Baseball History Morality Politics

The Failure of Al Gore: A Defense of a Good Man

If history at its best can be seen as the recollection and recreation of past eventsThe Earth unvarnished by propaganda, emotion, and the focus of the present; of the best and worst, and most often, the muddled in between of human events, human endeavors, and natural forces, then James Fallows’ take on Al Gore seems to be on the right track. Fallows writes:

Gore can be pompous, lecturing, pedantic, and all the rest. But [just as] in retrospect the criticisms of [Martin Luther King, Jr.] look very small, and — without equating the stature of the two men — I think something similar will be true regarding Gore. Like him or not, he has turned his efforts to an important cause, under historical and political circumstances that would have tempted many people to drown themselves in drink or move to Bhutan.

For the moment, let us imagine the role of some historian a generation hence. The major biographies of our age have already been written and re-written by our peers, our children and children’s children. The comic-tragedy of Dubya that ended in the tragedy of a war; the comic-tragedy of Bill Clinton, who wasted his presidency on trivialities; the dark force of Cheney whose sudden personality shift between 2000 and 2002 still remains a mystery, but whose insider skill and cachet with the president led him to amass more power than most presidents; and of course, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, Rudy Guiliani, Hillary Clinton, Colin Powell, Tommy Franks, David Petreaus, Nancy Pelosi, and John McCain. All these men and women who exercised power from 1998 to 2008 will have been written about. But someone will remember to write about a man who almost was president; who was the most powerful vice president in history (only to be dwarfed in power by his successor); who, after losing his lifelong ambition in the most excruciating fashion possible, slowly, gradually, gained a second chance at his life and dedicated it to stopping what he saw as the world’s most pressing challenge.

The Inches We Need [digg-reddit-me]

Bobby Kennedy once said that:

Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.

Al Gore proved in 2000 that he did not have the first greatness that Kennedy spoke of;Carlton Fisk Home Run greatness is only separated from failure by luck, providence, or destiny. As with any time I try to understand the meaning of something significant, I am reduced to invoking sport. In a ballgame, the difference between greatness and a fleeting memory is only a matter of inches. Who would remember Carlton Fisk’s walk off home run – which I was not even alive for, but vividly recall – if it hadn’t been for a few inches. In the photo, you can see him wishing, pushing the ball, already far beyond his control, fair with his hands. And in the miracle of that moment, Fisk’s home run became a legend, one of the most dramatic moments in sports history.

Many imbue success with a kind of moral quality, seeing in a successful person more will-power, more determination, more grit, more perseverance, more discipline. They do not acknowledge the controlling factor of luck that time and again makes these moral qualities superfluous. Carlton Fisk’s moment of triumph, carrying his team to victory, made him immortal and great. He changed the course of history and allowed the Boston fans one more day to hope. But a million minute factors contributed to this moment and any one could have rendered it forgettable, typical, a failure. There is no moral quality to success. A swing a quarter of a second sooner or later, a strong breeze, an imperfection in the baseball, anything that made the ball move a few inches to the left would have made this moment instantly forgettable. History would gone on, oblivious. These seconds, these moments, these triumphs that barely were: they are what separate those with the greatness to bend history from those who try their best.Al Gore’s swing in 2000 was a bit too early, a bit too late, and for him, things certainly did not end fairly.

Al Pacino in the single moment that redeemed the decent picture Any Given Sunday gave a soliloquy:

Pacino captures the beauty of sports and of history, properly understood. A battle of wills, a competition in which every inch matters because winning and losing are only inches apart. What Pacino ignores, what every actor in history ignores is that even the most outstanding success is largely the result of luck. That is why you can find the morality of sports not in success but in the process, in the way the game is played: the discipline needed to attain the skills needed to compete; the determination and perseverance in the face of adversity; the will-power and focus; the camaraderie and community of a team; the dignity in the face of setbacks and successes; the respect for one’s opponent. A great ball player is one who has been given the opportunity and through luck, skill, and character is able to take advantage of it. A good ball player is one who has skill and character. You can study the great men and women who have changed history and the many men and women who have failed. There are those who choose to do great but terrible things – who, once attaining power, destroy societies, murder, lie, steal. There are those who choose to do great things for others – but who in their great ambition, they always destroy something. In studying these men and women you will find no golden formula for success; the only necessary condition is to be willing to take advantage of an opportunity that presents itself, but even that is only occasionally sufficient.

Al Gore failed, but he put himself out there, to win or lose, to compete. He paid his dues over the years, accumulating a wealth of experience. He faced failures and successes, again and again. He ran a good but flawed campaign and lost in a mess of butterfly ballots and pregnant chads.

Al Gore, Failure

If we were to judge Al Gore by the standards of an earlier era, he would look better. In an era before television and the 24/7 media cycle he so hates began to dominate our culture and politics, Al Gore would be more readily seen as the man of substance, conviction, and morals he is. He has shown good judgment throughout his career, both personally and politically. Maybe he demonstrated poor judgment in letting a political consultant dress him in earth tones, and by kissing Tipper a bit too enthusiastically for everyone to see. As important as those seemed at the time, today, these lapses in judgment seem paltry compared to the worst of Bush, for example, calling his Secretary of Defense “RumStud”, unnecessary wars, etcetera and so on.

But most important is what Al Gore did after his loss. He was a man. He was a good man. He did not give up on making a difference in the world. He fought for what he believed in. He maintained his good sense despite his colossal failure that was a lifetime in the making. He has done more than any other living person to put climate change back on the global policy agenda, and all of this from a man who failed when history most needed him, who could not bend history even a bit at his most opportune time. Al Gore failed to become a great man; what Gore proved though, was that he was something better and more rare – a good man who, being passed over by history, still chose to make what difference he could.

As an historian of the future, we can look at Al Gore as a good man on whom God or fate chose not to bestow the blessing or curse of greatness. But he was – and is – a good man.

History as a Morality Tale

As a concluding thought, I would turn to Reinhold Niebuhr:

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime,
Therefore, we are saved by hope.
Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history;
Therefore, we are saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone.
Therefore, we are saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite a virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own;
Therefore, we are saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

Foreign Policy Morality Obama Politics The War on Terrorism

Under the Weather..

Sorry for the extra-light blogging these past few days.  I’m a bit under the weather and have no stomach for deep thoughts to intermingle my metaphors.  In lieu of actual thoughts on a page, here are some thoughts by others:

Foreign Policy Morality Politics The War on Terrorism

Columbus Day

As we remember the beginnings of Western civilization on this continent, we almost must look to our legacy:

“Tell the world why you’re proud of America. Tell them when the Star-Spangled Banner starts, Americans get to their feet, Hispanics, Irish, Italians, Central Europeans, East Europeans, Jews, Muslims, white, Asian, black, those who go back to the early settlers and those whose English is the same as some New York cab driver’s I’ve dealt with … but whose sons and daughters could run for this Congress.
Tell them why Americans, one and all, stand upright and respectful. Not because some state official told them to, but because whatever race, color, class or creed they are, being American means being free. That’s why they’re proud.

As Britain knows, all predominant power seems for a time invincible, but, in fact, it is transient.

The question is: What do you leave behind?”

Tony Blair to the United States Congress in 2003.

Foreign Policy Morality The War on Terrorism

Two Methods of Interrogation

The Interrogation of Abu JandelGoofus and Gallant on Torture

In October 2000, Abu Jandal was arrested by the Yemeni authorities in connection with the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. He was a member of Al Qaeda and had served as Osama Bin Laden’s chief bodyguard. After the attacks on September 11, the Yemeni authorities allowed Ali Soufan, one of eight FBI agents who spoke Arabic, to interrogate Abu Jandal.

The attack was fresh in Soufan’s memory. His friend and mentor, John O’Neil, who had dedicated much of his life to fighting Al Qaeda, had been killed in the attacks. Soufan was justifiably, righteously angry. The Yemeni authorities, not known for their squeamishness, gave Soufan wide latitude in the interrogation. The FBI gave Soufan the directive to identify the hijackers “by any means necessary”.

Despite the fact that Abu Jandel refused to cooperate with Soufan at first, Soufan remained respectful. Abu Jandel would rant about the evils of America–the single country, he believed, that was most responsible for the evils of the world. As an additional complicating factor, like many Al Qaeda members, Abu Jandel had been trained in counter-interrogation techniques. He agreed to those facts which Soufan knew and denied everything else. He tried to portray himself as a good Muslim who had at one time flirted with Al Qaeda.

This stonewalling lasted for several days. Soufan was patient, picking up small details he might be able to use. For example, he found that Abu Jandel was diabetic and the next day brought sugarless wafers and a history of America in Arabic. Abu Jandel read the book quickly and was astonished at America’s history. The very fact of Soufan’s existence–as a knowledgeable Muslim who loved America and was in the FBI–was a challenge to Abu Jandel’s conception of America.

Soufan also found that Abu Jandel was troubled that Osama Bin Laden had sworn fealty to Mullah Omar, the messianic leader of the Taliban.

For five days, Soufan and Abu Jandel debated the theology behind suicide bombing, America’s place in the world, and discussed Abu Jandel’s life. He refused to reveal that he had any significant knowledge of Al Qaeda.

On the fifth night, Soufan brought him a news magazine with graphic photos of the twin towers on fire, photos that brought home the scale of the death and destruction. Abu Jandel had heard that something had happened in New York, but was shocked by the events, and insisted that Bin Laden could never do that–he said it must have been the Israelis, or someone else. Soufan showed Abu Jandel a local Yemeni newspaper with the headline: “200 Yemeni Souls Perish in New York Attack.” “The Sheikh is not that crazy,” he insisted, referring to Bin Laden. Soufan asked him to identify a series of mug shots. Still disturbed by the images of the attack, Abu Jandel was able to identify seven men as members of Al Qaeda, but he still insisted that Bin Laden could not have ordered the attack.[digg-reddit-me]

Soufan responded that he knew for sure that the people who did this were Al Qaeda. “How? Who told you?” Abu Jandel asked.

“You did. You just identified the hijackers,” Soufan said.

Abu Jandel asked for a few moments alone. When Soufan came back, he offered to help, to reveal what he knew about the structure of Al Qaeda, the locations of hideouts, and plans for escape. “I think the Sheikh went crazy,”Abu Jandel said.

Abu Jandel’s information proved significant in the Afghanistan campaign.

The Interrogation of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi

In late 2001 or early 2002, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi was captured by Pakistani forces while trying to escape Afghanistan . By the middle of January 2002, he was in US custody. He was one of several high value detainees whose interrogation and detention challenged the limits of what the CIA was willing to do. The Bush administration had just recently authorized “enhanced” interrogation techniques, includes, as revealed by the New York Times in a recent expose, “slaps to the head; hours held naked in a frigid cell; days and nights without sleep while battered by thundering rock music; long periods manacled in stress positions” and waterboarding. According to the New York Times:

With virtually no experience in interrogations, the C.I.A. had constructed its program in a few harried months by consulting Egyptian and Saudi intelligence officials and copying Soviet interrogation methods long used in training American servicemen to withstand capture.

Relatively little is known about the specific techniques used on al-Libi or about his interrogation. It seems certain however that al-Libi was subject to these “enhanced techniques” such as simulated drowning and the rest. Additionally, al-Libi was also transferred for a time to a foreign intelligence service in the rendition program, that began under President Clinton, where he was also physically abused and threatened with torture.

Under pressure and feeling threatened, Al-Libi provided the CIA and other officials questioning him with a wealth of information about planned attacks in Yemen and around the world. Most significant however, al-Libi was the primary source for the faulty pre-war intelligence about Al Qaeda-Iraq links. Al-Libi specifically said that Iraq had been training members of Al Qaeda in the use of chemical and biological weapons, a claim cited by President Bush, Colin Powell, and many others as a justification for the war.

This bit of intelligence, gained by torture and used to justify a war, was found to be false after the invasion.

Torture as a Symbol

These are just two of the most prominent examples of the interrogations of detainees after 9/11. Two examples cannot prove a point. They do illustrate an opinion that is held by many if not most interrogators: torture and other extreme techniques are useful in getting people to talk, but not necessarily to tell the truth. The harder and less television-friendly approach is often the best.

Torture, as a symbol, represents the bankruptcy of the Bush’s administration’s approach to the War on Terror. The decision to begin to torture prisoners was made without public debate of any sort, by distorting current law and common sense, by abandoning America’s long-held positions and values, and without any attempt at resolving questions of tactics or strategy.

The CIA thus began to develop a program that mimicked Soviet techniques America had long condemned–techniques that were not designed to elicit information, but confessions for show trials. While Guiliani, Bush, Cheney, Gonzalez, Addington, Scalia, and others have denied that they endorse torture, they have endorsed “enhanced interrogation techniques” inflicting physical and psychological pain short of death or major organ failure. To embrace torture (which is what these men have done) reveals a tactical and strategic deficiency. The focus is on looking tough and on taking postures of violent masculinity even if they are counter-productive.

E. B. White wrote an essay on New York City at the dawn of the nuclear age, saying:

“The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions…In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.”

We cannot accept such blunders, such a short-sighted strategy with so much at stake.