Harvard historian takes heat for Newsweek cover story.
“Hit the Road, Barack: Why We Need a New President” proclaimed the cover of the August 27 print edition of Newsweek, bearing a photo of the president, jacket slung over his shoulder. Inside, Harvard professor Niall Ferguson made his case against Obama, provoking a response both furious and revealing.
Consider the case of James Fallows, longtime national correspondent for the Atlantic and author, most recently, of China Airborne. In the September 3 print edition of Newsweek, Fallows responded to Ferguson in this manner:
A tenured professor of history at my undergraduate alma mater has written a cover story for Daily Beast/Newsweek that is so careless and unconvincing that I wonder how he will presume to sit in judgment of the next set of student papers he has to grade. I have no complaint with anyone making a strong case against Obama, or in his favor. That’s what an election year is for. My point concerns the broadside pamphleteering nature of his argument, which is no worse than what we expect on cable-news talk shows but also no better. And it comes from someone trading heavily on the prestige that goes with being a tenured professor at the world’s leading university.
This was not the longest response but certainly the nastiest, especially the charge that Ferguson is “trading heavily” on the prestige of his Harvard post. Ferguson’s article contains no reference to Harvard but Fallows’ response begins with a reference to “my undergraduate alma mater.” That is a signal to readers that he is not only a Harvard man himself but graduated to higher studies elsewhere, and is therefore someone to be heeded.
“Broadside pamphleteering” is a strange description of Ferguson’s 3,248-word article, packed with facts, analyses and historical references. Fallows found it all “so careless and unconvincing” but tackled none of Ferguson’s arguments. Ferguson begins with Obama’s promise of “growth” and it is on the economy, he says, where President Obama’s failure is greatest, despite a “dream team” of economists including former Fed boss Paul Volcker.
In “Obama’s America,” wrote Ferguson, “nearly half the population is not represented on a taxable return.” And this comes “despite a far bigger hike in the federal debt than we were promised.”
Ferguson calls Obamacare “Pelosicare,” since it was Nancy Pelosi “who really forced the bill through Congress.” Pelosicare was “another fiscal snafu” with net costs of the insurance-coverage provisions close to $1.2 trillion over the 2012–22 period” according to the CBO.
On foreign policy, Obama “completely missed the revolutionary wave of Middle Eastern democracy.” He could lend support to youthful revolutionaries in a direction advantageous to American interests “or he could do nothing and let the forces of reaction prevail.” In Iran, “he did nothing, and the thugs of the Islamic Republic ruthlessly crushed the demonstrations. Ditto Syria. In Libya he was cajoled into intervening. In Egypt he tried to have it both ways, exhorting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to leave, then drawing back and recommending an ‘orderly transition.’ The result was a foreign-policy debacle.”
As Ferguson sees it, “America under this president is a superpower in retreat, if not retirement. . . Small wonder 46 percent of Americans—and 63 percent of Chinese—believe that China already has replaced the U.S. as the world’s leading superpower or eventually will.” And so on.
An Harvard historian saying such things in a high-profile liberal magazine proved too much for the president’s media cheerleaders. Ferguson was accused of “unethical commentary,” and calls rang out for Harvard to fire him or investigate his moral character to determine whether he was fit to teach. For James Fallows, the piece doubtless evoked memories of his former boss.
According to his Atlantic profile, Fallows “once worked as President Carter’s chief speechwriter.” Like Obama, president Jimmy Carter was known for economic decline at home, reflected in his famous “malaise speech” and the “misery index.” Abroad it was full retreat. On Carter’s watch, Iranian “students” invaded the U.S. embassy in Tehran, took more than 60 Americans hostage, and held them for 444 days. What speeches Fallows may have written about this for Carter remains unclear, but one can look up the results of the ensuing election.
Jimmy Carter, a liberal Democrat, lost to conservative Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980, after which Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini promptly released the American hostages. That is worth recalling in the run-up to the November 2012 election, with Iran still headed by genocidal theocrats and rattling sabers like never before. National correspondents not blinded by partisanship might find an historical parallel or two.
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