Foods Unlimited

This article ran as the “Last Call” in the June 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.

THE ROOMMATE GODS WERE UNKIND to me when I studied in London for a semester during college. Danillo, who came from outside Rome, often spoke glowingly of the Marquis de Sade as he gestured wildly with his hands and paused to take drags from an ever-present hash joint. “For me, this is the best,” he would say when rhapsodizing his cannabis of choice. One time, in a drug-induced stupor, he interrupted my nap to accuse me of smearing feces on his pink bathrobe. We did not have much in common.

One day, however, I began to lament the meager culinary fare in London. The stale bread. The soft, over-cooked pastas. The bland, watery sauces. We bonded instantly. The long conversation that followed could have been the punch line to a joke: What do a New York Jew and a Roman Sadist talk about when trapped in a room together? It also taught me a tactic that I employ to this day. When in a difficult social situation, turn the conversation immediately to food.

Some people think of the weather as a reliable icebreaker. That may get you through an elevator ride, but not much more. Others choose to bring up television. But try striking up a conversation in Budapest about the latest episode of The Sopranos. Movies may be more universal, but some viewers like Bergman, while others prefer Borat. There are even those who don’t see many movies or watch TV at all. But everybody eats.

I mentioned to my brother Marc that I was thinking of writing something about food as a universal conversation topic, and he dismissed my theory. “You’re just projecting,” he insisted. And I must admit that I come from a family that is quite obsessed. When I called my father from Beijing a few years ago, he didn’t ask me to describe my stroll through the Forbidden City or to elaborate on China’s economic transformation. “How does the grub over there compare to the Chinese food we get here?” he queried. Before I visited my grandmother in the hospital one time, she was sure to remind me to bring bars of Cadbury’s chocolate (the Dairy Milk variety, not Fruit & Nut). This family sweet tooth extends all the way down to my nephew, who by the age of five had already mastered the art of double-fisting my mother’s brownies.

Though my family may have a special connection with food, the older I get, the more I realize that this passion is by no means unique. Over the years, I’ve been surprised by how many times bringing up the subject of pastries could endear me to difficult co-workers or spruce up potentially dull social encounters. I may disagree with my liberal friends about universal healthcare or whether President Bush is the Antichrist, but we can always enjoy a good slice of pizza.

“A great sauce raises food to the level of poetry,” my brother Bruce once pontificated. It has been said that food is the only art form that appeals to all five senses — from the smell of smoking barbecue to the melody of a deep fryer, truer words were never spoken. When I go to my favorite pizzeria in Brooklyn and watch the septuagenarian proprietor Dominick spread the dough apart, ladle the tomato sauce, pour the olive oil, place on chunks of fresh mozzarella, sprinkle aged parmesan on top, and stick his calloused bare hands in the scorching pizza oven, I know that I am watching an artist who has mastered his craft every bit as well as Michelangelo. Only you can’t eat the David.

Beyond tasting good and being essential for our sustenance, food has deep religious and cultural connections. Americans tend to be especially focused on food — after all, we have an entire television channel devoted to it. But throughout the world, countries have their own culinary traditions and national dishes, and they celebrate holidays with large feasts. So whenever I ruminate about food, I feel confident that I’ll have plenty of company.

As for Danillo, he fled London abruptly, after weeks of paranoid delusions involving unsavory characters who were hunting him down. I never got to say goodbye, but we’ll always have penne.

Rudy’s Energy Guru

Yesterday, I spoke with John Herrington, Ronald Reagan's Secretary of Energy during his second term, to discuss his role as Rudy Giuliani's advisor on energy.

Giuliani has been rolling out his ideas for achieving energy independence, a subject on which he has written an op-ed today.

Herrington said while developing a specific energy plan is still an "ongoing process," there are some basic principles that Giuliani has decided on. "His strategy on this is the more choices we have, and the more sources of energy, the less we can be held hostage to one single source of energy."

Prior efforts to achieve energy independence have failed, Herrington said, because politicians attempted to focus on one type of energy that would remove our dependency on foreign oil, which is unrealistic. Instead, Giuliani would hope to get America to the point where there are 50 to 70 different types of energy so that we aren't dependent on a single source.

Some of the alternate energies he mentioned were electric cars, natural gas, ethanol, nuclear power, and clean coal. The idea would be to also make use of renewals and conservation.

I asked Herrington to respond to those conservatives who are cynical about any alternative energy plans, because they associate them with the Carter administration, but he said there is a difference. "Jimmy Crater's solution was the Synthetic Fuels Corporation, a $66 billion boondoggle where the federal government decided to do things," he said.

I also questioned him on how Giuliani plans to reconcile his commitment to achieving energy independence with his vow to restore fiscal discipline, given that funding for alternative energy often translates into pork projects and corporate welfare.

Herrington replied that there were ways to ensure money isn't wasted, and cites clean coal legislation that passed through Congress in the 1980s as an example. A process was set up to ensure that companies seeking government grants were asked how much they would contribute of their own money, and those companies that were willing to contribute a higher percentage moved to the front of the line.  "You can test a private sector program by how much they are willing to commit of their corporate assets."

There is also a lot that can be done on the regulatory front, including making the permit process easier for nuclear power plants and oil refineries. He notes that despite the hysteria in the media about the dangers of nuclear power, not a single person has ever died in the United States in a nuclear reactor accident. At Chernobyl, which he visited, the Russians were using crude equipment unlike any being used in the U.S. He said that viewed relative to other energy sources, nuclear power is actually the safest, and we need to have perspective. "How many coal miners do we lose a year in America? And how many trucking accidents do we have moving stuff around the roads?" he asked rhetorically. "Energy and heavy duty industrial activity is necessarily a hazardous activity and you try to weigh one off against the other."

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RE: New Tawdry Details on Scott Thomas Beauchamp

John, I would urge extreme caution on this story. All we have to go on are a lot of vague anonymous sources, as well as a wedding registry that only has six items on it (a bunch of Turkish bath mats, a clock, and a fan) and therefore could easily be fabricated. To be clear, I am not saying I think the site is bogus. I have absolutely no idea. But it certainly should not be viewed as hard evidence. Furthermore, a lot of the speculation that has been made by conservative bloggers, including, for instance, the insinuation that Scott Thomas wasn’t actually a soldier in Iraq, has turned out to be false. While conservative bloggers may smell blood, I think some humbleness and caution would be advisable. Also, I’m with John Podhoretz on this one. Even if it is true that Beauchamp was recommended because he was married or engaged to a TNR staffer, it has absolutely no bearing on the central and only important issue–that is, whether his reports from Iraq were accurate. Bloggers who are eager to attack TNR for shoddy fact checking should apply the same journalistic standards in pursuing this story that they demand of others.

Novak on the 2008 Field

We hosted Robert Novak at a Newsmaker Breakfast this morning, and I asked him about a column he wrote last December in which he argued that John McCain had established himself as the anointed candidate, in the tradition of Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000. Novak said his column was right that Washington insiders had picked McCain, but it turns out "they made the wrong pick," because McCain is disliked by too many in the Republican base. Novak said that typically Republicans like to chose a candidate far in advance, like a local Rotary Club that chooses its president ahead of time and doesn't hold contested elections. With McCain in trouble, he said, "Rudy Giuliani hasn't taken up their mantle" and as a result, "Republicans are frustrated, they don't know what to think, they don't know what to do." Novak joked that, "They wanted Fred Thompson, who had done such a good job as district attorney in Manhattan, to come out and suddenly be this anointed candidate, and he's not quite that." He continued to say that "Rudy Giuliani has got so many strange things about him" and also suggested that Mitt Romney would face problems from conservatives who don't view him as a Christian. "Republicans are really in a quandary," he said.

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Newt and the ‘Pygmies’

On Monday, the American Spectator hosted Newt Gingrich at a Newsmaker Breakfast. Over the course of the conversation, Gingrich criticized the modern political process, and made a historical reference that asking him whether he wanted to join the race would be like asking Charles de Gaulle "Don't you want to rush in and join the pygmies?" The Examiner's Bill Sammon wrote a story portraying his comment as an attack on the other Republican candidates, but in a letter, Gingrich representative Rick Tyler explains the context of the comment. As somebody who was in the room at the time, I vouch for Tyler's assertion that Gingrich was criticizing the broken political process, not the other Republican candidates.

Here's Tyler:

Dear Editor,

Bill Sammon’s piece along with its headline, “Newt Gingrich goes nuclear” (The Examiner – July 23, 2007) presents yet another example of how our political process is broken.

In a recent hour-long newsmaker interview with reporters, Newt Gingrich when asked by Bill about joining the presidential race made a simple historical analogy. He likened his interest in joining the race in its current form to former French President Charles de Gualle’s interest in returning to political life under the French Fourth Republic, a political and governing system which he disdained.

Sammon either did not understand the reference or he chose to quote Gingrich out of context.   I am inclined to believe the latter because Bill is a smart person.

Gingrich as a young man lived in France under de Gaulle and earned a Ph.D. in modern European history.   His comparison, which Sammon ignored, was significant and relevant to today’s dysfunctional political process and government bureaucracies.

For twelve years de Galle unwaveringly opposed the Fourth French Republic. He despised the ruling elites of the permanent governing class.   They had no new ideas, no creativity, and no solutions. Their failed political leadership, lack of seriousness, political games, and constantly shifting coalitions led to an unmitigated political mess, compounded by a governmental structure that didn’t work.

The Fourth Republic ended after military disaster in Indochina in 1954 and the subsequent loss of the war in Algeria.   Herein is the significance of the Gingrich analogy unreported by Sammon.

Last week, a snowman was allowed to ask a question about global warming to serious candidates by way of a YouTube video.   We have reduced a presidential debate to a TV game show similar to ‘Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader’.   This is no way to choose the leader of the free world.

The de Gaulle illustration is fitting.   De Galle understood that to solve France’s innumerable problems and return it to prominence on the world stage, would required dramatic reforms that could not be realized from within the then failing political system.   He boldly called for real change and in 1958, de Gaulle lead the creation of France’s Fifth Republic which survives today.

Similarly, in order to solve America’s seemingly intractable problems, what is needed at the core of the presidential race are bold solutions and bold leadership that transcend the constraints of partisan political posturing.

It was clear to anyone in the room that when Gingrich said, “This is like going to De Gaulle when he was at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises during the Fourth Republic and saying, 'Don't you want to rush in and join the pygmies?” that he was referring to the French analogy of a broken political system and not any of the candidates running for President.  

Sammon shortchanged his readers by choosing to ignore the important comparison, and choosing instead to quote Gingrich out of context all for the sake of horserace politics.

Rick Tyler

Press Secretary for Newt Gingrich

Washington, DC

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Fighter Pilot Mitt

Campaigning in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney had the following to say, the AP reports:

"I've held the stick on an F-16 fighter jet," he said. "That doesn't mean I think the public ought to be flying F-16 fighter jets…"

Romney also apparently said he's shot Uzis and AK-47s.

H/T: The McCain-friendly GreenMountainPolitics1 blog.

UPDATE: Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom called to explain that Romney's F-16 stint occurred when he was running the Olympics in Utah. "He had the opportunity to fly an F-16 and take the stick under the supervision of a trained pilot," Fehrnstrom said. The flight took off out of Hill Air Force Base in the 2000/2001 time period, he said.

Fehrnstrom also clarified that Romney fired Uzis and AK-47s when he visited Iraq last year: "During that visit, he had the opportunity to participate in a demonstration where he was able to fire fully automatic weapons under the supervision of military personnel."

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RE: Fred’s Legal Perspective

Jennifer, perhaps it’s the lawyer in you that finds tort reform a crucial issue, but I don’t see it having much of an impact on conservative voters. Perhaps it will upset Wall Street, and perhaps he can count on fewer contributions from insurance executives than he otherwise would have, but it won’t make a difference for Thompson at the grassroots level. And affirmative action is simply not the issue now that it was ten years ago. To the extent that the conservative base cares about legal issues, it will be more important to them that Thompson has an excellent record on judges, that he escorted John Roberts around during his confirmation hearings, that he has said Roe v. Wade is bad law, etc. When most normal people hear the words “tort reform,” they’re ready to take a nap.

The Iraq Dodge

Last week, when key findings of the National Intelligence Estimate were released reporting that al Qaeda was thriving, Democratic candidates seized on the opportunity to declare President Bush’s strategy for fighting terrorism a dismal failure.

John Edwards fired out a statement calling the NIE “proof positive that George Bush’s ‘Global War on Terror’ Doctrine is more of a bumper sticker than a strategy to eliminate terrorism.” He added that “the next president will need a bold new strategy that will attack the root causes of terrorism, rather than wait for the problem to get worse.”

Not to be left out of the party, Barack Obama declared: “It is deeply troubling that more that [sic] nearly six years after 9/11, al Qaeda maintains a safe haven, an intact leadership, and the capability to plan further attacks. It is time to act to correct those mistakes, and the first step is to get out of Iraq, because you can’t win a war when you’re on the wrong battlefield.”

The release did not include a second step — i.e. a part about how Obama proposes to eliminate terrorist groups, or to pursue them in Afghanistan and Pakistan once U.S. troops leave Iraq.

For several years, Democrats have accused the Bush administration of using the War on Terror as a pretext for invading Iraq. Now, Democrats are using withdrawal from Iraq as a pretext for abandoning the War on Terror.

While leading Democrats make a lot of noise arguing that leaving Iraq is a necessary precondition to fight the “real” War on Terror, they are rather quiet when it comes to explaining how they would actually go about fighting al Qaeda once they extricate us from Iraq.

The American Spectator placed a series of calls to the campaigns of Obama, Edwards, and Hillary Clinton to ask what their strategies were for fighting terrorism once U.S. troops leave Iraq, and what they think we should do about Pakistan now that the NIE said al Qaeda leaders were based there. The press offices of the campaigns did not answer multiple requests for such information.

To the extent that Democrats have discussed fighting terrorism, their plans have been gathering dust while their speeches, debate appearances, and town hall meetings are dominated by other matters, because the primary voters they are competing for simply do not think that the threat of terrorism is a big deal.

Rudy Giuliani has made an issue out of the fact that the phrase “Islamic terrorist” has not been used in any of the Democratic debates. But Giuliani is expecting far too much from the Democrats. If you were to drop his modifier and scour the transcript of Monday’s YouTube debate, you would not even find the word “terrorist” mentioned either by the candidates or the citizen questioners.

The issue of terrorism did come up if you define it more broadly, but once again it was only in the context of withdrawal from Iraq. At one point during the debate, Obama said one of the reasons he was against the Iraq War all along was that “it would distract us from the War on Terror.” And Clinton, explaining her opposition to sending ground forces into Darfur, said, “We’ve got to figure out what we’re doing in Iraq, where our troops are stretched thin, and Afghanistan, where we’re losing the fight to al Qaeda and bin Laden.”

The issues section of Clinton’s website lists ten topics, including “Strengthening the Middle Class,” “Providing Affordable and Accessible Healthcare,” “Supporting Parents and Caring for Children,” and, of course, “Ending the War in Iraq.”

While fighting terrorism is not important enough to the Clinton campaign to earn its own category, the issue of terrorism does get mentioned in a section called “Restoring America’s Standing in the World,” but only in it’s standard Democratic context:

Senator Clinton takes very seriously the threats we face from terrorism. She believes President Bush’s singular focus on Iraq has distracted him from waging the war on terror effectively and emboldened our enemies. As president, she will be tough and smart in combating terrorism.

Back in April, Obama delivered an address to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in which he outlined his foreign policy proposals. He called for adding 65,000 soldiers to the Army and 27,000 Marines, strengthening global alliances, and using humanitarian assistance to improve conditions in the developing world, thus depriving terrorists of possible recruits. But in his standard stump speech and in appearances before partisan crowds, Obama strikes a different balance. He emphasizes the need to withdraw from Iraq — not to fight the broader War on Terror — but so we can focus on health care and education. And he drew headlines after Monday’s debate by answering affirmatively that he would meet directly “without precondition” with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea.

This critique of Democrats should not be taken as an effort to allow President Bush to escape criticism for the situation in Iraq or al Qaeda’s strength in Pakistan. The civilized world is in the early stages of a long-term war against an unprecedented enemy that represents an asymmetrical threat and poses its own unique foreign policy challenges. As it continues, there are some things that our leaders will get right, and other things they will get wrong.

There are legitimate arguments to be made about whether invading Iraq, attempting to democratize the Middle East, or supporting a strong man in Pakistan are smart policies for confronting terrorism. And if there are Democrats who believe that achieving universal health care or investing more in education should be more important issues than fighting terrorism, it is a debate we should be having. But arguing that the U.S. needs to withdraw from Iraq in and of itself is not a substitute for an actual policy for fighting terrorism. It’s just a dodge.

Doubting Rudy

Though I understand that reasonable people may disagree with my prediction that Rudy Giuliani will become the Republican nominee, it continues to amaze me that so many so-called “experts” remain so dismissive of his chances when everything they have said about Giuliani has been proven so wrong up until this point. Back in November, Congressional Quarterly “expert” Craig Crawford declared, “While former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was once thought to be a threat to McCain, his star has faded since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.” As late as late January, other skeptics were even questioning whether Giuliani was even going to run in the first place.

Over at the Corner, where there’s also a debate on this topic, John Hood responds to John Podhoretz by pointing out:

If you want to rap a pundit’s knuckles, try Robert Novak’s instead. He was at my think tank yesterday giving a speech, and said that he didn’t see any way for Giuliani to win the nomination without destroying the Republican coalition and consigning the party to a dismal fate. Yep, the Price of Darkness can be pretty dark sometimes. Novak picked Romney or Thompson to go all the way.

Yes, that would be the same Robert Novak who declared last December, “It is beginning to look like ‘McCain Inc.'”

Ironically, all of these low expectations may help Rudy. McCain and Romney, both buying into the hype that Rudy shouldn’t be taken seriously, have spent more time going after each other than challenging Giuliani. And there’s already evidence that a Romney-Thompson battle may be brewing, with Romney supporters trying to equate both candidates’ evolutions on abortion. In the meantime, Giuliani has remained on top of most polls (see below), has emerged as the money leader, and has quietly been catching up on the staff and organizational front. I think Deroy Murdock had it right when he named Rudy “the front-running underdog.”