Like Banquo’s ghost, the president’s sub-par performance in the first presidential debate only eight days before hovered over the vice presidential one, and had been all the talk. Before the first presidential debate it looked as though President Obama was on the way to winning a smashing reelection victory, and Mitt Romney’s campaign was almost given up for dead by his own party. But as a result of last week’s debate (and something of an overreaction to it), polls were suddenly indicating a shift in Romney’s direction; and—most dangerous to Obama—the Republicans were at last showing enthusiasm for their candidate.
You’d like your government to tell you the truth, and the government dissembled repeatedly after the raid about what the rules of engagement were. They dissembled because the truth was uncomfortable and because the rules are secret, and they have this deep culture of secrecy in this administration, as in the last couple, about rules of engagement. What it highlights is that the United States does not have a detention regime that works anymore. Anytime it brings terrorists suspects into custody it generated political controversy. And so what you can see is a bias is built up in the system, in which the Obama Administration judges it’s just easier to kill people. That doesn’t create any political controversy.
It may be ironic, but it is not entirely surprising that the YouTube clip of what appears to be a badly made film satirizing the Prophet Muhammad appeared, causing mayhem and destruction—coinciding with the death of US ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens—in the same week of September that the novelist Salman Rushdie published Joseph Anton. The memoir recounts Rushdie’s life as a “celebrity victim” after Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa calling for his death for offending Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses. Not to be outgunned by the late Ayatollah, the Pakistani railroad minister Ghulam Ahmad Bilour has now personally offered a $100,000 reward to anyone who murders the maker of Innocence of Muslims, the crude new film.
Although they have gotten little attention in the Western press, the regional elections taking place throughout Russia on October 14 may be Vladimir Putin’s greatest test since his return to the presidency last spring. With voters in seventy-three of Russia’s eighty-three regions going to the polls less than a year after the Kremlin faced allegations of widespread fraud in parliamentary elections, the looming question for Putin is whether he can ensure a favorable outcome without overt manipulation. For the opposition, a primary concern is whether their candidates will even be on the ballot.
Many of the biggest battles of the day—over health care reform, financial reform, environmental protection, workplace safety, civil rights—will ultimately be settled in court by lower-court judges in rulings that will get little public attention. The Supreme Court has upheld the Affordable Care Act, but some of the rules that are necessary to implement it may turn out to be vulnerable. Unlike presidents, judges often stay in their jobs for decades, and any president is in a position to shift the judiciary in major ways. Of course it is true that the 2012 presidential election will help to establish the meaning of the Constitution. Perhaps equally important, it will help to establish the fate of numerous rules designed to protect public safety, health, and the environment.
How should a novelist feel on seeing his work translated, completely, not just into another medium, but also another culture? Last night I opened a DVD package with the title Stille (Silence), put it into my computer, and sat down to watch. Actually, I received this DVD a month ago. It is an Austrian film production of my novel Cleaver. I did not look at it at once because I was in denial. I have been generously paid for the rights to film, I am delighted it has been made and grateful to the producer for pushing it through, but Cleaver was written in English and had an English hero from a specific milieu—a journalist and documentary film maker who, as the book opens, has carried out, for the BBC, a destructive interview of an American president easily recognizable as Bush.
With domestic policy as the theme of Wednesday’s presidential debate, the Obama campaign is facing a weakening economy. The Commerce Department just reported that GDP grew at an annual rate of only 1.3 percent in the second quarter. Job growth has been tepid, with continued high unemployment and underemployment. When one counts all those looking for full-time jobs and unable to get them, the true unemployment rate is close to 17 percent. Meanwhile, the US faces looming threats of a new European recession and a slowdown in China and other parts of the developing world.
When looking for Chinese reactions to the anti-Japanese riots that took place in late September, it was probably not much of a surprise that the Western press turned to Han Han, the widely read Shanghai-based blogger. In characteristic form, Han gave a riff on the protests that obliquely criticized the government, while at the same time insulated himself from making a direct accusation: “As far as looting and destroying things, this must be punished by law, or else I might suspect that there was some official backing behind all this.”
Even when venturing into the field, most reporters stay inside the bubble. They follow the candidates, speak with their handlers, interview consultants, quote think-tank analysts, pore over polling data. Looking over a recent week of coverage in the Times (September 19-26), for instance, I found plenty of stories on PACs, campaign strategy, political operatives, Romney’s tax returns, and the polling data in Ohio and other battleground states. Only one featured extensive interviews with ordinary Americans, and, while helpful, it provided little more than a snapshot.
The often staid Supreme Court closed its last term in late June with a nail-biting final day decision on the Affordable Care Act. The opinion surprised almost everyone, including four of the Court’s five conservative justices, as Chief Justice John Roberts, for the first time ever in a 5-4 decision, joined the liberal wing of the Court to uphold the bulk of the Affordable Care Act. Three days earlier, the Court struck down most of Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, again surprising many observers and disappointing many conservatives.
This term, which opens Monday, October 1, promises to be almost as controversial. Where the Court’s biggest cases last term dealt with the relative powers of the federal and state governments, this term they focus on equality. The Court has already agreed to hear a challenge to the University of Texas’s affirmative action program. It is also very likely to hear a constitutional challenge to a central provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. At stake in these cases is the meaning of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the law, a right that the nation has struggled over since its inception and that still means radically different things to different people.