Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Reverend Falwell’s Heavenly Timing

The New York Times
May 20, 2007

HARD as it is to believe now, Jerry Falwell came in second only to Ronald Reagan in a 1983 Good Housekeeping poll anointing “the most admired man in America.” By September 2001, even the Bush administration was looking for a way to ditch the preacher who had joined Pat Robertson on TV to pin the 9/11 attacks on feminists, abortionists, gays and, implicitly, Teletubbies. As David Kuo, a former Bush official for faith-based initiatives, tells the story in his book “Tempting Faith,” the Reverend Falwell was given a ticket to the Washington National Cathedral memorial service that week only on the strict condition that he stay away from reporters and cameras. Mr. Falwell obeyed, though once inside he cracked jokes (“Whoa, does she look frumpy,” he said of Barbara Bush) and chortled nonstop.

This is the great spiritual leader whom John McCain and Mitt Romney raced to praise when he died on Tuesday, just as the G.O.P. presidential contenders were converging for a debate in South Carolina. The McCain camp’s elegiac press release beat out his rival’s by a hair. But everyone including Senator McCain knows he got it right back in 2000, when he labeled Mr. Falwell and Mr. Robertson “agents of intolerance.” Mr. Falwell was always on the wrong, intolerant side of history. He fought against the civil rights movement and ridiculed Desmond Tutu’s battle against apartheid years before calling AIDS the “wrath of a just God against homosexuals” and, in 1999, fingering the Antichrist as an unidentified contemporary Jew.

Though Mr. Falwell had long been an embarrassment and laughingstock to many, including a new generation of Christian leaders typified by Mr. Kuo, the timing of his death could not have had grander symbolic import. It happened at the precise moment that the Falwell-Robertson brand of religious politics is being given its walking papers by a large chunk of the political party the Christian right once helped to grow. Hours after Mr. Falwell died, Rudy Giuliani, a candidate he explicitly rejected, won the Republican debate by acclamation. When the marginal candidate Ron Paul handed “America’s mayor” an opening to wrap himself grandiloquently in 9/11 once more, not even the most conservative of Deep South audiences could resist cheering him. If Rudy can dress up as Jack Bauer, who cares about his penchant for drag?

The current exemplars of Mr. Falwell’s gay-baiting, anti-Roe style of politics, James Dobson of Focus on the Family and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, see the writing on the wall. Electability matters more to Republicans these days than Mr. Giuliani’s unambiguous support for abortion rights and gay civil rights (no matter how clumsily he’s tried to fudge it). Last week Mr. Dobson was in full crybaby mode, threatening not to vote if Rudy is on the G.O.P. ticket. Mr. Perkins complained to The Wall Street Journal that the secular side of the Republican Party was serving its religious-right auxiliary with “divorce papers.”

Yes, and it is doing so with an abruptness and rudeness reminiscent of Mr. Giuliani’s public dumping of the second of his three wives, Donna Hanover. This month, even the conservative editorial page of The Journal chastised Republicans of the Perkins-Dobson ilk for being too bellicose about abortion, saying that a focus on the issue “will make the party seem irrelevant” and cost it the White House in 2008. At the start of Tuesday’s debate, the Fox News moderator Brit Hume coldly put Mr. Falwell’s death off limits by announcing that “we will not be seeking any more reaction from the candidates on that matter.” It was a pre-emptive move to shield Fox’s favored party from soiling its image any further by association with the Moral Majority has-been and his strident causes. In the ensuing 90 minutes, the Fox News questioners skipped past the once-burning subject of same-sex marriage as well.

What a difference a midterm election has made. The Karl Rove theory that Republicans cannot survive without pandering to religious-right pooh-bahs is yet another piece of Bush dogma lying in ruins, done in by two synergistic forces. The first is the raw political math. Polls consistently show that most Americans don’t want abortion outlawed, do want legal recognition for gay couples, do want stem-cell research and never want to see government intrude on a Terri Schiavo again. On Election Day 2006, voters in red states defeated both an abortion ban (South Dakota) and, for the first time, a same-sex marriage ban (Arizona).

But equally crucial is how much the “family values” establishment has tarnished itself in the Bush era. Some of that self-destruction followed the time-honored Jimmy Swaggart-Jim Bakker paradigm of hypocrisy: the revelations that Ted Haggard, the head of the National Association of Evangelicals, was finding God in the arms of a male prostitute, and that the vice president’s daughter and her partner were violating stated Bush White House doctrine by raising a child with two mommies. But a greater factor in the decline and sullying of the Falwell-flavored religious right is its collusion in the worldly corruption ushered in by this particular presidency and Mr. Rove’s now defunct Republican majority.

The felonious Jack Abramoff scandals have ensnared a remarkably large who’s who of righteous politicos, led by Mr. Robertson’s former consigliere at the Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed, who was so eager (as he put it in an e-mail) to start “humping in corporate accounts.” Among the preachers who abetted (unwittingly, they all say) the bogus grass-roots “anti-gambling” campaigns staged by Mr. Abramoff to smite rivals of his own Indian casino clients were Mr. Dobson, the Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association and the Rev. Louis Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition. Tom DeLay, a leader of the Schiavo putsch in Congress, was taken out by his association with Mr. Abramoff, too. Mr. DeLay’s onetime chief of staff, Edwin Buckham (an evangelical minister, yet), pocketed more than $1 million, largely from Abramoff clients, that was funneled through a so-called U.S. Family Network, ostensibly dedicated to promoting “moral fitness.”

The sleazy links between Washington scandal and religious-right hacks didn’t end when Mr. Abramoff went to jail and Mr. DeLay went into oblivion. The first Justice Department official to plead the Fifth in this year’s bottomless United States attorneys scandal — Monica Goodling, a former top Alberto Gonzales aide — is a product of Pat Robertson’s Regent University School of Law, formerly known as CBN University School of Law, after the Christian Broadcasting Network. As The Boston Globe discovered, Regent’s Web site boasts that some 150 of its grads were hired by the Bush administration, and not, it seems, because of merit. In Ms. Goodling’s graduating class, 60 percent failed the bar exam on their first try. U.S. News & World Report ranks the school in the fourth — a k a bottom — tier.

Having been given immunity, Ms. Goodling is scheduled to testify before House inquisitors this week. We know already from The National Journal that she was so moral that she put blue drapes over the exposed breasts in the statuary in the Great Hall of the Justice Department (since removed). The Times found that she had asked civil-service job applicants, “Have you ever cheated on your wife?” Yet her strict morality did not extend to protecting the nonpartisan sanctity of the American legal system. An inexperienced lawyer just past 30, Ms. Goodling exercised her power to vet some 400 Justice Department political appointees by favoring Republican and Rovian loyalty over actual qualifications. Though the Monica at the center of the last presidential scandal did enable a husband’s cheating on his wife, at least she wasn’t tasked with any governmental responsibility more weighty than divvying up pizza.

Mr. Giuliani’s rivals for the Republican nomination just can’t leave behind the received wisdom that you still have to appease the Robertson-Dobson-Perkins axis of piety that produces the likes of a Monica Goodling. They seem oblivious to the new evangelical leaders who care more about serving the ill, the poor and the environment than grandstanding in the fading culture wars. They seem oblivious to the reality that their association with the old religious-right taskmasters diminishes them, however well it may play to some Iowa caucus voters. Mr. Romney, a former social liberal whose wife gave money to Planned Parenthood, is crudely trying to rewrite his record by showering cash on anti-abortion-rights groups; he spoke at Regent U. even as a Pat Robertson Web site mocked his religion, Mormonism, as a cult. Mr. McCain, busily trying to disown past positions unpopular with the declining base, is trapped in a squeeze play of his own making: he’s failing to persuade the hard right that he’s one of them even as he makes Mr. Giuliani look like a straight-talker by comparison.

“America’s mayor” has so much checkered history in his closet — by which I mean Bernard Kerik, among other ticking time bombs, not the gay couple he bunked with before 9/11 — that he is hardly a certain winner of his party’s nomination, let alone the presidency. But whatever his ultimate fate, the enthusiasm and poll numbers Mr. Giuliani arouses among Republicans to date are a death knell for the political orthodoxy of the Rove era. The agents of intolerance are well on their way to being forgotten, even in those cases when they, unlike Jerry Falwell, are not yet gone.

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Résumé of Doom

The New York Times
May 20, 2007

Paul Wolfowitz may be out of a job soon, but think of what an amazing résumé he’ll be shopping around:

Work Experience

President of World Bank: 2005-2007

Responsibilities: Reining in European lefties, raining tax-free money on Arab girlfriend, and giving anti-corruption efforts a bad name.

Achievements: Paralyzed the international lending apparatus to the point where small countries had to max out their Visa cards to pay for malaria medicine. Learned the traditions of many cultures, including those of Turkey, where you apparently are not supposed to take off your shoes at mosques to reveal socks so full of holes that both big toes poke blasphemously through.

Deputy Secretary of Defense for President George W. Bush: 2001-2005

Responsibility: Starting a war.

Achievements: Mismanaged the world’s most powerful army. Shattered the system of international diplomacy that kept the peace for 50 years. Undermined the credibility of American intelligence operations. Needlessly brought humankind to the brink of nuclear war. Destroyed Iraq.

Demented Visionary: 1993-2001

Responsibility: Concocting a delusional plan for regime change in Iraq with pals like Shaha Riza, Ahmad Chalabi and his merry band of Iraqi exiles who conjured up phony intelligence about Saddam’s W.M.D.

Achievements: Imagining an Iraq that didn’t exist.

Having Wolfie back on the job market is a tremendous opportunity. What do we want destroyed next? Could this walking curse on the world run Halliburton into the ground?

At the Pentagon, Wolfie tried to help Vice get rid of anything multi — multilateral treaties, multilateral institutions, multilateral alliances, multiculturalism. Multi, to them, meant wobbly, caviling, bureaucratic and obstructionist. Why be multi when you could be uni?

In the end, the forces of multilateralism took their revenge: Old Europe got rid of Wolfie.

But not before his gal pal played the multicultural victim card. In her statement to World Bank directors, Shaha complained that she had been denied promotions even before Wolfie got there. “I can only attribute this to discrimination — not because I am a woman, but because I am a Muslim Arab woman who dares to question the status quo both in the work of the institution and within the institution itself,” Shaha wrote.

She said that she had “met a wonderful American woman who told me that I should fight back for ‘us’: WOMEN. It never occurred to me as an Arab and Muslim woman that one day I would be asked by an American woman to fight on her behalf.”

Already aggrieved, Shaha got really furious when Wolfie came in 2005 and she was told she’d have to work out of the State Department.

“I was ready to pursue legal remedies,” she wrote in her statement, adding, “my life and career were torn asunder.”

According to Xavier Coll, the bank’s human resources vice president, Shaha outlined conditions for her departure that were “unprecedented” in terms of guarantees and rewards and way out of line with bank policy. Mr. Coll deemed it “inappropriate and imprudent for the president to offer Ms. Riza these terms.”

Bob Bennett, Wolfie’s lawyer, told Michael Hirsh of Newsweek that it was Shaha who “worked up the numbers” on a $60,000 raise to a $193,590 salary and cushy new deal. “She was outraged that she had to leave,” Mr. Bennett said.

The self-righteous Shaha played on Wolfie’s guilt, becoming “greedy in terms of power,” as a friend of the couple told Newsweek. Even though she had been a mere flack a few years ago and then a gender coordinator at the bank, Shaha mau-maued her man into giving her a salary that topped the secretary of state’s.

It’s like when Bill Clinton tells friends that he has to work hard to get Hillary elected president because he feels he owes her for bringing her to Arkansas in the 70s and interrupting her career. (But do we?)

Or when Tony Soprano gets Carmela some fancy piece of jewelry after he strays. Indeed, Wolfie sounded Sopranoish when he agitatedly told Mr. Coll to warn those at the bank he believed were attacking him: “If they $%#! with me or Shaha, I have enough on them to $%#! them, too.”

Wolfie used public compensation for private contrition. Gilt for guilt — not a good deal.

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Playing the Hand We’ve Dealt

The New York Times
May 20, 2007

Last week, President Bush appointed a “war czar,” Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, to oversee everything we’re doing in Iraq and Afghanistan — which raises the question: Who was doing this job up to now? The answer, amazingly, is no one. We’re like a fine restaurant that has decided five years after it’s opened — and has lost most of its customers — that it might be good to hire a head chef. Better late than never. General Lute comes advertised as smart and tough. Good. I hope his first memo to the president starts like this:

Mr. President, if you look around the region, all those we’ve tried to isolate — Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Iraqi insurgents and the Taliban — are stronger today than they were two years ago. We have to reassess our strategy, beginning by facing up to the fact that we’ve fundamentally altered the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East.

We brought down the hard walls that surrounded Iran by destroying Iran’s two archenemies — the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam’s regime in Iraq. As a result, we are dealing today with an emboldened, resurgent Iran, which has taken advantage of our good works to expand its economic, cultural, religious and geopolitical influence into Persian-speaking western Afghanistan and into Shiite Iraq.

With Saddam gone, none of the Arab states are strong enough to balance Iran. They are all either too weak or too dysfunctional. This means we have two choices. We can be the regional power balancing Iran, which will require keeping thousands of troops in the area indefinitely. Or we have to engage Tehran in a high-level dialogue, in which we focus on our mutual interests in stabilizing Afghanistan and Iraq. You have to choose, Mr. President: I can’t do my job if you don’t face the fact that our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and our energy gluttony — have empowered Iran.

War with Iran is not inevitable. Let me remind you how well we worked with the Iranians in Afghanistan, initially. As you recall, we had a regular cooperative dialogue between our ambassadors in Kabul. The Iranians helped to deliver us the Northern Alliance. Then they cut their financial support for their favorite warlord in Herat, Ismail Khan, so that the pro-American Afghan government could extend its authority there. When, in early 2002, we gave them the names of members of a Qaeda group operating in Meshad, Iran, they rolled them up and put them on a plane to Afghanistan. There was much more, until things went sour.

I don’t know who is responsible for the breakdown — the Iranians point to your calling them part of the “axis of evil,” after they had helped us so much. We can point to their involvement in bombings in Saudi Arabia in 2003. But for the past few years we’ve been in cold war with them — and today their proxies are beating our proxies in Lebanon, Gaza and Iraq.

As Vali Nasr, author of “The Shia Revival,” points out: “Stability in the Middle East is now about U.S.-Iran relations, and it is fantasy to think that we can go back to the old days where the Cairo-Riyadh-Amman axis manages the region for us.” Iran will not allow a stable Iraq to emerge if its interests are not protected, and if the new balance of power in Iraq — one based on a Shiite-Kurdish majority — is not recognized.

Yes, the Saudis will go nuts, but look what they’ve been doing: in private the Saudis tell us we can’t leave Iraq and in public their king denounces our occupation there as “illegal.” Of course, we must protect the Saudis. But they and their Sunni allies in Iraq have to accept the new reality there, and stop treating the Shiites as a lower form of life. Then we can cut them the best deal possible. If not, they’re on their own. Our kids are not going to die to restore Sunni minority rule to Iraq.

At the same time, we have to open a dialogue with Hamas — not to embrace it, but to lay out a gradual pathway that will bring it into relations with Israel. As Rashid Khalidi, Columbia University’s Palestinian expert and author of “The Iron Cage,” points out: “If we let the Palestinian Authority be destroyed, and then we keep Hamas isolated” — even though it won a democratic election that we sponsored — “we will end up with the hard boys, the gangs you see today on the streets of Gaza, who respond to no authority at all.”

If I thought that isolating Iran and Hamas was working, I’d continue it. But it manifestly is not — any more than isolating Castro has worked. So either we find a way to draw them in or we’ll be fighting them — and the hard boys — in Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan for a long, long time.

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Among the Disbelievers

The Nation
May 28, 2007

Imagine it's Paris in the spring of 1789 and you have just announced that you are an inveterate foe of tyrants and kings. Obviously, your message is not going to fall on deaf ears. But now that you've made it clear what you're against, what are you for? Do you favor an aristocratic constitution in which power devolves to the provincial nobility? Would you prefer a British-style constitutional monarchy? Or do you believe in all power to the sans-culottes? How you answer will shape both your analysis of the situation and the political tactics you employ in changing it. It may also determine whether you wind up on the chopping block in the next half-decade or so.

This is the problem, more or less, confronting today's reinvigorated atheist movement. For a long time, religion had been doing quite nicely as a kind of minor entertainment. Christmas and Easter were quite unthinkable without it, not to mention Hanukkah and Passover. But then certain enthusiasts took things too far by crashing airliners into office towers in the name of Allah, launching a global crusade to rid the world of evil and declaring the jury still out on Darwinian evolution. As a consequence, religion now looks nearly as bad as royalism did in the late eighteenth century. But while united in their resolve to throw the bum out--God, that is--the antireligious forces appear to have given little thought to what to replace Him with should He go. They may not face the guillotine as a consequence. But they could end up making even bigger fools of themselves than the theologians they criticize.

Richard Dawkins is a case in point. It is no surprise that, along with Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, and Daniel Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell: Religion As a Natural Phenomenon, he has emerged at the head of a growing intellectual movement aimed at relegating religion to the proverbial scrapheap of history (which by this point must be filled to overflowing). He's bright, obviously, a lively writer--his 1978 book The Selfish Gene is regarded as a pop science classic--and as an evolutionary biologist, he's particularly well equipped to defend Darwin against neofundamentalist hordes for whom he is the Antichrist. But Dawkins is something else as well: fiercely combative. Other scientists have tried to calm things down by making nice-nice noises concerning the supposedly complementary nature of the two pursuits. Einstein famously said that "science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind," while the late paleontologist Stephen J. Gould once characterized the two fields as "non-overlapping magisteria" that address different questions and have no reason to get in each other's way. But Dawkins, to his great credit, is having none of it. Although he does not quite come out and say so, he seems to have the good sense to realize that no two fields are ever truly separate but that, in a unified body of human knowledge, or episteme, all overlap. Conflict is inevitable when different fields employ different principles and say different things, which is why an evolutionary biologist can't simply ignore it when some blow-dried TV evangelist declares that God created the world in six days, and why he'll become positively unhinged should the same televangelist begin pressuring textbook publishers to adopt his views.

Consequently, he's got to go on the warpath--not only against the fundamentalists but against the sloppy logic and wishful thinking on which they batten. This is Dawkins's forte, and it is what makes The God Delusion such an entertaining read. Not one for politeness, he is the sort of fierce logic-chopper who chuckles nastily when coming across what he regards as some particularly choice bit of inanity. Discussing Arius of Alexandria, for example, infamous in certain fourth-century theological circles for maintaining that God and Jesus were not "consubstantial," i.e., not composed of the same substance or essence, you can almost hear him snicker: "What on earth could that possibly mean, you are probably asking? Substance? What 'substance'? What exactly do you mean by 'essence'? 'Very little' seems the only reasonable reply." Quoting a third-century theologian known as St. Gregory the Miracle Worker on the mystery of the Holy Trinity--"There is therefore nothing created, nothing subject to another in the Trinity: nor is there anything that has been added as though it once had not existed, but had entered afterwards: therefore the Father has never been without the Son"--he can't help sneering that "whatever miracles may have earned St. Gregory his nickname, they were not miracles of honest lucidity." Noting that the Catholic Church divides angels into nine categories, or orders--seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels and ordinary members of the angelic rank-and-file--he lets slip that "what impresses me about Catholic mythology is partly its tasteless kitsch but mostly the airy nonchalance with which these people make up the details as they go along."

This is not entirely fair. The Catholic Church does not just make such things up but has thought long and hard about angelic orders and other matters of equal importance. But Dawkins's outrage at the persistence of medieval ideas in the modern era is warranted. In fact, it's overdue. Also warranted is the sheer pleasure he takes in recounting a double-blind experiment funded by a whopping-rich outfit known as the Templeton Foundation to test the efficacy of prayer. Headed by a Boston cardiologist, Dawkins informs us, the study involved 1,802 patients in six hospitals who had just undergone coronary bypass surgery. Researchers divided the subjects into three groups: those who were not informed that church congregations as far away as Missouri were praying for their speedy recovery, those who were informed and a control group consisting of patients for whom no prayers were said and who were unaware that an experiment was under way. Church members were provided with each patient's first name and last initial and, in the interest of standardization, were asked to pray "for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications" in just those words.

The results, announced in April 2006, were a hoot. The first group of patients, those who had no idea that others were praying for them, did no better than the control group, while the second, those who knew they were the object of others' prayers, actually did worse. "Performance anxiety," the experimenters theorized. "It may have made them uncertain, wondering am I so sick they had to call in their prayer team?" one speculated. Instead of accepting the results gracefully and conceding that the theory of intercessory prayer had been disproved, an Oxford theologian named Richard Swinburne complained that the whole exercise was meaningless because what matters to God is not prayer so much as the reasons behind it. But if the experiment had gone the other way and the patients being prayed over had outperformed the control group, we can well imagine what the reaction would have been. People like Swinburne would have shouted from the rooftops that God's existence had been proved and that we had all better beg his forgiveness double-quick.

But it didn't, and it is now clear that praying for a quick recovery is on par with crossing one's fingers and wishing for a Mercedes. Science is predicated on the assumption that belief is unwarranted without evidence and reason to back it up. But religion is based on the opposite: that belief in the absence of evidence is a virtue and that "the more your beliefs defy the evidence, the more virtuous you are," as Dawkins puts it. "Virtuoso believers who can manage to believe something really weird, unsupported and insupportable, in the teeth of evidence and reason, are especially highly rewarded." That last line is classic Dawkins--provocative, pugnacious, even a bit over the top, but true.

As Dawkins admits, there is something distinctly nineteenth century about the new rationalism that he and others are promoting. It smacks of prairie populism and freethinkers like the wonderful Robert Ingersoll, who, in the post-Civil War period, used to crisscross the country, drawing thousands eager to hear him denounce the churches, poke fun at the Bible and sing the praises of Darwin: "Can we affect the nature and qualities of substance by prayer? Can we hasten or delay the tides by worship? Can we change winds by sacrifice? Will kneelings give us wealth?... Has man obtained any help from heaven?" These were questions that made Ingersoll one of the most popular lecturers of his day. Now, after the mushy ecumenism of the late twentieth century and the religious terrorism of the early twenty-first, a growing number of Americans plainly long for something more bracing.

But we are still in the position of the French revolutionary who has not moved beyond antiroyalism. Atheism is a purely negative ideology, which is its problem. If one does not believe in God, what should one believe in instead? Dawkins thinks he has an answer--science--but his understanding of the term is embarrassingly crude and empirical.

This comes through when he tries to figure out how "the God delusion" arose in the first place. Why did people latch onto an idea that we now know to be incorrect? Why didn't the ancient Israelites conduct their own double-blind experiment to determine whether sacrificing all those bulls, rams and occasionally children to Yahweh was really worth the trouble? Dawkins gropes for an explanation at one point in his book. He speculates that religious visions may be a form of temporal lobe epilepsy (which implies that there must have been quite an epidemic in Palestine when people like Elijah, Hosea and Jeremiah were raising a ruckus) but then lets the idea drop. He suggests that religion caught on because it confers certain evolutionary advantages but concedes that this is exceedingly hard to prove. He speculates that faith may be the result of a self-replicating "meme," the cultural equivalent of a gene. But after a murky discussion of "memeplexes" and genetic cartels, the reader is left with the uncomfortable feeling that Dawkins is lost in a tautological fog in which religion is self-replicating because it satisfies certain human needs and is therefore... self-replicating. Finally, he suggests that religion survives because it is comforting--this, some 200 pages after conceding that religion is as likely to exacerbate stress as to alleviate it. (The last thing Old Testament prophets wanted to do was soothe troubled souls.)

Dawkins's sense of history is so minimal that it approaches the vanishing point. He is a classic example of the kind of shallow rationalist who thinks that all you have to know about history is that everything was cloudy and dark until the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, at which point the sun began poking through. To quote Alexander Pope: "Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night:/God said, Let Newton be! and all was light." Religion took hold at a certain point because people were stupid and benighted, but now that this is no longer the case, it should not hang around a moment longer. Yet it never occurs to Dawkins that monotheism is a theory like any other and that certain Jewish scribes and priests adopted it in the sixth century BC because it seemed to confer certain advantages. These were not survival advantages, since the Jews went on to rack up an unparalleled record of military defeats. Rather, they were intellectual advantages in that the theory of a single all-powerful, all-knowing deity seemed to explain the world better than what had come before.

Since Dawkins sees all religion as merely dumb, he can't imagine how this might be. Hence he can't see how the idea of an all-powerful, all-knowing creator might cause worshipers to see the world as a single integrated whole and then launch them on a long intellectual journey to figure out how the various parts fit together. Roughly 2,500 years separate the Book of Isaiah, in which Yahweh first declares, "I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no god [44:6]," and Einstein's quest for a unified field theory explaining everything from subatomic structure to the Big Bang. Everything else has changed, but the universalism behind such an endeavor has remained remarkably constant. Dawkins blames religion for stifling human curiosity. But were he a bit more curious about the phenomenon he is supposedly investigating, he would realize that it has done as much over the long haul to stimulate it. For a world-famous intellectual, he is oddly provincial.

Christopher Hitchens's new book, God Is Not Great, is another example of atheism as an empty vessel, one he manages to fill with an intellectual justification for George W. Bush's "war on terror." Hitchens, of course, is the former left-wing journalist who astounded friends, colleagues and readers alike by coming out in support of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Since then, with everyone from Richard Perle to Peter Beinart busily backpedaling as the dimensions of the disaster have grown more and more glaring, Hitchens has dug in his heels. Like John McCain strolling through the Baghdad markets, he is more defiant of reality than ever, more insistent, as he put it in a March 26 article in the Australian, that the occupation has made the world a better and safer place. In God Is Not Great, he has something unpleasant to say about nearly every believer under the sun--except one. He trots out John Ashcroft's infamous remark that America has "no king but Jesus" and reminds us that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson both welcomed 9/11 as payback for America's tolerance of homosexuality and abortion. He informs us that Hamas has talked about imposing the old Al-Jeziya tax on Christians and Jews in the West Bank, while in Gaza in April 2005 Muslim militants shot and killed a young woman named Yusra al-Azami merely because she was sitting unchaperoned in a car with her fiancé. For those inclined to think of the late Saddam Hussein as a Third World dictator in the secular-nationalist mold, Hitchens points out that Saddam found religion after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, inscribing the words "Allahuh Akhbar" (God is great) on the Iraqi flag, building a huge mosque as a showcase for his new piety and producing a handwritten version of the Koran allegedly with his own blood.

Yet one person is conspicuously absent from Hitchens's list of religious evil-doers: George W. Bush. Yes, the man who said Jesus is his favorite philosopher "because he changed my heart" and, as governor of Texas, proclaimed June 10 as "Jesus Day," goes unmentioned. How can this be? The explanation has to do with Hitchens's subtitle. If "religion poisons everything," then it must be responsible for most of the evil in the world, since belief of this sort is currently so widespread and pervasive. If a political leader is religious, he or she must be bad, and if he or she is bad, he or she must be religious. This is why Saddam gets slammed for his cynical exploitation of Islam and why Bush, author of the Global War on Terror and the war on Iraq, both of which Hitchens supports, gets a free pass. If he is to be believed, our faith-based President is defending rationalism against religious intolerance. Despite Hitchens's anti-Stalinist credentials, arguments like these are so unscrupulous as to call to mind the Comintern of the late '30s and early '40s. Somewhere, Andrei Vyshinsky is smiling.

Hitchens's historical sense in God Is Not Great is perhaps even more stunted than that of Dawkins. Here he is, for example, attacking the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, which celebrates the Maccabean revolt in 168 BC against the Seleucid effort to de-Judaize the Jerusalem temple and consecrate it to Zeus:

When the father of Judah Maccabeus saw a Jew about to make a Hellenic offering on the old altar, he lost no time in murdering him. Over the next few years of the Maccabean "revolt," many more assimilated Jews were slain, or forcibly circumcised, or both, and the women who had flirted with the new Hellenic dispensation suffered even worse. Since the Romans eventually preferred the violent and dogmatic Maccabees to the less militarized and fanatical Jews who had shone in their togas in the Mediterranean light, the scene was set for the uneasy collusion between the old-garb ultra-Orthodox Sanhedrin and the imperial governorate. This lugubrious relationship was eventually to lead to Christianity (yet another Jewish heresy) and thus ineluctably to the birth of Islam. We could have been spared the whole thing.

If only the Maccabees had stood by as Antiochus IV Epiphanes looted the temple treasury, the world could have skipped 2,000 years or so of religious fanaticism and proceeded directly to the founding of the Council for Secular Humanism. Needless to say, there is no sense here of historical progress as necessarily convoluted and complex, with lots of back eddies, side currents and extended periods of stagnation. But just as it takes a child a long time to mature, it takes a long time for society as well.

It would be nice to believe that anachronistic thinking like this halted at Calais, but Michel Onfray's Traité de athéologie, which has been given the hotter title of Atheist Manifesto for the American market, is not reassuring. Onfray is more philosophically sophisticated than Dawkins and Hitchens, and he is entirely commendable in his determination to hold Judaism, Christianity and Islam to the same rigorous standard. Whereas Sam Harris singles out Islam as "a religion of conquest," for instance, Onfray points out that it was the Israelites who invented holy war, that the Israelite god Yahweh "sanctioned crimes, murders, assassination...kill[ing] animals like men and men like animals," and that the Vatican has distinguished itself more recently as "a fellow traveler with every brand of twentieth-century fascism--Mussolini, Pétain, Franco, Hitler, Pinochet, the Greek colonels, South American dictators, etc." Islam's division of the world into a land of Islam and a land of infidels is "not too distant from Hitler's," Onfray adds. But Harris should know better than to call it "unique."

This may seem fairly obvious. But with everyone from atheists to neocons jumping on board the anti-Islamic crusade, it bears repeating. Still, Onfray goes astray in the left-Nietzschean twist that he gives to his antireligious critique. Nietzsche's influence is evident throughout Atheist Manifesto--in its high-wattage prose style, in its tendency toward aphorism, but mostly in its treatment of things like Judaism and Christianity as intellectual categories removed from their historical contexts. Onfray, to cite just one example, is extremely hard on St. Paul, whom he describes as a hysteric "driven by a host of psychological problems," a loser who "converted his self-loathing into hatred of the world" and someone whose "impotence and resentment took the form of revenge: the revenge of the weakling." None of this is surprising, given Paul's views on such subjects as celibacy (strongly in favor), marriage (only for those unable to forgo sex), slavery (accepting) and women (condescending, to say the least). But anyone who reads Paul in the context of the entire Bible--which Onfray says elsewhere is the only way the Bible can be properly understood--will likely come away with a different impression. His hysteria, such as it is, doesn't begin to compare with that of Hosea, Jeremiah and other Hebrew prophets, whose rages were truly volcanic. His political quietism is more explicable if one bears in mind that he believed that an impending apocalypse would soon put an end to all forms of injustice. His views on gender are more benign than is commonly realized, which may be why even pagans reported that women were among the first to convert.

Indeed, Paul was something new as far as the biblical tradition was concerned, a thinker, polemicist and organizer who was sober, practical and all but tireless. This is undoubtedly why Engels was so notably friendly toward him in one of his last essays. Not only did he describe Pauline Christianity as the socialism of its day but, referring to an epistle in which Paul reminds parishioners of the need to provide the new movement with financial support (which he describes as the "grace of giving"), he even commiserated with him across the centuries over the difficulty of squeezing party dues out of local members. ("So it was like that with you too!") Context for Engels was all. It was obvious from his perspective that someone like Paul could not be held exclusively to a modern standard but had to be judged on the basis of his historical role. So what has happened in the century or so since Engels wrote that essay that has caused otherwise admirable leftists like Onfray to lose their historical bearings? Could the baleful influence of Nietzsche, the favorite philosopher of overwrought 16-year-olds, have something to do with it?

Terry Eagleton shows a firmer grasp of the issues in The Meaning of Life--far firmer, in fact, than he did in the verbal hurricane that he unleashed on Dawkins in The London Review of Books last October. That article, which earned Eagleton a warm note of congratulations from Peter Steinfels in his "Beliefs" column in the New York Times--an indication of just how bad it actually was--was filled with ex cathedra comments and unsupported assertions that Eagleton, a left-wing Catholic back in the 1960s, somehow thought he could intimidate his readers into accepting. Thus: Dawkins "does not see that Christianity, like most religious faiths, values human life deeply, which is why the martyr differs from the suicide." Or: "Because the universe is God's, it shares in his life, which is the life of freedom. This is why it works all by itself, and why science and Richard Dawkins are therefore both possible." Dawkins is a boor, in other words, because he is unable to grasp such ineffable truths. Yet both statements were nothing more than silly. Judaism concerns itself not with the life of the individual but the life of the nation, while Christianity saw the life we know as merely a prelude to the real life that will occur after the Resurrection. If the universe worked all by itself, similarly, God would have no need to intervene in it miraculously from time to time, as He does in both the Old Testament and the New.

With The Meaning of Life, however, Eagleton, the author of such works as Criticism and Ideology: A Study in Marxist Literary Theory and The Illusions of Postmodernism, goes back to channeling his inner materialist. When he mentions God, it is in the sense of an abstract principle that he identifies by the Greek term agape, or love. Needless to say, this is not love in the erotic sense of the word but as a cosmic force that is an expression of the deity's free choice in creating a material universe in which human beings can exist. Since Eagleton is coy as to whether he is speaking literally or figuratively, most readers will assume the latter. As a rhetorical device, it therefore allows him to make the point that the alternative to divine creation is not an empty and meaningless universe, as some moderns would have it. Rather, we can still see the universe as an intelligible whole, one whose "underlying laws," he writes, "reveal a beauty, symmetry, and economy which are capable of moving scientists to tears" (a rare point of agreement with Dawkins). If believers, according to Bishop Berkeley, believe that God invested the universe with meaning through the act of creating it, then nonbelievers can believe that people can invest life with meaning through a similar act of creating a mode of living that allows people to realize their full potential.

This supposes that meaning is not something that one discovers "out there," by, say, sitting on a lonely mountaintop and contemplating the heavens. Rather, it supposes that one discovers it "in here," that is, in society and through it. In The God Delusion, Dawkins notes that people might fill the gap left by religious belief in any number of ways but adds that "my way includes a good dose of science, the honest and systematic endeavor to find out the truth about the real world." The words "my way" are a giveaway, since they suggest that meaning is something we arrive at individually. Eagleton, by contrast, contends that individual meaning is a solipsism, because any statement about oneself--such as "I am handsomer than Adonis" or "I am the greatest composer since Beethoven"--is meaningful only to the degree it is recognized by others. Hence, "my life is meaningful" is itself meaningful only to the degree that other people view it as such and see their own lives the same way. Hence, meaning can be achieved only via a collective act of self-creation in which humanity creates new conditions for itself so that humanity as a whole can flourish. As a corollary, Eagleton adds that "since there can be no true reciprocity except among equals, oppression and inequality are in the long run self-thwarting as well." Freedom and equality are necessary for humanity to create a meaningful existence for itself.

In short, humanity creates meaning for itself by liberating itself so that it can fulfill itself. This is also a solipsism, but one as big as all existence. Odd, isn't it, that atheists can be right about God but wrong about religion and much else about the modern condition, while a believer can be wrong about God but at least on the right track concerning the current spiritual malaise?


Daniel Lazare is the author of, most recently, The Velvet Coup: The Constitution, the Supreme Court, and the Decline of American Democracy (Verso). He is currently at work on a book about the politics of Christianity, Judaism and Islam for Pantheon.


The Once and Future Pee-wee

The New York Times
May 20, 2007

IN the 1985 movie “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” the title character turns to a friend and murmurs darkly, “There are a lot of things about me, things you wouldn’t understand, things you couldn’t understand, things you shouldn’t understand.”

At the time those words seemed perversely at odds with the twee entertainer conceived by Paul Reubens, an actor so fused with Pee-wee Herman that he is enshrined in the popular imagination as an emblem of innocence — the sunny jester in white loafers and a red bow tie.

In retrospect, though, Pee-wee’s cautionary words had a prescient ring. More than 15 years have passed since Mr. Reuben’s arrest in 1991 on charges of indecent exposure, an episode that put an abrupt end to “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” the manically subversive Saturday-morning children’s television series introduced in 1986 on CBS.

Pee-wee’s signature staccato laugh, dancing eyebrows and drainpipe pants were packed away in mothballs, while Paul Reubens the actor continued to work, drawing raves for performances like that of a wily dope-dealing hairdresser in the 2001 movie “Blow.”

Mr. Reubens the man has, meanwhile, remained enigmatic, rarely giving interviews and preferring to retreat — as the gossips have it — behind the prickly cactus garden surrounding his house in the Hollywood Hills. As he pointed out with an affecting gravity, “For survival it’s much easier to not stick out.”

But to a public that remembers him with intense affection, Pee-wee is indelible. He has even become an unlikely fashion role model for a new generation of Hermanphiles who parade around town in slickly updated interpretations of their idol’s gray geek suits.

Mr. Reubens remains the hero of legions of post-adolescents and their parents, who recall him as an anarchic imp, a shrewd merchant of anticonformity. He routinely dispenses his signature at autograph shows.

“What I’ve noticed that people respond to in my career,” Mr. Reubens said, “is that I was very lucky. I had very little selling out.

“I meet people all day long who say to me, ‘I’m an artist because of you,’ really cool-looking young people. I just want to burst into tears.”

But in the past few months he has submerged his inner prankster in character roles that promise to recharge his erratic career.

In an interview at his publicist’s office in West Hollywood earlier this month, Mr. Reubens, 54, was by turns candid, wary and unnervingly seductive. At a glance, he appears to have traded in his antic persona for a worldlier, more subdued model — his girth expanded, his hair gray-flecked, his adenoidal whine modulated to a grainy croon.

STILL, a hint of his former daftness erupts in roles like that of Gerhardt, the beribboned monarch with a child-size prosthetic hand on “30 Rock” on NBC — a comic turn that has become must viewing on YouTube.

Yet he is rueful in the FX drama “Dirt,” playing opposite Courteney Cox as an alcoholic newsroom veteran who has seen palmier days, and caustic in “The Tripper,” a bleakly comic slasher film that was released in April.

“I was Pee-wee Herman for so many years that it wasn’t really a question that I didn’t want to do other things,” he said. “I didn’t have time for other things.”

Trained as a performer in the sulky James Dean mold, Mr. Reubens stopped chasing leading-man roles to play the jester in the late 1970s, only to discover that the character fit him like one of his natty suits. He has not appeared as Pee-wee in years, preferring the anonymity of a button-down shirt and fresh-laundered jeans.

Navigating the shoals of modern celebrity culture “definitely requires some thought and some strategy,” he said. “You are constantly trying to figure out, how does one not become a slave to being somebody that someone else would recognize?”

He added, “The public already knows about me more than I ever wanted it to know.”

He was alluding to the salacious publicity that dogged him for years after his arrest in an adult movie theater in South Florida. His police photo, reproduced in the tabloids, was of a man with a goatee, long ropy hair and a nakedly sullen expression. Disgraced, he became the target of off-color jokes and was subjected to relentless scrutiny.

Inevitably, it wrecked his career as an entertainer and role model who delighted in urging little children to use their imaginations and brush their teeth. “Playhouse” had been in reruns; even those were yanked off the air.

The incident haunted him. Years later, Lucy Dahl, a screenwriter and a friend of Mr. Reubens, told reporters that the media storm had been “extremely damaging.”

At the time he kept a low profile, Ms. Dahl said the other day. “But he has moved on,” she said. “We have all moved on. It was a long time ago.”

Mr. Reubens has recovered sufficiently, in fact, to step back and assess events in a historical context. Paraphrasing David Kamp writing in Vanity Fair, Mr. Reubens observed that the ongoing spectacle of public scandal that riveted the public from the early 1990s, ushered in the tabloid age, bracketed at one end “by my arrest, and at the other by Monica Lewinsky.”

To this day, he is skittish, deflecting questions with a stream of diversionary chatter. Mischievously, he showed off his Casio watch, set to buzz at the end of two hours to signal that time was up. He confided having dreamt about this interview, or more precisely about the tape recorder he imagined would be used. Why, he wondered, was it not attached to some sort of winding umbilical cord with a microphone at one end, and at the other, the reporter, seated at a respectful distance at the far side of the room.

With cockeyed dream logic, the answer occurred to him: “The reason reporters don’t have a long cord is they want to look at you up close. I bet the reason is you can stare at my forehead as much as you like.”

Mr. Reuben’s forehead is faintly lined, his manner seasoned, as may be fitting for a performer whose career trajectory appears to have reached midpoint at a time when many of his peers have peaked.

He appeared in a cape and purple beret as a Guardian Angel-like volunteer on the popular Comedy Central series, “Reno 911,” and had a cameo earlier this year as Sir Terrence, an overdressed plutocrat, in the movie “Reno 911!: Miami.” More recently, in “The Tripper,” Mr. Reubens, as a rock concert promoter, gets to pop his cork, spewing expletives with a patently cathartic force.

He is shopping “Area 57,” a pilot for a situation comedy in which he plays a passive-aggressive alien secreted away in the Nevada desert by government agents. And he has been cast alongside Demi Moore and Emma Thompson in a movie directed by Todd Solondz, known for dark suburban fables like “Happiness” and “Welcome to the Dollhouse.”

Mr. Reuben’s past indiscretions seem to pale alongside those of a Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan. What does he make of a celebrity culture in which stars flaunt their kinky exploits like soiled sheets to appease the public or to perk up a failing career (as occurred on a recent episode of “Dirt”)?

“That’s television,” Mr. Reubens said sharply. “I heard people at the time of my arrest say, ‘He did that to get out from under that Pee-wee character.’ Anyone who thinks like that is not remotely on top of what people go through. That’s like saying Lana Clarkson shot herself in the face.” (Which is what Phil Spector, the record producer, on trial for her murder, says she did in 2003.)

Though the past still rankles, Mr. Reubens is not quite ready to retire Pee-wee Herman. He hopes to secure financing for a third Pee-wee movie (a second, “Big Top Pee-wee,” was released in 1988), a cautionary tale in which Pee-wee descends on Hollywood and becomes a rock star rotten with fame.

“It’s kind of like crunch time now,” he said of the project. “I feel like I can’t put this off too much longer.” Wait too long, he fretted, and all the digital retouching in the world would not mask the effects of age.

A child of the 50s, Paul Rubenfeld grew up in Peekskill, N.Y., and later moved to Sarasota, Fla., where he tethered himself to his home screen watching “Captain Kangaroo” and “Howdy Doody.” Later he sent up these shows with brash affection on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.”

He conceived Pee-wee Herman while working with the Groundlings, an improvisational troupe in Los Angeles, and took the character to CBS. From the outset Pee-wee could be endearingly fussy, a throwback, unconscious perhaps, to Tintin, the fastidiously turned-out boy reporter immortalized in the 1920s in the famous Belgian comic strip.

EARLIER in his career, Mr. Reubens was tickled to discover that the Pee-wee look had been appropriated by the French, who conceived a line of Pee-wee Herman shoes and fashion paraphernalia. Today Thom Browne, a designer of skinny suits with high-water trousers, is obviously indebted to the playhouse.

Adam Shapiro, a New York fashion publicist, pays homage to the prim Pee-wee aesthetic in a red bow tie, short drainpipe pants and white Converse shoes. “There is something a little bit off about that silhouette that is appealing,” Mr. Shapiro said. “You definitely notice it on other people, too — the bow ties, for sure, the skinny trousers, the sneakers.”

Mr. Reubens, alternating bursts of frankness with reticence, declined to discuss his private life. “I’m not a hermit,” he said, “but I’m not out on the party circuit every night. I’m getting too old for that.”

He bemoaned the passing of the Hollywood studio system, which for the most part kept its players employed and their raunchier proclivities tightly under wraps. He copes, he confided, by “trying to maintain my naïveté while becoming jaded.”

“I’m not in Kansas anymore, ” Mr. Reubens added wistfully. “ I would love to be in Kansas.”

Destroying Dow Jones to Save It

The New York Times
May 19, 2007

So let’s see. We’re now into week No. 3 of the business world’s favorite new soap opera, “Mr. Murdoch Lusts After Dow Jones.” And what a strange week it’s been.

You’d think that when someone offers $60 a share for a stock that has been stuck in the $30s, as the News Corporation’s chairman, Rupert Murdoch, did, the controlling shareholders would, at the very least, want to really grapple with it. But in this case, the controlling shareholders are the three dozen or so adult members of the Bancroft family — and grappling with things related to Dow Jones has never been their style. Nor is it the sort of thing that their supposed advisers, the trustees at the small Boston law firm of Hemenway & Barnes, tend to encourage. Indeed, family members who dare raise legitimate questions about the asset that forms the bulk of their wealth tend to be ostracized by their elders, and cut out of the loop by the trustees.

The week began with family members receiving a copy of a letter that Mr. Murdoch had sent a few days before, asking for a meeting to discuss his bid for Dow Jones, and laying out the steps he would take to ensure the independence of its crown jewel, The Wall Street Journal.

On Monday afternoon, after they had a little time to absorb the letter, the family and its trustees held a conference call. Merrill Lynch, which has been retained by the trustees, made a presentation, outlining Mr. Murdoch’s offer, as well as the competitive pressures the company is under. From what I hear, questions weren’t encouraged, and the issue of whether the family should meet with Mr. Murdoch wasn’t even broached. In other words, nothing happened.

Two days later, the Dow Jones board met to discuss Mr. Murdoch’s offer. More presentations, including one from Clare Hart, who runs the division that includes Dow Jones Newswires, a profitable part of the company that could soon become much less profitable if two of its biggest rivals, Thomson and Reuters, wind up merging, as they plan to. The board concluded that so long as the majority of the Bancrofts oppose it (and currently the family members who stand in opposition control 52 percent of the company’s voting shares) it should do — you guessed it! — nothing.

Meanwhile, various Bancrofts have been talking to each other pretty much nonstop, though mostly to their allies within the family. Those who want to consider the Murdoch offer are chafing at those who rejected it, which they did, please recall, with incredible haste, the very afternoon it became public. Those who oppose the offer are angry that Mr. Murdoch has put them in such an awkward spot, and caused the family to become such an object of public scrutiny. The Bancrofts hate public scrutiny.

A kind of paralysis has settled over the family. No one seems to be able to take charge of the situation, or get everybody together to air the issues straightforwardly. Nor are the trustees showing much leadership; they seem as adrift as the family itself. (They are not returning calls from the media either, including mine.)

It’s a heck of a way to run a company, isn’t it? But, of course, the Bancrofts don’t actually run Dow Jones. All they do is own it. Although there are four Bancroft board members (including one trustee), none work for the company. Few of them understand much about the industry they’re in; the family largely lacks business acumen. For decades, they have passively accepted whatever steps Dow Jones management has chosen to take, believing that in doing so, they’ve been ensuring the independence of The Wall Street Journal. After all, that’s what Dow Jones management has been telling them all these years. So has Roy Hammer, their longtime (and since retired) lead trustee.

It is great that The Journal has not been Gannett-ified — or Rupert-ized, for that matter. It really is. But the family’s passivity has come at a steep price. For a long time now, Dow Jones has been the worst-run media company in the country. It has missed one opportunity after another to transform itself from a small newspaper company to a diversified financial information company, something Thomson did so successfully. And the efforts it has made at diversifying have largely backfired, mainly because Dow Jones management didn’t know what to do with the assets it purchased. The Bancrofts’ neglect — their unwillingness to hold Dow Jones management accountable for its mistakes — has not only hurt them and their heirs, it has hurt the company they all profess to love. And it has made Mr. Murdoch’s bid possible.

I HAVE a theory as to why Dow Jones management has been so inept over the years. It is a company that has long prided itself on being run by journalists. That was also part of preserving the integrity of The Wall Street Journal. Journalists, after all, would be less likely to damage the paper or cater to advertisers. But journalists tend to be terrible businessmen; they lack the risk-taking mindset that marks a good chief executive. Making the kind of big, bold bets that C.E.O.’s have to make all the time in industries undergoing wrenching change, like the newspaper business, just does not play to their strengths, which are observing, critiquing and finding out things.

The most legendary of the journalists-turned-chief-executives at Dow Jones was Barney Kilgore, who, as managing editor of the paper in the 1940s, effectively invented the modern Wall Street Journal. But he was the exception to the rule: during the 20 years he ran the company, he transformed The Journal into the country’s first truly national newspaper.

In 1975, however, a former Journal foreign correspondent, Warren Phillips, became the chief executive; his protégé, and eventual successor, was a Pulitzer Prize winner, Peter Kann, who ran Dow Jones from 1991 until the beginning of 2006. It is not an overstatement to describe their combined tenures as one giant disaster. They were newspapermen in love with ink and paper, who could never fully commit to the idea that newspapers were becoming an increasingly outmoded way of distributing financial information and data. Thus, even as they held title to one of the greatest brands in the world, they were lapped by upstarts like Bloomberg and lesser-known names like Thomson (which, by the way, is also a family-controlled company). “They have been very slow at the switch and very risk-averse,” a former Dow Jones executive named Bill Dunn told me many years ago.

In the 1980s, for instance, Dow Jones passed on a chance to own 50 percent of Comcast — and sold a 25 percent stake in Cablevision for peanuts. It decided not to allow options pegged to the Dow Jones industrial average — on the theory that options were beneath the dignity of Dow Jones. It is now in the options business, but most of its thunder was stolen by McGraw-Hill’s Standard & Poor’s unit, which makes a small fortune with its options business. Dow Jones negotiated to buy the Financial News Network for $90 million, but did the deal without investment bankers and neglected to include a lock-up provision, allowing NBC to come in and outbid it. That purchase became the backbone of CNBC, which makes hundreds of millions of dollars annually for its parent company, General Electric.

And then there was the biggest debacle of all, Dow Jones’s purchase in the late 1980s of a financial data company called Telerate, for $1.6 billion. The Telerate acquisition was supposed to be Dow Jones’s way of becoming a more broadly based financial information company. But Mr. Kann never understood the business and put the wrong people in charge of it. And every year, it slipped further behind Bloomberg, whose technology was vastly superior. Dow Jones spent an additional $650 million to turn it around, but that didn’t help. In 1998, it sold Telerate for just $510 million.

The one thing Mr. Phillips and Mr. Kann were good at — indeed, great at — was placating the Bancroft family. They did so, in part, by paying an enormous dividend — more than the company could really afford. But they also did so by telling the family, again and again, what a great thing they were doing in protecting the independence of The Wall Street Journal. Indeed, it was Mr. Phillips who came up with the idea of two classes of stock, which would allow the family to sell some shares and still retain control. An inept chief executive couldn’t hope for a better deal. No matter what move Mr. Phillips made, neither the family nor the trustees were ever going to question him. It just wasn’t their style.

Even in the midst of the Telerate disaster, most family members continued to back the people running Dow Jones. “They have a plan, and a good one,” Christopher Bancroft told me in early 1997, referring specifically to Telerate, which was then losing buckets of money. “I support Dow Jones management 100 percent,” said another family member, William Cox Jr. Both men were Dow Jones board members. Mr. Bancroft is still on the board, and is among those opposed to selling the company to Mr. Murdoch.

But Telerate was so obviously a mess that it also caused the first public rupture in the family, when Elisabeth Goth (she now uses her married name, Chelberg) and William Cox III, the last family member to work for Dow Jones, began publicly agitating for some management accountability. On the one hand, their efforts probably caused Mr. Kann to get rid of Telerate. On the other hand, Ms. Chelberg and Mr. Cox discovered what happens to any Bancroft who dares to criticize Dow Jones management. It took them years to get the rest of the family to talk to them again. Neither has been out front in dealing with the Murdoch bid.

To the Bancroft family, Rupert Murdoch has always been the devil — the epitome of the meddling down-market mogul who would wreck the paper if given half a chance. Or at least that’s what they’ve been taught to believe all these years by Mr. Phillips and Mr. Kann. And no matter how many promises Mr. Murdoch makes, their opinion is not likely to change. If they do wind up selling to him, they will do so holding their noses. There was a time, not so many years ago, when they could have sold to Bloomberg or the Washington Post Company or possibly even The New York Times Company. But Mr. Kann wouldn’t pursue those deals, and now those buyers are on record as saying they are no longer interested. It’s Rupert or nothing.

Even now, Mr. Kann and Mr. Phillips are trying to persuade the family, one last time, that it’s all about The Journal’s independence — and not their own incompetence or the family’s unwillingness to act as a true steward over its asset. Last week, Mr. Kann, who did not respond to my phone call, was quoted in The Wall Street Journal as saying how much he admired the family “for taking the position of maintaining Dow Jones as an independent public company.”

On Thursday, I did get Mr. Phillips on the phone. “If they are as determined in their support of The Journal’s independence as they have been in the past, then I think the paper is in good hands,” he said.

Would that it were so. But it’s not. “We had to destroy the village in order to save it,” was the famous phrase that came out of the Vietnam War. With the path they’ve been on, the Bancroft family seems intent on destroying Dow Jones in order to save it.

The Right: Down, but Maybe Not Out

The New York Times
May 20, 2007

WITH the death on Tuesday of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the Baptist minister and founder of the Moral Majority, and the announcement on Thursday that Paul D. Wolfowitz would resign from the presidency of the World Bank, two major figures in the modern conservative movement exited the political stage. To many, this is the latest evidence that the conservative movement, which has dominated politics during the last quarter century, is finished.

But conservatives have heard this before, and have yet to give in. Weeks after Barry Goldwater suffered a humiliating defeat in 1964 to Lyndon B. Johnson, his supporters organized the American Conservative Union to take on the Republican Party establishment. After failing to unseat Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976, Ronald Reagan positioned himself for the 1980 election. The conservatives dismayed by the election of Bill Clinton spent the next eight years attacking him at every opportunity. And after failing to impeach Mr. Clinton, House Republicans far from retreating into caution or self-doubt, kept up the pressure and turned the 2000 election into a referendum on Mr. Clinton’s character.

What accounts for this resilience — or stubbornness?

For one thing, since its beginnings in the 1950s, conservatism has been an insurgent movement fought on many fronts — cultural, moral and philosophical. Leaders on the right, as well as the rank and file, have always believed that defeats were inevitable and the odds often long.

Consider the careers, or cases, of Mr. Falwell and Mr. Wolfowitz . That the two were polar opposites in almost every way says a good deal about the movement they served — for one thing about its ability in its formative years, the 1970s and 80s, to make room for a constellation of agendas.

Mr. Falwell, a bootlegger’s son who disapproved of Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights activism because “preachers are not called to be politicians, but soul-winners” changed his mind amid the “secular” excesses of the 1960s and went on to found Moral Majority Inc. The organization mobilized the Christian right into a political force that eventually helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980 and also established the Republican Party as the home of politically active Christian evangelicals.

Mr. Wolfowitz was not a “movement conservative.” He did not inveigh against the sins of “secular liberalism” or homosexuals and the American Civil Liberties Union.

But like Mr. Falwell, he came to politics in the 1970s, when the conservative insurgency was reaching its apex and new ideological lines were emerging. Mr. Wolfowitz, from a family of immigrant Jews from Poland, was a brilliant student whose teachers included three neoconservative giants — Allan Bloom, Leo Strauss and Albert Wohlstetter. He felt out of place on the Yale faculty and discovered his métier as a military strategist in the Ford Administration. In his first major assignment he joined a team of analysts who drew up a dire, and some said, exaggerated analysis of Soviet military strength.

The report clashed with intelligence assessments, presaging Mr. Wolfowitz’s clash with intelligence experts in the months leading up to the Iraq invasion.

During this period, the ideas espoused by Mr. Falwell and Mr. Wolfowitz, though both were valued on the right, did not mesh; they were unconnected, spokes in the large conservative wheel. And so they remained during the first months of George W. Bush’s administration.

But after 9/11, neoconservatives and evangelicals found common cause in their shared belief in American exceptionalism and in the idea that the country’s values could be exported abroad. Mr. Bush was receptive to the synthesis, and it became the ideological centerpiece of the war on terror, with its stated mission to combat the “axis of evil” in a global “war on terror.”

Today, of course, this vision, has been widely repudiated, if not altogether discredited. The public has grown skeptical, or maybe just tired, of the hard-edged and often polarizing politics. And this change coincides with broad-based skepticism of the Bush presidency itself — as witnessed by Mr. Bush’s and his party’s perilously low approval ratings. The G.O.P.’s embrace of the conservative movement is beginning, some say, to resemble a death grip.

But there have been no signs of atonement within the movement. Mr. Falwell, who notoriously suggested that the Sept. 11 attacks reflected God’s judgment of “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians,” said last September that he hoped Hillary Clinton was running for president because she would outdo “Lucifer” in energizing his constituents.

Then there is Mr. Wolfowitz. The figure he is often compared to is, of course, Robert McNamara, the former defense secretary in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, who like him had been a brutal infighter at the Pentagon, as he helped engineer a disastrous war. When Mr. McNamara left to head the World Bank, he seemed stricken by his failure in Vietnam and approached his new position with “a touch of penance,” as David Halberstam wrote in “The Best and the Brightest.”

Not Mr. Wolfowitz. Apparently unchastened by the Iraq disaster — though he was its intellectual architect — he simply carried his mission to a new venue, “adopting a single-minded position on certain matters, refusing to entertain alternative views, marginalizing dissenters,” as Steven R. Weisman reported in The Times.

These differences aren’t surprising. Mr. McNamara was a technician, an efficiency expert and systems manager unattached to any political ideology. He viewed Vietnam as a problem, not a cause. Whereas for Mr. Wolfowitz, Iraq was a fixation — as indeed it has been, and remains, for the principal figures in the Bush administration, who are still deeply committed conservatives.

George Bush himself is, after all, the first president who came of age while the conservative movement was in full force, and it continues to guide him, just as it continues to guide members of the Republican base who still back the administration and who are almost certain to choose the party’s next nominee.

These views, of course, are sharply at odds with public opinion. The unpopularity of the Iraq war is nearing Vietnam proportions, and President Bush’s plummeting poll numbers resemble those of Mr. McNamara’s boss, Lyndon B. Johnson.

Meanwhile, the conservative movement finds itself in a new place. No longer insurgents, its leaders now form an entrenched establishment, just like the liberals and moderates they defeated a generation ago. But if Mr. Wolfowitz’s brief tenure at the World Bank is any indication, they are a long way from feeling chastened.

The Selling of Free Trade: NAFTA, Washington, and the Subversion of American Democracy

Bill Moyer's Journal
May 18, 2007

BILL MOYERS: Before we meet our next guest, take a look at this clip from the floor of congress this week...

Rep. Steve Kagen: Mr. Speaker, last friday it was announced that the Democratic leadership had struck a deal with the administration and the U.S. trade representative regarding how this country will approach trade agreements with other nations. While very few have seen the actual text of what this deal looks like, many of us in Congress have concerns as to how these new standards on labor and environment will realistically and effectively be enforced.

BILL MOYERS: That's Representative Steve Kagen from Wisconsin. And what he's talking about is all the buzz in Washington this week on trade.

SPEAKER PELOSI: Good afternoon...

BILL MOYERS: Just a week ago the Bush administration and the new Democratic leaders in Congress announced they had made a big breakthrough: a new bi-partisan trade agreement. Billed as an "important first step" -

SPEAKER PELOSI: It is progress - it is historic - we have to know make it work for America's working families...

BILL MOYERS: The President gets the 'free trade' he wants for wall street, Democrats get the 'fair trade' they want for main street...namely, some protection for workers whose jobs are being shipped overseas...and protection for the environment that is often trampled by the trade winds of capitalism.

Sounds like a win-win, right?

Certainly does if you consult the pundits.

Columnist David Broder in the Washington Post...

Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek.

The WALL STREET JOURNAL...THE NEW YORK TIMES...among others...all praising the agreement.

But hold on. All they know is what they've been told. The negotiation of this deal was secret. Its official language has still not been made public.

Skeptical Democrats - like Steve Kagen - who had not been in the negotiations want to know why, if there were strong protections for workers and the environment why were groups like the National Association of Manufacturers and the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce actually speaking well of the deal.

Here with the backstory is John R. MacArthur, president and publisher of Harper's magazine, one of the country's oldest and most honored publications. He wrote this book...second front: censorship and propaganda in the gulf war, back in 1992. His second book is called: "The Selling of 'Free Trade'."

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to The Journal. What telling details caught your eye as you followed the story this week?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Well, the main thing to know is that this is an initiative, as far as I can tell from my own reporting, from the leadership of the House, which is-- Nancy Pelosi and Charlie Rangel, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. And this is like the-- NAFTA campaign of the '90s, an attempt by the Democratic leadership-- in those days it was the Clintons -- to raise money from Wall Street. They're trying to compete head to head with the Republicans in their own pool.

BILL MOYERS: Why now? What's the advantage of acting on this at this very moment? What do you see as the strategy?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: It's simply because we've got a big election coming up.

BILL MOYERS: Well, not for--

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: They're gearing up for 2008. And Rangel has got to beat the Bushes for money. He's gotta shake down the bankers and the private equity people. And he's gotta have something to show to them.

BILL MOYERS: But there has been a deadlock on trade for some years now. There has been great disaffection with NAFTA, what's happened in Mexico, the number of jobs lost in this country. And the Republicans haven't wanted to give on these issues of labor standards and environmental standards. Could this possibly be a breakthrough?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: No, because it's just like the NAFTA side agreements in the '90s. They guaranteed all sorts of things in the side agreements: labor rights, environmental protection in Mexico. And none of it got done. Virtually none of it got done. Now, in these agreements, they're saying that these countries are suddenly going to start respecting labor rights. That countries like Peru, which can only survive by selling us their cheap labor. In other words, that's all they've got-- are going to raise their labor standards that would kill the very justification for set-- for setting up a factory in Peru. It's the same thing in Mexico. It's the same thing in China.

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that so many people embrace this so heartily so quickly?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Well, the people who embraced it: the media, the pundits, the elites-- the heads of-- banks and of investment banks, and the leadership of the two parties. That's not the people. The people are sold this-- idea of free trade over and over again, as though it were good for them. I mean, what do we have to cite? The statistics speak for themselves. More than half a million jobs officially lost because of NAFTA. The other thing to remember, of course, is that it's not just the brokerages and the financial business. It's the retail and restaurant industry likes it. Wal-Mart and Wall Street are now allied in this unholy pro-free trade alliance.

BILL MOYERS: How so? Why Wall Street and Wal-Mart?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Because Wal-Mart has dedicated factories in China manufacturing at the cheapest possible rate. People working for 15, 20, 25 cents an hour, making stuff to sell in Wal-Marts in the United States. Generally speaking, they want the cheapest labor possible making-- goods at the cheapest possible rates so that they can buy them cheaply and sell them more cheaply. In exchange, we get $8.00, $9.00 an hour jobs at Wal-Mart. That's what the people are faced with.

BILL MOYERS: Why do you subtitle The Selling of Free Trade "NAFTA, Washington, and the Subversion of American Democracy"? That's very strong.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Under the current rules, there is something called fast track. Unlike every other kind of bill that goes through Congress or treaty that goes through Congress, fast track authority means that Congress tells the president they can negotiate a trade treaty-- and then return it to Congress for an up or down vote with no amendments, no amendments allowed. So the minute Congress authorizes up or down on not a very good treaty or one that they're not entirely happy with. They get a lot of pressure from the leadership of the party-- from manufacturing, from the big money people.

BILL MOYERS: But trade is good. Trade fuels the economy. It also brings-- creates job in this-- trade is good. If you've got the-- labor standards, if you've got the portable pensions, if you've got the health insurance, if you've got the things that the social Democrats want, wouldn't this problem be fixed?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Well, trade between countries that are roughly equal in income and prosperity like Canada and the United States, that's very healthy because then you trade this stuff that other guy doesn't have. But that's not the point of these agreements. The point of these agreements is to allow American corporations to operate as cheaply as possible in foreign countries and to protect them against expropriation, against seizure of assets.

BILL MOYERS: But maybe this is one of those great realignments in American politics in which the Democratic Party, because money does drive the system now-- is going far from its roots, right? Already in Washington this week, the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrists or corporate Democrats are blaming people like you of being Lou Dobbs Democrats, right?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Right. Right.

BILL MOYERS: Populist, neo-populist-- social Democrats.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Meanwhile, the Clinton wing of the party is in the ascendancy. Let's not forget Hillary Clinton was on the board of Wal-Mart for six years when her husband was governor of Arkansas. She is now making some symbolic anti-Wal-Mart gestures. But at heart, she's very much allied with the retail lobby. Just to give you a sense of how powerful Wal-Mart has become, Fritz Hollings told me-

BILL MOYERS: Former senator from--

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Senator from South Carolina.

BILL MOYERS: Democrat.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: --anti-free trader-- told me not long ago that when he introduced a port security bill after 9/11-- which would have put a $15 surcharge on every container that comes into an American port to pay for extra security, Wal-Mart and the retail lobby killed it. That's why we don't have a port security system because they don't wanna pay the extra $15 a container. That's how powerful they've become. Even--

BILL MOYERS: Because they want cheap prices for the consumer-

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Because they want cheap prices for the consumer.

BILL MOYERS: They want to right.


BILL MOYERS: And the American citizen wants cheap products--

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Well, that's the way they put it. But what they really want to do is make more money for Wal-Mart and make Wall Street happy. So one of the things that's great about manufacturing in China is that you cannot form a union that's independent of the government union, the Communist Party controlled union. Wal-Mart loves that. They have dedicated factories in China that manufacture exclusively for Wal-Mart.

BILL MOYERS: But globalization is here. The free movement of money, the free movement of ideas, the free movement of goods. You can't reverse that, can you?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: You could if you slapped tariffs on certain imports. "Tariff," the word "tariff" has become a dirty word in this country. A protective tariff aimed at protecting certain industries, certain groups of people is perfectly all right. The Japanese do it. The Japanese have one of the highest standards of living in the world, one of the best healthcare systems. They have the highest tariffs of industrialized, among unindustrialized nations. They protect their home market against cheap imports.

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that Pat Buchanan seems more pro-worker than the Democrats do today?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Because Pat Buchanan is an economic nationalist. He believes that America should prosper ahead of any-- of airy-fairy liberal-- international scheme to enrich the world.

BILL MOYERS: Are you also an economic nationalist?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: I've become more of one because - not in the Buchanan sense - because more and more I realize that every time somebody says, "We're helping the poor" or "We're helping the foreigners" or "the poor foreigners," what they really mean is, "We're going to exploit the hell out of them. This is a way we're going to lock in cheap labor in any country you can think of and exploit them." And it's a union killing movement in the United States. You cannot form an union in the United States anymore without risking your plant being closed, sent overseas, or other kinds of intimidation. That's why union membership and private union membership has now fallen to eight percent of the workforce. As an American, as a citizen, I don't want to see the big money keep winning the way it's been winning over and over and over again. I also want to see a democratic debate restored on this absolutely crucial issue. Fast track, if it passes, kills the possibility of a democratic debate because then it's in the hands of the executive.

BILL MOYERS: Fast track will be coming up in a few months.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: It'll be coming up.

BILL MOYERS: I mean, this story's only begun last week.

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Right, right.

BILL MOYERS: It's just in the first stages.


BILL MOYERS: So this debate will be going on for some time, right?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Precisely. And the Democrats have an incentive to drag it out--


JOHN R. MACARTHUR: --because they don't want to have their caucus split. The Democrats have people like Sherrod Brown who are elected to the Senate in Ohio on an anti-free trade platform. Ohio's been absolutely devastated by free trade. There are factories leaving Ohio almost every week, significant plant closures every week because of NAFTA.

What is Sherrod Brown gonna go back to his constituents and say if fast track gets passed with some symbolic gestures towards labor rights that can't be enforced in these foreign countries anyway? He's going to be between a rock and a hard place.

BILL MOYERS: What is the strategy of doing this? You think it is about contributions between now and 2000-- the campaign--

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: Yes. They're trying to string it out so they can raise as much money from Wall Street as possible and then hope that the issue goes away or that it gets voted on after the 2008 election. We, as citizens, have got to stop it before it gets to that point. We have to say to the Congress, "We're not gonna let you do another NAFTA. We're not going to let you do another PNTR. We're going to be involved in this debate as citizens, and we're gonna restore democracy to this debate." And if it requires action in the street like there was in Seattle in 1999, maybe that's what's going to happen. If it requires a split in the Democratic Party-- maybe that's what's gonna have to happen. But the way it's been going, the jobs just keep going out. Median income in this country has fallen $10 in constant dollars from 2002 until last year. $10. Not huge but people are feeling it and they're panicked.

BILL MOYERS: The book is The Selling of Free Trade: NAFTA, Washington, and the Subversion of American Democracy. Rick MacArthur is the publisher of Harper's. Thank you for joining us on The Journal.


BILL MOYERS: That's it for this week. We'll be back this time next week. Meantime, keep in touch on the blog at I'm Bill Moyers.

from the HILLARY files

Clinton Quiet on Her Past Role at Wal-Mart

The New York Times
May 19, 2007

In 1986, Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, had a problem. He was under growing pressure from shareholders — and his wife, Helen — to appoint a woman to the company’s 15-member board of directors.

So Mr. Walton turned to a young lawyer who just happened to be married to the governor of Arkansas, where Wal-Mart is based: Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Mrs. Clinton’s six-year tenure as a director of Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest company, remains a little-known chapter in her closely scrutinized career. And it is little known for a reason. Mrs. Clinton rarely, if ever, discusses it, leaving her board membership out of her speeches and off her campaign Web site.

According to fellow board members and company executives, Mrs. Clinton used her position to champion personal causes, like the need for more women in management and a comprehensive environmental program, despite being Wal-Mart’s only female director, the youngest and arguably the least experienced in business. On other topics, like Wal-Mart’s vehement anti-unionism, she was largely silent, they said.

Her experience on the Wal-Mart board, from 1986 to 1992, gave her an unusual tutorial in the ways of American business — a credential that could serve as an antidote to Republican efforts to portray her as an enemy of free markets and an advocate for big government.

But that education came via a company that the Democratic Party — and its major ally, organized labor — has sharply criticized, accusing it of offering unaffordable health insurance and mistreating its workers.

So rather than tout her board membership, Mrs. Clinton is running from it, even returning a $5,000 campaign donation from the giant discount chain in 2005, citing “serious differences” with its practices. But disentangling herself from the company is harder than it may seem.

Despite her criticism, Mrs. Clinton maintains close ties to the Wal-Mart executives through the Democratic Party and the tightly knit Arkansas business community. Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, speaks frequently to Wal-Mart’s chief executive, H. Lee Scott Jr., about such issues as health care and even played host to Mr. Scott at the Clintons’ home in New York for a private dinner in July.

Several months ago, Mrs. Clinton helped broker a secret meeting between a top Wal-Mart executive and former Democratic operative, Leslie Dach, and leaders of the retailer’s longtime adversary at the United Food and Commercial Workers, according to several people briefed on the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to do so publicly.

Mrs. Clinton declined to be interviewed for this article. In a statement, her spokesman said, “Wal-Mart is now one of the country’s largest employers and Mrs. Clinton still believes it is important to try to influence the decisions they make because they can affect so many people.”

In Mrs. Clinton’s complex relationship with Wal-Mart , there are echoes of the familiar themes that have defined much of her career: the trailblazing woman, unafraid of challenging the men around her; the idealist pushing for complicated, at times expensive, reforms; and the political pragmatist, willing to accept policies she did not agree with to achieve her ends.

“Did Hillary like all of Wal-Mart practices? No,” said Garry Mauro, now a Democratic fund-raiser who sat on the Wal-Mart Environmental Advisory Board with Mrs. Clinton in the late 1980s and had earlier worked with her on George McGovern’s campaign for president.

“But,” he added, “was Wal-Mart a better company, with better practices, because Hillary was on the board? Yes.”

Mrs. Clinton was not Mr. Walton’s first choice. That honor belonged to a female executive at Nordstrom, the upscale department store. But Nordstrom opposed the idea of its employees sitting on the boards of competitors, so Wal-Mart turned instead to the 39-year-old Mrs. Clinton. They offered her about $15,000 a year for her time, generally four meetings a year.

She was a logical candidate: the wife of the governor, a Wal-Mart shareholder and a highly regarded lawyer at the Rose Law Firm, which had represented Wal-Mart in several cases.

But if her circumstances made her a natural choice for the board, her often liberal beliefs did not and she struggled to change the rigid, conservative culture at Wal-Mart, achieving modest results.

Early on in her tenure, she pressed for information about the number of women in Wal-Mart’s management, worrying aloud that the company’s hiring practices might be discriminatory.

The data she received would have been troubling: by 1985, there was not a single woman among the company’s top 42 officers, according to “In Sam We Trust,” the 1998 book about Wal-Mart by Bob Ortega.

John E. Tate, who served as a director with Mrs. Clinton from 1988 to 1992, recalled that by the third board meeting Mrs. Clinton had announced: “You can expect me to push on issues for women. You know that. I have a reputation of trying to improve the status of women generally and I will do it here.”

Mr. Walton appeared relieved to have a woman on the board to deflect criticism, telling shareholders during the 1987 annual meeting that “we have a strong-willed young lady on the board who has already told the board it should do more to ensure the advancement of women.”

Still, the board’s discussions did not translate into significant progress. By the late 1990s, after Hillary had left the board, Wal-Mart had added a second female director, but the number of women in senior management remained paltry, according to company records. (Today, 23 percent of Wal-Mart’s top 300 corporate officers are women, but the company is fighting a lawsuit claiming sex discrimination by 1.6 million current and former female employees.)

Mrs. Clinton had greater success on environmental issues. At her request, Mr. Walton set up an environmental advisory group, which sent a series of recommendations to the company’s board.

When it came time to pick members, Mrs. Clinton, who headed the advisory board, reached out to at least two old colleagues from the 1972 McGovern presidential campaign — Mr. Mauro and Roy Spence, who headed an advertising firm in Texas that did extensive work for Wal-Mart.

Under her watch, the advisory group drew up elaborate plans. Consumers would bring in used motor oil and batteries for recycling. Suppliers would reduce the size of their packaging. And Wal-Mart would build stores with energy-saving features.

Wal-Mart executives put much of the program into place. In 1993, for example, they opened an experimental “eco-store” in Kansas, with dozens of skylights and wooden beams from forests that were not clear cut.

One executive derided it as “Hillary’s store” because it was more expensive to build than the average Wal-Mart, but several of its features, like the skylights that cut energy bills by reducing the need for artificial lighting, were widely copied across the industry.

“We were on the leading edge of something that is being mandated now,” said Bill Fields, the head of merchandise at Wal-Mart in the early 1990s who worked closely with Mrs. Clinton on the environmental project.

For Wal-Mart, the largest employer in Arkansas, Mrs. Clinton’s presence had obvious advantages: on matters big and small, the company had the ear of the governor’s wife.

For Mrs. Clinton, being a director at Wal-Mart gave her access to several of the state’s most powerful business executives. Mr. Walton, for example, was instrumental in building support for a corporate tax program that financed a major education reform plan, a major achievement of her husband’s governorship.

Though she was passionate about issues like gender and sustainability, Mrs. Clinton largely sat on the sidelines when it came to Wal-Mart and unions, according to board members. Since its founding in 1962, Wal-Mart has aggressively fought unionization efforts at its stores and warehouses, employing tough tactics — like firing union supporters and spying on employees — that have become the subject of legal complaints against the company.

A special team at Wal-Mart handled those activities, but Mr. Walton was vocal in his opposition to unions. Indeed, he appointed the lawyer who oversaw the company’s union monitoring, Mr. Tate, to the board, where he served with Mrs. Clinton.

During their meetings and private conversations, Mrs. Clinton never voiced objections to Wal-Mart’s stance on unions, according to Mr. Tate and John A. Cooper, another board member.

“She was not an outspoken person on labor, because I think she was smart enough to know that if she favored labor, she was the only one,” Mr. Tate said. “It would only lessen her own position on the board if she took that position.”

Mr. Tate, a prominent management lawyer who helped stop union drives at many major companies, said he had worked closely with Mr. Walton to convince workers that a union would be bad for the company, personally telling employees when he visited stores that “the only people who need unions are those who do not work hard.”

A spokesman for Mrs. Clinton said, “Wal-Mart workers should be able to unionize and bargain collectively.”

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