Thursday, February 15, 2007

Today David Brooks leaps to Hillary’s defence. With friends like Bobo … … And Bob Herbert tells us about Tavis Smiley. Let’s deal with Bobo first:

Far be it from me to get in the middle of a liberal purge, but would anybody mind if I pointed out that the calls for Hillary Clinton to apologize for her support of the Iraq war are almost entirely bogus?

I mean, have the people calling for her apology actually read the speeches she delivered before the war? Have they read her remarks during the war resolution debate, when she specifically rejected a pre-emptive, unilateral attack on Saddam? Did they read the passages in which she called for a longer U.N. inspections regime and declared, “I believe international support and legitimacy are crucial”?

If they went back and read what Senator Clinton was saying before the war, they’d be surprised, as I was, by her approach. And they’d learn something, as I did, about what kind of president she would make.

The Iraq war debate began in earnest in September 2002. At that point Clinton was saying in public what Colin Powell was saying in private: emphasizing the need to work through the U.N. and build a broad coalition to enforce inspections.

She delivered her Senate resolution speech on Oct. 10. It was Clintonian in character. On the one hand, she rejected the Bush policy of pre-emptive war. On the other hand, she also rejected the view that the international community “should only resort to force if and when the United Nations Security Council approves it.” Drawing on the lessons of Bosnia, she said sometimes the world had to act, even if the big powers couldn’t agree.

She sought a third way: more U.N. resolutions, more inspections, more diplomacy, with the threat of force reserved as a last resort. She was triangulating, but the Senate resolution offered her a binary choice. She voted yes in order to give Powell bipartisan leverage at the U.N.

This is how she’s always explained that vote, and I confess that until now, I’ve regarded her explanation as a transparent political dodge. Didn’t everyone know this was a war resolution? But now, having investigated her public comments, I think diplomatic leverage really was on her mind. I also know, from a third person, that she was spending a lot of time with Powell and wanted to help.

On Nov. 8, 2002, the Security Council passed a unanimous resolution threatening Saddam with “serious consequences” if he didn’t disarm.

The next crucial period came in March 2003, as the U.S. battled France over the second Security Council resolution. Clinton’s argument at this point was that inspections were working and should be given more time. “It is preferable that we do this in a peaceful manner through coercive inspection,” she said on March 3, but went on, “At some point we have to be willing to uphold the United Nations resolutions.” Then she added, “This is a very delicate balancing act.”

On March 17, Bush gave Saddam 48 hours to disarm or face attack. Clinton tried to be critical of the Bush policy while being deferential to the office of the presidency. She clearly had doubts about Bush’s timing, but she kept emphasizing that from her time in the White House, she knew how unhelpful it was for senators to be popping off in public on foreign policy.

At one press event in New York, she nodded when Charles Rangel said Bush had failed at the U.N. But when reporters asked Clinton to repeat what Rangel had just said, she bit her tongue. On March 17, as U.S. troops mobilized, she issued her strongest statement in support of the effort.

Clinton’s biggest breach with the liberal wing actually opened up later, in the fall of 2003. Most liberals went into full opposition, wanting to see Bush disgraced. Clinton — while an early critic of the troop levels, the postwar plans and all the rest — tried to stay constructive. She wanted to see America and Iraq succeed, even if Bush was not disgraced.

When you look back at Clinton’s thinking, you don’t see a classic war supporter. You see a person who was trying to seek balance between opposing arguments. You also see a person who deferred to the office of the presidency. You see a person who, as president, would be fox to Bush’s hedgehog: who would see problems in their complexities rather than in their essentials; who would elevate procedural concerns over philosophical ones; who would postpone decision points for as long as possible; and who would make distinctions few heed.

Today, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party believes that the world, and Hillary Clinton in particular, owes it an apology. If she apologizes, she’ll forfeit her integrity. She will be apologizing for being herself.

And now here’s Bob Herbert:

One of the better-kept secrets in the U.S. is the wide reach and extraordinary commitment of Tavis Smiley.

Mr. Smiley is reasonably well known as a media personality. He’s the host of a television talk show broadcast on PBS five nights a week and a weekly radio show. He’s also a regular commentator on the widely syndicated black-oriented radio program “The Tom Joyner Morning Show.”

But that doesn’t begin to capture the ever-widening swirl of activities, projects, programs and initiatives set in motion by this energetic, fast-talking, charismatic advocate and mentor, described by The Times’s Felicia R. Lee as “a cultural phenomenon.”

Largely out of the sight of the broader public, Mr. Smiley has quietly become one of the most effective black leaders in the nation. He’s always in motion, giving speeches, meeting with national leaders, conducting annual seminars on the “State of the Black Union” and offering how-to tips on important aspects of daily life for African-Americans.

Mr. Smiley constantly exhorts his followers and admirers to make better use of the traditional tools of advancement — education, hard work, citizen activism — to transcend the barriers of continued neglect and discrimination.

Next June, thanks to Mr. Smiley, the major presidential candidates will meet in a pair of prime-time debates on PBS — one for each party — to focus on issues of concern to African-American voters. That has never happened before.

About a year ago Mr. Smiley, who has written several books, edited a paperback titled “The Covenant With Black America.” It’s a guidebook, on matters large and small, for African-Americans, offering information and advice on issues that range from the importance of a healthy diet to closing the digital divide.

No one, except perhaps Mr. Smiley, expected much from the book. There’s nothing in the way of pizzazz in it. There are no celebrity scandals, no sex, no drugs, no rock ’n’ roll.

“I said let’s put a book together that’s easy to read,” said Mr. Smiley, “and that lays out what each individual can do, what the community together can do and what the body politic should do about these problems.”

Published by a little-known black-owned company in Chicago, Third World Press, the book became an astonishing success, rising to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list.

“That book went to No. 1 without any mainstream exposure,” said Mr. Smiley. “I didn’t mention it on my NPR and PBS shows because I don’t do that — I don’t use the shows to promote things that I’m connected to. Other than that, though, I drove the book as hard as I could.

“But Oprah wouldn’t touch it. ‘The Today Show’ wouldn’t touch it. ‘Good Morning America,’ NPR, Larry King — not a single mainstream media outlet said or did anything with that book. And it still went to No. 1. That tells me that there is a hunger and a thirst in black America for trying to turn this mess that we are in around.”

For all of his 21st-century media savvy, Mr. Smiley is in many ways an old-fashioned, idealistic leader who has managed in an era saturated with cynicism to cling to the eternal verities. His hero is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He believes it is still possible for ordinary citizens to hold public officials accountable. (“I’m still baffled, befuddled,” he says, “by how the president did not even mention New Orleans or Katrina in his State of the Union speech.”) He speaks openly about the importance of bringing love — yes, love — into the public discourse.

“When I was 13,” he said, “I vowed to God that that if I ever got the chance to make something of myself, I’d spend the rest of my life trying to love and serve other people. I still believe that love is the most powerful and transformative force in the world today. I love people and I get joy out of serving people.”

The cynics, of course, will have a field day with this. But Mr. Smiley, on his way to catch a flight, or hop a train, or racing down the highway to his next event, will no doubt be too busy to notice. He’s eager to do what he can about the sorry state of the public schools in the big cities, and the fact that there are too few jobs that pay a living wage, and all manner of other issues: child care, health care, the environment.

He is trying to do nothing less than generate a movement among black Americans that will “help make all of America better.”

The companion volume to “The Covenant” was published two weeks ago. It’s called “The Covenant in Action.”


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