Roving thoughts and provocations

Presidential Appointments

Martin Filler

Presidents of the United States have enough to worry about, but an ill-timed makeover of the White House can readily become a political liability. After the Panic of 1837, an opposition-party Congressman accused President Martin van Buren of transforming his official home into “a PALACE as splendid as that of the Caesars,” and thereby doomed the incumbent’s re-election. A century and a half later, while the Reagan administration slashed school-lunch subsidies and declared ketchup a vegetable, Nancy Reagan provoked outrage when she bought a $209,000 china service embellished in gold and ketchup red.

A Public Bailout for News?

Michael Massing

It was with much curiosity that I opened The Reconstruction of American Journalism, the latest entrant in the great race to save the news in America. Commissioned by Nicholas Lemann, the dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, the report was written by Leonard Downie Jr., the highly respected former executive editor of The Washington Post, and Michael Schudson, a leading historian of American journalism who is also at the Columbia J-School. The two spent months crisscrossing the country and interviewing scores of editors, reporters, bloggers, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, and citizens. In the end, the 21,000 words they produced can be boiled down to this: Columbia, the leading journalism school in the country, has placed its imprimatur on the idea of government funding of the news. What sort of impact might that have?

From Egypt to Paris: An Artist Prized for His Travel Sketches

Peter Brooks

Dominique-Vivant Denon, the subject of my piece in the November 19, 2009 issue of the New York Review of Books, is known above all as the first Director of the Louvre—which, under his guidance, became the first encyclopedic public museum. But he was also an artist prized for his travel sketches and engravings. Since I could only touch on this aspect of his career briefly in my piece, I offer here some further notes and selections from his work.

Dairy Queen and Barbed Wire: The New Reality of US Occupation

Charles Simic

Back in September, I read an article in The New York Times about an American base in Iraq that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind. It describes a U.S. military installation in the Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad that houses 28,000 American troops and has a busy airport, two power plants, two sewage plants, and two water treatment plants that can purify 1.9 million gallons of water a day for showers, swimming pools and golf courses, and eighty to hundred buses any given moment crisscrossing the area on fifteen bus routes.

Al-Qaeda: The Uzbek Branch in Pakistan

Christian Caryl

Most of the reports about the Pakistani Army’s offensive in Waziristan have mentioned the Islamist extremists from Uzbekistan hiding out there—but they’ve often done so without really explaining what’s up. If you follow the coverage closely enough, you might learn that the Uzbek militants are tough fighters much feared by the Pakistani military, that they’re loyal auxiliaries of al-Qaeda who have displayed little inclination to negotiate, and that they’re being targeted by both the US and the government in Islamabad for these same reasons. The Uzbek Islamist leader, Tahir Yuldashev, was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Waziristan in August of this year—which says a lot about how seriously the Uzbeks are taken both by the US and the Pakistanis (who probably supplied the CIA with the information needed for the hit).

One-Term President?

Garry Wills

I am told by people I respect that Barack Obama cannot pull out of both Iraq and Afghanistan without becoming a one-term president. I think that may be true. The charges from various quarters would be toxic—that he was weak, unpatriotic, sacrificing the sacrifices that have been made, betraying our dead, throwing away all former investments in lives and treasure. All that would indeed be brought against him, and he could have little defense in the quarters where such charges would originate.

A Nazi at Harvard

Anthony Grafton

In 1934, the Harvard class of 1909 held its 25th reunion—then as now an occasion for members of the American elite to parade in public and celebrate their achievements. But this year the star attraction was a German: Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, the son of a Munich art dealer and publisher who had joined the Nazi movement and enjoyed personal access to Hitler (Hitler liked hearing him play the piano, as had his Harvard classmates, for whom he composed football fight songs). In the early 1930s he served as foreign press chief for the Nazi party.

China’s Boom: The Dark Side in Photos

Orville Schell

Some of his arresting images show plumes of pitch black and garishly colored yellow and red smoke belching out of factory and power plant chimneys - almost all caused by the burning of soft coal. They are reminiscent of the eerie, unnatural images and colors that blink out of a television set when the tint controls are turned all the way to one side.