Murdoch vs. The Man

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing lately about Rupert Murdoch’s drive for total world domination. I’d be as disappointed as anyone if he took over the Wall Street Journal and wrung out of it what makes the Journal a great paper.

But a recent New York Times story on “Murdoch, Ruler of a Vast Empire” rather off-handedly made clear what real power is — and it isn’t what Murdoch has. As the Times reported,

Shortly before Christmas in 1987, Senator Edward M. Kennedy taught Mr. Murdoch a tough lesson in the ways of Washington.

Two years earlier, Mr. Murdoch had paid $2 billion to buy seven television stations in major American markets with the intention of starting a national network. To comply with rules limiting foreign ownership, he became an American citizen. And to comply with rules banning the ownership of television stations and newspapers in the same market, he promised to sell some newspapers eventually. But almost immediately he began looking for ways around that rule.

Then Mr. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, stepped in. Mr. Kennedy’s liberal politics had made him a target of Murdoch-owned news media outlets, particularly The Boston Herald, which often referred to Mr. Kennedy as “Fat Boy.” [This is an unfair claim by the Times; one columnist at the Herald calls Kennedy that. This is like saying “The Times often refers to Cheney as ‘Shooter’ ” because Maureen Dowd does.] He engineered a legislative maneuver that forced an infuriated Mr. Murdoch to sell his beloved New York Post.

Murdoch could spend $2 billion on American media properties and change his citizenship — but one irritated senator could force him to sell his favorite American newspaper. The Times continued,

“Teddy almost did him in,” said Philip R. Verveer, a cable television lobbyist. “I presume that over time, as his media ownership in this country has grown and grown, he’s realized that you can’t throw spit wads at leading figures in society with impunity.”

Well, actually you can in a free society. That’s what makes it a free society — that you can criticize the powerful. And true, nobody tried to put Murdoch in jail. They just forced him to change his citizenship and sell his newspaper.

He ran into similar problems in Britain. His newspapers there, unsurprisingly, usually supported the Conservative Party. But in 1997 two of them endorsed Labour Party leader Tony Blair for prime minister. Blair reacted warmly to the support, but some Labour leaders still wanted to enact media ownership limits, which might have forced Murdoch to sell some of his properties.

“Blair’s attitude was quite clear,” Andrew Neil, the editor of The Sunday Times under Mr. Murdoch in London from 1983 to 1994, said in an interview. “If the Murdoch press gave the Blair government a fair hearing, it would be left intact.”

Is this what the long British struggle for freedom of the press has come to? A prime minister can threaten to dismantle newspapers if they don’t give him “a fair hearing”?

Murdoch has been a realist about politics. He knows that while he may buy ink by the barrel, governments have the actual power. They can shut him down at the behest of a prime minister or a powerful senator. So he plays the game, in Britain and the United States and even China.

After the 2006 elections, for instance, News Corporation and its employees started giving more money to Democrats than Republicans.

“We did seek more balance,” said Peggy Binzel, Mr. Murdoch’s former chief in-house lobbyist. “You need to be able to tell your story to both sides to be effective. And that’s what political giving is about.”

Rupert Murdoch’s empire may become yet more vast, but he’ll still be subject to the whims of powerful politicians. This is hardly surprising in China. But one would hope that in the country of John Milton and the country of John Peter Zenger, and especially in the country of the First Amendment, a publisher would be free to say whatever he chooses without fear of government assault on either his person or his property.

An EU Minimum Wage Law?

The European Union commissioner for economic and monetary affairs, Joaquin Almunia, thinks there should be a minimum wage for all EU member nations. This is a destructive notion, considering many European nations suffer from substantional unemployment and under-employment. To the extent that minimum wage policy is harmonized (as opposed to 27 different minimum wage policies in 27 EU nations), poorer countries will be hardest hit.

The EU Observer reports on the latest proposal from the statists in Brussels:

EU economic and monetary affairs commissioner Joaquin Almunia has mooted the idea of minimum wages being introduced in each of the 27 member states across the European Union. “Every country in the EU should have a minimum wage,” Mr Almunia told the German weekly Die Zeit in an interview.

…[O]nly 20 EU member states currently have a set level of minimum wages…. Germany … is one of the few major world economies without a minimum wage.

Conservatives and the Presidency

But for the intriguing–and unsettling–revelation that President Bush’s nickname for his attorney general is “Fredo,” there’s not much new in the Washington Post’s recent four-part series on vice president Dick Cheney.  But the series does serve to remind us of how consistently Cheney has pushed for three decades to expand the powers of the presidency.  That in turn is a good jumping-off point for examining how inconsistent post-Watergate conservatives’ affinity for powerful executives is with conservatism, properly understood. 

Almost to a man, the postwar conservatives who coalesced around William F. Buckley’s National Review associated presidential power with liberal activism and viewed Congress as the “conservative” branch.  In 1960 NR senior editor Willmoore Kendall, who had been one of Buckley’s professors at Yale, published an influential article called “The Two Majorities,” which made that case.  In 1967, Russell Kirk and coauthor James McClellan praised the late Robert A. Taft, “Mr. Conservative,” for insisting that war had to be a last resort, threatening as it did to “make the American President a virtual dictator, diminish the constitutional powers of Congress, contract civil liberties, injure the habitual self-reliance and self-government of the American people, distort the economy, sink the federal government in debt, [and] break in upon private and public morality.” 

Even so ardent a Cold Warrior as NR’s James Burnham recognized that “by the intent of the Founding Fathers and the letter and tradition of the Constitution, the bulk of the sovereign war power was assigned to Congress.”  Burnham doubted that congressional control of the war power could be maintained, given the demands of modern war.  But he wrote a book defending Congress’s centrality to the American constitutional system and warning that erosion of congressional power and the rise of activist presidents risked bringing about “plebiscitary despotism for the United States in place of constitutional government, and thus the end of political liberty.”

The politician who represented the culmination of postwar conservatives’ hopes for political success, Senator Barry Goldwater, could sound as extremist in opposition to presidential power as he did on other matters involving “the defense of liberty.” In his 1964 campaign manifesto “My Case for the Republican Party,” Goldwater wrote:

We hear praise of a power-wielding, arm-twisting President who “gets his program through Congress” by knowing the use of power. Throughout the course of history, there have been many other such wielders of power. There have even been dictators who regularly held plebiscites, in which their dictatorships were approved by an Ivory-soap-like percentage of the electorate. But their countries were not free, nor can any country remain free under such despotic power. Some of the current worship of powerful executives may come from those who admire strength and accomplishment of any sort. Others hail the display of Presidential strength … simply because they approve of the result reached by the use of power. This is nothing less than the totalitarian philosophy that the end justifies the means…. If ever there was a philosophy of government totally at war with that of the Founding Fathers, it is this one.

Of course, Goldwater’s distrust of presidential power fit uneasily with his embrace of a hyper-aggressive posture in the struggle against the Soviet Union. Rollback of communist gains demanded presidential activism abroad, and those demands began to weaken conservative opposition to powerful presidents.

In an article for Presidential Studies Quarterly examining congressional voting patterns on executive power, political scientist J. Richard Piper found that “what erosion occurred in conservative support for a congressionally-centered federal system [from 1937-68] occurred most frequently on foreign policy matters and among interventionist anti-Communists.” Even so, post-war, pre-Watergate conservatives in Congress “were more likely to favor curbing presidential powers than were moderates or liberals.”

During the Nixon administration, all that began to change.  The 1970s brought increasing tension over foreign policy and, perhaps more importantly, the emergence of what political analyst Kevin Phillips called “The Emerging Republican Majority” in the electoral college. Right-wing ressentiment over Nixon’s downfall helped drive the shift; as conservative M. Stanton Evans quipped, “I didn’t like Nixon until Watergate.”

By the ‘70s, prominent conservatives had begun to see the executive as the conservative branch, and set to work developing a conservative case for the Imperial Presidency. In November 1974, National Review featured a cover story by Jeffrey Hart, “The Presidency: Shifting Conservative Perspectives?” Hart began by noting the “settled and received view” among American conservatives, who “have been all but unanimously opposed to a strong and activist presidency.” Foreshadowing the conservative embrace of Unitary Executive Theory in the 1980s, Hart noted the growth of the administrative state and the corresponding need for a powerful president who could hold the bureaucracy in check. Even more important, according to Hart, was the emergence of a “fourth branch of government” in the form of an activist, left-leaning press. Only a centrist or conservative president willing to use the bully pulpit could check the liberal media in the fight for American public opinion.

In Congress as well, conservatives demonstrated a growing affinity for a strong presidency. As Piper noted, of “37 major roll call [votes] concerning presidential powers of greatest long-term significance [from 1968-86] conservatives took the most pro-presidential power position… often (as on the item veto, impoundment, and war powers) contradicting conservative positions of the past.”

By the Reagan era, prominent right-wingers were calling for a repeal of the 22nd Amendment, and conservative conventional wisdom held that the real threat to separation of powers lay not in an Imperial Presidency, but in an Imperial Congress.   And during the Clinton administration, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Henry Hyde (R.-Ill.) led an unsuccessful effort to repeal the War Powers Act, with Gingrich urging House Republicans to “increase the power of President Clinton…. I want to strengthen the current Democratic president because he’s the president of the United States.”  The bulk of the Republican delegation supported the bill, which failed to pass the House because of Democratic opposition and 44 Republican defections.   

That conservatives were willing to strengthen the powers of the presidency even when the office was occupied by their political enemy shows principle of a sort, but it’s unclear why it’s a conservative principle.  Far more than liberals, conservatives recognize the imperfectability of human nature, and, taking man for what he is, have generally supported restraints on the concentration of power.   Russell Kirk was no libertarian, but on this point, he and most of the postwar conservative movement stood with Jefferson: “In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution.”  As Kirk put it:

The conservative endeavors to so limit and balance political power that anarchy or tyranny may not arise. In every age, nevertheless, men and women are tempted to overthrow the limitations upon power, for the sake of some fancied temporary advantage. It is characteristic of the radical that he thinks of power as a force for good—so long as the power falls into his hands….

Knowing human nature for a mixture of good and evil, the conservative does not put his trust in mere benevolence. Constitutional restrictions, political checks and balances, adequate enforcement of the laws, the old intricate web of restraints upon will and appetite—these the conservative approves as instruments of freedom and order.   

Do conservatives still hold to that wisdom?  Evidence that they do is difficult to discern.  They spent much of the ’90s trying to convince the country that the nation’s highest office had been seized by a terribly unscrupulous, venal man, a man who would stop at nothing to retain power.  And they’ve spent much of the current decade trying to tear down checks on that office’s power, all the while with another Clinton warming up in the on-deck circle. 

True, one of the leading conservative think tanks in D.C. still offers a Russell Kirk lecture.  In 2006, the speaker was the legal academy’s most prominent advocate of presidential war and unbridled executive power, John C. Yoo

You’ve come a long way, baby. 

Secrecy is Unsafe

The latest issue of Foreign Policy includes a commendable piece by Jacob Shapiro, “Strictly Confidential” (summarized; full article behind paywall).

Shapiro makes an intelligent case that opening government improves security. “When government officials curb access to information,” he writes, “they cut themselves off from the brain power and analytical skills of a huge community of scientists, engineers, and security experts who are often far better at identifying threats, weaknesses, and solutions than any government agency.” Shapiro provides a couple of examples where openness has improved security systems.

“Putting information behind lock and key does not make targets safe from attack. It leaves security analysts unable to find solutions to other weaknesses in the future. It also leaves government and industry less motivated to find safeguards of their own.”

Good stuff.

Here’s One Embargo SiCKO Won’t Violate

USA Today initially reported that Michael Moore will be screening his new film SiCKO at a Tehran film festival in October.  Alas, one of Moore’s producers responded with an even-tempered denial (which was dutifully reported by USA Today).

That’s a shame. 

With the help of a beautiful and intelligent attorney, I uncovered a Treasury Department guide to U.S. sanctions against Iran.  Officially speaking:

The receipt or transmission of postal, telegraphic, telephonic or other personal communications, which does not involve the transfer of anything of value, between the United States and Iran is authorized.

I’d say that gives SiCKO the green light.

You Are Entitled to Your Own Opinions…

..but not your own facts, as the saying goes. Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute argued earlier this week in USA Today that the United States should pump more money into Iran in an effort to bring about the overthrow of the Iranian regime. According to Rubin, “those denouncing U.S. funding are not the imprisoned student and labor activists, but reformists loyal to theocracy, and gullible pundits.” Presumably that’s me in the role of gullible pundit, but let’s have a look at these “reformists loyal to theocracy” who constitute the only Iranian opponents to U.S. attempts to bring about regime change in Iran.

This from an article by Negar Azimi in the New York Times Magazine:

It is particularly telling, perhaps, that some of the most outspoken critics of the Iranian government have been among the most outspoken critics of the democracy fund. Activists from the journalist Emadeddin Baghi to the Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi to the former political prisoner Akbar Ganji have all said thanks but no thanks. Ganji has refused three personal invitations to meet with Bush. A member of a U.S.-based institution that has received State Department financing and who works with Iranians told me that the Iranians had expressly asked not to have their cause mentioned in presidential speeches. ”The propaganda campaign surrounding the launch of this campaign has meant that many of our partners are simply too afraid to work with us anymore,” she told me on condition of anonymity. ”It’s had a chilling effect.”

This from an article in Time by Scott Macleod:

Several mainstream Iranian reformers tell TIME that from the start they transmitted their opposition to the democracy program indirectly but clearly to American officials via the back-channel talks. Besides warning that it could trigger a crackdown, they argued that Iran’s reform movement had strong popular support and did not want or require foreign help. Outside backing has been an unusually sensitive issue in Iranian politics ever since a CIA-backed coup d’etat in 1953 installed the former Shah. Instead, many of them argue, Iran’s democracy movement would be better served if the U.S. lifted sanctions and improved relations with Tehran, which would enable trade and cultural links to be expanded. “There is no serious individual inside or outside Iran who is going to take this money,” an Iranian reformer told TIME. “Anyone having the slightest knowledge of the domestic political situation in Iran would never have created this program.”

Note how Rubin has moved the goalpost such that genuinely Iranian voices of political reform with constituencies inside Iran have now been written out of the acceptable-to-the-US opposition to the Iranian government. Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel laureate who has most recently been working to spring imprisoned Wilson Center scholar Haleh Esfandiari from Evin prison, has become “loyal to theocracy.” And the only folks left are Michael Rubin-approved dissidents who want the U.S. government to become more deeply enmeshed with the opposition to the regime, with only one plausible outcome: poisoning the domestic political legitimacy of the opposition and getting the U.S. government more invested in regime change.

Maybe we need an Iranian Ahmed Chalabi.