naturally tends to skew it toward the parties after this (ph) days (ph).
And I think that’s problematic. It keeps candidates like a Joe Lieberman, or in the Republican Party like a John McCain, who might have greater appeal to the larger country, from being able to actually compete.
I don’t have a problem with New Hampshire, where participation rates are quite high, and it’s a primary, independents participate. But I think New Hampshire – even if Iowa were a primary, I would be more OK with it.
But a caucus, which I think in some ways is actually quite undemocratic, you know. If you work the nightshift and you’ve got to be at the Iowa caucuses at 6:00 p.m., what are you going to do if you work at night?
There’s no absentee balloting. The voting is not even really private. I don’t think that a caucus is really the right way to choose the presidential candidates.
LAMB: Some short things before we close it down.
Are you married?
LAMB: Do you have children?
LAMB: Your South – former South African parents, are they alive?
LAMB: Is your father still teaching?
LAMB: At Harvard?
LAMB: MIT. And teaching what?
BEINART: He teaches architecture and urban planning.
LAMB: And was your mom – you say your mom was a teacher?
BEINART: My mother – my mother has been, has run a film program at Harvard’s Kennedy school, and is also been a real estate agent. And when my parents were at MIT, they actually lived in one of the dormitories, and my mother was very involved in taking care of the students.
LAMB: And what do your parents think of your position in all of this and what you’re doing? Are you doing what they expected you to do?
BEINART: I don’t know what they expected of me. They’re very supportive. Sometimes they – sometimes they would disagree with me on particular points, but they are very supportive. They’re wonderful parents, and they really are the foundation of all of these interests of mine.
LAMB: Peter Beinart on leave for another eight months, writing a book on liberalism at the Brookings Institution. Editor of "The New Republic,” thank you very much.
BEINART: Thank you.