I have been reading the first volume of Churchill’s history of World War II, The Gathering Storm. How can one not be impressed with his relentless, hawkish criticism of the appeasing Chamberlain and the weak-kneed continental powers that were disarming while German was arming in the 1930s? Is there a lesson for today?
The government shutdown and debt ceiling mess deflected attention from the Syria crisis. But Eugene Goodheart’s careful analysis of that situation is still on time. We begin his latest dispatch on Obama’s “trimming” with a forward-looking “postscript” the author added to his original piece.
As for Obama’s ambivalence about going to war and his openness about it (unusual in a president), I find it admirable in its authenticity. In acting in a crisis, however, one has to overcome ambivalence. Obama has already shown himself on other occasions capable of acting decisively. Our role in the Syrian civil war has not yet played itself out. Final judgments are premature…
Eugene Goodheart’s analysis of the Syrian quandary doesn’t take in the story’s latest twists, but it comprehends the president’s humane, cautious approach to the issue. Goodheart’s piece amounts to an addendum to the case he makes in his new book, Holding the Center: In Defense of Political Trimming, which places Obama’s default stance within a specific Euro-American tradition of liberal thinkers and politicians. A short review of Goodheart’s deeply informed text follows this piece.
The day before the election, the author sent First these two pieces, which he rightly believed would be “relevant however the vote turns out.” In the interval since the election, he updated the second piece here to take account of Romney’s defeat.
“I know the Duke’s faults,” said Phineas [Finn], “but these men know nothing of his virtues and when I hear them abuse him I cannot stand it.” Anthony Trollope, The Prime Minister
In The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History (2008), the distinguished American historian Gordon Wood warns against the distortions of reading the present into the past or seeing the present as an inevitable outcome of events in the past. At the same time, he knows that present-mindedness is not entirely avoidable. Its complete absence from a historical perspective turns into antiquarianism.
Tony Judt lost his courageous battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Shortly before his death, he appeared on the Charlie Rose program, strapped to a chair, speaking through an enabling device with astonishing force and clarity on a wide range of subjects. I can’t imagine anyone, whether critic or admirer, unmoved by the scene.